Here’s chapter one of Schooled, the first Lexy Cooper murder mystery. Probably NSFW. Don’t say I never gave you anything for free. 🙂
Schooled (Lexy Cooper Mystery #1)
Kenny Longworth walked the perimeter of building D on the Xenon corporate campus. It was the beginning of his security shift at seven a.m. Thursday and he wasn’t supposed to be drinking coffee as he made his rounds, but Kenny was the only guy on duty this early, so as he walked he sipped his extra-hot, extra shot, soy mocha latte. Soy milk tasted like shit and he’d read on the Internet that it made men grow tits, but milk gave Kenny slow-rolling tuba farts, so he stuck with the soy.
He was thinking it was kinda funny that his beverage was a blend of three kinds of beans (soy, coffee, and cocoa) when crows began making a racket over in the narrow tract of wetlands that bordered the north edge of campus. He rounded the corner of D and saw that the crows were fighting over something. Because the half-mile wide by three-mile long wetland was a protected area there was a fair amount of animal activity. Wildlife of all kinds came to sample the waters of Bear Creek; Xenon employees had spotted deer and even an occasional coyote out there. More than that, though, Kenny just had a feeling.
He set his Starbucks cup on the curb and hoped to return for it later. He nodded to the driver of a black pickup truck pulling into the parking lot. These video game folks kept odd hours; some of them came to work at six a.m. and took two or three hour lunches off-campus. Others showed up just before noon and stayed until long after Kenny’s shift was over. Sometimes they stayed all night. Kenny counted eighteen cars in the Building D lot including the black pickup. Fourteen were covered with dew and had been there overnight.
That wasn’t alarming. Xenon Corporation made the Xenon24/7 game console and the online gaming service Xenonline. He’d known teams of developers that had been in the office for two, three days straight writing code or squishing bugs—whatever they did. Kenny hadn’t played a video game since his 1983 high score on the Joust machine at the 7-Eleven back in Alliance, Ohio.
He stepped over the low wooden fence that bordered the wetlands and felt his boots sink slightly into the damp earth. Although it was the first day of summer the sky was overcast and drooped like a dirty duvet. It wasn’t raining, but it had rained yesterday and probably would again before long. Kenny headed toward the creek where the crows had congregated. As he got closer most of them flew off into the treetops but for a few bold bastards that stuck around.
He didn’t smell anything off; just damp leaves, soil, and a remnant of coffee on his own breath. Expecting a deer carcass or maybe a former raccoon, Kenny was unprepared to see a bare pink foot poking out of the long grass beside the creek. His grandmother would have called it a “crick,” though why that popped into his head just now he couldn’t say. The foot was attached to a naked woman lying face down in the mud. One hand trailed in the water like you’d hang your hand from a rowboat on a sunny day letting your fingers leave a tiny wake. Her hair was blonde and dirty.
“Shiiiiit,” said Kenny.
He couldn’t see any crow-damage, but he wasn’t hanging around for a closer look. At nine-and-a-half bucks an hour he wasn’t about to play CSI. He backed away from the body and reached for his cellphone.
Detective Mike Malick parked his unmarked police car at the back of Xenon Building D. The parking lot held roughly twenty civilian vehicles, two Redmond Police Department patrol cars in front, and one in back.
The windows of the three story buildings that looked out on the wetlands were filled with artifacts and advertisements from video game and nerd culture: Mario levels created from Post-It notes, action figures, and life-sized cutouts of Star Trek and Star Wars characters. Malick didn’t understand these people who despite jobs and families, didn’t seem to grow up.
A uniformed officer approached with a Xenon security guard and introduced him as Kenny Longworth.
“You found her, huh?” Malick asked.
“No, I didn’t touch anything.” Kenny shook his head.
“Can you show me?” Malick asked. Kenny nodded and led him through mud, dead leaves, and small shrubs to the creek.
