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Colder and Colder

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Inspector Simon Ross unlocked the door to his darkened office in the homicide department. He had left behind some reports and case files he needed to review for his regular briefing with the Chiefs. He switched on the light and rummaged through several stacks until he found his missing folders. He slipped them into his briefcase, switching the light off as he headed into the empty squadroom.

Most of the regular detectives had already headed home. The normally bustling room had been silenced in the late evening hours. It was too quiet.

Simon readjusted his black trenchoat to brace himself for the chilly night air, prepared to head for the parking lot and his car, until he passed by the staircase to the basement level. For some reason, he was not surprised to see light still beaming from their offices. Even when the rest of Homicide closed down, Cold Squad was still hard at work.

He wasn't entirely sure why he came down the stairs. He tended to rely on McCormick's judgment to run her Squad and cases, interfering only when outside forces required otherwise. But Ross remembered hearing the frustration creeping into the sergeant's voice in her last update during the department briefing. Her defensive tone with the other detectives belied her own suspicions about the case. She was afraid the case was going cold and she might have to close the file again until another review.

Coming lightly down the stairs, he found only two lights beaming on this level, leaving the neatly arranged archive boxes hidden in the shadows. One light shone overhead the Squad bulletin board.

Cluttered with numerous photographs acquired during the course of the investigation, some showed the victim, Stewart MacMillan, in happier times, hanging out with his fellow students. Some grislier pictures showed the forensic evidence taken at the crime scene.

The most prominent picture showed a group of boys from St. Stephens Catholic School gathered after a soccer game, dressed in their school blazers. With his short golden curly hair, Stewart MacMillan stood just off to the side of the group, easily recognizable. Hard to believe three hours later, on March 17, 1979, this young student would be found with a green scarf tied tightly around his neck, strangled to death.

At the time, police had linked to two other deaths of high school students, but St. Stephens' chaplain believed MacMillan's murder had been completely unrelated to those deaths, ruthlessly premeditated for the killer's own reasons. The Squad had yet to find the evidence to back up the old man's story.

The Stewart MacMillan case had been a routine Cold Squad investigation, simply the next in line to be reinvestigated. But there had been more blind alleys and missteps in this twenty-year-old case than anyone had encountered in their previous cases. Tensions were running high. And from McCormick's account, they were no closer to an answer.

The other light came from Sergeant Ali McCormick's corner office. The Cold Squad's fearless leader was putting in another of her sleepless nights. Through the opened doorway, Simon could hear her voice on the telephone, her back turned away from the entrance.

"Yes, I realize this was a long time ago," Ali was saying, " but we need whatever information you have on his death. Anything could help us." She sighed, leaning against her chair, passing a tired hand through her short red hair. "I understand. Thank you for your time. Good night." She hung up the receiver and said softly, her voice breaking. "Damn."

Setting down his briefcase, Inspector Ross tapped lightly on door. Ali turned around in her chair to face her late visitor. From her haggard expression, he wondered when was the last time the sergeant had gotten any sleep.

"Sorry to disturb you," Ross said, "but I saw the light on downstairs."

Ali asked, "Isn't it a little late for you, Inspector?"

"I needed to retrieve some files from my office," Simon replied evenly. Then he asked concerned. "Why haven't you gone home?"

Ali closed the case file on her desk. "No rest for the weary."

"No breaks in the case then?" Simon asked, leaning against the doorway to her small office.

Ali shook her head wearily. "I don't know why I expected otherwise on a case this old. We should have learned our lesson with the Salty Cheever case." She said. "Half of the witnesses and suspects are dead. And the other half aren't talking. We've gone through every lead imaginable. Nothing is panning out." She finished. "This case just doesn't want to be solved."

"Then why are you trying to force it?' Simon asked. "You've already said the leads aren't there."

Ali said. "There are still a few more avenues to explore before we give up again. Forensics might turn up something useful in toxicology."

"And then?" Simon prompted.

"If there still isn't enough, we reclose the case," Ali said sourly, "because I'm fresh out of ideas, boss."

Sgt. McCormick didn't sound too happy with that plan. The sergeant approached every cold case with a single-minded intensity that had produced impressive results. For every case the Squad solved, however, countless others were reclosed for lack of new evidence. And McCormick took every failure personally, letting this inability to solve the case gnaw away at her psyche.

Concerned about Ali's emotional health, Simon came into her office and sat on the edge of the desk opposite his sergeant. "You gave it your best shot." He sighed. "You can't solve every case, Ali. No one expects you to... except yourself."

Ali leaned back against her chair, tilting her head up. Her light blue eyes lacked their usual fire, tired from the grueling schedule. "Are you saying I should pull back?"

"No, I'm not saying that," Simon said. "I *could* call you off this case, but that would only stiffen your determination to solve the case. This is your call, Sergeant."

"I just wish it was easier." Ali said.

"It never is." Simon said somberly. "That's the trouble with our job. You can never leave the old cases behind completely. You think about what you could have done differently. You invest so much of your time in a case you almost become obsessed with the details. You convince yourself every time you reopen the file you'll see something you didn't notice before. This time will be different, you tell yourself." His hazel eyes had an odd far-off look. He shook his head, repeating his earlier statement, lost in his own memories. "It never is."

"You sound like you've learned that the hard way, Inspector," Ali observed.

"Haven't we all once?" Simon replied, standing up and quickly changing the subject. "You look beat. Maybe you should try sleeping on your decision. The rest will clear your senses."

Ali sighed, stifling a yawn. "Maybe you're right." She stood up, struggling into her black leather jacket. Even that was an effort. She rubbed her eyes. "I didn't realize how tired I was until now."

"Get some rest, McCormick," Simon repeated sternly. "You're no help to anyone if you collapse from exhaustion." He added with a slight smile. "As you say, maybe things will look brighter tomorrow."

Ali hid a smile. "It already does." She said softly, as Ross turned to leave, turning off the light in her office.

Simon bent to retrieve his briefcase, then straightened, caught momentarily off guard by her comment. He turned his attention towards the collection of MacMillian pictures.

"It's unnerving sometimes," the Inspector said.

Ali frowned, following his gaze. "What is?"

"Coming down here to the Cold Squad," Simon said. "You piece together a whole life from the contents of an evidence box and police reports. All those lives, waiting for answers."

"You're starting to sound like Eddie," Ali said ruefully, thinking of the Squad's eager new recruit. "He starts to get all philosophical whenever we go through a new case."

"Ah, the passion of youth," Simon said.

"When were we ever that young?" Ali smiled, turning off the final light in the basement. Together they walked out into the parking lot towards their respective cars. She turned to leave. "Good night, Inspector."

Simon said. "Pleasant dreams, Sergeant." As he watched her leave, Simon realized perhaps he had been too tough on McCormick. But these were going to be tough times soon.

So the Cold Squad was no closer to solving the murder of Stewart MacMillan. They would get the next one.