Character(s): Nick, Natalie, Schanke, Jenny Schanke
Prompt: A complicated police plot, with a touch of the vampire on the side (but not part of the murder mystery).
Word Count: 9,103
Beta: bethynyc, with her usual grace and efficiency.
Author's Notes: See end.
Summary: One of Jenny Schanke's classmates drowns during a class outing.
"I hate the kids," Natalie Lambert said. She straightened from her crouch, nodding at the officers waiting to bundle the pathetic little body into the ambulance and begin its journey to the morgue. She sighed and made a notation on her clipboard, glancing at the detective next to her as she did. "How's Jenny holding up?"
He shrugged. "How many thirteen-year-olds do you know who could start CPR on a classmate and keep it up until the paramedics arrived? Schank's taking her home; Captain said he could take her statement there, even though it's a little irregular."
"He's a good man," Natalie said.
Detective Nicholas Knight -- born Nicolas de Brabant some eight hundred years ago -- glanced at her. "Which one?"
Natalie smiled. "Both of them. Captain Stonetree is the sort of person who'd give you the shirt off his back if he liked you. Schanke might not give up his last doughnut for a person, but his shirt? Probably."
Nick snorted. "Except that no one would want to wear one of Schanke's shirts."
"Point," Natalie conceded, thinking of one shirt she'd seen Schanke wearing fairly often of late, a harvest-gold number that he usually paired with an extremely hideous brown and orange tie.
"What were those kids doing out here at this hour?"
"Astronomy class," Nat answered absently, making more notations on her clipboard. "They come out once a month when the sky's clear. Parents have to sign a waiver for their kids to participate. Schanke can tell you all about it, I'm sure."
Nick frowned. "Once a month? So they're pretty familiar with the park? Did you note anything irregular about the body, Nat?"
"You mean other than a child being dead?" She shook her head. "Sorry, Nick. I did mention that I hate the kids. To answer your question, not really. There's some bruising on the face, but that could have happened against the pilings of the dock. Why? Are you thinking this was more than an accident?"
"It just seems a little unusual that the girl would run off and then fall in the lake in a park she visited so often." He shrugged. "I can send the kids home, then?"
She nodded and glanced over at the students huddled around their teacher like goslings around a mother-goose beyond the perimeter delineated by the lights and crime scene tape. "I wouldn't want to be Mr. Frost when Kelly's parents are notified."
Nick shrugged again. "He was in charge of their safety, Nat. He deserves some hard questioning for letting one of his students wander off and drown."
"Aw, Nick. Look at him." Albert Frost was nearing retirement age and clearly in shock, even though he was attempting to comfort his students. He flinched when the ambulance containing Kelly's body drove by, even though they weren't using the lights and siren -- no need for them, with the patient already dead. "Nothing bad has ever happened to that man in his entire life, and now he's responsible for the death of a student. Think how he must feel."
The look Nick gave her was flavored with the weight of centuries. "Nat, what makes you think I don't know how he feels?"
Nick was at his desk, reviewing student statements when his partner returned to the station.
"Man, oh man, can you believe this?" Schanke asked as he slid into his chair. "Myra is freaking out over this."
Schanke shrugged. "She's a tough cookie like her old man. She was already complaining about Myra fussing over her when I left."
"So what happened?"
"Well, Myra was trying to get her to drink hot chocolate in bed," Schanke said. "You can imagine how well that went down. At least she wasn't trying tea. Myra's whole family has this thing about tea--"
"I meant at the park, Schank."
"Oh, yeah, the park. Well, Jenny says that Kelly and her partner were arguing about something and Kelly ran off. When Mr. Frost asked what was going on, Maria -- that's the partner -- said they'd had a fight and she'd go apologize and bring Kelly back. She ran off before Mr. Frost could stop her, so he called the bus driver over to watch the rest of the kids and went out to find Kelly himself."
"So how did Jenny end up finding the body, then?"
"Poor old Snowman couldn't find either girl, so he came back to recruit help. He paired the kids off and sent the bus driver back to the bus for their mobile phone."
"Yeah, you know. Frosty the Snowman? That's what the kids call him."
"Then what happened?"
Schanke shrugged. "Jenny and her partner were down near the shore, and thought they heard a noise, so the partner tore off yelling for Mr. Frost, and that's when Jenny spotted Kelly floating in the water. Pretty good," he added proudly. "Instead of panicking, she hauled Kelly out and started CPR. Pity it was too late for the kid."
"Where did they find the partner?"
"Oh, wandering around in the park. When they told her about Kelly, she started crying. 'I was down by the lake,' she said, 'I didn't see her!' Poor kid. She's new at the school, and you know what kids are like. After this, she won't have any friends for the rest of her academic career."
The phone rang just then; Nick picked it up. "Yeah, Knight."
"Nick, it's Nat. Can you come over here, please?"
Nick glanced at Schanke. "Sure, Nat. We can be there in a few minutes." He hung up. "C'mon, Schank. Nat's got something."
Nick and Schanke walked into the morgue's examining room, the latter wrinkling his nose at the sharp tang of antiseptic that did little to cover the scent of formaldehyde. The body of Kelly McCormick still lay on the table, shrouded in a lab sheet that matched the green of the wall tiles. Natalie sat at her desk, intent on her compuer. "Ah, there you are," she said when she became aware of their presence. She got up from her desk and crooked a finger. "Take a look at this."
She peeled back the sheet and exposed Kelly's face. Under the bright fluorescent lights, the bruising on the girl's face resolved into a pattern: the tread from athletic shoes. Nick went still; Schanke whistled.
"Those weren't made by the dock pilings," Nick said.
