On her way to the precinct, Detective Chelsea Simon clutched her Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee from Ray’s Café and a croissant she’d snagged at Reading Terminal Market more tightly than her sanity. As she navigated security screening and headed up to her floor, every cop in the place gave her cup an envious glance and surreptitious sniff. She knew better by now than to also brandish a doughnut; the croissant was a compromise.
Her detective-in-training, Olive Norvell, waited by her desk. Olive wore her dark hair in a tight bun that, along with her square forehead, height, and size, gave her the aura of a Soviet prison guard. “We got another one about the cheesesteak case,” she intoned, thumbs hooked into her gleaming uniform belt. “Kid who knew Victim One.” She snorted dismissively. “Says he’s been ‘investigating.’ Watches too much NCIS, I bet.” Then she smiled, slowly. “Oh, that Mark Harmon is hot. But not as hot as Ducky.”
Norvell’s rookie partner, Laurel Gutierrez, hurried up with a pile of folders clutched to her chest and nearly knocked over Chelsea’s $10 coffee. Laurel hunched her shoulders apologetically and nearly disappeared, she was so thin; only her cropped messy hair had bulk. “He might really know something,” she said earnestly. “He says he’s majoring in criminology.”
“Tell me that again,” Norvell demanded.
Laurel flushed and stammered as she always did when Norvell put her on the spot. “He, well, he’s a college student and he carries one of those tablets with a stylus, so he must be sort of smart. He takes a lot of notes—he showed me some—and, and people who take notes are—”
Chelsea tuned out for a long, blessed drink of coffee heaven. It went down her throat like melted gold and seemed to spread its glow out to the very ends of her limbs.
Laurel was still talking when Chelsea came up for air. “And…well, he wears weird pants. I mean, who wears their pants like that?”
Norvell nodded sagely. “He might know something. You should’ve said that to begin with.”
Chelsea plucked off a bit of flaky, buttery croissant. “Let him sweat for a few minutes.” She was going to finish her coffee before allowing herself to be cooped up in Interview for the rest of the afternoon. She’d already had a long morning commiserating as her husband railed against unfair restaurant reviewers on Yelp. She had hoped to spend the afternoon reviewing more of the reports the uniforms brought in, not listen to yet another purveyor of red herring.
The department had set up a hotline for the Cheesesteak Murders that was less discriminating than Yelp. It had been a mixed blessing at best. The hotline’s chief virtue was that it kept Laurel out of Chelsea’s hair, since someone had to log all of those calls. On the other hand, Olive actually read the log, discovering potential new leads every ten minutes or so, which might have been a help if Chelsea had the manpower to explore even the more concrete leads she already had.
Which reminded her of the bird in hand in Interview Three. She really hoped he wasn’t anything like the wild-haired “Pat Geno,” whom Olive had brought in yesterday. He’d sounded rational at first, but then the guy had rambled for over an hour about people who didn’t speak English, and how that meant they were poisoning his cheese with Spanish. Eventually, they’d tracked down his social worker and confirmed he’d been in hospital lockdown when most of the crimes had taken place.
Then there was the so-called Whizvenger from the day before. He carried a canvas tote bag containing an enormous orange binder, crammed tight with charts and graphs relating to every cheesesteak in the city. Who knew that some places used Vidalia onions? Or that you could make a (heretical) cheesesteak with bone marrow? Or that the blue cheesesteak was a thing? Who effing cared?
Well, apparently Laurel cared, but Chelsea was not going there today. She wanted to keep her croissant down.
After sending Laurel off to log more phone calls, Chelsea took Olive with her into Interview Three. At 6’1” and with the build of a dedicated weightlifter, Olive’s mere presence at Chelsea’s shoulder was often enough to intimidate the most confident witness, and Vincent de Leon was no exception.
“It’s about time!” he exclaimed when Chelsea swept in, only to gape and swallow as Olive marched in and took her post next to the doorway, massive arms crossed over her chest.
“Mr. de Leon?” Chelsea asked, extending a hand. His was clammy: its normal state, or guilt-induced? “I’m Detective Simon.”
de Leon recovered quickly. “Aren’t you married to Arturo Simon? The Restaurant Magnate?”
