A week and a half after Christmas, the last of the holiday cheer wore off the souls of most people, replaced with the dreary melancholy that recognized another year passed, largely the same as the one before. In the yards of some homes, multicolored lights still shone, fighting a rearguard action of denial against the reality that the holiday season was gone, and all the people of Rhode Island had left was many months of cold and gray weather. Aside the driveways of many houses lay discarded pine trees, like so many used and unwanted corpses. People returned to their work and their lives, and whatever moment of sharing and giving had existed in late December was extinguished, at least until next year.
These were the observations Detective Alan Stieger made to himself as he watched the people of the suburban town of Cumberland pass by in the passenger window of his partner’s gray sedan. Marcus, his partner, ranted with his usual zeal about the upcoming presidential inauguration, but Stieger’s mind was elsewhere. He thought of his son, Joshua, who had protested vehemently the return to the dreaded prison of Community School, and of his wife who was back at a job she hated. Stieger, at least, enjoyed his work, though it was not an occupation that brought much cheer.
“Hey, are you listening to me?” Marcus asked suddenly, the odor of coffee strong on his breath. He had just become aware that his political observations had gone largely unnoticed.
Stieger shrugged without looking at his partner, “Just getting nostalgic I guess.” Unlike Marcus, this was his neighborhood, he and his family lived not far from here, which may have had some impact on his thoughts. His mind was stuck on the joy of spending time with family.
Marcus grunted with sympathy, knowing better than to ask his existential friend and colleague for much elaboration, “Better get your thoughts collected, we’re almost there.”
Their car, unmarked, sped along Abbott Run Valley Road, a windy street that had supposedly gotten its name in the seventeenth century during a skirmish between colonists and hostile Narragansett Indians. During Pierce’s fight, nine armed colonists lost their lives (forever immortalized in the landmark Nine Men’s Misery) while the tenth, Abbott, had escaped by following a path that was alleged to be the now well-traveled thoroughfare. Their destination was a small historical cemetery that housed dead who had passed on largely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This cemetery now had a new resident, the first homicide of the year. The body was on state owned property, hence it was State detectives and not local police who were called to the scene.
“I should have just driven here from home,” Stieger complained, realizing that he was whining. It was a valid observation however, he lived barely a minute’s drive away from the crime scene. Had he the prescience to realize he would only end up driving back to his home town from the state barracks, he could have saved himself a trip.
“Cheer up,” Marcus said. “First homicide in the state of Rhode Island all year, and who would have thunk it would fall into our lap?” Rhode Island typically had fewer than thirty homicides in the entire state in a given year, and most of those were handled by local police departments, not the state police. He raised a gloved hand and pointed out the frosted window. “There it is.”
A single Cumberland Police Department car sat on the edge of the road next to what appeared like a small hill surrounded by a stone fence and gate. Behind it was the gray van of a coroner. Still, the cemetery was situated directly in a community environment, and three police vehicles were more than enough to attract the attention of the local populace. A small gathering of individuals braved the cold across the street, their view hampered by the clouds of steam rising from their own breath. This particular section of the town had come into existence long after the cemetery had been placed where it was, and some houses actually sat next to or even between its several parts. An interesting location to have a house. The section of the cemetery they were visiting was the largest, which was not to say it was particularly large, no more than an acre, and most of it was out of view from the road, over the top of the hill. Only a single mausoleum and a row of headstones were visible from the road.
Stieger grimaced. Cemetery murders tended to be weird. He still remembered a case in Pawtucket where a woman had her head crushed with one of the headstones itself. Their supervisor, Lieutenant Starling, had not seen fit to give them too many details about what they could expect to find on the current case. It was going to be weird.
Steeling themselves against the bitter January air, Stieger and Marcus darted from their car, and crossed the small road, trudging through a shallow layer of old snow up the embankment. A small plaque announced their entrance into the cemetery, otherwise it was only moderately well cared for, the dead grass deep enough to make their steps treacherous. Within this cemetery, the plaque told them, lay not only the usual dead, but also four soldiers of the revolutionary war. Stieger cast a quick glance about at the graves which flew flags above them, wondering which of those were the revolutionary war soldiers. Some of the headstones actually mentioned it right on them. Others charmingly mentioned the cause of death, whether a person had drowned, or frozen to death, or died suddenly. Some grave markers were tiny, barely a rock with the deceased’s initials. Others were made of shale, and though archaic enough to include the faces of angels, had been cracked and cast aside, no longer above the bodies of the dead. Many of the remainder were worn or covered with moss so that the inscriptions could not be read. The stones from the nineteenth century were sturdier, larger, with deeper etching, and these had fared much better.
The Cumberland police officer and two coroner’s attendants crowded around a little cluster of cloth near a row of black shale eighteenth century stones. The police officer casually smoked a cigarette, a mark of carelessness, and he would need to be severely berated. Who knew how badly he might be contaminating the crime scene. The cloth in question that held their interest was small, barely noticeable, not nearly large enough to conceal an adult. For a moment Stieger feared they might be looking at the body of a child. He was wrong
One of the coroner’s attendants saw them coming and shrugged, “It’s a cat.”