"Gentleman, I believe we'll be upgrading this evening's accident to murder," Nat announced. "Kelly did drown, but not by accident. Someone kicked her in the face. And look here." She pulled the sheet aside and lifted the girl's hand. Her fingernails were cracked and broken. "I pulled dark fibers from under her nails; denim, I'll bet. I think someone was holding her under the water and when she continued to struggle, kicked her in the face."
What she had said jibed with what Jenny Schanke had reported; she'd had a fight with Kelly who had run off into the park and she'd gone after her to find her and apologize. And she felt rotten for having gone in the wrong direction, but they'd been told to stay away from the lake, so she hadn't thought that Kelly would run that way.
He was staring into space, considering what he'd read when an officer informed him that the victim's parents had arrived. Schanke had gone home for the night, so it was up to him to interview them. "Thanks, Andy. I'll be with them in a moment." He picked up the phone and made a quick call. "Hey, Nat. Have the McCormicks ID'ed the body?"
"Yeah, Nick. And there's a problem. Apparently, there is a very valuable necklace missing. But I'm sure they'll mention it."
"A motive?" Nick asked.
"I leave that to you, Detective," Nat said. "Bye."
At this time of night, the McCormicks were the only people in the waiting area. Peter McCormick was tall and well-built, wearing jeans and a Maple Leafs sweatshirt, his face set in grim lines. Nick could see Kelly in her mother Angela's features and dark hair. They looked up when he called their names; Angela's eyes were red and swollen. He showed them into an interview room.
He introduced himself. "I won't keep you very long, Mr. and Mrs. McCormick," he added. "I just need to ask a few preliminary questions."
"We understand," Mr. McCormick said with a swift glance at his wife.
Nick went through a list of standard questions with the distraught couple, but turned up nothing useful. No, they hadn't noticed anything unusual. No, Kelly hadn't been in any fights at school. No, she was well-liked. No, she never had any trouble with any of her teachers. Yes, she was a good swimmer; she'd been going to try out for the swim team next year. No, she knew better than to go near the lake after dark.
"What about Maria Clark? Kelly's astronomy partner. Were they friends?"
McCormick looked puzzled. "I don't know. I've never heard Kelly mention her before. Angie?"
Suddenly, Mrs. McCormick looked up, her expression fierce. "Someone murdered my daughter, Detective, and it wasn't a fourteen-year-old girl; she's just lucky she wasn't killed, too! Why are you sitting here questioning us? We weren't anywhere near there! Why don't you ask Albert Frost what the hell he was doing while our daughter was being murdered right under his nose? He was supposed to protect her! And while you're at it, find out what happened to her necklace!"
Peter McCormick laid a comforting hand on his wife's shoulder. "Angie, please. The detective needs to ask these things." The woman looked at her husband and subsided back into the chair from which she had half-risen. Her face crumpled, but she did not cry.
"Necklace?" Nick asked quietly, directing the question at McCormick. No point letting them know he was already aware of the necklace.
McCormick nodded. "It's a family heirloom of sorts; not particularly valuable, but unusual; Kelly's grandmother had it from her mother when she was a girl and she gave it to Kelly. It was a gold sundisk with a crystal in the center. Kelly loved it and rarely went anywhere without it. It wasn't amongst her effects." His voice broke on the last word, but he caught himself. "We had just had it put on a new chain because the old one broke, so it's not likely to have fallen off on its own, Detective."
Nick nodded. "All right. I think that's enough for tonight; if we have any further questions, my partner, Detective Schanke will call you tomorrow."
Peter McCormick nodded, shook hands with Nick, and then led his wife from the room. Nick sat for a moment, turning over what they had told him in his mind, but nothing added up and no one was going to like the logical path down which his thoughts were leading him. He glanced at the clock; too late for interviewing anyone else tonight on just vague suspicions. He shoved himself away from the table and headed back to his desk, then changed direction and knocked on Captain Stonetree's door.
"Oh, Nick. Come in. Did I just see you with the drowning victim's parents?"
"Yeah, Captain. Listen, Mrs. McCormick was pretty upset, for obvious reasons, but she said that Kelly was missing a necklace, a family heirloom. Mr. McCormick said they had just had the pendant put on a new chain."
"Motive for murder?" Stonetree asked.
Nick nodded. "Possibly. But...." His voice trailed off; he knew that what he had to say next was not going to be popular with the captain and while he was willing to play his hunches and fight for what he knew was the right course of action, something like this had to be proposed delicately, because people in this day and age -- even cops -- weren't used to the kind of savagery that he had been witness to through the centuries. But Stonetree surprised him.
"You think one of the kids did it."
"I think it might be a possibility. No random thief in the park is likely to have seen the necklace at that time of night, and no one would follow a busload of kids just to see if one of them wandered off while wearing a valuable trinket. But if Kelly was as proud of that necklace as the McCormicks seem to think, then I'm betting that every student in the park this evening knew she was wearing it."
"What are you suggesting?"
"A locker search at the school. We can use some other pretext if you like, say a random drug search, or even a bomb threat. We don't even have to search every locker, just those of the astronomy students. But don't announce it until after school has already started, or we won't find anything."
Stonetree shook his head. "You really think a kid did this?"
Nick shrugged. "Kids can be really cruel, Captain, and kids are smart. As we get older, we forget how smart and lawless we were as kids. And it's entirely possible that the murder and the necklace are unrelated; I'll also be checking with some folks I know who spend a lot of time in the park to see if they noticed anything unusual."
Stonetree nodded; he was aware of the nature of Nick's contacts. "All right. I'll have Schanke see to the search tomorrow."
