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HACKER SAFE certified sites prevent over 99% of hacker crime.

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Life Lessons [MultiFormat]
eBook by Kaje Harper

eBook Category: Mystery/Crime/Erotic Romance/Gay Fiction
eBook Description: Tony Hart's life has been quiet lately. He has good friends and a rewarding teaching job. Then the murdered body of another teacher falls into the elevator at his feet, and Tony's life gets a little too exciting. Jared MacLean is a homicide detective, a widowed father, and deeply in the closet. But from the moment he meets Tony's blue eyes in that high school hallway, Mac can't help wanting this man in his life. However Mac isn't the only one with his eyes on Tony. As the murderer tries to cover his tracks, Mac has to work fast or lose Tony, permanently.

eBook Publisher: MLR Press, LLC/MLR Press, LLC
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2011


64 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter 1

At eight in the evening on a Friday, Roosevelt High School was dark and abandoned. The after school clubs and sports had ended hours ago. This early in the first semester there were no urgent meetings and no last-minute projects. Students had headed out to their Friday night parties and dates. Departing staff had turned off lights and locked doors until only the empty hallways stood open under the subliminal hum of a few fluorescent lights. The building was deserted.

Except for a few workaholic saps with nothing better to do on a Friday night.

Tony Hart turned his key in the elevator lock with a sigh. Damned thing was up on the third floor and would take forever to come down for him.

It wasn't like he couldn't have gone out to a bar or a club. He could probably even find a decent guy for the evening. His friends all told him he was cute enough to have his pick. But it had been months since he had bothered to look. That whole scene, the fake laughter, the dance-like-someone's-watching, the what-should-I-wear-to-look-hot-but-not-slutty; it just got old. Not that he'd given up on dating forever, whatever his friend Marty might claim. He was just taking a break, concentrating on the other parts of real life.

Like this freaking elevator, which didn't even seem to be moving. Normally he would've just climbed the stairs. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he had used the elevator to get up to his classroom, but his twisted ankle was throbbing and somewhere in the course of this long day he had lost the energy to go up those stairs one more time.

The high school seemed almost unnaturally quiet, the halls forming long avenues of echoing space over the scuffed grey tile floors. Tony fancied he could see the ghosts of the day's students swirling around the lockers in silent animation.

Hart, you have way too much imagination, he told himself. Or maybe too many evenings watching reruns of Buffy.

Finally the elevator came to life with a grinding rumble. The door opened, its faint ding almost erased by a low buzz as the janitor began buffing the floors somewhere down the hall.

See, you're not the only poor sap left in the building.

Tony stepped in and stabbed at the third floor button and the close-doors button with weary impatience. One more load of books and he could head home. That first beer of the evening beckoned in his mind, cold and clean, and the Vietnamese place down the street would deliver. For a city smack in the middle of the Midwest, Minneapolis had some good Vietnamese restaurants.

As the elevator ground its reluctant way upward, Tony allowed himself a mental pat on the back for the result of his students' book drive. At first the teenagers had been uninterested, but gradually they'd caught his enthusiasm. They had collected over two hundred books for the children's library project they were sponsoring. Most of those had already been brought down and stowed in his car by helpful, in other words, forcibly drafted members of his last English class of the day. Except for that forgotten first box he had stowed in his storage closet back when the project began. He had almost convinced himself to leave it there till Monday since he had been driving out of the parking lot when he remembered it, but he wanted to get this project done.

The third floor indicator chimed. As the doors began to open, Tony stepped forward impatiently. So he was unprepared when a big man stumbled backwards onto the elevator. The man's elbow caught Tony's chest and slammed him back against the wall. He recognized the wide shoulders and trademark tweed, though.

"Damn it, Westin! Watch where you're going!" he snapped, grabbing for the rail as his weight came down on his sore ankle. "Wait for me to get off already."

The other man grunted and bumped him again, the back of his shoulder whacking Tony's chin. Was he drunk, Tony wondered. He shoved the man irritably away and reached to block the doors as they began to close, but Westin's reaction to his shove was a slow slide down the wall of the elevator to the floor. As Tony watched in dismay, the bigger man rolled his head towards him, face sheet white, and mumbled something. He coughed and blood, shockingly bright in the fluorescent elevator light, sprayed and bubbled down Westin's chin. The man coughed once more, wet and muffled, then lay ominously still.

Oh, Jesus! What the...

Tony dropped to his knees beside the man, reaching for him, mind racing through stroke and pneumonia and...but then his eyes and brain caught up with each other. There wasn't much doubt about the handle of a knife protruding from Westin's chest.

Tony's pulse pounded in his ears. Shit, shit, shit! Westin wasn't moving, wasn't breathing. Tony realized that part of that pounding noise he heard was soft running footsteps down the hall. For an instant longer he knelt, frozen in place, as the elevator doors closed on Westin's trailing feet, dinged their displeasure, and sprang open again. By the time he lunged forward and stuck his head out of the elevator, the hallway was empty. The north stairwell door was swinging shut.

You could run after whoever it was. You should try to catch him.

Tony reached instead for Westin's wrist, then his neck, feeling for a pulse he knew wasn't there. The man's shirtfront and jacket were soaked with blood, liquid and red, still running out and pooling around Tony's knees on the elevator floor. The smell of bowels loosening filled the elevator. Tony gagged and lunged out of the elevator, reaching back in to pull the emergency stop and block the obscene squeeze and release of the doors on Westin's feet.

Phone. Try the damned cell phone

He reached without much hope for his cell. Sure enough there was no service. The whole school was riddled with dead zones. It had the benefit of keeping the students off their phones, except when it had no fucking benefit at all. The rooms were all locked at this hour. He had no master key, only his own. Tony hovered one more moment, pulled between Westin's body, the stairwell, and his room.

No brainer, you stupid git, he told himself impatiently, you can't help Brian Westin, you're not going to catch the guy on the stairs, so call for some help.

His room was at the other end of a hallway that had never seemed so long. His lock resisted the key when he jammed it in. Then there was his desk and his phone and he could finally dial 911.

"What is your emergency?"

Amazing how good someone else's voice sounded right now. "He's dead!" Tony said. Idiot! "I mean, one of the teachers has been stabbed, here at Roosevelt."

"You are at Roosevelt High School?" the voice asked calmly. "2008 West Oak Street in Minneapolis?"