Marcus stopped short, “Huh?” he said with his eyes wide and his breath in the air like that of a dragon.
The same attendant shrugged again, “I guess your boss didn’t tell you huh? Can’t blame her, I don’t know why she wanted us to stick around. The object in question,” he nudged the cloth with the toe of his shoe, “is one Siamese feline, recently deceased. Frozen solid, I’d guess it’s been here all night. Wrapped in a wool hat and missing its head. Barring an autopsy, I’m guessing that to be the cause of death.” He pointed down toward where the little cluster of local residents were gathered, “Neighbor took his dog up here for a walk this morning and discovered it. Called it in to local police.”
The local cop looked thrilled, “Yeah,” he said, “Somehow it went up the chain to you guys and your boss said to hang onto it. Must be a slow year, huh?”
“I guess,” Stieger said, befuddled. He could now make out, though just barely, the back paws and tail of the cat protruding from the rim of the hat. He reached into his coat for his cell phone, “I think the Lieutenant must not have understood that this is a cat. I’ll give her a call to clear things up.” Marcus nodded and stepped closer to the dead cat. He did not berate the local cop for his lack of crime scene integrity.
If Stieger had hoped that his call to the Lieutenant would result in their being excused from investigating the death of a cat, he was to be disappointed. “Lieutenant,” he said, once he had her on the line, “Marcus and I are over here in Cumberland. Did you know that the body you sent us to look at is a cat? I mean the homicide victim is a cat.”
She sighed, sounding mildly irritated at the phone call. “Yeah I knew it was a cat, and I knew also that I’d get all kinds of trouble from you two if I told you ahead of time.”
“So what you’re saying is that you want us to investigate the death of a cat. Isn’t this more the territory of the SPCA?”
She sighed again, her irritation growing. “Perhaps you aren’t familiar with a body of research that suggests those who are cruel to animals often go on to abuse humans as well? Wouldn’t it be nice to be proactive for a change instead of scooping up human bodies?”
A brisk wind picked up as if on cue, and sent a shiver down Stieger’s spine, “Odds are this is a couple of kids. Even if it is an adult, what could we expect from a cruelty to animals charge, a year’s probation? Besides, how does one exactly go about investigating the death of a cat? Should we try to find out if it was involved with the catnip trade?”
Starling didn’t laugh, but explained to him patiently, as if to a child, “If this is a kid who killed the cat, we might be able to force him or her into therapy, maybe help a troubled kid before it is too late. Listen, you guys run with this for an eight-hour day, and if you catch the perp I won’t yell at you for a week. Sound like a deal?”
Stieger was not impressed, but he acquiesced, knowing she was intent to have her way. Snapping his cell phone closed he commented to Marcus, “Looks like we’re pet detectives for the day.” The coroner’s attendants snickered at the detectives’ misfortune.
“I wouldn’t get all giggly if I were you,” Marcus snarled, displeased, “You mooks get to be pet coroners. Get some detailed pictures of the crime scene, and then bag the body. That cat is evidence. I want it kept in a freezer like any other corpse.” The two attendants looked at him with disbelief, then shrugged and set off to do his bidding.
Stieger returned to Marcus’ side and regarded the dead cat lazily, “Well, the good news is that if it’s a local cat, people are likely to remember a Siamese.” Assuming it was an outdoor cat, he thought.
Marcus prodded the edge of the hat with a pencil, “Not much blood here, I’d guess the cat was killed somewhere else, then brought here.” He stood and looked around for splotches of blood, in case the animal might have been killed nearby, but the cemetery snow was clean. “I don’t see any usable footprints either,” he observed, “Wind overnight must have covered them up.” Or the local cop and coroner’s attendants had trampled them.
“So,” Stieger said thoughtfully, “if you decapitated a cat, why would you bring the body here. I mean if killing cats gave you a buzz, you could just bury the body, or toss it in the trash. No one would ever be the wiser.”
Marcus nodded, “You think it was left here to be discovered on purpose.”
“Yeah,” Stieger agreed with a wave toward the nearby houses, “houses on either side, people must walk through here every now and again. Bit of a risk an opossum or dog might make off with the corpse but…” He trailed off, losing his own thought.
He extended an arm lazily to point toward the small cluster of people who had gathered across the street from the cemetery. “Maybe one of them offed this cat, and is even now getting their jiggies watching us standing here scratching our heads. Let’s go chit-chat with them, shall we? See where it gets us.”
