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Authors: Martin J Smith

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Time Release

BOOK: Time Release
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Time Release
Martin J. Smith
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004
New York, NY 10016
www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 1997 by Martin J. Smith
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

For more information, email
[email protected]

First Diversion Books edition December 2013
ISBN:
978-1-62681-215-4

More from Martin J. Smith

Straw Men

Shadow Image

Coming in 2014:

The Disappeared Girl

To the parents who gave me the tools,
not the material.

Chapter 1

The tape recorder stopped, its final click as startling as a gunshot. The first two times he'd played it, Downing hit the stop button as soon as the speakers fell into that eerie electronic hum. This last time, after five minutes of recorded death, he'd let it run two more minutes to the end to make sure there was nothing else.

He checked the hallway outside his office, making sure no one had heard the killer's taunt—a crazy, irrational fear, he knew, because the door was shut and it was late. But he checked anyway.

With a pencil, he turned the envelope over, postmark side up. That's when he knew for sure, knew Corbett was playing his mind games again. Mailed from the post office three blocks from Downing's house. Corbett was twisted, but very careful. The envelope and the cassette box would offer no other clues, Downing was sure, but he pulled an evidence bag from his jacket pocket and dropped them both in, then dropped the bag into his bottom drawer.

It had been ten years. Why now? Downing pressed the rewind button again and watched the sliver of black ribbon spin back onto the left-hand spool. This time, he set the timer on his wristwatch.

Play.

“. . . a Channel 7 exclusive, and we'll play that tape for you now,” it began. “We should note that it is graphic and disturbing, so viewer discretion is advised.”

A low hiss: the electronic crackle and hum of a 9-1-1 tape recorded from a television speaker. Then:

“Greene County Fire. Is this an emergency?”

“Yeah, uh, it's my mom.” Young kid, early teens, voice cracking. “She was just putting the groceries away and, oh God, she's really having trouble breathing. I'm the only one home.”

It was a Wednesday, late afternoon, early November, the temperature dropping fast. Downing knew that much from other news reports and the week-old
Waynesburg Courier
clipping that was folded into the envelope with the cassette. He imagined the rest: A bored dispatcher, a woman, expecting another space-heater fire out there among western Pennsylvania's shivering rural poor. She'd have swept the mouthpiece of her headset down to her lips and jabbed the pickup button on the Automated Location Identifier, and the caller's phone number and address would have flashed onto her video screen.

Downing checked the newspaper story. 29 Ruff Creek Lane, Waynesburg.

“What's your name?”

“JoAnn Cuddy.”

“That's your mom's name, right? What's your name?”

“Mark.”

Downing closed his eyes. The dispatcher would have typed in the name and poked another console button, channeling that information through the county's Computer-Aided Dispatch System. An electronic form would have blinked onto her screen, listing the nearest major cross streets to 29 Ruff Creek Lane and a code signifying which local ambulance company covers that area.

“Okay, Mark. Can your mom talk?”

“No. No. I don't think so. She's really—”

“How old's your mom?”

“Thirty-eight. No, thirty-nine.”

“Is she conscious?”

“Yeah, but, oh God. Can you send somebody really quick?”

She should have typed “conscious” into the form and transmitted it to—Downing opened his eyes and checked the newspaper story—Weaver Ambulance and Rescue in Waynesburg.

“They're on their way. So your mom's still breathing then?”

“Trying.”

Something glass shattered in the background, followed by the crunch of splitting wood and the heavy, sickening thump of flesh on floor. The phone banged again and again, hollow and sharp, like it was hitting a wall.

“Sir? Are you there? Sir?” Downing checked his watch. The digital timer raced through ten, fifteen, twenty seconds.

“She fell, then she threw up.” Kid's voice panicky now.

“Is she still conscious?”

“Don't think so.”

“What did she throw up?”

“Just some yogurt. She was eating it a couple minutes ago when she started, like, choking.”

The dispatcher probably went for her allergic reactions key-question cards. The prearrival instructions are printed on the back of them. Downing winced at the thought. So logical, but so useless.

