Chain of Evidence


By Ridley Pearson

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Can Detective Joe “Dart” Dartelli uncover the truth? Or, more importantly, does he dare?

Detective Joe “Dart” Dartelli made one critical mistake in his police career: He chose to ignore a piece of evidence in a case labeled a suicide that might have been a murder. The dead man was himself a vicious woman-killer who more than deserved his fate, but that ignored evidence pointed to Dart’s former mentor, the brilliant forensic specialist Walter Zeller.

Now another suicide victim turns up–the body of a wife-beater–and the evidence clearly shows that the death was self-inflicted . . . or does it? Zeller was the best at reading and understanding the forensics of a crime scene–could he have manipulated it? Worse, why has Zeller disappeared?

It terrifies Dart to suspect that Zeller is in fact on some twisted vigilante crusade, but Dart also knows that if he’s right, only he can stop it.

Chain of Evidence is the intense, heart-pounding story of student versus mentor in the playing field of forensic investigation. Ridley Pearson links computer technology, psychological intensity, and complex questions of police and human ethics to create this breathlessly paced, unputdownable thriller.



Another one? he wondered, the sense of dread as great as anything he had ever experienced.

On his way back from his only trip to the beach all summer, Detective Joe Dartelli heard the call come over the radio and sat through the better part of a green light before someone had the good sense to honk and awaken him from his moment of dread.

The code was for a suicide—not that the codes did any good, the local press monitored these frequencies like sucker fish clinging to the belly of the shark, and they knew every code, could interpret even the slightest inflection—but it was the added word, "flier," that caught Dartelli's attention. A jumper.

Another one.

By the time he reached the front of the downtown Hartford Granada, the patrol personnel had already run the familiar tape around the crime scene, holding a few morbid curious at bay, and two impatient news crews. They were lucky: At eleven-thirty at night the downtown core was virtually deserted; the insurance executive set stayed out of the city at night unless there was a function. Better, the late news had already ended, making this tomorrow's news. Dartelli spotted an unmarked Ford Taurus cruiser clumsily parked near the front, and a black step van that Dartelli recognized immediately as Teddy Bragg's evidence collection van. Stenciled across its back doors were the words: HARTFORD POLICE DEPARTMENT FORENSIC SCIENCES DIVISION. Calling Bragg's detail a division was a bit of a stretch, given that it consisted of only two people. But maybe that made the public feel better about their tax dollars.

Dartelli double-parked the eight-year-old red Volvo 245 wagon and left the emergency flashers going, and flipped around the visor with the paperwork that identified the car as one belonging to an HPD detective, so that it wouldn't be cited or towed. He climbed out of the air-conditioned comfort into a soup of nearly unbearable heat and wicked humidity.

He wore a pair of blue madras Bermuda shorts, loafers with no socks and a white golf shirt from Scotty's Landing, a fish and chips joint in Coconut Grove, Florida, the souvenir of a vacation long in the past. The patrolman at the door didn't recognize him and tried to shoo him away before Dartelli's police ID gained him passage.

"Good evening, sir," the patrolman said, apologetically.

Joe Dartelli nodded, though there was nothing good about it at all. An African-American spread out on the sidewalk, the media closing in. He clipped his ID to the collar of the shirt.

"Who's on it?" Dartelli asked.

"Kowalski," the patrolman answered.

The detective nodded again. Figures, he thought. When shit went bad it rarely hesitated to go all the way.

"Fifth floor," the patrolman informed him.

He heard an ambulance's approaching siren climbing in the distance, rising in both volume and pitch, as if it might arrive in time to save the cooling remains that filled the cheap suit spread out bloodied and disfigured on the sidewalk. A body bag and the coroner's wagon was more like it, and even then a shovel and hose were going to be needed.

August in New England: He had never seen any tourist brochures bragging about it.

He approached the elevator with a sour stomach that had nothing to do with the hot dog and mustard that he had called lunch. His stomach was instead the result of a toxic combination of fear and guilt: Another one. He felt an unyielding pressure at his temples delivering an unrelenting splinter of pain that felt as if it pierced the texture of his brain.

He recalled the last suicide that he had attended, three years ago, and the resulting investigation, and he felt dizzy enough that when the elevator car moved he reached out for the railing to steady himself.

I did my job, he reminded himself, recalling the death that the paper had quickly dubbed the Ice Man. It had been a disgusting winter of seventeen ice and snow storms, two blizzards, and a ten-day period when the mercury never crossed five above zero. In March, a melting snowbank revealed a frozen John Doe—the Ice Man.

