Captain Stephens hung up on me and I stood there staring at my phone wondering what the hell he was talking about. What the hell was he talking about, a body? And why would anyone be sending me a letter to the precinct? I grabbed my black blazer, jumped in my truck, and headed to Birmingham as fast as I could. I could tell by the Captain’s voice that he was not happy.When I got to the captain’s office, he and my partner, Beau, were leaning over his desk looking at a piece of paper with a quizzical look on their faces. They were also wearing rubber gloves. I tossed my blazer on the back of one of the worn out brown leather arm chairs situated in front of Captain’s desk and then plopped myself down in the chair. Captain Stephens looked at me and then the box of gloves on the edge of his desk. I took out two of the powder blue latex gloves and slipped them on my hands. No glove, no love.
“Barrett, before I let you look at this letter, can you think of anyone, anyone at all who would want to involve you in something like this?”
“Honestly? The only person I can think of is Griffin and he’s locked up in a Fed Max in Louisiana.”
“Yeah, I thought about that stalking sumbitch, too. Checked on him as soon as I read this. He’s still in his cage. Looks like you got yourself a new admirer. Take a look and let me and Beau know what you think.”Captain Stephens handed me the note.
It was typewritten on creamy, thick, off-white stationery like someone would use for resumes. The font was large in some places and small in others and the word spacing was very inconsistent. It looked like more than one person had typed it. Or personalities. Or maybe they were just drunk?
The letter addressed me by name:
This may seem a little desperate but I didn’t know how else to get through to you. Because you work with bodies, I thought bodies would be the best way to tell our story. The story of you and me. But you’re going to have to work for it. I will give you clues but the rest is up to you, including how our story ends. Now, for the first chapter I want to take you back in time. I laid my first body down where you first laid yours down. What a beautiful place it is! Happy hunting!
I felt bile rising up in the back of my throat. Someone was hell bent on torturing me all over again. But why now? What could someone possibly want from me this time? Wasn’t my dead husband enough?
A man named Griffin Francis had started working for Grayson’s construction company right after Braelynn’s fourth birthday. Grayson had invited him to the birthday cookout. He had showed up half an hour late, bearing a bowlful of pitiful looking coleslaw and apple pie from Publix. He followed me into the kitchen and apologized profusely for being late. I kept reassuring him that it was perfectly fine and when I had turned to walk out the back door, he wedged himself between me and the door. He said nothing out of the way but his body language and his proximity made me very uncomfortable. I brushed it off and did not mention it to Grayson until 6 months later when I had come home early from work to find our front door standing wide open and Griffin standing in our living room, he claimed had stopped by to see Grayson and saw someone breaking in the door as he was pulling up. He said that he chased them through the house and they ran out the back door and through the woods before he could get a good look at the guy. I called Grayson and then asked Griffin to leave. He refused to leave me alone until Grayson got home. Once Grayson finally got home he quickly got Griffin out of the house and convinced him to leave. I checked the back door and it was still locked. No one had run out of that door. When I went upstairs to change my clothes, I found my underwear drawer standing wide open and several pairs of my underwear were missing. Grayson fired Griffin the very next day.
For six months after that Griffin followed me just about everywhere. I put a restraining order on him and it didn’t even phase him. He didn’t care. And he was just smart enough to to cover his tracks so I would have a hard time proving that he had actually broken the order. The morning of mine and Grayson’s fifth wedding anniversary he went out for a jog. He never returned home. At eleven o’clock that night, the police in West Blocton had found his body dumped at the boat launch of the Cahaba River. The next day Griffin showed up at my house bloody, drunk, and wearing Grayson’s wedding ring.
“Well, Barrett, what do you make of it?”
“Okay. This person either really does know me or thinks they know things about me. This clue makes a reference to my past.”
“Where you laid your first body down or where you first laid your body down?” Beau asked as he rubbed his salt-and-pepper goatie.
Beau pushed up the sleeves of his royal blue button down shirt as he got up out of his seat. He began pacing around the captain’s office, tapping his fingers on his legs. This meant he was thinking. Beau tapped on anything and everything when he was deep in thought. While he was pacing, I looked back at the letter and read it once more, trying to think of anything in my past that would correlate. I’d never shot anyone in this area so that wasn’t it. I was born at Brookwood Hospital and my parents lived in a suburb in Midfield, so this wouldn’t have been where I first laid down. What did this mean? I closed my eyes and tried to think about all the times I had visited the zoo and the botanical gardens. Where I first laid my body down? Where I - -oh, my.
