I smiled when I saw the dead girl. Just for a moment. Reflex, I suppose.
In Kabul, I once clawed through a busload of bodies after a bomb blast, desperately seeking any sign of life. Didn’t find it.
As a Detroit cop, I saw victims almost daily, and even after transferring home to Valhalla, on Michigan’s north shore, I’ve seen more corpses than I care to.
But never one like this.
The teenager was sprawled on the snow-covered lawn, her honey-blond hair wreathing her face like a halo. She was surrounded by lighted holiday figures, a laughing Santa in his sleigh, eight wire-framed reindeer, gaily winking and blinking. The girl’s white satin gown was dusted with ice crystals that reflected the flickering LEDs, making her glitter like the display’s centerpiece.
A snow angel.
The scene was so perfect, it almost looked posed, like the girl had dozed off in the middle of a photo shoot for a Hallmark card.
She hadn’t, though.
Her face and lips were a pale pastel blue, her brows and lashes rimed with frost.
In her last moments, she’d thrashed about, striving to rise. To live. But the bone-deep cold sapped her strength. She slipped into an icy coma and then away, leaving her body centered in the image her struggles had created.
A perfect snow angel.
And at first glance, I couldn’t help smiling. Instinctively reacting to the scene. Who doesn’t love a snow angel?
My partner, Zina Redfern, caught my smile and gave me an odd look. I turned away, trying to morph my grin into a wince. I doubt she bought it. Zina is short, squared-off, and intense. All business. Raven-haired, with dark eyes and a copper complexion, she favors Johnny Cash black on the job. Slacks, boots, and nylon jackets. If she owns a dress, I’ve never seen it. Her heritage is First Nation. Anishnabeg. But she’s a sidewalk Indian, grew up tough in Flint’s east-side gangland. She’s a solid partner, but not an easy read.
“Who called this in?” I asked.
“Mail lady,” Zina said. “She dropped a package at the house around eight this morning. Spotted the girl on her way in, took a closer look on the way out. Called nine-one-one. Van Duzen caught the squeal, found the girl. He pounded on the front door but nobody answered. He thought he’d better wait for us. Mail lady didn’t know anything, so he sent her on her way.”
“Okay.” I nodded, then I turned in a slow circle, scanning the crime scene.
We were in Sugar Hill, the richest enclave in Valhalla. Homes here don’t have addresses, they have names. This one, Champlin Hall, was an honest-to-God nineteenth-century mansion. A sprawling brick Beaux-Arts estate with ornate stonework, towering Gothic windows.
Built by one of the old lumber barons, the estate had been updated over the years. The carriage house became a six-car garage, servants’ quarters now housed exchange students from the Sudan, Serbia, or Ontario, depending on which sports they specialized in.
A half-dozen cars were parked in the circular drive, all of them dusted lightly by last night’s snowfall. No one had come or gone. The only fresh tire tracks were from the mail truck, my Jeep, and Van Duzen’s prowlie, still idling in the driveway, its exhaust rising white in the icy air.
A pristine, snowy Saturday morning. The kind they put on magazine covers.
Except our star attraction wasn’t breathing.
Joni Cohen, Valhalla P.D.’s intern tech, was kneeling beside the girl, collecting her nonexistent vitals.
Tall, gawky, and permanently perky, Joni’s a junior at Michigan State majoring in forensic anthropology. Her class schedule keeps her in constant transit between Valhalla and the capital down in Lansing. Somehow she pulls a 3.9 GPA and still does a first-rate job as a crime-scene tech.
Ordinarily, Joni’s totally absorbed by her work. Whistles softly to herself amidst the carnage of a five-car pileup. No tunes today, though. With Santa and his reindeer beaming over her shoulder, she couldn’t even fake “Jingle Bells.”
“So?” I prompted.
“First impression, it’s pretty much what it looks like,” Joni said, frowning down at the angel. “Hypothermia. There are no tracks but hers, no signs of violence. It looks like she took a shortcut across the lawn, headed for a car in the driveway. Maybe felt woozy, sat down to rest a minute? It was eighteen degrees last night and she wasn’t wearing a coat. She nodded out and . . . well. She froze to death.”
“Are you all right?” Zina asked.
“No,” Joni said flatly. “I know this girl. Not personally, but I’ve seen her around the Vale Junior College campus. A freshman, I think.”
