Memory Man



  “No, this is just my personality. Ask anyone who knows me. I have no filters. I lost them years ago and never found them again.”

  “You had an outstanding record in the police force. You and your partner.”

  “Former partner,” Decker corrected, for he had a need for things to be precise, especially right now.

  “Former partner,” conceded Bogart. “But in talks with people it seems that you were the clear leader of the pair. I won’t say you were the brains, because I have no desire to minimize Detective Lancaster’s contributions to your casework.”

  “That’s very nice to hear,” said Decker. “Because Mary is a good detective and works her ass off.” He looked at Lafferty. “And if you work hard too, you might become more than a note taker for your boss. I’m sure you have the ability if you’re ever given the chance to use it.”

  Lafferty flushed and set her pen down.

  Bogart leaned forward. “This person seems to have a vendetta against you. Any idea who that could be?”

  “If I did I would have already provided the information to the Burlington Police Department.”

  “We’re all in this together,” said Bogart, who was no longer smiling politely.

  “I’m glad that you think so.”

  “So no one comes to mind?”

  “When I talked with Leopold he said I had dissed him at the 7-Eleven. This was about a month before my family was killed. Only I never dissed anyone there. And if someone had a problem with me I would’ve remembered.”

  “Are you saying your memory is infallible?”

  “I’m saying I would have remembered if someone had a problem with me.”

  “But all that time ago, you could have forgotten. And it might have been something slight, or seemingly innocuous. It might not have even registered with you. We all miss things. And memories are inherently fallible.”

  “When were you born?”

  “What?” asked Bogart sharply.

  “Tell me when you were born, month, day, year.”

  Bogart glanced at Lafferty and then said, “June 2, 1968.”

  Decker blinked five times and said, “Then you were born on a Sunday.”

  Bogart sat back. “That’s right. I of course didn’t know it at the time. How did you know? Did you look up my personnel file?”

  “I wouldn’t have had access. And until five minutes ago I didn’t even know you existed. If you want more proof I can do the same thing for your colleague.”

  “And your point?”

  “I would’ve remembered dissing someone at the 7-Eleven whether it was seventeen months or seventeen years ago.”

  “You think Leopold was lying, then?”

  “I think Sebastian Leopold is not what he wants us to think he is.”

  “And what exactly is that?”

  “Homeless and more than slightly out of his mind.”

  “So you’re saying he’s neither homeless nor out of his mind?”

  “I’m saying that I think he’s dangerous.”

  “But you said he couldn’t have been the school shooter. Do you think he killed your family?”

  “He couldn’t personally have done it. He has an alibi for that too. But I’m rethinking whether he was still involved somehow.”

  “Why?”

  “Because he walked on a murder charge he confessed to. And now he’s disappeared. You don’t luck yourself into either one of those results.”

  “So you do think he’s involved somehow. And now he’s disappeared?”

  “I have no proof. And even if we find him we can’t charge him with what we have, which is basically nothing.”

  “So why do you think he’s involved?”

  This came from Agent Lafferty.

  Bogart turned to her, seemingly surprised that she had uttered actual words.

  Decker stared dead at her. “Because he’s inexplicable. And I don’t like people who are inexplicable.”

  Chapter

  26

  DECKER LEFT BOGART and Lafferty in the little reading room and walked across the hall to the cafeteria. This was where it all started, and it seemed that the old checkerboard linoleum-floored space kept calling out to him.

  Maybe like a Siren serenades a sailor to his doom.

  He walked around the perimeter of the space, looked in the freezer, turned the corner, and checked the kitchen area, then the outdoor loading dock, which led off into the woods. Initially they thought the shooter had escaped that way. Well, many of them still thought that, which was why a forensics team had been scouring the entire path and its environs ever since Decker had discovered what he had in the cafeteria.

  But Decker no longer believed it.

  He came back in and parked himself in one of the chairs the kids used. His wide butt hung off both sides of it and he could almost hear the scream of the seat’s spindly legs as it supported a bulk not usually seen in a high school.