Jenny Schanke hated gym days. She had to admit that she loved playing the games: basketball, softball, soccer, the occasional games of dodgeball with the boys. She loved the fierce competitiveness. Of course, it helped that she was never the last person left standing when teams were chosen. But she hated having to change into her gym clothes in the open locker rooms with all the other girls; she hated the enforced calisthenics and running of laps; she hated that she actually got graded on how well she could do a push-up. And she really didn't like Miss Taylor, the girls' gym teacher. Miss Taylor was actually pretty young for a teacher, but she was a strict disciplinarian who would give detention at the drop of a hat, for no other reason than showing up on the gym floor with no scrunchy to tie back long hair -- and she insisted that long hair be tied back out of the way during class. Jenny had received detention a time or two for stupid little things like that. And Miss Taylor always seemed to have business in the locker rooms when the girls were changing or showering. It was just creepy, the way she seemed to be always there, watching.
So Jenny changed into her t-shirt and gym shorts as quickly as possible when Miss Taylor's back was turned, and was bent over tying her sneakers when she heard Maria's voice.
"Miss Taylor? I don't have my gym shoes. I couldn't find them this morning."
The teacher looked down her nose at Maria as Jenny glanced up curiously. "Couldn't find them? Didn't bother to try, more like. Detention, Miss Clark. This afternoon."
"But Miss Taylor, I can't stay for detention today, I have to get right home," Maria protested. "Could I do it tomorrow?"
Jenny winced. Oh, that was definitely not going to fly with Miss Taylor.
The teacher smiled grimly. "Of course you can do detention tomorrow," she said sweetly. "In addition to tonight." She poked her finger into Maria's chest. "And next time, don't 'lose' your gym shoes."
Maria stared after the teacher, an expression of utter loathing on her face. Jenny looked quickly away; she didn't want to be caught watching, especially as Maria had rebuffed her efforts to make friends when Maria had started at WPH. She remembered Maria's shoes from the last gym class; they'd been gleaming white with newness and very expensive. And Maria'd lost them? Jenny could just hear what her father would have to say if she told him she'd lost a pair of brand new shoes.
"Hey, Jenny," Ellen Brown shouted across the locker room, "your dad's a cop, right?"
"What's this about locker searches?"
"I dunno -- what're you talking about?"
"The cops are searching lockers." Ellen glared at her.
"Hey, it's hardly my fault." Jenny glared right back. Ellen Brown didn't bother her. "My dad doesn't tell me how he's going to spend his days. Besides, what are you worried about? Afraid someone's going to see your fluffy stuffed animal collection?"
Jenny was spared Ellen's reply by Miss Taylor shouting down the stairs for the class to get a move on it. As she closed her gym locker, she realized that Maria had disappeared.
James Peter Sullivan clocked into his job at noon on the dot. Unlike the cafeteria staff, who had to be in first thing in the morning to get started on lunch, the janitorial staff came in at noon and worked until nine o'clock. Moving slowly -- his arthritis was acting up today; weather was going to change -- Sully got his cart and headed up to the gym locker rooms. Three periods in the middle of the day were devoted to rotating the students through the cafeteria for lunches, and no gym classes were scheduled during those times. So Sully's first task was to straighten up the locker rooms and make sure the soap and toilet paper dispensers were full and that there were plenty of clean towels.
He'd start with the girls' locker room, then do the boys' before heading up to the cafeteria to help clean up after lunch. He knocked firmly on the locker room door -- just in case -- then reached over his cart and turned the doorknob, pushing through with his cart. Whistling, he set about his work.
He emptied the garbage cans into the larger bin on his cart, refilled all the dispensers and laid fresh towels on the counter where the girls could grab them before going into the shower. Some girls, he knew, brought their own towels, but many used the school ones. He was glad he'd convinced the powers that be to get towels in the school's colors of green and gold instead of plain white ones which would have quickly turned grey with use and frequent washing.
As he was turning his cart to leave, he caught a fleeting glimpse of a student hurrying out the door. He was surprised that she hadn't answered when he knocked; he hoped he hadn't frightened the poor thing; his granddaughters were about the same age as the students here. Unfortunately, they lived in Winnipeg, so he rarely saw them and he missed them. He tended, therefore, to take a grandfatherly interest in the students here, and he'd be mortified to have frightened one of them. Ah, well. Nothing he could do about it now, he hadn't even really seen whether it had been a boy or a girl. He certainly hoped it hadn't been some boy up to no good in the girls' locker room. If so, his presence had probably put paid to some silly prank. He shook his head good-naturedly and continued on to his next task.
It was between classes, on her way from history to math, that Jenny was mortified to run into her father in the hall. He was standing in front of a locker and the uniformed cop with him was going through it. He'd already caught sight of her; it was too late to back up and go the long way around.
"Hey, Jenny! Come give your old man a hug!" he shouted, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall.
And he was. People stopped and stared and the whispering started. The locker search would be all her fault tomorrow. First finding a dead body, now this. She sighed and shuffled into his embrace. "Hi, Dad," she muttered.
"What, not happy to see me? You're not afraid of what all your little friends are going to think, are you?" He glared at the kids in the hallway. "Go on; nothing to see here."
Jenny rolled her eyes. "Dad, I have to get to class."
"Oh, right. See you later, kiddo."
As she turned away, she caught the uniform's commiserating wink.
Math class dragged on and on and on; Jenny glanced at the clock and sighed. Only five more minutes until the bell. She wondered if her father would be waiting to drive her home instead of letting her catch the bus; she'd have to remind him that tryouts for the softball team were after school. Knowing her dad, he'd want to stick around to watch, but hopefully, he'd have to get back to the station.
The bell sounded at last, accompanied by the sound of books being none too subtly closed and stuffed into bookbags. There was a scramble for the door and the day was over at last.
Sully wheeled his cart down the grey concrete corridor to the maintenance section. Students were not allowed down there, which implied that neither parents nor teachers would ever see those hallways, either, and so they were painted a flat grey: floors, walls, pipe- and electrical-conduit-festooned ceilings and all. Some people would find it dull and spirit-sucking. Sully, who tended toward a more cheerful outlook found it a bit soothing after the bright primary colors in other sections of the school.