What it got them was an ID on the cat. The cluster of on-lookers had mainly consisted of middle-aged and elderly retired persons, and a single housewife who had been so enthralled with the scene she had taken her infant child with her into the cold. None of them struck the two detectives as a likely cat-napper, and most seemed mildly disappointed to learn that the deceased was not human. The detectives took names and numbers, and the crowd dispersed when the coroner’s van drove away with the body in a small plastic sack. It was the housewife who remembered the cat, a friendly Siamese whose owners let her out at night to hunt. The Siamese had hunted by scratching at the neighbors’ doors until one or another came out with a plate of tuna or saucer of cream. This behavior had made the cat something of a neighborhood celebrity. It also meant the cat could have come across almost anyone in the community.
“There,” the housewife had told them, pointing up the street toward a house that was veritably surrounded by second-growth forest. “The cat lived with that family. Doubt they ever needed to feed it.”
Despite being surrounded by trees, the house’s lawn was neatly manicured, if made somewhat desolate by the winter. It was a pretty house, brick face with white trim about the windows. Probably built back in the 1960’s like most of the houses in this area, it was cozy, with a sizable section of forest in which any children might play. Back in the woods, perhaps four hundred yards behind the house the detectives could see the form of an elaborate treehouse resting in the branches of one majestic oak. The treehouse looked complex enough that an adult with some engineering skill must have designed it. Whatever child lived in this house, his or her parents were doting. In the driveway was a single car, a Honda Civic, and smoke was drifting out of the chimney.
Marcus shrugged his shoulders to warm himself as they stood in the driveway, “Which of us gets to tell this family their cat got dead?”
Stieger produced a quarter, “Flip you for it?” Marcus nodded and the coin became airborne. The wager came out against Stieger, and with a sigh he moved forward toward the door, with Marcus quiet behind him. His gloved fist rapped against the door, and from within they could hear the sounds of someone moving. A few moments passed before the door was opened by a smiling woman or short stature and brown hair. Her eyes darted between them questioningly.
“Excuse me,” Stieger said, producing his badge for her, “I’m Detective Stieger with Rhode Island State Police, and this here is my partner. I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering if you might own a Siamese cat?”
The smile faded from the woman’s face, and she nodded, “Yes, Nemie, she belongs to my daughter Ashley. Nemie went missing yesterday.” She looked both concerned and baffled.
“Well,” Stieger said, with a cough into his fist, “I’m afraid to say we think that your cat is dead.”
“Oh no!” the woman said, putting her hand to her mouth in such a stereotypical manner that Stieger almost laughed, “My daughter will be crushed. Nemie is such a wonderful cat.” She seemed lost and distraught for a moment before eyeing the detectives suspiciously, “How did Nemie die? I mean, why is the State Police involved in the death of a cat.”
Stieger felt his muscles clench with embarrassment, as he was not sure he had much of an explanation for that, “Well, eh, you see the cat was found on state property,” he pointed toward the cemetery to take her eyes off of himself, “The cat was, well, em… you, see the cat was…”
“Slain,” Marcus finished for him, putting him out of his misery, “by a human.”
“That’s horrible!” the woman exclaimed, fortuitously oblivious to Stieger’s discomfort, “Who would do such a thing to a little girl’s cat?” She seemed stunned for a moment, then her eyes took on a dark and angry look. “Wait, I know who. It must be that Phillips boy. One of her classmates at the middle school. He attacked my daughter one day at school, hit her so hard that she needed stitches. It must have been that cruel child that did this thing. He’s not supposed to come near my daughter!”
“Wait a second,” Stieger said, “You’re saying that this boy assaulted your daughter, and now you think that he killed her cat?” He was as much stunned as anything else that they actually had a lead on this case.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, her face now red with anger. “They used to be friends, he and his younger brother came over often to play with Ashley. The treehouse used to be their fort. But one day he just attacked her on the way to the bus. Attacked my poor daughter with no provocation. The school suspended him for one week, but then let him back. He is not supposed to approach my daughter though.”
The detectives were able to get little other useful information from the girl’s mother. They made their excuses and left her contemplating out loud whether she should pick up her daughter from school. In the car a blast of artificial heat tried desperately to remove the chill from their bones and from their hearts. Marcus pulled away from the curb and without need to consult Stieger began to drive toward North Cumberland Middle School.
“Richard Phillips,” Stieger murmured, the boy’s name strange on his lips. Instantly his mind created a fictitious image of the boy’s face. He imagined a slight, even handsome face with a frock of blond hair. The face held an angry expression, but Stieger was not sure that he could find it to be the picture of a disturbed child.
“Lucky break with the cat, dontcha think?” Marcus said without great enthusiasm. Perhaps investigating the death of an animal should have been a welcome respite from the world of human misery into which they stepped daily. Yet there was a dark cloud over this case, something neither of them could put a finger on, yet which they could both feel. Something was missing here.
“Well,” Stieger shrugged thoughtfully, “At least we have a trail to follow.” He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged gently at the roots in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure he was feeling on the inside of his skull, “I wonder why Richard Phillips hates this Ashley girl so much?”
