A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Fact: In the history of criminal justice, no murder has ever been solved by a private investigator.
My name is Chester Hall. I'm a small-time P.I. working out of a second floor office in a strip mall in rural New Hampshire. I deal with the police as little as possible, and that's fine because screwing around behind the back of your wife or your husband isn't normally police business. For me, it's just plain business.
But on this particular August day, another in a long series of hot ones, I found myself sitting in the office of a Durham Police homicide detective looking at photos of what was left of the back of a girl's head after she took a 9-millimeter round at point-blank range.
Her name was Anne Daley. Online she was called Rigel. I'd spent about six hours going over the memorial page her friends put on the web for her. After I'd tracked back every person who'd added a condolence, prayer, memory, or funny story, and placed each one of those people into a database of known associates to be investigated further, I'd left my own message. It just said, "This isn't how it should end." I kept thinking I should have written more, but I had work to do.
I have no idea who it was who came up with the phrase "execution-style," but that's how the shooting was being described in the papers. I'd been brought onto the case by Anne's mother, but even if she hadn't called I would have been doing some digging. I knew Anne from college. Anne was one of those girls who had a lot of self-confidence and that made her more attractive as a result. It didn't hurt that she was fashionably geeky and a very talented writer. I'd admired her from afar during those couple of years. We were never close friends, but we were friendly, and we traveled in some of the same circles.
Since that time, I'd run across Rigel every now and then on the friends lists of various blogs and I'd give a look to see how Anne was doing. She'd attained a kind of queenly status among the geek crowd, and her entries were filled with little bits of gossip and scraps of storylines from this or that LARP. She traveled with a LARP troupe to four or five major conventions each year. Occasionally I'd hear local gamers around Manchester or Portsmouth talking about how she ran one hell of a Mage: The Ascension chronicle. A week ago if you'd brought it up in conversation I'd have remarked that Anne Daley ran the kind of game that players would kill to get into. At this point, the thought was considerably less than humorous.
Anne's mom didn't approve of her daughter's activities. That much had been clear from the first phone conversation I'd had with her. When I visited her to follow up on the call I was wondering if Mrs. Daley had a religious issue with Anne's lifestyle. I came in fully expecting an evangelical Christian, and was surprised to find the woman was a practical easygoing type who didn't seem overtly religious or particularly conservative. She was a schoolteacher in Nashua and drove a Prius hybrid with a Sierra Club bumper sticker. Her issue with Anne wasn't about religion at all. It was about money. More specifically, Mrs. Daley took issue with the financial situation of the group that Anne had taken up residence with. Apparently, there had been problems, and Mrs. Daley had been called upon more than once to help the group of roommates make rent. Lately the money issues had become money arguments. Mrs. Daley told me that the police had ruled out Anne's roommates as suspects and were focusing on the investigation as a home invasion. Mrs. Daley called me in because she thought maybe that decision by the police had been too hasty.
So I called in a couple of favors and got a sit-down with Detective Joe Tierny. He told me up front that he couldn't discuss leads that were being followed, but he gave me a look at the crime scene photos and some of the initial reports and wished me luck.
Then he had a favor to ask me.
"Chess, there is something I could use your opinion on. We found a lot of weird shit around that house, and I've got some reporters asking about some things that I'd rather not see in print. So maybe we could have a talk after you go take a look at the place?"
"Sure, Joe. What exactly am I looking for?"
"Well, I'd like you to confirm or deny... No, lemme put that a different way... I want you to find evidence so that I can deny that there was some kinda voodoo going on at that house."
"Voodou? Or Santería?"
"No... I mean like black magic. You know, Satanist shit. I'd like to be able to tell the press that it was all stuff from rock bands or video games or something. You know all about that stuff, right, Chess?"
"Sure," I said, "Let me get back to you."
I left the Durham Police Headquarters and headed for the crime scene.
