Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Clearing - Chapter 23

Start with Chapter 1

CHAPTER 23

January 14, 1979
The station had only one usable interview room. The wooden table legs were bolted to the floor and the top of it was a rich tableau of nicks, cuts, and scars from years of subjects, often left alone, or cops themselves. Three wooden chairs, one with a short leg courtesy of Sergeant Benjamin Sidesdale, now retired. In it sat Josh, his forehead beaded with sweat and him thumping his foot lightly, occasionally forgetting the lopsided chair and catching himself.
Dean was pleased with the orchestrated arrival of Corey, Alex, and Josh. Etheridge had picked up Alex, while Zach picked up Corey. Both were brought to the station and seated across the room from each other. Guthrie and Dean walked in a few minutes later with Josh, who they marched into the main area before turning into the short hall with the file room and the interview room beside it.
Dean knew, with what they had, it was their best shot for rattling anything loose.
“What do you want?” asked Josh. He put his hands on the table. “Why did you have to drag me out of work?”
Guthrie slapped the table, not hard, but enough. “We’re trying to solve your friend’s murder.”
“You’ve already talked to me. I told you everything I know.”
“Did you?” asked Dean, his arms across his chest. “Did you?”
Josh blinked at him.
“See, we’ve got this issue. We talked to you, but you were, well, a bit cagey. I mean, why are you making sure you remember your story the same as Corey?”
“What’s that about?” Guthrie lit a cigarette, shaking out the match and tossing it into a styrofoam cup with water.
“I’ve been thinking about that. I think you guys misunderstood me.”
Guthrie looked at Dean and shrugged. They both looked at Josh, who blinked his eyes rapidly.
“You misunderstood me,” he said. “I mean, how often does something like that happen in this town. That’s big city stuff. And he was our friend, so we compared notes. ‘When did you last see him? Same as you.’ That kind of stuff.” He rubbed his temple. He looked pale, like he would pass out at any moment.
“You seem awfully nervous,” said Guthrie, who stood up. He walked toward the back wall, forcing Josh to look back and forth between him and Dean.
“My partner has a point. You’re acting like you did something wrong. You look terrible.”
Josh shook his head. “I didn’t I’m telling you.”
“Hmmm.” Dean tapped his chin. “Would you be willing to take a lie detector?”
Josh looked at Dean.
Dean scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, let’s clear this up real quick. If you’ve got nothing to hide that is. If you’re telling the truth.”
Josh looked back at Guthrie. Looked back at Dean. The kid somehow went even more pale. “Yeah. Yeah. Yes.”
Dean held his surprise back and instead nodded. “That should clear things up. It’ll have to come from a town over. Let me make the call.” He left Josh and Guthrie in the interview room and walked out to his desk. Usually when police bring up a lie detector, the suspect goes on the defensive, and those defenses can take time to break down, if lawyers have not been brought in. He had not expected Josh to embrace the idea so quickly, though it fed into the plan he had. Did that mean Josh was innocent, that Dean had gone down the wrong path? He shook his head. No, Josh was weak, he told himself.
Alex and Corey were still sitting across the room from each other. Etheridge was sitting in his chair, typing a report and giving both of the men accusatory glances every once in a while. Dean picked up the phone and dialed the number of Barry Archer, the area’s primary lie detector provider. He worked many of the towns in northeast New York.
“Barry Archer Security Services,” said the woman who answered the phone.
“This is Detective Dean Wallace with the Zion police. Is Barry in?”
“He’s not. May I take a message?”
“Yes,” said Dean, who then elevated the volume of his voice, hoping that Corey would hear it at the far end of the room, “Tell him I’d like him to give me a call. He has my number. I’m in need of his lie detector. Today if possible.” He had to hold back from looking at Alex’s and Corey’s reactions.
“I’ll let him know. What’s the number?”
“He has it. Thanks.” Dean hung up and walked back to the interview room, smiling at Corey and Alex as he went. He found Guthrie still standing against the wall behind Josh, who was leaning over with his hands around his stomach. Dean looked at Guthrie, who shrugged. He told Josh he had called the lie detector services and it would be a while, so he needed to wait out in the station while they talked to his friends. Josh stood up and walked through the door Dean held open. Guthrie followed them out and called Corey to the interview room. Josh and Corey passed but did not acknowledge each other. Dean patted Josh on the shoulder after he was seated. “Officer Stone here will get you a coffee or water or soda if you want it.”
