“What’ve we got?” Macy Finnerty asked as she clicked into the narrow bedroom.
The medical examiner looked her up and down, taking in the 5-inch spiked heels, the form-fitting black suit, the glittering array of bangles and shoulder-brushing earrings.
“Well, if it isn’t the ‘Cosmo Cop,’” he said, lifting a latex-gloved hand to give a two-fingered salute.
“It’s ‘detective’ now, Martin.”
“Right, right. Detective. Good for you, Mace. To catch you up, the victim is 13 years old, approximately 100 pounds. Petechial hemorrhaging, bruising on the cheek and right forearm. Given the narrow marks on the neck, I’m thinking ligature strangling. Check out the pink shoelaces next to the body,” Martin said, nodding toward the left.
Macy snapped on a pair of gloves, flicked her blond bangs out of her eyes and knelt down to finger the creased laces. She wrapped them around her fingers, lining up the stretched inches with her own small knuckles.
“Looks like the perp must have had small hands. Woman or child?”
“Could be. Based on lividity and temperature, I’m loosely placing time of death between 7 and 9 p.m.”
“You’re telling me that a 13-year-old girl has been lying dead in this room for almost 20 hours, and no one noticed? Where are her parents?”
“That’s your job, honey. I’m going to wrap things up in here. I’ll have a report ready for you in a couple of days.”
“Alright, keep me updated. Thanks.”
Macy pushed herself up and walked gingerly around the messy room, taking in the collection of tween-girl paraphernalia. Stuffed animals were piled on top of a quilted pink-and-purple spread, and the faded walls displayed tacked on posters of unicorns and kittens, Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner. A white desk was littered with lined school pages, Seventeen magazines, colored folders, a worn book with a galloping horse embossed on the sparkly cover.
Macy picked up the book, flipped through the first few pages. Two sets of handwriting, she noticed, one large and loopy, the i’s dotted with hearts, the other narrow and tall, t’s crossed with swift, straight, deep pencil marks.
Making a mental note to examine it later, she closed the book and tucked it into a plastic evidence bag. Picking her way out of the room, around the dead body propped against the twin bed, she walked through a narrow, dingy hallway to a living room sporting worn couches, threadbare armchairs and a mammoth television set circa 1992.
She followed the sour smell of cigarette smoke to the kitchen, where a woman sat at the plastic table, a glass filled with amber liquid at her elbow.
“Excuse me? Do you reside here?”
The woman looked up, her bloodshot eyes narrowing at Macy’s earnest gaze.
“Yeah, I reside here,” she replied, sarcasm dripping from her words. “In fact, I own this sorry piece of property. What the hell do you want with it?”
Macy stretched a hand forward.
“I’m Detective Macy Finnerty. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs…”
“It’s Ms.,” the woman drawled, giving Macy’s still gloved hand a dirty look.
“Sorry,” Macy drew her hand away before slipping off the gloves. “May I?”
“Thanks,” she said, drawing a metal chair out from the table.
Pulling a leather-bound notepad from her chic purse, she flipped to a blank page.
“What’s your relationship to the victim?”
“I’m her mother, for Christ’s sake.” The woman took a slug from her glass.
“And your name is?”
“Melinda. Melinda Anderson.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Melinda.”
“Yeah, likewise, whatever,” Melinda replied, blowing a stream of smoke towards the ceiling.
“Can you tell me where you were last night?”
“I was at my boyfriend’s house.”
“And what’s your boyfriend’s name?”
Macy scribbled the information into her notebook, her ballpoint pen scratching across the pages.
“Did you and Asher do anything last night? Go out to dinner, go to the movies? Did anyone else see you together?”
“Yeah, we did stuff. Each other.” Melinda hacked out a laugh that shook her painfully thin body.
“Anything else? Can anyone verify your whereabouts for this time period?”
“You’re a pretty bitch, aren’t you?”
“A pretty bitch,” Melinda enunciated, rolling each word over her tongue and out of thin lips. “Fancy jewelry, fancy clothes, fancy bag. Your papa buy all that for you? Or do you have some kind of sugar daddy?”
