A trail of bodies... a cunning killer... a weaponless crime
(read or print)
The first time I met Karen Nichols, she struck me as the kind of woman who ironed her socks.
She was blond and petite and stepped out of a kelly-green 1998 VW Bug as Bubba and I crossed the avenue toward St. Bartholemew's Church with our morning coffee in hand. It was February, but winter had forgotten to show up that year. Except for one snowstorm and a few days in the subzeros, it had been damn near balmy. Today it was in the high forties, and it was only ten in the morning. Say all you want about global warming, but as long as it saves me from shoveling the walk, I'm for it.
Karen Nichols placed a hand over her eyebrows, even though the morning sun wasn't all that strong, and smiled uncertainly at me.
I gave her my eats-his-veggies-loves-his-mom smile and proffered my hand. "Miss Nichols?"
She laughed for some reason. "Karen, yes. I'm early."
Her hand slid into mine and felt so smooth and uncallused it could have been gloved. "Call me Patrick. That's Mr. Rogowski."
Bubba grunted and slugged his coffee.
Karen Nichols's hand dropped from mine and she jerked back slightly, as if afraid she'd have to extend her hand to Bubba. Afraid if she did, she might not get it back.
She wore a brown suede jacket that fell to midthigh over a charcoal cable-knit crewneck, crisp blue jeans and bright white Reeboks. None of her apparel looked as if a wrinkle, stain, or wisp of dust had been within a country mile of it.
She placed delicate fingers on her smooth neck. "A couple of real PIs. Wow." Her soft blue eyes crinkled with her button nose and she laughed again.
"I'm the PI," I said. "He's just slumming."
Bubba grunted again and kicked me in the ass.
"Down, boy," I said. "Heel."
Bubba sipped some coffee.
Karen Nichols looked as if she'd made a mistake coming here. I decided then not to lead her up to my belfry office. If people were uncertain about hiring me, taking them to the belfry usually wasn't good PR.
School was out because it was Saturday, and the air was moist and without a chill, so Karen Nichols, Bubba, and I walked to a bench in the schoolyard. I sat down. Karen Nichols used an immaculate white handkerchief to dust the surface, then she sat down. Bubba frowned at the lack of space on the bench, frowned at me, then sat on the ground in front of us, crossed his legs, peered up expectantly.
"Good doggie," I said.
Bubba gave me a look that said I'd pay for that as soon as we were away from polite company.
"Miss Nichols," I said, "how did you hear about me?"
She tore her gaze away from Bubba and looked into my eyes for a moment in utter confusion. Her blond hair was cut as short as a small boy's and reminded me of pictures I've seen of women in Berlin in the 1920s. It was sculpted tight against the skull with gel, and even though it wouldn't be moving on its own unless she stepped into the wake of a jet engine, she'd clipped it over her left ear, just below the part, with a small black barrette that had a June bug painted on it.
Her wide blue eyes cleared and she made that short, nervous laugh again. "My boyfriend."
"And his name is..." I said, guessing Tad or Ty or Hunter.
So much for my psychic abilities.
"I'm afraid I've never heard of him."
"He met someone who used to work with you. A woman?"
Bubba raised his head, glared at me. Bubba blamed me for Angie ending our partnership, for Angie moving out of the neighborhood, buying a Honda, dressing in Anne Klein suits, and generally not hanging out with us anymore.
"Angela Gennaro?" I asked Karen Nichols.
She smiled. "Yes. That's her name."
Bubba grunted again. Pretty soon he'd start howling at the moon.
"And why do you need a private detective, Miss Nichols?"
"Karen." She turned on the bench toward me, tucked an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear.
"Karen. Why do you need a detective?"
A sad, crumpled smile bent her pursed lips and she looked down at her knees for a moment. "There's a guy at the gym I go to?"
She swallowed. I guess she'd been hoping I'd figure it all out from that one sentence. I was certain she was about to tell me something unpleasant and even more certain that she had, at best, only a very passing acquaintance with things unpleasant.