He'd have to do a second cleaning of the girls' locker room later, after softball practice. Given the sour disposition of Miss Taylor, the girls' gym teacher, he was surprised that so many girls were interested in playing on the team. But perhaps Miss Taylor was less strict outside the gym. He'd empty his bin and sort things for the incinerator, take a bit of a break and by that time, the girls ought to be done.
Sully had two bins on his cart. One held non-recyclables destined for the incinerator. The other held papers destined for shredding and recycling. When he pulled it from the cart, the paper bin was heavier than it ought to be. Puzzled, he dumped it out carefully on a big steel table. A pair of bright, brand new gym shoes thumped onto the table one after the other.
Sully shook his head. Kids. No idea of value. Why, those shoes probably cost half his weekly salary. On the other hand, could be someone playing a prank just because they were such expensive shoes; maybe that's what the kid in the locker room had been up to. Ah, well. He'd give them to Miss Taylor when he went back upstairs to clean.
Nick stared at the beautiful goblet in the center of the table, watching as light glanced off the heavy crystal facets. He had paid quite a lot for it, quite a long time ago. He had once drunk blood from its elegant bowl. No more, though. Now, it contained a gloppy fluid rather resembling quicksand. Nick suspected that it probably tasted like quicksand, too. And he had, in fact, tasted it once or twice through the centuries.
His phone rang; as always, he let the answering machine get the call.
"Hey, Knight! Wakey, wakey," Schanke's voice emanated from the speaker. "We've got more bodies. I'll meet you at the coroner's office."
"Saved by the bell," Nick muttered, unceremoniously dumping the protein shake into the sink and rinsing the goblet before padding upstairs to change.
There were two gurneys sitting in the center of Natalie's examining room when Nick got there, both occupied by black body bags. Schanke stood in a corner, his expression unwontedly grim. Natalie was just zipping one of the bags.
"What's up?" Nick asked.
"There was a fire," Nat began, then looked over at Schanke.
"There was a fire early this evening at Jenny's school," Schanke answered. "Jenny had just left after softball tryouts. It was in the gym, Nick. She might have been there."
Nick looked quickly at Natalie, who frowned and nodded imperceptibly in Schanke's direction. I'll tell you later, her look said.
"But she wasn't," Nick said. "She's okay. Right?"
Schanke nodded absently. "Yeah. Yeah, she's okay."
"Why don't you go home, Schank," Nick suggested. "Spend some time with her, if that's what you want."
Schanke's gaze finally focused on Nick. "You're sure? You don't mind?"
"Go. It's only a couple of hours until your shift ends, anyway. Stonetree won't mind, and neither do I. Go."
Schanke didn't need to be told again. He went.
As the door closed behind him, Nick turned to Natalie. "What's going on?"
"Remember those marks on Kelly's face? The athletic shoe tread?" At Nick's nod, she indicated the nearer of the body bags. "That's a gym teacher, and that's one of the school's janitors. Miss Taylor, the gym teacher, likely died of smoke inhalation; the fire was set against her office door and it was barred to make sure she couldn't get out. Definitely murder there. The janitor is iffy; it looks like he fell down stairs trying to help the teacher. His neck was broken when he fell. He could have been pushed; he may have slipped. It might have been murder; it could have been an accident.
"Nick, it's a little beyond the bounds of coincidence that a student at Pratt High School drowned after being kicked in the face by athletic shoes and then a fire was set at the same school that killed a gym teacher, while a janitor just happened to also die the same night."
"What are you thinking, Nat?"
Nat hesitated, as if what she was going to suggest was too horrific to even contemplate. "Nick, what if the person who murdered Kelly and set the fire was a student?" When he failed to respond, she whispered. "You've already considered that." He nodded. "Oh, but, Nick! They're just children!" Her tone indicated that she wanted him to contradict her, but he couldn't.
"Even children can kill, Nat. Some of them are quite good at it."
Later, at his desk, Nick examined the crime scene photos. Nat had been right; the fire hadn't burned anything in Miss Taylor's office; the metal door had kept it at bay. The smoke filtering under the door, on the other hand, had been sufficient to kill the teacher. He looked through all the photos, then leafed through them again. Something in one caught his eye, and he got up from his desk and headed for his car.
Jennifer Schanke was not at home. Nor was she at the library where she'd told her mother she was going to be. No, Jenny Schanke was padding softly down a school corridor, her flashlight turned off. The power was off to the building because of the fire, so the emergency lights were on, providing plenty of illumination.
She shouldn't be here, she knew. She should've just told her dad what she suspected, but even though Don Schanke thought the world of his daughter, and knew her to be smart and tough, he still thought of her as a kid, and Jenny knew she wasn't a kid. So she decided that before she said anything to her dad, she'd better get proof to back up her suspicions.
It was crazy, but when she thought about it, it all added up in her head. First, Kelly and Maria had a fight during Astronomy Club. Jenny was pretty sure it had something to do with Kelly's fancy necklace; she'd heard Maria say something about borrowing it. And she knew that the necklace had disappeared because she'd checked to make sure it wasn't wrapped around Kelly's neck when she'd started CPR. And her dad had said something to her mom about shoe treads, and then Maria's brand new shoes had been missing today during gym class. And then there'd been a mysterious fire in the gym, and Miss Taylor and nice old Sully had died.
In Jenny's mind, it all pointed to one thing. So here she was creeping down the hallways of her school after dark, the smell of smoke sharp in her nostrils, a dark flashlight in her hand and a sturdy screwdriver in her pocket.