"Yes."

"I'm dispatching police and ambulance to you now," she continued. "Please stay on the line. Are you injured?"

"No, no, I'm fine."

"Are you in danger from anyone else?"

"I don't think so." Tony couldn't help looking back at the door. "I think he's long gone."

"You're doing fine," the woman's voice said reassuringly. Did he sound like he needed reassurance? "Are the building doors locked? Will emergency personnel be able to get in when they arrive?"

Tony had to look at his watch. All sense of time had fled. It was almost eight. "The doors are locked now," he said. "Mr. Ng, the janitor, was on the ground floor when I was down there, but he's running the buffer. He may not hear them."

"Where are you right now, sir?"

"I'm in my classroom. Room 312, on the third floor."

"Can you give me your name and address please."

"Um, Tony, Anthony Hart," he said. "You need my home address?" Jesus, he sounded like a moron.

"Yes, please."

Tony gave it then paused to draw breath. "Do you want me to go down and let the cops in, or should I stay up here?"

"There's a dead man?"

"Yes. It's Brian Westin. He's a teacher too. He's in the elevator."

"He's where?"

"He's in the elevator," Tony repeated. "I mean his body is on the floor of the elevator, which is stopped on the third floor. I pulled the stop button so it wouldn't move."

"And you're certain he's dead?'

"Oh, yeah, he's very dead. That is, I checked for a pulse and all, but there's so much blood..." He let that thought just trail off.

"Can you go down safely to let the officers in without disturbing the area of the body?"

"Sure, there's the south stairwell. I'll go that way."

Suddenly he was eager to get away from this room, this floor, and see someone's live face. He was about to hang up the phone when the woman's voice drifting back in a plaintive "Don't hang up, sir..." made him lay the receiver on the desk instead. Then he hurried out the door, down the hall, away from Westin, thank God, and down the south stairwell. Adrenaline made his breath come short but at least it was doing a damned good job of helping him run on his bad ankle. Every sound was amplified, from the rush of his pulse in his ears to his feet thudding loudly on the treads. He ran fast, swinging around the end rails, ignoring a timid little voice that kept whining, Don't make so much noise; what if that guy is still down there, hunting people?

He shoved open the door at the bottom of the stair and hurried out into the main hall. Nothing moved. No one jumped out at him. His footsteps echoed as he passed the darkened administrative offices and the counseling center. The buffer's hum was no longer audible, although the brightened lights and scuffed floor in the main hallway suggested Pete hadn't yet finished his work.

At the locked front doors Tony stopped and peered out into the darkness. It was already pitch black at this time of year, with the days shortening quickly. The early fall air held a hint of chill, the first breath of Minnesota winter on its way. The parking lot was well lit, but beyond that the city rose in dark shapes and distant lighted towers. No one was visible on foot. City traffic hummed all around, but no one was cruising West Oak Street.

In the distance Tony could hear a siren. After a minute it resolved into a marked police car, lights flashing, pulling up into the bus zone. Two uniformed cops got out and walked cautiously towards the building as a second black-and-white turned into the drive.

Tony shoved the locking bar and swung the door open. The words, thank goodness you're here, bubbled to his lips but he bit them back. He didn't have to be that much of a geek.

The cops eyed him with obvious caution as they approached, hands near their belts. "You the guy who called 911?" one of them said.

"Yes."

"You want to tell us what's going on?" the older officer asked.

"I was going up to the third floor in the elevator, and when I got there this other teacher, Brian Westin, kind of fell in through the doors. He's dead. I mean, he has a knife in his chest and, well, when I was sure he was dead I called you guys."

"He fell in?" The older cop looked suspicious. "Like his body was leaning on the doors?"

"No. I mean, yes," Tony stammered. "That is, he wasn't quite dead then. But he is now. I mean, it had obviously just happened and he fell through the doors as he was bleeding to death." He was suddenly aware of how much of Westin's blood he had somehow got on him, and bent over as his stomach twisted, retching involuntarily.

The cop reached out to take his arm in a firm grip. "Are you all right, sir?"

"Yeah," Tony said tightly. "Other than losing my grasp of the English language, I'm fine."

"Did you see who did it?"

"No," Tony said. "Almost. I must have almost seen him, but by the time I thought to look out of the elevator, I just saw the stairwell door closing. Not even a glimpse from behind."

An ambulance and another black-and-white pulled into the parking lot, sirens drowning out their voices for a moment. Tony's ears rang oddly in the silence as the noise shut off, and he was glad of the hard grip on his arm. Or maybe it wasn't the sirens echoing in his ears.

If death had a sound, would it be that wet, red cough?

The officer shook him gently and Tony dragged his attention back to the man. "Who else is in the building, sir?"

"I don't know," Tony replied. He tried to think. "This late on a Friday, there won't be many people. Pete Ng, the janitor, was doing the floors on the first level a little while ago. There may be a few other teachers or staff here." He looked out at the parking area. A few cars still sat in the lot and he waved at them. "Presumably anyone whose car is still there, unless they left some other way. The blue Prius is mine."

"Okay, sir," the officer said, "I'm Officer Larson and this is my partner Officer Stone. I'm going to ask you to come with us and show me what we have here, then we'll have you wait to tell your story to the detectives."

His partner, who had been on the radio and conferring with the other emergency personnel, came up to them with a paramedic in tow. Other officers were spreading out around the building, presumably checking the other doors or something. The older cop preceded Tony back into the building and his partner came behind, pausing to jam the main door open. The EMT followed them cautiously.

Larson paused in the main hallway. "The elevator is where from here?"

"That way." Tony pointed off to the left. "In that alcove where the sign is, past the principal's office."

"Is there another one?"

"Nope. This is a school, so most of us use the stairs. You have to have a key to use the elevator."

"Okay," Larson said slowly. "And you think the guy who stabbed this teacher went down one of the stairs?"

"That one." Tony gestured at the north end.

"There's another way up?"

"A couple of them. The south stair is closest. That's how I came down."

"Right then." Larson called in for someone to tape off the north stair, whatever that meant, then the cop led the way up. At the third floor he looked through the safety glass window in the doors carefully before leading them out. The hallway was deserted except for Westin's shoes protruding from the elevator. Tony did not object to being placed against the wall by a classroom and told to stay. His nerves were steadier, now that he had armed company, and he had his share of curiosity, but he didn't need to see Westin's body again. In fact, if he closed his eyes he could get a perfectly clear look at it, from the blood welling out onto the floor to the dark handle of the knife unmoving in its dead sheath.