The house was located across town from the UNH campus in a neighborhood with a lot of old farmhouses that had become student housing. Anne had lived there with five roommates. She'd worked at a job on campus in the billing office. Making the transition from part-time work-study help to a full-time salaried position was difficult. Lots of students who discover that they aren't quite ready to part with college life end up looking for these kinds of jobs after graduation. Very few of them find any long-term work. The colleges see these kids as slackers and they're not interested in hiring them once they start seeking positions that involve full-time hours and benefits.
So Anne was one of the lucky few, although her work was probably nothing too exciting. She had money to pay the bills, paid vacation time, health insurance, and full time access to the campus.
There were two cars in the driveway. One was Anne's Honda. Her mother had mentioned that she hadn't gotten up there to pick it up yet. The other was a well-worn Ford Explorer complete with UNH and Starfleet Academy window stickers. Yeah, this was the place.
The front porch was littered with an assortment of junk: an old metal desk that looked like it might have been something the college had thrown out, a couple of lawn chairs and a plastic table, a beach ball wedged under something that looked like a fancy stone birdbath. There wasn't a clear path up to the front door so I went around to the back.
I spotted a long-haired grey cat sunning herself on the back windowsill and took a look into the kitchen. It had the kind of messy look I'd expected. Nothing you'd call the Board of Health about, but not exactly up to Martha Stewart standards either. There were four doorbell buttons. I tried them all. None seemed to work. I knocked.
From across the kitchen I saw some movement and spotted a man in his twenties, on the heavy side but more stout than fat with a couple days' growth of beard. He looked hesitant about coming to the door, and he stood in the doorway at the opposite end of the kitchen with a look like he hoped I'd just go away. I didn't. I knocked again. This time he turned and crossed the kitchen and asked what I wanted through the locked door.
I don't have much use for a badge since badges really don't hold any particular meaning for a P.I., but I do carry one for situations that warrant it. Normally I'll just hand out a business card with my cute little Lumination Agency logo. Since the gentleman didn't want to play nice, I flashed my badge. There was another brief bit of conversation between the guy at the door and whoever was in the living room, and he finally let me in.
"Sorry. You're the guy Mrs. Daley said was coming? I'm Dan. Come on in."
Dan McGrath, twenty-six years old, freelance web designer, chronically underemployed. I'd done my homework. He gave a sweaty handshake and led me into the living room.
The place was Geek Heaven. Or Geek Heaven on a budget at least. The living area encompassed the house's original front hall, living room and dining room. There was no dining room table. Instead, that room was a makeshift theater with two beat-up sofas and a couple of beanbag chairs arranged around a pretty high-end plasma screen. A stereo case next to the TV held an assortment of game consoles. I couldn't help but smile at the vintage Atari 2600 occupying a place of honor on the shelf right above the PS2. Four media towers were loaded with games and DVDs, and there was a clunky-looking boombox mounted on an upside-down plastic storage container.
The front hall was lined with bookshelves loaded mostly with the kind of fantasy series paperbacks that lend to jokes about how many books make a trilogy. The number is always considerably higher than three. There were a couple of card tables pushed together in this area and there were folding chairs leaned against the front door, which was obviously not seeing regular use.
The living room had been converted into a group office space of sorts with four separate desks with computers at each. There was another couch in here and the fireplace mantel and wall-mounted shelving held an impressive collection of pewter and crystal fantasy figurines, along with some of the nicer McFarlane Studios action figures and a katana that occupied the central place on the mantel. That wasn't the only weapon in the room either. The place was an arsenal. There was a spiked mace and a battle axe mounted on the wall above one of the computer desks, and a couple of bo staves leaned in the corner. One of the windows was covered with a black tapestry with a pentagram on it, and a Jolly Roger flag served as a curtain on the other.
There were two people in the room. A tall, thin man with long pale hair rose from the couch to greet me. A shorter, plump blonde woman was seated at one of the computers. She had headphones on, and seemed unaware of any activity in the room beyond what was going on in her World of Warcraft game.
