Read The 37th Hour Online

Authors: Jodi Compton

Tags: #Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Minneapolis (Minn.), #Police, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #General, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Missing persons, #Fiction

The 37th Hour (3 page)

We were both taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. After they took Ellie away, a middle-aged physician’s assistant looked at me and said, “I’ll have a look at you in the second exam room down the hall.”

“Me?” I said, startled. “I’m fine.”

“Probably,” she said. “But I got to look at your ears and check—”

“My ears feel fine,” I said, ignoring the faint but telltale cool heaviness that meant there was water in one of them. At her skeptical look—medical people take challenges to their authority nearly as badly as cops—I said, “Really. I don’t do exams.”

I meant it. Few things frighten me. Doctors’ offices do. “Just point me toward your showers, all right?” I said.

She gave me the skeptical look a moment more, and then said, “Fine, at this time of year I doubt you’ve even got mild hypothermia.” There was a definite fox-and-grapes sound to her dismissal, as though she hadn’t really wanted to examine me anyway.

In the doctors’ and nurses’ locker room, I took a fifteen-minute shower under very hot water and put on a set of nurse’s scrubs they’d provided me, a flowered top and sea-green pants. My wet clothes I balled up and put in a plastic bag. When I came out, I peered into the examining rooms, looking for Ellie. A young nurse saw me.

“We already took her over to the crisis unit,” she said, meaning the psychiatric ward. “She’s going to be admitted overnight, at least. We gave her a chest X ray to see if she inhaled a lot of water, and it hasn’t come back yet, but I think she’s fine, physically.”

Officer Moore had been dispatched back to headquarters to retrieve the change of clothes I kept in my locker there. Detectives don’t get bled on and vomited on nearly as much as patrol officers do, but we do spend time at crime scenes that are muddy or still smoldering from a suspicious fire, and I’d figured a change of clothes might come in handy sometime. That day had definitely arrived.

When I got out into the waiting room, Moore wasn’t there yet. Ainsley Carter was. She jumped from her seat quickly, but the hug she gave me was very tentative, shoulders only, as though I were sick or injured.

“Do you have children, Detective Pribek?” Ainsley asked me.

“I’m sorry?” I said. I’d expected a question about Ellie’s situation. “No, I don’t.”

“Joe and I have been talking about it,” she said. She twisted her solitaire, the way she had yesterday when talking about her husband’s unwillingness to have Ellie move in with them. “We want kids, but after this, a child seems like”—she shook her head—“a terrifying responsibility.” For the first time I saw the dried trails on her cheeks from the tears I’d heard over the phone.

Officer Moore was coming through the sliding double doors, carrying clothes on a plastic hanger in one hand and boots in her other.

“You’re going to be at the same phone number, the same motel, right?” I asked Ainsley quickly. “I’m going to have to touch base with you later.”

“I’ll be at the same place,” Ainsley said. “And . . . thank you,” she added quietly.

I met Officer Moore halfway across the room and cleared my throat. “Thanks,” I said awkwardly. I hadn’t been a detective very long, and I felt uncomfortable having a patrolwoman run this kind of errand for me.

“Sure,” she responded as I took my things from her. “You were Genevieve Brown’s partner, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I still am.”

“How is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t talked to her recently.”

“Well, a lot of us miss her.”

“She’s coming back,” I told her quickly.

“Really? When?”

I had to backpedal. “She hasn’t mentioned a date yet. I just meant, it’s compassionate leave. She’ll be back.”

Moore shook her head. “Sure, it’ll take time. It was just awful, what happened.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was.”

 

Genevieve Brown had been my first friend in the Twin
Cities. I wasn’t surprised that Officer Moore had known her; Genevieve knew everyone.

Her roots were in the Cities, and she’d spent her entire career with the Sheriff’s Department: first on patrol, then in community relations, and now in the detective division. Her real strength was interrogation. Genevieve could talk to anyone.

No criminal ever really feared her: She was short and not imposing, with a low voice soft as suede. She was logical, educated, reasonable; before the perpetrators knew it, they were telling her things they wouldn’t have told the guys. A few of the detectives called her the Human Polygraph.

