He was on his own in the murder investigation.

More chapters from ToxiCity

A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 5

Matt wanted to drive over to Romano’s parents’ home, a small colonial in west Wilmette, but he was detoured by a meeting with Sean Doyle, Glenbrook’s Chief of Police. With a wrinkled face, pugnacious chin, and sour expression, Doyle looked like a bulldog past its prime. Matt followed him into his office, a featureless room with grey walls, grey blinds, and grey carpeting.

“We’ve decided not to activate the task force.” Doyle tamped the bowl of his pipe. A recent innovation in suburban law enforcement, The Major Crimes Task Force allowed villages on the North Shore to share manpower and resources on important cases. Officers in over a dozen villages had standing orders to drop everything if called to serve. The catch was that it had to be convened within five to eight hours of the crime’s discovery, or it couldn’t be activated at all. Nine hours had passed since they’d found Romano’s body.

“Close the door.” Doyle leaned his elbows on the table.

Matt closed the door, and sat down. Doyle reached into a drawer for a match, struck it on the desk’s surface, and lit his pipe. “I persuaded the mayor we could handle this ourselves. With you as lead.” He made a few sucking sounds. “I made the right decision, didn’t I?”

Doyle would share the credit if Matt solved this case and none of the blame if he didn’t; still, he was handing Matt a huge opportunity. Matt took a breath, inhaling the scent of pipe tobacco. “Yes, sir. You made the right decision. But we’ll need help.”

“Use Brewster, the uniforms, outside consults, whatever. And I want to be kept informed. Regular updates. None of this left side doesn’t know what the right side is doing. And make nice to everybody, understand?” He nodded, as if to signal their meeting was over.

Matt rose and headed for the door. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“I’m sure you’ll earn it.” Curls of smoke drifted into the air.

 ***

Several cars were parked in the driveway at Romano’s parents. Skirting a red Blazer, Matt headed to the door, which was open. He rang anyway.

The woman who greeted him was clearly one of the girls in the photograph, but grief had distorted her face. In tight jeans and a sweatshirt, she looked haggard, her face almost opaque. Lines cut deep into her forehead.

“You must be Joanne. I’m Detective Matt Singer. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

The woman stared at him, her expression blank.

“I’m investigating your sister’s death, and I want you to know that we won’t rest until we find out what happened to her. May I come in?”

She led him into the living room, modestly decorated in shades of beige. A crucifix hung on a wall.

“How are your parents?” he asked.

“The doctor just left.”

Matt nodded. Tranquilizers, booze, whatever it took.

“Look, I’ve already talked to one cop. Do we need to do this again?”

“It’s never the right time,” Matt said. “But you might remember some detail you didn’t include before. I’ll try to be quick. Can you ask your parents to come down?”

Joanne didn’t seem happy about it, but she went up the stairs. Matt heard a soft knock and muffled words. Five minutes later Mrs. Romano, a tiny, white-haired lady, probably in her seventies, came down. She leaned unsteadily on her daughter’s arm. Whether that was from age or the drugs the doctor had probably pumped into her, Matt wasn’t sure. Mr. Romano, tall and stooped, followed the women. Both sat stiffly at the dining room table.

Matt started with the easy questions. As far as the family knew, Julie was in good health.

“Was she taking any medications?”

Mrs. Romano answered. “She had kidney stones several years ago. She took water pills—diuretics. They were supposed to help prevent them.”

That explained one of the prescriptions in her bathroom. “What about other substances? Drugs? Alcohol?”

Mrs. Romano shook her head. “Julie was an angel, officer. Never got into trouble. Called every day. Visited three or four times a week. Why, just last Friday, after school, she took me over to Fields to get a new blouse.” Mrs. Romano looked reproachfully at Joanne.

The sister’s jaw tightened.

“What about friends, Mrs. Romano?”

“Oh, Julie had lots of friends. She was always talking about them, wasn’t she dear?” She gazed at her husband. Mr. Romano nodded, a vacant look unfolding across his face. Matt had the feeling it was a reflexive habit honed by years of marriage.

“Have any names?”

The older woman’s brow furrowed. She turned to her daughter. “You tell them, Joanne. You know them better.”

Joanne frowned. “Me?” She looked at Matt. “We didn’t travel in the same circles,” she said.

“Well, maybe you and I can make a list when I’m finished with your parents.” He went on. “When did Julie start teaching?”

“About ten years ago,” Mrs. Romano replied.

“Only math?”

“She taught algebra, plane geometry, and trig.” The mother’s gaze wandered.

“Her personnel file says she was hired by the high school six years ago.”

“I – that sounds about right,” Mrs. Romano said.

Hang on a few more minutes, Matt thought. “What about before that?”

“She subbed.”

“Julie was in her forties, correct?”

The mother nodded.

“What did she do before she started teaching?”

“She was a book-keeper.”

Matt thought of the neatly arranged files. “She changed careers?”

“She said book-keeping was dehumanizing. Too many numbers—not enough people.” Mrs. Romano’s lip quivered. “She loved people. Especially kids.”

But she didn’t have any of her own. “What about a boyfriend? Was there someone special in her life?”

“Not that I was aware of. Joanne?” She turned to her daughter.

“Julie didn’t date much,” Joanne said.

“She was the shy one,” Mrs. Romano said. “Religious too. They are—were very different girls.”

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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