"Hey guys, this is... Chester... Chester Hall. He's the one Mrs. Daley called about."
Things were great; they were the best of friends. They were heartbroken about the loss of Anne, but they were gonna get through this together. That was their story, and for the moment they were sticking to it.
Ron Halsey was the tall thin guy. He worked a night-shift call center job and made some money on the side selling collectibles at flea markets and online. I knew the type: wheeler-dealer, the kind of guy who never puts prices on anything when he sets up his table because everything is negotiable. His desk was piled with binders full of Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh cards and there were sheets of stamps and padded envelopes sticking out of one overstuffed drawer.
Judy Calloway was Ron's girlfriend. She was unemployed, but she'd been selling characters and items she acquired in her MMORPGs. Apparently she juggled enough accounts that she'd managed to turn a profit. She claimed as much anyway.
Dan McGrath excused himself about halfway through the initial interview complaining of a headache. He'd apparently been having migraines on and off ever since he discovered the body.
We'd talked for fifteen minutes or so when I brought up the idea of conducting interviews with them separately. I'd also need to talk with the other two housemates. Jimmy Rease had moved back to his parents' place, apparently unable to stand spending even a night in the house where his friend was brutally killed. Dan McGrath wasn't spending nights there either. He was sleeping on the couch of a buddy who was a UNH student who lived closer to campus. The fifth roommate, Liz Finkel, was out shopping. None of them were really sure what would happen with the house and the fellowship that they had created here. Fellowship was one of the words they used for it. They spoke as though a golden age had come to an end, which from their perspective was a fairly accurate description.
I asked to see the rest of the house. There had been a guest bedroom downstairs. Now it bore a carved wood sign that proclaimed "The Chantry". This was the game room. The room for the serious games, that is. The table was an antique dining room piece, and the chairs were oak and hardwood from different sets, but all quite elegant. The lights could be dimmed, and the table was marked with scattered candle drippings. Bookcases in the back held roleplaying games and supplements, as well as an assortment of binders and notebooks.
One of the things that Anne did online was to post little bits from her chronicles, pieces of the diaries she kept of the games she ran. She loved handwritten journals, and she would only post little samples and teasers in her blog, always alluding to pages more that she wrote out in the paper journals.
I made my way to the shelves and flipped through a couple of the binders. There were some character charts for various games and photocopies and printouts of rules variants and adventure hooks, but this was obviously not the collection of journals that Anne had mentioned. When I asked the housemates about the journals nobody seemed completely sure where they were. Apparently they had started taking turns packing up Anne's things soon after the police had allowed them back into the house and Liz had already dropped some of the stuff off with Mrs. Daley.
I got a look upstairs next. Judy and Ron shared a tiny bedroom that barely had room for a mattress on the floor and a few piles of laundry. Dan's room, on the other hand, was near immaculate, decorated with classical Japanese prints and a katana and wakizashi set. There was no laundry or papers strewn about, although a travel case loaded with various prescription and over-the-counter meds was sitting open on the bed.
"Hey! Where is everyone!" The skinny girl came racing up the stairs at full speed, nearly colliding with a flustered Dan before she noticed me standing a little further down the hall with her other roommates.
"Oh. Meep." She gave me a wide-eyed stare until I finally stepped forward to introduce myself.
"I'm Chess Hall. Anne's mom asked me to come out and talk to all of you. You must be Liz?"
Liz was twenty-five according to my information, but she could probably pass for thirteen. She had short black hair dyed with a streak of pink and wore an outfit that seemed calculated to give the best possible view of her bellybutton ring.
"Oh... Um... Meep." She managed to sound downright somber saying it this time and she just nodded when I asked if I could have a look in her room, the prominent features of which were plushies and manga.
The door to Jimmy's room was shut and I didn't ask them to open it. It would be easy enough to wait for his permission.