Other officers came up the stairs, one of them bearing a roll of yellow crime-scene tape that he strung across the hallway a long way down from the crowd around the body. Aha, tape off the stairway. It made sense now. After several minutes the EMT came back along the hall and disappeared down the stairs, presumably unneeded in the face of a stopped heart that was not going to respond to the portable defibrillator.

As Officer Stone came back past him, Tony reached out a hand to detain the cop, grossed out by the stickiness of his own skin. "Can I find a bathroom and get cleaned up?" he asked.

"I'd rather you didn't do that, sir," Stone said coolly. "If you can stand to wait, the detectives will want to talk to you while everything is...unchanged."

"Ah," Tony realized. "Meaning they want to look at the blood on me and see if it fits with my story."

"I can't comment on that, sir." Stone said. "I would appreciate it if you would just wait here." He glanced around. "We could find you a chair."

"Nah, floor is fine." Tony slid down to sit against the wall. "I think maybe I'll just hang out here." He aimed for a languid tone.

The officer frowned. No sense of humor, obviously, but he continued on his errand without comment.

Tony leaned his head against the wall. He had a feeling this would be a while. At first he watched the scene, but from his vantage point he got a lot of uniformed legs coming and going, and not much else. Not that he had anything against uniformed legs, but still... He closed his eyes.

Brian Westin was dead. It was hard to wrap his mind around that. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy...well, maybe Osama bin Laden or Rush Limbaugh or the guy who invented the pop-up ad. Still, it was the first murder that had touched Tony personally. Not the first death, God knew, but the first that got blood on his hands. And why would someone kill the man? Westin was a mean-spirited son of a bitch, but not in an up-front in-your-face way. An angry student? A chance encounter? Someone who'd had enough of being needled and just snapped? It was hard to picture someone actually using a knife and...nope, not going there.

Tony blanked his mind, concentrating on his breathing. His ankle throbbed. That run down the stairs had not done good things for it. There was still one box of books in his room. He'd have to carry it down the stairs now. Maybe he would just leave it for Monday. Who knew if he'd even be allowed in his room... He let his mind drift, not thinking, not remembering, until something nudged his foot, jarring his sore ankle. His eyes snapped open at the sudden realization that someone had been saying his name. He looked up into a pair of the darkest brown eyes he had ever seen.

"Mr. Hart?" the man said as Tony gathered his scattered wits. The face above him was frowning a little. "Are you all right? I'm Detective MacLean and I'd like to talk to you."

Jared MacLean had taken the call out to Roosevelt High School as a gift from the gods. He had been trapped on the phone in a seemingly endless conversation with Mrs. Hewitt Tremayne about her husband's death. Or rather, he had been sitting at his desk silently listening to Mrs. Tremayne, with a firm rein on his temper, while she explained to him that the verdict of accidental death was just not acceptable. She demanded, demanded, that Detective MacLean prove that her husband had been murdered.

His hand tightened on the telephone receiver as her annoying, whiny voice droned on. There had been just enough money involved for the department to put in a brief investigation, but the husband had been drunk as a skunk and doing eighty-five on wet pavement. Not one shred of evidence pointed to anything but death by stupidity. MacLean sighed, rubbing at his eyes, while the irate woman threatened to have her good friend, the Chief of Police take away his badge for incompetence.

His partner Oliver's urgent wave, pointing towards the door, was the excuse he needed to say, "You go ahead and do that, ma'am," and hang up. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair on his way out the door.

Oliver drove the unmarked car they were using this week. It was falling apart, but it had a fairly beefy engine in it and Oliver liked to floor it. Mac braced himself against the window frame and tried to anticipate his partner's moves through the Friday night traffic. Murder at a high school--that would be news in this town where murder was not yet an everyday event.

Mac remembered high school vividly. There were a few teachers he would have been glad to see cream-pied, but killing one was a different story. And Roosevelt wasn't known as a particularly tough school.

By eight PM, general traffic was loosening up a little, although the bar scene downtown would be hopping. Heading out of city center things quickly lightened up, and the drive took less than ten minutes. They pulled up at the high school in time to see an EMT coming out casually, his bag slung over a shoulder.

"This one's yours, not mine," the man said to Oliver as they passed on the walkway.

Oliver's reply was his usual economical nod. They entered the school and spotted the uniform in charge by his posture and the relieved look he gave them on sight.

"What do we have?" Mac asked.

"The victim is upstairs, inside the elevator on the third floor," the man reported. "White male stabbed in the abdomen and chest. The weapon is still there, but no sign of the killer, unless you like our witness for it."

"Witness?"

"We've got two people in the building so far. A Peter Ng, who is the janitor and claims to have been down here on the first floor throughout, saw nothing, heard nothing. The other one is a teacher, Anthony Hart, who called it in. He claims he found the victim just before he died, but saw no sign of the killer. He heard someone running down the north stairwell, which is why we have it taped off." He gestured toward a line of tape at the end of the hallway. "We've been using the south stair. I've got men all around the building, all six doors, but it took time to set up. I'm guessing the guy is long gone."

"Have you searched the building yet?"

The officer shook his head. "Not enough people to do that and cover the doors. We have a call out for more units."

Oliver turned to MacLean. "I'll take the scene." Which meant Mac would take the witnesses. They had divided the work that way dozens of times before. Oliver's meticulous eye would catch every detail of the crime scene, but his cool manner intimidated some witnesses. People talked to Mac much more freely than they ever talked to his partner.

"The janitor first," Mac told the uniformed officer. "If he really saw nothing, maybe we can send him home. Get the building search under way as soon as possible, and run the plates on all the cars in the lot and make a list. Find out who might still be around, keep anyone who turns up available for me."

The janitor turned out to be a heavyset Vietnamese man in his mid-thirties. His English was flat and colloquial Midwestern, at least second generation. He insisted he had seen no one and heard nothing over the sound of the floor buffer. He named the last few people he saw leaving the building, most over an hour before, and said in response to Hart's name, "I thought he left. Saw him go out to the parking lot a little while back. Maybe he forgot something."

"Is it unusual for him to be here so late?" Mac asked.

