Sylvie didn’t need to knock. At the sound of her footsteps the door to the conference room opened wide. She stopped short when she saw Connor. He was pale, all the color gone from his face. She looked around. Brady and Stipes, from security, were standing near the door. There were seven other men assembled in the room too. They were all strangers to Sylvie. Two were in uniform, the other five were not. They all stood up when she entered. But something was wrong, terribly wrong. The looks on their faces were grim and accusatory.
Connor introduced her to the men. There were two NYPD homicide detectives: Bernie Costano, the one with the jewelry, and Angelo Morretti. Her face went ashen when she heard their titles. J. T. Pitcher and Rice Cummings were there representing the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office. Sean McCoy was an investigator with the New York State Police BCI, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The two wearing uniforms were Franklin County Sheriff Cal Henry and his Deputy Dave Sawyer.
Her mouth felt dry and her palms were sweaty when she shook their hands. She felt faint. What the hell was this about?
Sheriff Henry smiled and asked her to take a seat at the table. He pulled out a chair; and once she was comfortably situated, everyone else sat down. Connor was sitting roughly in the middle of the table, flanked on either side by Brady and Stipes. Sylvie was between Brady and the Sheriff. Deputy Sawyer took the chair nearest Stipes. Instead of spreading out around the large table, the five remaining law officers sat directly across from them. Sylvie felt awkward as all eyes turned to her.
‘We’d like to ask you a few questions if we could Miss Jenkins,’ Costano began. Tall and dark, he was an imposing man with a shaved head and eyes that were cold as ice. He was scary, even wearing a necklace! ‘Mr. Hudson has told us that you screen all his calls, is that right?’
‘We need a verbal response,’ his partner, Morretti, instructed.
She looked back and forth between the two men and then nodded again. ‘Yes, I screen Mr. Hudson’s calls,’ she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
‘Do you remember receiving any calls from an Ernestine Shaw?’ Costano continued.
She shook her head no. ‘Not that I recall.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ he pressed. ‘Her cell phone indicates that she called this number at least six times and that each call lasted a few minutes.’
‘If she called here I can’t…’ she paused in mid-sentence. ‘Wait. You said her last name was Shaw?’ A light clicked on in Sylvie’s head.
‘Yes. Ernestine Shaw. Does the name ring a bell?’ Morretti cut in.
‘There was a woman…’ Sylvie’s mind was a muddle. ‘Who called here several times. Her name might have been Shaw, but I can’t be certain until I check my call log.’
‘You keep a call log?’ Morretti queried, sounding surprised.
Sylvie nodded. ‘Yes. I write down every call that comes in.’
‘Can you get it please?’ Costano asked. His request sounding like an order.
Connor’s eyes met hers. ‘You know this woman?’
‘I think it’s the woman who kept calling here wanting an interview. You know…the stalker?’
Connor looked perplexed.
Sylvie left the room to retrieve the log book, returning a minute later.
‘Here it is,’ she said, pointing to an entry. Costano, Morretti, Pitcher, Cummings, and McCoy gathered round to see. ‘Erna Shaw. Her last call was August 13th and before that…August 11th, 8th, and 4th.’ She flipped back through the pages, reading the notations. ‘In July she called on the 31st, the 28th, and the 23rd. I’m pretty sure that’s all of them. There are no entries with her name before that. I believe the 23rd of July was the first time we spoke.’
‘You called her a stalker…why?’ McCoy interjected. His tone was surly and impatient. He reminded her of her brother Matt on a bad day: the close cropped hair, the no-nonsense, authoritative, Trooper demeanor; not to mention the lousy attitude.
‘I don’t know…she seemed overwrought at times, mentally unbalanced.’
‘Why would you think that? Did she threaten you?’
‘Not exactly. She was just so insistent. Telling me she had to speak to Connor, I mean Mr. Hudson, immediately. I told her Mr. Hudson doesn’t give interviews or speak to reporters, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept badgering me to put her through. And when I didn’t she got belligerent. The first time she called she sounded normal. Said she was an investigative reporter for some little downstate paper…’ Sylvie fell silent, gaping at Pitcher and Cummings. ‘Oh my God, I remember now! It was a paper in Rockland County. Is that why you’re here? Did something happen to that woman?’ Sylvie shuddered at the thought. When no one responded, she continued, her apprehension growing. ‘She kept saying it was imperative she talk to him now, that it was a matter of life and death. Her voice was shrill. I thought she was a drama queen, trying to scare and intimidate me so I’d relent and put her through.’
‘And did you?’ Cummings asked.
‘No, I didn’t! Mr. Hudson doesn’t do interviews!’
‘She said specifically that she wanted to interview him?’ he pressed
‘Not exactly! Not in so many words. At first I thought she wanted to do an in-depth interview about the new book. There’s a lot of buzz out there about Mr. Hudson’s newest project; a lot of speculation as to the genre and plot. I figured she just wanted to scoop her competition. But then she started asking questions about Mr. Hudson’s lifestyle. Was he really a recluse? How often did he travel away from the Adirondacks? Was it true that he was an accomplished outdoorsman and hiker? Her questions were probing. Quite frankly, they made me uneasy. She was much too interested in his comings and goings. It was like she was obsessed with him. It was creepy. That’s why I called her a stalker. Mr. Hudson is a very rich man. I was worried about her motives…kidnapping…robbery. You read in the papers all the time about crazed fans stalking celebrities and trying to do them harm. I had no intention of letting that happen to Mr. Hudson. I told her that Mr. Hudson values his privacy and I was not authorized to give out any information about him; and I suggested she try googling him instead. But then…’ Sylvie paused, lost in thought.
‘Then what?’ Cummings snapped impatiently.
‘I don’t know exactly. Something she said in her last call made me think that if she was indeed a reporter, she wasn’t interested in Mr. Hudson’s new book; that she was actually working on a story about something else. Something to do with two women I think. I got the impression she needed to talk to Mr. Hudson about them. She gave me their names and asked if I’d ever heard of them. Then she wanted to know if Mr. Hudson had ever mentioned them to me. When I told her I had no knowledge of them and was too busy to answer any more of her questions, she went into a tirade. She demanded that I put her through to him at once and when I refused she got verbally abusive. She kept shrieking ‘this is a matter of life and death you moron! Get him on the phone now!’ She was so over the top and out of control I couldn’t deal with it so I hung up on her. Please tell me. Did something happen to her?’
