On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 10

“In a hurry this evening, detective?” Frank Longuria smirked at Ian, releasing his arm. “You should be more careful. You already got yourself injured once.”

“Thanks. That’s great advice.” Ian hugged his now throbbing ribs and attempted to pass the slimeball at the top of the stairs.

The guy wasn’t budging. “This is a stroke of luck, Boy Wonder. I was just looking for you.”

“Isn’t it time you climbed back into whatever hole you crawled out of?” Ian didn’t attempt to hide his disgust. He had important shit to do. And this sleazebag was never in any rush to get to the point. “Janice has been found. Alive and well. Case closed.”

“Alive and well? I have to disagree with that last part. Have you spoken to your wife lately?” The smirk told Ian the guy already knew he hadn’t. “You and I need to have another chat.”

“Jesus. Your timing is impeccable.” Ian heaved an enormous sigh. Just the act of breathing caused another wave of pain to shoot through his rib cage. “But what the fuck? Come on in and interrupt my work. Again.” He gestured toward the door.

When they got to his office, Ian was afraid the sleaze would dive right into his swivel chair and stick his big feet up on the desk again. But Longuria surprised him by moving the other chair out of the way so Ian could pass.

“What’s going on?” Ian wanted to add: get to the point.

“I went to see your wife this morning, as soon as I heard she’d been found. Maybe ‘found’ isn’t the right word for it, but whatever. A lot of man-hours were poured into this case of the ‘missing’ detective’s wife, so I figured she owed the city, the state, and me, personally, an explanation.” Longuria sprawled in his chair. The guy always looked so relaxed. Like nothing ever got under his skin. It was infuriating.

“And…? Did you get anything out of her?” Ian grabbed a pen and began tapping on his yellow legal pad, a sign of his pent-up frustration.

“Not much. She’s keeping her pretty little mouth shut so she doesn’t get arrested and fined beaucoup bucks for wasting police time. That suicide ploy was a good start. Makes it look like she’s wacko so we can’t pin a charge on her and make it stick.”

Ian shrugged. He agreed with everything the sleazebag just said, but he didn’t see any point in discussing it. He had bigger fish on his radar. And he was itching to get out the net.

“Did she tell you where she was staying all this time?” Ian queried, recalling that he hadn’t even bothered to ask her. The maroon Olds told him everything he needed to know.

“Nah. She’s faking amnesia.” Longuria couldn’t be bothered to fully roll his eyes. He just looked up at the ceiling.

“Did she mention how she got her hands on a car to drive onto the bridge?” Did the sleaze know as much as he did? Who was winning this little game they were playing, anyway?

“She said she couldn’t remember that, either.”

Ian nodded. That was one point for him, zero for the sleaze.

“I was wondering, though, what did you do to make her parents hate you so much? I mean, I told them from the start that I didn’t think you were involved in their daughter’s disappearance, but they were having none of it. They insisted nailing you to the wall was my one and only job. I guess Charles Vanderwald the Third has some serious pull, because my chief yanked me off a homicide case to put me on this bullshit.”

“Hmm.” It was certainly strange that an experienced big city detective would be removed from a homicide investigation in order to hunt down a missing woman in the suburbs. After all, there had been no sign of foul play in Janice’s disappearance. Her parents were the only ones who seemed to think any harm had come to her. “What was the case you were pulled from?”

“Dead girl in the river. Teenager. Her body was found back in June, after a few days of heavy rain. It was hard to tell where she’d been dumped, since the water was so much higher than normal.”

“Did you talk to Aaron Schillman? Up in Albany? He’s an expert on the Hudson’s currents. Pretty damn brilliant guy, if you ask me. He pinpointed exactly where my victim went in, based on where she was found and how long she’d been in the water. I took a ride up to Bear Mountain and found evidence right on the bridge.” Ian couldn’t decide how many points he should be awarded for this information, but he definitely had a huge lead. “What did your victim look like?”