I’d known her from way back in my patrol days, and had learned a lot from her. I paid her back for her shared wisdom by training with her in the gym, pushing her, keeping her at a physical peak as she went into her late thirties. When I lived alone in a cheap studio in Seven Corners, Genevieve used to invite me to dinner from time to time at her place in St. Paul.

It might have been the happiest day of my life when I got my shield and went to work with her. She was a good teacher and mentor, but more than that, she was fun to work with.

We used to get coffee in the skyways, the interconnected second-story warren of shops, restaurants, and newsstands that served the businesspeople of Minneapolis. She’d stop sometimes in one of the glassed-in passageways, usually on a morning when the weather was at least ten degrees below zero. Holding her paper cup of French roast in both hands, she’d look out at the city beyond, where white steam escaped from every building vent and the sunlight bounced with deceptive brightness off every heap of snow and icy surface.

“Today’s the day, kiddo,” she’d say. “We’re going to turn the radio off and drive south until we get to New Orleans. We’re going to sit in the sun and eat beignets.” Sometimes, for variety, she’d say we were going to San Francisco instead, to drink Irish coffee by the Bay.

But she was never serious. After more than a decade of police work, she still loved the job.

Then her only child, her daughter, Kamareia, was raped and murdered.

I’d known Kamareia since she was a child, from the early days of my career when Genevieve had first begun inviting me home for dinner. Born of Gen’s early, interracial marriage to a law student during her college days, Kamareia had been mature beyond her years, generally supportive of her mother’s demanding job.

Sometimes, we’d listen to other detectives talking about their teenagers: tales of incomplete homework and teacher conferences and coming home to messy houses. Afterward, Genevieve would say, “God, sometimes I don’t know how I got so lucky.”

I had been there the terrible evening Genevieve came home to find her daughter badly injured but still alive. I’d ridden to the hospital with Kamareia and held her hand until the ER crew had taken her away. I’d stood around in the waiting room until a doctor came out to say that Kamareia, who wrote poetry and had applied to the early-admission program at Spelman, had died of massive internal bleeding.

Genevieve had come back to work two weeks after Kamareia’s death.

“I need to be working,” she’d told me, the Sunday night that she’d called me and told me she’d be at work the following day. “Please make everybody understand.”

The next morning Genevieve had turned up fifteen minutes early, eyes reddened but neatly dressed, with a clean herbal scent clinging to her damp hair, ready to work. And she’d done okay, then and in the weeks to come.

It seemed to help that there’d been an arrest made right away: a housepainter working on a place in Genevieve’s St. Paul neighborhood. Kamareia herself had identified him as her attacker. While he was in the system, and Ramsey County prosecutors built their case, Genevieve was all right. She buried herself in work, concentrated on the job like a white-knuckle passenger on a rough flight or an alcoholic drying out with nothing but willpower.

Then the case was dismissed on a technicality, and Genevieve lost her way.

I carried her for a month. She lost weight and came in with violet shadows under her eyes testifying to her sleepless nights. She couldn’t concentrate at work. Questioning witnesses and suspects, she could only ask the most basic questions. Her powers of observation were worse than those of the most oblivious civilian. She didn’t make even the simplest logical connections.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her to hang it up, and in the end, I didn’t have to. Genevieve was just together enough to realize she wasn’t doing any good to the department, and asked for an indefinite leave of absence. She left the Cities and went south, to stay with her younger sister and brother-in-law at a farmhouse just south of Mankato.

When had I last called Genevieve? I tried to remember as I drove back downtown. The thought caused me a pang of guilt and I set it aside.

Back at the station, I wrote up a report of the morning’s events, trying to make my leap into the water sound like rational behavior, something any detective would have done. Had I “pursued” Ellie into the river? That sounded weird. I backspaced and tried
followed
instead. Writing was my least favorite part of the job.

“Pribek!” I looked up to see Det. John Vang, my sometime partner in Genevieve’s absence. “I heard something pretty strange about you this morning.”

Vang was a year younger than me, only recently promoted from patrol. Technically, I was training him, a situation I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with. It didn’t seem so long ago to me that I was trailing behind Genevieve, letting her take the lead on investigations. . . . I glanced toward her desk. It wasn’t exactly cleaned out, but Vang used it now.

