The Seattle area was experiencing rare, oven-like temperatures during the early part of August. The local TV stations were broadcasting similar versions of a “Heat Wave Watch” and FM disc jockeys were frying eggs on sidewalks. The novelty of the extreme temperatures had worn off after the first few days, leaving everyone wilted and cranky. Even the tourists were complaining.
At five-thirty in the morning, though, the air was tepid–a godsend for those of us working the crime scene. No cop I know appreciates the scent of a corpse decomposing in ninety-degree heat.
“I’m Detective Regina Rand,” I said to the skinny, young man in Kermit-green sweats. “I understand you’re the one who found the body.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said, licking his lips. “I was jogging along here like every morning.” He jabbed his thumb at Seaview Avenue, the four-lane road that trailed alongside Shilshole Bay. “Something in the ditch caught my eye and I stopped and looked and saw this–a girl just lying there.” The man gobbled a deep breath. “I couldn’t tell if she was dead or not but I was afraid to touch her, so I just ran until I found a pay phone.”
I had just finished recording his statement when Dr. Wade, King County’s medical examiner, motioned me over with a doughy hand. “Where’s Hartshaw?” he said, referring to my partner.
“Praying to the porcelain goddess,” I said. “I think it was a bad batch of tartar sauce at some fancy restaurant.” Resting on my haunches at edge of the ditch just outside Golden Gardens Park, I absorbed the image of the young woman surrounded by a tangle of blackberry vines and wispy weeds. She was attractive from the neck down, her short black skirt and tank top emphasizing a slender, boyish figure and languid limbs. From the neck up it was different story. A gruesome one.
“So, what do you think?” I said to Dr. Wade.
The medical examiner grunted and wrestled with his waistband. “I’d say someone was pissed enough to strangle her with their bare hands. No signs of sexual assault, though. Looks like she was probably dumped in a hurry.”
“Either that, or maybe someone wanted us to find her. Got a time estimate?”
“She probably hasn’t been here more than eight hours. There’s an off-chance of picking up a latent print from her neck, but I’m not holding my breath.”
I nodded. “When do you think you’ll be able to get to the autopsy?”
“I’ll try and get you a preliminary report sometime tomorrow.” He turned away, glanced back. “Hey, if you talk to barfs-a-lot, tell him I’ll take him out for lunch when he feels better. All-he-can-eat fish and chips with plenty of tartar sauce.” The medical examiner walked away, giggling to himself.
I studied the dead woman again. Kayla Marie Lawson. Age twenty-one. University of Washington student. A small purse, a Gucci knock-off, had been recovered less than five feet from the body. It contained her driver’s license, student ID card, a tube of Cover Girl lipstick, a box of Altoids, and a wrinkled ten-dollar bill. Robbery could probably be ruled out.
A voice called out: “Detective Rand?”
I stood up and watched Officer Baumgartner chug toward me, bangs flapping into his eyes. Get a cut, I thought, suddenly irritated. I knew it was my low blood sugar talking. I enjoyed a vision of a hot and fluffy Egg McMuffin. The morning’s phone call had propelled me from bed to car to crime scene with no time in between for breakfast.
Baumgartner’s voice replaced my daydream: “Just learned that we got a call at two-oh-eight this morning from an Abby Terlicker. Said her roommate, Kayla Lawson, had disappeared from the X-Factor, that dance club just down the road there.”
“How long had the roommate been missing when Terlicker called?” I said.
“About four hours is all,” Baumgartner said. “The officer on duty told her to call again this evening if her friend still hadn’t turned up.”
“Looks like we’ll be the one making the call.”
* * *
After Kayla Lawson was identified by her mother, who was too distraught to answer any questions, I pulled into the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru. I gobbled McNuggets en route to Abby Terlicker’s apartment. I felt nearly human by the time I arrived.
The squat beige building, a ten-minute walk from the University of Washington, mingled with a dozen other cheap-rent apartments and a few scruffy rental houses.
Abby Terlicker was sitting on a futon sofa soaking up tears with a wad of tissues. Her nails were painted a metallic green and there was a round, inky smudge on the back of one hand. “I’ve been up all night,” she was saying, “waiting for her to call, trying to get a hold of Max. I had a feeling that something really bad had happened . . .” A fresh wave of tears washed her cheeks.