In the 9th grade, my high school English teacher had taken us on a field trip to the botanical gardens to inspire us to write nature haikus. I’d always had an interest in writing but on this trip I was interested in my new boyfriend, Gunner Hayes. He had failed the year before so he was older and cool in a bad boy sort of way. His shaggy chestnut colored hair was always hanging in his brooding hazel eyes which made him seem dark and untouchable. I was enamored by him. Everything about him drew me to him like a hot, sweaty man gravitates to cold beer after working all day. At first he wasn’t going to go on the field trip but changed his mind at the last minute. He said we could sneak off in the gardens for some alone time. My inexperienced 9th grade body felt like I had thrown a hair dryer in my bathwater at the mention of alone time with him. I had nearly lost my virginity behind a wall of bamboo next to a stinky, stagnant pond full of overgrown koi fish and more mosquitoes than should ever be allowed on Earth. I never told anyone about that. Who else would know other than Gunner?
“What is it, Brodie?”
“The body. I, I know where it is. If there really is a body, I know exactly where it is.”
“Where? And how did you figure it out?”
“The botanical gardens. In the bamboo by the koi pond in the Japanese Gardens. I, um, I would rather not tell you how I figured it out.”
“Uh, uh, Barrett. You can’t keep any secrets from us or I will take you off the investigation. Now, spill it.”
“But, Cap, it’s personal.”
“I don’t give a damn, Barrett. Whatever it is became public knowledge once this letter entered my precinct.”
“Addressed to me.”
“Spill it or two weeks suspension. No pay.”
“Fine. I almost lost my virginity behind that bamboo.” Beau stopped pacing and Captain Stephens nearly chocked on his coffee. I stifled a nervous laugh and looked down at my shoes. I was so embarrassed to be admitting my scandalous school trysts. Captain cleared his throat as I watched his face turn a nice shade of pink. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was embarrassed by this revelation.
“Well, uh, who knows about this uh, about your, uh. Who knows?”
“No one. I mean, no one but Gunner. I was so embarrassed by it that I never told anyone.”
“Gunner? Seriously? You almost lost your virginity to a guy named Gunner?”
“Oh, as if Beauregard is so much better! Look, regardless of what his name is, he’s the only one who knew. Unless he told anyone, which I kind of doubt. He kept to himself. So, I don’t know.”
Captain threw his Styrofoam coffee cup in the garbage can next to the door, opened the door, and motioned for us to walk out.
“Let’s go find some bamboo, then. Also, give Mr. Gunner a visit, Barrett. Find out if he told anyone.”
“Seriously, Captain? That was the 9th grade. Who cares about -?”
“Barrett, it’s not up for discussion. Someone obviously knew about it and cared enough to not only mention it but dump a body there. Go see Gunner after we leave the gardens. I mean it. Don’t fight me on this, Barrett. I don’t care if that letter was addressed to you, we can’t do our jobs if you don’t do yours. And I will suspend you if you don’t do your job. Got it?”
“Got it.” I grabbed my jacket and followed Beau and Captain Stephens out the door to Captain’s black Tahoe. Beau pushed me out of the way and climbed in the passenger seat, leaving me to ride in the backseat. He did this every time we rode with the Captain. He was like the annoying big brother that I never wanted. We rode to the botanical gardens in silence. Beau was playing Candy Crush on his phone and I was texting Keaton. I missed him already and I wanted him to know it. I wanted him to know that I meant every word I said. The possible pregnancy and this new investigation was going to complicate things but I had faith that Keaton and I could work it all out.
Captain pulled into a parking space close to the entrance of the gardens. There is a gift shop and restaurant to the left and a large water fountain on the right. In the middle is a large map of the garden grounds. Beau went to check in with the gardens manager while the captain stopped at the map. I walked past the captain and the map and headed towards the trail that veered off to the left. The Japanese Gardens were at the back of the gardens at the end of this trail.
“Cap, come on. I told you I know exactly where it’s at.” I heard Captain Stephens grumbled as he skulked my direction. He walked with a slight limp from being shot in the leg during his years as a beat cop. I heard the thump of his right foot behind me indicating that he had caught up with me. We walked down to trail in silence until we came to the giant orange pagoda at the entrance of the Japanese Gardens.
“This is it, huh?”
“Yep. You ever been here before?”
“Not much of a garden person, Barrett. Now, show me this bamboo.” I followed him through the pagoda and down the rock path to the orange bridge that served as a walkway over the koi pond. On the other side was the forest of bamboo. The bamboo was so thick that a body would not be easily seen from the bridge. We walked behind the first row of bamboo and down the straw trail until we got to a cluster of bamboo near the chain link fence that surrounds the gardens. Once we got close to the fence, I spotted a foot sticking out of the bamboo. Beau walked up behind us as I leaned down to touch the foot. I didn’t hear Beau walk up until I reached out to touch the foot. He cleared his throat and scared me.
“What? My throat is dry.”
“You scared the hell out of me. I believe we have found our body. Call it in.”
