Presumption Of Innocence
Blair Sandburg sighed inwardly as Melissa Shelburne’s bottom lip dropped into a shaky pout and she began to cry noisily, tears overflowing her big blue eyes and streaking her mascara down her otherwise flawless cheeks.
“Oh, Mr. Sandburg, please don’t give me an F. Daddy promised me my very own car if I passed this semester and I’m already close to failing as it is.”
Blair sighed, out loud this time, stood up and walked around the desk, plucking a tissue from the box on his filing cabinet on his way past. He tucked the tissue into Melissa’s shaking hand and patted her shoulder awkwardly. “Look, Melissa, don’t cry. But I can’t give you a passing grade on the paper you’ve handed into me.” He stopped as the sobs edged up into wails and raised his voice. “However, if you’re prepared to let me tutor you for a couple of weeks, I’ll let you redo the paper and see how it goes. How’s that?”
Melissa raised her head and smiled, tears miraculously dissipating like rain after sunshine. “Oh thank you, Mr. Sandburg. I’ll work really hard, I promise. When can we start?”
Blair turned and hooked his diary over to him with his fingertips then scanned through the pages. “How about tonight? No time like the present. Say 7 o’clock?”
“Um, tonight? I was supposed to go to a movie with Ben Harper but… I guess…”
“Up to you,” Blair replied firmly. “Melissa, you have to want to do this and not just to get that car but because it’s an important part of your overall college grades.”
Melissa stood up and gave him a quick hug. “You’re right. I’ll see you tonight then, and thanks, Mr. Sandburg, I really appreciate you doing this.”
“No problem.” Blair waved her off then glanced at his watch. Shit! He had to meet Jim in fifteen minutes at the PD. If he hurried and *if* his car deigned to start and keep running, he might just make it. Grabbing his backpack and tossing it over his shoulder, he headed out the door, slamming it behind him as he went.
It was only when he reached his car that he got a clear picture of his keys and his wallet, sitting in plain view on his desk in his now-locked office. He cursed and even kicked the tires for good measure. That gave him a sore toe. It didn’t, however, give him access to his car. He had two options, he decided. Walk all the way back to the building his office was housed in and see if the receptionist had a spare key or walk as fast as he could to the PD, stopping at a pay phone to call Jim on the way. At least if he went back to his office, he realized, he could call Jim from there and kill two birds with one stone, so he sighed and headed back the way he’d come.
The receptionist gave him a flirtatious smile as she handed over the spare and he promised to return the key on his way out. He made a mental note to ask her for a date when he did then ran up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
Inside his office again, he picked up first his keys and his wallet then the phone and dialled Jim’s desk at the PD. “Hey, man, I’m really sorry but I’m running a little late,” he said as soon as Jim picked up.
Jim sighed. “You need me to come get you?” he asked, obviously assuming Blair was having car trouble again.
“No, no, I’m on my way now.” Blair didn’t bother explaining why he was late. Jim seemed okay with it and it was a moot point now he had his keys anyway. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes tops, okay?”
“Yeah, all right, just try not to make a habit of it, Chief. If you want to work with me, I need you to be here when you say you will. The captain wants me to go out to the Marsden scene again, see if I can pick up anything the CSI guys might have missed. I’ll tell him I’ve got some paperwork to catch up on first.”
Blair bit back telling Jim that he’d never let him down before and that he did, after all, have a job at the university to fulfil as well. “The Marsden scene? That’s over on Carson, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, why?” Jim asked.
“Well, that’s only two blocks over from the University,” Blair explained. “Why don’t I just meet you there rather than coming all the way back to the PD and riding out with you? It’ll save us both some time,” Blair suggested.
“Good idea. All right, see you in twenty. You know the address?”
“Yeah, it’s the house with the yellow crime scene tape all around it,” Blair deadpanned.
“Ha ha. Okay, bye.” Jim hung up and Blair made sure his keys, wallet, and phone were in his pocket then headed back down to the reception desk.
The receptionist was unfortunately nowhere in sight when Blair got downstairs and he gave serious thought to leaving her a note asking for that date but a quick glance at his watch changed his mind. Regretfully he dropped the key on the desk then hurried out to his car again where he dropped his wallet and phone into his backpack then slid behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition.
