"SO IF I CORRECTLY UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING YOU'VE JUST TOLD ME, Maya Sparks is our new prime suspect?" Ed Martinoli asked. There was a flatness in his voice that barely concealed his annoyance.
"I know it sounds crazy, boss, but it's the only thing that fits," Delaney replied. His partner, Marsh McDonald, gave a tentative nod of agreement.
"Well, it's a lovely little theory. Can you prove it?" the police chief asked.
Delaney nodded. "That's the hard part."
"Yes, that's always the hard part," Martinoli scoffed. "And before you go any further down this new rabbit hole, you'd better fetch me some solid proof. Otherwise, I'll get eaten alive by Sheldon's attorney—and I don't need to see any more lawyers this week.'
The chief was referring to the attorney for Brant Stillman and Kyle Higgins, who had strode into the state police barracks earlier that day and left soon after with her two clients in tow. The two ex-Harvard oarsmen had regained their sense of smugness as they left the station, confident that there was nowhere near enough evidence to charge them.
"It would help if we could get a copy of Maya's phone records," Marsh interjected.
"And a copy of her pre-nup agreement with Sheldon," Delaney added.
"Sure thing," Martinoli laughed. "No doubt Sheldon will hand that right over to me. Why don't I just ask him for it during his charity dinner and motorcycle auction this weekend?"
The chief tossed an invitation card across his desk like a frisbee. It slid off the edge and landed at Delaney's feet.
"He might, if he thought his wife was messing around with his son," Marsh persisted.
"Maybe, maybe not. And if we're wrong, then what? We've just ignited a powder keg."
"We'd also be showing our hand to her," Delaney admitted, picking up the invitation and looking it over. "If she is guilty, Maya Sparks would quickly cover her tracks before we could get to them."
"Well, it sounds like you two are skunked," Martinoli said. "Maybe I should give this case to someone else."
"No," Delaney said, knowing his boss was just testing him. "I think we need to get back into the Sparks' residence."
"Why? What are you hoping to find that you didn't see the first time?"
"Finley's laptop," Marsh said.
"And who knows what else. Drugs, maybe," Delaney added.
"No probable cause, no warrant; no warrant, no search," Martinoli said.
"Maybe Sheldon would just let us in," Delaney smiled. "On unofficial business."
He held up the invitation card and placed it back on the chief's desk.
Martinoli frowned. "That invite is for me," he said.
"Yes, but you aren't you allowed a plus one?" Delaney said.
"No way. I'm not taking either one of you as my date," Martinoli said, laughing. "Besides, I don't think you guys are very popular with Sheldon Sparks right now."
"I wasn't suggesting myself or Marsh," Delaney said. "However, I do know an attractive young woman who has a passion for motorcycles. I'm sure that Sparks would love to show her his collection. And she'd make a charming dinner companion for you."
"I'm not sure not sure I like the sound of that," Martinoli grumbled. "It's highly irregular, to say the least."
"Agreed," Delaney said, smiling back at his boss. The chief picked up the invitation again and turned it around and around in his hands.
"I don't know," Martinoli said. "If I were to even consider this, who would be my date?"
"LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. You want me to charm the pants off of Sheldon Sparks, get him to give me a tour of his house, then somehow sneak off and find Finley's laptop?"
"That's more or less the shape of it," Delaney said.
"Sounds very James Bond," Chasen said.
Her voice sounded echoey over the phone, as if on speaker.
"I knew you'd like it."
"I didn't say I liked it…but I'm certainly flattered that you think I'm capable of pulling it off."
There was a brief pause on the other end of the line. Then Delaney heard something that sounded a lot like a bullet being dropped into a metal dish.
"Are you in the middle of dissecting a corpse?" Delaney asked.
"How could you tell?" Sue Chasen answered, cheerfully. "Some gang member was just shot up over on Embankment Road. Nineteen bullet wounds at last count."
"I'll call you back," Delaney offered.
"Oh, that's okay, I'm nearly done. I just have to examine the last entry wound near this guy's liver and then sew him up so that he doesn't look like he's been through a woodchipper."
Delaney felt his stomach invert.
"I really didn't need to know that level of detail," he said.
"But I thought we were sharing our work lives now," Sue teased. "Besides, it's nothing you haven't seen before. We met over a corpse, remember?"