Macy ignored the provocation. She might’ve looked like a pint-sized Barbie, but she was smart, intuitive. Tough, even, given the right situation. But faced with a brittle woman, one who had lost her only child, she knew to tuck away the sarcastic response, the barb that would pin Melinda in place. So she let the insults roll off her back like water, dripping to the floor, far away from her body, her mind.
“Did anyone see you out, Ms. Anderson?”
“Yeah, fine, people saw us out. We went to the Olive Garden, ok? About 7:30. After we screwed.”
Melinda pounded the cigarette stub in a glass ashtray. She dug a rumpled pack of Marlboros from the ratty purse sitting askew on the table and shook out a new cigarette.
“Got a light?”
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Can you tell me about your daughter? Her friends? Did she have a boyfriend?”
“I don’t know. She ran around with a group of girls, but I never learned their names. Teenybopper types, you know. Ambers and Tiffanys and Brittanys.”
“Did she have any close friends? A best friend?”
“Yeah, there was one, I think. She lives across the street. Parents are never home, I guess, they work a lot. The girl is on her own, constantly over here eating my food, hiking up my bills. Haven’t seen her lately.”
“What’s the girl’s name?”
“Angela. Something. Weaver? Weaber? Weber, maybe. Yeah, Weber.”
“Ok, Angela Weber. I’m sorry to ask this, Ms. Anderson, but can you think of anyone who would want to hurt your daughter?”
“Hell if I know. She was becoming a pain, that girl. Wanting these boots, this dress, that makeup and perfume. But she was a sweet baby. Just the sweetest little thing. All smiles.”
Melinda brushed at tear clinging to her heavily mascaraed lashes. She looked down, fiddled with the unlit cigarette.
“You tell me if anything happens, ok? I want to know who killed my baby.”
“I’ll keep in touch, Ms. Anderson. Here’s my card if you think of anything else. Thank you for your time.”
Macy stood and pushed the chair back in to the table. She shifted her bag and turned to leave, her stilettos slipping on the waxy floor.
Behind her, Melinda found a pink Bic lighter in her back pants pocket and lifted it to her lips. Her hands were shaking.
“Good luck, Detective.”
Macy’s grip tightened on her purse strap as she looked back.
Leaving behind the gloominess of the two-bedroom house on the corner of Wicker Avenue, Macy walked to the curb. She stood in silence, absorbing the heat from the sun, the warmth of the wind brushing across her cheeks. She let out a deep, cleansing breath before reaching for the cell phone in her blazer pocket. She tapped on the screen, bringing up the number of her partner, Johnny.
“Hey, Bassett, where are you?”
“I’m on my way, Mace. Got holed up at the station. What’d you find at the scene?”
“13-year-old victim strangled sometime last night. Mom was out with her boyfriend, claims she doesn’t know anyone who’d want to hurt her child. Victim has a best friend who lives across the street. We should go over there, but I want to check Mom’s alibi first.”
“Sounds good. I’ll meet you as soon as I can.”
“The guy is named Asher Keatley. If you’re near a computer, look up his address and let me know, ok? See you soon.”
Macy lowered the phone, took a long look at the house across the street. It was two stories and boxy, painted yellow with black shutters. The lawn was punctuated by overgrown crab grass, and drooping pansies lined the walkway leading to the red front door. No cars were in the driveway, Macy noted, no bike was left sprawling in the yard.
She trotted across the street, stopping briefly to let an SUV pass in front of her. She climbed the wide cement stairs, rapped three times on the front door. When no one answered, she crossed through the yard and peeked in a dusty window. The house looked empty, neglected, bereft of family and laughter and love. She could see only a set of couches, so preserved that no one must have ever reclined on them.
She stepped back to give the house one last sweeping glance before leaving, but a glint in the corner of the lot caught her eye. She walked over lightly; her heels, stylish as they were, were sinking into the soft sod.
Kneeling down in the springy grass, she swept aside loose blades and leaves to reveal a silver bracelet. The chains were dainty, the clasp broken. Dangling from the bracelet’s center was a disc engraved with “BFF.” Shaking her head, Macy pulled a pen out of her bag to pick up the bracelet. She dropped it into another, smaller evidence bag, then reached for her trilling phone.
“Hey, it’s Johnny. I found the boyfriend. 1251 44th Street. Near the river.”