“Okay, this is gonna sound weird, but the girl looked a little like your wife. I mean, when they called me up to Nyack and started showing me the photographs of Janice, I had just finished looking at the school pictures of my floater. There was a strong resemblance, but I knew my victim was way younger, so she couldn’t be your wife. Also she was found before Janice took off, so the timing wasn’t right.”

“Do you think you could fax me a copy of that file?” Energy flooded Ian's body; his knees bounced up and down of their own accord. “I was coming over here tonight to do some research. I have a theory that my killer is experienced, that the body found on Nyack Beach couldn’t be his first. And what you’re telling me now makes me think you could have caught one of his earlier victims. Was she strangled?”

“Yeah. The ME thought she’d been repeatedly strangled. There were layers of bruising around her throat, old bruises under newer ones. And ligature marks, as well as finger marks. Looked like he’d been practicing.” Longuria’s expression never changed throughout this description. Nothing, not even the brutal murder of a young girl, could knock that complacent smirk off his face.

“Was your victim missing any jewelry? Something she normally wore?”

Longuria nodded. “Yup. It was just a cheap ring, piece of junk out of a bubble gum machine. But apparently she never took it off. You could see where the metal had turned her finger green. It was still stained even after all those hours in the river.”

A cheap ring? Not very similar to the gold cross that Jenna Danvers always wore. But Ian seemed to remember that Jenna had been wearing some type of cheap ring when she was found. He tried to picture her hands. She had those bubblegum-pink nails. And the ring on her left hand. He thought it might be a mood ring. Those had been popular for a while, but he didn’t know if you could still buy them. “Describe the ring for me.”

“You know the ones that cost a quarter and they come inside a plastic bubble? The metal was silver-colored. And instead of a stone, it had a little round panel that changed colors.”

“A mood ring?” Ian bounced his knees even faster, getting ready to give himself at least a hundred points.

“I never heard of no 'mood' ring.”

Ian opened the file on Jenna Danvers and showed Longuria a close-up color photo of the ring on Jenna’s dead hand. “Is this it?”

The expression on the sleazeball’s face was priceless. One million points to Detective McDaniel for the win.

Longuria left, agreeing to head into the city and fax over the murder file on his earlier victim. Ian began a painstaking search through the state’s brand new online crime database, looking for similar felonies: murders, rapes, sexual assaults, and abductions. The killer had to have started somewhere. But the detective could only search one county at a time, and since the Hudson River flowed through several different jurisdictions, he had his work cut out for him. How many bodies had this guy dumped?

So far, it looked like Jenna Danvers was the only dead girl to be deposited on the banks of the Hudson within Rockland County. But he still needed to check Westchester. And possibly the counties just to the north, like Putnam and Dutchess. And New York City had its own database system based on boroughs. Ian scrubbed his forehead with his fingertips, trying to physically push away the headache he felt coming on.

A couple of hours later, his eyes were as dry as sand and his head throbbed like a bass drum. This new method of compiling crime data might eventually become an efficient way of sharing information, but he decided for now, the old-fashioned telephone call might end up being quicker. He’d have to make a few of them come morning. He shut the machine down and hoped he wouldn’t need to wrestle with it again in the near future. Evelyn might have better luck. She seemed to have a stronger affinity for computers than human beings.

Ian stumbled back to his apartment and fell straight into bed. For the second time in twenty-four hours, he slept in his overcoat and shoes. Like a dead man.

True to his word, Detective Frank Longuria faxed over the homicide file from the twenty-fourth precinct in Manhattan at nine-fifteen on Monday morning. By that time, Ian had struggled out of bed, showered, and changed clothes. He was back at his desk only ten minutes after the fax machine spat out the pages. Evelyn carried the copies into his office.

“Thanks,” he mumbled as she deposited the pile of papers onto his desk. He had barely sipped his coffee and was still trying to wake up. She was exiting his office without responding when he added: “Wait a sec. Do you think you can make some calls for me today?”

