In “A Game Called Dead,” the in-progress sequel to “The Swamps of Jersey,” Detective Frank Nagler meets a new nemesis: College dean Harriet Waddley-Jones.
Nagler is already juggling the beating death of a student, a series of break-ins at his friend’s bookstore, each of which gets more destructive, and hearings into the sentencing of Ironton, N.J.’s serial killer, Charlie Adams.
Into that mix steps Waddley-Jones, with whom Nagler has had a brief dust-up at the local hospital. This part of the first real meeting between the two, during which she throws Nagler an unwanted complication.
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“A Game Called Dead:”
“How can I help you, Detective?”
“For one, don’t call me detective. My name is Frank Nagler. Did you know either woman very well?”
Waddley-Jones leaned forward on her desk and clasped her hand. “I actually did not know either of them.” She shrugged. “This is a large school and I do not teach, so unless they were directed to my office or attended my women’s rights workshop, I would not have had contact with them. I have subsequently learned they were both excellent students and good representatives of the college.”
Man, that’s stiff. “What can you tell me about a computer game called The Hunter’s Lair?”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“That’s odd because we were told it is a game that has been played on the campus for about twenty years.”
“I’m not a computer person, officer.”
Nagler paused in the query and stared out the window. The office was on the ninth floor of the administration building and afforded an uncluttered view of the entire valley, with Ironton settled in the center. Remote, aloof. Seemed a perfect spot for Harriet Waddley-Jones.
“No disrespect, ma’am, but you seem to have little actual contact with students,” he said. “Should I talk to someone else?”
Harriet Waddley-Jones felt her face redden at Nagler’s comment.
“First, it’s not ma’am. Please, it’s Harriet. And second, that is very presumptive of you to assume I have no contact with students.”
“Well,” Nagler replied. “You don’t know the victims, you don’t follow the computer gaming culture and you have not added anything useful to my investigation, and that is a concern, because we will run out of time and the killer could escape.”
“I…” she tried to interrupt.
“What is it about this place? No one knows anything. The students right down the hall weren’t curious enough about screams and loud noises to check? The janitor says the outside doors are propped open regularly, and you’re the third administrator I have spoken with who seems to know absolutely nothing about what goes on at this school? What the hell do you people actually do?”
“I supposed you are an expert in the computer gaming culture?” She was scowling, Nagler noticed.
He stood up and paced, staring at the floor. I don’t need a fight. “I don’t need to be an expert in computer games because I can call on them. The officer working this case with me has some experience in the gaming community. But I need you to tell me about how the college responds to incidents of this type. What are the procedures for students to report these things, you know thefts, break-ins, assaults, sexual attacks?”
Waddley-Jones took a deep, calming breath. “Students are instructed to inform their dormitory residents, a teacher, the administration, campus police. There are several avenues.”
“Then why aren’t there any records?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I researched the records of reported incidents at the college, I found none. The last physical attack of record was nine years ago.”
He shrugged. “That’s what I found.” His voice was deliberately cold.
“That’s,” she shook her head, unable to comprehend such a condition, “Ridiculous,” she said angrily.
Nagler leveled her with a hard stare. “That’s more like it.”
Waddley-Jones placed her elbows on her desk and held her chin and thought I’ll have to bring this up at the safety committee meeting. “I’ll find out for you,” she told Nagler. “I do have another meeting…”
“Of course,” he said and crossed to shake her hand before leaving. “I have your card. I’ll call you.”
“Please do. I’ll get the information as soon as possible. Perhaps I can arrange a meeting with the campus police supervisor.”
“That would be helpful. Thank you.”
When he reached the door, she asked, “Where is the Ironton police headquarters located?”
What? “Warren Street, downtown,” Nagler said.
“Where is that?”
Nagler stood facing the door for a moment and then turned back to face Waddley-Jones. “You’ve never been downtown Ironton?”
She shrugged and clasped her hands. “I’ve had no reason to go there.”
“Not even for the Mexican food, Barry’s Southwest omelet, the Thai, the sushi?” Why did I say that, he wondered. I hate sushi.
“I was not aware there was such a selection,” she said. “Perhaps I should explore it,” she said, and tipped her head as if actually considering the option.
But Nagler knew it was just an act, a hollow demonstration of polite conversation. She’d no more step into Ironton voluntarily as she would jump out the window of this office.
“It’s in the center the city. And it is perfectly safe, you know.” She absorbed the sarcasm as her face firmed into a hard scowl. Nagler, on familiar turf, smiled slyly. “Why, may I ask, do you need to go there?”
She smiled, but sourly, trying to end the meeting on a pleasant note. “I have requested the records of the Charlie Adams investigation from several years ago. You’ve heard of it?”
Nagler felt the blood drain from his face. “You know nothing about that case, other than it was notorious. Is that why you’re doing a book?” Crap. “Do you know who I am? You don’t recognize my name?”
Harriet Waddley-Jones was puzzled. She ran his name through her mind searching for a link, but none came. She tapped her right foot furiously behind the desk as she felt the conversation slip away. “You are the officer investigating an incident, I’m sorry, a murder, on this campus.”
Nagler stared at the floor a moment and scratched his nose, a bad feeling rising. “Read your files,” he instructed harshly. “I’m Frank Nagler. I put Charlie Adams in jail. Why do you need the records?” Jesus, these people.
“Oh,” she said lightly, again off guard, and smiled, trying to ease the awkwardness that re-emerged. “I’ve been contracted to write a book about the case. I understand there have been hearings scheduled. I hope to attend. So we should talk. I’d love to hear your stories.”
Nagler’s legs felt like bricks, tons of stone anchored to the floor and his stomach turned over. “They’re not stories, Miss Waddley-Jones. They are bloody, and terrible and real, and I don’t really think you do want to hear them. I don’t think you are ready for them.”
She stared into the darkness that had overtaken Nagler’s face. If any other man had said that to her, she would have climbed on board her ever-ready feminist horse and asked, “Why? Because I am a woman?” There was no peace in Nagler’s eyes, just brooding and anger. “So, make me ready, Mr. Nagler.”
He gripped the door handle with a shaky hand and pulled it open and left without saying another word, the challenge hanging like smoke.
At the elevator, he laced both palms on the wall and leaned over, head down, staring at the floor. Not again. The elevator door opened and he stepped inside and felt the devise suck him down to the first floor. Why doesn’t anyone get it, he wondered. Charlie Adams was just a thug. Brutal, robotic, as cold a killer as a shark. That’s not a book I’d want to read. He pictured Harriet Waddley-Jones at her desk, the divider, the station of power, the thing that says, this is my world, you are just visiting. And her voice, an autocratic whine, polished, speech filled with words that allowed her to push away the listener to preserve her domination of the conversation. He could not imagine attending a college meeting where everyone in the room spoke like that. And yet, her eyes, he thought. Not hard, not piercing, but soft, almost too soft as if wanting an answer to some confusion. She should have drilled him to the chair with her eyes; instead they wandered, a glance out the window, down to her desk, where she straightened some imaginary object, a long stare to the distant corner of the room. Eyes uncertain, asking, open. Wonder what that’s all about?
He stepped from the building and pulled his collar against the cold mist that thickened along the ground like an acid dream.
Charlie Adams, again, he thought as he unlocked his car door. He’ll eat her alive.
Later, pulled from sleep by screeching tires, crashing metal and loud voices, Nagler started through a pair of soft dark eyes wrapped in a cascade of wavy hair to see flashing lights on the ceiling; each band of light brought the image of her face, which then faded in the darkness; returned, faded, the uncertainty of a whisper.