“Whoa, take a break, Joni,” I said. “The state police Forensics Unit will be here in a few minutes—”
“No, I’m okay. Really,” she said, taking a ragged breath. “My uncle warned me if I did my internship in Vale County, sooner or later I’d be working on people I knew. At least this girl wasn’t mashed by a road grader. Let’s just—get on with it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Time frame?”
“Her body temp’s twenty-one degrees above ambient. I’d estimate she walked out here around eleven. Actual time of death was probably between one-thirty and three a.m. We may get tighter numbers after the autopsy. There’s no scent of alcohol. If she’d been drinking, it wasn’t much.”
“Wasn’t legal either,” Zina said. “I found her purse in the snow beside the driveway. Her driver’s license says she’s Julie Novak. Seventeen. Poletown address, north of the river. But her student ID is from Valhalla High, not the college.”
“Vale Junior College offers advanced courses for gifted kids,” Joni said.
“I’m not sure how bright this girl was, considering,” Zina said. “Do you think her dress is odd?”
“Odd?” I echoed, but she wasn’t asking me.
“Definitely off,” Joni agreed. “It’s more like a prom dress than something you’d wear to a house party. She looks like . . .”
“A snow angel,” I finished. “What are we now, the fashion police?”
“Nope, we’re Major Crimes,” Zina conceded. “And a lot more went wrong for this girl than her taste in clothes. It was seriously freakin’ cold last night. What was she doing out here without a coat?”
“Let’s ask,” I said.
The front porch was the size of a veranda, three stories tall, supported by Gone With the Wind columns. I hit the buzzer beside the massive front door. No response. Leaning closer, I could hear the faint sounds of tinny TV laughter, somebody yelling for somebody to get the goddamn door. No one came. I tried the knob. It wasn’t locked.
Stepping inside, I felt an instant jolt. Time travel. Frat party funk, the morning after. The aroma of stale beer, cold pizza, reefer, and sex hanging in the air.
Smelled like teen spirit.
I started down the hall toward the TV room.
“Where are you going?” Zee asked, hurrying after me.
“They’ll be in the game room.”
“Everybody who’s ambulatory.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Once or twice.”
The end of the hall opened into a giant playroom. Pinball machines, foosball, and pool tables lined the walls. In the center, a long, curved leather couch faced a jumbo flat-screen TV.
None of the pool tables was in use, unless you counted a moose-sized lineman who’d wrapped himself in his Val High letterman’s jacket and conked out amid the cue sticks.
Several college-age kids were sprawled across the couch in various states of disarray, bleary-eyed and hungover. Four young guys, three girls, watching a soccer game on the big screen.
“Hey, guys,” I said, holding up my badge. “I’m Sergeant LaCrosse, Valhalla P.D. Who’s in charge here?”
They looked at each other, then back at me. A few shook their heads, no one answered. They weren’t belligerent, just baffled and groggy.
“Okaay,” I said, “easier question. Are the Champlins at home? Parents, I mean?”
“I’m Sissy Champlin,” one of the girls said, nestling deeper in the arms of her bull-necked boyfriend. She had a nose ring, spiky blond hair with blue highlights. “My folks are in . . . Toronto, for the weekend. We had a little bash last night. We’re the survivors.”
Her boyfriend was staring at me. Sloped shoulders, head the size of a watermelon. U of M sweatshirt. “I know you,” he said slowly. “You played hockey for Val High back in the day, right? Defense?”
“Have we met?”
“Nah,” he grinned, “I’ve seen you on game film. Mark shows that scrap in the playoffs when you and your cousin wiped out Traverse City’s front line. The refs tossed everybody out. Awesome, man.”
“What’s your name?”
“Laslo. Metyavich. I’m goalie for the Vale Vikings.”
With his dark hair buzzed down to fuzz, he looked more like a Cossack warrior in pajamas from The Gap. He was wide enough to be a goalie, though. “Were you here last night, Laslo?”
“I live here, man. We all do,” he added, gesturing at his bleary comrades on the couch. “Exchange students.”
“A girl left your party last night and—got into some trouble. Julie Novak? Does anybody know her? Or who she was with?”
Again, baffled looks.
“Wait a sec,” Sissy Champlin said, frowning. “Julie? A young chick? Wearing a white formal, like a freakin’ bridesmaid?”
“You know her?”
“I know she came to the wrong party,” Sissy sniffed. “That Indian kid brought her. What’s his name, hon? The geek who tutors the basketball players?”
“Derek, you mean?” Laslo offered.
“Last name?” Zina prompted.