Lockers were assigned alphabetically by year, so Maria's was in the same third-floor corridor as Jenny's, about halfway up. Jenny noticed with a shiver that it was right in the middle of the pool of shadows where the light from the emergency packs attached high on the walls at the corridor's either end, didn't reach. She shivered, realizing for the first time what a dumb idea this was.
"Oh, Jenny, what are you doing?" she muttered, but she didn't back down. She had come this far in order to get proof for her father; she'd go all the way.
She had no idea what Maria's combination was, and she had no intention of trying to figure it out; that's what the screwdriver was for. The building was empty because of the fire, and she didn't think the janitors worked this late on a normal night anyway, so no one would hear her jimmying the lock. She set her flashlight -- one of the heavy Maglights that her dad insisted they have in the house because they were as useful as a weapon as they were as a light -- on the floor and put the flat tip of the screwdriver into the crack of the locker's door.
She was a bit surprised at how quickly she got the door open, but the school wasn't new and the lockers had been battered by many successive generations of kids. It practically popped open. She was lucky, in fact; some kids put padlocks on their lockers for extra security. Each of them had been pulled out of class to unlock their padlocks during the locker search earlier today.
Maria had disappeared from the locker room right after Ellen Brown complained about the locker searches. If there was anything -- like a fancy necklace -- in Maria's locker earlier today, it would have been easy enough for her to remove it and put it back after the search. And maybe there would be something else in there...say, bloody sneakers? But when she picked up her flashlight and shone it into the locker, there was nothing there. Nothing at all. No books, no snacks, no stinky gym clothes, no signs that the locker had been used all year.
Jenny shook her head and used a word that her parents -- well, her mother, anyway -- would be surprised to know that she knew. She'd have to wipe down the locker and get back to the library before her dad got there to pick her up.
She pulled out the handkerchief she'd swiped from her dad's dresser drawer, swinging the locker door shut at the same time.
Maria was leaning against the lockers on the other side. A necklace dangled from her hand. "Looking for this?"
Jenny uttered a muffled and entirely undignified shriek and ran.
Nick pulled his car into the school's back parking lot. There were two cars there, one the janitor's battered old sedan, the other the gym teacher's newer compact, both waiting to be towed in the morning. He was surprised to find the door unlocked, but assumed that with all the comings and goings from the fire and police departments, as well as the rest of the school's janitorial staff who had been on duty at the time, someone had just forgotten to lock it. Still, it saved him from having to explain a broken lock when he wrote his report later.
He followed the smell of smoke and water to the gym teacher's office. Whoever had set the fire had either been terribly clever or hadn't really known anything about arson. The fire had been smoky, but not hot enough to do more than scorch the door's paint. It was propped open to keep it out of the way of the paramedics and forensics people, but it wasn't even slightly heat-warped, though the inner surface showed the marks of Miss Taylor's desperate attempts to get out. A new door, and the next gym teacher would be able to use the office with no trouble.
He grimaced a bit as he imagined Natalie's reaction to that thought, but that was the reality of the situation. They'd clean the office up and install someone new in there -- maybe not this year, but certainly by the beginning of the next school year. They'd have memorials for the first couple of years, but within five years, Miss Taylor would be barely remembered. He doubted that the janitor would be remembered even that long. Though he suspected that the next teacher would probably keep the door open....
The office showed signs of Miss Taylor's attempts to save herself; the wooden chair was broken from where she had battered it against the door. Ironically, there was a fire extinguisher near the door; she had clearly battered at the door with that, too. The rest of the office was disordered from the paramedics hoping they had arrived in time to save Miss Taylor's life. All these things were in the crime scene photos, as were the sneakers that Nick plucked from the middle of Miss Taylor's desk.
He turned them over; the tread matched Kelly's bruises, and he was willing to bet that traces of her blood would be found inside the deep grooves. So. Miss Taylor had noticed something to do with the sneakers, and the murderer had killed her. But how had the incriminating shoes come to be on the gym teacher's desk? Ah...the janitor. And that was why Mr. Sullivan was dead, pushed down a staircase. All of which meant that his suspicion was likely right; the murderer was almost certainly a student, and probably one of the ones who had been at the Astrononmy Class meeting the previous night. Tomorrow, he'd have Schanke start bringing them in --
A scream interrupted his thoughts. Nick dropped the shoes on the desk and moved as only a vampire can.
Jenny crouched in a pool of shadows, her heart thumping, trying to catch her breath. She had gotten a good lead on Maria, and thought maybe she'd lost her. Unfortunately, she had decided to hide in Mr. Abernathy's science classroom. That gave her plenty of solid laboratory tables to hide behind, but it also meant that she was trapped if Maria had followed her this far. Next time she was running from a homicidal freak, she'd duck into Mrs. Barnes' science class -- it connected via a small storage closet to Mrs. Wilson's classroom, which was the one on the end of the hall, right next to the stairs.
The door opened. Jenny held perfectly still, praying that Maria was just checking each classroom, hoping to frighten her from cover. The door closed again. Jenny held her breath, listening with all her might, but heard nothing else. And then, sneakers squeaked on the floor, stopping in the vicinity of the first lab table. There was a squeak, then something hissed.
Maria'd brought a mouse and a snake from the biology rooms?
"The funny thing about fires," Maria said conversationally, "is that they can reignite if the fire department isn't really careful."
Horror-struck, Jenny suddenly realized what the hissing meant: Maria had turned on the gas supply to the Bunsen burners on the first table. She imagined that she could already smell the gas, though it couldn't spread through the room that quickly. Could it?
And then the sneakers walked quietly away, the door opened and closed, and Maria was gone.
Puzzled and frightened, Jenny counted out thirty seconds and then, keeping her head low to the ground, peered around the side of the lab table. There was no sign of Maria, but the frosted glass window high in the door was lit by an orange glow.