Captain Stephens and I wedged ourselves between the bamboo and the fence to get a better look at the body. A young woman, probably in her early twenties, was lying in the straw between rods of bamboo. Her bright blue eyes were open wide and blood shot. A halo of golden blond hair was tangled up in the straw. She was wearing a pale yellow sweater and dark purple running shorts. On her feet were expensive looking purple and yellow running shoes. Her face was traditionally beautiful. Her cheekbones were high, her eyes set apart in such a way that it made her face look symmetrical, and her full lips were a cherry red color.I used a stick to carefully move her hair away from her neck so I could get a better look at the bruises near her collar bone. They were finger shaped bruises. Someone had strangled this poor, beautiful girl. Someone who not only knew my name but apparently knew my past as well. Who would possibly know about that day other than Gunner? And if no one else knew, was Gunner capable of doing something like this? It hardly seemed likely. I hadn’t seen him since our high school graduation but I had heard through the grapevine that he’d started his own computer repair company and had actually made a good life for himself. Things with us had ended amicably enough for two disfunctional teenagers. There’s no way that Gunner was behind this. Whoever had done this was someone with serious problems. How could someone kill this beautiful, innocent girl just to get my attention? And why was I always attracting crazy people?
I sat down near the fence and watched as the crime scene unit descended upon the body and the crime scene. I watched as they ferreted around the body and picked up pieces of hair and placed them in little baggies. I was always fascinated with how meticulous the crime scene unit was and how many little pieces went into solving a murder. As I watched one of the CSU guys walking around taking pictures, a bright red spot on the bottom of her shoe caught my attention. Blood. There was blood on the bottom of her shoes. There was no blood on her anywhere else. Whose blood was on the bottom of her shoes? And where did it come from?
"There’s blood on the bottom of her shoes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look, Captain. There is blood on the bottom of her shoes. There’s no blood on her, though. Where would she get blood on the bottom of her shoes? These look brand new. They don’t even look like she’s been running in them. She must have just bought these shoes.”
“Okay. I’ll let the CSU guys know. Anything else you notice, Barrett?”
“Not yet. I’m still trying to figure out where the blood would come from. There is no blood trail anywhere around here. And there is no blood on her. She got that from somewhere else. Which means that she was walking around somewhere that was covered in blood. But whose blood?”
“I believe that’s your job to find out, Barrett. Look, CSU has got things covered here. Beau is talking to the garden workers now to see if anyone may have seen anything. It couldn’t have been very easy to get a body in here and dump it without anyone seeing something. Let’s get back to the precinct. When we get back why don’t you go ahead and give Gunner a visit?”
“Sure thing, Cap. Looking forward to it.”
When Captain Stephens pulled into the parking lot I slowly peeled myself out of his backseat and made my way over to my truck. I climbed in and put my favorite Jason Aldean CD in the CD player. Walker had told me a while back that Gunner ran his computer repair business out of one of the office buildings here in Birmingham so I pulled out my phone and searched for the address of his office. Hayes Computer Consulting and Repair was located on the 4th floor of the Wells Fargo building right in the heart of downtown Birmingham. I navigated my truck down the 4 blocks that separated our precinct from the Wells Fargo building, found a parking space on the street, and fed the meter. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to be here long.The building’s large wooden doors open up to a small lobby with a large saltwater fish tank and a wooden security desk with an older, bearded security guard asleep in a chair two sizes too small stationed behind it. I noticed a notebook on the edge of the desk so I signed my name and the time and date and made my way to the elevator as quietly as I could. He looked like he was really enjoying his nap. The elevator doors pulled apart so slow that I wondered if they were stuck. Once inside the elevator, I pushed the worn out button that I suspected was for the 4th floor. Most of the numbers on the panel were gone, worn away from years of hurried fingers pushing on them.And then I waited. It felt like the elevator was trying to pull itself out of molasses. The slow crawl up to the 4th floor gave me plenty of time to enjoy the stained red velvet carpet and wood paneling on the walls. And the pee smell. I would never understand why people pee in elevators.The elevator finally came to a stop and the doors opened up to a hall of glass-paneled doors with gold lettering on them.
Each door had the name of a different business or lawyer on it. The same wood paneling in the elevator was on the walls and the floors were a dusty blue. I suspected they were once light blue but that time and dirty shoes had not been very kind to them. Gunner’s office was to the right and around the corner. HCCR was the very last door at the end of the hall. The lights were on so I took that as a good sign that at least someone was in the office. I was half-way hoping that it wasn’t Gunner. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see him but I couldn’t recall the last time I had actually seen him and I definitely didn’t want to go see someone from high school and have a conversation about whether they may or may not be a stalker and a homicidal maniac. That just didn’t sound like a fun time.A bell rang above my head as I pushed through the wood and glass door. A nymph-like woman who was sitting behind a large cherry oak desk looked up at me with wide blue eyes. Her eyelids were drowning in bright purple eyeshadow and her lipstick was such a bright pink that I was sure it was once employed by Day-Glo. Her hair was cropped short around her face and was fire engine red. She was wearing a beige blouse and pearl necklace. I couldn’t see her from the waist down. From the neck up she looked like she’d fallen in a crayon box. She smiled so wide her eyes bugged out like a Chihuahua.