"Nah," Ng drawled. "Kid works late a lot. He's a good guy, usually says hi on his way out, you know. Not like some of the teachers, thinking a janitor's just another piece of school furniture."

"What about a teacher named Brian Westin? Did you see him leave yet?"

"Nope. Wouldn't necessarily though. He's usually out early and he sure don't make a point of noticing the help on his way past. Why? No one will tell me what this is all about."

"I can't comment until I get the full story myself," Mac told him. "Did you see anyone unusual, anyone you wouldn't expect to see around here on a Friday night?"

"No," Ng said. "Not to notice. I'm not security though. I was busy with the floors. Friday's the night I do the hallways and that buffer is plenty loud."

"Did you do the third floor yet?"

"Yep. Did it first. A few folks were still in the classrooms then but don't ask me who."

Further questioning brought no new insights, and eventually Mac convinced the man to leave his floors unfinished. He walked Ng out to the lobby to be escorted to his car. Then he turned to the south stair. Four narrow half-flights led to the third floor. At the top a fire door with a wired glass window was propped open. Two hallways divided, off to the right and straight ahead. The right hallway was dim. The one ahead was taped off and brightly lit. The shiny floors supported Ng's story of his evening's activities.

The crime scene tape was set all the way at the closest end of the hallway and Mac had to smile. Oliver had made a few forceful complaints in the past about carelessly small crime scene taping and contaminated evidence. His rant had obviously percolated through the uniform ranks. Mac wasn't sure if this overly generous measure was a subtle jibe, or a nervous acknowledgement of his partner's sharp tongue. Either way, Oliver would have as big a field as he could want this time.

A few doors down the hall a young man sat on the floor leaning against the wall, his eyes closed. This presumably was the teacher, Anthony Hart. MacLean paused in the doorway to gather first impressions.

Young, was the first thing that came to mind. The man looked barely older than his students. He was slim and not tall, although height was hard to judge in that position. He wore chinos, a polo shirt, and loafers. In a T-shirt and jeans, he would have melted invisibly into the student population. His hair was black, a little tousled, his long dark lashes a smudge against his pale skin. There was blood on his cheek, on his pants, and on the slender-fingered hands dangling loosely over his raised knees. He didn't move when Mac approached, and the detective wondered if he could actually be sleeping.

"Mr. Hart?" he said, stopping at the man's feet. "Mr. Anthony Hart?" When there was no answer he nudged at the man's foot lightly with his own.

The teacher's eyes snapped open and he made a small sound between pain and surprise. For an instant, Mac met an intense blue gaze. Then the man looked down quickly.

"Are you all right?" Mac asked. "I'm Detective MacLean, and I'd like to ask you a few questions. Are you Anthony Hart?"

"Yes," the man said, climbing to his feet. "Sorry, I was...drifting, I guess. This seems so unreal." He began to hold out his hand, but converted the gesture to a grab for the wall as one leg gave out under him.

Mac put a hand under Hart's other elbow in support. The man was lean but there was muscle under his fingers. "Leg gone to sleep?"

"No. Or yes, partly. But mainly I twisted it this afternoon, then I ran down the stairs on it." The teacher gave a rueful smile as he stood on one leg and rotated the other ankle. "Yeouch, but nothing's broken."

"Are you sure?" Mac asked, watching the man's reaction covertly. "We could get it looked at and do this conversation later."

"No way," Hart said. "I want to get this over with so I can wash my hands and get out of these freaking clothes."

"Fair enough." Mac let the man's arm go. "Let's find somewhere you can sit down. Outside the tape, though." He led the way back to the other hallway, Hart limping behind him. "Is there any room we can get into here?"

"There." Hart pointed. "Computer lab. My key will open that one."

"Go ahead."

Mac followed the teacher to the door, but stopped him before he inserted his key. "Let me check it first." He confirmed that the door was securely locked. No blood or other traces on the door handle. "Okay, open it up."

The room was dim, lit by one small fluorescent bulb. Mac reached out, snapped on the overhead lights, and gestured to the nearest chairs. "Let's sit here. Do you mind if I take notes? I like to keep things straight."

Mac watched his witness carefully as he led him through his story: the elevator, the death, the call to 911. The young man's reactions and tone rang true, but there was no denying he was right on the spot at the time of death, with no one's account but his own for his actions. Anthony Hart's name would have to go at the top of the suspect list.

"Now," Mac said, when the basic story was covered, "Tell me about Brian Westin. You have no doubt that's who the dead man is?"

"None," Hart said with a shudder. "Damn. Sorry."

"No problem," Mac said easily. "I'd be more worried if you weren't bothered by all this. So, how well did you know Westin?"

"Not very well. I mean, I saw a lot of him, at teacher meetings and in the lounge and so on. It was unavoidable. But he doesn't...didn't like me much, and I tried to stay out of his way. I have enough to do without having to deal with Westin."

"Having to deal with him how?"

"No big thing," Hart hurried to say. "Just...he was a master of the cutting remark, you know, the kind that burns worse two hours later when you think of all the comebacks you could have used. Except it wasn't worth getting into sniping matches with him. He enjoyed it too much, and I hate arguing."

"What did you argue about?"

"Nothing, I told you." Hart's face was averted. "I just avoid him."

That didn't sound like a friendly relationship. Mac went for a casual tone while watching the young man's reactions closely. "Okay, what would he have argued about if you had stood still for it?"

Hart sighed. "All kinds of stuff, most of them petty. What articles I let the students print in the school paper, for which I'm the advisor. Which books I choose to assign and whether they are contributing to a general lack of respect toward teachers on the part of our students. How liberal I am with bathroom passes, for God's sake. The man was a petty tyrant." Hart paused then looked Mac in the eyes, his expression almost defiant, and added, "Whether I was actually fit to teach our young men given that I 'embrace a homosexual lifestyle.'"

Okay, not touching that one right now. Just move on.

"It sounds as if he really didn't like your views," Mac said mildly. "Did you feel threatened by him in any way?"

"Threatened?" Hart repeated. "By Westin? Not seriously, no. Why?"

Was this guy really that innocent?

"Because when a man is killed it makes sense to ask if he was likely to be a threat to anyone. Fear is one of the biggest motives. I have to wonder if anyone was afraid enough of the trouble this guy might make to kill him."

