On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 12

“The witness said the older man and the teenager left through the service entrance at the end of the corridor. You know, where deliveries come in,” Darlene continued. “So I asked the lead detective on the case to fax over everything they have so far. Her parents provided a photograph.”

“Good work, Darlene. If it turns out there’s a connection, I’ll make sure the chief knows who sussed it out.” Ian gave her a tight smile.

She brushed off the praise with a slight shake of her head. “I know it’s none of my business, but why don’t I see your friend around here anymore? Angelica, right? She used to be stopping by here all the time, bringing you dinner and writing little love notes and whatnot.” Darlene waited for an answer with her hands planted on her wide hips.

Ian frowned, irritated by the question and by Darlene’s nosiness in general. Yes, on previous cases, Angelica had practically functioned as a partner to him, albeit a highly unusual and possibly illegal one. She had interviewed suspects with him, ridden along on stakeouts, known every detail of his cases. He had come to rely on her, to trust her completely. Even with his life. The life she had saved. Darlene knew this.

So why was he still avoiding her? Why was it so damn hard to let her in? Was his ego really so fragile? Was he that insecure?

Darlene interrupted his thoughts: “I’m only asking because I hear she’s good at finding people. People who are lost, or abducted, or in trouble. Am I right?”

Ian had to admit she had a point. “Yeah. She’s not one hundred percent reliable, but her track record’s pretty good.”

“She found you.” Darlene gave him a penetrating look, then turned on her heel and sashayed out of his office.

His phone rang. “McDaniel here.”

“I had a little talk with my chief. Thought you’d like to know what he told me.”

Ian recognized the voice. “Longuria?”

“Good guess, Boy Wonder.” The NYPD detective cleared his throat dramatically. “Apparently the mayor talked to my chief about pulling me off the homicide and banishing me to your quaint upstate village. So we’re talking about somebody with that kind of pull, somebody who could call in a favor from the fucking mayor of New York City.”

Ian whistled. “I got some news on my end, too. I went to see Janice in the psych ward, and they’ve got her sedated to the point of drool running down her face. She can barely focus her eyes. The psychiatrist wished me luck getting her off those meds, meaning he’s not interested in assisting my investigation. So I go out to the parking lot, and a maroon sedan tries to flatten me into a pancake.”

“Jeez, McDaniel. Doesn’t anybody on this planet like you?”

Ian guessed it would be a cold day in hell before he'd get any sympathy from Frank Longuria. “Then I went to see Ralph Kaminski, the only guy I know with a maroon sedan and a connection to my case. He claims his car disappeared the night before Janice drove it onto the bridge. But someone must have driven his car away from the scene that night. And then tried to drive it into me.”

“I don’t suppose a camera crew was out there on the bridge that night filming an episode of Cops?”

“Those media vultures are never around when you need them.” But as he spoke, Ian recalled the moment he snatched Janice off the roof of the car. In a flash, he remembered seeing the car keys hanging from the ignition. How did Janice get a set of keys? Only a complete idiot would leave the keys in the car. That dick Kaminski was either an idiot or a liar. “I think Kaminski gave Janice the keys to the car. And I’m positive he was involved in her disappearance.”

“What’s your next move?”

“I just heard a teen-aged girl disappeared from the Nanuet Mall earlier today. It seems she was seen leaving through the service entrance with an older man.”

“You think our guy’s taken his next victim?” Longuria’s tone turned deadly serious. Ian noticed he had jumped to the same conclusion as Darlene.

“I think it’s a possibility.” Ian tapped his ballpoint pen on his pad.

“I’ll get the okay from my chief and head straight up there.” Longuria paused. “I’m assuming you’d like my help with this case.”

Ian’s ego felt the blow, but he wasn’t stupid enough to reject the offer. “You know what happens when you assume?”

“I think somebody’s already made asses out of both of us. Let’s nail the fucking bastard.” Longuria hung up.

Ian thought briefly about the first time he had met the NYPD detective, just after he came out of the surgery to repair his punctured lung. The ever-present smirk had made Ian want to punch the guy in the face. But he had to admit, Longuria was a decent detective with many more years of experience than himself. And Ian could use the help.

