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"I didn't kill those men!"
The declaration so angrily delivered by the petite curator of New York City's Sinclair Art Gallery held more sincerity than most perps'.
Even so, homicide detective Paul Wallace barely managed to contain his scoff. He'd heard those exact words way too many times during the course of his law-enforcement career.
And denial was the fallback in every situation for most suspects.
Even suspects as lovely as Megan McClain.
Upscale all the way in her well-fitting, short-sleeved red dress and intricately patterned black pumps. Not exactly attire suited for the December snowstorm raging outside. She probably had a change of clothes stashed for the trek homea planner.
Paul gauged her height at five feet five without the two-inch heels. She was about a hundred and ten pounds of slopes and angles. Raven-black hair fell past her shoulders, and her vivid blue eyes, the pupils dilated slightly, were set symmetrically within her pale, heart-shaped face.
The rapid beat of her heart was evident at the carotid pulse point on her graceful neck. Was she experiencing shock or remorse?
Paul glanced around, quickly assessing and cataloging the crime scene. Beyond the faintest trace of spent gunpowder and the coppery odor of blood, he detected a citruslike scent. On the yellow walls of the room they stood in, painted works of art were hung, and little display lights threw a glow on the framed pieces, creating a half circle of light on the floor beneath the bodies.
He noted that across the top threshold of each doorway, leading to other rooms full of artwork, a black seam hid a gate that would drop down if the security system was activated. Those gates wereup. No alarm had been sounded. High in the corner of the room was a security monitor.
Pulling his focus back to Ms. McClain, he shrugged out of his overcoat and laid it across the crook of one arm.
"Did you hear me, Detective ?" she demanded, all spitfire and ready to explode. "Why would I call 911 if I'd killed them?"
Paul ignored her question as irrelevant, because too often the perpetrator of a crime was also the one to call 911 in an attempt to deflect the police from looking too closely at themselves. He would consider Megan McClain a suspect/potential witness, until he knew more.
"Detective Wallace," he supplied, and flipped open his notebook to reread what he'd already learned from the responding officer. "You were read your Miranda rights. Do you fully understand these rights?"
She waved an impatient hand. "Yes, of course."
"Good. So you were working here alone. Is that correct?"
"Yes. I mean no. I thought my boss was upstairs. I already went through all this with the other officer," she huffed, and pushed a lock of hair back behind her ear to reveal sparkling stones. "And then again with those other people who practically strip-searched me." A shudder rippled over her.
The CSI team had performed a routine exam of her person for trace evidence, checking her hands for gunpowder residue, taking any out-of-place fibers off her clothing and looking for blood droplets that would match the victims. The team had done their job.
Now it was his turn. Interviewing the suspects and witnesses was a vital aspect of any investigation, especially done as closely to the crime as possible while the person's memory was fresh and they hadn't had time to embellish or minimize any details.
"I understand that, ma'am. Nevertheless, I need you to go through it again with me," Paul explained.
He'd look for inconsistencies in her account of the events and for ways to dig deeper and sift truth from lies.
She blinked her long lashes. "Fine. My assistant had an appointment, so she'd left early. I was alone in the workroom preparing the Wahlberer painting for transport when Mr. Drake" She gestured to one of the two dead men lying on the floor to the right.
Ms. McClain seemed momentarily frozen as she stared at the dark-haired man sprawled on the shining cherrywood floor. A pair of long-handled sheers protruded from the man's gut, and blood spilled out to stain the floor a deep crimson. The click and flash of the CSI tech's camera documenting the death echoed in the room along with the hushed whispers of those working the scene.
A stabbing indicated a crime of passion.
"Mr. Drake came in " Paul prompted, wondering if there was enough fire in her blood to make her commit murder.
She turned sharply back to him, visibly refocus-ing, her breathing a bit irregular. "Mr. Drake arrived early. He wasn't due for another fifteen minutes. I wasn't ready. I asked him to wait in the red room."
Paul arched an eyebrow. "The red room?"
She made a sweeping gesture with one elegant hand toward the doorways. "The different art collections are housed in separate rooms. Each room is color-coded."
"I see. So Mr. Drake went into the red room."
"No." She pointed to the other vic lying a few feet away. "HeMr. Vanderpoolstormed in even before Mr. Drake had taken five steps."
Vanderpool was as Nordic as they came with his white-blond hair and large features. His wounds were consistent with a gunshot wound. But they wouldn't know for certain until the medical examiner did the autopsy.
"You say he stormed in? Why do you say it like that?" Paul watched her closely, gauging her response.
Would her gaze dart upward and to the right, searching for a fabrication, or would her eyes go up and to the left, recalling events and words of description?
She stared straight at him with those eerily blue, sharply intelligent eyes, no shifting, no blinking. "Mr. Vanderpool and Mr. Drake both wanted the Wahlberer painting. At the auction last night both men created quite a stir when they tried to outbid each other. Mr. Vanderpool stormed in claiming the painting was supposed to be his."
She gave a look that spoke volumes of how dumbfounded she was by the men's behavior. "I thought it strange that either would find the painting that valuable since Wahlberer is so new to the art world." She gave a delicate shrug of her slim shoulders. "People who are passionate about art are an eclectic breed."
Paul wouldn't know since he wasn't much interested in art. His focus was on contributing to society by getting the job done and putting away the bad guys. "And where is this Wahlberer now?"
The painting had not been found in the workroom as she'd claimed it should be.
Her mouth pressed into a thin line. "I don't know.