"He did like to make trouble, in a small way," Hart said slowly. "He would report little infractions, pass on mean gossip. I got called on the carpet a couple of times for rule-bending that I'm sure he reported, but it was never a serious thing. Principal Johnson would just tell me not to do it again. Johnson's a good guy, doesn't sweat the small stuff." Hart shrugged. "I can't imagine taking Westin really seriously. For instance, it's not like my being gay is a secret. I'm staff advisor for the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. Westin and his crowd may not like it, but in this day and age there's not much trouble he can make for me."

"How about for someone else? What if he had found real dirt on someone else in the school? Would he have threatened them with exposure?"

"Like blackmail? I'd think he would be more likely to spread the gossip around. Although he did love to have power over people. Pity the poor student who found Westin dangling him between a pass and a fail. He liked his boots licked."

"So it's possible?"

"Yeah, I guess. Anything's possible. I can't think of a suspect though, and I don't want to. Couldn't he just have walked into a drug buy or something, and been killed as a bystander?"

Mac shook his head. "Inside the school, at that hour? It seems unlikely, unless the buyer or seller was a staff member. Did you have any suspicion Westin might be involved with drugs?"

"No," Hart admitted. "To give the bastard his due, I think he really is as narrowly moral and uptight as he wants the rest of us to be."

"And is there any chance it was two people that you heard running off down the stairs?"

Hart looked off into the distance, remembering. "No. I guess a second person could have gotten away before the elevator opened, but afterward, it was just one set of footsteps that I heard."

"And you think it was a man?"

"Yeah. Although it's just an impression, you know. And maybe biased because I don't expect a woman to stick a knife in someone."

Mac nodded. "Can you tell me who Westin did hang out with, who might have a better idea about what was going on in his life?"

"Well, he's married."

Damn, a next-of-kin notification that was no doubt going to be Mac's job. "Do you know his wife? Is she likely to be much help?"

"Never met her," Hart said shortly. "We didn't socialize."

"What about here at school? Is there someone he would talk to, who might know if he had any enemies?"

"He has...had a few followers, people who thought he was witty, or maybe people who thought he was right about the moral turpitude of the younger generation. I can't see him confiding personally in any of them though." Hart hesitated. "Maybe Mary Pinski. She does history and German. Her husband is some important businessman, and Westin always seemed more deferential to her than to the rest of us. They supported each other's proposals in staff meetings."

"Was she here today?"

"I don't...yeah, I'm pretty sure I saw her at lunchtime. I don't know when she left, though."

"You don't happen to have her phone number?"

Hart laughed. "Oh, I'm not in that select group."

"Who would have that kind of information?" Mac asked.

"Dean Johnson, probably. I imagine he has access to all the staff records."

Mac frowned. "Is that the same person as the principal?"

"Yeah. Dean is his first name." Hart shrugged. "We joke that if he moved into higher education he could be Dean Dean. Luckily he seems content to hang with us here in the trenches."

"Do you have his number?"

"On my cell phone." Hart reached toward his pocket then stopped, looking at his hands. "Can I get cleaned up first?"

"Just a few more questions. The knife that was used on Mr. Westin, had you ever seen it before?"

"I didn't look closely, you know!" Hart snapped.

"Just a question, sir."

"No," Hart muttered. "Not that I'm aware of."

"Did you know Westin was staying late tonight?"

"He didn't confide his plans to me."

Mac blinked. "Is that a no?"

"No," Hart said clearly. "I did not know he was still here."

"Have any of the students, or anyone else for that matter, mentioned being threatened or worrying about someone carrying a weapon in school?"

"Not to me."

"Anyone who complained about Westin or seemed to be uncomfortable around him?"

"Other than everyone who was sane in this building? No."

Mac sighed. Hart's open expression had closed in to one of guarded irritation. Somewhere he had lost the kid's cooperation. Not much point in pushing it now. He changed the subject.

"What do you know about the janitor, Peter Ng?"

"Why would you ask?"

Mac shrugged casually. "He was here in the building. He might have seen something. Do you think he would tell us if he had? Maybe if it was someone else Vietnamese?"

"Look," Hart said firmly, "Pete's a good guy. He works hard, has a wife and two kids at home. He's an American, just like you and me. There's no need to get after him just because he's not freaking white bread."

"Hey." Mac held up his hands and wiggled his fourth finger to make his ring catch the light. "My wife was from Vietnam. I'm not going to get on Ng's case. I'm just exploring possibilities here."

After a grudging silence, Hart nodded. "Okay, sorry, I guess it's your job." He added, almost unwillingly, "Was from Vietnam?"

"She died," Mac said shortly. He was not discussing Mai with this kid.

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah. So, who has keys to the building?"

"You'd have to ask Dean that too," Hart answered, his voice more subdued. "All the teachers, certainly; Pete Ng, the cleaning crew that comes on the weekend to do the bathrooms, the administrative staff, the advisors...there have to be a lot of keys out there. But you know," he added, "Whoever did this didn't have to have a building key. You need one to get in after hours, which is six o'clock on Fridays, but you don't need one to get out. The...guy with the knife...could have just stayed inside the building somewhere after regular hours and waited for him."

"Was Westin's routine predictable?"

"I didn't pay much attention, but it was a pretty rare thing for him to be here this late. I'm around a fair bit and I don't think I've run into him after seven before. Run into him." His laugh was more of a choke and he rubbed his hands over the blood-soaked knees of his slacks. "I sure as hell ran into him this time. You know, the last thing he probably ever heard was me swearing at him for being clumsy."

"It's not your fault," Mac said. The kid's blue eyes held something that looked like guilt, but for what? "You couldn't have saved him. From the description of his injury it sounds like nothing anyone could have done would have made a difference."

"I could have realized not even Westin would body slam me into the wall just for the hell of it. I could have looked out sooner, maybe seen the guy who did it."

"And you could have ended up with a knife in your gut too," Mac pointed out. "Wrong place, wrong time. You did what you could."

"I guess." Hart sighed. "Are we done?"

Mac nodded. "Unless there's anything else you can tell me that you think might help?"

"No." Hart frowned down at his hands. "Can I get the hell out of here now?"

"Sure. I would appreciate it if you would put your clothes in a bag and bring them in to the station after you get changed. The victim fell against you, so it's possible trace evidence got transferred from his clothes to yours."