‘Do you remember the women’s names?’ he asked, pointedly ignoring her question.
‘No!’ she glared at him. ‘I’m not going to answer any more of your questions unless you tell me what this is about!’
This time his partner Pitcher spoke. ‘This is a murder inquiry, Miss Jenkins, and we would appreciate your full cooperation. Before we can speak about the case you need to answer our questions.’
Sylvie nodded, her eyes wide with fear and foreboding. This was a murder investigation? Who was dead…the reporter? Her heart began to thump wildly in her chest.
‘Was one of the names Callista Fleming?’ Cummings grilled.
‘Yes. Callista. That was it. I remember thinking it sounded like the name of a proper English lady, something you’d see in a Victorian novel.’
‘And you didn’t know this woman?’
‘No.’ Why would she?
‘How about you Mr. Hudson? Do you know Callista Fleming?’ he challenged.
Connor let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Yes. I know Callie.’
Sylvie gave Connor a questioning look.
‘Tell me about her. Specifically, what was the nature of your relationship?’
He liked neither the man’s questions nor his attitude. And he certainly didn’t want to discuss his past girlfriends with Sylvie in the room, but he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. He could lawyer up; call Ben Trask a local attorney he’d used on occasion for property permits and traffic tickets…small shit. He could be here in 15 minutes. Or he could call Dave Temple, the New York City lawyer he kept on retainer for personal matters; or even someone in the corporate legal offices and ask their advice about what he should do. But at this point, he didn’t even know what this was about. It was apparently a homicide, but whose? And since he had nothing to hide, he decided to be forthcoming and just answer the asshole’s questions.
‘Callie was a graphic designer. She was from Oregon. She came to New York and was working out of a little sublet apartment in Alphabet City in the East Village when we met at a bar and clicked. She was very talented. Did a lot of book jackets for my publishing house and also did web design for several of my companies. We dated for five or six months, saw each other every couple of weeks; and then it ended and I never heard from her again.’
‘You ended it?’ Pitcher chimed in.
‘No. She did.’
‘How? Did you have an argument? Did she walk out telling you she never wanted to see you again?’
‘No. Not at all,’ Connor countered angrily. ‘Everything seemed fine. I had to go to California for a month on business and when I got back I went by her apartment and discovered she’d up and left New York. She’d moved all of her personal stuff out of the apartment and had left no forwarding address. I figured she’d gone back to Oregon. She wasn’t a big fan of the city: didn’t like the hustle and bustle, the smell, the noise. I tried calling and texting her, left I don’t know how many messages; but she never returned my calls.’
‘Do you remember when this was?’
‘I think it was July 2011. I was putting together a new production company and we were having endless rounds of meetings, script discussions, that kind of thing. I left after the 4th of July. I remember because she went to a friend’s cookout on Long Island with me. In all, I was gone about 5 weeks. At first, when she didn’t respond to my texts I thought she was pissed because I’d been gone so long; but then when I went to her apartment, I realized she’d given me the boot, so to speak.’
‘She’d moved out all her furniture?’ Pitcher asked suspiciously.
‘No. The furniture wasn’t hers. It was a sublet. She rented it furnished. She hadn’t decided whether or not she wanted to stay in New York so she had a six month sublet in a rent controlled building.’
‘Did you ask anyone where she was?’
‘Yes. I talked to the super of her building. He told me he’d received an email from her informing him that she wouldn’t be renewing the sublease for another six months. That she intended to vacate immediately, and would leave the keys in the apartment. She never put in a change of address with the post office. Never said goodbye to any of the people she’d worked with at my company. What was really odd was that she never contacted anyone in the company about doing more assignments after that and never used us as a reference for other jobs. I guess she felt it would be too awkward.’
‘Hmmm,’ Pitcher mumbled. ‘This was a romantic, sexual relationship was it not?’
Connor glared at him. ‘Yes.’
‘And were you in love with her?’
‘Let’s just say I was very fond of her,’ Connor snapped. He looked at Sylvie. Her pained expression was unmistakable.
‘Miss Jenkins, do you have any idea what the other woman’s name was?’ Cummings asked.
‘No! But I keep thinking it had something to do with a Disney movie, but I can’t remember which one.’
Pitcher and Cummings exchanged knowing looks. ‘The Little Mermaid?’ Pitcher inquired.
‘Yes, that’s it! Her name was Ariel something.’
Connor’s jaw dropped.
‘Was it Ariel Morgan?’
‘Yes, I’m sure that was it!’ She watched as Pitcher turned to Connor, skewering him with his eyes.
‘Another familiar name from your past Mr. Hudson? An old flame perhaps?’ Pitcher needled.
Sylvie’s eyes widened and she began to chew her bottom lip nervously. She didn’t like where this was going.
‘Yes. I knew Ariel.’
‘And did you have a relationship of a romantic, sexual nature with her too?’
‘Yes. I guess you could say that,’ Connor responded curtly. If it weren’t for the fact that he was a cop, he’d deck the bastard! He couldn’t bear to look at Sylvie. He’d never talked to her about the women in his past. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of the things he’d done, because he certainly wasn’t. It was just that the women he’d bedded, the things he’d done with them, were his business. These were private, personal things. He didn’t want to share them with anybody. Least of all Sylvie. Talking to her about his conquests and sexual partners was like rubbing her nose in it. It was cruel!
‘How did you meet her?’
‘She’d illustrated a couple of children’s books for my company. One of my editors recommended her. We had a meeting to discuss the possibility of her doing the illustrations for one of my mid-grade books and we just hit it off.’
‘When was this?’ Pitcher inquired.
‘Sometime in December 2011. I remember that the restaurant where we met had an enormous Christmas tree right next to our table.’
‘So you hired her to do your book and then took her to bed? Tell me Mr. Hudson, do you always sleep with your employees?’ His look was disdainful. Pitcher’s eyes shifted to Sylvie and then back to Connor.
How dare he! The impertinence, the audacity of the man! The son of a bitch was trying to bait him! Connor kept silent, refusing to respond to the insult. But he was sending the officer a message nevertheless. His eyes were shooting daggers, his face grimacing in rage.