"How could I forget." Of course, it was one thing to see a dead body, and another to visualize it being dissected. But he couldn't explain that to her, any more than he could explain what it was like to see a person get killed.
"So when do I go undercover?" she asked.
"Never mind," Delaney said. "It's a crazy idea and I shouldn't have asked."
"Relax. I'm happy to join the team. Do I get to carry a firearm?"
"How about a scalpel, hidden in my purse?"
"C'mon. Not even a tiny little ice pick?"
"You'll wear a Bluetooth, and Marsh and I will communicate with you via cellphone in case you come across something or someone you can't handle."
"Fine, have the Chief pick me up at 6 pm."
Marsh and Delaney were sitting in the front seat of a Verizon cargo van, barely concealed behind a row of arborvitaes that surrounded the Spark's residence. Luckily, it was already dark at 6:30 pm, and almost every room in the house was lit. Marsh could easily make out the guests entering the house through a pair of night vision binoculars.
"Wow, is that your girlfriend with the chief?" Marsh asked. "She's pretty hot."
"What? Give me those," Delaney said, tearing the binoculars out of his partner's hands.
He almost didn't recognize Sue, who was clad in a fur coat and a long black dress. She'd even styled her hair differently. Suddenly Delaney felt uncomfortable, like he'd just sent a fly into a spider's web.
"By the way, what if we get caught?" Marsh said, as if reading his mind.
"We'll get fired," Delaney said. "The chief will disavow any involvement with us."
"Sound check test," he whispered through his cellphone. "Sue, hold up your right hand if you can hear me."
Chasen gave a short wave before she disappeared into the house, remembering to not turn around.
Inside, a live jazz trio was playing a medley of Cole Porter tunes, switching from one song to the next without finishing each composition. The open living area was packed with partygoers, and only the saxophone was loud enough to compete with the dull roar of human voices. A few people were dancing in a living room with vaulted ceilings, while most hovered around a circular table filled with fancy hors d'oeuvres.
Sue felt Sheldon Sparks approach before she saw him, moving toward her like a dark cloud.
"Hello, Ed," he boomed, addressing the police chief like an old friend.
The two men briefly shook hands.
"Have we met before?" he asked her, in a jovial tone.
"I don't think so," Chasen lied.
"Susan is an emergency room doctor," Ed Martinoli interjected.
"I'm actually much more interested in motorcycles," she offered. "I hear you have a few for sale."
"I do indeed. Do you ride?"
"I have a Ducati monster," she replied.
She lifted a glass of champagne offered to her from a passing server, while Ed Martinoli wandered over toward the food table.
"Which model?" Sparks inquired.
"The 900 M."
"It gets me around town," she said, surveying the rest of the party as she sipped her champagne.
She could feel Sparks studying her, trying to decide if he liked what he saw. Luckily, she'd put him off guard enough that didn't seem to recognize her from the first time they'd met, dressed in a white lab coat and latex gloves.
"Do you always wear a Bluetooth to parties?" he asked.
"Only when I'm on call," she explained. "I'm a busy woman."
"Well then, let me show you around," he said, taking her by the arm.
They left Ed Martinoli at the buffet table, wrestling with a plate of cooked shrimp.
At the top of the open staircase on the second floor, Sheldon stopped to let Sue admire the view below. An elaborate glass and wire sculpture hung from the vaulted ceiling, resembling the wake of a rowing shell. There were a few other pieces of noteworthy artwork, scattered about the room, including a Picasso that hung right near the front door. Looking down at the partygoers below, Sue briefly caught the eye of a young blonde who was studying her intensely.
"Who's the woman in the green silk dress?" she asked.
"Oh, don't mind her; she's just my wife."
"Right," she laughed.
They proceeded toward the inner rooms of the second floor. Still holding onto her arm, Sheldon nearly dragged her into his study. It was a dark, cavernous room swathed in wall-to-wall red carpeting and wood paneling. She detected a faint odor of tobacco. A long wooden Harvard oar hung above a large desk.
"This is my command center," her host said proudly.
The walls were adorned with various business awards and photos of Sheldon standing beside a other famous billionaires, including Warren Buffet and Richard Branson. Sue gave the obligatory oohs and aahs, pretending to admire everything while she scanned the room for nooks and crannies that might hold a laptop.