  So why had the shooter really been in the cafeteria? It was far from where the shooting spree started. The farthest possible spot except for the office and the library, places that would have had people in them at that time of the morning.

  7:28—Melissa Dalton heard the whooshing sound as the freezer door opened.

  8:41—Cammie Man was caught on video.

  8:42—Debbie Watson lost her face and her life.

  Basically one hour and thirteen minutes were unaccounted for. What took all that time? If he was already dressed and gunned up? Why had he waited? Or had he waited at all? Perhaps he was doing something. Perhaps he was doing something critical to his plan that took some time.

  Decker sat there for a few minutes while his mind chewed on this.

  No one had been seen walking from the cafeteria to the far hallway where Debbie Watson had died. They had identified and interviewed two people—both teachers—who most likely would have seen someone walk that route at that time. It was not guaranteed, because a minute off here or there or a head turning to the right instead of the left and there would have been a blind spot.

  But if the killer started in the cafeteria, he had to get to the other end of the school unseen. That was point A.

  He had done it. That was point B.

  Point C would be how he had done it. Point C was what Decker desperately needed to understand.

  And then something trickled into the back of his head, was run through the meticulous filter that his mind had become because of a hellacious hit by a Bayou boy, and the trickle came out the other end reformulated into something.

  Decker rose and hurried outside. He hustled over to the cornerstone of the school and read off the date.

  1946.

  He already knew this, but looking at the numbers seemed to bolster his confidence in the theory forming in his head. Colors had flashed in his mind when his gaze fell on some of the numbers, but colors did not interest him right now.

  1946.

  A year after the big war ended.

  And a new one had almost immediately begun.

  The Cold War.

  Nuclear war threats. Armageddon. Kids huddling under their flimsy desks as part of emergency drills in case a hydrogen bomb was coming their way. As though an inch-thick laminate shield would protect them from the equivalent of a million tons of TNT.

  Decker hustled back to the cafeteria, passing several suspicious-looking Bureau agents in the hall as he did so. He didn’t acknowledge them. He barely noticed them. He was on the scent. He had formed walls in his head that had compartmentalized everything down to this one line of inquiry that might answer the one question that seemed unanswerable.

  He stood in the middle of the room and looked in all four corners, then pulled his gaze back. He went into the kitchen and did the same thing. Then the loading platform.

  He didn’t see anything remotely close to what he was looking for. The problem was, he didn’t know enough. That was always the damn problem with police work.

  I don’t know enough. The man who can
’t forget anything doesn’t know enough. How ironic is that?

  But if Decker didn’t know enough, then maybe the shooter didn’t either. Maybe the shooter had had to turn to someone who did know enough.

  Or who knew someone who knew enough.

  Now, that theory, if played out, might answer several questions.

  The school was a facility, a building. Changes could be made. Changes undoubtedly were made here over the decades. The drop ceiling over his head had assuredly not been here in 1946. What else had been added or taken away?

  Or covered up? Because it was no longer necessary? And then forgotten?

  Decker slipped into the library and motioned for Lancaster to join him. She finished up a phone call and then hurried over to the entrance to the library where Decker was standing. Decker was acutely aware that Special Agent Bogart and his special agent note taker Lafferty were both watching him from a distant corner of the space.

  He spoke to Lancaster in a low voice, his features relaxed. He might just be shooting the breeze with her. They turned and left together.

  Once outside in the hall, Lancaster said, “Do you really think it’s possible? I mean, I never heard of such a thing.”

  “Just because you haven’t heard of it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

  “You went here. Did you ever hear talk of something like that?”

  “No. But then again I never thought to ask, either. And it might’ve been from a long time ago. In fact, it probably was.”

  “But who would know for sure? From what you said, it could have been put in over sixty years ago. And maybe never used. Anybody who might have known about it is probably dead or nearly so.”

  “How about students from back then?”

