Four days after the disappearance of Destry Lundegard, Detective Aiden Mears returned to the Lambert home. When Ellen opened the door to him, she gave the veteran cop a wide, friendly smile.
“Well, Detective Mears! How nice of you to stop by. Please come in!” Noticing that the weather had changed from an on-and-off drizzle this morning to a steady rainfall by early afternoon, she quickly stepped aside to allow him to enter.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lambert.” The detective lumbered into the foyer, aware of the fact he now entered a classy home where dripping all over the place would be considered crude, akin to his bulldog, Quincy, shaking off water in all directions. So after wiping his boots on the cushy floor mat, he gingerly shed his green hooded slicker, hung it carefully on the coat rack, and then used his handkerchief to wipe away the errant rain drops.
As always, Ellen Lambert looked lovely and elegantly-attired, even for an afternoon at home. She wore a scarlet lounging gown with sparkling garnets gracing her ears and decorating the clips that held up the sweep of her hair.
In contrast, the detective had on a pair of old but serviceable slacks, a tan corduroy jacket, a plaid shirt, and a dark tie that sported a couple of mustard stains from the Chicago dog he ate for lunch. Overall, he appeared a bit rumpled and damp but clean, the best he could look on a twelve-hour shift that started at five this morning.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Detective Mears?” Ellen asked.
Suddenly self-conscious, Aiden stuffed his wet handkerchief in his pants pocket. “I’d like to ask you a few questions if I may.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Of course. Is it about the missing children? Have you found them?”
“Ah, no. The disappearance of Autumn Chen and the boy remains an open case, but what I want to talk to you about concerns another matter.”
“Well then, please come in, detective, and have a seat in the sitting room. May I get you something to drink, coffee, hot or cold tea?”
“No, nothing, thank you.” He followed her into the sitting room and then opted for one of the arm chairs rather than try to sit correctly on what was obviously a new sofa, with brushed velvet upholstery in a brown leopard pattern, and a gilt ornate back rest that tapered to one end. It was probably bought as a show piece, lovely but not exactly comfortable, even with the teal throw pillows.
Mears noticed the new rug as well, with geometric designs in hues of light and dark browns and navy blue, perhaps patterned after some famous cubist painter’s work. The coffee table over the rug seemed new as well, in the shape of a glass ameba with gilt legs, and topped with a glass monolith slab that seemed to be a bowl with amber and aquamarine swirls and a round shallow indentation along the top. Fancy in an artsy way, he thought, and expensive.
Everything else in the room appeared as it had the last time he visited, the same artwork displayed on marble stands, and the same paintings highlighted by tract lighting.
“It’s a Van Druten, Dutch,” Ellen informed him as she took a seat on the new settee and indicated the bowl on the table. “That’s if you like modern art. Many people are not fond of that school, and in a way I don’t blame them. As an art collector, I may seem pretentious, but when I see real genius I want to encourage the artist by buying his or her work, regardless of style. I believe an artist should be recognized in life, not after death. Don’t you agree, detective?”
Mears nodded. “Ah, yes, I suppose so.” He had never thought about it before.
“But enough of that!” Ellen clapped her hands together. “Now what can I do for you, detective?”
As she crossed her ankles, Mears noticed the dainty heeled mules she wore. He cleared his throat. “Are you acquainted with a gentleman named Destry Lundegard? I believe he spells his first name with a y.”
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“Well, he’s gone missing, too. It seems he was here in the D.C. area attending a computer conference from the 20th to the 23rd. He was expected back at his workplace in Duluth, Minnesota on the 24th, but he hasn’t shown up, nor has he returned to his apartment where he lives alone. Neighbors say he left for the conference but they haven’t seen him since.”
As he spoke, the detective extracted a 4x6 photo copy from his inner jacket pocket and leaned over to offer it to Ellen. “This is Mr. Lundegard, age 31. It’s a copy of his company photo ID so it’s not the best likeness, but you can still make out his face and general features. In fact, you can’t miss the nose.”
Taking the proffered head shot, she examined it closely for a moment. Then frowning a little, she shook her head. “Sorry, detective, I don’t know this gentleman.”