The principal at the middle school was a small, well dressed, older man who was big on educational humanism and small on the ability to see wrongdoing in others. Stieger sized him immediately as the sort of kind-hearted soul who thought every act of violence could be explained by what was on television. He could almost picture the principal giving lectures to his faculty about how violent kids were misunderstood victims of a society gone wrong. It was a tenderhearted view of the world, but the principal was not going to be especially helpful to them.
“I can’t image that Richie Phillips would actually do what you say he has done!” the principal exclaimed indignantly soon after they had arrived at the school and explained their purpose.
“Well,” Marcus explained patiently, “that is what we would like to determine, if we could possibly speak with him.”
The principal frowned, “Richie is a good student, well liked by the faculty. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Uh-huh,” Marcus said noncommittally. “We have a report that he attacked a girl named Ashley Watcher in early December. We also understand that this attack resulted in a one-week suspension. Would that be an accurate rendition of what occurred?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“So,” Marcus continued without raising his voice, indeed with hardly any inflection at all, “Richard Phillips is a member of the ‘Be Kind to Flies’ Club, but he is known to attack girls?”
With a slack jaw the principal looked from Marcus to Stieger, who had not yet said a word. Moments passed.
Steiger cast his eyes about the school. It was a clean efficient, well-run institution that reflected the pride and civic duty of both faculty and students. Trophies stood in a glass case by the front door. A red and white banner proclaimed welcome to all visitors. At this moment, between classes, there was very little activity in the hallways. Violence here must have been nearly unheard of. Schoolyard fistfights maybe, but not the type of violence that made headlines. To the principal, Stieger said, “We’d just like to have a few words with the boy, clear some things up with him. This could all be one big misunderstanding, couldn’t it? But we won’t know that for sure unless we speak to the boy.”
The principal was still uncertain, but ground had been gained. “Very well,” he said at last, “I will pull him from class. But I am going to call his parents and have them down here before you begin your interrogation.” He wagged his finger at the two officers as if they were children, “And you will interrogate him here, not at your police station. I won’t have you browbeating that child. And if the parents refuse to allow him to speak with you, then matters are out of my hands.” He gave them one last wave of his finge. “And you can be sure that I am going to inform the parents of Richie’s rights in this matter.” Without waiting for an answer he turned his back on them to make his calls.
Marcus coughed into his fist, “I guess that we needn’t invite him to the Policeman’s Ball.”
“Principal seems to like this Phillips kid,” Stieger observed.
Marcus frowned, “Hey, last month some kid walked into his school in Ohio and blew away two classmates. All I’ve seen in the media since then is how this kid used to volunteer in youth group and loved kittens. Carl Rogers there,” he waved in the direction of the retreating principal, “didn’t exactly strike me as a critical judge of character.”
Stieger agreed, “Still, all is not right in Whoville.”
“Don’t drag Dr. Seuss into this.”
“Are you going to need me for the interrogation?” Stieger asked. He eyed the doorway out, the glass panes that kept the winter at bay.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to sneak home for a rendezvous with your wife at a moment like this?”
“Nope,” said Steiger, without a hint of irony, “I’m gonna go take a look at a few things back near the scene. The gears are meshing in my head, and I feel like we’re off on the wrong track.”
Martin shrugged, indulgently, “Who am I to come in the way of your quest for clues. I’ll call you if I need anything.”
Once Mrs. Phillips arrived at the school, Martin read Richie his rights, informed him that he was not under arrest, and in general suggested that it was in his best interest to be truthful. The principal hovered over the entire proceeding like a bird of prey, quick to seize upon any irregularity in Marcus’ interrogation. The principal informed them both of their rights not to agree to the interview, but Mrs. Phillips insisted. She was in her thirties perhaps, still hanging onto the last vestiges of youth with long pretty hair and a youthful way of dressing. Her left hand was weighed down by a large diamond, and she caught Marcus as the sort of full-time mom who has part-time employment on the side simply for the social and intellectual outlet. Marcus could tell from her interactions with her son that his attack on Ashley Watcher was still a family mystery. She wanted answers as much as he. With their permission, Marcus began tape recording the interview. He had all individuals present state their full names.
“You said that Richie isn’t under arrest, no matter what he says here, is that right,” she asked, vacillating between the need to get the truth and the need to protect her son, “So long as he tells the truth.”
“That’s right,” Marcus said, “He still has the assault on Ashley Watcher hanging over him, but I think we can come to terms with the court, see to it he gets treatment rather than punishment. That is assuming that Richie is truthful. If he lies, things may be rougher for him.” He shifted his eyes from Mrs. Phillips to Richie meaningfully.
Richie sulked in his chair, shoulders stooped over, face like a boiling kettle of water. All eyes were on him and it made him seethe. He was a handsome kid, preppy, not the sort who would strike Marcus as a troublemaker. His hair was blond and well kept, and he was dressed in the best clothes of the latest fashions. His mother eyed him with a mixture of concern and bewilderment. Marcus guessed that they had been close but that their relationship had become strained of late, over the incident with Ashley Watcher.