"He's been hitting on me, following me to the parking lot. At first, it was just, you know, annoying?" She raised her head, searched my eyes for understanding. "Then, it got uglier. He began calling me at home. I went out of my way to avoid him at the gym, but a couple of times I saw him parked out in front of the house. David finally got fed up and went to talk to him. He denied it all and then he threatened David." She blinked, twisted the fingers of her left hand in the fist she'd made of her right.
"David's not physically... formidable? Is that the right word?"
"So, Cody -- that's his name, Cody Falk -- he laughed at David and called me the same night."
Cody. I hated him already on general principle.
"He called and told me how much he knew I wanted it, how I'd probably
never had a good, a good --"
"Fuck," Bubba said.
She jerked a little, glanced at him, and then quickly back to me. "Yeah. A good, well... in my life. And he knew I secretly wanted him to give me one. I left this note on his car, I know it was stupid, but l...well, I left it."
She reached into her purse, extracted a wrinkled piece of purple notepaper. In perfect Palmer script, she'd written:
Please leave me alone.
The next time I went to the gym," she said, "I came back to my car, and he'd put it back on my windshield in the same place I'd left it on his. If you turn it over, Mr. Kenzie, you'll see what he wrote." She pointed at the paper in my hand.
I turned it over. On the reverse side, Cody Falk had written a single word:
I was really starting to dislike this prick.
"Then yesterday?" Her eyes filled and she swallowed several times and a thick tremor pulsed in the center of her soft, white throat.
I placed a hand on hers and she curled her fingers into it.
"What did he do?" I said.
She sucked a breath into her mouth and I heard it rattle wetly against the back of her throat. "He vandalized my car."
Bubba and I both did a double take, looked out at the gleaming green VW Bug parked by the schoolyard gate. It looked as if It had just been driven off the lot, still probably had that new car-smell inside.
"That car?," I said.
"What?," She followed my gaze. "Oh, no, no. That's David's car."
"A guy?" Bubba said. "A guy drives that car?"
I shook my head at him.
Bubba scowled, then looked down at his combat boots and pulled them
up on his knees.
Karen shook her head as if to clear it. "I drive a Corolla. I wanted the Camry, but we couldn't afford it. David's starting a new business, we both have student loans we're still paying off so I got the Corolla. And now it's ruined. He poured acid all over it. He punctured the radiator. The mechanic said he poured syrup into the engine."
"Did you tell the police?"
She nodded, her small body trembling. "There's no proof it was him. He told the police he was at a movie that night and people saw him going in and leaving. He..." Her face caved in on itself and reddened. "They can't touch him, and the insurance company won't cover the damages."
Bubba raised his head, cocked it at me.
"Why not?" I said.
"Because they never got my last payment. And I... I sent it. I sent it out over three weeks ago. They said they sent a notice, but I never got it. And, and..." She lowered her head and tears fell to her knees.
She had a stuffed animal collection, I was pretty sure. Her totaled Corolla had either a smiley face or a Jesus fish affixed to the bumper. She read John Grisham novels, listened to soft rock, loved going to bridal showers and had never seen a Spike Lee movie.
She had never expected anything like this to happen in her life.
"Karen," I said softly, "what's the name of your insurance company?"
She raised her head, wiped her tears with the back of her hand. "State Mutual."
"And the post office branch you sent the check through?"
"Well, I live in Newton Upper Falls," she said, "but I'm not sure. My boyfriend?" She looked down at her spotless white sneakers, as if abashed. "He lives in Back Bay and I'm over there a lot."
She said it as if it were a sin, and I found myself wondering where they grew people like her, and if there was a seed, and how I could get my hands on it if I ever had a daughter.
"Have you ever been late on a payment before?"
She shook her head. "Never."
"How long have you been insured there?"
"Since I graduated college. Five years.
"Where's Cody Falk live?"
She patted her eyes with the heels of her hand to make sure the tears were dry. She wore no makeup, so nothing had run. She was as blandly beautiful as any woman in a Noxzema ad.
"I don't know. But he's at the gym every night at seven.
"The Mount Auburn Club in Watertown." She bit down on her lower lip, then tried for that Ivory Snow smile of hers. "I feel so ridiculous."
