Authors: Robert Ellis
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Philadelphia (Pa.), #General, #Fiction, #Serial Murder Investigation, #Women Sleuths, #Serial Murderers
T H E D E A D
R O O M
R o b e r t E l l i s
R O B E R T E L L I S
The Lost Witness
City of Fire
Access to Power
This is a work of fiction. All characters, opinions, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THE DEAD ROOM
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Ellis
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
In memory of my father
Francis J. Ellis
Without the help and effort of many friends, this book wouldn’t exist.
The novel was refined with the assistance of my editor, Kate Duffy, and my friends, John Truby and Michael Conway. Further creative distillations occurred with the help of Charlotte Conway and Meghan Sadler-Conway. I can’t thank you all enough. I’m also grateful to John Diliberto and Kimberly Haas, who assisted with background information resulting in one of my favorite chapters in the book.
Special thanks go to Detective Rick Jackson, LAPD, Robbery-Homicide Division, Art Belanger, Pathologist Assistant, Yale University School of Medicine, and Don Widdoes, for their valuable knowledge, experience and attention to detail. Any technical deviation in the book is my responsibility alone.
Further thanks go to Neil Oxman for his good advice, and Sharon Pinkenson and Peter Leokum, who opened the gates to the city; all those who helped out at the district attorney’s office, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Prison System, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Thanks also go to my agent, Frank Weimann, my publisher, Laurie Parken, and everyone who makes up the team at Kensington. Thanks for your enthusiasm and guidance, and for giving me this special opportunity.
I’d also like to thank the booksellers I’ve met over the past year with the publication of my first novel,
Access to Power
. Words can’t describe how grateful I am for your effort and support, but also for your great feedback and introducing me to readers.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank Mark Moskowitz, Thomas “Doc” Sweitzer, Karim Olaechea, David Marks, John W. Nelson, Ray Noll, Adrianne Carageorge, Lisa Cabanel, Bill Wachob, Deborah Conway, Olivia and Louie, my mother, Constance, my brother, Peter, Sharon and Nelson Rising, and Christopher, Cori and Matthew Rising, for their unyielding support and goodwill.
The events in this story are real, and in some places happen every day. Still, this is a mystery/thriller, not a manual. Given the choice between fact or fiction, the story always won out. That’s why the word
is printed on the spine of this book. If you’ve done any research, then you know this is particularly true of the setting. Of all the cities that could have been chosen, Philadelphia is perhaps the least likely place this story could have occurred. Yet the style of the city, its relationship with art and history and its European feel, made it the only place I considered. When the story jumped out at me, I thought we could have some fun with it, get scared, check beneath our beds at night, and be happy together the next day. I hope you agree.
A snake coiled in its wisdom strikes
spitting on my skin a third eye
showering my body with sparks
I listen to the silence between breaths
I speak to the silence after the breath
I am the silence before the breath
and then we move together
in jeweled conversation....
She liked the way her hair looked. Her eyes. She crossed the room to the full-length mirror on the closet door and struck a pose. Shifting her weight, she turned. The nightgown was the color of falling snow and almost perfectly transparent. She liked the warm tone of her skin underneath. The way her breasts seem to bob with the slightest move. It had been exactly the right choice.
Darlene had purchased the baby doll nightgown with matching G-string at the Victoria’s Secret website on the Internet using her mother’s credit card. She knew her mother would never notice. Christmas was less than ten days off. There would be a lot of gifts bought with that credit card. Some even from the same store.
She glanced at the clock. Lunchtime wouldn’t be for another two hours, yet she was already hungry. She lifted her arms in the air, letting out a yawn as she stretched. Then she walked out of her bedroom leaving her clothes on the chair. She had the place to herself and didn’t have to worry about privacy. Her parents were at their second home in the Poconos, on vacation until New Year’s Day with her younger brother and sister. Darlene would be driving up to join them tomorrow afternoon, her skis waxed and ready. But there was a lot to do before then.
She was throwing a party tonight, and had to get the house ready.
Her boyfriend, Russ, had purchased a keg of beer with the help of his older brother who was home from college and of legal age. They had set it up earlier that morning on the rear terrace off the kitchen and dining room, packed in snow so the brew would be ice-cold. After the party, Russ said he would help clean up so her parents wouldn’t notice, maybe even stay over the whole night. That’s where the baby doll nightgown came in. They’d been doing it since last summer, but had never spent an entire night together. She wanted to sleep with Russ and wake up with him. She wanted him in the morning.