Dean walked back into the interview room, where Guthrie had set Corey up much in the same way they had Josh.
Corey glared at them and ground his front teeth together. “What’s this all about?”
“What do you think, numbskull?” asked Guthrie.
“Billy?”
Guthrie punched Dean in the shoulder and pointed his finger at Corey. “What a bright young man we have here. He figured out we wanted to talk to him about his murdered friend.”
“He’s the smart one,” said Dean.
“What else can I tell you? What did Josh say?”
“Did Josh have something to tell?” asked Dean. Interrogations were like the shell game, he thought. When in New York City, he would play with the young boys on the streets, knowing it was a hustle but feeling bad for them and letting them take a dollar here or there. Detectives want the people on the other side of the table to feel they are honest brokers but not see the trick. In this case, Dean knew he was playing the game with a hand tied behind his back.
“I don’t know, man. This is bullshit.”
“You’re free to go,” said Dean.
Corey froze in surprise. “What?”
“You’re not under arrest, so you can go anytime.”
“But you picked me up.”
“Yeah, that was a courtesy. We can get you back to the store.” Dean rubbed the top of the table with his thumb. “But I got to tell you, if you do leave, you’ll seem uncooperative. I mean, Billy was your friend, right?”
Corey nodded. “He was my friend, but last I saw him was about eleven-thirty the night he disappeared.”
“Hmmm. Seems that’s the last anybody saw him. Where was he going?”
“He didn’t say. I presumed home. He usually went home. We all did.”
Dean looked up at the ceiling, rubbed his neck. “So you’re out drinking. You guys decide to call it a night. And that’s it.”
“Yep.”
“What’s this about having to compare your stories and get them to match up?” asked Guthrie.
Corey twisted his lips and looked at the detective. “Josh tell you that?” Guthrie shrugged. When Corey looked back at Dean, he received no acknowledgement. Corey sighed and looked down at the table. “It sounds worse than it is. We were just comparing notes. Seeing if Billy said something or did something that was odd. Nothing came up.”
Dean nodded once, clasped his hands together, and set his elbows on the table. Both Josh and Corey had given the same explanation, and it made sense. “So tell us about Alex and Sarah and the fighting between them and Billy.”
“Fighting’s too strong a word. Sarah was after his money. I let it be known I didn’t like that. Alex? Well, I’ll let him tell you what his issue was.”
“Did Billy own a gun?” asked Guthrie.
Corey shook his head. “I loaned him one.”
Dean leaned backward. “Thirty-eight?”
“Yep. I’ve had it for years. My grandpa gave it to me to kill raccoons.”
“Why’d you loan it to him?”
“We took the thing out in the woods occasionally and shot bottles and shit. He asked to borrow it. So I gave it to him.”
“When was this?”
“After Christmas. Why?”
“We found it in his coat pocket when we found him in the woods.”
Guthrie and Dean talked to Corey for another hour but obtained nothing more than he had already told them. He scratched his chin, repeated himself, and said he hoped they would catch Billy’s killer. Still, Dean thought he was hiding something. Maybe not related to Billy’s murder, but something, and he could not put his finger on it, but his instincts had helped him get out of Vietnam alive and survive the New York streets on patrol, and he trusted them here. He considered bringing up the cash found in Billy’s closet, but stopped himself. He decided to wait to spring that on Alex. Guthrie walked Corey out and escorted Alex in.
After he was seated across from Dean in the interview room, Alex maintained a casual, relaxed air, often twisting his thumbnail into the table. His face looked worse than the previous day, the bruises beginning to turn ugly colors.
“So tell us your issue with Billy and Sarah. Were you sweet on his girl?” asked Guthrie.
“Please. She’s not that hot.” He tapped a finger in the air at Guthrie. “But she’s got some fine features.”
Dean leaned forward. “We talked to Sarah first, you know?”
Alex’s eyes darted away from Dean’s. He brought them back but could not hold them there.
Dean continued, “We know. And if we don’t know something we will. Hiding information, not cooperating—”
Alex brought his fist down on the table. “Goddamnit!” He breathed in and out once. “Fine. Fine. We slept together. Happened a few times.”