It started without a problem and he barely refrained from pumping his fist out the window in a victory salute as he drove off. Jim had suggested several times now that maybe it was time he thought about putting his beloved Volvo out to pasture but realistically Blair knew he couldn’t afford anything else. So, he’d kept it going with whatever small amounts of cash he could afford from time to time and most of the time it ran okay. Not as well as his Corvair had, he thought ruefully, as he turned onto Carson Street and parked in front of the Marsden house. He climbed from the car and closed and locked the door then ducked under the police tape and made his way up the walk to sit on the front porch steps while he waited for Jim.
He shivered a little as he sat there. This house had been the site of such tragedy that it was almost all Blair could do to think about it. A mother, Theresa Marsden, and her two small sons, Jesse, aged 4, and Daniel, aged 2, had been murdered here, stabbed to death as they slept in their beds. The police suspected the ex husband, David Marsden, who had disappeared the night of the murder though neighbors had seen him enter the house a few hours before the bodies were discovered by Theresa’s mother.
Looking around the yard, Blair saw a brightly painted swing set in the corner under a large tree. The tree branches drooped protectively over the swing as if trying to protect the memory of children who had played there with such abandon just a short time ago. Momentarily, he wondered if Jim’s sentinel sight would still be able to see the imprint of the small feet of the little boys who had once run across this yard to climb onto the swing or to try to climb the tree. Which reminded him that Jim should have been here by now. Blair glanced at his watch and then up the street. He reached for his backpack, intending to get his cell phone but his movement was stopped when an arm wrapped around his neck from behind, the grip just short of cutting off his air, and he froze.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” a harsh voice said in his ear.
Blair swallowed and raised both hands in the air, wishing now he’d gotten his phone out when he’d first arrived. “My name is Blair Sandburg,” he said as steadily as he could even though he could feel his hands shaking slightly with nerves. “I’m a grad student at the University.”
“Another damn rubbernecker come to trade on the tragedy of others,” the man growled, jerking Blair’s head back roughly. He pulled upwards so that his forearm rested against the underside of Blair’s chin. “Ought to just break your neck and leave your body out here as a warning to all the other lookylous.”
“Look, it’s not what you think,” Blair managed to get out. “I’m a consultant to the Cascade PD. I’m meeting my partner, Detective Ellison, here.”
“Even worse,” the man ground out. “You guys think I did it; you think I killed my own kids.” His voice broke on a sob.
“No!” Blair made his tone emphatic. “Listen, it was just because of the fact that no one could find you to talk to you about what you knew. Listen, man,” he turned his head to the side as much as he could without the arm around his neck cutting off his air even more, “tell us what happened here. Talk to my partner when he comes. Give us a chance to get justice for your wife and kids.”
The man snorted out a sardonic laugh. “My wife? She didn’t deserve any better than what she got. I hope she burns in hell for what she let happen to my boys.”
“You know who did this?” Blair asked.
“I saw him. That creep she was sleeping with. He killed her and then he killed my kids.” The arm around Blair’s throat loosened as the man started to sob and Blair tensed, readying himself for action.
“You saw him do it?”
“No. But I saw him leaving the house the night they were killed.” He tightened his hold around Blair’s neck again.
“Look, can you just let me go so we can talk face to face? I won’t try to get away. I just want to know more about this guy. There was no mention by anyone who knew your ex-wife that she was seeing anyone,” Blair said steadily.
“Teri was good at keeping secrets,” Marsden snarled.
Blair winced as he heard the snick of a gun safety being taken off but then the arm around his neck was gone and he rubbed at the soreness left behind.
“Put your hands out to the side and then turn around slowly,” Marsden ordered.
Blair did as he was told, his eyes quickly summing up the man before him as he did.
David Marsden was a tall, beefy man with short dark hair, and intense dark blue eyes. He had a tattoo on his forearm of a heart with the names, Jesse and Daniel, inscribed within it. His blue jeans and t-shirt looked grubby and wrinkled as if he’d slept in them and there were dark circles around his eyes and a grey tinge to his complexion that told of exhaustion.
“So, who is this guy your ex-wife was seeing?” Blair asked.
“I told you, Teri[as1] was good at keeping secrets. I don’t know his name. I just know what Jesse, my oldest boy, told me.” Marsden’s lower lip trembled momentarily but then he firmed his jaw and went on. “He said their momma was seeing some man, and he and Daniel were scared of him. He said the guy slapped them around for doing kid things, like if Danny wet the bed.”