She turned in the doorway. “What do you need?”

“I have this theory that my perp has been at it for a while. Maybe years. I’m looking for similar crimes in Rockland County, or possibly Westchester. Start with rape, abduction, strangulation, or any cases where a teen-aged girl has been murdered and dumped in the river. I know the parameters are pretty wide, so just see what you can find. If anything sounds promising, ask them to fax me the files.”

“Yes, sir.” Evelyn spun on her heel and marched away. Ian was sure she was giving him shit, but she never smiled to let him in on the joke. She was an odd bird.

He flipped through Longuria’s file and selected the initial incident report. The body was found floating just north of the boat basin in Riverside Park on June 23rd at five in the morning. Ian knew this body must have been in the water longer than Jenna Danvers; it takes time for gases to build up in the abdomen postmortem and create a “floater.” This victim had also ended up at least twenty miles south of where Jenna had landed. Could she have been dumped from the same location? Off the Bear Mountain Bridge? He made a note to call Aaron Schillman.

Thumbing through the paperwork, he dug out the autopsy report. This victim’s stomach and intestines had also been empty. Another correlation. As Longuria mentioned, there were layers of bruising around the throat, along with ligature marks and rope burns. She had been strangled many times, using various implements. Perhaps this was his first strangulation? Or had he just enjoyed the process so much, he wanted to repeat it as many times as possible?

Her name was Candace Berry, and she hadn’t yet turned fifteen when she died. Ian found her school photo from ninth grade. Blonde, shoulder-length hair. Eyes ringed with thick black liner. Not quite as similar to Janice as Jenna. Although she was pretty enough, there was something flat about her eyes. As if she had already known she was a goner. Could she have known her killer at the time this photograph was taken? The hairs on his arms pricked up at the thought. But he might be reading too much into her gaze.

The interview with her parents didn’t take place until late September. Ian guessed it must have taken all those months just to identify the body since she had landed so far from home. The parents revealed she had attended Congers Middle School, the same as Jenna Danvers, but she had continued on to Congers High for ninth grade, the local public high school. Not the elite Rockland Day School, like Janice and Jenna. Perhaps the private school connection was a coincidence. The location, however, close to Jade Palace, could be the key piece to this puzzle.

And if the massage parlor was the key, there had to be a record of Candace Berry working there. Even if she had been off the books, like Jenna, and never recorded as an official employee, someone would have known. A friend, possibly. The manager, Igor, certainly. And the killer had to have also left a trace. If he shopped at the massage parlor for his victims like a kid in a candy store, and more than one employee had vanished, the manager must also have a clue as to this particular client’s propensity to wander off, permanently, with the employees.

Of course, Igor had denied any such knowledge. Ian decided he needed to lean harder on the ugly Russian.

One more thing: when did Candace’s parents first report her missing? Shuffling through the pages, he found what he wanted on the very bottom of the stack. She had been reported missing in March. That meant she had been held for approximately three months. Jenna, however, had been held for five months. Was the killer growing more confident with each victim? Or growing weaker? Maybe he held Jenna longer to further deplete her strength before killing her? Or maybe he found her more desirable, and therefore wanted to keep her around longer.

Closing his eyes for a moment, Ian leaned back in his swivel chair.

No matter how hard he tried to stay objective, he couldn’t deny this investigation deeply disturbed him. He really needed to eat something, and finish his coffee, but his stomach was rejecting this idea. He felt both relieved and disappointed in himself to be so affected by this case. On the one hand, he hoped to never become as jaded and callous as Frank Longuria. On the other hand, it was hard to survive in this job without growing a protective shell. His own skin still seemed paper-thin.

He patted his front pocket. The painkillers bounced around inside their plastic container, whispering to him. He liked to hear them, to know they were there. He wasn’t planning to take one. Just to keep them handy.

Just in case.

The killer was fuming.