Oh. Oh, no. Oh, she hadn't. Jenny froze, unsure what to do.
Out in the hallway on the first floor near the administration offices, Nick listened carefully. He could faintly make out the sound of two heartbeats, both faster than normal. At least the person who had screamed was still alive. The second heartbeat was undoubtedly the murderer -- looking for those sneakers, maybe? The sounds were coming from above. The school was an older building, three stories high with a basement that also held a few classrooms in addition to the maintenance section. In each corner of the building were stairwells that ran from the basement to the third floor. No doors separated the stairs from the hallways; it was all open to facilitate student movement between classes. Stairs went up halfway to the next floor, then there was a landing with a window for light -- which was currently provided by emergency battery packs affixed over the windows.
If Schanke or any other policeman were with him, Nick would draw his gun at this point. But he had no real need of the weapon; it was only for show. Nick started for the nearest staircase.
He caught the sweetish scent of gasoline coming from above him just before he heard the whump of ignition. The stairs above him were suddenly engulfed in flames. Nick cursed and backed away; he'd survived flames before, but going through them wasn't his favorite activity, and he was reasonably certain he could get up at least one set of stairs before the murderer set them all alight -- if that was even his plan.
But first...he reached into his coat pocket, hoping he'd remembered to put the mobile phone in it before leaving the car. Ah, yes. Good. He ran back down the stairs as he dialed; on the first floor, he saw flickering light to his left, so he raced down the hallway in front of him, to the stairs at the opposite end of the administration hallway. His call connected as he started up the stairs.
"This is Detective Knight, Metro Homicide," he told the dispatcher, "get the fire services back out to William Pratt High and connect me to Detective Schanke."
"Knight!" Schanke yelled when the call connected. "Jenny's not home! Myra said she went to the library, but she's not there, either. Where are you?"
"Pratt High's on fire, Schank. The murderer is in the building, and I think there's one other person here. It might be Jenny. Get here as soon as you can!" Intent on climbing the stairs, and finishing his call, Nick didn't see or sense the small figure that rushed at him as he reached the top step to the second floor. He only just registered the movement as the softball bat connected with his face with a sickening crack. Even vampire reflexes couldn't save him from physics. He fell down the stairs backward, already unconscious, coming to rest on the landing, his legs still on the first few stairs, the phone inches from his outstretched hand.
"Nick?" Schanke's voice said from the phone. "Nick!"
Maria Clark looked down dispassionately at the cop sprawled on the landing. She couldn't tell if he was dead or not, but even if he wasn't, she doubted he'd be going anywhere very quickly. She was a good batter and she'd hit him as hard as she could, plus she'd heard his head connect with more than a couple of stairs on the way down. She glanced back over her shoulder at the other stairwell; smoke was beginning to pour out; the flames had found something other than gasoline to burn.
It was the bus garage that had given her the idea to use gasoline to burn the building down. She'd been to schools that didn't include a bus garage, either the buses were provided by the city or they were kept at another school in the district, but having the bus garage here meant that there was gasoline on campus. She'd simply gone into the garage, pumped a couple of cans and then turned the spray on the floor. She'd had to be careful not to get any on herself, though; she'd seen the way gasoline burned, and she didn't want that to happen to herself. Anybody or anything else was fine, but not herself.
The gas she'd turned on upstairs hadn't yet exploded; likely she'd been right and little Miss Policeman's Daughter had been hiding in that classroom and turned it off. Either that or there simply hadn't been a spark in that room yet. It didn't matter. The stairs from the third floor were burning; Miss Jennifer Schanke wasn't getting down from there. There was still a bit of gasoline in the can at her side; she picked it up and splashed it on the stairs, then tossed the can down onto the landing where the cop lay. The plastic can made an awkward missile and she missed him. She shrugged and pulled a lighter from her pocket.
She hadn't used fire before, so she hadn't counted on it not getting through the metal door of Miss Taylor's office. She'd thought that the door would melt, at least, and then her sneakers would burn. That was the only reason she'd returned to the school tonight; she'd either retrieve her sneakers or truly burn the building down.
Tomorrow, she was on her way to Hong Kong; her father's business was transferring him again. Tonight, she needed to clean up after herself and get home before her father did.
She needed to get down to the gym and set one more fire, just to make sure. The cop had been calling the fire department and more cops, so she needed to move quickly.
She was out of gasoline now, but the lighter fluid in her backpack would serve to set that dead cow's office alight. She'd pour it on the sneakers, just to make sure.
She thumbed the striker on the lighter and held it near the floor. The gasoline ignited with a satisfying thumping noise and raced downward toward the unmoving cop.
Maria smiled and ran for the stairs at the other end of the hall.
Don Schanke prided himself on being a good detective, but he had no clue what his daughter thought she was doing sneaking into the school after hours, especially with a fire-setting murderer on the loose. And something had happened to Knight, he was sure of it. He'd heard something that had sounded like the phone hitting the floor hard, then nothing. Nick could be abrupt sometimes, but he'd never just drop the phone. Something was wrong.
He roared into the parking lot and skidded to a halt next to Knight's Caddy.
Flames showed in the stairwell windows, but none of the glass had blown out. Yet. This was a big building; how the hell was he going to find his daughter? And Knight, he thought belatedly. The murderer could fend for himself. He scanned the building, but could see no sign of anyone.
He stopped briefly at Knight's car to call in. "This is 81-Kilo, 81-Kilo. I'm at William Pratt High School; the building is on fire. There's no sign of Knight and there are possibly two other people in the building, one of them a child. Send the fire department; I'm going in."
Schanke almost dropped the mike when Captain Stonetree's voice crackled out of the radio speakers. "The fire department's on the way, Schanke. Leave it to the professionals."
"Sorry, Captain. It's my daughter in there. I have to go."