“Can I help you?” She drawled out like she should be sitting on a front porch sipping tea with a shotgun between her legs and hound dog laying at her feet.
“Uh, yes. I’m looking for Gunner Hayes. Is he here by any chance?”
“Uh huh. ‘Cept he’s in a meeting right now. I can either take a message or you can sit right here with me and wait.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“’Bout fifteen minutes. He should be ‘bout done, sugar. You can wait, if you like. He doesn’t have any more appointments this afternoon.”
“Okay. I’ll wait then.”I sat down in a rickety wooden chair in the corner of the room. She struck me as the Chatty Cathy type and I wanted to be as far away from her as possible. There is no way I was going to listen to Redneck Suzy for the next fifteen minutes. I pulled my phone out and started checking e-mails. I sent some texts to Walker and Keaton. I wanted to look as busy as possible so that she’s wouldn’t be able to find a polite time to speak to me. It didn’t work.
“So what’s your problem?”
“You know, your computer problem. Or is it your smart phone? We fix them there phones now.”
“Actually, I need to speak to Mr. Hayes about a personal matter.”
“Oh.” Her mouth made the shape of a letter ‘o’ and then she made a face that looked as if she was annoyed and confused at the same time. She started tilting her head like a puppy dog.
“Are y’all related? You don’t look familiar. I didn’t think Gunner had that much family around here.”
“No, not related. We were friends in high school.”
“Oh. Oh, is there a reunion coming up? I just can’t wait for my ten year reunion. It’s going to be so exciting to see all my old friends from school again and see what everyone has done with their lives. I bet it’s nice.”
“Uh, no. No reunion. Just need to speak with him, that’s all.”
“Huh.” She gave me a dismissive look and then went back to whatever she was doing before I had walked in. She looked a lot older than someone who could possibly be looking forward to a ten year reunion but I guess it was just the make-up. I didn’t even know if Gunner would be happy to see me. He might be like me and absolutely dread running into people that he knew from high school. It wasn’t that I hated anyone from high school. It was just such an exhausting conversation. I didn’t really keep in touch with anyone from high school other than Walker so anytime I did run into someone and they wanted to ask how I was doing and tell me all about what was going on in their lives I just kind of nodded and smiled because I honestly just didn’t care. Half the time I wasn’t even really listening. Walker always called me a bitch for it but it’s just how I was. I couldn’t find it in myself to care about people who meant nothing to me. Out of sight out of mind. Thinking about Walker made me realize I still hadn’t talked to him since lunch earlier today. I’m sure he was pissed at me but at the moment it was one of the things I was least worried about. Walker didn’t stay mad at me for long.
Secretary Barbie didn’t speak to me again until after a tall man wearing a tan business suit walked to the desk and told her goodbye. As soon as he was out the door, she jumped up from her chair, ran around the desk, and into the office facing me. She was only gone for a minute before she jerked one of the wooden doors open.
“Mr. Hayes will see you now.” She looked me up and down as I walked past her and into Gunner’s office. There was a table on the left side of the room littered with bits and pieces of dissected computers and cell phones. Gunner was sitting at an old metal desk in the middle of the room when he looked up at me.
“Brodie? Brodie Barrett? I don’t believe it. How you been, girl?”
“Hello, Gunner. I’m well. It’s been a minute, I know. This isn’t a social call though, unfortunately.”
“Oh? What can I help you with?”
“Well, this is going to be a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation I’m afraid. You know I’m a detective now for the homicide unit and I need your help with a case I’m working on.”
“Absolutely. Anything for you, sweetheart. You need something hacked into or repaired? I’ve got some software too I’ve been working on that copies everything someone types on their computer to a file on your computer so that even if they erase something you still have the original copy on your computer.” He was picking up pamphlets as he walked around the desk to me. When he got close to me I thought he was going to hand me the pamphlets so I held my hands out but the next thing I knew he had wrapped me in his arms and was squeezing the life out of me. Gunner was not still the same lanky outcast that I remembered from high school. He was a grown man with broad shoulders and big muscular arms. His face was all chiseled angles like someone had carved it from stone.
“Uh, no. I don’t need any software right now but I may take you up on that offer later so I’ll take these pamphlets to show my captain. I need to talk to you about something personal.”
His face dropped to the floor and he let me go. I backed up just enough to gain back my personal space but not enough to offend him.
“Is my momma hurt? My brother?”
“Oh, heavens, no. I’m sorry. Listen, I got a letter at the precinct today that was had a sort of riddle on it and clue that led me to a dead body. At the botanical gardens. The riddle made a reference to the bamboo behind the koi pond.”
Gunner crossed his arms in front of his chest as he leaned his butt against the top of his desk. I couldn’t quite read the look on his face but at the mention of the koi pond he started slowly putting distance in between us.
“Bamboo? What’s that got to do with me?”
