A serial killer had her, and it was his fault.

More chapters from ToxiCity

A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 92

Outside the ICU Matt stared at the floor. Ricki was in the clutches of a serial killer, and it was his fault. Georgia was hanging onto life by a thread, and it was his fault. He’d failed to protect the two people he cared most about. Like Sisyphus, no matter what he did, his wheel would never make it to the top of the hill.

He went into the ICU, a cluster of rooms arranged like the spokes of a wheel around a nurse’s station. He asked to see Georgia. The nurse looked up from the bank of monitors and cocked her head.

“She’s not conscious.”

“I know.”

She looked at his shield. “Five minutes. That’s it.”

He tiptoed into the small room, no bigger than a closet. A monitor at the side of the bed emitted regular beeps. That was good. But her skin, at least the portion not swathed in bandages, looked paper thin and chalky, and the rise and fall of her chest was so shallow he wasn’t sure air was flowing through the oxygen mask. Her hand lay on top of the sheet, fingers curled like the paw of a small animal. He remembered how she’d admitted in a moment of intimacy her compulsive need to tap her fingers an equal number of times on each hand. He grasped her hand.

He stayed until the nurse came in and whispered it was time to go. Reluctantly, he retraced his path down the corridor. Halfway down the hall was a yellow and black “Caution” sign. A bucket with a wet mop sat beside it.

As he veered around it, the strong scent of antiseptic stung his nostrils. He stopped. There was something about this smell. He sniffed, allowing the acrid odor to penetrate. This wasn’t a new smell. He’d smelled it before. He stared at sudsy water for a full minute, struggling to bring it to consciousness.

Julie Romano’s apartment. He’d smelled disinfectant the night he found Brenda Hartman. He forced himself to concentrate. Slowly, like a mosaic emerging from bits of colored stone, the image came to him. Romano’s place was clean the night he’d found Brenda Hartman. The bathroom was spotless. Yellow towels on the rack.

He took a step forward. Disinfectant. Yellow towels. Something was wrong. The first time he’d been there, just after he’d found Romano, the towels were blue. He squeezed his eyes shut. Yes. The towels had been blue. But the night he found Hartman, they were yellow. Somebody had changed them.

He called Brenda Hartman, who was back in Indiana, and woke her up. She wasn’t pleased, her husband even less so. She said she hadn’t changed the towels. The only thing she’d done was look for her letters. Which meant someone else—someone besides Hartman—had been inside Romano’s apartment since her death.

Matt sprinted to the elevator and slammed his palm on the call button. His gaze fixed on the red exit sign above the door to the stairs. There was a set of stairs outside Romano’s door. The stairs led to the back door. If someone had a key, they could get in and out of Romano’s apartment easily, without being seen. And the only other apartment on Romano’s floor belonged to an old woman who was practically deaf.

The elevator doors opened. Three people were inside. He pressed the lobby button even though it was already lit. The doors were agonizingly slow to close. What if Champlain used Romano’s place to murder her victims? Then cleaned up, transported the bodies, and dumped them someplace else?

The elevator stopped one floor down. A man and a little girl got on. Matt rocked on his heels. If that was the case, how did Champlain get a key? Brenda Hartman didn’t have one—she’d come in through the fire escape.

The elevator stopped at the next floor. The realty office had keys. Joanne Romano had a key. But Joanne didn’t kill her sister, and the realty office employees were a stretch. Someone else had a key to Julie Romano’s apartment.

Finally the elevator opened, and he shoved past the people and raced to his car. Champlain was cunning. What if she’d pretended to be a friend to Romano? Moved in slowly, gained her trust? He unlocked his car and slid in, trying to recall Romano’s apartment the first time he’d gone there. The clutter. The spices. The movies. He keyed the engine.

The movies. A borrowed cassette. “Klute.” As it fell into place, his stomach flipped. He knew who Maggie Champlain was. She’d been there from the start.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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