Pitcher waited for an answer, but seeing how irate the suspect had become and fearing he might lawyer up, he decided to move on. ‘So where did you conduct this relationship? Your place? Hers?’
‘Neither. She didn’t live in the city, and because of her situation, we had to be discreet,’ he admitted, his tone acerbic.
‘That ‘situation’ you’re referring to was the fact that she was married. Is that correct?’
Sylvie’s face registered shock. She couldn’t believe Connor would go after a married woman. And not just because of the moral implications. Connor was a dom. He was possessive by nature. He would never share his woman with another man, not even if that man was her husband!
Connors jaw tightened. He was seething. ‘Ariel was legally separated from her husband. He was abusive. She had an order of protection against him.’
‘How long were you together?’ Pitcher wanted to know
‘About 9 or 10 months.’
‘How often did you see each other?’
‘We tried to get together for an afternoon twice a month. She’d take an early train up from Philadelphia and we’d meet at a small boutique hotel I own in the city. As I said, we were very discreet. She didn’t want her husband to know. She didn’t want to give him ammunition to use against her in the divorce.’
Cummings lifted his eyebrow skeptically. ‘So you’re telling us that her husband had no idea you were carrying on an affair with his wife? How did she explain all those trips to New York City?’
‘I told you. She did illustrations for the children’s division of my publishing house. As far as her husband knew, the trips were strictly work-related. I paid for her tickets, our lunches, and everything else in cash so as not to leave a paper trail that could be subpoenaed in the event he tried to fight the divorce.’
‘Very clever of you!’ Cummings sneered. ‘So how’d the affair end?’
‘I got a text from her on Columbus Day telling me that she was reconciling with her husband and couldn’t see me anymore.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘Nothing! What could I do?’
‘You didn’t take the train down to Philadelphia and try to talk her out of it?’
‘I couldn’t. I had no idea where she lived. She used a P.O. Box for her address. I had her cell phone number, but that was it.’
‘Why are you so sure you got the text from her on Columbus Day? It was a couple of years ago after all?’
‘I wrote a children’s book about a mouse that sailed to America with Columbus. We launched it on Columbus Day. Ariel was supposed to come into town for the parade. We had a float of the three ships and the characters from the book. She was supposed to stay for the party that evening and then we were going to spend the night together. That would have been a first for us.’
‘I’m assuming that since the affair went on for several months you had feelings for Mrs. Morgan?’ He put the emphasis on the word ‘Mrs.’
‘Yes. I was quite fond of her.’
‘Just fond?’ Cummings badgered.
‘Yes. Just fond!’ His face reddened with anger. ‘I wasn’t in love with her if that’s what you’re implying.’ His eyes met Sylvie’s. He could see they were glistening with tears. His gaze lingered there. He felt horrible that Sylvie had to be confronted with all this. It must sound so sordid to her.
The look was not lost on the assorted detectives in the room. When Sylvie turned away she noticed that everyone was staring at her again.
‘So tell me Mr. Hudson, where exactly do you think Miss Fleming and Mrs. Morgan are now?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Care to speculate?’ Pitcher challenged.
‘I imagine that Callie is living somewhere back in Oregon and that Ariel is back in Pennsylvania with her husband,’ he huffed.
Pitcher’s eyes bore into Connor. ‘Would it surprise you to know that they were actually in Rockland County?’
The look he shot the detective was quizzical. OK, so they live in Rockland County…what of it?
‘Tell me Mr. Hudson. Have you ever been to Harriman State Park?’
‘Yes. I used to hike there quite a bit when I was spending most of my time in Manhattan. But now that I’ve pretty much moved up here fulltime, I haven’t been there in a couple of years.’
‘You still keep a residence in the city don’t you?’ Cummings demanded.
‘I own several buildings in New York. When I’m down on business I usually stay at my Park Ave. penthouse.’
Costano and Morretti looked both suspicious and resentful.
‘This house was built in 2006. In the beginning I just used it as a weekend retreat, but in early 2009 I started staying here most of the time.’
‘Back up a minute,’ Morretti interjected. ‘So you’re telling me you commuted to Manhattan to date these women?’
‘You said you moved here in early 2009. Why was that exactly?’ Morretti looked like a spider getting ready to pounce on his prey. ‘Did it have something to do with your fiancé’s death?’
‘I suppose you could say that. I was despondent after Marisol’s death. I couldn’t function. I had to get away. I needed a change of scenery where the memories weren’t so vivid, so overwhelming.’
Sylvie saw the pain in his eyes and had to look away. How could she be jealous of a dead woman? But she was. His world fell apart when Marisol died because he loved her. He was capable of love. He just wasn’t capable of loving her!
‘I can understand that. Miss Vega’s death was particularly gruesome. I’ve seen the crime scene photos. I’ve been on the force twenty years and the attack was one of the most brutal and savage I’ve ever seen. She was literally butchered.’ Morretti chose his words for maximum effect. He wanted to see Connor’s reaction. ‘Must have been horrifying to learn that the woman you loved had been repeatedly raped and tortured, then beaten and stabbed to death. From the ferocity of the attack, the frenzy with which the killer wielded the knife, it’s obvious he’s a sadistic deranged psycho. There were fifty stab wounds to the genitals and torso…it was clearly overkill. The beating came first. He broke her jaw, the orbit of her right eye, and several of her ribs, smashed her skull in, and kicked her so hard he ruptured her bowels. The coroner said she died from massive head trauma. He believes the stab wounds were delivered postmortem. It appears the killer wasn’t satisfied with just killing her; he wanted to mutilate her, to punish her for something. This wasn’t a random act. It was personal! The investigators on the case have always believed the killer knew her. And hated her! The carnage…the way he posed the body…he was trying to send a message. Unfortunately, the crime was never solved. Her killer is still out there.’
Sylvie’s eyes nearly bulged out of her head. Was this true? She knew Marisol had died, but no one had mentioned the fact that she’d been brutally murdered!
The detectives took note of Sylvie’s reaction.
‘You referred to the killer as ‘he’. Are you sure it was a man?’ Connor asked, haunted by visions of what his precious Marisol had endured.