“Oh, I think you do, Mrs. Lambert.” Mears stood and extracted another photo from his jacket, this one larger and folded in half. Opening it, he held the copy out for Ellen to see, a rather grainy picture of a man and a woman who appeared to be walking together between tables at a bar or restaurant.
“This is a copy of the surveillance camera footage from the Iron Horse Saloon, a nightclub, on the evening of April 22nd. It shows Destry Lundegard—identified as such by two men who had attended the conference with him—in the company of a woman who looks remarkably like you, Mrs. Lambert.”
“Yes, it does. Your hair is down and you’re wearing a rather provocative dress, but I recognize you. Care to take a look?”
Leaning over, Ellen set Lundegard’s head shot on the coffee table and then accepted the new photo Mears handed her. She gave it a close scrutiny for several seconds. “Yes, I believe it is me,” she admitted. “I went to the Iron Horse to meet a friend, but my friend called to say she couldn’t join me.”
Ellen glanced up and challenged the detective’s steady gaze. “Mr. Lundegard—is that his name?—came over to the bar where I sat and offered to buy me a drink. Well, I let him buy the drink but I didn’t pay much attention to him. For one, the club had dim lighting and so I couldn’t see his face all that clearly. He told me he was attending some seminar here in town and came to the bar for a drink. After he finished his beer, he stated he wanted to leave since he had an early meeting the next day. He complained about how hard it is to hail a cab in the city, especially at night, and a rainy one, too. So, I offered to drive him back to his hotel.”
“And did you?”
“Yes, Detective Mears. I took Mr. Lundegard to the front entrance of the Garden Hilton and then I drove on home.”
“You didn’t go up to his room for a nightcap, say.”
“No, I did not. In fact, I couldn’t recollect the man’s name until you told me just now. I was simply being a Good Samaritan by giving the man a ride. It had been raining steadily that night and he had no umbrella. And since he’s a visitor to our fair city, I believe we should all try to make a good impression.”
“Oh, I agree.” As he spoke, Mears absently stroked his thick jawline. “Do you remember if anyone saw you drop Mr. Lundegard off at the hotel, say the doorman?”
“There was no doorman. When I let Mr. Lundegard off at the hotel entrance at approximately twelve-thirty, he had to ring the bell for the night manager to let him in through the automatic doors. Apparently most of the better hotels have the managers lock the doors after eleven to keep out the riffraff.”
“I suppose so. And I suppose the night manager of the Garden Hilton could corroborate your story.”
Ellen donned an innocent smile. “You have only to ask him, detective.”
“I suppose I will. Well then—” Mears rose. “I thank you, Mrs. Lambert, for being to so candid with me. I expected you to say that you left Mr. Lundegard in the parking lot, and that was that. I’m glad you filled me in on what took place. Now I have more information to go on.”
Rising as well, Ellen gathered the two photo prints off the coffee table and handed them to the detective. “I do hope you find him, Detective Mears. Mr. Lundegard seemed like a nice gentleman, although he came on rather strongly at the bar.”
Mears cracked a knowing grin as he pocketed the pictures. “Well, a lovely lady such as yourself, Mrs. Lambert, can’t help but invite the attentions of all kinds of men, whether their intentions are honorable or not, or even welcomed.”
“You’re very kind, detective, thank you.” She cocked her head and gave him a shrewd, expectant look. “Now have I answered all of your questions?”
“For the moment, yes.”
“Let me see you to the door then.” As they walked together to the foyer, she added, “If there’s anything more you wish to ask me, please feel free to return here or call me. You do have my cell phone number.”
“I believe so, Mrs. Lambert.”
“And if I think of anything more to add, I’ll call you, detective.”
They said nothing more as Mears donned his coat and hat; but as he prepared to leave, the detective turned to Ellen and offered a parting maxim. “Again, I thank you, Mrs. Lambert, for your candid information. Interestingly enough, I have three missing people and they all seemed to have known you.”
Her polite smile never faltered. “A very interesting coincidence, indeed, detective, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, yes, very interesting; although, I’m not a believer in coincidences. Have a good day, Mrs. Lambert.” With that, Mears opened the door and lowered his head, prepared to tackle the rain that now pelted the street and buildings at a hard angle. As the detective ran across the street to his car, Ellen watched his progress while she slowly eased shut the front door.