"And not in any way because I'm a suspect and you want to check for evidence that might implicate me?" Hart tilted his head and looked up at Mac, his blue eyes slightly mocking.

"Don't be a smart ass," Mac snapped, surprised at his own irritation. "Of course you're a suspect. You were there, you could have done it. I don't think you did, and if you're innocent, cooperating with us is your fastest route to getting cleared and helping catch the real killer. But I don't have a warrant and I can't make you cooperate yet if you decide to make this difficult."

To his surprise, Hart looked embarrassed. "Sure," he said, "I can do that. Actually, I have clothes in a gym bag in my car. I could change now and give you these. Save a trip." He got up, limping heavily on his ankle.

"Wait," Mac said. "I'll get them for you, save you the walk up and down the stairs since you can't use the elevator." And it would be a chance to check the kid's car.

Hart looked startled but held out his keys readily enough. "Well, okay. Here. It's the blue Prius. The bag's in the backseat. It may be buried under the books though."

"I'll find it."

Suddenly Hart smiled at him. "Thanks. That's really human of you."

Mac blinked. That smile should be registered as a deadly weapon. Without it, Hart was a nice looking kid. With it, that crooked grin and single dimple just sucked you in, like a warm fire on a cold night. "No problem," he managed. "We try to fake some real human behavior at least once in every interview. Just wait here and don't..." he caught the kid's bloody hand an inch from rubbing his eye. "Don't touch anything until I get back."

Stupid, Mac told himself as he headed down the stairs. Don't get stupid about this

The kid was a suspect. The fact that he had a sweet smile and a sense of humor did nothing to change that. The fact that tousled dark hair and blue eyes pushed Mac's own buttons had nothing to do with it either. Or the fact that the man was gay.

He's out, you idiot, Mac told the optimist that had somehow escaped from his closet. So he's probably with someone. Even if he isn't, and even if he gets cleared of this murder, there's no reason he'd want to step into your stuffy closet with you. So just shut up!

He twisted the wedding ring on his finger. His choices were made long ago.

The Prius was easy to find among the few cars in the lot. The back was filled with boxes of kids' books, which matched Hart's statement. They'd have to check for that last box in the teacher's classroom. The gym bag was trapped underneath, but Mac worked it free. There was no smell of tobacco or grass. He popped the glove compartment and leafed through. After all, he had Hart's permission to be in here. The car registration matched Hart's address. There were a few receipts for gas and oil changes, a fast food slip, a receipt for socks from Target. There was a receipt from the Dakota nightclub, dinner for two nine months ago. No weapons, no drugs, no blackmail letters. Mac closed up and locked the car. He fetched an evidence bag and a fingerprint kit from his car on the way in. Time to let the guy get changed so he at least could go home.

Hart met him in the hall outside the computer lab and took the gym bag from him with another of those smiles. "You found it."

"Yeah." Mac cleared his throat. "I'll...um...just check the bathroom for traces before you use it to wash up. Down this way?"

Hart blinked at him. "Sure. You think the guy might have come this way? It's nowhere near the north stair."

Mac held the washroom door open for him with his cleaner hands. "No, I don't think so, or I wouldn't let you in here. But I want a quick check so the defense can't suggest there was blood in here before you used it. They like anything to confuse the picture."

Sure, that's why you want to follow this kid into the john

To make it true he took a quick look at door handles, sinks and floor; no blood, nothing out of place.

"Okay. Get those clothes off." Great, that came out well. "I'll...um...hold the bag open and you can drop them in so I don't touch them." Mac shook out the bag and opened the top.

"Shoes too?"

"If you have others, yeah."

"Sneakers in the gym bag." Hart bent to slip off the loafers and dropped them in. He put his phone and wallet on the counter then turned away a little to unzip his pants. He flashed a quick look over his shoulder as he stripped. "Reminds me of some of my dates, although no one ever walked off with my clothes afterward."

Mac winced and glanced away.

"Sorry," Hart said apologetically. "TMI."

Mac turned further away.

Which gives you a fine view in the mirror, doesn't it

He checked the kid out for bloodstains that didn't match the ones on his clothes, not finding any. Hart's body was thin, but not skinny, sleek and lightly muscled with just a hint of the softness of teenage years remaining. A scant trace of dark hair crossed his chest at the level of his nipples, and trailed downward into his briefs.

Mac coughed and turned away firmly. "We don't need the briefs unless there's blood on them."

"You don't want the full show?"

Mac glanced back and caught the kid's teasing gaze. He looked away quickly. "Not particularly, no."

Water ran in the sink, followed by splashing, and the kid made a snorting noise. Mac grabbed a handful of paper towels and turned to pass them over. The young man's black hair dripped around his face. Water beaded on his upper lip and cheek, caught in just a hint of evening stubble.

"Thanks." Hart grabbed the towels and rubbed at his face and hands. A little water ran from the hollow of his neck down his chest.

Mac pulled his gaze up from following that trail.

More than time to get out of here.

"Go ahead and get dressed," Mac said. "And then I need to get a set of your fingerprints before you go."

"Why?" Tony asked, suspicion in his voice as he pulled the sweatpants up over those long lean legs and tight ass.

Stop.

"You touched Westin, right? Checking for a pulse and all. Maybe you touched the knife."

"I don't think so," Tony said more calmly, "But yeah, I can't be certain."

"So we need your prints for comparison. So if we find someone else's prints, we know what belongs to who."

"Whom," Tony corrected, but he nodded. "Yeah, okay, how do we do this?"

Mac brought out the card. "Put your shirt on and I'll show you."

A little of the teasing returned to Tony's voice. "Guys usually ask me to take my shirt off."

Mac could see why. He was lean but fine, all sleek muscle and... "Shirt on and cut it out," he said, to himself as well as Tony.

Tony pulled the T-shirt over his head, tugged it into place, and toed on his sneakers. "Okay."

Mac put the inkless fingerprint pad on the counter and opened it, showing Tony how to roll his fingers correctly. It was a lot less messy than the old ink system, but he still had to hold those slender fingers and guide them. Artist's hands; he felt the heat in them as he placed and moved each one. It was a relief to step back and close up the card and pad.

"That's good. Thank you. Now if I could get Principal Johnson's phone number?"

Hart picked up his phone. For a second he stared at it and Mac saw the surface was stained. Hart paused to wipe it clean before opening it. His hand shook a little. Mac made no comment and wrote down the number he was given.