‘It would have to be,’ Costano informed him. ‘The bruises on her face were consistent with repeated blows from a large, clenched fist.’
‘If I remember correctly,’ Morretti cut in, ‘You had an ironclad alibi for the night she was murdered. You were in London on business.’
Connor nodded. The hackles were rising on the back of his neck. Where were they going with this?
‘You also had an alibi for the night Tara Taylor was run down. Isn’t that right?’
Sylvie let out an audible gasp. Who the hell was Tara Taylor? Another old girlfriend? And what did he mean run down?
‘I was in LA that night. Why are you asking me all these questions? What do Tara and Marisol have to do with this reporter, this Ernestine Shaw?’
‘Patience Mr. Hudson…all in good time.’ Morretti observed Connor like one does an insect under a microscope. He took note of how the tendons in his neck were flexing. The small pearls of sweat forming on his brow. ‘We need to talk to you about Miss Taylor. Was she an employee?’
‘Not really,’ he said in frustration. He’d had enough of their fucking questions!
‘Mr. Hudson, she either was or she wasn’t.’ Morretti cracked.
‘She worked for a company we’d hired to do video game design for us.’
‘That’s how you met?’
‘Yes. She came down from Boston for a meeting and we started seeing each other.’
‘When was that? Do you remember?’
Connor tried to recall. ‘I’m thinking February 2010, a day or two before Valentine’s Day. I remember buying her a few dozen red roses and taking her out to dinner to celebrate.’
Sylvie could feel her chest constricting. Connor had never bought her flowers. Let alone a ‘few dozen’ roses…red no less! And up until he took her to Ottawa, he’d never taken her out to dinner. Not even to McDonalds! She tried to retain her composure. She knew that Connor hadn’t been celibate before she came on the scene. But from the sound of things he’d been a manwhore, bouncing from woman to woman, from bed to bed. When the hell had he found the time to write? The man couldn’t keep his dick in his pants! She tried to assuage her hurt and rising jealousy by reminding herself that both Marisol and this Tara woman were dead. They deserved her sympathy, so she decided to put her inner bitch back in the bottle. At least for a while.
‘How long did your relationship with Miss Taylor go on?’
‘Eight months maybe.’
‘You were still seeing her when she was killed?’
‘Yes. We tried to see each other as often as we could. But our work kept us separated for weeks at a time. We tried to spend a weekend or two together every month and we went on a couple of mini vacations too.’
Sylvie’s eyes narrowed. Vacations? Vacations where? He better not have taken her to Ottawa!
‘Where’d you go?’ Morretti asked.
Connor let go a breath and shook his head trying to shake loose the memories. ‘We spent a couple of weekends that winter skiing in Vermont. For Easter I took her to Key West for a long weekend. Then she came up here and we spent a few days in Montreal. Let’s see…I’m pretty sure we went to the Hamptons a couple of times; then I met her in Martha’s Vineyard on the Cape twice; and once in Newport, Rhode Island that summer. In the fall we went up to Vermont to see the foliage and stayed in a bed and breakfast. The following week I had to fly to LA. I tried to convince her to come with me, but she couldn’t. She had an important business meeting in New York with another client and couldn’t get away.’
Sylvie sat frozen. Her world was crumbling. Connor must have cared for this woman. He’d set out to woo her, plied her with flowers, candlelit dinners, romantic getaways. He’d probably done the same for Marisol and those other two women. He’d been attentive and romantic with them. What Sylvie had with Connor wasn’t a romance or a love affair; it was just sex. Nothing more! Sylvie was convenient. She fought back the tears.
‘Sounds like you were pretty close. Did you love her?
Sylvie stiffened, waiting for his answer.
Connor was sick of this man probing into his personal life. The woman was dead. Let her rest in peace! ‘I was very fond of her,’ he said with conviction. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’ He looked over at Sylvie. Her eyes were glassy. She had the saddest expression on her face.
‘What do you know about her death?’ Costano pressed.
‘Not much. She was down on 4th Street in the East Village. She’d gone out for drinks with some old college friends who were living in the city. It was late and Tara decided to head back to her hotel. She was crossing the street when she was struck by a car. It was a hit and run. The bastard fled the scene of the accident. He must have been drunk or high. That’s why he didn’t stop or call an ambulance.’
‘Did you talk to the investigators after it happened?’
‘Yes. I called them from LA and went to the police station for an update when I got back to New York, but they didn’t tell me much. Only that they were continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death. To the best of my knowledge, they never caught the driver of the car.’
‘Did they call it an accident, Mr. Hudson?’
‘I don’t remember. I think they used the term vehicular manslaughter, something like that. Why?’
‘Vehicular manslaughter implies that the death of the victim resulted from the negligent operation of the vehicle.’
‘Isn’t that what happened?’ he asked.
‘No Mr. Hudson. It isn’t. The driver wasn’t negligent. He was homicidal. We believe he meant to kill Miss Taylor. The evidence showed that he ran her down, put the car in reverse and backed up over her; then put it in drive and ran over her yet again. She was murdered.’
Connor’s jaw dropped. ‘I don’t understand. Why would anyone want to kill her? She was a genuinely good person. I don’t think she had a nasty bone in her body. She didn’t have any enemies that I know of…everyone loved her! Why would someone do this?’
‘We were hoping you could shed some light on that.’
‘Are you insinuating I had something to do with her death and Marisol’s?’ he asked incredulously.
‘We’re not insinuating anything. We’re simply conducting an investigation and we’d like your cooperation,’ McCoy shot back brusquely. ‘What can you tell us about your parents’ deaths?’
‘What?’ He stared at them in confusion. ‘They were killed in a house fire 14 years ago.’
‘And you were in Europe when it happened. Is that correct?’ McCoy grilled.
‘Yes! But why are you asking about my parents? The fire was accidental. The chief told me the barbecue grill had been placed too near the house. And that leaking gas from the grill had caused the fire. It was an accident!’ Connor stared at McCoy. There was something unsettling in his manner. Connor looked at him uncertainly. ‘Wasn’t it?’
‘No!’ McCoy informed him. ‘It was arson!’
‘What?’ Connor was absolutely dumbfounded. ‘Are you telling me someone deliberately set the fire that killed my parents? Jesus Christ!’