Dean was pleased his instincts were still on. “When?”
“Ah man. You got to believe me. The first time, they weren’t together. They had broken up. It was a couple of years ago. They were always breaking up.”
“And getting back together,” said Guthrie.
“Yeah, I’m an asshole. I get it. I already knew it.”
If Guthrie took the moral high ground, Dean decided to sympathize with Alex. “But she is that hot. I’ve seen her. She’s a fine piece of tail. And that Puerto Rican vibe. I can see why you fell to her seductions.”
“She did start it.” Alex paused and gazed into nowhere, living in his memory palace, seeing her body. Dean did the same with Sadie. Imagined her in various states of undress.
“When was the most recent?” asked Dean.
“October last year. A few nights.”
“Did Billy find out?”
Alex shrugged.
“What does that mean?”
“Means, ‘I don’t know.’ Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t.”
“That the reason you weren’t hanging out with your friends the night William disappeared, right?” Dean crossed his arms. He watched Alex frown and knew he had gone back to the reason they were in the interview room too quickly.
“And because I wasn’t there, you think I had something to do with his death? Over a girl?”
“I’ve seen murders for a lot less. Decided you wanted to be the lone man in Sarah’s life? Or William found out. Confronted you. You had to defend yourself?”
“No man. No.”
“Was there something else you were arguing about? Money perhaps?”
“Money. Hell, man, Billy didn’t have any money.”
Dean smiled. “Oh, but he did. Found nearly twenty thousand in his closet. Cash.”
Alex’s eyes darted a look at Dean and then Guthrie. He pushed and rubbed his thumb on the table. “News to me. I should’ve had him pick up the tab more often.”
The knocking on the door broke the conversation. Guthrie got up, opened the door, leaned out, and then leaned back in. To Dean, he said, “We’re needed.”
Dean nodded. He looked at Alex. “Something’s still not right about your story. I’ll find it out.” He got up and walked out into the hallway, closing the door behind him. He found himself face-to-face with tall and heavy-set District Attorney Henry D. Smith, Alex’s father.
A full head of dark brown hair, vibrant green-brown eyes, and a mustache that cascaded down the side of his lips, Henry wore a gray suit, white shirt, and red tie with tiny gray anchors. He gestured to the door. “Let my son out. He’s not to talk to you without a lawyer. Me. Did you read him his rights?”
Dean looked at his father, who stood beside Henry. Eric shrugged. Guthrie had taken up a spot outside the triangle. Dean scratched his head. “Your son’s not under arrest. He’s cooperating in the William Nimitz murder investigation.”
“So that’s a no.”
Dean nodded. “Are you here as the DA or as his father?”
Eric said, “He’s here as a concerned father.”
“Okay, then, but Alex is an adult, and he can talk to us if he wants.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed. “Then I’m here as the DA. Let him go. He’s not your guy.”
“Have you reviewed the case file?”
Henry ignored the question and walked past Dean and opened the interview room door. “Come on. You’re done here.”
Alex walked out and down the hallway, followed by his father. Dean grabbed Alex’s arm as he passed. “What happened to your face?”
He pulled his arm from Dean’s grip.
“So why’d you show up at the Shambles the night of Billy’s death at near midnight?”
Alex’s eyes snapped up and met Dean’s. Henry grabbed his son’s arm and jerked him away.
Dean felt the cold January air rush through as father and son exited the station. Josh and Corey were absent. Etheridge shrugged and pointed in the direction Henry and Alex had just followed.
To Dean, it felt as if his case—as meager and absent as it was—walked out behind them.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Clearing - Chapter 22

Start with Chapter 1

CHAPTER 22

The Chief called Guthrie and Dean over the radio and asked to get an update on the investigation. They drove the short distance back to the station and dropped off their coats at their desks before entering Eric’s office. He sat in his chair tamping the tobacco in his pipe. He only brought the pipe with him on weekends. “So I just talked to the mayor boys. He wants a status on this Nimitz investigation.”
Dean nodded to Guthrie, who sat up straighter in his chair. “We’ve re-interviewed the witnesses from when this was a missing persons case. His friends. His family. His employer. We’ve interviewed additional people, including his girlfriend’s parents and Paul Zorn.”
Eric grunted at the name and chewed more vigorously on the pipe stem.