Sheldon hovered over her shoulder as she circled the room. She could smell the whiskey on his breath, intermingled with a bad case of halitosis. Suddenly she felt herself fighting back a case of nausea.
"What's in that room, across the hall?" she asked, pivoting back toward the door. Before Sheldon could answer, she made an enthusiastic exit.
Maya's art studio was the polar opposite of Sheldon's study, with ivory walls and multiple sources of natural and artificial light. Sue immediately felt more comfortable, knowing that Delaney and Marsh could see her through the front windows. The large canvasses contained abstract swaths of color intersecting with one another, combining to produce other colors and shapes. Some of it had mildly sexual overtones in the style of Georgia O'Keeffe.
"That one always reminds me of a naked body," Sheldon ventured, pointing at a work in progress set up on an easel. "What do you think?"
"Hmmm. I don't quite see it," she said, trying not to grin knowing that Delaney and Marsh were listening to every word of their conversation.
"Well, given your line of work, I imagine that you are well-versed in human anatomy," Sparks said, resting his hand on her shoulder again.
"Intimately," she said, trying not to laugh at his predictability. In medical school, she and her colleagues had mastered all the morbid jokes that involved sexual inuendo, and Sheldon's pick-up line was about as clichéd as they came.
Suddenly a woman's voice called out from the stairs, beckoning him below.
"Well, I'd better get back to the other guests," Sheldon said. "We can see the bikes later."
"Of course," she said. "Mind if I use the bathroom before I rejoin the party?"
He pointed her toward a door down the hallway as he made a hasty exit in the opposite direction. When he'd disappeared down the stairs, she took the cellphone carefully out of her purse.
"Okay, where do I find this thing?" she whispered.
"Think about where you'd hide the laptop of someone you were having an affair with," Delaney added.
"I don't have any experience with that," she chided the detective. "Do you?"
"Be serious. We don't have much time here."
"You be serious," she snapped back.
"Okay, just relax." Delaney said.
Sue walked quickly around Maya's art studio, checking the drawers of a flat file storage cabinet. They were filled with artwork, paper, pencils, and paint. Then she tried a closet. The shelves held various cleaning supplies and solvents. Another dead end. She looked around the room again, scanning the completed paintings that hung on the walls.
Only one of them wasn't an abstract study, a recent portrait of a Finley. It was encased in an oversized, black frame. On a hunch, she lifted it off the picture mount. It was exceptionally heavy. She laid it down on the floor and ran her fingers along the brown paper backing. Something was definitely inside.
"You heard that the flasher struck again?" Marsh said to Delaney, just to pass the time.
"What? The guy on the Charles River?"
"That's impossible," Delaney said.
He'd spoken with Raymond St. James over a month ago and laid down the law to both him and his parents. Rather than face police charges. Delaney had persuaded the parents to ship their son off to a counselling center in Western Massachusetts. He'd kept the whole thing quiet, since he'd grown up with St. James and knew that he was essentially harmless. If he went to prison, he'd get eaten alive.
"Well, he's struck again," Marsh said.
"That's weird," Delaney said.
"Yeah, but at least this time the girl who reported him was a runner, not a rower, and she was able to get a better look at him. Here's the sketch."
Marsh showed him the artist's rendering on his cellphone. The guy had a familiar face, but Delaney couldn't quite place it. Then Sue's voice came over the speaker phone.
"I've got it! What do I do now?"
"What kind of laptop is it?" Marsh asked.
"Okay. Slide the active USB drive into the port, then turn it on," Marsh instructed.
"What if I need a password?" she asked.
"That doesn't matter. The USB drive will copy the files anyway."
Delaney and Marsh could hear the familiar, F-sharp major chime as the MacBook powered up.
"I'm going to take a crack at the password, just for kicks," Sue Chasen said. "M-A-Y-A," she said out loud, typing in the four letters.
"Isn't that a bit obvious?" Delaney said.
"I'm in!" Sue said triumphantly. "Even the screen saver is a picture of you-know-who, laying on a beach somewhere."
"Very nice I'm sure," Delaney said. "Have all the files finished loading into the USB drive?"
"Not yet…oh crap!" he heard Sue Chasen swear.
Delaney heard her slam the laptop closed. Then he heard another woman's voice in the distance.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the voice said.