“Do you know why you’re here Richie?” Marcus asked
The kid looked up at him, his eyes steaming, “It’s about Ashley again, right?”
Marcus nodded, at once feeling himself slip into the old routine of the interview. The kid, he knew, was wondering just how much the police knew about him, Ashley and the cat. He would try to dance around between not giving Marcus any information, while trying to learn how much Marcus knew. Both the principal and Mrs. Phillips had been told about the cat. No one, yet, had specifically mentioned the cat to Richie. “Yeah, it’s about Ashley.”
“I thought this was over,” Richie spat with irritation. “Why are you talking to me again? I’ve kept away from her just like I said I would.” His mannerisms made it clear that he thought he was the wronged party, that he had gotten a bad deal. He had certainly not accepted responsibility for attacking Ashley Watcher, no matter what he might have said to the principal or his mother. Marcus wondered why he was so angry at the Watcher girl.
“See, I just don’t think that’s true,” Marcus said to Richie. The boy looked up at him incredulously. That look of disbelief was so pure, it gave Marcus pause. Could it actually be that Richie didn’t know about the cat? “What I don’t understand is what it is that you have against Ashley Watcher?” Richie looked away, sullen. Marcus continued probing, “I mean you two were best buds for awhile there weren’t you?” No response, Rickie looking off to the side in displeasure. “What is it that got you so mad at her that you’d attack her?” Nothing.
Marcus slammed his fist down on the table, getting the boy’s head to snap back and face him in alarm. “Damn it Richie, this isn’t a therapy session. You don’t get to pick and choose which questions you wanna answer.”
“Hey now,” the principal protested weakly, more startled than the boy was, “There’s no need for those kinds of theatrics.”
“Richie,” Mrs. Phillips said, pleading. “Why won’t you tell anyone about what happened?” She looked like she was about to cry, the age-old weapon mothers use on sons in moments of crisis. It was having an effect on him too, his eyes darted at her in disgrace, hating that he was making his mother unhappy, and still not wanting to say anything. The tug of war in his mind was clearly evident in his face, scrunched up and distressed as it was, the skin red. Tears were welling up in his eyes to match those of his mother, but he didn’t want to cry, he was fighting it. He pulled his arms in against his chest that Marcus thought he was going to break his own ribs. The kid was in the balance, wondering, should he tell? Was it really the best thing? This was the moment when Marcus had his chance, if he were careful, he could get the truth. If only the damn principal would keep his mouth shut. Fortunately even he seemed riveted on what was going on.
“Listen son,” Marcus said, his voice smooth as silk, like he was talking to one of his own kids. “I know it’s hard, but there comes a time when it’s necessary to tell the truth. It’s the most courageous thing a person can do, to own up to what’s going on and make things right.” He stopped to see Richie’s reaction. The boy was eyeing him, thinking, mulling it over. It was a good reaction.
Richie’s mother was as good a partner in this interrogation as Marcus could have hoped for. This was a welcome surprise, many parents would just man the barricades, no matter what horrible thing their child had done. Mrs. Phillips, as if on cue, put her hand on Richie’s head and smoothed his hair, lovingly, a gesture of acceptance. “Why won’t you tell us about what happened?” she asked softly.
He looked at her, face filled with distress and looking every bit the boy that he was, “I just tried to make things right!” he proclaimed. “Arnold made me promise not to tell anyone about what happened!”
“Huh?” Marcus said, confused.
Mrs. Phillips’ mouth hung agape, her expression as confused as his, though she was able to explain, “Arnold is our other son, Richie’s younger brother.”
Marcus didn’t get it and felt suddenly like he was coming into a movie halfway through, “You mean to tell me that Arnold killed the cat?” he asked, blurting the question out unprofessionally in his surprise.
Richie turned to him with an expression of exasperation. What he said froze Marcus’ blood. “What cat?” the boy asked.
Every so often Stieger read some politically correct piece about domestic violence or rape that suggested the United States was steeped in a culture that supported male violence against women. Stieger didn’t buy it. Oh sure, there were plenty of assholes out there who got together to brag about how they kept their women in line with force. But they ran counter to the general culture. Stieger could still remember his own days in school. As a boy, to so much as lay a hand on a girl in anger meant that, at best, you would be labeled a weakling and a sissy for life. At worst, you would receive daily beatings yourself in retribution for your violation of that male code. Boys don’t hit girls. The principal at the North Cumberland Middle School painted a picture of Richie Phillips as an intelligent, popular boy, presumably just the type to be aware that boys don’t hit girls. Assuming that the principal was correct in his assessment of the Phillips boy, what could possibly have brought that boy to behave so violently against Ashley Watcher.