Speaking of help, Ian's mind circled back to Angelica. Was it really necessary to stay away from her? He knew she would be happy to lend a hand on this case. In fact, she’d be beyond happy. He pictured her beaming face the last time he showed up on her front porch with the turkey-shaped apology.

He glanced up at the clock. Too late for a visit now. She was probably asleep.

The fax machine was calling his name, so he heaved his exhausted, beat-up body out of his chair and went to retrieve the details of the Nanuet Mall abduction. As soon as he glanced at the printouts, Ian’s heart sped up. He picked up on several inconsistencies, right off the bat.

Maria Venutto did not match his killer’s established victim profile.

First off, she was not even vaguely reminiscent of Janice. She had thick, black hair down to her waist and a golden brown complexion. She was not petite, like the others, but distinctly curvaceous. Also older, almost eighteen, and a senior in high school. Both the previous victims had been freshmen.

What did all this mean? Had someone else abducted this girl, someone completely unrelated to this case? Or had the killer veered off his normal path, ignoring his regular preferences? And if so, why?

Jenna Danvers had been dumped in the river less than a week ago. Was her killer already so desperate for another victim, he was willing to snatch any old teenager? Perhaps the first one he spotted exiting the bathroom?

Ian looked down at the list of facts he had been compiling before Darlene and Longuria interrupted him. If Candace Berry had been working at Jade Palace massage parlor, as he suspected, then it followed that this was the killer’s local stomping grounds. And with the massage parlor currently closed, maybe this perp was forced to find new hunting grounds. The mall did not allow him the same selection process as he must have been accustomed to at the massage parlor, where a regular client could probably request a certain type of girl: extra young, blonde, petite.

Snatching up his phone, he jabbed at the buttons. A second later, Longuria was on the line again.

Ian didn’t waste time with niceties: “Did you ever find out if Candace Berry worked at Jade Palace in Congers?”

“Her parents told me no way. But she had been sleeping over at a friend’s house every single weekend, so they really had no clue what she was up to.”

“Did you get the friend’s name, by any chance?”

“Of course. Jeez. You gonna teach me how to do my job now, Boy Wonder?” Longuria shuffled some papers while Ian bit his tongue. “Bernadette O’Sullivan was her name. I can pay her a visit, if you like?”

So Jenna wasn’t the first friend Bernadette had worked with at the spa. Were there others?

“Yeah, that’d be great. And keep in mind that this girl also knew Jenna Danvers. Claimed to be her best friend.”

“Sounds like you think she might have something to hide?”

“I don’t think she told me everything, I’ll put it that way. Don’t go easy on her.”

After hanging up the phone, Ian scanned the rest of the report from the Nanuet police. Although the witness saw the teen leaving with an older man, she hadn’t noticed him using any force. She said they had simply walked out, side by side. So he had either given the girl some convincing story or he already knew her. But the parents insisted they had contacted all their relatives and family friends; no one they knew had picked Maria up at the mall.

He took another look at her school photo; the background read “Nyack High School.” Maria wasn’t from Congers, then, like Bernadette O’Sullivan, Jenna Danvers, and Candace Berry. Unless she had previously lived in Congers and moved to Nyack, like Jenna. He made a note to check this out.

Ian's eyelids were drooping. If he sat here much longer, he’d end up passing out at his desk again. A full night sleep in his bed was probably a better idea. That way, he’d be fresh in the morning. And maybe make some headway on this twisted case.


Winding his way through the forest, a carpet of dead leaves swished beneath his feet. The lilting melody of a waltz caught his attention. He peered between the tree trunks, trying to find the source of the music, but the woods were dark and dense.

In a clearing, he caught sight of Janice dancing gracefully, her feet bare. This time, she had a partner. The man was tall and thin, much older than Janice, with a thick mane of silver hair. He was wearing a tux with tails. Janice was dressed as a bride, a veil covering her face.