Guthrie continued, “Even interviewed the Pratts. Regarding physical evidence: We have the pistols found at the scene. The thirty-eight, fully loaded, deep in the victim’s coat pocket and unfired. The Remington, a forty-five, and likely the weapon that killed Billy—I mean our victim. That gun and bullet are at the crime lab downstate waiting to be examined. We just found the victim’s car, which is in the impound lot. Interior was clean as a whistle except for some cassettes. It’s been exposed to the elements. We’ll lift some fingerprints if we find them, but I wouldn’t hold out hope. Even if we found them, could’ve been anyone that touched the car. My gut tells me Billy parked it there and that’s the end of the story for the car. We don’t yet know what the stash of cash in the closet or the copy of the commie book mean to the investigation, if anything. Though that much cash seems connected.”
“I fought to stop those commies.”
Dean did not bother to correct his father, who had fought with those commies against the fascists. Nor did he remind himself of his own war’s convenient lies.
Guthrie nodded. “Yes.” He paused to see if the Chief had anything to add and looked at Dean when it seemed he did not.
Dean leaned forward in the chair. “There’s almost no physical evidence right now that leads us anywhere. The serial number on the gun led us to the license. It was purchased in 1952 by Dennis Kowlowski. He died in sixty-three—same day as Kennedy. The trail stops there. We think there were steps in the snow leading north. There were steps from the car back in the general direction where the body was found.”
“One set?”
“Yeah. Lost them in the woods. Got a call from the Quebec police—”
Eric looked at Dean. “That Renard fellow?”
Dean nodded. “They landed on a murder there of a former terrorist. Had a bunch of cash, copies of The Communist Manifesto, and passports. Some with William’s photo under different names. Other passports too with different people. That’s pretty much it in the way of evidence.”
“That’s it,” said Guthrie, wiping his hands on his pants.
“That’s it? That’s squat. That’s less than squat.” Eric held the pipe in his right hand and rubbed his neck with his left. “What the hell boys?”
Dean lowered his head before looking directly at his father. “It is what it is. Almost no physical evidence to speak of. A body left exposed for days. The day he disappeared seems to be the day he was killed. No one knows where he went after eleven-thirty that night. No one knows why he was out in those woods. Or why he had that kind of cash. We’ve got a ton of dead ends. He did buy back some of the pawned jewelry his girlfriend took from her parents. Until today, they assumed the vic stole it. The only other thing we know is that Alex showed up sometime before midnight but after Billy and his friends left the Shambles.”
“The girlfriend’s father, Carlos, right?”
Guthrie gave Eric a thumbs up.
Dean said, “Motive…but a long time between knowing of the supposed theft and the killing. His wife alibis him anyways.”
“Shit, that’s about as good as no alibi. A sliver above when a parent provides an alibi.”
“Yeah, but there you have it. Carlos seems good but doesn’t account for the cash. Doesn’t account for the book.”
“It’s drug money. We know it is.” Guthrie held his hands in front of him and gestured something akin to “this is obvious.”
“Probably,” conceded Dean.
“So that’s Zorn.” The Chief stood up and started pacing behind his desk, his hands clasped tightly behind his back.
“Maybe,” said Dean. “I know you’ve been after Zorn for a while. I know and you know that he’s running H down from Canada. But we don’t have evidence. As far as we know, he didn’t even know Billy. And he’s not the only peddler of drugs in town. Smaller time guys, but others. Alex fingered Charlie McCord. Zorn pointed to Alex.”
Eric grunted. “Charlie wouldn’t know the sharp end of a butter knife if you asked him. So where does that leave us?”
“Have you seen his house?”
Eric shook his head.
Guthrie whistled. “It’s a beaut. A palace out in Highland Estates.”
“If that’s the kind of money he’s making,” said Dean, “we may have gone into the wrong business.”
“Charlie’s a respected businessman in this town.” Eric leaned back and crossed his legs. “That’s a pretty big accusation.”
“No more than calling Zorn a drug dealer. But it doesn’t matter. Given what we know, Alex is the center. We know he showed up late at the Shambles. Josh and Corey tell us he’s not getting along with William. I think there was something between Alex and Sarah. I think that’s the rift. You’ve got Paul fingering Alex. Alex fingered McCord. The common name in all of this is Alex. We’ve got to take a closer look at Alex.”