“So, tell me what this guy looks like. I can get my partner to put an APB out on him-“ Blair began.
“I didn’t see him up close. It was dark. I came over here to talk to Teri, to warn her that her boyfriend better keep his hands off my kids or I’d take them away from her. She just laughed at me. Said he was more a father than I was, that he was just disciplining the kids, doing my job for me. I got mad and I left but I watched from the street and about an hour later I saw a sedan drive up and this guy got out and went inside.” Marsden took a breath, his free hand rubbing at his eyes. The gun wavered but Blair didn’t move and within seconds Marsden brought himself under control. “About an hour later, I saw him leave. I went back in to try to talk to Teri again and that’s… that’s when I found them. I panicked and I ran.”
“If you’re telling the truth, man, then let us help you. Come in to the station with me and turn yourself in. If you didn’t kill your family, then help us find out who did,” Blair said.
“You should listen to my partner. He gives good advice.”
Blair had a moment to feel a surge of relief at hearing Jim’s voice coming from behind Marsden then Marsden was at his back, his muscular arm wrapped around Blair’s neck again, the gun digging a furrow into the side of his head. “Hey, come on, this is getting old,” Blair muttered but he stilled as Jim stepped into view from around the side of the porch, his own weapon trained unwaveringly on Marsden.
“Drop the gun, Marsden,” Jim ordered and Marsden huffed out a snort of laughter.
“Yeah, right. I let him go and you shoot me and everyone still thinks I killed my kids,” Marsden replied with a sneer in his voice.
“Like Blair said, if you really didn’t do it then turn yourself in. Let the police find who really did,” Jim said.
Blair watched as Jim’s eyes narrowed, sighting along the gun unwaveringly. He caught the slight nod Jim gave him and dropped his head, biting down hard on the arm around his neck. Marsden yelped and loosened his grip and Blair flung himself sideways, feeling more than seeing the flash from Marsden’s gun as it seared a burning trail across the side of his head. He flopped to his side, hearing the echo of another gunshot as if from a great distance then his vision grayed out and his mind went blank.
There was someone shaking his shoulder and Blair wished he could find the strength to tell whoever it was to stop because the action was making him feeling really nauseous and if they didn’t stop doing it soon he was going to-
“Whoa, easy, buddy, let’s get you on your side.”
Once he’d finished throwing up what felt like possibly every meal he’d eaten in the past week, he became aware that the hand that had been shaking his shoulder had now moved to his back and was rubbing in a gentle, soothing motion that really did make him feel better. His ears were ringing and the side of his head hurt like a mother but at least that told him he was alive.
“How you doing there, Chief?”
“Better. Can you help me sit up?”
“Okay, take it slow though. Let’s move you away from that puddle of puke a little, all right?”
Blair flopped to his back and looked up Jim’s slightly blurry features. “Thanks for turning up when you did,” he said as Jim got him sitting up then dragged him across the porch and propped him against the front door.
“All part of the deal, Sandburg. You get yourself into trouble; I get you out of it.” Jim pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wadded it up then pressed it against Blair’s temple. “Hold that there while I make sure Mr. Marsden doesn’t decide to do a Houdini on us.”
Blair looked over to see Marsden prone on the porch a few feet away, hands cuffed behind him. His eyes were closed and he looked as if he was unconscious. “Is he okay?” he asked as Jim checked the cuffs and then pulled out his phone.
“He’ll be fine. Banged his head on the steps when I knocked him down. He took a shot at me but he couldn’t hit the side of a barn.” Jim put in a call for backup and an ambulance then walked across and squatted in front of Blair. “You’re looking a bit better. How’s the head?”
Blair shrugged then winced as a headache bloomed instantly to life. “Headache, blurred vision, ringing in my ears, the usual.”
“Yep, concussion watch for you, my friend. You want to tell me what happened while we wait for the bus?”
By the time Blair had finished recounting the events, the ambulance was pulling up and Jim stood and walked across to Marsden, who was beginning to stir. “David Marsden, you’re under arrest for assault…” Jim finished the Miranda then looked at the EMTs who’d just stepped up onto the porch. “He stays in cuffs and you book him in to the jail ward at Cascade General.” He watched as they began checking Marsden over then walked back to Blair. He lifted the handkerchief away from the gash. “Stopped bleeding,“ he said then added. “Up to you, Chief, ambulance or I’ll drive you.”
