On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 13

Detective Frank Longuria arrived at the station just as Ian jogged up the front steps. Ian paused at the top and held the door open for him.

“What you got, Boy Wonder? You look like you’re in a hurry.”

Ian never thought he’d be glad to see the sleazebag smirking at him, but there was a first time for everything. Setting his fragile ego aside, he realized help was what he needed. More feet on the street would mean a faster result.

“You’re not going to believe it. I’m not even sure if I believe it.” Ian wasn’t sure exactly how he could explain to the NYPD detective that he had come to suspect his father-in-law of these unthinkable crimes based on a tarot card reading and a trance journey.

Once the two men were inside Ian’s tiny office, with the door firmly closed, he came out with it: “I think Janice’s father might be involved.”

“Involved? In what, exactly?” Longuria draped his coat over Ian’s spare chair and then sat on top of it. He looked as bad as Ian felt, with two-day-old stubble and dark bags under his eyes.

“Everything. The whole enchilada. In abducting the girls. I’m also wondering if he masterminded Janice’s disappearance in order to keep me distracted and to pull you off the other homicide.” Ian sank into his own chair and began to rummage in his top drawer for an Advil. His head was ready to explode. Maybe a Vicodin was in order.

Longuria narrowed his eyes. “What gave you this crazy idea?”

It was going to take more information to convince the older detective. “Just intuition, really. A bunch of subtle clues that all seemed to point to Charles Vanderwald. For example, Janice had the necklace. And she refused to tell me who gave it to her. Who’s she gonna protect?”

“That’s pretty flimsy. You better have more than that.” Longuria crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair.

“Someone with serious power is obviously pulling strings. Janice was so sedated, she was drooling when I went to question her. Someone made that happen. When I confronted the psychiatrist, he basically told me to go screw myself. Why? Because he’s answering to someone. I haven’t tested out my theory, but I’ll bet if I try to get an injunction from a judge to make them stop medicating my wife, the judge will find some reason to refuse.” Ian didn't mention the psychiatrist's strangely penetrating blue eyes, eyes so memorable he would never forget them. But he'd somehow forgotten where he saw them before.

“Huh. Not sure I wanna take that bet.” Longuria scratched his chin. “You know, I was wondering from the start what the guy had against you. He seemed hell bent on pinning his daughter’s disappearance on you. He refused to entertain the notion that anyone else might be involved.”

“Because he engineered the whole thing himself. My guess is that he used Kaminski to hide Janice somewhere. Maybe at Kaminski’s place or somewhere nearby, where he could keep an eye on her, supply her with booze, keep her hidden. Then she must have escaped. Taken his car. But someone else drove that car off the bridge Saturday night, then used it Monday evening in a hit-and-run attempt on my life.”

“Not sure I’m buying into this theory. If Vanderwald tried to run you over, he was taking a huge risk. You could easily have recognized him.” Longuria rubbed his face some more. Ian imagined all that stubble must be itchy. He also imagined Longuria did not have a wife at home, making sure he shaved and combed his hair. He looked like he survived on old coffee and greasy diner food.

“Hold on. Let me get the incident report from the bridge that night. I’ll see if it mentions who removed the Maroon Olds from the scene.” Ian strode out of the office.

When he returned with the report, it looked like Longuria was taking a nap. His head was tilted all the way back, his mouth open. Ian purposely bumped the detective’s elbow as he passed his chair.

“What?” Longuria jerked his head up and looked around.

“Got him.” Ian shoved the report into Longuria’s hands. “It says the victim’s parents offered to remove the car from the bridge in order to save the police force the trouble and expense. That’s how Charles Vanderwald got the car.”

“You’ve gotta admit, this is still incredibly weak. You didn’t actually see the guy inside the car, right? So no ID there. And if I remember correctly, you didn’t even see the plates. We got no grounds for arrest.” Longuria threw the report onto Ian’s desk.

Ian snatched it up. “Maybe not. But we certainly have grounds for suspicion.”

“I’ll give you that. So what’s next? You still want me to visit the friend, Bernadette Something? See what I can coax out of her?” Longuria stood, stretched, and yawned widely.

“I guess. I’m gonna try to find out if the Vanderwalds own a cabin somewhere remote enough to stash these girls. I think our top priority has got be finding the one he took yesterday.”

Longuria shrugged his coat on. “If he took her.”

Ian didn’t want to entertain the possibility he might have gotten this all wrong.

Evelyn agreed to pursue the property search. Ian thanked the intern and returned to his office to decide his next move.

On the one hand, he thought he had time on his side, only because his killer seemed to keep his victims alive for months on end. He wanted to believe Maria Venutto’s life was not in any immediate danger. However, he knew that every moment she spent in captivity would end up permanently etched on her psyche. The fewer of those moments, the better. Not to mention the suffering of her parents and loved ones, not knowing where she was or if she was even still alive.

Who would know about the existence and the location of this cabin? Janice might, but he had already established her complete inability to assist him. Charles and his wife Bunny, of course, but if he tried to interview either one of them along these lines, Maria would most assuredly be moved to a different location or quickly dispatched. If he could get Bunny alone, he might have a shot. But he had to be certain Charles was otherwise engaged before approaching her.