“It’s a little embarrassing actually. Uh, the riddle says that the killer laid their first body down where I first laid mine down. And I thought maybe that meant where I first shot someone as a police officer but that didn’t fit with the clue. I kept trying to figure out what that area could possibly have to do with the riddle and then I realized that that is the place where we almost - you know.”
Gunner’s eyebrow shot up and a grin slowly crawled across his handsome face. I shoved my hands in my blazer pockets and checked out the dirt on my shoes. I never was good at talking about anything sex related with someone that I had history with. Especially in normal conversation. If this conversation could even be considered normal. He started chuckling and I snapped my head up to see what was so funny.
“Lord, girl! You know I haven’t even been back to that koi pond since then? Man, that was a good a day, though. Seems like ages ago.”
“Yeah, I know. It does seem like forever ago. And, it - uh- it was a good day. But did you happen to tell anyone about that day?”
“What? No. Never. Why?”
“Well, how else would this person know that place was special to me? Or not special but sentimental? I guess that’s the best way to describe it. Someone other than you and I know about it and I never told anyone. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.”
“Embarrassed? Of me?”
“No, that I couldn’t go through with it. That I was a - you know- a tease.”Gunner threw his head back and laughed. After a few seconds he wiped tears from his eyes and shook his head at me.
“Brodie, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. You saved me from having to look like a punk and back out. I was just as scared and as nervous as you were. And I damn sure didn’t want that to be your memory of your first time. But, in all honesty, I never told anyone either. I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about you. Shit, girl, I cared about you more than just about anyone else in my life. I damn sure didn’t want people to think that you were something you weren’t by losing your virginity to me in a public park behind some bamboo. You think it’s possible someone saw us? I mean we were on a school field trip.”
“Anything’s possible, Gunner. I just didn’t know where else to start. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to do something like this. Hey, one more question. We don’t have an ID, yet. She didn’t have any on her but do you know a tall, blond girl that likes to go jogging at the gardens do you? She was wearing a yellow sweater and purple running shorts. And purple and yellow running shoes. That looked brand new.”
His smile disappeared as soon as I mentioned the shoes. Gunner knew the dead girl. I watched him as he leapt up from his desk and walked around behind it to put more distance between he and I. Once in a victimology class the department required us to take I had heard that someone who had something to hide or was nervous about something would occasionally place object between you, the detective, and them, the suspect. It was supposed to make them feel safer with an obstacle between you and them. Gunner knew that girl and I was starting to think he wasn’t going to tell me that he knew her.
“She wearing any jewelry?”
“You know, come to think of it, she had a diamond ring on a gold chain around her neck. Why? Do you know this girl?”
“Brodie, I don’t know why and I don’t know how I would even be able to explain this but I think you’re talking about my fiancé.”
“I could be wrong. But I, uh, shit, Brodie. I haven’t seen her in a week. I haven’t even talked to her.”
“You haven’t talked to your fiancé in a week? Not a text, email, nothing?”
“No. We got into a big fight the last time we saw each other.”
“I’d rather not say.” He ran his hands through his floppy, blond hair. I stood there as still as I could, hoping that he would take that as having my full attention. Why would he not talk to his fiancé in a week? How did he not know if she was missing or not? And why the hell would this dead girl at my crime scene be his fiancé? What made him immediately think it was her? Just because of some shoes. The shoes.
“You didn’t seem concerned until I mentioned the shoes. Why?”
“I just ordered her some custom purple and yellow Nikes online for her birthday. She’s a big Louisiana State University fan. They came to her house the day we got into the fight.”
“I think you might need to come down to the precinct with me, Gunner. Just in case it might be her. I can show you a picture and let you decide if you think it’s her or not.”
“I don’t think I want to do that, Brodie.”
“Okay. I tell you what. You give her a call now and see if you can get in touch with her. If you can, I’ll leave. If not, you’re going with me to my office.”
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed her number. I watched his face as he waited for someone to pick up on the other side. I could see the hope and desperation creeping up into his hazel eyes. And then I could see the worry when her phone just kept ringing. Gunner hung up and called back a few more times before slamming the phone down on his desk.
“Come on, Gunner. I can’t lie to you. This doesn’t look good, at all. But I trust you. I don’t think you did this. But someone who knows us did. I need your help. I need you help me figure out if this is your fiancé. And if it is, I need you to help me figure out who did it. I’m not going to arrest you. I’m not going to force you but I promise you that you want to go down there now, with me, before someone else figures out that the body at my scene is possibly your fiancé and that you haven’t seen her in a week. And the last time you did see her, the two of you were fighting. You and I both know how this plays out. The boyfriend is always the first suspect.”
“When you get an ID on that body, you call me. I refuse to believe that it’s her. And I’m not setting foot in that precinct until you know it’s her for sure.”
“Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m going to leave my card here on the desk in case you change your mind. Give me a call, anytime, Gunner.”