Blair sighed. “You take me.”
Jim levered him to his feet and Blair wobbled uncertainly for a moment, Jim’s arm staying around his waist and slowly moving him forward, down the steps and over to the truck, parked a few houses away.
“I really think he was telling the truth, Jim,” Blair said as Jim helped him into the front seat. “I don’t think he’s a murderer.”
“Yeah, right, that’s why he had a gun to your head, Chief,” Jim said. He shook his head as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Of course he’s gonna say he’s innocent. They all do.”
Blair rubbed his head then leaned it back against the seat and closed his eyes against the pounding that was really starting to make him feel nauseous all over again.. “Can we at least look into what he told me?”
“We’ll see,” Jim said noncommittally. He pulled away from the curb. “After you’ve spent a night in hospital, you can tell me about it, all right? In the meantime, I’ll talk to him once he’s conscious, okay?”
“Yeah, okay. Thanks, Jim. Oh no, I’m supposed to be tutoring Melissa Shelburne tonight!” Blair exclaimed.
“That’s what you kids are calling these days, huh?” Jim shot Blair a sidelong-grin then laughed at Blair’s outraged look. “Give me her number and I’ll let her know you’re out of commission for now.”
“Thanks. She should be happy. She can go out on her date now. Just tell her to make sure she studies and I’ll reschedule the tutoring.”
“You got it, Teach.”
By the time nine AM rolled around the next morning, Blair was practically vibrating as he sat on the side of his bed waiting for Jim to pick him up. Being woken up every hour and asked inane questions didn’t make for a restful night’s sleep and he’d barely kept himself from snorting every time the nurse who’d done the questioning had patted him on the shoulder and told him to get some rest. On the up side, being awake most of the night had left him plenty of time to think about David Marsden and what he’d said, on the downside, his head ached just as much as it had when he’d first come to on the porch of the Marsden house.
“I take it you’re ready to go,” Jim said, poking his head in through the door. He grinned as Blair practically leapt from the bed and grabbed the bag of clothes from his hand. “Feeling better?’ he asked as Blair went into the bathroom to change.
“Nope,” Blair called back as he dressed as quickly as he could. “Still have a headache the size of Australia but I guess that’s to be expected when they don’t let you sleep all night.”
“Cry me a river. I have a drawer full of t-shirts for that, Chief.” Jim waited till Bair walked back out then said casually, “I was just up talking to Marsden.”
“Yeah? So did he tell you what he told me? About his ex wife seeing some guy that the kids were scared of?”
“Yep. I couldn’t talk to him for long though. He’s still pretty groggy.” Jim scratched his ear. “You up to taking a trip out to the scene again?”
“You believed him too?” Blair headed for the door.
“Not necessarily. Let’s just say it bears looking into. Simon wanted me to look it over anyway,” Jim said, following Blair down the hallway to the exit doors. “That’s what I planned to do yesterday till you and Mr. Marsden decided to have your little tete a tete instead.”
“Hey, that was entirely his idea, Jim.” Blair waved to the nurse at the desk. “Thanks for everything, Tracey. Say bye to Sally for me.”
Jim nudged him in the back. “I have no doubt, considering how often you get into trouble, that you’ll be seeing Sally again.” He laughed as Blair shot him a glare. “Come on, let’s check out the scene then I’ll take you home so you can get some sleep before you keel over on me again.”
“Well? Did you find anything?”
Jim sighed impatiently as he turned around to find Blair almost plastered against his back. He stood up and turned around, placing his hands on Blair’s shoulders and moving him back a few steps. “Stay there!” he ordered, turning around to hunker down again and peer closely at the smudges on the floor. He looked from the footprints to the printout he held in his hand and shook his head then stood up and went over to the bedroom door.
Blair followed but Jim noticed he was careful this time to stay back a few inches.
“These are the prints CSU found and lifted,” Jim said. He handed Blair the footprint printout and pulled another from his jacket pocket. “These are David Marsden’s prints. They match, Chief. I haven’t found any other prints here apart from Theresa Marsden’s, the two children’s, and David Marsden’s.”