Through the lace of the veil, he noticed her eyes were closed as she danced. The expression on her face was peaceful, serene. But as he inched closer through the trees, he could make out the lavender bruises on her throat.

Janice wasn’t peaceful. Far from it.

She was dead. A dancing corpse. A zombie? The thought sent a spike of fear through his heart.

He sat up sharply in bed, his eyelids flying open, his wounded side burning. He cast around for Janice, trying to remember where he had last seen her, if she was really dead or still alive. His heart punched against his sore ribs.

What day was it, anyway?

Tuesday. Two days until Thanksgiving. Ian's oldest sister Joanne had left several messages on his answering machine: he was expected at her home for a family celebration. Everyone would be there, meaning all five of his sisters, their husbands and kids. He wondered if Angelica would like to join him.

As soon as he had this thought, the phone on his bedside table rang.

“McDaniel here.”

“You know you’re answering your home phone the same way as your office phone?” Of course it was Angelica.

“So what if I am?” Ian teased.

“Just wasn’t sure if you were aware of it, that’s all.” He could hear her smiling. “Did I wake you up?”

“Nope. I was just thinking about you.” Ian leaned back against his pillows. “I was wondering if you’d like to come with me to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving?”

Angelica was silent for a moment. “I was calling to invite you over here. I’m planning to help Erica and Harry cook.” She sounded so disappointed his heart contracted.

“What time are you going to eat?” he asked, hoping for a compromise.

“Early afternoon. Then we take a long walk. Then have dessert. That’s how our family always does it.” Ian remembered that Angelica’s mother was out of the picture now that she and her Mafioso fiancé were in witness protection somewhere. His guilt instantly doubled.

“Okay, I’ll just tell my sister that we’ll be late. Are you up for two Thanksgiving dinners?”

“Oh, Ian. Really? Can we do both?” He heard her voice crack and thought she might be crying.

“Of course. My family won’t mind, as long as we show up at some point.”

She sniffed. “I could kiss you right now.”

“Hold that thought. I’ll be right over.”

He showered and dressed in record time and was knocking on her door less than fifteen minutes later. She must have been waiting because the door opened before his fist came down for the second time.

She hurled herself at him like a spider monkey, wrapping her legs around his hips and her arms around his neck.

“Whoa,” he managed, staggering backwards onto the front porch. Her three dogs threatened to finish the job by toppling him all the way over.

“Whoa yourself.” She planted a kiss on his lips that shut him up for almost a full minute. The dogs began to whine.

“Can we go inside now?” Ian put her down gently and rubbed his side. “It’s kinda chilly out here.”

“I didn’t notice,” she replied, but led the way in, the dogs trailing. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

He shook his head, but that was a lie. He limped through the doorway.

“Good morning!” Erica called from the kitchen.

“Hey, Erica. How’re things?” Ian gingerly removed his overcoat and threw it on the couch. The dogs ran straight over to give it a thorough sniffing and make sure it was sufficiently coated with drool.

“My things are good. How are your things?” Erica always looked too thin to him, but there was a healthy glow to her skin today.

“My things are a fucking nightmare, but thanks for asking.” He smiled to soften his words. “Speaking of nightmares, I had another dream about Janice this morning, right before you called.”

“Was she dancing again?” Angelica asked, as she poured two mugs of coffee for them. “You want breakfast while you’re here, right?”

“Is it steak?” Ian joked, but she nodded.

“Sure, I can do steak and eggs.” She rummaged around in the fridge. “Tell me about the dream.”

“I’ll give you guys some privacy.” Erica slipped out of the room and disappeared up the staircase.

“I hope she doesn’t feel like we booted her out of her own kitchen?” Ian whispered, glancing through the doorway.

“She finished her breakfast hours ago. I’m sure she’s ready to get on with her day.” Angelica slapped two frying pans onto the stove and began melting some butter.

“My dream was pretty weird. Janice was waltzing again, but this time in the woods. And she had a partner, an older man in a tux. Her eyes were closed, and I thought she looked peaceful, until I saw the bruises on her neck. And I realized she was dead.” Ian looked down and saw that his palms were sweating.