“Crime scene should be here any minute. So. Tell me about this.” Malick said, taking his notebook out of his suit jacket and patting himself down for a pen.
“I got to work at oh-seven-hundred. Since reception doesn’t get here until nine I walked the perimeter.”
“Just a guy in a black pickup about ten after. He parked and went right in through the rear door. I saw him swipe his ID badge. I’ve seen him around. He’s legit.”
They were getting closer to the body now.
“I was coming around the east end of the building and saw a bunch of crows over the creek. A couple dozen of them, squawking, flying away, and coming back. You know how they do.”
Malick nodded. Kept writing.
“So I get out there in the wetlands by the creek and I see her.” By this time they were just about where Kenny had been when he’d called 911. He pointed out his boot prints in the mud. “I was standing right there. Didn’t go any closer.”
“You didn’t check for a pulse?”
“Like I said, I didn’t go any closer. It was obvious to me that she was dead.” They looked back at the office building.
Officers draped yellow crime scene tape along the wooden fence. Malick saw the meat wagon arrive followed by the medical examiner.
One of the young uniforms—Rogers—hollered from across the parking lot, “M.E.’s here!”
Malick cringed and motioned for him to send the medical examiner into the wetlands. A handful of Xenon employees loitered by the rear building entrance. Two of them held up cellphones either shooting video or taking pictures.
“Shit,” Malick said.
The young woman from the King County medical examiner’s office made her way through the muck to where Malick and Kenny stood. She took pictures and made measurements. “Help me roll her, Detective?”
Malick and the forensic investigator gloved up and slid their hands under the body, rolling her face-up, away from the creek.
Malick crouched down next to the woman’s head.
“You ever see her before, Ken?”
“Yeah. She works here. One of the Barbies.” Malick noted that Kenny crossed himself discreetly.
“Barbies? Cause of the hair?”
Kenny nodded. “There’re four or five of them. All in marketing or public relations or something. Good-looking girls with nice clothes. They stand out in a place like this.”
Malick asked, “Do you know Lexy Cooper?”
Kenny looked surprised. “Lexy? Yeah I know her.”
“You ever see her with Barbie here?” Nodding toward the body.
Kenny looked up to the right. Accessing memory. “Yeah,” he said. “In the cafeteria a couple times a week.”
“Okay.” Malick braced his hands on his knees and stood up. “You’ll be documenting all this for Xenon?”
“Oh yeah. I’m looking at a lot of paperwork.”
“I’m going to want copies of everything. Try not to make new footprints on your way out.” Malick handed Kenny a Redmond Police Department card that read “Michael R. Malick. Detective, Homicide.” He shook Kenny’s hand. “Nice work, man,” he said.
Kenny nodded and moved off.
Malick watched the woman from the medical examiner’s office work for a minute or two and then pulled out his cellphone.
Lexy Cooper rolled over in bed, burying her face in the extra pillow. It still smelled like Nate. She smiled. A sleepy, satisfied smile full of secrets. The night before, she’d been reading in bed and half-watching a Law & Order rerun when her phone had begun playing Naughty by Nature’s song “O.P.P.” –Nate’s ringtone. He sounded just lubricated enough to bring out the Texas in his voice.
“What’re you doin’?”
“Just laying here thinking about you.” She turned off the TV with the remote.
“Mmm. I have something for those luscious lollipop lips of yours.”
She smiled. “Do you deliver?”
“I’m five minutes from your place.”
Lexy brushed her teeth, exchanged her Power Rangers t-shirt for a white tank top, and aimed a spritz of perfume between her breasts. She lived alone in her two-bedroom apartment but he tapped quietly at the front door as if trying not to wake anyone. It was a little past one a.m.
When he kissed her she tasted tequila. She sucked the flavor off his lower lip and nipped at him.
“Ow! Bad girl.” Nate touched his lip and checked his finger for blood.
“I’m your bad girl,” Lexy said, pressing up against him, looking up at him from under her lashes.
“That’s it. C’mere,” he said and led her to her bedroom.