Stieger left the middle school with the intention of revisiting the graveyard, primarily to search for the cat’s head, though he knew he would not find it. He suspected that the head itself must have been kept as a trophy and would be someplace safe to the perpetrator. More than anything, Stieger just wanted time to think, to let his brain lead him down whatever path seemed appropriate. He had one of those feelings brewing in him, that feeling that a case was more complicated than it first appeared. Part of those feelings were due, perhaps, to a paranoid streak in his personality, and he had to admit that often enough he was wrong and things indeed were as simple as they appeared. But sometimes, just sometimes, he was right.
He began driving toward the cemetery by way of the Watcher home and was surprised to find Mrs. Watcher’s car parked in the driveway. She must have gotten Ashley out of school rather quickly. Stieger thought that it could be useful to get an interview with the girl, to try and find out just what had transpired between her and Richie Phillips. He swung his car off the road and into the driveway, his thoughts pulled away from the dead cat by the crunching sound of the tire as it packed in the layers of snow at the side of the road. He turned off the engine and, with some reluctance, swung his body back out into the cold.
Mrs. Watcher greeted him at the door, her face looking strained. “Did you pick up that Phillips boy?” she asked, her face peering between the open door and the sill.
Stieger nodded, “Yes, my partner is interviewing him now. I just came back because I was hoping to speak with your daughter for a bit, if that would be possible.”
Mrs. Watcher nodded sadly. “I just got her home from school. She’s quite upset as you might expect, so she might not want to talk much. But anything that will help.” She invited Stieger in and called to her daughter in a careful, motherly voice.
“Also,” Stieger asked, before Ashley appeared, “If it would be okay, I’d like to have a look around your property after I speak with Ashley.”
Mrs. Watcher looked surprised, “Around our property, whatever for?”
“It would be helpful,” Stieger suggested, “If we could find the location where the cat was killed. I’d just like to be able to look around here,” he said, and heard himself adding weakly, “you know, since the cat came from here.” He coughed into his fist, and though at least he hadn’t said he was looking around “for clues.”
Mrs. Watcher was wary, though he could tell from her expression she could think of no good reason not to allow him to look around. “All right,” she replied, though her tone suggested she was unconvinced. Stieger took note of her wariness and was sure it had to fit in this puzzle somewhere.
His suspicious were almost entirely dashed upon the appearance of Ashley, an angelic blonde girl with a prettiness so perfect she looked to have been made out of porcelain. Her big blue eyes were red from crying and she stood rigid looking at him without saying anything. She appeared to be younger than her years, small and pixieish just a few inches over four feet in height and still clothed in a fashionable dress that she had probably worn to school. She was the sort of child who would win people over to her with a glance.
“Ashley,” her mother told her, stroking her long blonde hair protectively, as if Stieger might do to the girl what Richie Phillips had done to the cat, “this is Detective Stieger, he would like to speak to you for a moment,” the mother was not going to leave her side.
The girl was at that middle age where she was too tall for Stieger to stoop down on his haunches, and too small to naturally come eye-to-eye with him. As a result Stieger towered over her unnaturally and found himself at a loss about what to do about that. He settled for holding out his hand to her. “I’m Detective Stieger,” he said, and was pleased that she took his hand without hesitance.
“I’m Ashley,” she replied with a strong mature voice that belied her age in a way that her physical appearance could not. “It’s very nice to meet you.” She managed a polite smile and wiped unconsciously at her swollen eyes.
“Likewise,” Stieger told her. “I’m sorry about your cat,” he said sincerely. “I was wondering if there was anything you could tell us to help us figure out what happened.”
Ashley looked at her mom for guidance, “Mom told me that it was Richie Phillips that killed Nemie.”
Yeah, Stieger thought, that’s pretty much what she told us too. He shot a look at the mother and though she still had a protective arm around her daughter, he could not read anything useful in her face. “Well,” he said to Ashley. “That’s what we’re still trying to figure out. Is there anything you can remember from last night that was unusual or out of place?”
Ashley shook her head, “I don’t remember anything. I just played with Nemie earlier at night, then she went outside to play with the neighbors’ cats like she always does. She likes it outside even in the cold.”
“Okay,” Stieger said in the encouraging tone of voice he took when he was getting useless information but hoped for better, “What about Richie Phillips? What happened between you two? Can you tell me about that?”
A mixed look of fear, sadness and anger crossed Ashley’s face. She looked up again, instinctively toward her mother for support, “I don’t really understand what happened. We used to be great friends, us and his brother, but one day he just seemed to freak out. We hadn’t argued or anything. My mom said he must be Bipolar.”
Stieger shot another look at the mother who was watching him stonily. The mother said to him, “Ashley has had a difficult day, I think she should get her rest. Perhaps you could speak with her more on another day?”
Stieger nodded, “Sure, I suppose so.” He turned back to Ashley. “Well, Ashley, I hope you will be feeling better soon. And if you think of anything that might help, I will leave my card with your mother, okay?”