I followed procedure, he told himself. But he knew the truth: For the sake of a friendship he had looked the other way. He had investigated, written-up and filed some potentially damaging evidence, the facts of which, when linked one to the next, seemingly related to the Ice Man case—though indirectly, and circumstantially—electing not to bring the evidence to the attention of the lead investigator, Detective Roman Kowalski. For the past two years he had internally debated that decision—now, he questioned it.

I did not break the law. This, ultimately, carried the most weight with Dartelli. He had stretched the law, perhaps to its limit, but remained within its bounds. To be found out might cost him a reassignment or transfer, but it was a job filled with difficult judgment calls, and he had made his, like it or not. The discovery of this second such suicide, however, added a burden to that earlier decision. Had he misread that evidence? Had his decision to ignore the evidence now allowed a second killing?

Despite the air-conditioning, he began to sweat again and he coughed dryly and his lungs hurt. He blamed the Granada Inn. It was a decent enough chain, but this particular hotel was a piece of shit. Its nickname was the De Nada—"of nothing," in Spanish.

There were two uniformed patrolmen guarding the fifth floor, and Dartelli attributed his Bermuda shorts for his being stopped for a second time. Kowalski, who thought the world revolved around him, sized up Dartelli's garb and said in his heavy Bronx accent, "The only known witness is a stoned Jordon across the street. You want to do something, you could take a statement."

Detective Roman Kowalski had too much hair—bushy, black, curly hair escaping his shirtsleeves and collar; his eyebrows cantilevered out over his tight-set dark eyes like a pair of shelves. Kowalski had five o'clock shadow before noon. He was too vain for a beard, but it would have saved him a lot of time and effort.

Kowalski chewed on the end of his trademark wooden match. A pack of Camel non-filters showed through the breast pocket of his polyester shirt. He carried the bitter odor of a chain-smoker. The man reveled in the image of the renegade cop. Dart had no use for him. When he cleared a case it was only because he got lucky or beat up a snitch. He had a horrible clearance record. He bent every rule there was and got away with all of it, the darling of the upper brass.

"I'm off duty," Dartelli announced.

"So fuck me," Kowalski said irritably. "You want to nose around, take the statement. You want to be off duty, go home and be off duty. What the fuck do I care?"

"I saw Bragg's van."

"He's working the scene now," Kowalski said, indicating the motel room. "Listen, you don't want to help out on your day off, I got no problem with that. But then make yourself scarce, okay? I got no mood this time of night for no show-and-tell."

"Across the street?" Dartelli asked. He wanted a look inside that room, and a chat with Teddy Bragg. He had to know what they had so far. He headed back toward the elevators.

"Nice shorts, Dart," Kowalski called out down the hall, using his nickname. "You look like you're ready for recess."

Joe Dartelli, his back to the man, lifted his right hand and flipped the man his middle finger. He heard Kowalski chuckling to himself.

It was good—they were getting along tonight.

The witness wore his New York Knicks hat backward, the plastic strap across his forehead. His dark green, absurdly oversized shorts came down to the middle of his black calves. Dart displayed his shield to the patrolman keeping the kid under wraps and the boy's face screwed up into a knot, and he shifted uneasily from foot to foot like a member of a marching band. Rap music whined loudly from a pair of fuzzy black earpieces stuffed into his ears. The smell of marijuana intensified the closer Dart drew to the kid. Dart indicated for the kid to lose the tunes. He introduced himself formally as Detective Joseph Dartelli, Crimes Against Persons Division of the Hartford Police Department. He did so within earshot of the uniform, and he noted the uniform's name in the spiral pad alongside the date and time. He took down the kid's name and drew a line beneath all the information, annoyed by what the courts put a person through.

"You don't look like no cop," the kid said.

"You don't look like a reliable witness," Dartelli countered. "You looked stoned out of your gourd. You want this patrolman and me to search your person?"

The kid shifted nervously. "Just making conversation, Jack," he said.

It was true, of course, Dartelli looked more like a Disneyland visitor than a robbery/homicide cop, but it was important not to let his witness gain a sense of superiority or confidence. Walter Zeller, Dartelli's mentor and former sergeant, had once schooled him to quickly judge the witness—right or wrong. A cocky witness was to be kept off guard, a reluctant witness nurtured and comforted.

Dartelli had the nervous habit of thrusting his tongue into the small scar that he carried on his lower lip where a tooth had once punctured through. The accepted explanation for this scar was that an out-of-control toboggan had met a birch tree when Dart had been a twelve-year-old with too much nerve and too little sense. The truth was closer to home. The old lady's swollen claw had caught him across the jaw in the midst of one of her delirium-induced tantrums and had sent him to the emergency room for four stitches and some creative explaining.