"Miss Nichols," I said, "you're not supposed to deal with people like Cody Falk. Do you understand that? No one is. He's just a bad person and you didn't do anything to cause this. He did."
"Yeah?" She managed to get a full smile out, but fear and confusion still swam in her eyes.
"Yeah. He's the bad guy. He likes making people afraid."
"He does." She nodded. "You see it in his eyes? The more uncomfortable he made me feel in the parking lot one night, the more he seemed to enjoy it."
Bubba chuckled. "You wanna talk uncomfortable? Just wait till we visit
Karen Nichols looked at Bubba and for just a moment I could see she seemed to pity Cody Falk.
In my office, I placed a call to my attorney, Cheswick Hartman.
Karen Nichols had driven off in her boyfriend's VW. I'd instructed her to drive straight to her insurance company and drop off a replacement check. When she said they wouldn't honor the claim, I assured her they would by the time she got there. She wondered aloud if she could pay my fee and I told her if she could afford one day, she'd be fine, because that's all this would take.
"One day," I said.
"But what about Cody?"
"You'll never hear from Cody again." I closed her car door, and she drove off, giving me a little wave as she reached the first traffic light.
"Look up 'cute' in the dictionary," I said to Bubba as we sat in my office. "See if Karen Nichols's picture is beside the definition."
Bubba looked at the small stack of books on my windowsill. "How do I tell which one's the dictionary?"
Cheswick came on the line and I told him about Karen Nichols's trouble with her insurance claim.
"No missed payments?"
"No problem. You said it's a Corolla?"
"What's that, a twenty-five-thousand-dollar car?"
"More like fourteen."
Cheswick chuckled. "Cars really go that cheap?" Cheswick owned a Bentley, a Mercedes V10, and two Range Rovers that I knew of. When he wanted to be one with the common folk, he drove a Lexus.
"They'll pay the claim," he said.
"They said they wouldn't," I said, just to get a rise out of him.
"And go up against me? I hang up the phone without satisfaction, they'll know they're already fifty thousand in the hole. They'll pay," he repeated.
When I hung up, Bubba said, "What'd he say?"
"He said they'll pay."
He nodded. "So will Cody, dude. So will Cody."
Bubba went back to his warehouse for a while to clear up some business, and I called Devin Amronklin, a homicide cop who's one of the few cops left in this city who will talk to me anymore.
"Say it like you mean it, baby."
"Hey-hey. If it ain't numero uno persona non grata with the Boston Police Department. Been pulled over recently?"
"Don't. You'd be amazed what some guys here want to find in your
I closed my eyes for a moment. Being at the top of the police department's shit list was not where I'd planned to be at this point in my life.
"You can't be too popular," I said. "You're the one who put the cuffs on a fellow cop."
"Nobody's ever liked me," Devin said, "but most of them are scared of me, so that's just as good. You, on the other hand, are a renowned cream puff."
"I need a check on a Cody Falk. Priors, anything to do with stalking."
"And I get what for this?"
"One of my nieces," he said, "wants the entire Beanie Babies collection for her birthday."
"And you don't want to go into a toy store."
"And I'm still paying serious child support for a kid who won't talk to me."
"So you want me to purchase said Beanie Babies, as well."
"Ten should do."
"Ten?" I said. "You've gotta be --"
"Falk with an 'F'?"
"As in flimflam," I said and hung up.
Devin called back in an hour and told me to bring the Beanie Babies by his apartment the next night.
"Cody Falk, age thirty-three. No convictions."
"However," Devin said, "arrested once for violating a restraining order against one Bronwyn Blythe. Charges dropped. Arrested for assault of Sara Little. Charges dropped when Miss Little refused to testify and moved out of state. Named as a suspect in the rape of one Anne Bernstein, brought in for questioning. Charges never filed because Miss Bernstein refused to swear out a complaint, submit to a rape examination, or identify her attacker."
"Sounds like a peach, yeah."
"Except that he has a juvenile record, but it's been sealed."
"He bothering somebody again?"
"Maybe," I said carefully.
"Wear gloves," Devin said and hung up.
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