“Great, see you soon.”
Twenty minutes later, she pulled up to a brick apartment building. Johnny, clad in his usual uniform of rumpled black suit, red tie and khaki trench coat, was standing outside the door.
“Hey, hot stuff,” he called out.
Macy shook back her wavy locks, straightened her blouse, nodded.
Johnny knocked on the worn door, waiting seconds before calling out, “Asher Keatley? Anybody home? You’d better come to the door.”
A pale, red-haired man, his hair mussed from sleep, his beer belly barely covered by a sweat-stained undershirt, opened the door.
“Asher Keatley? I’m Detective Johnny Bassett; this is my partner, Macy Finnerty. Can we come in for a minute?”
“Ok, we’ll just stand out here in the nice sunshine. Let’s have a chat, Ash.”
Asher merely yawned and scratched absently at the seat of his sweatpants.
Taking the lead, Macy turned on the charm, crinkling her blue eyes, sending him a bright smile.
“So, Asher, we talked to your girlfriend today. Melinda?”
“She ain’t my girlfriend. We’re just friends, if you catch my drift.”
Macy rolled her eyes. She always caught the drift.
“Can you tell me what you did last night?”
“Played poker with my buddies. Went to a bar. Came home about 1 a.m., watched a couple of infomercials, fell asleep on the couch.”
“What did Melinda do last night?”
“Hell if I know. That bitch is more trouble than she’s worth.”
“You close with her daughter?”
“Who, Veronica? Yeah, right. That kid was pain in the ass. Mouthy like you wouldn’t believe. Melinda kept her in line, slapped her around from time to time. That girl was chomping at the bit to get out of the house. Wanted to go out with boys, wanted to dress up. That friend of hers, she didn’t help matters. Creepy little thing, always following Veronica around. Like she was in love with her or something.”
“Do you remember the friend’s name?”
“I don’t know. Alice, I think. You got what you need?”
“We just need the names and numbers of the people you were with last night.”
Later, Macy and Johnny walked to their twin black sedans, issued from the precinct.
“That’s interesting,” Macy commented, leaning against the back of her car.
“The boyfriend is lying? Or the girlfriend?”
“Seems like the girlfriend is. Whether she knows it or not, her lover boy over there just blew her alibi.”
“Is she the type to kill her own daughter, though?”
“I don’t know yet. But she’s hiding something.”
“You want me to go check her out?”
“No, let’s let her stew. I want to go talk to the friend. Are you up for it?”
“You go ahead, she might be more comfortable with you. I’m going to check on this guy’s alibi, make sure we’ve got the girlfriend all tied up in her lies. See you in thirty. Be careful, ok?”
“I’m always careful, Johnny,” Macy responded with a cheeky grin. “I can kick ass if need be.”
“Says the 110-pound fashionista. Watch your back, babe.”
“You got it.”
Chucking her purse into the passenger seat, Macy slid into the tiny car. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm to the pop song playing on the radio. She drove through suburbia, the well-tended lawns and oversized houses blurring as she zipped past. Following a hunch – and her watch, which read 4:32 p.m. – Macy headed toward Wilson Park, which bordered the local middle school.
She glided into a parking space, then stepped out of the car, her trim figure and chic clothing attracting the attention of a gaggle of tweenage girls standing near the curb.
“Hey, girls,” she said, as she smoothed red lipstick on her bow-shaped lips.
They group stood still, enthralled by the woman with the fabulous shoes, the perfectly applied makeup, the alligator-skin bag. Finally, one girl, leggy and blonde, looking as though she’d skipped right over her awkward stage, stepped forward.
“Hi. Nice nails.”
“Thanks. What grade are you all in?”
“Seventh. Where’d you buy your bag?”
“Online. Would you happen to know a girl named Veronica Anderson?”
“Of course we know her. She just joined our group. She was lucky. Ronni was able to cross over from the ‘loser’ group,” the girl said, forming an “L” with her thumb and forefinger. “Right, girls?”
The girls nodded solemnly.
“What’s your name?” Macy asked.
“Ok, Lauren, how long have you and ‘Ronni’ been friends?”
“I don’t know, maybe two weeks. She’s, like, really new to our group.”