He dropped the mike and ran for the door before he heard his captain's reply.
It was the smell of the gas that finally galvanized Jenny. She wrinkled her nose against it, and realized that Maria wouldn't have stayed up here to die; she'd have just set the fires then left Jenny to roast. She was, nevertheless, cautious about getting to her feet, but the emergency lights revealed that she was alone in the room. She walked up to the first table and shut the gas off.
She'd heard somewhere that you shouldn't open a window in a fire, because the fresh air coming in fed the flames. On the other hand, if she didn't clear the gas from this room, it might explode. Decision made, she went to the windows and opened them all.
Okay. Now...to get out of here. She cursed herself again for choosing this room to hide in; the corner rooms on this floor had evacuation ladders stored in them, but the middle rooms didn't. Apparently, four ladders per floor was sufficient to meet the fire code. She wondered if she could persuade her father to have a word or two with the fire marshall.
She went to the door, remembering to feel it first before she opened it. It was warm but not hot, so she turned the knob and opened it a crack, then dropped to the floor and opened it enough that she could get out, then closed it behind her. In the hallway, she found smoke billowing out of both of the stairwells that she could see. Still, the stairs might be passable, and from the corner, she'd be able to see the stairs at the end of the adjoining hallway. And if she couldn't get down the stairs, well, there were always those evacuation ladders in the corner classrooms.
She ran to the nearest stairwell, crouching low beneath the smoke. She could feel the heat of the fire, and she thought of any number of things she'd like to do to Maria Clark.
She got to the stairwell to find it blocked by flames. Maria had set the stairs themselves on fire. Looking to her right, she could see smoke coming out of the far stairwell in this hallway. She forced herself not to panic. There was still the stairwell kitty corner to this one. She ran down this new hall toward the back of the building. The fire wasn't as bad on these stairs, though she still didn't want to try it if she didn't have to, but when she looked down the hallway toward the far stairs, she saw the now familiar glare of flames.
Suddenly, an explosion rocked the building, shattering the windows and showering her with flying glass. She screamed and dropped to the floor, but realized almost immediately that the explosion had come from outside the building. She crawled toward the window and got carefully to her feet, peering outside. The bus garage was engulfed in flames; the explosion must have been the gasoline storage tank.
And then she spotted the cars. Both her father's boring brown car and his partner's fancy blue boat were parked in the lot. There was no sign of either man, but that didn't stop her from screaming out the window. "Dad! Detective Knight! Dad! I'm up here!"
But there was no answer.
Don Schanke's concern for his daughter did not override his good sense. Well, other than the going into a burning building thing, that is, and the fire department was on the way. He had his weapon out and ready, and he moved cautiously. This was the third time he'd been in this building today; he'd thought his school days were over, for Pete's sake.
A flicker of movement drew his attention toward the site of the earlier fire, and he went that way, his gun at the ready. The roaring of the fire in the other part of the building was muted here, and Schanke heard a voice coming from the gym teacher's office.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid. Little slut wouldn't die, kept trying to pull me into the water, and now Dad's pissed about the shoes. Not made of money, he says. He'd better be; there'd better be a decent inheritance there."
The murderer. He'd found the murderer. He eased a glance around the door frame and almost froze in schock at the sight of one of Jenny's little classmates -- the astronomy class partner, no less -- pulling a can of lighter fluid from the dark blue backpack at her feet. Fortunately, his training was better than that; he'd heard her muttered confession, and the detective took charge over the frantic father.
"Freeze," he barked, stepping into the doorway and bringing his weapon to bear.
The girl did freeze for a moment, and he saw the calculation in her eyes as she looked at the can of lighter fluid.
"I will not hesitate to shoot you, Maria, thirteen years old or not," he warned. Something in his tone must have convinced her, because she put down the lighter fluid.
He was just fitting the handcuffs around her slender wrists when an explosion rocked the building.
"Oops," the child said. "I think I left the gas on."
Nicolas de Brabant woke, enraged. He snarled at the flames encroaching on his feet, eyes glowing. The infidels could torture him all they liked, he would not surrender. The pain from his battered face only served to fuel his rage. He found himself unchained, and climbed slowly to his feet, an awkward business, since his feet were higher than his head for some reason. His hand touched a small object at his side, and at the sight of the mobile phone, eight hundred years of identities reordered themselves in his head.
He was trying to find two teenagers, one a murderer and one possibly his partner's daughter. In a burning school building. And apparently, he'd let the murderer get the drop on him. The vestiges of the Crusader in him hoped that the murderer was at least a boy, but he set that thought aside as useless. The stairs were completely blocked by flames at this point, and he could see what looked like a baseball bat burning merrily against the balustrade above him. Well. That explained that, then.
The sound of an explosion from the rear of the building momentarily overwhelmed the roaring of the fire above. The bus garage? The murderer was really making sure this time. There was no going up this stairwell. He retreated back to the first floor where the fire had not yet reached. He stilled himself and listened. Yes, someone was still upstairs; that heartbeat was even faster now. Then he heard her scream, and knew for certain that it was Jenny Schanke because she called his name. And he knew where she was.
The sound of her father confronting the murderer also reached him and he knew he had only a few moments to get to Jenny and get her down safely before Schank brought the murderer outside. The nearest exit was the window in the stairwell just above him; after the fire was extinguished, no one was likely to notice yet another broken window; they'd be far more likely to be counting the windows that hadn't broken.
Jenny crouched under the window, coughing. The smoke was getting really bad, now, and she was having a really hard time breathing. She'd have to get to the escape ladders. She crawled over to the door to Mrs. App's home ec classroom, trying to avoid the broken glass littering the floor and only partially succeeding.
She reached up and tried the door. It was locked.