Later, after he’d fallen asleep, she lay awake. She didn’t stare at him as he slept—that would be psycho. But she peeked frequently. He was so fucking beautiful. Way out of her league. Prettier than most women, but with a gym-hardened body, tattoos, and knuckles scarred from bar fights. He had a heat coming off of him that women couldn’t resist. The few times she’d been out with him in public, girls had tried to pick him up right in front of her. The second dumbest thing she’d ever done was fall in love with him. There was no happy ending with Nate, but she was going to take the ride as far as it went.
She drifted off for a while until Nate woke up and pulled her on top of him. After round two it was four a.m. and he had to go. He got dressed, put his boots on, and she walked him to the door in her bathrobe. She didn’t want him to leave; she never knew when she’d see him next. But she also wanted him to leave so she could think about him. And sleep.
“Sure you don’t want a quick shower?” she said, trying to sound casual. Not naggy. Not worried.
“I’ll be fine.” He kissed her goodbye, got into his black pickup and drove away.
She smoked a clandestine cigarette on the patio thinking about his hands on her. Then she went back inside to sleep.
At 7:45 a.m. her phone rang. It was Uncle Mike.
“Are you okay?” she blurted.
“Is my dad okay? Kent?”
“Yes. Listen to me please.”
This was serious. She sat up in bed. “I’m listening.”
“I’m at your office. At Building D. Something’s happened and I need you to come down here.” Her mind raced: A break-in? Corporate espionage? Drug bust? But Mike was a homicide detective.
“Are you there…officially?”
He went into Cop Mode. “Lexy. Get in your car and come to work. I’m waiting for you in front of the building.” Lexy pulled on her jeans as he talked, flinging t-shirts from the floor to the bed. Shit, she needed a bra. Where the hell could it be?
“Okay, I’m leaving as soon as I find my shoes.”
“Thank you.” He hung up.
She brushed her teeth. In the mirror she took in large green eyes, smooth skin, and a tumble of long brunette curls. The “Hello” on her Hello Kitty t-shirt was stretched to read “Hellllllllllllo,” but she knew the guys at work wouldn’t complain. There was no time for make-up, but she wet her hands and ran them through her hair to dampen the rolled-out-of-bed-after-being-rolled-around-the-bed look. At the door she grabbed her purse and keys and shoved her feet into flip-flops.
The 1968 Karmann Ghia convertible parked outside her apartment was just the largest of Lexy’s twenty-eight years of questionable purchases. Uncle Mike called it the Hitlermobile and said a convertible in Seattle is about as useful as a prick on a priest. It was constantly in the shop and the roof leaked, but it was green and Lexy thought it matched her eyes.
She parked in the spot reserved for the Employee of the Month. She often did this because the Employee of the Month was usually too scared of her to complain. Mike was standing in front of the office building, talking to a couple of uniformed cops.
At forty-three, his good looks and thick, dark hair still made women of all ages stand up a little straighter and unconsciously pitch their voices a little higher. If she had a nickel for every time one of her girlfriends told her that her uncle looked like “that cop on TV” she’d, well, get that fancy Japanese hair straightening treatment and be done with the mess on her head.
Lexy strode toward him pulling down the hem of her too-small shirt. Flip-flops had been a really bad idea. Her toes were freezing. Mike motioned her over and dismissed the cops with a wave. They turned to go, but not before one of them checked Lexy out. Mike caught him at it and raised his eyebrows. The younger cop scurried off to his patrol car.
“Uncle Mike. What’s happening?” Lexy leaned into his side and he gave her a one-arm hug.
“Hey kid. Sorry about this. What I need you to do…” He stopped and looked at her ensemble. “Lexy, what the hell? You can’t go out in public like that.”
“I was in a hurry!” She hadn’t been able to locate her bra and had a bikini top on under her t-shirt. She blushed and folded her arms over her chest. Goddamn Uncle Mike.