And with that I walked out of his office, past Chatty Cathy, and back out into the depressing hallway. I took the steps instead of waiting on the elevator that was delivering it’s passengers at snail speed. I had to get back to the office and see if anyone had made an ID on this girl. If this was Gunner’s fiancé, he was definitely going to have a lot of explaining to do. Starting with what they were fighting about the last time he saw her. I hated to jump to conclusions but it was hard not too when the only person who knew about that spot behind the bamboo was also the possible fiancé of the body dumped there. Either Gunner had something to do with this or someone else was really, really good at pointing the finger elsewhere. Shit, why can’t I just have a normal day?
Sometimes I really missed being a beat cop. Beau was waiting for me at my desk when I walked into the office. He had a file folder in one hand and my favorite coffee mug in the other hand. If Beau fixed me coffee then something was up. I was hoping that someone had been able to ID the girl. I was also hoping that she wasn’t Gunner’s fiance.
“While you were interviewing Mr. Hayes, I met with the medical examiner. There’s no definite cause of death yet but she speculates the girl was strangled. Can’t put that on record yet, of course but judging from those finger marks around that poor girl’s neck, I’d say she’s right.”
“So, what else?”
“Well, thanks to your tip about the blood, CSU was able to clean it off her shoes before it became compromised. ME checked the girl all over for surface wounds that would have caused bleeding but there was none. She did a DNA work up and the DNA of the girl and the DNA of the blood do not match.”
“So, it belongs to our killer?”
“No. That’s why I brought coffee.”
“When the ME ran the DNA results to see if the girl’s popped up in the system she ran the other DNA as well. Our girl’s didn’t pop up anywhere. The other matched to the DNA of a girl who went missing last week.”
“What? How accurate is that? Why the hell would she have the blood of a missing girl on the bottom of her shoes and nowhere else?”
“I have no idea. I’m as confused as you are. There wasn’t any blood on her clothes anywhere, either. What did Hayes have to say?”
“Oh?” Beau’s bushy eyebrows shot up as he sat up in his chair like he was trying to hear me better.
“Yeah. He seemed really happy to see me and swore that he never told anybody about that day at the gardens because he didn’t want to give anybody the wrong impression about me. He didn’t seem really interested in the whole thing until I asked him about the girl.”
“He knows her?”
“I didn’t think he did until I mentioned her shoes. Then his whole attitude changed. Get this, it could be his fiancé but he wouldn’t come down here to ID her. He said when I got an ID on her to call him and he would come down here. It was really weird.”
“So the shoes make him think it’s her?”
“His fiancé is a big LSU fan so for her birthday he had some Nike’s custom made for her in the school colors. But this is what got me, Beau. He told me that he hadn’t talked to her in a week so he didn’t even know if she was missing or not. And then he tells me that the last time he saw her they had gotten into an argument. It’s classic, right?”
“Yeah. Only you don’t believe him, do you?”
“That obvious, huh? Hell no, I don’t believe him. I believe he’s telling the truth about an argument but I don’t believe it’s been a week since he’s seen or heard from her. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye when he told me that. And even if they had gotten into a fight who the hell goes a week without speaking to their fiancé?”
“He try calling her?”
“Yeah. I was standing right there. Her phone rang but no one picked up. The really scary thing though is that if Gunner is our guy, we’re going to have a hard time catching him. This dude is smart, Beau. I mean he even has a computer program that he wrote himself that you can put on someone’s computer and it will copy every single word that they type on their computer onto your computer so even if they delete files or wipe away their browser history, you still have the original files and history.”
“That’s amazing. We should probably invest in that.”
“No shit. But see, if we buy it and try to use it, he knows how to get around it. I mean, he wrote it. I’m so confused, though. I don’t think he killed this girl. Well, I didn’t when I first got there. He was flirting with me a little but it was just harmless chit-chat really. Everything was fine until I mentioned the shoes. I still don’t get why he wouldn’t come down here. I even told him that it didn’t look good and that he would probably be better off coming down here with me now and us talking about this now than me having to arrest him later. He still wouldn’t come.”
Beau took a sip of my coffee. He had a bad habit of doing that. Or eating my food. I guess it was a good thing I wasn’t worried about catching his cooties.
“You think maybe he’s just hoping that it’s not his girlfriend and he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of their argument if it turns out to be nothing?”
“It’s possible. What’s that file?”