“Who were the ‘losers’ she was hanging out with before?”
“Just one loser. With a capital L,” Lauren said, cracking a wad of gum in between neatly lined pearly whites. “She’s over there. Angela.”
The clique behind Lauren nodded again, all five of them pointing painted nails towards a girl sitting alone.
“Anytime. Great shoes,” Lauren called after Macy.
Angela Weber, cocooned in ill-fitting black pants and a hooded sweatshirt, huddled on a bird-poop encrusted bench, a book propped open in her lap. She looked, Macy thought, depressed, lonely. Unpopular.
Angela looked up, her brown eyes heavily lined in black, her skin pale.
“Do I know you?” she asked, her tone harsh.
Unoffended, Macy took a seat on the bench, careful to avoid staining her linen suit. She crossed one slim leg over the other, her heel slipping out of the expensive pump.
“No, you don’t. But I want to know about you. You and your friend, Veronica.”
“Veronica is not my friend,” Angela said firmly. “At least not anymore.”
“Can you tell me what happened between you?”
“Maybe I can tell you. If you can tell me who you are.”
“My name is Macy. I’m a friend of Veronica’s family.”
Angela’s eyebrows winged up. Skepticism caused her eyes to narrow, her lips to purse.
“You’re not friends with Veronica anymore. Did she ditch you for the popular crowd?”
“You could say that.” Angela looked down at her book.
“She told you she didn’t want to be friends anymore? That you just weren’t cool enough? Maybe your friendship didn’t mean as much to her as it did to you. She was your best friend, but you weren’t hers. Am I close?”
As Macy had been talking, Angela had looked up again, red seeping through the heavy eyeliner, tears painting black streaks down her ashen cheeks.
“How do you know?”
Macy smiled gently at the wounded girl.
“I had a friend like that, too. She lived next door to me when we were growing up. We even had a makeshift phone strung between our bedroom windows. But then we got older, she got prettier, I got awkward. She was too cool for me, and I couldn’t keep up. She never ended the friendship, but we grew apart. People do.”
“Veronica ended our friendship. She lost the bracelet I bought her, had engraved for her. And when I got upset and asked her about it, she said it was worthless. That I was beneath her. A loser. A loser with a capital L.” Angela’s fingers curled into fists.
“Did that make you angry?”
“Of course it did! I was angry and hurt and sad. And she didn’t care. She said I was a ‘sorry bitch.’ That’s what her mother called her, and then that’s what she called me.” Angela’s voice rose, and she flung the book onto the ground, its pages crunching as it hit the cement sidewalk, the spine snapping.
Macy sat back, taking in the hurt and anger mapped over the girl’s face. As the next question formed on her lips, her phone rang.
“Just a second, ok? I need to take this.”
Macy walked a few feet away, keeping an eye on Angela.
“Mace, it’s me. Listen, the boyfriend’s alibi checked out, the girlfriend’s didn’t. Seems Mommy has racked up a few arrests – solicitation, possession, intent to distribute. Looks like life isn’t paradise in the suburbs after all, huh?”
“You’re telling me. I’m talking to one of suburbia’s young residents right now, and I could use some back up. I’m at the park on Winchester and Wilson. Oh, and before I forget, I think I know – Shoot, just a sec, I got a call coming in. See you soon.”
Macy clicked over to the call waiting.
“Right on the first try, Girlie. Listen, there’s something you need to know.”
“What, that you lied about last night? We talked to your boyfriend, Melinda. He wasn’t with you yesterday.”
“Ok, fine, I lied. You caught me. What a detective you are.”
“What do want, Melinda?”
“I might be able to do something for you if you can do something for me.”
“Ok, here’s the thing. I’m in a little trouble about my lifestyle, you know? I like to party, have a good time. But I’m on a three strikes deal, and I’ve got one strike left. You get me off the next time some cop sticks his nose in my business, I’ll tell you about my baby.”
“You want me to be your get-out-of-jail-free card? Let’s hear what you have to say.”
“Great. You won’t regret this, Figgerty.”