Dartelli wore his curly head of sandy hair cut short, especially over his forehead, where the front line was in full retreat. He had gray eyes and sharp bones and fair Northern Italian skin that most women envied. In the right light, Joe Dartelli looked mean, which came in handy for a cop. The artificial street lamp light produced just such an effect, fracturing his features into a cubist, impressionistic image of himself, masking his otherwise gentle features. "Tell me what you saw," Dart complained, irritated by the heat. He barked up another cough, his lungs dry despite the humidity. It was something he had come to live with.

"Like I'm parking that Buick over there, Jack, you know? And the suit has left his sunroof open, right? So I'm making it shut, okay?—looking right up through it—when that boy done dives out the damn window and smears his ass all over the fucking sidewalk. Blood everywhere."

"Dives?" Dartelli questioned, doubting the statement immediately. There was no such thing as a reliable witness. No such thing.

"Right out the window, Jack: I'm telling you." He arched his big hand with its long fingers and pink skin under the nails, and imitated a dive as he whistled down a Doppler scale to indicate the fall. "Bam!" he said when the hand reached the imaginary pavement. "Fucked himself bad."

Dart was thinking about bed. About how it had been a long day, and that he had been stupid to stop and involve himself. A piece of shit witness. Some sorry piece of dead meat oozing from a suit across the street. Who cares? he asked himself, trying to convince himself to give it up.

But he knew that he couldn't walk away. "Did he jump, or did he dive?" Dart attempted to correct for the second time.

Inside his painful head came that unwanted voice: I did my job.

"I'm telling you that the motherfucker dove."

"Head first?"

"Damn straight. Just like the fucking Olympics." He raised his hand for the reenactment, complete with the sound track. He was definitely stoned out of his gourd. Shitty witness, Dart thought again.

But then there was the Ice Man, whose injuries also indicated a headfirst dive, though the body had been struck by at least one snowplow and moved several blocks before lodging in a snowbank for anywhere between four days and two weeks, making any positive conclusions about his sustained injuries a matter of conjecture. But he had taken a dive; and this guy had taken a dive. Coincidence? Shit!

What Dart had seen stuck to the sidewalk seemed to support this witness: The jumper's head was caved in, most of his face gone, his upper body a broken mess. What had once been his left shoulder and arm were now folded and crushed underneath him. Doc Ray and Ted Bragg would have more to say about the exact angle of impact, though neither was likely to spend much time with the case. Suicides cleared quickly.

But Dartelli knew: Jumpers didn't dive, they jumped—even off of bridges, where water presents the illusion of a soft landing. There were exceptions to everything, of course, he just didn't want to have to explain them. He felt like tearing up the sheet of notepaper and burying this sordid detail right there and then. You did it once, you can do it again, the unwelcome voice inside of him claimed, punishing him, forcing him to do anything but.

Dartelli instructed the patrolman to take the kid down to Jennings Road and wait for either him or Kowalski in order to make the statement count.

"I can't leave my crib," the kid complained.

Dartelli told the patrolman, "He gives you any shit, search him and bust him and let him sort it out."

"I can cut me some time," the kid offered quickly.

Dartelli eyed him disapprovingly. Piece of shit witness, he thought. Piece of shit case.

Dartelli returned to the De Nada, passing his sergeant, John Haite, who was currently holding court with the smattering of media. Haite did not like the night shift—the two Crimes Against Persons squads rotated into the slot, and for those weeks, Haite was worthy of avoiding. Dartelli did just that.

By the time the detective reached the room, Teddy Bragg, the civilian director of the Forensic Sciences Division, was standing in the doorway smoking a cigarette and looking impatient. "Working with a girl can be a nightmare."

"Woman," Dartelli corrected. Samantha Richardson, the other half of Bragg's team, was no girl.

"Whatever. She's like my wife—always telling me what to do. Bossing me around. I mean who needs it? I get enough of that at home."

"She's in there?" Dartelli asked rhetorically, hearing the vacuum running on the other side of the door.

"Running the aardvark, treating this thing like we got the Simpson case or something. The guy decided to kiss the cement—so what's to vacuum? What's the big deal?"

Bragg was mid-fifties, short and lean with penetrating brown eyes and a top row of fake teeth. He had the disposition of a high school science teacher. His skin was overly pale and he looked tired. Dartelli knew that the man wasn't feeling well, because Bragg was usually the first to demand thorough evidence collection.