‘The fire investigators have always thought the fire was of suspicious origin. The Suffolk County Arson Squad is still carrying it as an open case.’
‘Do they have any idea who might have done it?’
‘No. The only thing they know for sure is that whoever set the fire was smart. This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. He must have spent a good deal of time in the planning, preparation, and execution of the crime. The fire investigators figured he either took his time casing the place or had been a visitor to the house before. At any rate, he knew the layout. His plan was simple, but deadly. He pushed the gas grill your parents kept on the downstairs patio right up against the back wall of the house. The servants told investigators it was kept there for when your friends came over to swim in the pool. They said your Mom didn’t want them on the upstairs deck, because she didn’t want them running in and out of the house with wet bathing suits and damp feet. He put the grill next to the downstairs’ windows, one of which he’d previously broken. It was a double hung window. One side contained a small portable air conditioner. Your parents had central air, but I guess the cool air didn’t get down to the lower level, hence the extra one. He used some kind of suction device to pull out the glass of the adjoining window so it would shatter and the broken shards would fall outside the house, making the physical evidence appear consistent with an explosion occurring inside the house. He then disabled the air conditioner so gas fumes trapped in the house wouldn’t dissipate. He must have done it all while they were out. Then he disconnected the tank from the grill, hooked up a hose, opened the valves, and directed the gas into the house through the broken window. They’re pretty sure from the size of the explosion that he must have brought another tank or two with him.
After he filled the downstairs with gas fumes they believe he temporarily covered the window with something to keep it from escaping. Cardboard maybe. Then he reconnected the empty tank to the grill and turned one of the knobs to the on position. He got rid of the hose and the extra tank or tanks. Probably stashed them in his car parked somewhere nearby. Then all he had to do was wait for them to come home.
They pulled into the garage, turned off the engine and the garage door automatically shut behind them. That’s when the gas ignited. He had to have been standing some distance away, otherwise he would have been injured in the explosion. They’re not exactly sure how he did it, but somehow he got a flame or spark close enough to the open window to set the gas off. Probably used a remote device of some sort, but the investigators never found it. By the time firemen arrived on the scene, the house was fully engulfed in flames and your parents were dead. They never had a chance. He must have worn gloves, because he didn’t leave any fingerprints on any of the things he touched. When the gas exploded, the downstairs wall blew out and sent the grill flying into the back yard. There were prints on the handle of the hood, the control knobs, and the bar used to wheel the thing around, but they all belonged to members of the household. Everything he brought to the scene, he removed.
As I said, this guy was smart, but not quite smart enough. He thought everyone would assume the gas was drawn into the house by the air conditioner. That fire investigators would conclude that the last person who used the grill had neglected to turn the valve to the off position and since the grill was left uncovered, a squirrel or raccoon might have climbed on it, inadvertently stepping on the knob and releasing the gas. But the investigators knew from the get-go that it wasn’t an accident. There was too much gas in the house to have come from just one propane tank. And when they checked the grill, they discovered that there were bits of broken glass embedded in the tread of the wheels, indicating that the window was broken before the explosion and not during it. The fire was set. There’s no doubt about it!’ McCoy stared at Connor, waiting for his words to sink in.
Connor couldn’t believe it! He put his head in his hands, shaking it all the while, trying to cast away images of his parents’ burning bodies, writhing in agony as flames consumed them. This couldn’t be happening! He felt sick to his stomach. He remembered the smell of fire, the acrid odor. He suddenly sat up. How was that possible? Lettie and Mrs. Cosgrove hadn’t allowed him to go back to house after the fire. Not until what remained of the gutted structure had been torn down. Yet he remembered the smell of burnt wood and melted plastic. ‘Fire.’ He uttered the word trying to make sense of it. ‘Fire’ he repeated, appearing dazed.
Sylvie jumped up from her chair and went to stand behind Connor. She glowered at McCoy. The man was an insensitive prick. She placed a comforting hand on Connor’s shoulder. She could only imagine what he was going through. His hand quickly covered hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Once again the officers took notice. This seemed to be Hudson’s modus operandi. He preyed on his female employees. He hunted for conquests within his comfort zone: his subordinates. From her behavior, there was obviously something going on between the two of them.
‘There was a fire a couple of months before Tara died.’ He grimaced as he recalled it. ‘The firemen said she’d left the gas on in the kitchen. A towel caught fire, then the curtains, and finally the walls ignited. She was lucky the smoke alarm went off and woke her. She was able to get out of the apartment and alert the others in her building. The apartment was so badly damaged she had to move. I remember she called me in the middle of the night and I woke up my pilot and had him fly me to Boston. She lost everything. I tried to help her.’ His voice trailed off.
‘We’ll check that out,’ McCoy said, scribbling something in a small spiral notebook before fiddling with the smartphone in front of him.
Morretti passed a sheet of paper across the table to Connor. ‘Do these mean anything to you? We think these words or names may have something to do with your parents’ deaths.’
Connor examined the scrawls on the page. The words, for the most part, were illegible, except for the word fire which had been spelled out in capital letters. There was an arrow pointing from it to a circled word at the center of the page. He’d never seen such poor penmanship in his life. It started with what appeared to be a small letter F or it might have been a P, or a sloppily written T. He couldn’t be sure. Written around it were three other words. They looked like chicken scratches too. He was pretty sure that two of the words began with the letter J followed by what could be an A, a U, or an O. The third letter in both words appeared to be an S. The last letter in each looked the same too. Perhaps an N or a misshapen R. The other word was short, only two or three letters. Ole maybe or ale, or ab. He blew out a breath, clearly frustrated. ‘I have no idea what this says.’
That aggravated Morretti. ‘Look at it again. Take your time. Maybe something will come to you.’
Connor continued to stare at the page, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. A minute later his eyebrow quirked and his jaw tightened.
‘Recognize something?’ Morretti asked hopefully.
‘I’m not sure,’ Connor hesitated. ‘But I think the name in the center is Frommer. And this one here is Abe and these two are Justin and Jason. Where did you get this paper?’ he demanded. ‘What does it mean? Did they have something to do with the fire that killed my parents?’
‘These names mean something to you?’ Morretti pressed, his voice rising. He didn’t answer Connor’s questions.