“The DA’s boy?”
Guthrie and Dean nodded.
“Hell.”
“I think…and it’s just a hunch…but I think Alex is running drugs, as well,” said Dean. “Small time stuff. But enough to piss off Zorn or McCord. Maybe both. Josh, Corey, Alex, and Billy were a group. If Zorn knows Alex was doing something, he might have gone at him by going after William. And Alex was all beat up today at the funeral. And McCord’s hand was red and tender.”
“The cash?”
“William was holding it for Alex?”
“Or Billy was a part of the operation,” said Guthrie. “They seemed tight. At least until the falling out over Sarah.”
“So back to love and not drugs?”
Dean shrugged. “Maybe it’s both. Maybe Alex is in love with Sarah and had started using William in his drug thing. And Sarah did mention she thought William was stealing the money from Charlie.”
“Damnit boys, this or that. Drugs or love or revenge. All you’ve given me is a bunch of maybes. This is squat. I can’t go back to the mayor with this.”
“It is—”
“Yeah, I know the goddamned phrase.” The Chief dropped into his chair. “We’ve got a murder. A murderer on the loose, and nothing.” He pulled at his right ear. “What’s next? Tell me how you’re going to solve this.”
“I think we need to probe deeper into Alex. And Josh and Corey. But Alex primarily. We’ll dig deeper into McCord as well.” Dean caught the glare from his father. “But nothing invasive. Light touch. I’d like to get surveillance on Alex as well.”
“What? This isn’t New York City. Surveillance?”
“If we can follow him, we can see what he’s up to.”
Eric waved it away. “We don’t have the money for that kind of operation and no way the DA approves surveillance on his son.”
“I think it’s our best bet.”
“Ain’t happening boys.”
“Then I say we bring all three of them in. Make it formal.”
“Do it.”
* * *
Dean drove to his parents’ house, going over in his head the plan the three of them agreed to. Get Billy’s three friends into the station and push a bit harder and see if something pops. They did not have much leverage; that was clear. Dean agreed with his father, at least in the bureaucratic reasons for not conducting surveillance on Alex: Money and the DA would not allow any surveillance, especially since it was an intuition unsupported by facts.
Jenny slid into the front seat with a large sheet of thick paper covered with a light blue mat. Without prompting, his daughter explained grandma had shown her how to paint with watercolors. Dean recognized the location. The long boarded walk to a pier and deck extending onto Lake Tonga. His parents’ summer house. Jenny’s version of it was very pastel and diaphanous and awkward in proportion and perspective. Still, she had done a good job for her first time at it. His mother was more accomplished, though far from professional—a hobby as she liked to point out.
Dean drove them to Burger Palace for dinner. The chain of six restaurants had opened its second store in Zion in the early seventies. It seemed like a treat for Jenny to go into the brightly lit building and sit across from her dad with her kid’s meal and vanilla milkshake. He asked her if she was having fun with grandma, and she said she was. And they talked about how she liked history at school. The past semester they had been studying the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They were due to learn about the Civil War this coming semester. And science class was okay, but she preferred history. Her stepdad, Spencer Jackson, was making her take piano lessons, and she hated practicing. She asked Dean if he could get her out of it.
“The lessons?” he asked.
“Yes. Urrrrr. I hate them.” She sucked on the straw.
“It’s good for you.” He smiled at her look of surprise. “I mean it. Face it, you’re not going to get any culture from me.” While she was in the bathroom, he let his mask fall and sighed. Sometimes he hated what his life had become, despised that he had so little influence over his daughter, that he was a bit of decoration at the margins of her life. And here she was, staying with him during the worst time he could think of: the first murder investigation since Sixty-Eight. He consoled himself that he had his evenings with her, and she was able to visit with her grandmother.
He drove them to the Pratt farm, where Cindy was waiting with her mother. Cindy told Jenny to use the bathroom before they began the long drive home. While in there, Dean updated Cindy on what Jenny had done all week. “We even saw Superman.”
“You did? She’s already seen that. With Spencer right after it came out.”
He could not hide the crestfallen look on his face. Cindy might as well have punched him.
“Oh,” she said. “She probably just didn’t want to tell you. Wanted to see it with you. Did you only get to spend evenings with her?”