All at once, it was simply too much. She slumped against the door, tears leaking from her eyes, too exhausted to even sob, until the heat made her move again. There was another ladder down the hall, in the science room. She just had to get there, and hope Mrs. Wilson hadn't locked her door, too. She rolled onto her hands and knees and started to crawl.
She was concentrating so hard on the door ahead of her that at first she didn't even register the voice behind her, until something deep and reassuring in it reached her.
"Jenny," the voice said. Her name, nothing more. She looked back over her shoulder. Her father's partner crouched behind her, his face bloody, flames reflected in his eyes.
He smiled. "Hi, Jenny. What say we get out of here."
She nodded wearily. "Okay." She looked up into his eyes and the world went dark.
Nick scooped up the unconscious girl and headed for the broken window at the end of the hall. Sirens sounded in the distance; the fire department was finally on their way. He checked quickly for witnesses, then stepped out the window.
He touched down in the parking lot and set Jenny gently on the hood of his car. "Wake up, Jenny," he said quietly. Her eyes opened. "Here we are."
She bent over her knees, coughing.
"Knight!" Schanke was just exiting the building, the handcuffed teenager in front of him. "Jenny!" Forgetting his prisoner, Schanke ran toward the Caddy. Nick caught Maria's eyes and drew her to him, though she fought him; she was strong-willed, this one, and cold. He sensed the killer in her. LaCroix would have liked this girl.
Reassured that Jenny was okay, Schanke turned to his partner. "Thanks, man. Thanks." He took in Nick's condition. "What the hell happened to you?"
Nick nodded toward the prisoner. "She happened. With a baseball bat. Knocked me clear down a set of stairs."
Schanke crowed. "Oh, ho, ho! Taken out by a kid. A girl! You're never going to live this one down, Knight! Never!"
Nick shook his head, any reply he would have made lost as the fire trucks finally arrived, though he heard Jenny murmur to herself, "Guess I don't need to do my homework tonight. There's no school tomorrow."
Natalie poured the gloppy fluid into Nick's crystal goblet and set it in front of him. "Drink," she commanded.
Under her watchful eye, he could do no less. "Pity I can't hypnotize you; I could make you think I'd drunk this stuff." He shuddered. It did taste like quicksand.
"And how would it help you if you did?" she countered. "Besides, your body needs the fuel. You've been through a lot in the last few hours, and you need to recharge."
Nick glanced guiltily toward his refrigerator; he'd...imbibed when he got home, before Natalie arrived to take a look at his face.
"A kid," she murmured. "How could it have been a kid?"
Nick shrugged. In the last few hours, Norma at the station had run a computer check on Maria Clark, and found a lot of suspicious accidents and deaths that had occurred around her, going all the way back to when she was eight years old. She wasn't a budding psychopath; she was already in full bloom.
"She wanted that necklace, and the only way to get it was to kill Kelly. After that, she was just cleaning up after herself."
Nat shivered. "You make it sound so...normal. Like she was washing the dishes."
"In her worldview, that's all it was. No one knows what makes someone like that, Nat; there aren't even that many vampires that are that cold and methodical. At least she's only human."
"What will happen to her?"
"That depends on the judge and whether she gets tried as an adult or not, I suppose," Nick said. "It's out of our hands now."
"I suppose." In a deliberate effort to lighten her mood, she punched him playfully on the arm. "So, how does it feel to be laid out by a thirteen-year-old girl with a baseball bat?"
"Painful," Nick answered, fingering his bruised face. It would heal quickly enough -- far more quickly than was believable, so it was good that he'd been given a few days' medical leave -- but in the meantime....
"So much for the big, bad vampire," Natalie teased.
"Ooga booga," Nick said, laughing, and raising his hands into make-believe claws. "Grrr. Arg."
- I originally planned to write greerwatson's second prompt (A cop's life, a cop's wife, starring Myra Schanke), but I really couldn't come up with anything that worked -- for me or Myra. But then the idea of Schanke's daughter getting caught up in a murder came to me, and then I remembered a book I'd read years ago and the movie(s) based on it, and in the same way as television writers everywhere, I swiped some of the elements from that book and mashed them together with Forever Knight, dropped them in the middle of Toronto, et voilà. So even though it doesn't quite adhere to the prompt, I hope greerwatson does enjoy it.
- The book in question is The Bad Seed, and if you've never read it, I highly recommend it. It goes into the argument of nature vs. nurture and is more about the unravelling of a mother's mind as she slowly comes to grips with the fact that her sweet, prepubescent daughter is a murderer, than it is about the murders. The black-and-white movie of the same name is atmospheric and fabulously creepy, and little Rhoda's perfectly charming blonde braids and frilly dresses are undoubtedly the model for many another killer-child. The TV movie remake is more interested in gore than the psychological horror aspect, though it does have Lynn Redgrave to whom I have always been partial for some reason.
- There is, of course, no William Pratt High School in Toronto. I was actually in a high school near Toronto for a few days when I was in twelfth grade because my band and chorus did an exchange with their band and chorus. (I'm not entirely sure how an obscure high school from southwestern NY got hooked up with an obscure high school north of Toronto, but we did.) However, I retain only the dimmest of impressions of the school. We didn't actually attend classes and spent most of our time there in the gym practicing for the concert we were going to put on (and learning the words to the Canadian national anthem -- no, I don't remember them), so the building I'm describing here as William Pratt High is actually my own high school. We always wondered about those stickers in the physics classroom that proclaimed the third floor windows "evacuation exits." I am also 100% positive that no one fantasized about tossing the physics teacher out the evacuation exit, because he was utterly cool. I'm sure some of the other science teachers, however, did suffer that fate in more than one student's fantasy.
Disclaimer: Forever Knight is owned by James D. Parriott and Columbia/Tri Star. No infringement is intended and no profit will be had hereby.