Mike looked around, and spotted one of his officers. “Rogers! Bring my niece a jacket.”
Officer Rogers brought a blue windbreaker with RPD stenciled on the back and absolutely kept his eyes off Malick’s niece. Lexy put the jacket on and walked with Mike around the back of the building. When she saw an ambulance parked at an angle with the back doors open next to a patrol car, she stopped.
“We found a body, Lex. I need you to tell me who she is.”
“A dead body? Like, dead?” That wasn’t possible, was it? Just a couple of days ago they’d had a barbeque and steel drum band back there. People couldn’t die where she’d been laughing and drinking beer with her co-workers, could they?
“I need you to be a big girl. Just look at her face and tell me her name. We know she works here—the security guard recognized her.”
“What…what happened?” She looked him in the eye, trying to telepathically get him to let her off the hook. He took her gently by the elbow and walked her toward the ambulance.
“We don’t know yet. She was found by the creek.”
“Did she drown?”
“No. Now, I’m going to uncover her face and you look as long as you need to. If you know her right off, I’ll cover her up again and this will be over.”
They were at the back of the ambulance now. Lexy took a deep breath and shuddered. Mike unzipped a dark blue body bag. She saw the pretty face, the blonde hair of her friend.
“Oh, Jesus. It’s Callie.” Her heart pounded. The edges of her vision dimmed.
She started shaking. “Callie Caldwell. Calliope. She’s in PR. We…we started the same day at Xenon. We were in New York together last week! What happened to her?”
“Does she have family here?”
“Yes. No—I don’t know. I don’t feel good…” Lexy swayed and Mike started to sit her down on the tailgate of the ambulance, but thought better of it. He led her to a wooden bench between the parking lot and the fence that bordered the wetlands.
“Put your head down between your knees if you feel like you’re going to pass out.” Lexy put her head down and took some deep breaths.
“You were friends with this girl?”
Lexy looked up. Mike had his notebook out. “Seriously? This is real?”
“Sorry kiddo. It’s my job to find out what happened to Callie.”
“Do you think someone killed her?”
“Yeah, honey. Listen, I’ve got a team out there looking for her clothes and any other personal belongings. What did Callie carry with her? A phone? Purse?”
“Her phone for sure. It’s an iPhone 4 in a red leather case. Her bag is big and red. Fendi. She loved that bag.”
She could see that Mike was writing ‘red fendy purse’ in his notebook. “Why don’t you go home and get some rest and we’ll talk later. How about dinner at Angelo’s?”
Lexy let out a long breath. “Okay, Uncle Mike.” She suddenly looked up. “Shit what time is it? I have to go to work.”
“No work today, Lex. We’re sealing the building. Now, you feel okay to drive? You want me to have Rogers drive you home? I’ll make sure no one jacks the Hitlermobile.”
She shook her head, and stood up. “I can drive myself home. I just want to go to bed. I was up all night.” And, she noticed with a surreptitious sniff, she smelled like sex. She took a step back from Uncle Mike. Too late; he’d seen her guilty look.
“Not that married prick?” Scanning the parking lot.
“He’s not a prick.” She mumbled.
Lexy got home, showered, and found her bra. She tried to sleep but was too wired, so she got online. All three local news outlets were featuring the story on their webpages. KING had “Body Found on Xenon Campus,” and KIRO’s was “Woman Dead at Video Game HQ.” KOMO was already calling it murder even though the body probably wasn’t even at the morgue yet: “Video Games Are Murder at Xenon Campus.”
She checked her social media streams for anything from co-workers but so far there was nothing. Callie’s name, once it got out, wouldn’t mean much to gamers, but everyone in the industry knew her or knew of her and it would be big news in their incestuous little world. Lexy wondered what Uncle Mike was doing right now. Was he trying to reach Callie’s family? She supposed Xenon had all that sort of stuff on file.