“Some foreign name,” Laslo said, without irony. “Patel, I think. Derek Patel.”
“Any idea where we could find Mr. Patel?”
“He crapped out early.” Laslo shrugged. “Lot of guys did. I think some wiseass spiked the punch. Derek’s probably crashed in one of the guest rooms. I’ll show you.” He started to rise, wobbled, then quickly sat back down. “Whoa,” he said, looking a little green.
“Stay put,” I said. “I know the way.” Laslo slumped back on the couch. Sissy brushed his arm away. She was on her cell phone, frantically texting.
Zina and I headed into the guest wing, an eight-room addition added back in the fifties. Working opposite sides of the hall, we rapped once, then stuck our heads in, scaring the bejesus out of various young lovers. On my third knock, I found an Indian kid conked out atop one of the twin beds, fully dressed in a dark suit and tie. Tall, slender, skin the color of café au lait, thick curly blue-black hair. He sat up slowly, blinking, dazed and confused.
“I . . . yes?” He shook his head, then knuckled his eyes. Trying to remember his name. I totally sympathized. Been there, done that.
“Do you know a girl named Julie Novak?”
“Julie? Ah . . . sure. She was my date last night. Is she okay?”
“Why shouldn’t she be?”
“She ditched me and went home. Said she wasn’t dressed right. I was in no shape to drive, so I gave her my keys and . . . oh damn! Did she wreck my car? My God, my dad’s gonna kill me—”
“She didn’t wreck your car, Derek. Were you two drinking a little last night?”
“Just the virgin punch,” he said. “Julie’s underage.”
“If you were drinking nonalcoholic punch, how’d you get wrecked?” Zina asked.
“I did a few Jello shots with some of the guys. I’m not a big drinker.”
“What about Julie? Did she do a few shots too?”
“No! Only the punch, like I said. I promised her dad—oh God, her old man’s gonna be totally pissed. He hates me anyway. He’s prejudiced, I think. Is he here?”
“No. Put your shoes on, Derek. We have to go.”
“Are you arresting me?”
I didn’t answer, hoping he wouldn’t push it. He didn’t. Glumly slipped into his tassel loafers instead. I sent Zee off to scout the rest of the house while I walked Derek out.
Outside, the scene had gone from Christmas-card quiet to crime-scene chaotic. Valhalla P.D. prowl cars had sealed off both ends of the circular driveway, their emergency strobes flashing in the gentle snowfall, blocking in the half-dozen cars parked in front of the house. A third prowlie was sitting astride the rear drive that led back to the garage.
The snow angel was blocked from view by the state police CSI van, and the area around her had been taped off with yellow police lines. Techs in black nylon state police CSI jackets were crouched over the vic while Joni looked on. She still wasn’t whistling.
I marched Derek to the nearest prowl car. Joe Van Duzen, V.P.D.’s greenest patrolman, hurried to meet us, six foot, with a blond crew cut. In khaki slacks and his bulky brown V.P.D. jacket, he’s a recruiter’s dream.
“What’s up, Sarge?”
“This is Derek Patel, Duze. He’s a material witness. Park him in your prowlie, keep him on ice. He doesn’t leave and nobody talks to him, understand?”
“Copy that. What the hell’s going on in there, Dylan?”
“The morning after the night before, Duze. Don’t lose this kid, okay?”
“You got it.” Duze eased Derek into the prowlie’s backseat and closed the door.
Zina was waiting for me at the front door, her mood darker than before.
“We’ve got problems, Dylan,” she said. “C’mon.”
“What’s up?” I asked, falling into step.
“I found the famous virgin punchbowl,” she said. “In the living room. There are two of them, actually. One with fruit punch, one with margaritas.”
“I also found these,” she said, holding out her open palm. Three small red capsules.
“Oh hell,” I said, feeling my stomach drop like a freight elevator. “Roofies?”
She nodded. “Date-rape drug. Found ’em on the floor near the punchbowls. Both concoctions are murky, but you can see the remains of some caps on the bottom. I think somebody laced both bowls with GHB—” She broke off as I tapped my collar mike.
“Barden? Is your prowlie blocking the driveway?”
“Take a walk, check the parked cars in the drive, make sure nobody’s asleep in one. I don’t want any more angels.”
“Angels?” he asked.
“Check the damn cars, Tommy.”
“You said you’ve been here before?” Zina asked, as I switched off.
