The air was industrial, bruised, like water washed in oil, breath filtered through dirt and hung out to dry, a speckled white sheet upon which the city wiped its wet fingers.
The bare whistled moan of a morning transit train crossing Morris was wrapped in the soft fog of dawn, the colored day muted to gray, padded to silence.
On the eastern hills, life as blood-crimson sunlight leaked along the ridgeline and dripped down craggy slopes to pool on the valley floor.
An hour later Ironton Detective Frank Nagler leaned, arms crossed, on a metal door frame of a third-floor dormitory room at the New Jersey State College of Ironton. This place is too small to contain this horror, he thought coldly, as he stared into the still weak October sunlight that leaked past the window glass, through the fine dust and dried red spatter to cast pink, blotted shadows on the crowded, narrow gray floor.
Dark stains flowed across both mattresses where blood had seeped in. Blankets twisted into loose coils were draped across a corner of one bed, as if rolled again and again as the victim had tried to escape the blows, always moving, always turning, but never escaping. Arcs of spatter raced up the side walls and across “Starry Night.” Did the walls contain the screams, suck up the pain like a sponge? Or did the screams slowly fade as the pain increased to numbness only to pool on the floor with the blood while the attacker walked away?
Inside the room, maybe twelve-by-fifteen, two police officers in white booties stepped carefully as if dancing – one standing thin and tall while the other officer swooped below an arched arm, then pirouetting aside, turning enpointe to gently glide to an open spot – as they examined the clutter of beds, dressers, desks and chairs, shoes, casually tossed pants, and books left open on the floor and edged under a bed; as they photographed, measured and recorded all the blood, the echoed chaos of attack and attempted escape, the hint of screams, choked voices, then silence.
Nagler nodded to Sergeant Maria Ramirez as she emerged from the room.
“What’s this?” He asked flatly. Wow, he thought. Detached much, Frank?
“Two young women. Early this morning, maybe five hours ago.” Ramirez put her case in the hallway. She lightly hit his right arm. “You could care a little bit, you know. Ai, detectives! Glory hounds.”
They laughed, but it was that sad, reflexive laugh of people bonded by the responsibility of creating order from chaos, of finding faces and voices and lives in the clutter of disaster.
“Yeah, that’s it, Maria,” Nagler said. “I’m just here to get my photo on Dawson’s website.”
“Anyway,” she said. “Both were beaten with something heavy, possibly sharp. EMT’s said both had severe lacerations and contusions to their heads, torsos, legs, arms. Hell of a beating.” She shook her head and pointed to the bed on the right. “There’s some tears and cuts to the mattresses, and strike marks on the walls. Not what I wanted to wake up to at four a.m.”
“Okay, that’s for sure. Where are the victims?”
“Ironton General. Both lost a lot of blood. Went right into surgery. Somehow they’re not dead. I’ll get you more later.” She handed Nagler two photos. “This is Doris Macomber, nineteen. She slept on the left side of the room. That’s her desk over there. This is Arlene Katz, also nineteen.” Doris had a round face, short, brown hair streaked with purple and red, a round nose and full lips. Alice’s long face was framed by longer, wavy black hair; her eyes were narrow and her mouth, thin.
Nagler nodded. Both young and pretty, sweet smiles. “Who called it in?”
“Not sure. Campus police got a 9-1-1 call, checked the scene and called us. Our dispatch has the officer’s name.”
“Thanks, Maria.” He folded his arms over his chest and stared absently out the window.
“Hey, Earth to Frank,” Ramirez said. “Don’t touch anything. I’ve got a crew coming to pack up the beds, posters, clothes, all the stuff.
Nagler smiled and shook his head to clear away… whatever it was. “After all this time you still have to tell me that? I’m guessing the suspected weapon was not gift wrapped on the floor?”
Ramirez reached over and patted his cheek twice and smiled. She pulled a roll of yellow tape from her case. “Place can’t hold all of us at the same time. Had to do it in shifts. Just tape it off when you’re done, huh, smart boy?”