“It’s about the missing girl.” He handed me the file and I sat down in the metal chair next to my desk. When I opened it the first thing I saw was a head shot of a beauty queen. This picture was professionally done. I could tell by the quality and the angle of her head. She had milky white, smooth skin and long, curly hair the color of rust. Her green eyes were a little too close together but were just wide enough to be pretty. Her nose looked like one of those button noses you see drawn on cartoon characters and her mouth was spread wide into a Cheshire grin so that you could see all of her straight, pearly white teeth. On top her pretty head, was a large rhinestone tiara.I flipped the picture over and read the police report that was stuck in the file behind it. Janelle Pearson was her name. She was a 21 year old nursing student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She lived in downtown Birmingham and worked as a bartender at Hookah Harry’s, the new hookah bar in town. Janelle rode her bicycle to school the day she went missing. She was reported missing by her roommate, a Miss Melanie Bryson. Her parents lived in Georgia and she had no known relatives in the area. Janelle did not have a steady boyfriend but had been seeing several guys. Melanie Bryson did not know their names nor their descriptions. Janelle had her phone with her when she left that morning. She never made it to class. Her phone rang a few times with no answer and then eventually started going straight to voicemail. Classmates didn’t really know her. She kept to herself. Her manager and co-workers at Hookah Harry’s all said that she was a really nice girl who went out of her way to help anyone she could and they were worried that maybe she had tried to help the wrong person. She was known to pass out cheap deli sandwiches to the homeless people in Linn Park. They couldn’t remember the names of any guys that she was seeing but did give the description of a guy who came in to see her regularly. He had a bald head, was between 6’1 and 6’5, and had large muscles. Gee, that should be easy to find. Very descriptive, thanks.
Okay, Janelle Pearson, how did your blood end up on my dead girl’s shoes? And where are you? Before I could finish reading the rest of the detectives notes, my desk phone rang. Beau answered it, said yes a few times, and then hung up.
“Hey, Gunner tell you what his girlfriend’s name was?”
“No. I’m a shitty detective. I didn’t even get that far before he started shutting me down. Why?”
“Got an ID on her. Chloe Brasher. 22. Her mother is going to be in the ME’s office in 10 minutes to give a definite identification. We need to be there when she gets there. Especially if this is his fiancé. We need to find out as much as we can about their relationship before we go after him. If we don’t and we arrest him too soon, we could be screwed.”
“She do dentals?”
“Yeah, apparently she had a permanent retainer in her mouth and that’s how they identified her. Come on.”
We both grabbed our notepads and pens and headed down to the basement to the ME’s office. Beau always turned a sort of Grinch green when we had to go down there. For someone who has been a police officer as long as he has, he got squeamish around dead bodies very easily. And if they had been in water for any length of time, I could forget about Beau even being around. He passed out the last time we pulled a guy out of a lake. The ME’s office was a cold place but it never bothered me. Death was just as much a part of my life as everything else. It seemed to follow me wherever I went. I was kind of starting to get use to the trail of bodies behind me.The dead girl’s mother had arrived early because she was already viewing the body by the time we walked in. I could hear her scream crying on the other side of the door. There was no way to describe that type of crying other than scream crying. And there would be no other time you would hear that type of crying than in situations like this. I had heard that siren song more times than I cared to admit.
Dr. Wood’s opened the double doors and ushered a rail-thin woman into the waiting area where we were. She looked up at us with small, beady, blood-shot eyes and then started crying all over again. We turned away for a minute to give her some time to compose herself before we started asking her questions. When I turned back around she was wiping her nose with a pale yellow handkerchief that was the same color yellow as the dead girl’s sweater.
“He did this. That bastard that she was going to marry. I know he did this.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brasher, what did you say?”
“I said” she sighed as she walked towards us, “that bastard that she was going to marry did this. I know he has something to do with her death.”
“Okay, Mrs. Brasher. Why don’t we have a seat and you tell me about it? I’m going to take some notes as you talk but I promise I will listen to every word you say. And if you decide that you need to stop, we can continue this another day.” She dropped her oversize purse on the floor next to an orange padded chair and then plopped herself down into the chair as if her bones had just given out.
Beau and I sat down in the chairs facing her. He nodded at me to go ahead and start questioning her. I felt so sorry for this lady that I didn’t even want to ask her anything. I just wanted to hold her and let her cry. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would feel right now if that girl in the pale yellow sweater was my sweet Braelynn.
“They’ve been together since she was eighteen. I know he had been calling her way before that but she knew that I would never go for her dating an older man until she was of legal age. The day she turned nineteen she moved out of my house and right into his. They weren’t even engaged yet. I was so pissed. How dare you go after my young daughter and then you don’t even have the decency to marry her before you move her in your house and have her playing house with you? What kind of man does that? A no good one, that’s who. Bastard.”
“Mrs. Brasher, what is Chloe’s fiancé’s name?”
“Gunner Hayes. He’s twenty-nine and he owns that Hayes Computer Consulting and Repair in the Wells Fargo building. And he owns a condo in the City Federal building.. On one of the top floors. I’m not sure which. I’ve never been there. Never been invited. You believe that? I’m her own damn mother and I’ve never even been invited to see where the hell my daughter was living. And she’s been living there for three years. Three fucking years.” Mrs. Brasher’s tiny hand shot up to cover her mouth and her eyes grew wide looking at me. Her face flushed and she turned her head away from me, clearly embarrassed that she had cussed.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Brasher. I understand that you’re upset. I’m not going to judge for a few cuss words and neither will Detective O’Shae or Dr. Woods. I’m sorry that you had to go through this with Chloe but that doesn’t give me an idea of why you think Mr. Hayes would have had anything to do with her murder?”