“Right. To parties, back in high school. Mark Champlin was older than we were, but he’d been a three-sport all-star back in the day, and his folks were big athletic boosters. This place was jock central. Parties almost every weekend, free beer, groupies, and Mr. Champlin was good for a few bucks if a player was short. From the looks of this crew, things haven’t changed much.”
“Ever go upstairs?”
“No, it was off-limits. Why?”
“C’mon,” Zee said. “You’re gonna love this.”
She was right. The second-floor rooms were larger, plusher, complete with en suites, and walk-in closets. And at the end of the corridor, a single door stood wide open. Its latch was shattered. It had been kicked in.
I rested my hand on my weapon as I eased through, but there was no need. None at all.
“Wow,” I said, turning in a slow circle, taking in the room. “What have we here?”
The bedroom looked like the honeymoon suite at a Vegas bordello. Mirrored ceiling, angled mirrors on the walls, king-size beds in each corner. A larger, circular bed occupied the center of the room, all five of them close enough for easy hopping, covered in what looked like faux ermine.
A large-screen TV loomed over one corner. On a shelf beneath it, a Sony video recorder was flanked by a long row of DVDs. Half of them were clearly commercial porn, garishly labeled. The other half weren’t labeled at all, only numbered. I opened one. No labels inside either, just a handwritten number on the disc that matched the jacket.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think this room’s wired up,” Zee said, pointing out nearly invisible lenses mounted in the mirrored ceiling. “If they’ve been making home movies, I see my future on a beach in Bimini. Check out the gear on the nightstands.”
Against the wall, between the beds, small bedside tables held a selection of lubricants, massage oils, and sex toys. Some had obvious purposes, a few I could only guess at.
“Okay,” I said, still taking in the room. “We’ve got a party going on downstairs, somebody kicks open the door to this playroom, but does no other damage I can see.”
“The beds aren’t even mussed,” Zina agreed. “Maybe somebody was hoping to get lucky later?”
“It doesn’t matter why. The drugs flip this thing from a teenage tragedy to something a lot messier.” I pressed the eject button on the recorder, removed the DVD, and slid it into an evidence bag. “C’mon, let’s round up the usual sus—”
“Hey! You guys can’t be in here!” a kid said. “You know the rules. Second floor’s family only. No guests!” The boy in the doorway was maybe fifteen, wearing a green Michigan State sweater, but I doubt he was college bound.
His heavy-framed glasses housed twin hearing aids. His eyes were wide apart and guileless, with the slight Asian cast of Down syndrome. I guessed his emotional age at ten or twelve.
“It’s okay,” I said, showing him my shield. He glanced at it, but didn’t react. I doubt he knew what it was. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Joey Champlin. You can’t be up here. My dad doesn’t allow it.”
“Do you know how the door got broken, Joey?”
His face fell, and the look in his eyes was as good as a signed statement.
“You—still have to leave,” he repeated.
“Sure,” I agreed. “Whatever you say.” We already had what we needed, and in a house with an all-star dad and an army of jocks, I doubt many folks paid attention to this kid.
So we did as he asked. When I glanced back, he was gone.
The next hour flew by in a fury. I had patrolmen seal off the house and herd the kids into separate rooms. We took names, ages, and vital stats. No talking. No breathalyzers either. They were of age, in a private home. How they partied was their business.
All we wanted was info about the girl on the lawn.
What we got was doodley squat.
A few kids knew Derek Patel from school. Nobody seemed to know his angel date at all. Time to change tactics. Maybe Derek had sobered enough for a conversation.
Leaving Zina to finish questioning the final few, I headed out the front door. And went from hangover central into a grab-ass free-for-all.
Derek Patel was sprawled on his back in the driveway, his face a bloody mess. Van Duzen was wrestling with a big guy in a flannel shirt, who was clearly trying to break free to have another go at the kid on the ground.
I came on the run. Crashing into Van Duzen’s opponent from behind, I snaked an arm around his throat in a crude chokehold. I managed to haul him off Duze, but he was bull-strong and enraged. He kept kicking wildly at Derek on the ground. It was all I could do to hold him back.
I drove a quick body shot into his rib cage, but he was so wired he didn’t even feel it. I had no idea who he was or what the hell was up, and it didn’t matter. We had to shut him down.
Throwing my weight backward, I hauled him down on top of me, still locked in a stranglehold. I tried scissoring my legs around his knees to immobilize him, but it was like wrestling a bear. Couldn’t hold him.