“There have to be others,” Blair said stubbornly. “They couldn’t have lived here and never had anyone else in the house. Besides, the killer could have been wearing gloves.”
“Yes, he could have. Look, all I’m saying is that all the evidence I’m seeing here points to Marsden being the killer.”
“Well, did they canvas the neighbors? I mean, if Theresa was having an affair, someone had to have known about it. A friend, maybe?’ Blair looked at Jim hopefully.
“The neighbors were all questioned. As was Theresa’s mother. They all said she never mentioned seeing anyone. They also said she was quiet, kept to herself. The only time they saw her outside was when the kids were out there playing and even then she didn’t seem to welcome conversation.” Jim patted Blair on the shoulder. “You need some rest. I’ll take you home and then I’ll go talk to Marsden again.”
“Yeah, all right. Sorry. Didn’t mean to drag you on a wild goose chase. He just seemed so believable, you know?” Blair replied, rubbing at his aching head.
“They always do, Chief.”
Blair flopped back on his bed and gazed glumly at the ceiling. He had to admit his head felt better after taking the Tylenol Jim had almost forced on him. The gash on the side of his head still throbbed a little but it hadn’t needed stitches, for which he was grateful. He knew Jim was probably right about Marsden. Jim was one of the best detectives in the PD and with his Sentinel abilities he could almost always tell when someone was lying…
Blair sat up and ran out to the phone, snatching it up and dialing Jim’s desk number at the PD. “Jim, it’s me. Listen, have you spoken to Marsden yet? No? Okay, when you do see if you can run a little Sentinel lie detector on him. You’ve done it before and got it right.”
He listened as Jim agreed to try then hung up the phone after getting a promise that Jim would call him when the interview was over. He settled down on the sofa this time, knowing he’d feel better and think more clearly if he got some sleep but wanting to be near the phone when Jim called back.
It seemed as if he’d only been asleep for mere minutes when the phone rang and startled him from the restless doze he’d finally fallen into. Jumping up from the sofa, he grabbed the receiver. “Well?” he snapped out breathlessly.
“For all you knew I could have been some kid selling magazine subscriptions,” Jim said mildly. “Calm down, Chief, before you stroke out or something. Did you get some rest?”
“Yes, I got some rest, Mother. Well?” Blair perched on the edge of the kitchen counter and waited impatiently.
“I think he’s telling the truth,” Jim said, “ but-“
“I knew it, I just knew it,” Blair replied. “Wait a minute. What’s the but?”
“Think about it, Chief. Even normal lie detector tests aren’t actually admissible in court. They’re certainly not going to allow a Sentinel one into evidence. We need something else to prove Marsden isn’t a killer,” Jim explained.
Blair sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. Okay, well, let me know if you think of anything else. Hey, you want me to come into the station?”
“No, I don’t want you to come into the station, Sherlock. Stay home and do your investigative thinking in between resting and eating, okay? I’ll let you know if anything breaks.”
“Yeah, all right.” Blair hung up the phone and went back out to the sofa and slumped down on it. There had to be some way to prove David Marsden didn’t kill his family. He picked up the list of witnesses Jim had made up the night before and left on the coffee table, perusing it carefully. Only one name stood out as the person who might know Teri Marsden’s secrets and not be inclined to share them with anyone else. Mind made up, Blair went into his room and got changed. He scribbled a note to Jim telling him where he’d gone then grabbed his car keys, locking the loft door behind him as he went. Once in the car, he wondered if he should have called Jim but he just knew the Sentinel would tell him not to go and Blair had an instinct about this lead and he hoped the very fact that he wasn’t a cop might help lower the witness’ guard.
A half hour later he was pulling up in front of a small bungalow on the outskirts of town. The house looked neatly kept with a mown lawn and a white picket fence out front. Taking his courage figuratively in both hands, Blair took a deep breath then climbed out of the car and let himself in the gate, walking briskly up the drive to the front door where he knocked.
“Yes?” asked the woman who opened the door to him. She was small and reed-thin, her silver hair pulled back neatly in a bun. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she’d been crying and a white handkerchief was scrunched up in one hand.