Darlene walked downstairs, turned the foyer light on, and stepped into the kitchen. She poured a glass of cold spring water from the five-gallon dispenser in the pantry and crossed the room to sip it by the window. The sun had vanished and it was gray outside, the jittery movement of the black clouds overhead visible even at a glance. If it snowed again, the night might be a bust. She flipped the radio on, switched it to AM, and found KYW, hoping for a weather report on the news station. As she waited, she returned to the window and looked out at the terrace. There was a squirrel on the keg, sitting on his hind legs and eating nuts. From the pile of discarded shells littering the snow, it seemed as if the squirrel had been at it for some time. Darlene tapped on the window. The squirrel turned to look at her without much interest. She knocked on the window pane again and made a face, but the stupid squirrel wouldn’t budge. When she shook her fist, the squirrel began shredding through his pile of nuts at a faster clip, making the mess even bigger with his sharp teeth.
She turned away and shook her head. There was a story on the radio, a live simulcast from the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia and the law school at the University of Pennsylvania. It didn’t sound like they would be getting to the weather anytime soon. The district attorney was in hot water with the press for something he’d done in the past. What else was new? Darlene found the story so boring, she couldn’t take it anymore and switched the radio off.
That’s when she heard it. The noise at the front door.
She looked at the clock, guessing it was the mailman. That weird geek who couldn’t keep his eyes off her when she teased him. Although she found the man way past disgusting, for some reason Darlene couldn’t explain, she loved teasing him. She liked the feeling she got when his eyes lingered over her body. Last summer he had walked a package to the back of the house while she was sunbathing by the pool. When he spotted her, he became shy and nervous and tried not to look at her as if he were a little boy again. He was fighting it but stealing peeks through his eyelids and losing the war. That’s when she realized her power. Ever since, she noticed he no longer presorted her family’s mail. Instead, he’d walk from his Jeep to the front steps, casually peeking through the lace curtains on the door as he went through the letters and magazines in his bag and carefully placed them in the letterbox.
Darlene remembered what she was wearing and smiled as she gazed at her body through the sheer nightgown. Her smile widened as an idea formed. Why go through the effort of stuffing the mail in the letterbox when he could simply hand it to her? Outrageous, maybe. Thrilling, yes. Besides, catalogs were still coming and there were all those Christmas cards. She’d be doing the big slob a favor.
She placed the glass in the sink and walked out of the kitchen, following the foyer around the corner until she could see the front door. It was made of heavy oak, the curtains her grandmother had sewn, loosely drawn over the glass. Looking through the opaque cloth, Darlene could almost make out his figure. He seemed to be sorting through his bag, taking his time, not facing the mailbox but the door.
She smiled and moved closer, her bare feet feeling the chill of the hardwood floors until she reached the oriental carpet directly in front of the door. As she wrapped her fingers around the handle, she caught a glimpse of herself in the foyer mirror. She felt her heart pounding and tried to get rid of that naughty smile. She looked perfect, she decided, ready to give this guy a thrill he could take back to the post office and mail. Then she flipped the lock over and swung open the door....
Teddy Mack finished the first half of his chicken salad sandwich and took a sip of tea. The hot brew warmed his stomach, but wasn’t doing much for his feet. He was sitting at the counter of a lunch stand set up like a diner—just one booth among fifty or so in the heart of Reading Terminal Market. At one time, the place had been a train station. Now it was a farmer’s market in the heart of Center City with fresh fruits and vegetables, butchers and bakers, and various lunch counters where you could taste the delicacies from almost any country in the world for not more than five bucks or so. Teddy loved the smell of the place, the ambient sounds of the people crowded into the long, narrow aisles moving from one booth to the next.
Today he’d picked the diner for a far more practical reason. Two months ago an ATM machine had been installed on the wall at the end of the counter. Teddy only had twenty minutes before he had to get back to City Hall. It wasn’t more than a two-block walk, but the day had turned cold and dark, and the weather forecasters were calling for more snow.
Teddy knew that his future at the law firm of Barnett & Stokes could very well be determined by what happened after lunch at City Hall. In twenty minutes he would be meeting with Judge Roland Brey, along with the attorneys representing Capital Insurance Life. It was a small case, but it was also Teddy’s first case handled entirely on his own. Teddy had graduated from Penn Law and passed the bar just three months ago. But what made the case important was that it had been handed to him by Jim Barnett himself, as a favor to one of the firm’s biggest corporate clients. Teddy knew he had been given the assignment because expectations for success were low. For Teddy to win, Judge Brey would be required to break new ground. It didn’t take experience to understand that judges rarely liked to break new ground. Teddy also knew that no one else in the firm wanted to get involved because it amounted to a personal injury case. Barnett & Stokes represented thirty-five of the fifty richest corporations in the tristate area. PI cases were held at arm’s length. At best, they were quietly farmed out to one of three firms in the city who didn’t advertise their services on the side of a bus.