Alexi walked across the huge underground parking lot. Her footsteps sounded like loud, shuffling thuds. Pale, whitish electric lights lit the massive, bare walls and the rough concrete floor, yet the place seemed dark. Alexi was searching the left corner at the far end of the parking garage. If crime news websites got it right, it was the spot where Layne Holmes was murdered.
Alexi reached the corner. It was, of course, clean and tidy by now. After investigators had left, the cleaning staff of the parking garage took care of the mess. There was plenty of it, as Alexi learned from the Internet sources. It was an ugly and violent attack. Anyway, Alexi did not expect to find anything. She just came to see the crime scene, to get a feel for the atmosphere of the place where the eighteen-year-old girl had died six days earlier.
According to police news sites and tabloid stories, Layne was a hard-working, ambitious girl. She was the star player of the Blue Demons, the basketball team of the Beacon School. She was ranked as the nation’s tenth best point guard in her class. She had plans of playing in the WNBA. Alexi saw her photos. Layne was a tall, athletic girl with thick brown hair and cheerful, bright, greenish-blue eyes. She had full lips and great teeth. Alexi saw the other pictures, too: Layne’s broken form in the black plastic body bag.
It must have been a mugging gone bad. Layne was attacked in the deserted parking garage. Eyewitnesses had seen two heavily built, large boned men at the estimated time of the murder, near the parking garage. There was a surveillance tape that showed them, but it was not useful. The men appeared only for three seconds, and they wore hoodies and scarves that hid their faces. According to the medical examiner, Dr. S., a star forensic pathologist who has already worked on several high-profile cases, the attackers were unusually cruel. Initially they just wanted to hurt Layne, but she was strong, six feet tall, she did her best to defend herself, probably this was what enraged the perps. The whole thing went out of control within a couple of minutes. They kicked and stomped her head, throat, and chest. Dr. S. said it took about twenty endless minutes for her to die. Her wrist-watch and smartphone were missing (she never went anywhere without them), along with her purse. According to her parents, she had about three hundred dollars. However, the medical examiner said there was something about this case. Alexi agreed with Dr. S.
The parking garage where the attack occurred was only one block away from a computer store whose owner was Layne’s former boyfriend, Paul Richards.
Within a couple of minutes, Alexi was going to meet Richards.
“I’d have never harmed her!”
Richards’ handsome face was taut and rigid. He was in his early twenties, well-built, a few inches taller than Layne.
“You two just broke up lately,” Alexi reminded him.
“Yeah, we did. But we were on friendly terms.”
“Some of your friends say she wanted to get back to you. You had quarrels.”
“She was very young. So am I. I wanted to have fun. She took it badly.”
Alexi gathered that he was seeing other girls, too.
“So what?” the man’s mouth twitched. “It doesn’t mean I killed her.”
Alexi did not assure him that she would not accuse him of anything. There was an uncomfortable silence. She wanted to ask so many questions. Did they fight a lot? Why did they break up at last? Was he angry with her for being clingy? Was she needy and violently jealous? Were Richards’ other girlfriends jealous of her?
“So, what was she like? What did she want to do in life?” she asked. “People say she was gifted.”
“She was. She was a serious player. Quick like hell. Had strong legs . . . she was in great shape. She wanted to play in the WNBA.
“She also wanted to enroll to a university.”
Richards gave her a small smile.
“She was smart. And competitive. She did her best during every session in the gym. Basketball was her life.”
“Did she have friends who were jealous of her?”
“I don’t know. She really didn’t have much time on her hands. She worked out a lot. But I’ve already told these things to your colleagues.”
“Yeah, the other cops. Do you think I bought that you were a newspaper reporter?”
Alexi looked him in the eye and smiled. He was right. She was no crime news reporter. She was a horror thriller writer who got her ideas from real life.
However, she was unmoved. Richards looked like a tough, streetwise man. Probably he was a user. Certainly he knew people who knew people. If Layne had been too persistent to get back to him – if she had cheated on him – then he might have been vindictive.