‘Abe Frommer was one of my father’s business associates. Abe made his money in banking and real estate, but he was looking to branch out into other businesses, particularly publishing. Hudson Books was a private, family owned corporation. My father was the sole owner…no partners, no stock holders. There were a lot of upheavals in the publishing industry in the mid-90s. Lots of mergers and acquisitions. And the rise of the big-box bookstores which squeezed out the small independent shops my father depended on. Smaller publishing houses were being crowded out and replaced with giant conglomerates. Hudson needed an influx of money in order to compete and survive. Abe Frommer, one of my father’s golfing buddies, provided it. He offered to give my father a sizeable loan, using the publishing house as collateral. It was strictly a loan, not an investment in the business. My father wasn’t looking to acquire a partner. But Abe Frommer is a shark. He smelled blood in the water. His motives were less than altruistic; he had my father’s company in his sights all along. He was hoping the money would allow him to wheedle his way into eventually acquiring a stake in the corporation. Within a few months Abe was claiming the loan entitled him to a say in the day-to-day operation of the business. He demanded a voice in hiring and firing top employees, wanted input regarding the kinds of books we published and who we partnered with. My father was grateful for the loan, but told Abe, in no uncertain terms, that interference in ‘his’ business would not be tolerated. Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with Abe. He wasn’t used to having his plans thwarted. They had a terrible falling out, nearly coming to blows. My father even called security and had him publically escorted out of the building. Abe was livid. To my knowledge, they never spoke again. In fact, I was surprised when Abe showed up at my parents’ memorial service. Shortly after that, he contacted my father’s attorney to ask about the terms of my father’s will, wanting to know who was now in charge of the company. When he learned that I, as sole heir, had inherited the business, and that there was no trustee overseeing the assets, he offered to buy the company outright! Abe was very insistent. But I had no intention of selling to that bastard.’
‘I don’t imagine Mr. Frommer was happy about that. What happened?’ McCoy wanted to know.
‘He did everything he could to fu…’ Connor caught himself…wrong word! ‘To undermine my position at the company. Told people I was an arrogant, wet behind the ears, piss-pot who’d drive the business into the ground, bankrupting it. He even tried to turn some of my own employees against me, having them spy on me and second-guess every decision I made. He figured I was a kid and would eventually screw up. He hovered around the sidelines like a vulture, waiting for me to fail so he could swoop in and scoop up the company at a fire-sale price. But it didn’t happen. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I surrounded myself with people who knew the publishing business and knew what they were doing. I gave them pretty much free rein while I got my education and began my writing career. Over the years we expanded and grew the company into the multi-national conglomerate it is today. The loan was structured so that all the payments we made only covered interest and not the principal. The principal was to be paid in a lump sum balloon payment at the end of the term of the loan. Frommer was counting on our defaulting. That way he’d have a claim against the company he could leverage. But I surprised him: I paid the son of a bitch off early, just to be rid of him. I hear it still riles him that Hudson became a billion dollar corporation and he was never able to get his greedy hands on a piece of it. To listen to him tell it, my father and I cheated him.’
McCoy, Morretti, and Costano huddled together, whispering among themselves. Then McCoy turned to Connor. ‘Who are Justin and Jason?’
‘They’re Abe Frommer’s sons. They’re twins. They were in my class at Collegiate Boys Preparatory.’
‘Friends?’ Morretti asked.
‘We used to be; but that was before our folks got into it. We stopped hanging out in the beginning of our senior year. That’s when all the trouble started.’
‘Wait a minute, let me get this straight,’ Morretti said, looking perturbed. ‘This disagreement between your Dad and Frommer occurred just a year or so before your parents were killed?’
Connor nodded. ‘Yeah, about a year.’
‘I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to take your time answering it,’ McCoy advised, his face somber. ‘Do you think that Abe Frommer could have had something to do with the fire that killed your parents?’
Connor just stared back at him, the words sticking in his throat. He breathed in deeply before he spoke. ‘He may have hated my father,’ he began slowly, ‘but I can’t believe he’d stoop to murder.’
‘Did his sons ever come to your pool parties?’
Connor wrinkled his brow and narrowed his eyes. Where was McCoy going with this? ‘Yes of course they came. Just about everybody in my class came to my house at one time or another. My parents were very welcoming to my friends. They figured as long as we were there, where they could keep an eye on us and monitor what we were doing and how we were behaving, we couldn’t get into trouble! They installed a baseball diamond and basketball and tennis courts on the property so we’d have a place to play and hang out. Justin and Jason loved my parents. They were good kids even though they had a shit for a father. They’d never have done anything to harm them! None of my friends would… if that’s what you’re implying?’
‘I’m not implying anything. We just needed to know if these two ever came to your house and if they might have seen where the grill was stored.’
‘Yes,’ Connor replied curtly. He’d had enough of this stupid fucking game! ‘Look, I’m fed up with all your questions! Your accusations! Your innuendos! I want some answers! Why the hell are you here? Exactly what is it you’re investigating? And why are you’re interrogating me? I’ve been patient with you guys, but enough is enough! I want answers and I want them now or I’m going to call my attorney! Got that?’
McCoy scowled at Connor and gritted his teeth. He was about to tear the arrogant rich-boy a new asshole, when a calmer, more conciliatory Morretti cut in. ‘We understand this is all very upsetting to you, but we’re only doing our jobs. We really need some answers. Only a couple more questions and then we’ll fill you in, at least as much as we can, on what’s happening.’
Connor nodded, trying to tamp down his irritation.
‘Now, Mr. Brady here says you weren’t at home on the 15th and 16th of August. Where were you?’
Connor furrowed his brow, trying to recall.
‘He was with me!’ Sylvie piped up. ‘We were at my father’s wedding in Wyoming. We left on Thursday the 14th and returned Sunday the 17th.’
‘Where in Wyoming was the wedding?’
‘It was in the village of Wyoming in western New York.’
‘Oh,’ he said looking surprised. He’d never heard of the place. ‘And did anyone else see Mr. Hudson there?’
‘Yes, about 180 other people. Including my brother, who’s a New York State Trooper!’ She gave McCoy a ‘take that you asshole’ smirk!
‘And Mr. Hudson was there the whole time?’