I last saw it in the workroom on the table, wrapped in brown packaging. I hadn't yet put the string across to secure it before I was interrupted."
"By Mr. Drake?"
"Yes. By Mr. Drake." Frustration clearly marked her words.
"What was your relationship with Mr. Drake?"
She stared at him aghast. "There was no relationship. He bought art through the gallery. That's it."
Her denial rang true. "How much is the painting worth?"
"Mr. Drake bought the painting for a hundred thousand dollars."
Ah. Motivation enough for someone to kill and steal. Even an art curator. He made a note to check into Megan's finances. "Who knew that Mr. Drake was coming to pick up the painting?"
"The staff. But none of them would do this," she protested, her lip quivering.
That remained to be seen. "You left the painting on the table."
He noticed she didn't fidget or hedge.
When she remained silent he pressed, "And then?"
"I went to find my boss, Lester Sinclair. I thought he was in his office upstairs. But he wasn't."
"Did you knock or just go in?" He'd have the CSI team check out the second floor and hall for any trace evidence.
She folded her hands together in front of her. He noted her nails were short and her skin red and dry. As if she'd scrubbed at them. Possibly washing away blood? He made a note of his observation on his notepad.
"I knocked first and then I went in. His office was empty," she stated, her voice curiously flat.
"Is there a back way from the offices upstairs to the gallery floor?"
Two little lines appeared between her black arched eyebrows. "Yes. There's another staircase that leads to the back of the gallery, near the restrooms." Horror filled her expression. "But you can't think Mr. Sinclair could have done this. He's nearly seventy years old. Why would he commit such a heinous crime?" She tugged her bottom lip between her white, straight teeth.
He arched his eyebrow. "If you're sure he wasn't in the building, then why'd you go looking for him?"
"I didn't know he wasn't in the building at the time," she replied, her eyes widening, expressing her agitation. "Only now I know."
"And you didn't hear anything?"
"I heard the gunshots." She blinked rapidly as if to hold back tears. "I ran back downstairs and found them. My scissors were in Mr. Drake's stomach." She shuddered.
Practiced at not being moved by displays of emotion, he consulted his notes again. "Gunshots? As in more than one?"
She nodded with certainty. "Yes. Two."
He made a note to tell the crime-scene techs to look for a stray bullet since they had only one GSW. "And your assistant, Lacy Knight, had an appointment. Where?"
She shook her head; her dark hair swayed slightly. "I don't know. I don't keep tabs on her or the other employees."
"How many employees were here today and when did they leave?" he probed.
Without hesitation, she answered, "Joanie, the receptionist, left at five as always. Donny and George are the daytime security guards. They both left at six."
The call came in to 911 at five minutes to seven. "There was no night-shift guard?"
"Usually there is." She frowned, her pert little nose crinkling slightly. "But Mack didn't show. Lacy said he called in sick. Mr. Sinclair was going to get a temp from the security company we use but I didn't hear what happened with that."
"We'll need the names and numbers for all the employees."
"You'll have to talk to Mr. Sinclair," she stated as her gaze fixated on the men from the coroner's office as they began to remove the two bodies from the gallery floor.
Paul positioned himself in her line of vision. He wanted to keep her focused. "Is there an exit through the workroom to the outside?"
Giving herself a little shake, she shifted her bright blue gaze to him. "Yes. But it's locked. If anyone had come in or out, the alarm would have gone off. And the security camera would record it."
"We'll need the video feed on the camera from the time of the murders," Paul said.
"You'll have to talk to Mr. Sinclair about that."
"Hey, Wallace," Andy Howell, Paul's partner for the past six months, called from the doorway to the workroom. He'd also taken off his overcoat to reveal his navy suit, one most detectives couldn't afford, but Andy's wife owned a clothing shop and liked her husband to dress well.
More than six feet tall, Andy had once been a college basketball player until he blew out a knee. He still had a slight limp, but Paul wouldn't trust his back to anyone else. In the short time they'd been partnered, Paul had come to admire and respect Andy.
"We found the other murder weapon," Andy stated as he approached.
Paul's gaze jumped to Megan to see her reaction. She showed no effects of Andy's announcement. Innocence? Or confidence?
Paul nodded to a uniformed officer standing close by. "Take Ms. McClain to the station."
Her blue eyes widened with panic, her body stiffened, her arms straight and held tight against her sides, her knees and feet pressed together. "You want me to go to the station."
"Yes," he replied, forcing patience into his tone.
That's usually what happened to murder suspects, but he refrained from pointing that out. "We'll need a formal statement."
He frowned. "How what?"
She seemed to have trouble finding her voice. "How how are we going to the station?"
"By car. I certainly don't plan on making you walk ten blocks in a snowstorm." His trousers were still damp from when he'd walked the short distance from the car to the gallery entrance.
"Car," she repeated. "Cars are safe."
His curiosity piqued by her odd behavior, Paul said, "Officer Johnson will escort you to find your coat and then he'll take you to the station. I'll see you again there."
"Can I change? My shoes at least?" she asked, her expression nearing panic.
Paul hid a smile at having pegged her correctly and sought for a soothing tone. "Of course you may."
She moved stiffly to a panel of wall behind the reception desk. With a little push the panel opened, revealing a closet.
Paul exchanged a curious glance with his partner.
"I'll tell Sims," Andy stated and retreated back to the workroom to inform the lead CSI of the secret hole in the wall.
Megan retrieved a pair of tall, black snow boots. Methodically, she unzipped each boot then grabbed an aerosol can from a shelf inside the closet and sprayed the insides of each one. The scent of lemon filled the air.