Detective Mark Hanson was reading the latest copy of Conspiracy magazine. He was scheduled for lunch with his friend Rob, and wanted to be up on whatever strange things he might have published that month, but he wasn't prepared for Rob's interpretation of the campus murders in the blurb he'd agreed to write. Mark couldn't believe he was actually stringing the two at Sonoma State together with those at campuses all over the country.
He laid the magazine down for a moment, and considered the material he had read about the various murders. It was impossible that the crimes had been committed by one person, but Rob wasn't suggesting that. He was fond of a conspiracy theory; while the police had, up until this time, been treating the first murder as the work of someone who hated the female professor or wanted to get rid of his girlfriend. That theory had been shot down by the second murder, and Mark knew it was just a matter of time until the F.B.I. arrived in Santa Rosa. He wished he had more information for them.
He continued reading the article, and choked on his coffee when he reached Rob's request for information to be sent to a magazine P.O. box. He wondered just how he was going to convince Rob to turn over the responses -- by law, he couldn't just take them, even with a warrant. No judge would even give him one, because it infringed on Rob's right, as a journalist, to collect research information. But, perhaps, if he went about it the right way, Rob would share his information.
Most of it would be gibberish, of course, but if there was even one solid clue, it would be more than they had so far.
Chapter Fifteen: The Official View
Rob still couldn't drive, and Zandra had deserted him in order to decorate some woman's house. Cassie was managing a birthday party for the pampered daughter of a music-studio owner. Rob grinned to think of how she would deal with a bunch of spoiled ten-year-olds.
But there was no one to drive him over to the police department -- he wasn't about to ask Colleen. She was behaving very strangely lately; the previous day he mentioned that he was having the house redecorated, and was hiring the SuperGirls to do it. She had flown into a rage, saying that he was satisfied with the house before Zandra began to disparage it, and that she had believed him to be above such bourgeois considerations. Rob had been astounded -- Colleen was behaving as if the house belonged to her, not him. Maybe it was time to look for a new Senior Editor, but the thought depressed him. There were so many incompetent ones out there.
So Rob hired a cab so he could make his appointment with his long-suffering friend, Detective Hanson. They had attended Santa Rosa High School together but when Rob went on to become a student radical at Berkeley, Mark Hanson entered the Criminology Department of Sonoma State. Rob left college with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Mark with one in Police Science. Rob became a reporter for the notorious Bay Guardian during its golden days; Mark a rookie cop. That they were still friends after so many years on opposing sides of the fence was a miracle. Mark was reluctant to meet Rob for lunch, but caved in under the inducement of John Ash, a very elegant restaurant.
As he rode across town, Rob contemplated his attraction for Zandra Hillis. Zandra was one of those women Rob considered `too' ... too attractive, well-dressed, demanding, assertive ... having been entirely dedicated to and absorbed by Conspiracy magazine since the age of 30, Rob avoided women who were `too'. But Zandra had taken him by the scruff of the neck and shaken him as one might a misbehaving puppy.
This thing about the house was a perfect example. Where he had been oblivious to his surroundings before, suddenly the defects sprang out at him, screaming garishly and giving him migraines. He couldn't bear to go into the kitchen and look at that orange counter and plaid floor. Yes, something would have to be done, and that might mean that Zandra would be back in the house for weeks to come ...
When Rob arrived at Detective Hanson's cubicle, his friend looked up at him with a jaundiced eye. Then he saw the `boot' that replaced Rob's cast (the boot of Big Foot, Rob had commented caustically) and grinned malevolently. "What happened to you? Some crazed conservative come after you with a baseball bat?"
Rob glared at him. "I fell into an empty swimming pool. And don't ask me to explain, because I won't."
Mark started to laugh, rising from his chair and reaching for his sports jacket. "No need to, old man. Those illegal substances can play hell with your equilibrium."
"Very amusing. You have to drive."
"No shit!" Mark guffawed again, and Rob sighed resignedly.
Lunch at John Ash was always a restful, satisfying experience. But Rob and Mark were both wary -- of one another. Mark was waiting for Rob to attack, and over the poached salmon (his) and the angel-hair pasta with three cheeses (Mark's) he did.
"What do you know about this murder at Pal Karpati's townhouse? Poor little Ashley Corbin."
"Probably not as much as you do. Pal was arrested for the murder and released on bail this morning."
"I know all that! Who's been assigned to the case?"
There was a pause while Mark ate a mouthful of pasta. "Johnston."
"Johnston. Johnston ..." Why was that name so familiar? Rob was distracted momentarily by his salmon, which was more than usually delicious. "Wait a minute! Johnston is your partner! You've been assigned to the case."
"Yes. But I can't talk about it. I told you that over the phone."
"Look, Mark -- two lovely ladies, one of whom I have serious personal designs upon, have asked me to help them clear Pal."
"You're not here looking for a story for that subversive rag of yours?"
"You have my word that I won't write anything more about this case until the murderer is caught or you give your OK."
"I guess it's supposed to reassure me that I won't be made to look like a fool in the near future, only `sometime'. One of your lovely ladies wouldn't be the unfortunate cleaning-woman who found the body, would she?"
"Cassie would love that description! She's not a `cleaning woman' -- she's one of the SuperGirls!"
Mark regarded him impassively, chewing his pasta and swallowing. "I see. You're in love with a cartoon character. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me."
"She's not the one -- it's her partner, Zandra Hillis. SuperGirls is their agency -- they do things for people. Zandra took care of me when I couldn't walk, and Cassie was looking after Pal's townhouse while he was away. Which brings me back to the issue at hand. You can't seriously believe Pal is guilty of this thing."
"Of course I don't! Give me credit for some intelligence, would you?"
"Then what the hell is going on? Why did you arrest him?"
"We had to arrest someone, or we'll never find the real murderers. We're trying to make people believe we have a suspect, but we've planted some men over at the university."
"Will Pal ever come to trial?"
Mark shook his head, sipping his Buena Vista pink Zinfandel with a sigh of contentment. "We're dropping the charges. The D.A. says there wasn't enough evidence. For a minute there, I was hoping we'd get to trial."
Rob stared at him in horror. "Do you mean to say you'd subject an innocent man to the agony of a public trial and possibly ruin his career, just to make your investigation easier?"
"Oh, I see those wheels turning in your mind, ready to crucify me on your journalistic rhetoric. But this is a particularly grisly double homicide, that could very well become a chain. I have a feeling it wasn't one person, either."
"Strange ... that's the conclusion we come to, also."
"Tell me about your theory. Maybe it'll help."