“If she's unconscious and still vomiting, I want you to turn her onto her side and make sure her airway is clear so she doesn't choke. Can you do that?”

“Just a minute.” Panicked whimpers as the kid worked. Downing checked his watch again. Sounds of desperation filled his head.

“Okay. She's on her side, but she's hardly breathing. Oh God. Jesus! How long until they get here?”

“Stay with me now. Your mom have allergies? She wearing any sort of medical-alert bracelet?”

“This is really bad. No. No. She wasn't allergic to anything, I don't think.” Kid sobbing now.

“How's her skin feel? Is it pale, cool, moist?”

“Hang on.” Downing flinched at the dropped handset's hollow report “Skin's cold, and really, really white.”

“Okay, listen. She's going into shock. I want you to put her feet and legs up on something. If she's on the floor, grab a kitchen chair and put her legs up on it. Got that?”

Silence, then the rhythmic cadence of convulsion, as unmistakable as the sound of lovers. Downing put his head down on the desk.
So goddamned useless.

“Sir? Are you there?”

“She's having a seizure or something. She's—where the fuck are they?”

“Listen. This is important. Your mom is having convulsions. You need to move everything away from her, anything she could hurt herself on.”

“She's—”

“Pots, pans, kitchen utensils, furniture. Make sure it's all out of her reach. If she's wearing a collar, loosen it if you can. And don't try to restrain her. She'll be all right.”

“Now?”

“Now. And don't put anything in her mouth, especially your fingers.”

Downing's head filled with more sounds—chairs tipping, a table being shoved aside.

“Oh God, she's dying!” Kid screaming now. “What's wrong with her?”

“Stay calm. She needs you. Is your mom pregnant?”

“No. No. What else should I be doing?”

Downing could almost see her struggle. The body overwhelmed, the eyes uncomprehending, reaching, clutching, dying.

“She stopped shaking, but I don't think she's breathing. Not breathing at all. Mom. Mom! What should I do?”

Downing could hear the dispatcher fumbling through her key-question cards. One choice left: CPR. But there was a commotion as she started her instructions.

“In here!” the caller shouted to the arriving paramedics, and the line went dead.

Downing poked a button on his wristwatch. The timer stopped with a tinny beep. Did anyone hear? He checked the hallway again, then peeked around the corner into the squad room. Silverwood looked up from his typewriter.

“Jesus, Grady. You look like hell.”

Downing nodded, forced a smile. “Long day.”

“Go home.”

Downing went back to his desk, sweating, dizzy, wiping his hands on the leg of his pants.
Why now?
A deep breath. Then another.

He pulled a clean notepad from a drawer and wrote a large number 7 at the top, then circled it. He wrote the name JoAnn Cuddy on the top line and underlined it twice. Beside it, he added the date of her death as described in the
Courier
clipping, realizing what it meant as soon as he lifted the pen and looked at the numbers: God damn. Ten years to the day.

“Vt. consumed yogurt approx. 7 mins. prior to resp. arrest,” he scribbled, his hand suddenly gone weak. “Rec. excerpted 911 tape by mail. (Anon.) Recorded from TV-7.”

He wiped his hands again so they wouldn't smear the ink then checked his watch. The numbers were frozen where he stopped them, and he copied them onto the notepad. Five minutes, nineteen seconds. So fast. So damned fast. They all were.

Chapter 2

The commuter mug tipped halfway through a screeching, yellow-light turn. Its lid held just long enough to mute Jim Christensen's panic, then gave way. Hearty Kona Blend pooled between his legs in the Explorer's leather seat, long past hot but uncomfortable nonetheless. He steered with one knee into the morning glare along Fifth Avenue and reached behind him for something to absorb the disaster.

He found something papery, pulled it forward for a look. One of Annie's art projects—a blue construction paper deal with a feather, two strips of felt, and elbow macaroni pasted on. Nah. He tried again, this time snagging a pair of Melissa's band uniform pants. At least they'd wash.