She was, but it was irrelevant to her assignment to this case. None of Arturo’s dozen establishments would deign to serve a cheesesteak. Except one made from Wagyu beef, of course, and served deconstructed on a slice of raw onion with foie gras, mushroom, shallot, Serbian Pule cheese, and a quarter-sized circle of Amoroso roll. A Yelper had called it “The One-Percenter’s Insanity.”
Chelsea declined to answer de Leon’s question, instead informing him that the interview would be recorded and read him his rights. They both sat, and she flipped open a folder, which actually held a pile of effort reports. “So apparently you have information for us, Mr. de Leon. Did Officer Norvell explain that we’re quite busy here?”
“Yes, Mrs.—Ms.—may I call you Chelsea?”
“Detective,” she supplied, along with what Arturo called her Death Glare. It was a pity this punk hadn’t been charged with anything—he looked like he ought to be guilty. “I understand you’ve uncovered additional information relating to the death of Nicholas Hodges.”
“Yes, ma’am. Detective.” From de Leon’s facial expression, she could tell that Olive was scowling at him. He continued, “See, I’m a criminology major, and I’m going to be a reporter. Got a blog and everything. So I know how to ask questions. And I can ask questions where the police can’t.”
“There is no place the police cannot ask questions, Mr. de Leon,” Chelsea said.
“Yeah, well, you don’t always have, like, time and cops to do it all, right? And you might not know where to look, not as well as—”
Olive cleared her throat. de Leon flinched, and went on. “I knew Hodges. Well, I helped him with a paper one time. Well, three times really. I didn’t write them for him. I don’t write guys’ papers for money, I wouldn’t do that. At all.”
“Is this relevant?”
“No, ma’am. Uh, I go to Drexel.”
“So I understand.”
“I decided I would check around campus, retrace his final hours, like you do when you’re investigating.”
“You don’t need to explain to me how to investigate a crime, Mr. de Leon.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” He glanced at Olive, flinched again, and announced with shaky bravado, “I made a timeline.”
“A timeline of?”
“Hodges’ final hours.” de Leon switched on his tablet and displayed it proudly.
The timeline was neon text on a black background, and included an animated GIF of lacrosse players in one corner. The page header blinked cheerily. Then a tiny image of a cheesesteak floated across the screen, roll flapping like wings. Chelsea cleared her throat. “You may share that with Officer Gutierrez. Perhaps you could sum up your findings.”
“I could describe my deductive chain—”
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. de Leon. Did you identify anyone who might carry a grudge against Mr. Hodges?”
de Leon sighed. “Well, students mostly liked Hodges.”
“Did he have a girlfriend? A boyfriend?”
“Ummm, girls. There were girls. At parties and like that. An awful lot of girls came up to me and said how sorry they were.” de Leon looked puzzled for a moment, then went on. “He didn’t have a regular girlfriend. He broke up with Lisa Canoletto over the summer because she transferred to University of Kansas and they didn’t want to do long distance. One of the other girls said Lisa was dating some football player now.”
“We’ve already confirmed Miss Canoletto’s alibi.”
“Oh.” de Leon squirmed in his chair. “Did you know Hodges wasn’t so popular with his professors? Dr. Brown kicked him out of Creative Writing last year because he wasn’t doing the work.”
“He had a really bad crush on Dr. Niyat O’Malley in first year, and he kept leaving valentines on her desk for a whole semester. Some of them were pretty raunchy. And he bought her chocolate bars with bacon in them.” de Leon made a face.
“Mr. Hodges’ taste in chocolate is not at issue here.”
“Oh, right. I found out Dr. Maggie Toriyama reported him for sexting in class—it wasn’t with Lisa—and Dr. Katrina Malfois was going to fail him in English Comp if he skipped one more class.”
Chelsea had known about Toriyama’s report, since it was on record. A follow-up interview had revealed Dr. Toriyama had been more amused than offended by the incident. The issue with Dr. Malfois, however, hadn’t come up in the initial round of interviews. She’d have to send Laurel and Olive back to Drexel, or to Community College of Philadelphia, where Dr. Malfois taught an evening class. Perhaps this interview hadn’t been a total waste of time after all.