‘Where exactly is…’ before he could ask the question McCoy passed him the smart phone. He looked down at the map. ‘South of Rochester, huh?’ Morretti pursed his lips in frustration. He was trying to calculate distances and travel times in his head and the numbers weren’t working out.
‘And he was there the whole time?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘The whole time!’
‘And he couldn’t have left for say several hours without you knowing it?’
‘No. I was with him every second the whole weekend!’ She felt the blush rise on her cheeks.
The visiting police officers looked at each other. They appeared both disgruntled and disappointed at the news. They clearly hadn’t gotten the answer they’d wanted. Morretti shook his head.
‘OK,’ Connor interrupted. ‘We’ve answered all your damn questions. Now I want to know what the hell is going on. What do the deaths of my parents, my fiancé, and a very dear friend have to do with a snoopy reporter and two old girlfriends living in Rockland County?’ His exasperation was evident.
Pitcher looked Connor in the eye before he began. ‘The two old girlfriends Miss Shaw was asking about, Miss Fleming and Mrs. Morgan, weren’t living in Rockland County…their bodies were dumped there.’
Connor’s mouth gaped open in shock. ‘Oh my God!’ He couldn’t believe it. Callie and Ariel both dead?
Sylvie gasped at the startling news. It felt like every bit of air had been squeezed from her lungs. Those poor women! Those poor, poor women! ‘When were…where were they found?’ she managed to squeak as she struggled to breathe again.
‘Their bodies were discovered June 30th in shallow graves off a hiking trail in a remote area of Harriman State Park,’ Pitcher informed her. ‘The medical examiner believes Callista Fleming was buried there about 3 years ago. The Morgan woman was found a few feet away from her. She’d been in the ground less than 2 years. Their bodies were both in an advanced state of decomposition, but the medical examiner was able to ascertain that they’d both suffered some kind of blunt force trauma to the skull; and the marks on the bones of the hands, arms, rib cage, and pelvis are consistent with multiple stab wounds. Callista’s kneecap was also shattered by a blunt, heavy object, possibly a baseball bat. The way in which the victims died is very similar to how Miss Vega was killed.
Ariel Morgan’s body was the first of the two to be positively identified. Her husband had filed a missing person’s report in October 2012. Her folks insisted that he had something to do with her disappearance because of his history of domestic violence. The local police bought into that theory, but were never able to pin it on him. You slipped under the radar because nobody knew about your affair with her.
There was no identification found at the scene, but within a week they were able to identify Miss Fleming through dental records. Her family had contacted the NYPD in early September 2011 to report her missing.
Ernestine Shaw worked for a small weekly paper, The Rockland County Ledger. She’d been assigned to write an article about the discovery of the bodies. She must have been one hell of an investigative reporter. She started digging into who the dead women were, looking for a common denominator, and she found it…you!‘ Pitcher said, focusing like a laser on Connor. ‘She discovered that they had both cashed checks from Hudson Publishing or one of its subsidiaries shortly before they were reported missing. We’re not sure exactly how she connected them to you, but she did. We think she found out that you and Miss Fleming had dated from some of her friends and coworkers, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to think you were seeing Mrs. Morgan too. She kept digging and managed to track down two fellow illustrators who Ariel had confided in about the affair.
Once she’d linked two murders to you, she went looking for more. Miss Shaw was nothing if not thorough. She found your name, listed as the grieving fiancé, in accounts of Miss Vega’s murder. That was the third killing she could connect to you. But she didn’t stop there, the lady was persistent! She googled your name and discovered hundreds of pictures of you taken at various benefits, premiers, book signings, and openings. Then she googled the name of every woman identified or tagged in those pictures to determine if they were alive or dead. Evidently, you took Miss Taylor to a party in the Hamptons to raise money for colon cancer research. There were a lot of celebrities there, ergo lots of paparazzi. You also took her to a black tie affair that benefited The Greenspace Alliance. Photographers were on hand for that one too. When Shaw discovered that Miss Taylor had been the victim of a hit and run, she added a fourth murder to her list. At that point she was sure you were a serial killer and was preparing a report for the Rockland County Sheriff’s office that implied just that.
She kept poking around in your life and stumbled upon the circumstances of your parents’ deaths. She actually drove down to Long Island and talked to arson investigators about the case. She was ready to pin that one on you too when she discovered that you had a rock-solid alibi for the time of the fire. Then she learned about the strained relations between your father and Abe Frommer. That piece of paper we showed you came from her notebook. That made her revisit some of the evidence she’d accumulated against you. More digging revealed that you had alibis for the Vega and Taylor killings. That threw a monkey wrench into her theory. Nobody can be in two places at the same time; but she was convinced, without a doubt, that you had something to do with all the killings. And she was determined to prove it! She figured you were so rich you could hire someone to do your dirty work for you.’
‘You keep using the past tense when you talk about Miss Shaw. Is she dead?’ Sylvie asked Pitcher, afraid to hear the answer.
But it was Costano who answered. ‘Yeah, she’s dead. She was murdered sometime around 1 AM on the 16th. Her body was found under an overpass in Riverside Park. Her throat was slit and then she was stabbed at least 40 times for good measure. We think she went there to meet someone. Someone she thought could give her more information about you and the murders. Instead, she met the killer.’
Sylvie began to sob, overwhelmed with guilt. ‘If only I’d put her through,’ she bawled. ‘She’d be alive now. I could have prevented this!’
‘I doubt that,’ Pitcher said kindly. She was gonna do what she was gonna do. She’d sunk her teeth into this story and wasn’t about to let go of it. She probably called here to tell your boss she was on to him. Miss Shaw was playing a very dangerous game. She should have come to us as soon as she made the connection between the deaths. But her sole focus seemed to be on writing the story which would expose Connor Hudson, one of the richest men in the country, as a serial killer. She thought it was her entry into the big time…a job at the Daily News or New York Times…a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. She must have called and arranged the meeting thinking it could help her build a case against you. But things didn’t work out the way she planned.’
‘You tracked us through her cell phone. Can’t you do the same with her killer? You said you think she called him!’ Connor couldn’t hide his annoyance. What the hell were they doing here? Why weren’t they out there finding the killer?