How often did you laugh? Nagler wondered, examining the pieces of two lives scattered before him. When did you last sit on the bed and share wine, cookies from home or a joint and tell stories about high school and your first date? Sprawl on the bed eyes closed and lose the world in the music in your earbuds? Ask for help on a history paper, deeply dissect the national political news, campus gossip, bitch about a professor, salute good grades or bemoan bad, celebrate athletic triumphs or dissect defeats; play cards, recall pain and joy; share your bed with your lover, naked and smooth, lick and probe, taste, devour and then lie chest to chest, fulfilled?
Never, Nagler thought, did you think of this.
The mental examination of the room cleared his head and pushed out the misty ghost that had seemingly lodged there some time ago. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in that office too often, he thought. Even with a surge in petty crime across the city, there had been a drop in serious cases, so he had not been in the field for a couple of weeks. What does that say? That I need dead bodies to feel alive? Focus, old man.
The beds. Set head to the wall, front to back, about four feet apart. The suspect could have stood in one spot and hit them both, Nagler thought. He glanced at the floor for shoe prints and saw several. Good, he thought. Maybe something solid.
Nagler carefully danced around the blood on the floor and other debris to reach the window. This room was in an older section of the college. Maybe one of the first dormitory quads? The room looked out over a long, nearly square piece of lawn that was framed on three sides by similar three-story brick buildings. Ten rooms to a floor, five a side, three floors. From the opposite buildings, fifteen blank windows stared back.
He took out his handkerchief and cranked open one of the narrow windows, pulled off the screen and looked up and down. The outside wall was flat with no decoration, protrusions or windows sills, nothing that could be used as a foot stand, grip or something around which to tie a rope. The roof was also flat with a metal band that did not appear to be strong enough to hold up a body. No acrobatics. The other side window had no screen, but there was none on the ground below, so, he guessed, it had been missing all along.
The school was on a four-day break, and most of the students had left the campus. The school offered some students the option to stay, such as grad students whose lab work needed monitoring, athletes, those on work-study programs at the library or other departments or foreign students whose homes were too far away.
Why were these girls here? He wondered. How many students were in the dorm?
The only way in was the door. It hadn’t been forced, so that left two possibilities, Nagler thought. One of the women answered the door and unlocked it, or it was not locked. A friend, someone familiar. Or a stranger.
Nagler leaned over and examined the door handle and locking mechanism. It was in the unlocked position. Was it that way when the school’s patrol officer arrived? Did a city cop touch the lock? The keyhole was in the center of the outer handle which paired up with a button lock in the middle of the inside handle. Fairly typical commercial lock, he thought. He pushed in the button and tried to turn the outer handle and failed, as he should have. He pushed the button again and it released. When he turned the handle, a deadbolt, about two inches long and a half-an-inch wide, popped out of the door. At least they couldn’t open the door with a credit card, he thought.
Nagler on his knees at the door, poked his head into the hallway. “Yeah, what?” He looked back at the lock, thinking Ramirez’s crew had arrived to clear the scene. “Over here,” he shouted.
Instead of the crew, he saw a tall, thin, twentyish man in an ill-fitting suit.
“This is a crime scene. You can’t be here,” Nagler said, standing.
“I’m looking for Detective Frank Nagler.” The kid looked nervously around the hallway. He was wearing a red Phillies cap and a long, rather fashionable outer coat. It had a deep collar and a wide belt.
“Found him. Who are you?”
The man stuck out his hand, which Nagler shook. “Tom Miller. I’m one of the new guys. The Chief told me to meet you here.”
One of the new guys. Nagler sighed. After the criminal mess two years ago with the former Mayor Gabriel Richman and the extensive flood damage, the city’s budget had been slashed by ten percent and many of the older employees, including police officers, were encouraged to retire through buyouts as a cost-cutting move. The department lost twenty-five officers, which turned out to be too many. The state then awarded a special grant and ten new officers were recruited. Most were assigned to patrol duty, Nagler recalled, but a couple, like Mr. Miller here, apparently, were given a rush tutorial in crime investigation, a course Nagler taught. One problem, he thought: I don’t remember you.
The pair stood awkwardly in the doorway with Miller, a full six inches taller than Nagler, leaning side-to-side to see into the room.
“What’s that?” Nagler asked nodding toward a rectangular shaped mirror that Miller held.
“Oh. That’s my tablet.”