Olive escorted de Leon out, and Chelsea spent a couple of hours at her desk filling out paperwork and signing off on reports for some of her other cases, assigning uniforms to interviews and research as needed. At last, she was able to get back to the Cheesesteak Murders, which first involved reassesing her bulletin board, currently covered with photographs of the deceased and photographs or artist’s renditions of the murder weapons—or rather, their remains. She’d used colored yarn and thumbtacks to demonstrate known and potential connections between the victims and the various suspects and locations. A second board held a map, showing the locations where the murder weapons had been administered and where the bodies had actually landed. Hodges had been the first victim; was that of particular significance? There was also the possibility that not all of the victims had been intended victims. If that was the case, that could muddy the waters quite a bit.
Chelsea went back to her computer to print pictures of the three professors mentioned by de Leon. She didn’t seriously think Toriyama was a suspect, but decided to include her in the grouping. O’Malley might have been angrier about what might be considered stalking than her interview had revealed; a follow-up would be needed. Chelsea recalled that O’Malley’s mother’s family owned an upscale Eritrean restaurant in Fishtown. Arturo had mentioned it a few times, but they hadn’t been able to go there for a meal yet. It was unlikely they served a cheesesteak, but that would have to be checked as well.
She hadn’t spoken to Dr. Katrina Malfois. Olive had taken that interview, she remembered as she dug out the notes from the pile of folders on the floor beneath the murder board. She would review that one next. From her picture and bio on the Drexel website, Malfois was adjunct faculty, a well-groomed white woman with a serious mien. It wasn’t clear how old the picture was, or how long she had been teaching at Drexel. The Community College of Philadelphia website had no information on her at all. Did she teach at other schools, as well? Something else to investigate.
Chelsea printed the picture of Malfois and added the three professors to the board, with yarn lines connecting them to Hodges. It would be an easy search to find out if any of the three had taught any of the other victims. And then, they would have more connections, which might lead to a real suspect in this case at last.
Chelsea didn’t get home until close to two o’clock the next morning. At this rate, she was going to end up on the night shift.
Their Rittenhouse condo was quiet when she let herself in. Her cat, Mozzarella, was curled asleep on the back of the leather couch. Chelsea stripped off her suit jacket and locked her gun and its holster in the gun safe, placing her badge in with them. Only then did she lay her phone, keys, and wallet on the marble kitchen island.
Arturo sat in the cozy breakfast nook with his nightly espresso, examining the evening’s receipts from his restaurant empire as they rolled in. Chelsea laid her hands on his shoulders and kissed the top of his bald head. “Sell any deconstructed Wagyu cheesesteaks?”
“I’m waiting to find out if Craig LeBan is impressed before I give up on it.” He reached up to caress her hand with his. “I missed the news—any breaks in the case?”
Chelsea slid onto the padded banquette next to him, throwing one leg over his lap. She laid her head on his shoulder. It wouldn’t be difficult to fall asleep right here.
“More leads, but leads are a dime a dozen, and any idiot can drop one. Today an idiot did.”
“It’s following the leads that counts,” Arturo said solemnly.
“You know my rants too well,” Chelsea said.
“Want to hear about some more idiots on Yelp?” Arturo grinned and kissed her. “The case will still be there in the morning.”
“It’s already morning.” Chelsea yawned. “I sent Olive and Laurel home at a reasonable hour, so they can follow up on an interview for me, and decide whether to bring the lady into the precinct.”
“And the mayor? Has he had anything to say to you?”
“Not to me. The Chief, I’m sure. I’m keeping my head down as much as I can. I don’t need politicking along with all the other crap I have to deal with. God help me if I ever make lieutenant.”
“Don’t worry, I would hire you as a dishwasher in a hot minute,” Arturo said, nuzzling her neck. “I’m imagining you wearing soapsuds right now.”
“Anything besides the soapsuds?”
“That would be telling,” he murmured. “I—” Chelsea’s cell rang. “Crap,” Arturo said.
“Detective Simon here.”
“Sorry, Detective. It can’t wait. There’s been another murder—one Vincent de Leon. You had him in Interview today?”
“Crap,” Chelsea said. “Okay, give me the rundown.” Arturo shoved over his laptop with an open text window, and she hurriedly typed Penn and Pencil club, local writer Swanwick found body, previous altercation at location with victim, uniforms on the way. “Right,” she said. “I’m home now, and it’s close enough to walk. Tell them I’ll be there in ten.”