“Mrs. Dora Thomas?” He smiled sympathetically when the woman nodded then went on, “I’m really sorry to bother you at a time like this. My name is Blair Sandburg and I’m an observer with the police department. I’m not a police officer but I have been working with the detective on your daughter’s case-“
“You’re the man David injured. I heard it on the news when they said he’d been arrested,” the woman said briskly. She opened the door wider. “I always knew he was no good. You’d best come inside though I’m not sure what else I can tell you. I’ll tell you as much as I can about him though. Anything to make sure he pays for what he did to my poor children.”
A little surprised by the invitation, Blair nonetheless followed her inside and into a small living room off the hallway. He sat in an armchair at her invitation then leaned forward. “Mrs. Thomas, I know Theresa and David had been separated for some time. Is it possible that she was seeing someone secretly, someone she didn’t want David to find out about?”
Mrs. Thomas sat down heavily in the chair across from him. She sighed and scrubbed at her cheeks with the handkerchief. “I told the police at the time they were killed that she wasn’t,” she replied, “only because I knew for a fact David was guilty and I didn’t want poor Teri’s name dragged through the mud and gossiped about.”
“So she was?”
“Yes, a good man. He has wealth and standing, another reason why I knew I had to keep quiet. He and his wife underwent a very nasty divorce and Teri told me if his wife found out he was seeing her, she’d take him for all he was worth.” She smiled sadly. “We’re not from the same social strata, you see, but they were in love so I thought what harm can a little deception do? Besides, it has no bearing on the case. Matthew is devastated over losing Teri and the children. He loved them like his own.”
‘Sounds like he punished them like they were his own too’ Blair thought but he kept that opinion firmly bottled up. “Mrs. Thomas, just so we can be absolutely sure we have an airtight case against David Marsden, we really need to speak to Matthew. I’ll be very discreet, I promise you.”
“Well, as I said, if it keeps David in jail, I suppose there’s no harm now. Matthew Southall. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“Um, yeah, of course,” Blair replied. Matthew Southall was the CEO of one of the biggest computer companies in Washington and probably the USA. “Thank you,” Blair said, standing up and shaking Dora Thomas’s hand. “I appreciate your candor. Please don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”
Once in the car Blair thought about what his next step should be. Sure, he could go see Matthew Southall on his own, but he wasn’t, as Simon Banks loved to remind him, a cop, and any evidence he collected could be considered inadmissible in court, hearsay, fruit from the poisoned tree even. He knew the only recourse he had was to tell Jim what he’d done so he pulled out his phone and dialled Jim’s number. “Hey,” he said as Jim picked up, “I’ve got some information for you. I went and saw Teri’s mom and it turns out she was seeing someone. And get this…” he rambled on, hoping to get everything out before Jim jumped down his throat and ripped him a new one from the inside, ”… it’s Matthew Southall, the head of Southall PC. Sounds unbelievable, I know, but-“
“Will you shut up, Sandburg!” Jim yelled. “I’m trying to process this bullet train of information you’re feeding me. You’re supposed to be at home.”
“I know, I know, and I’m sorry but I thought maybe Mrs. Thomas would open up to me and she did, Jim. I was going to just head down to talk to Southall myself but I knew I should give you a heads-up on what I found,” Blair said quickly.
“Damn right you should have. Where are you?”
“Outside Mrs. Thomas’ house. Want me to meet you at Southall’s office?”
“No, I don’t want you to do that. I want you to go home and wait for me there.”
“Right, sure, I can do that. You’ll go and talk to him though, won’t you?”
“Yes, I’ll go and talk to him. You. Go home!” Jim said, sounding like he was speaking through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, I’ll do that, Jim, though you know, a thank you for the information’d be nice,” Blair said, slamming the phone shut with loud finality. “Man, Sentinels,” he muttered to himself. “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.” He started up his car and pulled into the street. By the time he was half way back to the loft, he knew there was no way he was going home and missing out on seeing Matthew Southall brought to justice. He swung the car right into Norris Street and headed for Southall’s office building.
It took him a long ten minutes to even find a parking spot but he was pleased to see Jim’s truck already outside the office building as he walked up to it.
Inside, he noted the level Southall’s office was on then headed for the elevator, pressing the button for the fifteenth floor when it arrived.
The floor looked deserted when he stepped out, no one at the reception desk though Blair could hear raised voices coming from behind a door directly behind the desk. He sidled up to the door, pressed his ear against and then all but fell inside the room as the door was yanked open and Blair ended up plastered against a broad chest that he recognized only too well.