“Whatever. You need to know that I loved my daughter, ok? She was trouble, but, God, I loved her. She was growing up, getting smarter, starting to notice things. And last night she found some of my grass. Just grass, though, you got me? Nothing hardcore. Anyway, that stupid girl took it and flushed it down the commode, like it didn’t even matter. Then she tells me that it matters to her, that she doesn’t want me doing that shit. Not that it’s any of her business.”
“Did you hit her, Melinda?”
“I grabbed her arm when she flushed my weed. And I might’ve slapped her. But then she ran to her room, and I swear I didn’t see her again after that. I went to a friend’s place, partied until the morning. I found her when I got home, then called you guys. Why the hell would I call you if I’d done it?”
Macy paced as she listened, putting together the puzzle pieces of Veronica’s murder. She had pieced together the border, she thought, and now Melinda was snapping together the detailed sections. She turned, looked at Angela slumped on the bench, at the book on the ground. She stepped forward, picked up the book to hand to Angela, then noticed the pony on the cover, the twin to Veronica’s. She propped the phone between her shoulder and her chin, “mm-hmm-ing” to Melinda’s monologue, and started turning the pages, recognizing the dueling handwriting. She caught words here and there, “betrayal,” “stupid,” “popular.” “Hate.” She glanced up at Angela, met the girl’s gaze.
“Ok, thanks for telling me, Melinda. I’ll be in touch.”
She hung up the phone on Melinda’s rasping voice and kept her gaze locked on Angela’s burning eyes. She flipped to the last page of the notebook, finally breaking her stare with the girl to read the exchange on the pages. And then she knew.
Macy started towards Angela, who leaped off the bench. Macy, proving her worth, chased after the girl in her heels, keeping pace with her, despite the heavy purse slapping against her hip, the book clasped in her sweaty hand.
“Angela, stop! Stop! Police!”
Angela’s black figure zigzagged towards the parking lot, the hoody falling off the mess of frizzy brown hair. She ducked behind a row of cars, her sneakers slipping on the gravel.
Macy leaped over a wheel stop and landed hard, her heel snapping under her.
“Dammit,” she cried, before slipping out of both shoes and running in her hose to keep up with the fleeing girl.
Her body pounded, in feet, in knees, in hips, in heart, in head. And just as she closed in on her perp, Johnny drove up and leaned over to push open the passenger-side door, catching Angela just as she sprinted past. The girl slammed into the metal, then crumpled to the ground.
Macy slowed her pace to a jog for the last few feet, then lowered her hands to her knees, her chest heaving with exertion.
“Nice save,” she panted.
“Thanks, babe. What happened to your fancy shoes?”
“They broke. And don’t call me fancy.”
Johnny sent her a quizzical look then picked up the moaning girl by her armpits.
“You ok?” he asked.
“No. You hit me with your car, you dumbass.”
“She’s fine,” Macy said. “Put her in the car. She killed Veronica.”
Johnny looked at Angela’s red face, saw the misery, the hurt.
“Let’s go,” he said, shepherding her into the backseat. “Want a lift, Macy?”
“Meet you at the station. Got to get my spare heels out of the car. Give me just a minute, ok?”
As Johnny walked around to the driver’s side door, Macy leaned into the car through the still-open passenger entry.
“You want to tell me what happened?”
Angela stared at Macy, her expression stony.
“I might be able to help you, Angela, if you let me in. I’m a good listener.”
Angela spoke softly, enough so Macy climbed on to the passenger seat, propped her chin on the headrest.
“I went to her house to talk. To see if she could be my friend. But she was so pissed at her mom, so angry she wouldn’t even listen to me. And I kept talking and talking, and she wouldn’t listen, and I started shouting at her to be my friend, why couldn’t she just be my friend. She told me to shut up and get out. I don’t know what happened next. I just remember seeing our shoelaces, the ones we bought together, on the floor, and I wrapped them around her neck until she would be quiet and hear what I was saying. And then it was too late.”
Macy sighed, reached out a hand to touch Angela’s knee.
“It’ll be ok, Angela. I’ll do what I can to help you.”
“Thanks,” Angela said before dissolving into sobs.
Macy pushed herself off the seat and slammed the door shut. She headed to her car, head high, back straight, earrings swinging. Not bad for a day’s work, she thought. Not bad at all.