Un Lampo di Bianco: Chapter 7

7
Jackson, in what was becoming typical Jackson fashion, made Tony wait again. He wanted Tony on hand when Detective Huber finished with Niccoldi to see if the good professor had omitted something important. As it turned out, he had not. That did Tony little good, however. By the time the police were done with him and he was able to return to the Marriott, he’d missed lunch by a long shot.

Laying on the neatly remade bed, Tony turned on the TV and channel-surfed for several minutes before finally settling on an episode of Columbo. It was ironic, he thought: he picked the one detective show where everyone knew who did it. In real life, nobody seemed to have a clue. Watching Peter Falk go through his routine reminded Tony that he was no detective, nor a journalist for that matter. He was a writer and that expertise seemed unlikely to help him now.

Still, he couldn’t help but give it a shot. He set up the past two days in his mind like a narrative and tried to make the pieces connect. Amy Holden gets murdered – an inciting incident. But why? What’s the backstory? He and K.J. had both assumed it was because of her research, but maybe not. Everyone said Amy was “nice.” In Tony’s experience, “nice” meant “hiding something.”

One thread at a time, though. Back to the research. Amy looks into Simon Valence and finds something that makes her want to keep looking. Somebody doesn’t like that. But who is her killer? What’s the motivation? Definition through action suggests anger, revenge. Maybe Valence had a widow, children, an old friend looking to keep his name clean. Or maybe it was someone from the university side who wants to keep a lid on things. Jackson said ex-Chancellor Hand was “not well.” Tony took that for old and frail, but what if he meant mentally unbalanced?

The more Tony thought about it, the more outlandish it seemed. The possibilities made his head hurt and no clear connections emerged. When the episode of Columbo ended, he decided to take a nap.

K.J. woke him again, this time with a phone call inviting him to dinner. “We can compare notes,” she offered.

“I don’t have any notes,” he said.

“That’s OK,” she told him. “I have more than enough for both of us.”

She took him to a downtown seafood place with jazz music and outdoor seating. The weather held and the bugs managed to leave them alone. Tony went with crab cakes, his measuring stick for all seafood restaurants. They were decent, but far from the best he’d had. K.J. picked lightly at an oyster salad, devoting more interest to her bottled beer. The attitude she’d copped earlier seemed long gone.

“So I ran Valence through our archive,” she said. “Niccoldi was right. He was a pretty big deal. Won all kinds of awards, got quoted a lot, that kind of thing.”

“What about his death?” Tony asked.

K.J. shrugged and took another swallow of beer. “Not much on that,” she explained. “Cop reporters don’t usually write up suicides. It’s taboo.”

“Oh.”

“But but but,” she said, waving a finger. “I did find his obit. He was survived by his widow, Daria. Good luck finding her though. My editor says she split the area after Simon capped himself. Anyway, that’s my day. You get anywhere with the boys in blue?”

“After you antagonized them, I was afraid to ask,” Tony said.

“Oh please,” K.J. said with another dismissive hand wave. “Avis was just being territorial. The chief reads the paper. Any time we scoop the police, it makes them look bad. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“He still seemed very touchy. Especially when I mentioned Hand.”

“Hand’s his benefactor,” K.J. said. She shoveled some salad into her mouth. A kid on a motor scooter zipped by on the street.

“Benefactor?” Tony asked. The crab cakes came with a rice pilaf, which he worked slowly and with little enthusiasm.

“Avis is local,” K.J. explained. “His father was a groundskeeper at the university for years. Hand knew the family pretty well, hired Avis to mow his lawn during summers. Even gave him a scholarship, a pretty generous one for a B-student and a backup wide receiver. So yeah, Avis is a little protective as far as Hand and the university are concerned.”

“Protective enough to…”

K.J. interrupted him by bursting into loud, obnoxious laughter. She snorted. Beer dripped down her chin.

“You think Avis is covering for Hand?!” she asked. “Hand’s pushing 80. He’s in a wheelchair. He rarely goes out in public these days. If he killed Amy Holden, I’ll eat a fucking horse.”

“I don’t like this,” Tony said, frowning. “You seem to know everything and I still can’t fill in the blanks. Meanwhile, I don’t even know your proper name.”

“And with an attitude like that, you never will,” K.J. rebuked. “I’m not the only one you seem to have a problem with. I saw how you were with Niccoldi.”

“Niccoldi is…”

“An academic, same as yourself. But no, that can’t be. You’re Tony Lang, a writer, a man of the world, right? Well, I’ve got news for you, Tony. You’re no Hemingway. So get over it.”

The words stung and Tony was at a loss for how to handle himself. If a student came at him with that, he could kick her out of his office or drop her from his class. If some snotty critic put that in a book review, he could ignore it or write a rejoinder. If a friend or a lover said that to his face, it could give him reason to reexamine that relationship. But K.J. was none of those things.

“This is stupid,” Tony finally concluded. “People are dying out there and we’re sitting here arguing.”

“Story of my life,” K.J. said. She drained the last of her beer, made a similar effort to finish off the salad and came up well short. “Let me ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

“You said ‘people are dying.’ Amy’s one. As a man of the world, do you think we’re headed for more?”

“I hope not,” Tony replied in earnest. “But I don’t know.”