He lifted himself from the seat and sat back down on the navy-blue wad. A dark crescent bridged his crotch, extending halfway down each thigh of his heavy cotton khakis. An unsettling dampness crept slowly up his ass toward his waistband, softening the starch-stiff tail of his blue oxford shirt and the back of his heavy tweed overcoat. The dashboard's digital clock read 8:43. His first morning client was the Oppositional Defiant sophomore with the worried faculty advisor, due at 9:15. No time to drive back home to Highland Park. And not much desire. He'd been back once already to retrieve Annie's forgotten dance clothes and, as always, was unnerved by the silence of the empty house. No, he'd tough it out until noon, when he could stop by the dry cleaners and pick up an order he was sure included at least one pair of suitable pants.

The empty parking spot in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial was his first break in an already foreboding Monday. It was right across Fifth from the William Pitt Union, giving him a mercifully short, if bowlegged, walk through the late-fall chill to the third-floor offices of the University Counseling and Student Development Services office. He buttoned the coat to hide the disaster in front and folded a
New York Times,
casually, he thought, across the spreading aft stain.

Nothing seemed amiss when he caught his reflection in the lobby door. His clothes hung just so since, at forty-two, he still had the same trim physique he'd had as a college distance runner. The gray-flecked hair was reasonably in place, swept back off his forehead and down to his collar. Rimless spectacles sat high on a too-long nose, balanced by his neatly trimmed beard. All in all, the door's pale mirror reflected the image of the dedicated educator, psychologist, and behavioral researcher that his colleagues thought him to be. He peeled off the Power Rangers sticker Annie had affixed to his lapel after breakfast and strode toward the elevator.

Lil McGill shook her head as he opened his coat in front of her reception desk. She was thirty-six, acted fifty, and aggressively mothered him and the eight other counselors who volunteered at the center two afternoons a week. She opened the doors at seven, closed them at five, and as far as he knew vanished into some parallel universe where everyone is nice and concern is always genuine.

Christensen checked himself fully for the first time, arms extended, head bent low. “How do I look?”

“Like an incontinent bird. What's the story this morning?”

“Usual Monday madness.”

“Forgot Annie's dance clothes, I bet. Then you probably drove like a nut to get her to preschool and Melissa to first period at eight-thirty.”

Christensen plucked two pink message slips from his mail slot on Lil's desk. “And we made it. But I dumped the commuter mug on Fifth, four blocks from here. Lid came right off.”

Lil checked her logbook. “You're clear until nine-fifteen, you know.”

“I'll survive.” He executed an awkward pirouette. “How's my back?”

She grimaced. “Affected.”

Christensen sighed and stiff-legged down the cheerful hall toward the unadorned office he used to counsel Pitt students for two hours every Monday and Thursday. He passed the student waiting area, where Lil kept survival pamphlets on everything from bulimia to intimacy in neat little stacks, alphabetized. His eyes lingered briefly on the “Loss of a Loved One” pile as he fished into his wet pocket for the office key.

The door opened several inches as he slid the key into the lock, so he pushed grimly into the tiny room, eyes still surveying the coffee damage.

“Morning, Chickie.”

Christensen startled, then felt a cold shiver of recognition creep up the back of his neck. Grady Downing was tilted back in the desk chair, wing tips propped on the sterile institutional desk in the murky light of the shuttered window. Sometimes the guy reminded him less of a cop than a stalker. How the hell did he get in? Christensen opened his mouth, but all that came out was, “Jesus.”

“Nope, just me,” Downing said.

The psychologist caught his breath. His hand trembled as he reached for the light switch. The office, normally scented by the night janitor's lemon-oil cleaner, stunk of tobacco and something intestinal. A thin haze filled the room. Half a dozen cigarette butts lay crushed on the upturned plastic lid of the homicide detective's foam coffee cup.

Downing shrugged, stroking his brushy mustache. “No ashtrays.”