“Okay,” Ashley said with a polite but sad smile.
Stieger faced the mother again, hiding an irritation he felt but could not fully pin down, “If you don’t mind, I’ll have that look around now?”
“What cat?” Richie Phillips asked again, his look of anguish now mixed with a healthy dose of confusion.
“Uh,” said Marcus, effectively taken aback more than he ever had been by a professional criminal, “Nemie, Ashley Watcher’s cat.” Had no one mentioned to the boy yet that this was about the cat and not the previous assault?
“Somebody killed her cat?” he asked incredulously. “Nemie was a nice cat!” Then it dawned on him why he was there. “Wait, you think I killed her cat!”
Marcus shook his head. “Are you trying to tell me that you didn’t know this cat was dead?” He was not yet ready to believe the boy, but if the boy was lying he was a seasoned pro at it.
Mrs. Phillips was equally confused. “But didn’t you just try to say that Arnold killed the cat?”
“No!” Richie protested in both fear and exasperation, “Arnie would never hurt that cat.”
“Then what,” the principal asked in his own confused voice, “did you say that Arnold didn’t want you to talk to people about?” Evidently the principal had become so engrossed in the interview he had abandoned his defense-lawyer stance.
Richie looked from one adult to the other, confused as hell. But he knew that whatever miscommunication had occurred, the cat (as it were) was out of the bag. He turned to his mom, who he must have thought of as his biggest ally in the room, “Mom, do you remember back one day when you and dad were working and I had to go to some Scout meeting?”
“I think I remember. That was right before the incident with Ashley wasn’t it?” she said, still confused but encouraging him to speak more.
“Yeah,” Richie said, “Arnie went to stay with the Watchers for the afternoon until I got dropped off from my meeting.” He looked around the table at the three adults staring at him in incredulity and anticipation. “I got home around five, before you and dad got home. Arnie was already there, he had run home…” His voice choked, and there were tears in his eyes. “He wanted me to clean him up.” He wailed looking up at his mom guiltily. “He made me promise not to tell you what happened to him. He thought you’d be mad at him.”
Mrs. Phillips was crying now, her confusion being replaced by dread, “Richie, what are you saying? What happened to Arnie?”
Behind Marcus the principal took an involuntary step back as Richie told, told everything, spilled the secret he had been keeping for his brother. It spilled out of him like an evil spirit and its presence in the room drove nails of ice into each of the adults’ hearts. “Christ,” Marcus breathed softly and pulled out his cell phone.
It wasn’t until he was standing besides the majestic oak and tree-house that Stieger realized that he had forgotten his cell-phone in his car. Well, assuming that he had any of his youthful climbing skill left he suspected that this wouldn’t take long. He was about four hundred yards into the cold away from the warmth of the Watchers’ house, which when he turned to look back at it, appeared to be a beacon of heat in the distance. He was ankle deep in snow that was becoming soft under the glare of the sun and would have made for excellent snowballs. He decided that, at the moment, he was hating his job. Lieutenant Starling was going to have to answer for making them do this.
With mild reluctance he looked up at the tree-house above. It looked to be a remarkable specimen, perched solidly in the branches of the huge oak. It was made of plywood and painted white, with some simple windows (with glass!) and a trapdoor in the bottom that one could climb up in. Small boards of wood were nailed every foot or so into the tree for one to climb up. Deciding that there was no time like the present, Stieger grabbed the first of these and began to haul himself up the tree.
It was a fifteen foot climb to the tree house, which left him precariously dangling a distance great enough to risk his spraining an ankle if he fell. Wouldn’t that be a perfect ending to a most remarkable day? The news at the top wasn’t good either, for the trapdoor was held shut with a plain lock of the sort one could get at any hardware store. This led Stieger to have a brief internal debate on the nature of search and seizure laws. He had gotten permission from the mother to search the premises, but did that entitle him to pick this lock? Or was he expected to return to the house and ask for the key, which, if there was anything of interest within the tree-house, would be conveniently lost, or perhaps simply refused. He decided that picking the lock was within the realms of ethical behavior, as he had already secured a right to search the premises. He didn’t have professional lock picks with him, but a few pieces of a pen would suffice. It was odd picking a lock while dangling over the ground and there were several moments when he was certain he would fall, but ultimately he got through the lock and into the tree-house.
In a perfect world there would have been a cat’s head and a signed confession letter waiting for him. Unfortunately he found neither of these. The interior of the tree-house was decorated with some simple wooden chairs and tables, a few games and toys which had evidently been abandoned, a collection of scissors, pencils and other such supplies and a small metal lockbox. He paused for a moment to take in the view out of the windows, which provided an elegant panorama of both the neighborhood, on one side, and the woods on the other. It was still cold in here, his breath still hung in the air, but at least it sheltered him from the wind. He scanned around the few objects in the little house and found nothing out of the ordinary and focused his attention on the lockbox.