He was on the Thruway, headed north from Nyack. With his foot on the accelerator, he inched the speedometer’s needle up another notch. He was itching for speed, itching to eat up the highway like a demon, but the last thing he needed was to get stopped by a cop. Not that they had anything on him. They had nothing. Zip. Not even a parking ticket. He had always been so careful.

But those same officers had thrown a wrench into his plans for the weekend. He had dumped the whore into the river last Wednesday night, hadn’t touched a female body since choking the life out of her frail frame. The final act was much less momentous than he hoped. He had looked forward to it for months, expected the climax to bring him the ecstasy he longed for. He thought the resulting release might tide him over for a while.

But it had been a bit of a let down. There was no fight whatsoever left in her.

Igor was still claiming the water main needed repair and the massage parlor couldn’t yet reopen. And he couldn’t possibly frequent a whorehouse in the city; the diseases lurking within those establishments were reason enough. AIDS and HIV were rampant, not to mention crabs and herpes and God-knows-what-else. No, he needed to find a safer alternative.

He had held out as long as he could. It used to be he could go for weeks, even months, without satisfying his carnal needs. But the urges were growing stronger with each hour, with each breath.

And, it seemed, with each kill.

He had no choice at this point. He had to take a risk.

He was on his way to the Nanuet Mall, a haven for teens. Schools were closed this week for Thanksgiving. The mall would be teeming with high school girls displaying their luscious wares in mini-skirts and skin-tight jeans. Maybe he’d run into students from Albertus Magnus, the Catholic high school, in their plaid uniforms with white, button-up blouses. The thought made him shiver with delight.

He’d have to separate one from the pack. Alone, she might be vulnerable to his charms. In a group, she would inevitably ignore him. And they always traveled in packs, like a pride of lionesses without the male. Painted claws. Spiky heels. A wave of heat rose from under his collar as he imagined their feminine attributes.

He needed a ploy, a scam, something to lure his lioness into his trap.

But what to use? A missing puppy? Or he could fake a heart attack.

Perhaps just some mild palpitations. Enough to elicit a nurturing response, but not enough to bring an ambulance rushing to the scene. If he could maneuver her out to the parking lot and into his car, say, to help him find his medication, he would be home free.

Ian shoved his arms into his overcoat and felt around in the pockets for his keys to the Crown Vic. He had inadvertently fallen asleep at his desk for several hours. Sure, he needed the sleep, he was practically a walking zombie, but passing out at his desk was pretty embarrassing. And it was happening all too frequently. He hadn’t eaten anything either, but he didn’t have time now. It was getting late, close to four.

He dreaded the thought of interviewing Janice, but he couldn’t let his personal feelings get in the way of a homicide investigation. It pissed him off, the way she was playing him. The suicide attempt had clearly been fake. She never had any intention of jumping off that bridge. A cry for help? Okay, maybe. More likely: a cry for attention.

It wasn’t her fault, perhaps.

According to the stories she’d told him, her parents had desperately wanted a baby. Her daddy divorced his first wife when she failed to produce any offspring. Her mother, wife number two, was much younger, in her early twenties when Janice came into the world. Mommy and daddy had been overjoyed. No expense had been spared in her upbringing. Only the best of everything for their precious princess.

Janice had learned, probably as a toddler, that the earth did not revolve around the sun. No, the entire world revolved around her. It must have come as a terrible shock when her own son had been stillborn. Probably the first time in her life that the universe had not granted her every wish. Her daily drinking habit had started the day she came home from the hospital to an empty bassinet.

Although Ian could easily see through her, it was possible the psychiatrists at Nyack Hospital would believe her lies. She deserved to be arrested for wasting police time. And she also needed to spend a good, long vacation in rehab, getting clean and sober.

Not in order to save their marriage. Their relationship was over. But to save her life.

First, he hoped he could wheedle some additional information out of her. Without having to make any promises he wasn’t willing to keep.

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