He felt tears welling up, but the tone of her last question bothered him enough that he forced them away. “You know what happened earlier this week. I had a job to do.”
Cindy shook her head. They both heard Jenny come at a fast clip down the stairs.
Cindy said to Dean, “Being a father is your job.” She turned and said to Jenny, “Slow down. Say bye to your father.”
Dean knelt down and he and his daughter embraced. And tears, this time, did come. Not many, but enough. He told his daughter he loved her and they would go to an Expos game this summer. He walked out of the warm Pratt home into the January cold. He felt like a husk ready to be blown into the waiting fields.
On the way home he noticed the car tailing him. At least, he thought it was tailing him. Too distant to determine the make. A pair of lights that followed him—not a difficult task in the town. When he turned into his subdivision, they did not follow him, but he still triple-checked the locks on the doors and windows and sat in the living room, his revolver on the end table until early in the morning.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Clearing - Chapter 21

Start with Chapter 1

CHAPTER 21

January 13, 1979
Dean and Guthrie arrived at Zion First Baptist Church thirty minutes before Billy’s funeral was scheduled to begin. The orange brick building’s parking lot was sparsely filled, which was reflected inside the sanctuary. The closed, black glossy casket rested just below the pulpit and choir. A large, ornately framed photo of Billy sat on an easel beside the casket.
From the front pew, Archie stared at the casket, raising his hand to his cheek throughout to wipe away tears. Emily held a crumpled tissue in her hand, holding it up to her nose like a nosegay.
Behind them sat their family. Archie’s younger brother, and Emily’s two sisters. Pastor Rob Manson sat in a chair behind the pulpit, reading his copy of the Bible, bookmarked and dog-eared. He took off his large, gold-framed glasses to rub the bridge of his nose frequently. Charlie McCord and one of his employees sat on the opposite side of the aisle, toward the front. Charlie’s wife, Eleanor, sat beside him.
Behind the family and Charlie sat Corey, Josh, and Alex filling half a pew. Alex wore sunglasses in a failed attempt to hide a black eye. Sarah and her mother and father, Alice and Carlos, sat several pews behind Charlie. A few others sat in the pews, which Dean guessed were former classmates of Billy’s given their apparent age.
Pastor Rob looked at his watch, stepped up to the pulpit, and said, “Thank you for being here today.”
Dean slid out of the pew and through the main doors into the sanctuary, closing them gently, and then exited to the sidewalk. He would let Jeremy observe the grieving families and friends for any clues.
From the car, Dean grabbed the Beacon and lit a cigarette. He looked at the blackened snow. Unrecognizable from what had fallen out of the sky. The whiteness had been drained, leaving only clear frozen crystals coated with the grime of human activity. He shook his head, wondering how humanity always managed to mess up everything it touches. He shook off the thought, debated how much longer he could stand the cold, and crushed out his cigarette on his sole. He looked for a trash can, but, finding none, he stuffed the butt into his coat pocket as he walked back into the entryway. He sat on a chair and flipped through pamphlets, The Christian Science Monitor, and stacks of The Daily Verse. He wondered if Pastor Rob realized the Monitor was a Christian Science founded newspaper or had little to do with religion. Perhaps the “Christian” in the title was sufficient.
When Dean had read enough of those, he pulled out the Beacon. He had seen the top half earlier. “Murder in Zion.” Paige’s name was prominent just above the story, which led with Billy’s senior class photo in black and white and the line, “His body was found by dogs in the woods near along Route 23.” Dog, not dogs, he corrected her mentally. He read the story over the muffled voice of Pastor Rob. The article read very much like the articles about car crashes that took young lives too soon. Slipping into details about the victim’s life. Boring details, but they mattered. They revealed the differences between people. Billy was into baseball but this person was into football. Did they go to college or not? Had they escaped Zion or stayed or, worse, returned? He tossed the paper in the trash.
After three more cigarettes, the organ music came on and the double-doors leading to the foyer where Dean stood opened. Pastor Rob nodded at him and then turned to face the exiting attendees. Guthrie walked up quickly, casually saluted the minister, and said to Dean, “So what’re we doing?”
Dean leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Let’s talk to the Espositos. If you can, talk to Sarah separately, I’ll talk to her parents.”
Guthrie smiled and gave a thumbs up.