‘Well see,’ Morretti said, ‘that’s where we have a problem. Her editor said she was having difficulties with her cell phone. It wouldn’t hold a charge. We checked her credit card records. She ordered a new battery for it over the web the night she called you. It was delivered the Monday after she died. Miss Shaw made another charge that night at a nearby convenience store. She bought a cheap cell phone and an airtime minutes card. We believe that’s what she used to call the killer. We found her purse at the murder scene. It was lying near her body. It had been rifled. He took the wallet to make it look like a robbery, but we found it a block away in a storm drain. Nothing was missing, not even the cash. Maybe he thought taking the wallet would slow up the identification of the body, but he screwed up. The idiot didn’t take the time to look at her keychain; it had a card holder with her press card and driver’s license. We figure he took the cell phone and the wallet after he killed her. We think he took something else too. There were little pieces of paper at the bottom of her bag. The bits left when you tear pages out of a spiral notebook. We found one in her apartment. All the things she’d found out about you and your connection to the victims, her theories about your involvement in the murders, along with your motive for each killing, and ways to debunk your alibis, were written in it. It was a 70 page notebook, but only the first 61 pages were there. The last 9 sheets had been torn out. We think she may have brought the missing pages with her to show the person she was meeting. Page 61 dealt with the fire. We showed you a portion of that page. We think she was developing alternate suspects and theories for each crime. Not to exonerate you! Miss Shaw was absolutely convinced that you’re a cold-blooded killer! But because she wanted to be able to exclude everyone else who might have had a motive or the opportunity to commit the crimes, so she could strengthen her case against you. That’s what we think was on the missing pages.’
‘Strengthen her case against me? Are you fucking kidding? The woman was demented! Someone killed her,’ Connor growled. ‘But it wasn’t me! I have an alibi! I was 400 miles away. I don’t know what cockamamie theories that woman concocted, but I had absolutely nothing to do with any of these crimes. I loved my parents and I cared deeply for Marisol. I would never have done anything to hurt them, or Tara, or Callie, or Ariel. I wasn’t even in the state, and in some cases even in the country, when the murders occurred. This is ludicrous!’ he shouted in indignation.
‘We know you have alibis for most, if not all, of the killings,’ McCoy countered. ‘But the very fact that your parents and four women you were intimate with have turned up dead puts you smack in the middle of this murder investigation.’
‘You can’t believe I’d kill my parents, my fiancé…’
‘Quite frankly Mr. Hudson, I have no idea what you’re capable of. All we know for sure is that all these murders lead back to you.’ McCoy’s words were harsh, his face resolute. ‘These aren’t random acts. You think the murders of all these people are some kind of tragic coincidence? Your parents burned alive; your fiancé slaughtered; the women you cared about cut down or carved up? This is no coincidence! This is a pattern. These are the actions of a sadistic psychopath, a homicidal maniac. Maybe you’re responsible, maybe you’re not. I don’t know yet. But I’m assuming that if you’re not, you’ll want to help us catch the son of a bitch who is! All these people had something in common: they loved you! When you investigate a murder, the first thing you look at is cui bono: that’s Latin for who benefits. But except for your parents’ death, where you inherited their estate, you didn’t benefit monetarily from any of the killings. There are lots of reasons people murder. They run the gamut of human emotions: hatred, passion, revenge, jealousy, obsession. Except for Miss Shaw, who was killed to silence her, the motives for these murders are a mystery. Did the killer hate each and every one of victims? Was he seeking revenge for some wrong done to him? Since the victims didn’t know one another, it’s hard to understand what they could have done to enrage the murderer. Do you have any idea what might have set him off Mr. Hudson?’
‘No!’ Connor spat the word. He was done with this! ‘I think we’re finished here!’ he thundered. ‘I’ll show you out.’
‘There’s a serial killer out there Mr. Hudson. Until he’s caught everyone you care about is walking around with a big target on their back.’ Morretti tried to reason with him. ‘This man is a cold-blooded killer and he won’t stop unless he’s caught. You need to help us catch him. If it isn’t you, and you want to make us believe you’re innocent, then for God’s sake help us figure out who’s doing this. If you’re not the killer then you know him. He certainly knows everything about you. Where you go. Who you see. Who you care about. He stalks his victims. He’s a planner: he gathers everything he needs, then he waits, biding his time. And when the time is right, he strikes. He doesn’t act on the spur of the moment. These killings are methodical. If we don’t stop him, sure as hell he’ll kill someone else, someone close to you.’ His eyes darted over to Sylvie.
Conner’s face betrayed his alarm. This was a nightmare! A god-awful nightmare! Was Sylvie in danger? His heart pounded, his breathing grew strained. He had to protect her. He had to keep her safe! ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘You need to talk to us. We need to know everything you can tell us about yourself, your parents, and the women who were killed. You’ve got to tell us about your life…your habits, where you go, who you see, what you do. We need to know your history, your secrets, who your friends are, your employees, your business associates, your enemies, and anyone who might have a grudge against you. You need to tell us every detail about your relationship with each of these women: where you took them, who you knew in common. That’s the only way we can hope to catch him.’
‘All right,’ he said in resignation, ‘I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.’
Morretti nodded. ‘Okay then, let’s get started.’ He dug in his jacket pocket and pulled out a small rectangular device. ‘We’re going to need to tape this if you don’t mind. It’s just routine.’ His eyes focused on Connor a moment, then shifted to Sylvie before finally settling on the door.
Connor nodded in understanding.
Sylvie watched the interchange, wondering what was going on. Her head was spinning. There was too much information swirling around in her brain; she couldn’t process it all. Seven murders all linked to Connor! She shuddered. Sylvie was frightened for him. They suspected him of murder, but how could they? Connor hadn’t killed the reporter. He was with her the whole time. And he hadn’t killed anyone else either. She was sure of it.
‘If you’ve no other questions for Miss Jenkins, I’d like her to get back to work now.’ He looked over his shoulder at her. Giving her a reassuring smile, he nodded his head in the direction of the door, indicating she should leave.
Sylvie was taken aback. No! She didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay and comfort him, defend him, protect him from them! Before she could protest, Brady rose from his chair, took her by the arm, and walked her to the door. Sylvie gave him a scorching look.
‘Ask Mrs. Cosgrove to bring in some coffee and soft drinks,’ Brady said as he ushered her out and promptly shut the door in her face.