Angelica met his gaze. “That sounds horrible. What do you think it means?”

“I think the guy she was dancing with was the killer. He strangles his victims. And I think he’s an older man, tall and thin, like the guy in my dream. But I could only see him from the back.”

“Do you have any suspects?” She flipped the fried eggs over and poked the steaks with a finger.

“I’ve only got one, and he doesn’t fit the physical profile at all. He’s the private dick that followed us around. Janice drove his maroon Oldsmobile onto the bridge to fake her suicide attempt, and yesterday, a very similar car tried to run me over in the hospital parking lot.”

“Someone tried to run you over?” Angelica dropped her spatula with a loud clatter.

“He missed. I’m fine, Angel.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I didn’t see the driver, though, so I can’t be sure it was the dick.”

“But the guy isn’t tall or thin?”

“Not even remotely. You saw him with Janice, remember? He’s average height, balding, with a paunch. I paid him a visit last night. I'm sure he's hiding something.”

“Let’s eat first, then I can do a reading for you. Maybe you already know something, but you just don’t know you know it.” She slid the eggs and sliced steak onto two plates and placed them on the table. “You know?”

Ian suddenly realized how hungry he was. “Sounds good.”

They were quiet for a few minutes, aside from the sounds of forks and knives and chewing. The rare steak and runny eggs were perfect together. By the end of the meal, Ian felt rejuvenated. “I think I’ll take that reading now, if you don’t mind.”

Angelica’s face lit up, as he knew it would. “Let’s move to the couch. I can lay the cards out on the coffee table.”

Ian carried his coffee cup with him and settled on the center cushion. Angelica found her enormous pocketbook and dug around in its depths. Eventually she pulled out the tarot deck, wrapped in a silk scarf.

She came to sit by Ian’s side. “Let’s start by taking a few deep breaths together.” She reached for his hands and held them in hers. “Close your eyes and just empty your mind. Good. Now focus on a question you would like to ask the cards. Hold the question in the front of your mind.” She picked up the tarot deck and unwrapped it. “Shuffle the cards while you think about your question.”

Ian kept his eyes closed as he mixed up the cards. Then he passed the deck back to her. Angelica laid the cards out on the table.

The first card she flipped over was the Two of Swords. Ian leaned forward. A blindfolded woman was seated by a river filled with rocks and boulders. He wondered if the woman represented Janice.

The next card revealed was the Emperor. An old man with a flowing white beard reigned from a throne decorated with four rams’ heads. Now they were getting somewhere, Ian thought.

Angelica reached to flip over the next card in the formation, but her hand froze. “I have a strong feeling that I should stop right here. I can’t tell you why yet, but something is telling me that this is enough.”

He looked into her eyes. “Whatever you say.”

She leaned forward to examine the first card. “As you can see, the Two of Swords shows someone who is blindfolded. This person is trying to make a decision, but is stuck between a rock and a hard place. For some reason, he or she doesn’t see all the information that is needed to make the decision or the choice. It could be that someone is choosing to wear the blindfold, choosing not to see something that is obvious, right in front of his or her eyes. Or it could be that someone is hiding information.”

Angelica paused and looked at him. She seemed to be waiting for a response, so he nodded.

She went on: “The rocks in the river represent obstacles. This person has a difficult road ahead. A decision or a choice must be made. Does this make any sense to you?”

“Not in relation to the question I asked, but in terms of my life, yes. It does. It makes a hell of a lot of sense.” Ian kept his eyes on the cards, silently wondering if he was the blindfolded one. Janice was still keeping secrets and hiding things from him. And so was the dick, Kaminski.

Angelica must have been satisfied with his answer because she moved on to the next card. “I feel that this card, The Emperor, is particularly significant. I think it was the energy from this card that stopped me from turning over the rest of the formation.” She took a deep breath. “You see the old man seated on his throne. He is a very powerful man, someone who has been successful in his life, has accumulated wealth and status. He is also a dominating figure, perhaps a tyrant, someone who wields power over others. He might be a father, or a father-figure.”