Terlicker was striking, even with her pink eyes and blotchy complexion. Just under six feet, she had strong features and a head of smooth, dark waves. The type of hair I coveted.
“Who’s Max?” I said.
She snuffled. “Max Bell. He’s Kayla’s boyfriend.” Present tense.
“Tell me about last night, Ms. Terlicker.”
“Kayla and I left here around nine to go dancing at the X-Factor. Then about an hour later, Max showed up. He wanted to talk to Kayla in private, so they went outside to the patio behind the club. That was the last time I saw her.”
“What did you do next?” I asked.
“I went and danced with this one guy, and then I watched this ‘Best Legs’ contest. Kinda stupid, all those guys up there showing off.” She attempted a smile and failed. “After that, I started looking around for them. I checked the dance floor, the bathroom, the patio. I even asked the bartender if he’d seen Kayla.” Terlicker’s voice was shaking now. “I thought maybe they went somewhere else and lost track of the time, so I decided to leave. I guess it was around eleven-thirty by then. I was so mad, but I didn’t–” She sighed. “Anyway, when I got home, I called Max’s frat, but they couldn’t find him. When Kayla didn’t call or show up by two, I called the police.”
“Anyone else you knew at the club that night?” I said. “What about the guy you danced with?”
Terlicker shook her silky tumble of hair.
“Was Kayla drinking?”
“No, just Perrier.” Her gaze fluttered around the room, landed on me. “She was pregnant. It was Max’s.”
“Do you know how far along she was?” I said.
“About two months.”
“What was she planning to do about the baby?”
“She was going to keep it,” Terlicker said. “She knew she wouldn’t be able to give the baby away after carrying it around for nine months, and being Catholic, she was against abortion.”
“Did Max know about the pregnancy?”
“Kayla told him last week. She had this fantasy of marrying Max and helping him through medical school, and having this wonderful life together as Mr. and Mrs. MD. But Max freaked. Kayla told me he started yelling at her, saying that she was going to ruin everything and if she told anyone about the baby, he’d totally deny it was his. He tried to talk her into getting rid of it.”
“How long had they been dating?” I said.
“Almost two years. Things got rocky last winter and Max broke up with her. Kayla was a mess until they got back together a few months ago.” Terlicker paused to blow her nose. “You know how some women feel like they always have to have a man around? Kayla was like that. I told her I’d help her with the baby. I love kids.”
“How long had you and Kayla been friends?”
“Since first grade. We used to fight all the time, but then the teacher made us sit together and we sort of grew on each other.” Terlicker smiled briefly at the memory. “We went through junior high and high school together, and now college. I have no idea what I’m going to do without her now.” Terlicker’s eyes flooded with tears again.
“Did Kayla’s mother know about the baby?” I said.
Terlicker wiped her eyes. “She guessed that Kayla was pregnant–some weird sixth sense. She said that Kayla was disgracing her father’s memory and that she wasn’t allowed to be in the family anymore. Her mother’s super religious and has always put a lot of pressure on Kayla to be this snow-white angel. It was really hard for her sometimes.”
“Was there anyone else Kayla might have been having problems with? An old boyfriend, maybe? A jealous classmate?”
“No one,” she whispered.
I got a recent picture of Kayla and left Abby Terlicker to her tears, thinking about the boyfriend who felt burdened by the pregnancy and the mother who felt shamed by it.
* * *
Greek Row was only five blocks from Abby’s apartment, so I decided to walk. By the time I reached Max Bell’s fraternity, my shirt was sticking to my back and my hair was a frizzy globe.
The exterior of the four-story fraternity house resembled an estate mansion or a fancy boarding school. The brick facing was trimmed in white, the wide porch guarded by twin columns. The impressions of grandeur were erased as soon as I stepped into the beer-scented foyer. The upholstery was ragged, the tan carpeting worn. The only saving grace was the shiny black grand piano that had probably been donated by a rich alumnus as a tax deduction.
While a fraternity brother went in search of Max, my thoughts turned to food again. I pined for a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. I would never be able to fast for a political cause, that’s for sure.
Several minutes passed before Max Bell appeared. Cute guy. Red hair, blue eyes, freckles. We moved into the living room and I lowered myself onto a stained sofa. I could easily picture Bell as a five-year-old playing cowboys.