He could not stand straight in the tree-house so it was a welcome relief for him to sit down besides the lock box and examine it. It was tan, made of some thin, light metal, and predictably locked. Inside he could feel that there were several things that he wished to see. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound he decided and began to work on the lock. It took only a few seconds to flip the latch. He opened it with excitement, still wondering if he might find the head of a cat within. He was disappointed and it took him a minute to register what he had found.
On top of the little collection of things was a fairly decent length of something rough rope, the sort of rope that might be used in a garden. It was wound into a circle and tied around the middle for convenience. This he carefully took out and set aside. Underneath, and more puzzling, was a pair of cotton briefs, the cloth almost frozen stiff. Instinctively he knew that this was an odd find for a little girl’s lockbox, particularly as these appeared to be boy’s briefs. Even though his hands were gloved he used his dismantled pen to remove these and examine them. There were a few splotches of rust colored stain on them, consistent, he realized with dawning horror, with blood. These he set aside as well, his excitement at this find returned. The heaviest object in the lockbox was what Stieger immediately recognized to be a small stungun. It fit neatly in the palm of his hand, and he depressed the little button on the side and watched the purple arc flow between the electrodes. The air in the tree-house cackled with energy. He knew in all his heart now that he would have Mrs. Watcher on charges of…something. This had to be child abuse, perhaps sexual. Perhaps Ashley and Richie had both been victims, though the briefs seemed too small for either of them. But that could explain Richie’s rage at the Watcher family. Perhaps it was the father who was the abuse, with the mother covering for him. That, to Stieger seemed a more reasonable hypothesis. He put the stungun aside and looked at the last item in the box, a set of ten to twelve polaroid photographs bound with an elastic. Hating this part of the job he slipped the elastic away and looked at the photos. He was, at once, paralyzed with dread, his hypothesis crushed. There were two children in the photographs, one a little boy, tied to a tree with the thin rope and crying. The other was not Richie Phillips.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here,” a voice said to him from besides the trapdoor. Stieger’s hand instinctively dropped to his pistol and the photographs fluttered from his hands. His adrenaline had been coursing as he looked at the photos, and in his bewilderment and horror, he had not heard the other person climb into the tree-house. It took him a moment to calm himself and realize that he was in no immediate danger. Through the clouds of mist that rose from his own breath Stieger could see the face of Ashley Watcher as she calmly sat, Indian-style besides the opening to the trap door.
“Without a search warrant, I mean,” she explained. “I don’t think you were supposed to come in here,” she pointed at the lockbox, “or open that.” She shrugged though, “I don’t suppose it would make much difference either way. What’s the worst I could expect? Therapy?” She smiled, that same sweet angelic smile that would win hearts over to her throughout her life. “But no, I think a lawyer, a good lawyer like the kind my daddy knows, will be able to keep me out of trouble.”
Stieger said nothing, could say nothing, only stare at her while she spoke. His hand was still on his pistol, he realized, though she seemed unconcerned about that. The cold seemed nothing now to him against the presence he felt in this room, the presence he felt from this beautiful little girl.
She nodded, more to herself than to him, speaking wistfully. “Still, this was not the ending I had hoped for,” her eyes looked at him and seemed filled with fire. “That Richie Phillips was supposed to rot in juvenile detention. How dare that imbecile attack me! And Nemie,” she said dreamily, “sacrificed her life so that he would be punished. Such a waste of a good cat.” Ashley shrugged. “Since when do cops poke around so much when they have an obvious suspect?” she accused him, her eyes glaring angrily.
He did not answer, still breathless.
“Well,” she said, smiling once more that angelic smile, “I suppose I must let you arrest me, though we both will know how this will turn out. Mother will be upset, but daddy will handle the lawyers. I took photographs of you picking the tree-house lock from my bedroom window. Hard for you to lie and say the lock was open that way. The case will be dismissed, Mom may bring me for a few session with some snot-nosed therapist. I’ll shed a few tears and reveal a few choices, but false, details about my childhood and once the therapist blames my parents for my behavior, as he or she will, my parents will stop taking me and I will be back here, same as I was before.” She pointed her finger at him as if scolding him. “And it will be you who has to live on, haunted with the knowledge that you failed.”
She smiled broadly, even in anticipation, and swung her legs out the tree-house trapdoor. “Come on then, the sooner we begin, the sooner we can get this over with. I want to be home in time for dinner.” She vanished from view, climbing without concern down the side of the tree.
Stieger still did not move for some time, stunned with the horror of this day’s revelations. What she said was true, particularly about the weight that would be on his shoulders from this day forth. For he knew that a girl as charming, intelligent and pretty as she would be able to find her way out of trouble and into the lives of others who were unsuspecting. She would enter their lives, he knew, as the kindly neighborhood girl who baby-sat their children and later, perhaps, when she reached adulthood, provided medical care to them as their pediatrician.