“Tablet. Tablet computer?” Miller held up the object for Nagler to inspect. “I can take notes, photos, place them both in a file and send them to the lab, my desktop, to you – you know, anywhere. Don’t you use one?”
Nagler pursed his lips. More gadgets. “Um, no.” He stepped back into the room. “Take a look. Be careful. The room’s not been cleaned.”
Miller nodded, and holding the flat computer outward, slowly moved it in an arc around the room. He looked back at Nagler. “Video.”
Nagler shook his head. Sure.
“I need you to stay here until the city crew gets finished. Don’t let anyone other than that crew in here.” Miller, still recording the bloody scene, nodded, then looked over his shoulder said, “Okay.” Then he turned back to the room. “No problem. Thanks.”
Nagler smiled. “Don’t thank me yet. Could be a while.” He nodded at the coat. “Nice coat, by the way. Wool?”
“Yeah. My father brought it back from England.”
“Okay. We’ll talk soon.”
The door at the right end of the hallway creaked open and then softly closed around a metal bucket with a mop. “Damn thing.” The door swung open and a man in a green shirt with the name of the college embroidered over one pocket and a white oval patch with “Ray” in the center kicked the bucket through the doorway into the hall. “Damn latch,” he said.
Ray pulled open the door a second time and hauled in a cart with towels and cleaning supplies. Even twenty feet away, Nagler could smell the bleach.
“You all done yet?” Ray asked. He shifted his blue Giants cap on his head until the brim sat sideways
“No,” Nagler said. “Barely started.”
“I figured. Leave my stuff here?”
Nagler waved one hand, a signal of both approval and indecision. “Why not?”
“Alrighty. You tell your boys I’ll be in the main lobby putting a shine on that imported expensive marble floor they laid in there. Stuff’s so slick they have to put rubber mats on it even in the summer. Kids sliding all over, smacking they heads on the glass doors. But they want it shiny, so I shine it.”
Nagler laughed. “Hey, Miller. I’m leaving. Call me later.” He quick stepped to catch Ray in the stairwell. “Hey, how’d you get that cart up here on the third floor?”
“Didn’t.” Ray pointed to a rectangular wooden cabinet fitted along the wall. It filled space left open by the absence of another flight of stairs.
“Okay.” Nagler nodded. “Is it always locked?”
Ray touched the metal lock hanging on the door. “You bet. Otherwise the kids steal all the toilet paper and soap,” Ray laughed.
“Makes sense,” Nagler said, then paused as he glanced at the cramped square space. “I meant the doors. Locked? How many outside doors does this place have?” He asked.
“These hall doors on each floor? They ain’t got a lock. Main door has one. Each wing has an outside door. They locked. Used to be separate wings for the men and the women, but that ended. Too hard to get some pussy, I guess,” he cackled. “Now they just emergency exits.”
The door Ray showed Nagler was at the far end of the dorm and led from the quad directly to the first floor, which had a door without any special security, and then to a staircase which provided access to the upper floors.
Nagler opened and closed the outer door a couple times. It latched shut each time. Inside, he asked Ray, “Ever find this door propped open? A match book, something, stuck in the gap? I don’t see any alarm.”
Ray chuckled. “They ain’t alarmed. Been here thirty-five years and they never put on an alarm. I know they talked about it. My supervisor told me God must be half-a-dozen times they was gonna put in alarms. But they never did. Sometimes put in a new, fancier lock, but that made no difference. Don’t know how many times I pulled that door shut, yanked the floor mat out from under it, dug out a wad of paper. Probably did that every Monday for thirty-five years. First thing. These kids, what their parents don’t know.” Ray pursed his lips and shook his head three or four times and then waved a hand at the door. “What-all they sneakin’ in?” Then he chuckled. “What-all.”
Later Nagler stood in the middle of the grassy quad and stared at the buildings. Not what-all, Ray. Who-all.
Nagler hadn’t paid much attention to the college, the New Jersey State College of Ironton.
Never had a reason. Even though it had been in the city since it was founded after World War II, and even though it now enrolled thousands of students, the campus actually generated little crime. Sure, he thought, there were the usual minor drunk driving and drug use, a few drunken brawls, incidents that come with having a large group of teenagers and young adults in one place – and he recalled a story about a coach getting fired for recruiting violations – but nothing like this beating, nothing with the level of violence evident in that small room.