His reaction to the news of Kayla’s death was immediate. First, his mouth dropped open and a squeak came out. Then he let his head fall into his hands, and began rocking and moaning. Finally, he straightened up and looked at me. His face was the color of notebook paper.
“When did you arrive at the X-Factor last night, Mr. Bell?” I said, trying not to think about the origin of the stains I was sitting on.
“A little after nine.” His voice was raspy. “We had a disagreement last week and I wanted to talk to her. She wouldn’t take my calls, so–Christ, I can’t believe this! Do you have any idea who did this to her?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” I said. “What did you fight about?”
“Just the usual boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. You know.” He cracked a few knuckles and I winced.
“Like about her being pregnant?”
His shoulders slumped forward. “You’ve got to understand, when she told me, I was in shock. I mean, we’d always been careful. And what was I going to do with a baby? Then, I don’t know, I was crazy about Kayla and the thought of being a father, well, I decided I wanted to marry her.”
“That’s not what I heard,” I said.
Another knuckle popped. “What do you mean?”
“Abby said you were mad about the baby and wanted Kayla to get an abortion.”
Bell’s voice remained low but his eyes turned frosty. “Abby doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I admit I wasn’t too happy at first. But I would’ve never forced Kayla into doing something she didn’t want to. I loved her.”
“So one day you’re upset, the next day you want to be a husband and father?”
“You think I’m lying.”
I shrugged. “What happened when you got to the club?”
“I asked her to marry me. Not very romantic, I know, but once I’d decided to propose, I didn’t want to wait. She’d been so upset.”
“Did she accept?”
Two more knuckles popped. I wanted to slap his hands. “Well, sort of,” Bell said. “I mean, she said she wanted to think about it.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Ten-fifteen, ten-thirty,” Bell said. “We didn’t talk very long. She told me she needed to be alone, so I took off.”
“What did you do after you left?”
“I drove around, just thinking.”
“What time did you get home?” I said.
“I–I don’t know. I didn’t look at the time,” Bell said. “Listen, I know what it looks like, but I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Kayla. You can’t think that I killed her! I’ll take a lie detector test and prove it!”
I ignored his petition. “By the way, Mr. Bell, why did you and Kayla break up last winter?”
“It was no big deal. Kayla and I were spending so much time together, it was starting to interfere with school. I’ve got to keep my grades up. We just took a break, that’s all.”
I couldn’t help but think there was probably more.
* * *
Checking my watch, I decided to postpone my next meal, low blood sugar or not. I drove north toward Green Lake and was swallowed by a line of slow-moving cars. Likewise, the path circling the man-made lake was clogged with joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters. It was a Friday. Didn’t these people have jobs?
Standing on the porch of Elizabeth Lawson’s Craftsman-style house, I rang the bell several times before the woman herself finally opened the door. Short and boxy with gigantic breasts, she bore no resemblance to her lithe daughter. Elizabeth Lawson ushered me into the living room without a word. The lavender walls were decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
“Do you feel up to talking?” I asked. I was surprised that she was alone.
She nodded stiffly and perched near the edge of the mauve sofa, her posture stick-straight.
I sat in a mauve chair facing her. “Where were you last night, Mrs. Lawson?”
“What are you implying, Detective Rand?”
“I’m not implying anything,” I said. “It’s just a routine question.”
“I was home working on a quilt,” Elizabeth Lawson said. “There’s no one who can verify my story, so you’ll either have to take my word for it or arrest me.”
“Did you know that Kayla was going to be at the X-Factor last night?”
“I knew that she and Abby went there sometimes, against my better judgment.” Her tone was like a serrated knife. “But no, I didn’t know she was going to be there last night. Kayla kept a lot of things from me.”
“When was the last time you saw your daughter?”
“Sunday,” she answered. “She came for dinner.”
“What did you two talk about?”
“You don’t have to be coy, Detective Rand. She told me about the baby and yes, I was angry. I raised Kayla to believe that sex before marriage is a sin. Apparently, she wasn’t paying attention. But if you’re suggesting that I would cause the death of my own child . . .” She stood up. “I think you should leave now, unless you have some evidence of my involvement.”
Lawson had a decent motive and no alibi. And she was being defensive and uncooperative. Still, I had trouble seeing her strangling her daughter. Arsenic in the tuna casserole, perhaps. But even that seemed a stretch.