That left the scene of the crime. Actually, there were two places that required attention. The first was the window at the end of the hall. It led to a fire escape, and the window screen had been cut with a knife. This is how the police figured the killer got in and out. The screen had been replaced. The one with the cut was sitting in an evidence room. So were most of the items that had been in Anne's bedroom. The police had scoured the room for forensic evidence, and there really wasn't much to see.
The night Anne had been killed there had been a party downstairs. It wasn't big, maybe twenty or thirty people watching anime, playing boardgames, and drinking. Anne had done a lot of drinking that evening. Liz and Judy had helped her to bed around one thirty and then rejoined the party. Anne was a big girl, and she trained in martial arts with one of the clubs on campus. Of course none of that is much help when you're passed out drunk and the guy has a gun. The probable time of death had been three in the morning, as guests were starting to leave before any of the housemates other than Anne had come upstairs and to go to bed. The murderer had found Anne face-down in bed, and had covered her head with a pillow and fired one shot into it before exiting the house through the window where he had entered. Between the improvised silencer and the music playing downstairs, no one heard the shot, and the body wasn't discovered until around three-thirty when Dan had made his way upstairs and noticed Anne's door open.
At least that was the working theory.
I was careful about how I set things up to interview the housemates. They were to wait in their rooms upstairs. The interviews would be done in the kitchen, and when each interview was completed that person was to leave the house. They could go for a walk, get something to eat, whatever they wanted as long as they weren't talking with the others. I had them leave their cell phones with me too. Up until this point the conversations had been casual, the questions unintrusive. That would change. I set up my digital voice recorder on the kitchen table and had pen and paper ready to take notes when I called down the first of them.
The fellowship began to unravel almost immediately.
"Half the time it's like living with a twelve-year-old, and the other half I have to watch out for her crawling into bed with Ron when I leave him alone. Oh and of course every guy who comes in the door thinks she's the little ball of energy and cuteness. And she sleeps with all of them. Every fuckin' one."
"...Can never get a decent night's sleep, never any privacy. At least Anne knew when to give me some damn privacy. And do you think for one minute Judy's really making any money off of those games she's playing? She doesn't have to pay her share of the bills because she and Ron, they're a unit, see? He thinks she shouldn't have to pay because the two of them only sleep in one room, but she's eating the food, isn't she? She's sure as hell using our electricity to run her games 24/7. This should've been settled up front when she moved in."
"Hey, I've made rent every month since December, so I don't see what the fuckin' big deal is. And who got them that nice new TV, huh? And I don't see what the difference is if I pay Judy's share if she comes up short one month. It's just Dan is so uptight about everything. Dude needs to change his meds or something."
"Oh... I just... Okay, it's just been hard to think straight, see. I loved Anne. I mean I never really told her, not that way. I don't even know if I loved her that way, but I loved her. Loved her, you know what I mean. Meep. Loved her. And it's just... It just isn't right. She was the strong one, you know? Why couldn't any of them fuckin' see what she meant to us?"
I got a hotel in Durham and called Detective Tierny to let him know that the house was inhabited by a bunch of gamers with questionable taste in décor and that he could put aside any worries about Satanic cults and black magic. He told me he couldn't give me specifics, but let me know they were following up on a pretty promising lead.
I spent the next two days talking with people on campus who knew Anne. Her blog entries contained some vague references to stress she was going through, but never any details, and her friends at UNH were only able to give me some bits and pieces. She'd been having boyfriend troubles of some sort. There had been a breakup with a guy a few months back and there had been some issues between that guy and the friends Anne lived with. I had the guy's name, Greg Morse, and he was in the area, but no one seemed to have any contact information on him.
Follow-ups with the roommates had only served to dredge up more resentment and personality conflicts within the group. It was common knowledge that two of them were on medication for mental health issues. Liz for bipolar disorder, and Dan for depression. It was also clear that the fellowship, as they had called themselves, was rapidly disintegrating. Judy, Ron, and Dan were making plans to move out, and Liz hadn't taken any action to search for new roommates or to arrange for somewhere else to live. The stress was getting to all of them.