“Sandburg! What the hell are you doing here?” Jim growled, standing Blair back on his own two feet. He turned to face the stunned-looking man behind the desk. “Sorry about this, sir. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg.” He glared back at Blair. “He’s supposed to be home sleeping off the concussion Marsden gave him yesterday, not hanging around in hallways, eavesdropping.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Detective?” Southall asked, walking around the desk and giving Blair’s hand an absent-minded shake. “I have funeral arrangements to complete. I don’t want to wait too long to give poor Dora some closure.”
Close-up, Blair could see that Matthew Southall looked a wreck. His face was pale and tear-streaked, his voice and hands shaky. He glanced up at Jim to see if the Sentinel was buying into the guy’s act. Jim’s next words gave him the answer to that.
“No, nothing else, sir, thank you. Once again, I’m very sorry for your loss. I’m sure the DA will be in touch with you regarding your testimony.” Jim turned and ushered Blair ahead of him out the door.
Once in the hallway, Blair stopped, grabbing at Jim’s arm as he walked past him towards the elevator. “That’s it? You believe him? What did he tell you?”
Jim looked down at him and shrugged. “He told me he didn’t kill them. I believe him.”
“Marsden and Southall can’t both be telling the truth, can they? Unless…” Blair ran to catch up as Jim walked on over the elevator and pressed the call button. “Unless it was a stranger killing…”
Jim stepped into the car when it came and waited for Blair to join him then pushed the ground floor button. “It wasn’t a stranger killing, Chief. It was Marsden. He killed them.” He held up a hand as Blair started to interrupt. “I got a call from Forensics while I was in with Southall. They found the murder weapon, buried under the kids’ swing set. It was covered in Marsden’s prints and they found his DNA in the scrapings from Theresa’s nails. She scratched him on the arm. I called the prison ward and got them to check Marsden out. He’s got a healed scratch on his arm. It’s too well-healed to be from when he fell yesterday.”
They stepped out into the ground floor foyer and walked slowly towards the doors.
“Wait a minute,” Blair said. His head was aching distantly again now and he felt sick. “You said you were sure he was telling the truth. How did he fool you?”
Jim shrugged. “He fooled himself. I think he’s convinced himself that there was no way he could have killed his own children. When he spoke to me, I didn’t sense he was lying because he doesn’t believe he is. They’ll get a psychiatrist to interview him. I guess he just snapped.” He bent forward and peered closely at Blair. “You okay? You’re looking a little pale there, buddy.”
“Yeah, I’m just… I can’t believe he killed his own children. Do you think he was lying about Southall abusing them too?” Blair asked.
“Southall said Theresa told him he used to beat them all up when he was drinking. That’s why she left him. It was bad enough when he was hurting her but once he turned on the kids. Southall admitted he smacked Daniel once for bedwetting but he claims it was just a normal tap on the butt. I believe him. I think Jesse told Marsden about it in all innocence and when Theresa then told him Southall was being a better father to his kids than he was, he snapped. Psychotic break, maybe.” Jim opened the door and stepped out into the street. “I’ll leave it to the DA and the psych guys to decide that.” He stopped next to his truck and put a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “I know you wanted to believe him, Chief. I’m sorry.”
Blair nodded. “Maybe I just wanted to believe no father could do that to his own kids.”
“You want ride home with me? We can come pick your car up tomorrow.”
“Nah, you go ahead, man. I’m just gonna process for a while.”
“Okay, drive carefully. You still don’t look too great.,” Jim said. He ruffled Blair’s hair. “Don’t make me have to send a search party out looking for you.”
“Okay. I’ll see you soon.” Blair waited till Jim drove off then walked back to his own car and climbed in. he sat behind the wheel for a long time, trying to make sense of what he’d heard then, deciding he probably never would, he drove off.
The crime scene tape was still flapping in the breeze when he arrived at the Marsden house. Blair climbed from the car and retrieved the parcel on the front seat then walked under the tape and across to the swing. He pulled two brightly colored balloons from the bag and blew them up then attached them to each end of the swing. He laid two small yellow rosebuds across the swing seats. “Rest peacefully, Jesse and Daniel,” he murmured.
Then he headed for home.