She decided she’d better check in with work. The only person who wouldn’t be expected to work remotely today was Callie Caldwell. She picked up her cellphone and opened the email application. Yep, there was the mail from Facilities. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Xenon campus and all offices are closed and unavailable for the day. Please work remotely.”
There wasn’t a lot of email in her inbox yet. A few messages had come in overnight from the team in Europe and local overachievers. One of her co-workers had sent a “WTF” missive to the Xenon.com team alias on top of the official “Stay the fuck out” email.
Lexy was a member of the Xenon.com editorial staff. Her domain was the community of Xenon customers. She wrote articles, covered video game events, ran the forums, and devised and managed events and promotions for the Xenonline service. It was her job to make sure that the fifteen million customers who paid sixty bucks a year for access to Xenonline always had something fun to do. The marketing department called this “customer retention.” Lexy called it “having fun for a paycheck.”
She grabbed her phone and flicked over to SMS messages to see if there was anything from Nate. There wasn’t. However, there was something from Callie. Lexy’s heart sped up. It had come in at 11:45 p.m. It said:
< Dude. LOL. Check it out—you’ll freak. ❤ >
Check what out, Lexy wondered. There wasn’t a photo or file attached. She scrolled back in the message history, but it was the only thing new since last week. Check what out?!
Lexy switched back to the laptop and checked her Xenon email account. Searched for Callie’s name. Nope, nothing from Callie since before the New York trip. Frustrated, she picked up her phone again and started to reply to Callie’s text before remembering that she was dead.
Dead. How could she be dead? And what the hell had Callie wanted her to check out? Lexy fired up Facebook and pulled up Callie’s page. She scanned her updates but saw only the usual: Foursquare check-ins at Westside hot spots, LOLcats pictures, and messages from friends along the lines of “Hey girl can’t wait to get mani-pedi this weekend.” There was nothing indicating anyone knew she wouldn’t be around to like their posts. Did she have any updates from yesterday? Just one: At 6:15 p.m. she’d posted from her phone “Leaving the office early. Time to get my freak on… LMAO. :D”
She should probably let Uncle Mike know.
Lexy sat in a deep, dark upholstered booth at Angelo’s, their favorite Italian place on the Eastside. Uncle Mike was late and she sat drinking water and fooling around with her phone. She kept coming back to Callie’s text message. Making sure she hadn’t imagined it.
She had a new text. It was from Kim, her fellow Xenon.com editor.
< Did you hear about Callie Caldwell? >
She sighed and tapped back:
< Dude. I had to identify her. >
Her phone chimed softly whenever a text message arrived. She switched it to silent and read the new text from Kim:
< holy shit. Is your uncle on the case? >
< don’t know if I can say >
< I saw her in Belltown Tues nite >
< Who with? >
< Kate, Mandy and Chad. At See Sound. >
< Was she happy? Having fun? >
< Yeah. Drinking, laughing, center of attention. Lol >
< In her element. I’m glad. See you tomorrow? >
< Yep >
Lexy put the phone away when she heard Mike’s voice chatting up the waitresses. He was a regular, and a favorite here. After five minutes Lexy leaned out of the booth and waved at him when she caught his eye. He wrapped up his conversations with a pat on the arm or shoulder squeeze for each woman and headed her way.
He was smiling as he slid into the booth. As if he hadn’t spent the day with a dead twenty-five year old. “How you doin’ kid? Get some sleep?”
“Not much. I’m super hungry though.”
“Got it,” he said with a wink. He ordered veal marsala for two and a scotch for himself. Lexy stuck to water.
“So, um…did you talk to Callie’s parents?”
“It’s just her mom. Dad died a few years ago.”
“Oh. I didn’t know. How was it? The telling her mom part?” Lexy couldn’t imagine having to tell a parent their child was gone. Especially violently. She shuddered.
Mike took a slug of his drink. “Same as it always is. No better or worse than the hundred times before.”
“Does her mom live here?”
He shook his head. “Cleveland. You weren’t close, huh?”