Christensen liked Downing. Owed him his life, in a way. But Downing handled conversation with all the finesse of a street mugging.

“Lil didn't tell me you were in here.”

Downing squinted as the overheads blinked on, then fixed his eyes on the befouled pants. “Scared the piss out of you, eh? Who's Lil? You finally dating again?”

Christensen couldn't imagine how Downing had slipped unseen past the receptionist. He must have been here since before Lil unlocked the outer door at eight, but how? “Been waiting long?”

“Few minutes. Got a sec to talk?”

Christensen hung his coat beside Downing's filthy London Fog on the wooden rack in the corner, then crossed behind the detective to the window. He cranked it open several times, hoping a draft would pull the smoke and stink from the room.

“You're not sucking me into another investigation, Grady. Not after Tataglia.”

“Tataglia was a fluke.”

“No, Grady, Tataglia was a hostage situation. You strolled me up the front walk like an Amway salesman just about the time Bruno's medication wore off.” Christensen felt a tingle in his right shoulder where a ricocheting spray of shotgun pellets had drawn blood less than a year earlier.

“I said I was sorry.”

“Before Tataglia it was Petrovich.”

“That was two and a half years ago.”

“ ‘They got nothing,' you said. ‘Nada!
Nichts!'
Damned right. You guys put me on the stand so they could pick at my credentials for two days.”

“You testified against Petrovich because you knew that sorry sack of shit was bullshitting on the memory lapses. And you knew the jury wouldn't convict without testimony from the most credible memory expert in the state.”

“You sweet-talker.”

“Whatever. That was your conscience doing the right thing. Besides, I don't prosecute. So don't pin that on me.”

“Two goddamned days I spent testifying in the Petrovich trial. Two of Molly's last days.”

Their eyes locked. Her name struck a chord that left both of them silent, staring. Downing spoke before their memories unspooled too far.

“So, Jim, you been okay? You and the girls?”

Christensen relaxed. Once they got past the initial spike on the stress meter, they always fell into something less hostile, like any friendship spawned by tragedy. It was hard to keep the pushy homicide cop separate from the man whose compassion had kept Christensen out of prison.

“We're fine, Grady. Thanks for asking.”

“Really fine?”

Christensen felt himself flush. “We've got our bad days. Melissa's still not comfortable with what I did. Kids get on her at school, and tenth graders can be brutal. And Annie, she just misses her mom. Sleeps with one of Molly's silk nightgowns every night. But fine, mostly.”

Downing kicked his feet down and stood up, folding that morning's
Press
and tucking it under his left arm. He adjusted the window blind, letting the morning light slice through the still-dim office, then stared quietly out the window. Beyond him, across Bigelow Boulevard, the Gothic mass of Pitt's Cathedral of Learning rose forty-two stories into the granite-gray sky. The detective didn't seem to be looking at it so much as through it. When he finally spoke, he kept his back turned.

“Remember the Primenyl case?”

Christensen looked up from the briefcase he'd begun unloading onto the desk. “Might as well ask someone from Dallas if November 22, 1963, rings a bell.”

The detective turned, more reaction than gesture, and seemed to force a smile. “Got a favor to ask.”

Christensen sat down in the hard plastic chair usually reserved for troubled students. “Now there's a shocker,” he said, smiling. But Downing had turned away again.

“How much do you remember? About Primenyl?”

How long ago was it? When was Molly's accident? It was eight years before that. “Didn't I just see a newspaper story about the tenth anniversary a couple weeks ago?”

Downing nodded.

“Who could forget? Six people dead. City half out of its mind over product tampering. No arrests. No suspects.”

The detective waited a long time, squinting into the daylight. Tension drifted back into the room like a fog. “One suspect,” he said.

“I don't follow. You mean the guy that worked for the drug company, right? The one that killed himself?”

Downing shook his head from side to side.

“Then you mean you've got a psychological profile of the killer,” Christensen said.

“No, I mean we know who he is.”