He had put up two framed photographs on her desktop. One was a picture of his wife and nine-month-old baby, a close shot with the infant in arms; the second showed just the baby girl at a playground. She was in a kind of swing, a sling that held her at an angle with her head and chest forward, her arms waving in the air. I was sure that she felt she was flying when that picture was snapped.

One day, while Vang had been out, I had tipped the photo so I could see it from my desk. When the miseries of the Ellie Bernhardts of the world piled up on my desk, I liked to look up and see the flying-baby photo.

“If what you heard was about me and the river, it was true,” I said.

“You’re kidding.”

“I didn’t say it was smart, just that it was true.”

I moved my hand, self-consciously, to my hair. At the hospital I’d pulled it back in a ponytail that I’d doubled back up onto itself, so that it hung in a heavy but not-very-long loop on my neck. Touching it now, my hair felt not quite dry: It wasn’t damp but, rather, cool to the touch.

After my report was finished, it was time to request a new pager. The old one had been in my jacket, and my jacket was now in the river. I was grateful that my billfold and my cell phone had been elsewhere during the morning’s insanity.

Before I could go on that errand, my phone rang. It was Jane O’Malley, a Hennepin County prosecutor.

“Come on up,” she said. “The testimony’s been going faster than we expected. We’re probably going to get to you today.”

O’Malley was prosecuting a case that told a common, sad story: a young person with an ex-boyfriend who just couldn’t let go. But this was an old story with a twist: The missing person had been a young man. He’d left the Gay 90s, a nightspot popular with both gays and straight people, by himself and sober after dancing with friends. That was the last anyone had ever seen him.

Genevieve and I had investigated the case. Later, as the ex-boyfriend’s evasions and quasi-alibis grew increasingly thin, we’d been joined by a detective from Minneapolis Homicide. We never found the victim or his body, just a lot of his blood and one of his earrings in the trunk of the car his ex had reported stolen the following day and not disposed of very well.

As I crossed the atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center to the elevators, a familiar voice hailed me.

“Detective Pribek!”

Christian Kilander fell into step beside me. He was a Hennepin County prosecutor, imposingly tall and fiercely competitive both in the courtroom and on the basketball courts where I sometimes went up against him in pickup games.

If Genevieve’s voice was suede, his was something lighter yet, like chamois. And nearly always arch, a quality that made his everyday speech sound teasing and flirtatious and his cross-examinations sound ironic and disbelieving.

Basically, I liked Kilander, but an encounter with him was never to be taken lightly.

“It’s nice to see you on dry land,” he said. “As usual, your innovative policing techniques leave us all in awe.”

“All?” I said, lengthening my stride to match his. “I only see one of you. Do you have fleas?”

He laughed immediately and generously, defusing the joke. “How is the little girl?” he asked as we came to the elevator bank.

“She’s recovering,” I said. A pair of double doors slid open to our left and we followed a pair of clerks into the car. As we did, I reflected that I’d probably heard the last of Ellie Bernhardt. I had done what I could for her; the rest of her troubles would be someone else’s to help her with, not mine. Whether those efforts were successful or not, I’d probably never know. That was the reality of being a cop. Those officers who didn’t like it quit to get degrees in social work.

The clerks got off the elevator at the fifth floor. I rubbed my left ear.

“You have water in your ear, don’t you?” Kilander said as we began ascending again.

“Yes,” I admitted. Even though I knew it was a harmless condition, I wasn’t used to it. The slight crackling of water in that ear was disconcerting.

The elevator came to a halt at my floor, and in the brief lapse between the car’s full stop and the opening of the door, Kilander gave me a thoughtful look from his six-foot-five height. Then he said, “You’re a wide-open girl, Detective Pribek. You surely are.”

“Thanks,” I said noncommittally as the door slid open, not sure that it was the answer that was called for. A few years ago I would have bristled at being called a girl and tried in vain to think of a cutting response, which would have come to me about fifteen minutes after Kilander and I parted ways. But I was no longer an insecure rookie, and Kilander had never been a chauvinist, no matter how he appeared at first glance.

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