"Some Jordon offs himself," Bragg continued, smoke escaping his lips. "Who really gives a shit?"

Race, the detective realized. Half the department referred to blacks as "Jordons," and although they left the Italians alone, they called the Latinos "Panics." Four gangs controlled the north and south ends. There had been fifty-eight homicides over the last twelve months, in a city that five years earlier had seen fifteen. The gangs and their violence, divided along ethnic lines, had stereotyped their races in the minds of most cops; there were very few police operating without some form of prejudice. To make matters worse, the gang problem had become so severe that Hartford—prior to the task force crackdown—had been singled out on 20/20, a network prime-time news magazine, as being one of the worst cities in New England. Now the department had its own dedicated gang squad—although the territory wars continued, and the body count mounted weekly.

"You give a shit," Dartelli replied. "I know you better than that, Teddy."

"I don't know, Ivy. I'm not so sure I do anymore." He sucked on the cigarette, and the action drew the skin down from his eyes, and he looked half dead. "You been in those neighborhoods—the projects. I tell ya, maybe they're better off dead." He finished the smoke and looked around for something to do with it. "You could always take over for me."

"No chance." The only HPD detective with a master's in criminalistics, Dartelli had long since established a professional rapport with Bragg. The detective took some heat from his colleagues for his educational background—most of the dicks had come up through the ranks, and some resented Dartelli's fast track. Having taken his degree from New Haven University, he was mistakenly associated with Yale, and therefore lived with the nickname Ivy. But he had also won some attention and respect from other detectives for his longtime association with the retired Walter Zeller and the detail he afforded his crime scenes. His homicide clearance rate reflected his thoroughness—Dartelli regularly topped his squad's clearance board.

Bragg rechecked his watch and said, "I am not going to spend all night at the stinking De Nada, damn her."

At that same moment the room door opened and a tall, lanky woman sporting a pageboy haircut and flushed cheeks said, "Ready, boss." She set down the aardvark, a canister vacuum cleaner, specially-fitted with a removable filter for hairs-and-fibers collection.

Kowalski appeared down the hall with an attractive hotel manager at his side—he was a skirt chaser of the worst order. He caught up to Dartelli and reported, "No sheet on the guy. His name is Stapleton—David Stapleton."

No criminal record: The news came as a welcome relief to the detective. It was one less thing to connect him to the Ice Man "suicide."

The four of them entered the room together, Kowalski leading the way followed by Bragg and Dartelli, with Richardson taking up the rear, camera gear slung around her neck. The female manager stood outside the room, watching them.

Sam Richardson had marked with Day-Glo police tape the lanes where she had vacuumed for evidence; these were the areas in which the men were permitted to move about. She monitored their movement closely. The room was not large enough for all of them, the result somewhat comic.

"The bed is unmade and appears to have been slept in," Bragg recorded impatiently into a handheld tape recorder.

"Fucked-in is more like it," Kowalski contributed in his usual display of tact.

Bragg reported his findings, dictating as he went along. Studying the bedsheets, and the area immediately around the bed, he said, "Red pubic hairs. Empty condom wrapper—a vaginal condom wrapper. Strands of red hair on the pillow. Evidence of sexual discharge."

Richardson took photographs of the bed and then stripped the bedding and bagged it and marked the bag.

Kowalski, glancing out the open window, said, "Is any of this really necessary for a fucking flier?"

"Your call," Bragg informed him, obviously hoping to be sent home.

Kowalski met eyes with Dartelli, who had been openly critical of Kowalski's lax attitude at crime scenes. "What the fuck?" Kowalski said. "We'll give it the five-dollar tour."

The woman shot pictures of the bathroom, following closely on Bragg's heels as the man's voice rang out. "We've got some additional red pubic hairs on the toilet rim and also in the shower stall."

Dartelli moved to the bathroom door. Bragg, down on his hands and knees, continued, "Seat to the toilet is down. Flecks of cosmetics rim the sink—mascara, maybe some base.

"We've got a damp towel in a pile on the bathroom floor, and a damp bar of pink hotel soap in the higher of the shower stall's two soap holders, indicating someone took a shower, not a bath.

"The shower cap has been used, now crumpled into a ball on the shower's surround. So the person taking the shower goes firmly into the Jane Doe column." Stabbing a wad of tissue in the plastic trash can, Bragg announced, "One discarded vaginal condom." He prepared a plastic evidence bag and picked the condom out of the wad with his gloved hands and studied it by holding it up to the light. He dropped it into the bag and labeled it.

"Semen?" Dart asked.