Jodi Kramer had glowing, pale blue eyes and a very intense, almost feverish stare. She had stern, angular features, her dark hair was smoothed back from her face. She was in her fifties, full of energy. Probably it was her three decades as an active sportswoman. Probably it was her persona and will-power.
They were sitting in Kramer’s office. The room was sparsely furnished. Plenty of cups on the shelves. Gold and silver medals. On the walls, there were larger-than-life photos of Kramer, beaming, with her players, receiving a newly won medal.
In her day, Jodi Kramer was a professional player of the WNBA. During the past two decades she was probably the best basketball trainer of New York City. She gave the most talented players private training sessions, but mostly she worked with her team, Lady Blazers of Murry Bergtraum High School. The team has won the Public Schools Athletic League championships fifteen years in a row, and many state tournaments and national championships.
“You say you didn’t know her,” Alexi said.
“Why should I have known her? She was on the rival team. I never spoke to her. I didn’t have anything to do with the Demons. Except that we wanted to beat the hell out of them,” Kramer said. “Of course, I feel sorry for her all the same,” she added after a second.
Alexi smiled a bit.
“Coach Kramer, you come across as an uncompromising person. People say you’d do just about anything for your team.”
“You mean I’d murder someone . . .”
“Holmes was a key player. With her around, Blue Demons had good chances to beat the Blazers again. Last year they defeated your team, it was your first lost match in fifteen years.”
Jodi Kramer’s eyes were cold. She was not happy with the memory. Or with the accusation.
“Are you serious? I’m a sportswoman. What’s next? Will you ask me if I encourage my players to dope? Let me tell you it’s not my style. I’ve been a coach for twenty years. My team has won international championships, city championships, and state tournaments each year. We have won the city championships fifteen years in a row. I’m there for my players twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Fourteen of them have made it to the WNBA, four of them are still active. Believe me I am good . . . without murdering anyone. Holmes was a good player, but Demons is just a mediocre team. Holmes or not, we would’ve won . . . anytime, anyway.”
She was practically saying that she might not care about what happened to Layne Holmes, but she, Jodi Kramer, did have respect for basketball and was too good to commit murder. Alexi was impressed. Kramer would make a great character in her newest crime fiction. Probably a great murderer.
“I was shocked,” the girl said. Her voice was too quiet. She looked at the crowd and shuddered. “We were friends. I still can’t believe . . .”
“You were rivals,” Alexi pointed out.
Robin shook her head.
“She was the better player. Being second best is no fun. I always did my best, but nobody cared. They just were like “Layne this” and “Layne that.” We both were supposed to be captains, but everyone knew it would be her and not me.”
“Your teammates know that you’re good. Actually this is how your name came up as a suspect.”
“We weren’t enemies.”
“A teammate says you detested Layne.”
“It’s stupid. We fought sometimes. She was bossy. She was going to be the team captain. Most players fight. We’ve got championships, matches, it’s just stressful.”
She was mumbling, almost whispering, Alexi hardly could hear her voice over the hum of the crowd around them.
“Would you like to leave?” the girl suddenly asked. “I’ll drive you home.”
Alexi did not like the idea. She did not trust strangers and avoided staying alone with them. No way in hell would she ever get into a car of an unknown man. Robin was, however, a young girl. And probably she would tell her more about Layne in a private, quiet environment like a car. Alexi got to her feet.
“Nice of you,” she said. “I don’t want to go home though. I want to see a friend in the Soho.”
She would not let a stranger know exactly where she lived. No way.*
Fog hovered amongst the high-rises of Midtown East. Humidity made electric lights look vaporous. The city centre, grand and vibrant, seemed immense now, and transmitted a feeling of melancholy. Raindrops ran down the windscreen of the dark Volvo Robin was driving. Alexi was cold. She pulled her black jacket tighter while listening to Robin.