"You should be able to head home now," he told the younger man. "I'll send someone to escort you out. You'll use the south stairs and the front door. You won't be tempted to wander around, will you?"

"No."

At the door he paused to look at the kid one more time, couldn't help asking, "Are you going to be okay?"

"I'm fine." The smile was tired, but still a gift. "I'll just be glad to get the day over with."

Mac nodded and let the bathroom door close behind him. His day was just beginning.

Tony pulled up at his apartment and sat there, gathering the energy to get out of the car. There was no reason why he should feel so wiped. He hadn't even been allowed to carry those last books down. The big brown-haired detective, MacLean, had let him wash up and change, then sent a uniformed officer to escort him to his car. Thanks so much and get out of here. Not that he wanted to stay.

It was so strange, to think of someone taking a knife and doing...that. MacLean seemed to take the blood and gore bits in stride. Which of course he should, being a cop and all. He took everything in stride, even Tony's sexual orientation. Not a single hesitation there, even when Tony teased a little, which was refreshingly unlike other cops Tony had met. Especially the big cops with muscles like that. It was odd how the most butch men out there were often the most threatened by Tony's simple existence in their world. And MacLean was butch, no doubt about that. Big and tall and hard-bodied...

Tony sighed. Inappropriate fantasies would not get him into his apartment and next to that cold Dos Equis. Now there was an appropriate fantasy--cold brew, escapist TV, and fast food. Much safer.

He hauled himself up the front steps and took the elevator. It rose quietly and opened on the fourth floor. For just a second, as the indicator dinged, Tony stepped back, a flash of memory of a heavy body and fresh blood startling him. But it was just an instant, and his apartment hallway was quiet and empty.

Jesus, what a wimp. A dead guy fell on you, that's not an excuse to have freaking flashbacks.

His apartment was a sanctuary. The rooms were dimly lit by just one lamp on a timer. He made his way to the refrigerator, reached toward the beer, and saw in the interior light the red-brown arc of blood under his fingernails. A moment later he found himself in the bathroom with a nailbrush, making his hangnails bleed.

Don't be so fucking neurotic. You had your hands in blood, it's going to get under your nails. Duh

But somehow he couldn't stop scrubbing until long after there was no trace of Westin left on him. At least it's not likely he's going to pass on HIV. It was hard enough imagining Westin having sex with his wife, let alone anyone else.

He wondered if it would be easier to see a friendly acquaintance killed rather than someone he so deeply disliked. At least there wouldn't be the same nauseating mixture of guilt and satisfaction. The hot water ran in streams over his fingers, turning his skin red. Tony forced himself to dry his hands, run a comb through his hair, and leave the bathroom.

In the kitchen, he pulled out the long-awaited beer and carried it to the couch. The remote was close at hand, the beer was cold; he would just skip the food and blow what was left of the evening. He wanted to call someone, maybe Sabrina or Rick, and talk the whole thing over. But MacLean had asked him not to talk about Westin, if he possibly could manage that, until the man's family was contacted. MacLean had sounded as though he hadn't much hope of Tony keeping his mouth shut. Which made Tony want to follow orders, both to prove the detective wrong and because...somehow he just wanted to.

You want him to approve of you. Quit drooling over the straight guy. He forgot about you the moment you left.

As he reached for the phone it rang under his hand. Good timing. He switched the handset. "Hello?"

On the other end of the line there was a moment of hollow silence then a dial tone. Freaking wrong number. He juggled the phone a moment, considering, then called Marty. The bubbly voice on the other end made him smile. Martin had just hooked up with some guy he met at the Gay 90's and could be counted on for a half hour of optimistic babble and catty commentary about the man and his friends. Tony would have to provide nothing more than the occasional grunt of acknowledgement. It would meet his need for company and discretion perfectly.

"Hey, Marty," Tony said cheerfully, "How's that handsome man of yours?"

The Minneapolis police department didn't believe in spoiling its officers. For meeting rooms they had the choice of small and stuffy or large and drafty, each appointed with the same hard chairs. Oliver had once suggested that the chairs were chosen on purpose, to speed up meetings. Mac figured it was just whatever was cheapest at Target the week they furnished the place.

A murder at a high school had the potential to become a high-profile case, if they didn't close it soon. The captain had called in Detectives Terrance and Hanson to help jumpstart the investigation. Terrance was about Oliver's age, pushing forty, with dark blond hair cut aggressively short. Unlike Oliver, who was a fanatic runner, Terrance was getting heavy, a soft belly hanging over his belt, under shirts a little too tight for it. Mac wondered if he was in denial or just hadn't bought new clothes as his waistline expanded. He had been glad not to be partnered with Terrance when he joined the department. The man was a steady, reliable investigator, but uninspired and a little lazy, always going for the obvious answer. Mac had learned a lot more from Oliver.

Hanson, Terrance's partner, was newly promoted and eager, the kind of cop who should be on a recruiting poster. He was blond, fit, tall, and blindingly handsome. Mac had sometimes wondered why he never felt the slightest attraction to Hanson. But aside from the depths to which Mac buried his sexuality on the job, there was a superficial brightness to Hanson that made Mac wary. His reactions seemed a little calculated, driven by an underlying ambition. The guy was useful, especially with his talent for computers, but Mac felt like every favor was being tabulated, to be called in at a later date. Thank God for Oliver, whose rumpled silence hid a razor sharp mind and a dedication to finding the truth. Mac had lucked out in the partner lottery.

Detective Terrance had brought donuts into the midnight case review session, earning him grunts of gratitude from the other participants. Captain Severs waved them to seats around the table then nodded to Oliver, who was lead on the case, to open the discussion. Oliver, as was his habit, opened a hand toward Mac to indicate his partner would do the initial briefing.

"Okay, then, Mac," Severs said, "What do we have?"

Mac glanced round at the other men who would be working the case with him and opened the file.

"Victim was a forty-nine-year-old school teacher named Brian Westin. He was stabbed to death on the third floor of Roosevelt High School at approximately seven-fifty-six PM. Time of death is based on a single witness, who called 911 moments later. The medical examiner says initial medical evidence would allow for a time of death ten to fifteen minutes earlier at the outside--if you choose to doubt our witness's statement. Can't be much later, based on the arrival of the first response team and their observations.