Several people Dean did not recognize walked past him. Alex was the first of those he had interviewed. Dean said, “Hey Alex,” as he walked past. Alex looked at him and then back to the doors and the street. He had severe bruises. Several on the face, including some scratches. Dean looked down at the young man’s hands and noticed they were cut up, swollen.
Josh and Corey were not far behind. Charlie walked up to the pastor and patted him on the back. “Good service. Good service.”
Rob nodded and frowned. “Sad day when we have to bury one so young.”
Charlie nodded in agreement. He walked farther into the foyer and noticed Dean and Guthrie. “Gentlemen.”
Dean extended his hand. “Charlie.”
Charlie reached out and shook Dean’s. When Dean gripped it, the body shop owner cringed, realized he had, and smiled. Dean let go of his hand and noticed it was red and swollen around the knuckles.
“What happened?” asked Dean.
“Oh, that.” He held up his hand and looked at it as if it were some tool. “Dropped a wrench on my hand yesterday. Hurt like hell.” He looked back at the pastor. “Sorry.” He used that to escape out into the street.
Dean rubbed his chin. Josh’s caginess and Zorn’s statements suggested Alex was up to something beyond his usual rowdiness. Charlie had been labeled as a good boss and a bad boss, and Alex had implied Charlie’s house was too nice for his salary, which—after seeing it—Dean was inclined to agree.
Sarah walked past Dean and brought him back to the moment. He extended his hand out to the dark-skinned man with a full head of dark hair and large sideburns. “Carlos Esposito?”
Carlos extended his hand. “Yes.”
Dean lowered his voice. “Detective Dean Wallace. I’d like to talk to you a bit. Not here of course, but now.”
Carlos nodded. Alice, a tall woman who stood several inches taller than Dean, and had long, brown hair wrapped into a ponytail, stepped from beside her husband to in front of him. “What’s this about?”
Guthrie touched her shoulder. “Not here. Let’s go to the tea room? After the cemetery service?”
Alice looked at him and nodded once. The Espositos walked out, and Dean and Guthrie followed. Too cold to walk the four blocks from the church to the Hardy Tea Room and Bookstore, the detectives got into their car and watched the Espositos get in theirs. A few minutes later, the parade of cars followed the hearse to the cemetery. When the last car had left, Dean turned on his car and drove to the tea room.
The Hardy Tea Room was founded a few years prior by Missy Hardy, a widow whose husband had made a fortune making fertilizer in the AgGroPro factory in Jasper, a town forty-five minutes southeast. When he collapsed at the grocery store one day, victim of a massive heart attack, he had left her that fortune, which she had used to open the tea room because she wanted to bring what she and him had loved about their travels to Europe to Zion. The place was deserted most of the time. She kept its doors open despite the financial losses. She refused to let go of the dream and memory of her husband. Dean wondered why she did not just move to Europe.
Guthrie liked the place because it was not a bar and because it was empty most of the time, making it a good place to have a conversation. He interviewed witnesses and suspects if he could there. His wife was some distant relation to Missy. They sat and waited beneath the high-ceilinged parlor with small tables covered by rose-motif tablecloths, and each decorated with a small crystal vase with a single flower, Missy looked up and smiled.
When the Espositos entered, Guthrie diverted Sarah to a table with him, while Dean led Carlos and Alice to a table along the windowless wall butting up next to the Ace Hardware Store where a long bench served for seating. Carlos and Alice sat in the bench and Dean in the chair across from them.
Missy walked over with a tea box and explained the specials of the day. She took their orders—coffee for all—and left to prepare them. Dean said, “Thanks for meeting with me. I just had a few questions for you that will help in our investigation into who killed Billy.”
“I’m not sure how we can help,” said Alice. “We barely knew the boy.”
“But you knew him?”
“Yes, yes.”
“Sometimes, those who knew the victim the least are the best windows on his life.” Dean scratched the back of his head as Missy set down three delicate looking tea cups. After she had stepped away, Dean continued. “Did you like Billy?”
“Like my wife said, we hardly knew him.” Carlos grabbed the carafe of coffee and poured some into Alice’s cup, then Dean’s, and then his own.
“But you certainly had an opinion. He was dating Sarah.”
Carlos grimaced. He pulled his cup of coffee toward him. “I didn’t approve. Not because he was a bad guy really. Well, not a bad, bad guy. Just a guy who wasn’t right for Sarah. Not at all. She could’ve done better.” He grabbed two sugars from the holder on the table.