The school’s gymnasium was used as a shelter during the floods two years ago, but because the campus sat on a hillside more than a mile from the river, the property had not suffered any of the devastation seen in the center of Ironton. Nagler recalled that college officials did what they could at the time.
Nagler walked the quads between several dormitories, trying to get a feel for the place. While the building styles had changed when new dorms were built, they were all pretty much the same: ten rooms per floor, five on each side, each with one large stationary picture window and two side windows that opened with hand cranks. That’s a lot of damn windows, he thought. And they all needed checking for fingerprints.
How many windows did you push on? How many door handles did you grasp and pull? Or did you have a key and just walked right in? In time, he thought. In time.
Nagler had presumed the campus would have been more active, even with the students gone. Office staff on duty, some teachers doing research, marking papers, or whatever, athletes in training. But as he walked back to his car, he saw that the parking lots were largely empty, and other than a few delivery vans or work crews apparently replacing light bulbs in lamps around the square center driveway, there was little activity.
It was a creepy silence, he decided, like a shopping center after all the stores had gone out of business; a hollow space, a place of things, not people, walls of plywood, metal sheeting dangling from flat roofs, tapping on stone, a sourceless sound at the edge of hearing; whistling, air wheezing through unseen tight spaces, sound diffused in the air like sand; grass filling asphalt cracks as dust clouds rampaged across the open, empty parking lots. Could no one hear the screams that pierced the dark night, feel the fright and horror that filled that tiny room, see the blood painted on those walls, smell the lust and power that intoxicated that intruder? Or did the thick walls contain it all, collect it, recycle it until it rose a twisted symphony from silence to climax, then withdrew to silence again?
Nagler could. Even in the now bright clear air of that sunny morning, his mind was dark, brooding, and filled with the anxiety of violence and death. It was the feeling he had known on every case he had worked, the instinct of the irrational. It might be the one place he felt the most comfortable.
Except now. The questions he asked himself about the beating of these two women came from training, not passion. Let that new kid, what’s his name, Miller, work the crime scene alone? I’d never have done that before. But all he really had to do there is watch. Ramirez was not going to let him touch anything. How hard could that be? This is a strange damn rut, he thought.
On the drive back into the city Nagler recalled bits of other stories about the college. They centered on the conflicts that developed where the edges of the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods of suburban homes rubbed together, fights over parking, land taking, families being bought out of their homes. Nagler knew that Ironton was a city that carried a grudge over the periodic hard times it had faced, and would challenge anyone or anything that would threaten that hard-earned sourness. Is that what happened here, he wondered – someone displaced by the college’s recent expansion came back to take out their resentment against anyone they could find?
No, this is personal, he thought. If you were mad at the college because the new science building blocked your view of the green hills, you wrote letters to the paper, scheduled a meeting with the college president, or failing that, marched in front of the construction site with a poster about saving the watershed or Indiana brown bat habitat. Maybe your teen aged son, feeling your anger, spray painted graffiti on the new Italian marble walls. “This skul suks!!!” or “Brooks not bricks!!”
But you don’t sneak into a dormitory in the middle of the night and beat up a couple of young women because some retired computer company executive wanted a building named in his honor. Bloody, physical crime is tactile, he thought, about touch, and taste, about the smell of new blood; about power and release.
What has been started?
Nagler’s car was swallowed by the traffic growing heavy on the old state highway passing into the city, his mind trapped by the darkness he knew it would find there.
Ironton, New Jersey had not always been dark, he knew. Once it glowed with the heat of industrial fires, flashed a downtown of shining storefronts, spotlights, rang with the martial clash of horns and shouted voices, the symphony of commerce, the pride of life. But the lights faded and the red-brick hulks of industry sucked in all the light, holding it in secret corners until like a candle failing, sparks disappeared into the cold center of darkness.
Then after the storm of two years ago, the sounds, like the light, were dragged down stream by the river, swallowed in a flowing mist, the city’s voices muted; hollow echoes of footsteps fading.
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NEXT IN IN THE FRANK NAGLER MYSTERY SERIES – The Weight of Living