"The weapon was a kitchen knife with a seven inch blade; no fingerprints were found on the weapon. It was not a new knife, so there's no point in looking for purchases. The knife was left in the body. Autopsy is scheduled for later tomorrow morning. The ME would only say death was rapid but not instantaneous, a fair amount of force was used, and there were no defensive wounds on the hands."

"Could a woman have done it?" Severs asked.

"The ME won't commit himself, naturally," Mac told him, "but he did say initial inspection suggested the assailant had to have a certain amount of strength. The blade was firmly embedded in the victim's ribs. I wouldn't exclude women yet, but it sure looks unlikely."

"Next of kin?"

"The victim has a wife, Sarah." Mac frowned. "I have her home number and her cell, and the high school principal got me her work number from his files, but she's not answering any of them. I left messages. There are no children and no other emergency contact numbers in his employee record."

"So," Severs said, "Give me the short version. Any suspects at this point?"

"No one that looks really good for it," Mac said. "The victim apparently liked to complain to the principal about other teachers' failings and was known for giving the students a hard time, but Principal Johnson couldn't come up with anything serious enough to get the man killed."

"I like our witness for it," Terrance put in, waving his copy of the case file. "This young teacher, Tony Hart, he's had run-ins with Westin before. It sounds like Westin had it in for him. Maybe Westin found out something more serious and Hart decided to shut him up."

"I don't buy it," Mac said, much more mildly than he wanted to. "Johnson told me that when Westin complained about Hart, once was for parking in the visitors' spaces instead of the staff parking lot, and the second time was for letting some kids eat lunch in his classroom instead of the cafeteria where they are supposed to stay. Johnson basically told Hart to stop. No big deal. There's also evidence that Hart was telling the truth about the guy he heard running away from the scene. There were blood traces on the north stairwell door and down the stairs."

"Hart could have made those marks himself," Terrance suggested. "If he killed Westin, took off down the stair to hide evidence or clean up, then came back up to discover the body. Or wait, how about this? Hart is screwing one of his students. He keeps the kid after school in his room, then when the building should be empty he starts to see the kid off. Westin comes up to them, makes an accusation. Maybe it's the kid who pulls the knife and stabs Westin. The kid runs off, Hart calls 911. It would all work."

"It's pure fabrication," Mac snapped. "There's no evidence of any of that."

"And I thought we weren't looking at women," Severs said. After a moment when they stared at him in confusion he added, "If you want to pin it on Hart's student girlfriend."

"Oh. No," Terrance said. "Hart is gay, the student would be a guy."

"Before we trash a teacher's reputation," Mac said dryly, "maybe we should do a little more work. After all, there's no reason for Hart to have called the cops if he did it. He could have just left and no one would have found the body for hours."

"He was worried about the janitor seeing the blood on his clothes," Terrance suggested.

"Nevertheless," Mac continued, "I have a list of the other people who had official trouble with Westin at school. There were four other teachers he reported recently for breaking rules, several students he flunked or got suspended in the past two years. The case that caused the most uproar was last fall when he flunked a star football player without warning in the middle of the season. The guy was going to lose his eligibility and there was a scholarship on the line. The coach got involved and the whole thing got messy. In the end I gather Westin gave the kid a make-up test, just in time for the big game, although he made the kid miss practice to take it. The kid got a scholarship offer, but not the one that had been hoped for. It's kind of late now for someone to kill him over that case, but maybe he was threatening to do the same thing to some current athlete. A college scholarship is a lot of money, and some of those kids get angry awful easy."

"Why would they be hanging in the school hallway at eight o'clock at night though?" Hanson asked.

"Maybe the killer had a meeting with Westin in his office," Mac suggested. "Maybe it was an after work meeting with a parent rather than a kid. I don't know. I'm just saying there are a lot of possibilities here, and no evidence to choose one over the other."

"Okay," Severs said. "Obviously we need to work it. Oliver, you have assignments for these guys?"

Oliver nodded. "Hanson, you're on the victim--employment history, financials, phone records, the works. Look hard for unexplained money coming in. Maybe he decided to try blackmail instead of reporting someone this time.

"Terrance, find out who else works on the third floor of the school, all the license plates recorded in the parking lot by the uniforms, and get the list of past complaints involving the victim from Principal Johnson. Look up backgrounds, any history of violence, get phone numbers for all of them. As soon as we can in the morning, call the people involved, get alibis if possible so we can cross them off our list. At least at that hour on a Friday night we can hope a lot of them were out in public having fun or on a date.

"Mac, you get that friend of Westin's, Mary Pinski. Have you tried contacting her yet?"

"Tried a couple of hours ago. I left messages. She hasn't called back so far."

"Okay, you get her and the widow when you track her down. Go out to the house. Maybe she's sleeping or has the phone turned off. And I'm going to put you on Hart. Talk to him again, see if there's anything else he can remember, try to shake him about what he was doing that night. He had problems with Westin, and he was right there on the spot, which is enough to take a second look at him."

"Got it," Mac said. "So while we're doing all this work, what does that leave for you?"

"I'm going to take a nice nap," Oliver said, and ducked the bite of donut winged his way by Hanson. "Actually, I'm going to look at the scene again, see if the search has turned up anything new before we release the building for the weekend cleaning crew. Then I've got the autopsy, unless you want to be in on that?"

"Nope," Mac said. He'd done his share of observation in the cold sterile rooms where victims' bodies got taken apart in search of answers. It was never his first choice. "All yours."

"And I'm going to tackle Principal Johnson again. I'd love to get a lead on who Westin might have been making trouble for now, before the weekend is over. If we have to move on to asking questions around the school on Monday it's going to get messy, especially since most of the students are minors."

"When do you want to meet again?" Severs asked.

"Tonight. Make it eight PM. That gives us our first twenty-four hours."

Oliver had often told Mac he subscribed to the theory that most cases were on their way to being solved in the first twenty-four hours, or else were never solved. Mac was not so absolute about it, but there was a lot of truth to the idea. Questions like "What time did you get home last night?" were much more likely to be answered correctly than "What time did you get home four days ago?" Witnesses' memories got hazy, evidence got misplaced or destroyed. Mac sighed. Somehow, this case was not looking like a twenty-four-hour walk in the park. Unless the autopsy found a blackmail note clasped in the victim's hand, Mac had a feeling they were in for a long haul.


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