In the pause that followed, Ian’s eyes popped up to meet hers. They both held their breath and neither one dared to move.

“A father…” he whispered, his eyes returning to the Emperor card. Ian didn’t have a living father, and neither did Angelica.

But his wife had a father.

A dominating, powerful, successful father. A tall, thin father with a thick mane of silver hair. A former judge who wielded power over others. Before that, a lawyer who had hired a private dick to investigate people, perhaps to intimidate witnesses or to extract testimony from them. Maybe even to shut them up.

A man who was so obsessed with his daughter, he arranged for private “massages” from teen-aged lookalikes? Then kidnapped them, beat them, tortured and starved them, raped and strangled them repeatedly, and dumped their bodies in the river? Could his distinguished, well-respected father-in-law be the man behind these horrific crimes?

“You look like you’ve figured something out.” Angelica spoke softly, trying not to break his concentration.

“I can’t even say what I’m thinking out loud.”

“Because it’s so awful?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me.” She reached over the cards to touch his hand.

He dragged his eyes back to hers. “It can’t be true. I pray to God it’s not true.”

She nodded. “If you tell me what you’re thinking, maybe I can help figure out if it’s true.” She squeezed his hand tightly.

Ian grasped her other hand as well. “I think,” he whispered, “it could be Janice’s father.”

Angelica raised her eyebrows. “Oh, God.”

He shook his head. “I’ve got to be wrong.”

“Let’s see what else we can find out. Do you want to go into a trance with me?” She continued to hold his hands. He could feel her energy bubbling like a caldron over a fire. “I’ll try to guide you, but I have no idea what you’ll see. And it might not work at all. You know sometimes I bomb.”

Ian knew her powers of seeing were occasionally stunning, sometimes muddy, other times nonexistent. The thought of what he might witness, if he closed his eyes and let her guide him, scared the living daylights out of him. But she had been brave enough to take this type of journey for him numerous times. He knew she had been afraid, even terrified, but she had never backed away. It was his turn now.

He nodded his agreement.

Angelica asked him to scoot back into the couch’s corner, effectively wedging him in, just in case he fainted. She had personal experience with this, so he did as he was told. Then she instructed him to close his eyes and take several deep breaths. She led him down a spiraling staircase, one step at a time, deeper and deeper into a trance.

Then she asked him to look for Janice’s father.

He peered through the darkness, but without a source of light, he could only make out blurry shapes. As he forced his eyes to focus, he discovered he was moving down a path through the woods. It was nighttime and the moon was a thin sliver, giving off almost no light. The trees were all bare. The ground beneath his feet was hard-packed dirt, a well-worn path, lumpy with exposed tree roots. He had the feeling he’d been here before.

Soon, he came to a small cabin built of unpainted wood. Barely bigger than a single room, it appeared to be very old. He stepped toward the only door he could see and reached for the knob.

But the door was padlocked.

He paused, listening intently.

From inside the cabin, he could make out a very soft sound. Someone was crying. And murmuring something. He moved closer and placed his ear right up against the wall of the cabin.

“Dear Jesus. Dear God. Please help me. Please help me, Jesus. God, please bring help. Don’t let me die here. Please.”

Ian’s eyes opened and he found himself back on the couch, gripping Angelica’s hands in his sweaty palms. “Holy Christ.”

“Did you hear her praying?” Angelica asked, her eyes wide.

He nodded, assuming Angelica had followed him into his trance, through the woods, all the way to the cabin.

“Do you know who she is?”

“I have an idea,” he admitted, feeling a headache starting to build behind his eyes. “An eighteen-year-old woman disappeared from the Nanuet Mall yesterday morning. Someone saw her leaving with an older man.”

“Did you recognize the area? Do you know where the cabin is?” Angelica’s fingernails were digging into his palms.

He extricated his hands from her grip and rubbed his temples. “No. It looked familiar, though.”

“Does Janice’s family own a cabin?” She kept shooting the questions at him, one after the next. His head was starting to pound.

“I don’t know." Ian stood up. "But I’m going to find out.”

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