Lexy shrugged. “We worked together. We gossiped. It felt like we were friends, but I didn’t know where she was from—or I didn’t think it was important enough to remember. I don’t remember her talking about her family. But I guess I don’t talk about mine at work either.”
They were silent for a bit. When the food arrived they tucked into it. Every time the waitress came over Mike smiled and was charming and when she left he was silent again. Lexy had never really thought about what his job entailed. She’d been excited when he graduated from the police academy and had celebrated his promotion to Detective, but she’d never thought about the things he’d seen and the phone calls he had to make to families.
Mike suddenly looked up. “Listen…” He smiled. “Our boy Dino.”
The restaurant sound system played a selection of Italian crooners and coming through the overhead speakers was Dean Martin singing “Innamorata,” a favorite of theirs.
“I had a dream about Dino the other night,” Lexy said. “We were working on John Kennedy’s campaign together and he pulled a bait-and-switch on me with a Boogie Nights prosthetic.”
Mike’s face squinched up. “What?”
“You know, like when Marky Mark had a fake schlong? Dino had one of those.”
He shook his head. “You are twisted. Finish your veal.” He tipped back the rest of his scotch and put the glass down firmly on the table. “Dino would never have a fake one.”
It felt good to laugh.
After the plates had been cleared and dessert decided against, Mike pulled out his notebook and patted his jacket pockets for his pen. “I have a few questions. About Callie. Okay?”
“Like official questions?”
Mike nodded. “Relax. We’re just talking here.”
“Okay.” Lexy took a deep breath.
“Let’s start with the last time you saw Callie.”
“That was Sunday night at SEA-TAC airport. We’d just come back from a trip to New York.”
“What was in New York?”
“We were doing an event at the Toys R Us store. She was handling the press people and I was covering it for the web site.”
“How long were you there?”
“We flew in on Thursday night and the event was Friday. We stayed Saturday because…it’s New York, and we flew home Sunday.” Lexy took a last bite of veal and drained her water glass.
“Anyone else with you on the trip? She bring a friend along?”
“There were people from event planning, and a couple of executives but we didn’t hang out with them.”
“Anything strange or upsetting happen in New York?”
“No. She said she was supposed to hook up with some guy on Friday night, but it didn’t pan out. I think he bailed on her.”
“You know the guy’s name?”
“She didn’t say.”
“Okay. So on Sunday, your plane lands, you go to baggage claim…”
“Right. So the last place you saw her…?”
“How was her mood?”
“She was mad at me. We’d been arguing.”
Mike looked up. “About what?”
Lexy cleared her throat, uncomfortable. “It was idiotic. She got upgraded to first class and I was pissed that she took it instead of staying back in coach with me. She was mad at me for being mad.”
“How did you leave it with her?”
“We were polite. There was no screaming or hair-pulling. I said ‘See you back at the ranch,’ and she waved and got in her car.”
“And that was the last contact you had with her?”
“Yeah. Wait, no!” She pulled out her cellphone. “I got this text from her last night.” She brought up the message and slid the phone across the table. “I didn’t notice it until this morning.”
Mike squinted slightly at the tiny letters. He’d be needing glasses soon. “Explain this to me, Lex.”
She swung around the booth to sit next to him. They looked at the message together.
< Dude. LOL. Check it out—you’ll freak. ❤ >
“Please tell me you know what ‘L-O-L’ is.” Lexy teased.
“’L-O-L’ I get. What’s less-than-three?
Lexy chuckled. “It’s a heart on its side. Love.”
Mike looked at her. “So she forgave your hissy fit.”
Lexy’s eyes teared up. “Guess so. Yeah.”
“What did she want you to check out?”
“I don’t know. There was no attachment. I checked my work and personal email accounts, instant messages, Facebook, and Twitter and there was nothing else from her. Uncle Mike, what could she want me to see?”
“I don’t know, but we need to find out. If the ME’s right, she sent this an hour or two before she died.”