“She was the best of us,” Robin explained, keeping her eyes on the road. “She could dribble like no-one else. She had many scholarship offers from colleges. When she was in her junior year, Kramer, the coach of the Lady Blazers, wanted to coax her into transferring to Murry Bergtraum High. Kramer persisted that Bergtraum was the best high school for girls’ basketball. They won a dozens of championships in a row.”
“Jodi Kramer says she’s never spoken to Layne.”
“Did she say that? She’s lying.” Robin laughed. Her laughter was as quiet as her voice. “That hag is a nutcase.”
Alexi stared through the window. She saw high-rises, they were driving along Lexington Avenue somewhere in Murray Hill or Gramercy. They were heading downtown.
“Kramer is obsessed,” Robin went on. “She’s a poor loser. She was ruined when we won against them last year. You should’ve seen her face. If eyes could kill . . . Layne’s boyfriend, that Richard fellow, he seemed a weird man. Probably she was looking for trouble, I don’t know. Anyway, my bet is on Kramer.”
Her droning voice and pale face disquieted Alexi. Somehow it felt wrong to sit next to Robin alone in her car, listening to her. Alexi leaned against the seat, her right hand was in her pocket – it held the butterfly knife that she always carried.
Rain came down hard. They were driving through East Village, Alexi saw garish buildings, cheap, run-down groceries, plenty of graffiti on the walls. Robin was not speaking now. She crashed through the gears. Alexi was grasping the handle of the knife. At a corner, Robin almost failed a turn. The car was still accelerating. Within a few minutes, they were on the narrow, decaying side-streets of the Lower East Side. Robin took a turn, almost colliding with a large pick-up truck. Alexi wailed. Robin slammed on the brake. The Volvo stopped with loud screeches. The driver of the truck tooted at them.
Alexi was shaking.
“Please,” she gasped, “stop here. I have to get out. I’m sick.”
Probably it was just Alexi’s imagination, but she saw a grin on Robin’s face. Then she realized that the car has already stopped. She jumped out, and staggered toward the sidewalk.
She heard that Robin had put the Volvo in gear. She turned around. The car was speeding, aiming for her. It was only a couple of feet away from her. Robin wanted to run over her. In a second, Alexi threw herself on the hood, protecting her head with both arms. While hitting the hood, she tried to curl up and turn around. Then she felt a hard impact as her back hit the safety glass. Splinters of broken glass cascaded upon her; she must have shattered the windshield. The brakes were screeching, Robin had to stop the car, since there was a solid wall ahead of her. Before the car attack, Alexi had already stepped onto the sidewalk.
Alexi rolled off of the hood. She was shivering. She was in pain. If she had not had training in martial arts (they practiced what to do when suddenly falling) and she had not been so close to the wall, she would have been hit.
She heard Robin open the door of the car. Alexi, at last, grabbed her butterfly knife and unlatched it. Robin noticed the weapon and halted. Alexi skittered away from her, almost flushing into the wall of the nearest building.
Right after the car attack, Alexi had a medical examination. She wanted a doctor to collect physical evidence of her injuries. However, she was not sure whether she would report the case. She tried to avoid police investigations as much as she could.
Within a few days investigators did catch Robin Vaughn. Her phone calls were subpoenaed. It was Robin and her boyfriend who had attacked Layne Holmes in the underground parking lot. Initially they just wanted to harm her, so as to prevent her from playing at Madison Square Garden in March. A broken arm, an injured joint would have been enough. However, when Layne recognized her voice, Robin and her boyfriend, panicked, stomped and kicked her to death. After the subpoenaed calls, Robin’s boyfriend admitted that the two of them had murdered the young basketball player. He testified against Robin.
Alexi, at last, could finish her story. She knew it was a high-profile murder case that caused a public uproar, it would make a great crime fiction. However, she still thought of giving some importance to her favorite imaginary villain, Jodi Kramer.