  “Well, they’d be pretty elderly too. And the teachers are almost certainly all dead.”

  “There has to be a way, Mary. Records have to be kept—”

  They had walked outside, and Decker broke off his sentence as he looked to his left, where the old military base was.

  “The Army might have record of it,” he noted.

  “The Army! Why them?”

  “That base has been here since, what, the thirties?”

  “That’s right. My grandfather worked there along with half the other people in Burlington. They had a big buildup during World War II, like every other military installation in the country.”

  “So clearly it was there before the school was built. And lots of parents who worked at the base sent their kids to Mansfield.”

  Lancaster appeared to understand where he was going with this. “So you think they might have initiated it?”

  “And what if Debbie Watson’s great-grandfather, who worked at the base starting in the late sixties, knew all about it, and told little Debbie when he went to live with them?”

  “And you think she might have told the shooter?”

  “I can’t think of another reason why he would have needed her.”

  “But how would he have found out that Debbie would know something like that?”

  “It could have been any number of ways. That’s not important. But if I’m right, we’ll know how the shooter got from the cafeteria to the back hall unseen. And if we can nail that down we might be able to work backward to where the son of a bitch came from.”

  They hurried off to Lancaster’s car.

  At the window watching them was Special Agent Bogart. And the man from Washington did not look pleased.

  Next to him Special Agent Lafferty was busily writing down notes.

  Chapter

  27

  GEORGE WATSON ANSWERED their knock. He looked disheveled and there was a yellow and purplish bruise on his right cheek.

  “Are you okay?” asked Lancaster.

  Watson leaned against the doorjamb seemingly more for support than anything else. “I’m f-fine. My…my w-wife i-is leavin’ me, but I’m f-fine. Hell, why w-wouldn’t I b-be?”

  Decker drew a foot closer and sniffed while Lancaster held Watson’s gaze.

  Decker looked at her and nodded his head slightly. They had done this same routine when they had been partners. A nod for drunk, a shake of the head for sober or near enough to it. Actually, he hadn’t needed to do the smell test. The man’s slurred speech, inability to stand without aid of a wall, and blurry eyes were signs enough.

  “Is your wife here?” asked Decker.

  George pointed inside the house. “P-packin’. Th-the b-bitch!”

  “These are very tough times for you both,” commented Decker.

  “Lo-lost my little girl and…and n-now my wife. But you kn-know w-what?”

  “No sir, what?” asked Decker.

  “Screw ’em.” He waggled his deformed arm. “S-screw ’em.”

  “You might want to lie down, sir,” said Lancaster. “And lay off the drink.”

  George looked affronted. “I…haven’t b-been drinkin’.” He let out a loud belch and looked like he might be sick.

  “Good to know. But you need to sleep it off anyway.”

  Decker took the man’s good arm and guided him into the front room and over to the couch. “Just have a lie-down right there while we have a word with your wife.”

  As George sank down onto the couch he said, “She’s n-not m-my w-wife. Not an-any-anymore. B-b-bitch!”

  He closed his eyes and grew silent except for his breathing.

  Decker led Lancaster down the hall and to a door behind which they heard noise.

  Decker rapped on the wood. “Mrs. Watson?”

  They heard something fall and hit the floor. “Who’s there?” Beth Watson barked.

  “Police,” said Lancaster.

  Beth Watson screamed, “That little son of a bitch called the police? Just because I hit him? Well, he hit me first, the one-armed prick.”

  “It’s not about that. It’s about your daughter.”

  The door was wrenched open and Beth Watson stood there in heels and a white slip and nothing else. Her pale flesh seemed even paler with that backdrop. The skin around her arms was sagging. One of her cheeks was red and swollen. Decker did not have to take a step closer to sniff out her sobriety status. But apparently, she could be drunk, stand erectly, and talk coherently at the same time. At least she hoped she was coherent.

  “What about her?” Beth demanded.

  “I asked your husband when we were here last time about his grandfather.”