“He’s an asshole. Chloe wasn’t allowed to cut her hair. She always wore it kind of long in the front but cut up real short in the back like all the young girls wear now. Only Gunner didn’t like it. She had to wear her hair long and pin-straight. She could only wear certain colors of fingernail polish and she wasn’t allowed to go tanning either. And Chloe loved the tanning bed. Which I know it’s not good for you but still, who the hell is he to tell her what she can and can’t do? And she couldn’t have a job. She had a job when they first started dating. She was working at Buckle over at the Galleria in Hoover. Oh, how she loved that job. ‘Course she spent more money on clothes than she actually brought home. That asshole got her fired. He showed up there one day and they started fighting and the next thing Chloe knew he was hollering and she was hiding in the dressing room in tears. With a whole store full of customers watching. Her manager fired her on the spot.”
“I see. Was Mr. Hayes ever physically violent with her?”
“I can’t honestly say. I never saw any bruises on her and Chloe’s pride would have never allowed her to tell me if he did but I suspect so. How else did he manage to wield all that control over her? He made her sell her car. If she wanted to go somewhere she had to ask him to borrow his extra car. A grown woman asking to borrow a damn car. And she was only allowed a certain amount of time to be gone in that car too or there would be trouble. She met me for lunch one day and then we decided to do some shopping. She forgot all about her time to be back and at three o’clock on the dot he called her phone and was screaming so loud that everyone in ear shot of us in that store could hear what he was saying. It was embarrassing.”
“When was the last time you saw Chloe?”
“Let’s see, today is Friday, so I would say Tuesday. She met me for lunch the Pita Pronto over on the corner of the Wells Fargo building.”
“Yes. It was about one o’clock I think because that divorce court show was on the TV.”
“Did she say anything to you about Mr. Hayes while you two were having lunch?”
“She told me that they had gotten into a big fight on her birthday, which was last Friday.”
“She tell you what they argued about?”
“Yes. Chloe has always wanted to get married in the rose garden at the botanical gardens. It’s been a dream of hers since she was a little girl. As a matter of fact, the first time I ever took her to the botanical gardens and we walked through that trellis she said this is it, momma. This is where I will get married. Anyway, Gunner didn’t like the idea. He had this bright idea that they were going to get married over the Double Tree Hotel and Chloe just wasn’t having it. She flat out refused to get married anywhere but in that rose garden. She told him that if he didn’t want to get married there that they didn’t have to but that meant that she was giving him his ring back and moving out. She said she finally stood up to him and told him that she had waited long enough to get married and she was tired of waiting and that she did everything his way whenever he said so and it was high time that he did something she wanted. I was so proud of her. Bless her sweet little heart. Looks like it got her killed.”
I was scribbling notes in my notebook so fast that I was misspelling words and I didn’t even care. Mrs. Brasher was talking so fast but I didn’t want to slow her down. I wanted her to give me as much detail as she could even if that meant that I had to write it down so fast that smoke was coming up from my pen. I’d write until my hand fell off. She was right about one thing. Gunner Hayes was a bastard. He had told me that he hadn’t seen his fiancé since her birthday last week. He had to have seen her on Tuesday because she was eating at the restaurant that is right next to the lobby of the building his office is in. There is no way that she went to lunch there without seeing him some time that day.
“Did you pick that restaurant or did she?”
“She did. She was going over wedding plans with Gunner in his office and so she asked me to just meet her downstairs for a quick lunch. On that day, according Chloe, everything was fine. Better than ever. They were going to get married in the rose garden and then they were going on a honeymoon. Gunner was even taking some time off of work. Something that he has never done in the whole four years that they have been together. Detective Barrett, I may not be the smartest woman in the world. I don’t even have a high school education but I promise you, if he didn’t do it himself, he at least knows who did. I know he had something to do with this.”
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Brasher. We will certainly follow up with Mr. Hayes as soon as possible. Here is my number if you can think of anything else or if you need anything else. I am so sorry for your loss and I wish we could have met on different circumstances. Thank you so much for your time.”
Mrs. Brasher took my card and slipped it into her bulging maroon wallet and then tossed the walled back into her gigantic purse. She slipped it over her arm and nodded at Beau and I as she walked out of the door. I was looking back over my notes that I had taken when I heard Beau clear his voice.
“He lied to you. Big time.”
“Yes, he did.”
“Want to get an arrest warrant?”
“Yes, I do.”
We submitted our request for an arrest warrant and then I headed home. There wasn’t much else that could be done until we could get the autopsy report and that arrest warrant. I couldn’t wait to get that bastard into interrogation and nail him to the wall. He obviously thought he was smarter than me. Joke’s on him. I wasn’t going to give up easily. I hated when someone lied to me. Especially when it was so easy to contradict their story.