“Justin. No, of course not. Sorry. How can I help you?”
“You know Jennifer Darnell, Coby Vix, Wilson Bickford.”
“Yes.” His smile faded. “Are they in trouble? I can assure you they’ve been working very hard against their addictions. It’s a hard road, and there will be stumbles, but—”
“They were murdered early this morning.”
Behind her, Pachai let out a strangled gasp as Justin just stared at her. “What? Sorry, what?”
“They were murdered between two and two-forty this morning in the building where they were squatting.”
“Dead? Murdered? All?”
“How?” Pachai took Eve’s arm, then quickly released it. His eyes were liquid onyx swimming under inky lashes. They only shimmered more intensely when Justin laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Pach, let’s sit down.”
“No. No. I’m sorry, but how can they be murdered? I saw them only yesterday.”
“Pach,” Justin repeated, gently. “Music off,” he ordered. The redhead called out a protest when Mavis stopped wailing.
“Not now, Marti.” Justin rubbed his temple. “There’s no mistake?”
“No. When did you see them last?” she asked Pachai.
His lips trembled, and tears continued to swarm those heavy-lidded eyes. “Before Jen and Coby went to work, after Wil got off. We had coffee. We have coffee almost every day.”
“You were friends?”
“Yes. We—I—I don’t understand.”
“No, neither do I,” Justin said. “What happened?”
The lab rat with the stubby ponytail had turned and, like the redhead, watched.
“Early this morning Wilson Bickford was stabbed to death, Coby Vix was bludgeoned to death, and Jennifer Darnell was strangled.”
Pachai began to weep, and the harsh sobs bore him down to the floor, where he covered his face with his hands.
Justin turned ashen. At her station the redhead sat very still, staring at Eve as if she’d spoken in an ancient foreign language. The other man slumped back in his chair, shuddered, then closed his eyes, lowered his head.
No one spoke.
In the silence, Eve gave Peabody a signal, and responding, Peabody moved to Pachai. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she began in the comfort voice she used so well. “Let me help you. Let me help you up. Why don’t we go over here, sit down?”
“How could—was it—I’m sorry,” Justin said. “I just can’t think. They were attacked? In the building on West Twelfth?”
“But why, for God’s sake? None of them belonged to a gang, none of them had any valuables to speak of. Was this just some random killings?”
“Do you know anyone who’d wish them—any one of them—harm?”
“No. No, I don’t. They were turning their lives around, and the three of them had formed a strong bond. Their own small support group.”
“They were addicts.”
“In recovery,” Justin said quickly.
“Was there anyone who they—again any one of them—used to associate with prior to their recovery who might have resented the fact that they were getting clean, staying clean?”
“I don’t know, but if so, they didn’t mention it to me. If there was someone, something, one of them might have told Arianna. Arianna Whitwood. She was the therapist of record for all three of them.”
“Yes.” He looked away, pressed his fingers to his eyes. “My God, they were so young, so hopeful.”
“You gave them permission to squat in that property.”
“Yes. They couldn’t make the rent on Jen’s apartment. She’d fallen behind before she’d made the commitment to recovery. Pachai told me they were sleeping on the street. I thought . . . it would be a roof over their heads until they found a place.”
“You formed an attachment to them?”
“To Jen, then through her to Coby and Wil. She was so determined, and you could see the light coming back into her. You could see her finding her quiet. It was gratifying. Even inspiring.”
“I guess I’m curious why you didn’t float them the rent.”
“I wish I had.” Mouth tight, he glanced over to where Peabody murmured to Pachai. “We have a policy not to lend money to anyone in the program, but to try to find another way to help, to guide them to help themselves. I never imagined . . . The three of them together should have been safe. God knows, each one of them had experience on the street, handling themselves.”
“I have to ask where you were between one and four this morning.”
“Yes. I . . . Well, here. I was here.”
“That’s a lot of midnight oil to burn.”
“What I’m working on, it’s—I believe—at its tipping point. I worked until after two, then bunked on the sofa in my office.”
“Did you see or speak with anyone during that time?”
“No. I sent Ken and Pachai home about eleven, I think it was. You can ask them, or check the log-outs. Marti left earlier. I spoke with Arianna . . . I’m not sure, I’d have to check the’link log. Maybe ten or ten thirty before I sent the boys home.”
“What are you working on?”
“A serum to counteract deep and chronic addiction and substance abuse. It will treat the craving on both a physical and psychological level, quiet the violence of that need during withdrawal, and after.”
“There are medications for that already.”
“Medications that basically substitute one chemical for another. I’m attempting to work with natural ingredients that will trigger the chemistry in the brain and the body to return to the levels prior to the addiction. A rebalancing, we’ll say.”
He rubbed at his temple again, the same two fingers on the same spot in the same circular motion. “Is there anything I—we—can do for them now? Contacting family? I can’t remember the details of that, but Arianna will have it. With the burial, memorial? Anything?”
“We’ll be notifying next of kin. I’ll need to talk to Ms. Whitwood, and as soon as possible. First I’d like to speak with your other assistants.”
“Interns,” he corrected automatically. “Marti Frank and Ken Dickerson are here on intern scholarships. Sorry, it hardly matters. I want to tell Ari in person, face-to-face, not over the’link. We lose patients, Lieutenant. To their addiction, to the violence it often generates, or the physical abuse it causes. But this? This comes very, very hard.”
“Is she in the Center now?”
“Yes, she should be in session now. I’ll go up, tell her.”
“If you’d tell her I want to speak with her before we leave, I’d appreciate it.”
“Yes. I’m sorry to meet you this way. I’m just . . . sorry.”
Eve let him go, and decided to take the redhead first.
“You got the picture,” Eve began.
“Yeah. It’s a really ugly picture.”
“Were you close to the victims?”
“I hate that word. Victim.” She folded her hands together on her lap as if she wanted to keep them still. “It’s overused.”
“It is in my line of work.”
“Yeah, I guess. Not especially close. I liked them. Jen in particular. She was just so damn likable.”
“You work in the lab. Do you get friendly with a lot of people in the program?”
“There’s interaction. It’s part of it. There’s a communal eatery on-site, so a lot of times staff’s eating with patients and recoverings. When work allows, we’re encouraged to attend sessions or lectures. It’s more than lab work, especially for Justin. It’s our whole life, and understanding who and what we’re working for. You’re going to find out,” she added. “I know how it works. My brother was a junkie, favored Jazz laced with Zeus. He favored it a lot right up until he OD’d. He made my life, my mother’s, my father’s, hell. I hate the junk, and it took a long time before I stopped hating the junkie.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “With Ken it was his father. Came into it late, you could say. Started with prescriptions after a car accident, escalated until he’d destroyed his marriage, did time for smacking his wife and Ken around, ended up on the street where he stabbed somebody to death for twelve dollars and a wrist unit. He died in prison when somebody returned the favor.”