“What do you mean by not a ‘bad, bad guy’?”
Alice leaned forward and her voice dropped to a whisper. “He stole from us. I don’t think he would ever be violent. But he stole.”
“Are you referring to your mother-in-law’s bracelet and necklace?”
Now it was Carlos’s turn to whisper. “How did you know that?”
Dean interlocked his fingers and bounced them against his lips. “Whenever we talked to Billy’s friends, they kept referring to something about jewelry and Sarah. So we asked her about it.”
“Those were heirlooms. My grandmother brought them from Spain, where they were made by one of my great-great uncles. They were priceless to me. And now they’re gone.”
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you so sure Billy took them?”
“He’s the only one who had access to them that would’ve known and could’ve taken them. They were taken out of the jewelry chest in my room.” Alice took a sip of her coffee. “Only those were taken. And we don’t have maids or anything.”
“When did this happen?”
“I noticed they were missing this summer. July.”
“I was furious,” said Carlos. “Furious. I told Sarah I never wanted him to step foot in our house again. Ever.”
“And did he?”
“Not that I know of.”
Dean looked at Alice, who shook her head. “So Billy took priceless heirlooms, but you didn’t report them stolen.”
“Sarah begged us not to, saying we’d never get them back anyways. Only the money, and it wasn’t the money we were upset about.”
“Okay. I understand you were ill last year,” said Dean, looking at Alice.
“I’m not sure what that—” said Carlos.
“Yes. Cancer. Breast cancer,” she said, the corner of her mouth quivering.
Carlos set his cup down. “What does that have to do with Billy?”
Dean ignored Carlos’s question. “Are you—are you better?”
“Look here—”
Alice patted Carlos’s shoulder. “I’m cancer free. Radiation, then surgery, then chemo. It knocked me out of commission for a while. The chemo did a real number on me.”
“Was money tight?”
“Have you had cancer or anyone in your family had it?”
Dean shook his head. “My grandfather, but I was young.”
“It’s expensive. And insurance doesn’t like paying for it. And I didn’t want to go to a VA hospital.”
“I understand that.” Dean raised a cup. “Knew a lot of brave Navy pilots back in Nam. Saved me a couple of times, I’m pretty sure.”
Carlos tapped the table top. “I don’t understand what any of this has to do with Billy.”
Dean looked at Alice and pursed his lips. Watched as she thought through the conversation and teased out the implications of his questions. Carlos looked at her with an intensity he hoped he had had with Cindy years ago and knew that Carlos probably did not kill Billy. Not that he was not capable, just that the man was more concerned with his wife and not why a detective was questioning them.
Alice’s eyelids flickered and her mouth opened when she understood. “Oh my God.” Her head dropped.
“What?” asked Carlos.
“It wasn’t Billy, was it?”
Dean shook his head.
Alice looked at Carlos. “Do you remember the money Sarah gave us last year? The money that helped us stay afloat.”
“Yeah.”
“Know that she did it for a good reason.”
Dean thanked them and stood up and walked over to Guthrie’s and Sarah’s table. He put his hands on the back of the chair beside Guthrie and asked, “Why haven’t you returned the heirlooms?”
Sarah looked down and then up. A tear welled up in each eye. He knew, knew how embarrassed she was and how as the time had passed it was easier and easier to avoid the topic. She had them, but she could not bring herself to tell her parents. He nodded and patted Guthrie on the shoulder.
Dean and Guthrie left the Espositos and drove back to the station. They agreed that Carlos was not a good suspect given the spacing between the disappearance of the jewelry and Billy’s death, but how long had the anger of that simmered before it boiled over—if it did. Regardless, he seemed the only suspect with a clear motive. However, Carlos’s alibi for the night of Billy’s disappearance was his wife. They were at home. More importantly to Dean’s thinking was Carlos’s reaction to the questioning of Alice and then to finding out his daughter had taken the jewelry. He had been angry about the jewelry. If he had killed Billy, he would have expected regret, anguish, some other emotion as it dawned on him he had killed an innocent. Anger was a legitimate reaction, but an unlikely one.
Too many other questions hung around Billy’s disappearance, and Carlos did not come near enough to answering all of those.

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