Weighing the implications took Christensen no time at all. In late 1986, someone had slipped powdered potassium cyanide into capsules inside supposedly tamper-proof packages of the painkiller. That person had watched without apparent conscience or remorse the horrific deaths that followed, then for years hovered like a reaper over the city, watching, maybe waiting to kill again, a presence as undeniable in Pittsburgh's collective psyche as any Carnegie or Mellon or Heinz, yet without a name. Christensen knew better than to ask who.

“When's all this going to break, Grady? Haven't read anything about it.”

Downing ran a finger along the edge of the desk, then seemed to trace something on the desktop. He looked up. “You won't. Unless things change.”

Christensen sat forward, knowing Downing would interpret the movement as a sign of his interest. But he couldn't help himself.

“Look, I'm not gonna dance around this,” Downing said. “You know how much an arrest in this case would mean. For everybody in this city. Truth is, we knew who did it within a week of the first death. And we've got circumstantial evidence out the gazoo. A lot more than that, but it's not enough to file. We've got a DA that won't take anything to the grand jury unless it's a slam dunk, especially when it's high-profile.”

Agitation strained the detective's voice, an edge Christensen had never noticed before. Even Downing's forced smile was gone, replaced by the hard mask of a man struggling with something unseen.

Christensen felt suddenly vulnerable. “Wait a minute. Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I need some advice about repressed memories,” Downing said.

“That I can give. But what does it have to do with Primenyl?”

Downing smiled broadly, walked around the desk, and sat on its edge. “Thought you'd never ask.”

The detective pulled a pack of Winstons from inside his nightmarish hound's-tooth sports jacket, offering a flash of leather shoulder holster as he did. The reflected flame of his butane lighter danced in the Plexiglas “Thanks for Not Smoking” sign on the office wall.

“Our guy had a wife and kid—two kids, at the time. Oldest boy was fifteen, youngest was twelve. They all lived in this big old house in Irondale a couple blocks from the Pharmco where the first capsules were found.”

“Molly used to shop there. The one on Chislett.”

Downing nodded. “Old man's a classic case—alcoholic, abusive, a gutless little nobody trying to make his mark. Pharmacist by trade, which explains a lot. Anyway, we're pretty sure Mom and the boys knew what the old man was doing, pretty sure they saw some things, you know?”

Christensen exaggerated a roll of his eyes. “And you think they're repressing the memories.”

“Just the youngest boy.”

Christensen couldn't stop an involuntary laugh. Downing had been watching the news. “The California case, right? Daughter remembers Daddy bashing her little pal twenty years after the fact and goes to the cops.”

“Jury believed her,” Downing said.

“Overturned on appeal.”

“What are you saying, Jim? People don't repress things?”

“They do. All the time. But you're talking about something way beyond that. It's one thing to get somebody who's been traumatized to confront memories like that. A painful, dangerous thing. It's another thing to try to mine those memories and then twist them into a criminal prosecution.”

Downing held up both hands, palms out. “Don't get ahead of me here. I'm just trying to get an expert read on the kid.”

“I know you better than that.”

“Just talk to the kid, Jim. He's twenty-two now, been through every social service agency in the county. There's a file a foot thick on him, and at least two of his counselors saw red flags. If there was ever a candidate, it's him. Just feel him out, let me know if it's a possibility. Unless his old man makes a mistake, he may be our only shot.”

Christensen's mind was racing, “It's the media. That's the problem. Give them something sensational like the California trial and they swarm like bees. Ritual abuse! Satanic ceremonies! Reporters are so busy looking for the next big outrage that they never look at what's really happening. The big story never gets told as long as there's a goddamn trial lawyer willing to hold a press conference on the courthouse steps or a quack therapist who'll let some poor bastard ‘remember' sacrificing babies and eating their spleens.”

“Ever consider decaf?”

Christensen took a deep breath. Repressed memories. “In seventeen years of private practice, I've seen maybe a dozen legitimate cases stemming from posttraumatic stress. In the few years since publicity started on the California trial, probably half of my clients decided they must be repressing something.”

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