It was late at night on my second day in Durham when I finally got ahold of Jimmy Rease. He filled in some of the details about the night of the shooting, but he was most helpful in giving me some information about the ex-boyfriend, Greg Morse.
"None of us ever understood what was up with that. He was a dick. You know the kind... Dumb jock fratboy who treats women like shit because that's the way he treated them all through fuckin' high school. Dan hated it even more that I did. Anne just had a succession of bad choices when it came to the guys she dated, but Morse was the worst of the bunch. I remember how glad Dan was when they finally broke up. We were all glad. We could finally stop being polite about that jerk."
Parking at UNH is pretty scarce if you're just a visitor, so I'd been walking back and forth across the campus all day and I was exhausted. I thanked Jimmy Rease for his information and fell asleep. I slept through my phone ringing twice during the night. I'd left it in my pants pocket, but even muffled like that the ringtone usually wakes me up. Not this night.
I awoke to two voice messages.
The Durham Police had arrested Greg Morse for the murder of Anne Daley.
And Liz Finkel had been rushed to the UNH medical center. Attempted suicide.
They had the gun with Morse's prints. They had the knife he'd used to gain entry. They were working on getting a confession. Open and shut case. Greg Morse was gonna get locked up for the rest of his life, and another case would go down in the history books that wasn't solved by a private investigator. I wished I could just let it all drop right then because I really didn't like where my instincts were leading me, but I have a bit of an obsession with finishing what I start.
I drove to the UNH Medical Center and located Liz Finkel's parents who got me access to the medical information. Liz had swallowed every drug she could get her hands on. Just about all of them had come from Dan McGrath. I scanned the list and found one item that didn't seem to fit with the rest of the medications. It answered a couple of the questions I'd been wondering about, and it forced me to make a decision. I thanked Liz's parents and passed along my best wishes for her recovery. Then I drove out to see Dan McGrath.
Dan was near hysterics, but I wasn't going anywhere. We were alone in the house, standing in the hall outside the room where Greg Morse, the ex-boyfriend, had put a bullet in the head of the woman Dan McGrath was in love with. The woman who'd never had a chance to scream or fight for her life because Dan McGrath had drugged her.
I let him rant at me until he got to the part about how I couldn't prove anything. Then I told him about the toxicology report. It's the part of the autopsy procedure that can take a couple of weeks, but it always gets done even when the cause of death is something as obvious as the back of the head blown off. The cops had a nice case going, so maybe they wouldn't get around to looking at that toxicology report too closely. Unless, of course, someone brought it to their attention.
Dan's anger gave way to resignation.
"I didn't know that GHB is an antidepressant, Dan. I'll chalk that one up to learning something new every day. Did you get it in some clinical trial you were in? Save it for a rainy day? Or did you just buy it on the street? From some of Morse's fratboy buddies, maybe?"
"I don't know what you're taking about!" But he did, of course.
"How about you just tell me this? Were you in on this with Morse?"
"No! I warned him to stay away! She didn't love him anymore! I warned the bastard!"
"But did you know he was coming? Or was this just your sick way of getting back at Anne because she'd date any jerk she picked up on campus but you were never good enough? What's it gonna be, Dan? Accessory to murder? Or attempted rape?"
"I just wanted her to shut up!"
I led Dan into his room and we had a discussion about Bushido. I told him I didn't care about the details of how he set his honor straight, but he ought to be smart enough to do it somewhere out of the way. To go quietly. Then I made it real clear that whatever he decided, he'd better disappear. I'd fuckin' kill him myself if he showed his face near anyone or anything that Anne was involved in ever again.
When I got back to Nashua, Anne's mom told me that she was relieved to hear an arrest had been made. It wouldn't bring Anne back, of course, but there was some justice done and so many families who had lost a child never even had that.
I never saw Dan McGrath again. That wouldn't bring Anne back either.
Story and Photo by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006