"We'll test for fluids."

Kowalski stated, "So the guy hires a hooker, has a little trouble getting it up and does a Louganis out the window. What's the big deal?"

"Hooker?" Richardson questioned indignantly. "Why, because she practices safe sex? Do only the hookers that you run with wear vaginal condoms, Detective?"

Kowalski, openly verbal against women detectives, was not loved by the females on the force. He stuttered but didn't get out a full sentence.

Bragg offered his opinion of what the evidence told them. "They do the business. She showers, maybe with him, maybe alone, and she leaves. Then for his own reasons our boy does a swan dive out the window. Nothing here indicating a struggle. No sign of foul play." All this, he recorded into the tape recorder for the sake of his report. Dartelli welcomed this explanation as much as anyone, but that voice inside of him was unrelenting. He argued internally that there was nothing here linking this in any way to the Ice Man. And yet … And yet … He couldn't let go of his own guilt; just the similarity of the jumps troubled him.

He suggested, "I'd like to have a talk with his visitor."

"Yeah," Kowalski agreed, "but it will probably cost you just for the conversation. The trim is probably twenty and goes for fifty a night. Maybe the boys downstairs got a list of redheads," he said, referring to the Vice/Narcotics Division.

Richardson exhaled audibly in disgust.

"Natural color or a dye job?" Dartelli asked Bragg.

"We can test for that," Bragg conceded, taking it as a request, clearly unhappy with the direction the investigation was taking.

Dartelli had a thin line to walk: He needed to rule out any connection to the Ice Man, to discourage anyone pulling those files or that evidence for comparison, while at the same satisfying himself that there was no connection, for to make such a connection placed the blame for the death partially on him.

Bragg offered, "We can try to develop latent prints off the door hardware, the window and frame, armchairs, bathroom fixtures. We get something useful we run the prints through ALPS. Anything else?" He wanted out of here.

Richardson had gone on a photo safari in the main room. She called out, "Did any of you guys see that the doodad has been taken off the window?"

Kowalski, alone with the two men in the tiny bathroom made a face consisting of one part boredom, two parts disgust.

Dartelli joined her in the other room.

The dirty glass window was a slide frame, and opened left to right. The "doodad" she referred to was a preventer—a piece of aluminum that screwed into the frame to prevent the window from sliding open more than four inches. City code—a means to prevent children from practicing their Peter Pans. The room's only other window had its preventer in place, and approaching it, Dartelli noticed that the screw head took a special tool, like the hardware in public toilets. He slid the open window shut and studied the screw hole where the preventer had been removed. The threads shined brightly. Recent, he thought.

Wearing plastic gloves in this kind of heat was oppressive. His fingers were waterlogged and the skin shriveled. Using his fingertip, he explored the hole. "Let's shoot it," he requested.

She fixed both cameras with macro adapters and fired off a round of closeups—two from the color-transparency Nikon and two from the Canon black-and-white. As she did so, Dartelli searched for the preventer and screw that had been removed. Richardson picked up on this, and without a word, joined him in his search. They checked under the beds, the bare drawers of the clothes chest, rimmed with black cigarette burns.

"Not here," she announced.

"No," Dartelli agreed, meeting eyes with her. "Roman," he called out to Kowalski, who had gone back to flirting with the manager in the hallway and seemed bothered by the interruption.

Dartelli stated, "You checked the guy's record."


"Off of ID found on the body, or his registered name?"

"Registered name," the other detective replied.

Stupid shit, Dartelli thought. He inquired irritably, "You did or did not check the body for identification?"

"Coroner will do that when he inventories the personal effects. You want to go sponging around in that mess, be my guest."

Dartelli headed straight out of the room, passing the detective and the manager.

Kowalski called out to him, his voice like that of a child who was missing the point. "What the fuck are you doing, Dart?"

Dartelli didn't answer.


On Sale
Aug 14, 2012
Page Count
512 pages
Hachette Books

Ridley Pearson

About the Author

Ridley Pearson is the award-winning co-author, along with Dave Barry, of Peter and the Starcatchers, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, Peter and the Sword of Mercy, Escape From the Carnivale, Cave of the Dark Wind, Blood Tide, and Science Fair. In addition to Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark, Kingdom Keepers: Disney at Dawn, Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow, and Kingdom Keepers: Power Play, he is also the author of the young adult thrillers Steel Trapp: The Challenge and Steel Trapp: The Academy. He has written more than twenty best-selling crime novels, including Killer View and Killer Weekend. He was the first American to be awarded the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction at Oxford University.

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