Patrolman Tommy Barden came charging up with his nightstick drawn. He slammed it down hard across the big guy’s midsection, driving his wind out, locking him up for an instant. Barden was drawing back for another swing when Van Duzen shouldered him aside.
“Don’t hurt him, damn it! He’s the girl’s father!”
Duze and Barden piled on, each seizing one of the big guy’s arms, pinning him down with sheer bulk. The four of us lay entangled in a squirming rugby pileup in the snow, straining, struggling.
“Mr. Novak,” I panted, trying to keep my tone level. “Stop fighting us, please. I’m going to ease my hold to let you breathe, but I need you to calm down.”
He didn’t reply. For a moment, we lay frozen in a tableau, a violent counterpoint to the holiday display on the lawn.
I released my hold a little. Novak gasped in a quick breath. And then he broke, sagging back against me. Sobbing like a child.
I had Duze drive Carl Novak into Hauser Center, the “house” shared by Valhalla P.D., the state police, and the Vale County sheriff’s department. No handcuffs. Novak wasn’t under arrest, but he wasn’t going anyplace either.
I ran Derek Patel into the emergency room in my Jeep, pedal to the metal, with lights and sirens. Derek didn’t say a word. Probably couldn’t. His nose was flattened, clearly broken. I guessed his jaw was dislocated as well. I turned him over to the ER staff, and was pacing the crowded waiting room like an expectant dad when my partner rolled in. We stepped out to the corridor, away from the others.
“What the hell happened?” Zina demanded.
“Derek felt woozy, so Duze let him walk around to get some air. Carl Novak showed up, saw his daughter dead on the ground. When Derek tried to talk to him, Novak lost it. Laid him out, broke his nose, maybe his jaw. I warned the ER staff Derek might be high, so they’ll have to run a tox screen before they can work on him. He won’t be talking for a while. Your turn,” I said. “What did you get from the interviews?”
“Short version? Julie Novak left the party early,” Zina said. “Only a few kids noticed and they’re pretty vague on the time. Pretty vague on everything, actually. Half of them are still hammered, the other half are so hungover they wish they were dead.”
“One of them is,” I said. “Any luck with their smart phones?”
“I collected a half-dozen. Joni’s downloading them now. She thinks she can patch together a highlight reel of last night’s action—”
“What in the devil’s going on here!” An Indian doctor in a white lab coat bulled between us, grabbing my shoulder, jerking me around. “The staff says you people brought my son into emergency. Beaten! What have you done to him?”
“Yo! Calm down!” I said, backing him off, flashing my shield. “I’m Detective LaCrosse. Who are you?”
“I’m Dr. Patel—”
“You need to cool down and listen up, Doctor,” Zee said, stepping between us. “Your son was assaulted. The man who attacked him is in custody. So is Derek. A girl he took to a party last night is dead, possibly of a drug overdose. Does Derek have access to GHB or similar drugs in your home, Doctor? Or your office?”
Patel stared at her, stunned. “Drugs?” he stammered. “Derek? Are you out of your mind?”
“GHB, specifically,” I pressed, keeping him off balance.
“Dear God.” Patel looked away, swallowing. “The, ah, the party Derek attended? It was held at the Champlin home?”
“Then I have a—conflict. The Champlins are my patients. By law, I can’t disclose any information—”
“Then you’d better hire your son a good lawyer, sir,” Zina said.
“Wait! Please,” Patel pleaded. “I can’t discuss my patients, but I can tell you that my son did not take GHB nor any other drug to that party. He would never do such a thing. And there would be . . . no need to.”
“Because . . . the pills were already there?” Zina pressed. “Are you saying someone in the family has a prescription for them?”
“I can’t comment on that, Detective,” Patel said. “Butin good conscience, I cannot deny it either. Do you understand what I’m not telling you?”
“Got it,” Zina nodded.
“Without a release from the Champlins, that’s all I’m free to say. I’m—sorry about before. May I get back to my son?”
“Go ahead,“ I said. “But if I were you, Doc, I’d get that release. We’ll be talking again.”
As Patel stalked off, my cell phone hummed. I turned away to take the message. Listened, and frowned. “Okay,” I said. “I’m on my way.”
“Is something wrong?” Zina asked.
“That was the district attorney. The Champlins’ lawyer wants a meet-up, at the Jury’s Inn.”
“Looking for a deal?” she said, surprised. “The case just opened.”
“He doesn’t want a deal,” I said. “He says he can close it for us. . . .”
# # #