I slid back into my Honda and headed downtown to organize my thoughts in the form of a report.
* * *
The temperature had dropped to a comfortable seventy-five. Only a thin band of tangerine showed above Shilshole Bay now, the rest of the sky a deep indigo. I crumpled my Taco Time sack into a ball. I wasn’t paid enough to work sixteen-hour days but I often had trouble stopping. Which was one of the reasons my CPA ex-husband had decided to live with his eight-to-five assistant instead of me.
Entering the X-Factor, my ears were assaulted by the throbs and wails of an old Prince song, “Erotic City.” Nasty lyrics. I flashed my badge at the doorman, who barely nodded me in as he stamped the hands of two clubbers on their way out. I walked past young men and women standing against carpeted walls, trying to appear interested and aloof at the same time.
The bartender, a meatloaf of a guy garnished with gold jewelry, assumed I was another thirsty customer until I explained the purpose of my visit. I didn’t want to keep yelling over the bar, so I gestured to the patio. He nodded and followed me outside. We stood facing the bay. I showed him Kayla Lawson’s picture and mentioned her Perrier order.
“When I’m working, man,” the bartender said, “I just concentrate on the drinks, you know? I don’t pay too much attention to the faces behind ’em. And it was busy last night. With the heat and all, it makes going out a lot nicer, you know? Plus it was Ladies’ Night. Half off the cover charge for the chicks. So what’s this all about?”
“We’re conducting a homicide investigation.”
“Like a murder or something? Whoa.”
“Do you happen to remember a tall dark-haired woman searching for her girlfriend?” I said.
The bartender played with his rope necklace. “Sounds kind of familiar, you know? Yeah. I think some chick came up, asked if I’d seen a blonde girl around.” He beamed. “Yeah, that’s right. She was crying, that’s how I remember. Does that help?”
Gazing at the sky I said, “I think it does, you know?”
* * *
“I had a few more questions for you.”
Abby Terlicker slid the security chain and opened the door. “Oh, sure. Come on in.” The apartment reeked of microwave popcorn. “Have a seat, Detective Rand. Do you want some coffee or something?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
Terlicker curled up on the futon again and hugged her bare legs. “Did you find out who killed Kayla?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“It was Max, wasn’t it?”
I let her words hang there for a few seconds. “Why did you do it, Abby?”
She blinked hard. “What?”
“You said that you left the club around eleven-thirty. But actually, you left earlier in the evening with Kayla and killed her. Then you went back to the club and pretended to search for her, make an impression on the employees. Otherwise, why would you have bothered getting your hand stamped if you were going straight home?”
“What?” She touched the incriminating smudge of blue on the back of her left hand. “No, you’re wrong. Max was the one! Max did it!”
“We lifted some fingerprints off Kayla’s neck.” A lie, but she didn’t have to know that. “I’m betting they’re yours.”
Terlicker’s face crumpled. She didn’t move for several minutes. When she finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. “You don’t understand.”
I used my gentle tone. “Why don’t you explain it to me, Abby?”
“She told me that he’d asked her to marry him and she was going to say yes. I couldn’t believe it. I asked her if we could go somewhere and talk about it, thinking I could change her mind. But when we left the parking lot, she started blabbing about engagement rings and wedding dresses and something inside me–I don’t know what happened. It’s just that after everything we’ve been through, after all I’ve done for her, she was going to trade me for some–some guy.”
I nodded, as if I sympathized with her feelings of betrayal. “What happened next, Abby?”
A moment passed before she spoke. “I pretended I felt sick and pulled over and the next thing I knew I–my hands were around her neck. Then her face turned red and her eyes were bulging out and when I let go, she was . . .” Terlicker choked on a sob. “Oh God, it was awful. But I didn’t plan any of it, I swear I didn’t. It was an accident! But don’t you see? She was going to leave me!”
* * *
The next morning, I called the Hartshaw residence. My partner’s wife, Sherry Lynn, laughed and told me that Jason was almost back to his old self. “He’s been ranting all morning about suing Under The Sea.”
I pressed down the receiver and dialed another number.
“Hey, Julie, how are you?” I said.
“Sorry I didn’t call last week like I’d promised. Some best friend I am, huh?”