The other possibility, although quite a long shot, was Ralph Kaminski. He had worked for Vanderwald for decades. Even if he had never seen the cabin in person, there was a chance he might have heard of its existence, and maybe knew its location. Although last night’s interview had been a complete bust, Ian decided to have another go at the dick.

A little voice inside his head told him to bring Angelica.

No, he told the voice. He could do this by himself.

But the voice suggested Angelica might be able to sway Kaminski with her feminine charms. And it went on to remind him that he had failed, in every meeting with Kaminski so far, to extract any relevant information from the dick.

Ian told the voice not to rub it in. But he found himself agreeing with the idea that Angelica could possibly hold some sway over the balding, paunchy, aging dick. Her charms were fairly irresistible.

He picked up the phone and inquired if she might be free to do a little detective work with him. She instantly offered to reschedule all her clients at the café in order to free up the rest of the day.

“Are we looking into the location of the cabin?” she asked, sounding breathless.

“Yup, that’s the goal. I’ll pick you up in five minutes.”

He grabbed his coat and sailed past Evelyn’s desk, letting her know she should contact him immediately if she found an address for any property owned by the Vanderwalds.

She saluted him.

“What do you want now?” Ralph Kaminski was wearing the same pair of flannel pajamas, minus the crusty bathrobe. Maybe he had finally put that nasty thing in the wash.

Ian had decided not to brief Angelica about the dick, preferring to let her make her own judgments. She was usually adept at reading people.

She looked him up and down. “Nice outfit, Ralph. Did we wake you up?”

“Who the hell is this?” Kaminski jerked a thumb in her direction.

Angelica sported woolen tights and her favorite, scuffed motorcycle boots underneath an oversized man’s sweater belted at her waist. She didn’t exactly resemble a detective.

“This is my colleague, Angelica Davenport. Angelica, this is Ralph Kaminski, my favorite PI.”

Ralph shook his head. “She’s no ‘colleague’ of yours. I recognize her now. This is your little piece of ass on the side.”

Ian caught Angelica’s glance. He thought he caught her meaning, too. She could see the dick was trying to rile him up, to knock him off balance, and get the upper hand.

Instead of arguing, Ian nodded. “You’re way too smart for us, Ralph. You’re as quick as a whip.”

“What are you two doing here? I don’t recall mailing out invitations.” Ralph wandered away from the door, leaving them to close it.

Angelica laughed. It was a great sound, low and sultry.

Ian couldn’t help smiling. “We’re putting two and two together, Ralph. We’re like a couple of mathematicians. So far, I’ve figured out how your Olds got off the bridge. According to the report, Mr. and Mrs. Vanderwald drove out there when they heard about Janice. One of them removed your car from the scene. I’m wondering what happened next. Did they bring it back here? Because in that case, it must have been you that tried to run me over.”

Ralph sneered. “You can’t pin that shit on me. I was sitting right here on my couch all day yesterday.” He demonstrated what he meant by plopping down in the permanent indentation in the center cushion. “Ask my neighbors. Nobody could’ve seen me go out.”

“Which means Charles Vanderwald must have used your car to try to kill me. Why would he do that, Ralph? Does he want me dead? Or just out of the picture again? Maybe back in a hospital bed?” Ian didn’t wait for the dick to answer. Pacing across the carpeted floor, he added: “Did you know Janice is sedated to the point that she can barely focus her eyeballs? They’ve got her on Thorazine, Ralph. That’s for schizophrenics. People who might lash out and do damage to themselves or others. Do you think Janice deserves that?”

At the mention of Janice, Kaminski’s expression shifted very slightly. A small, worried crease appeared between his eyebrows.

“I think they’re sedating her to keep her from talking. To keep her from telling me where she got that necklace she was wearing on the bridge. The tiny gold cross that belonged to the dead teenager we found on the beach.”

If Ralph had a soft spot for Janice, Ian planned to keep digging at it. Maybe he’d find an edge he could pry up.

“I can see that you care about Janice,” Angelica put in, employing a gentler tone. “I’m guessing you want the best for her. You were probably trying to help her, before she took off in your car. Did she ask you to borrow it?”

“Nah.” Kaminski hung his head and looked down at his bare, hairy feet. “She asked me to get her a bottle of wine and some crackers and cheese for dinner. So I did.” He tried to pick something off the leg of his pajama pants. “Her father was paying me to keep an eye on her, and you two as well.”

“I figured,” Ian said, when the dick paused. “Go on.”

“We drank some wine. She likes that white shit that tastes like cat piss. But I think she must’ve put a sleeping pill in mine ’cause I passed out. When I woke up, she was gone. My car was gone, too. And my head felt like someone took a baseball bat to it.”

“Have you heard from Charles since Janice took the car?” This came from Angelica.

“Nah. Now that Janice is in the hospital, he don’t need me no more. And it don’t look like I’m getting my car back anytime soon.” Ralph shrugged sadly.

“Do you know if the Vanderwalds own a cabin, somewhere fairly remote, but not too far from here?” Ian popped the sixty thousand dollar question.

Ralph’s eyes darted away. The dick was about to lie. Or evade the question.

“No. Not that I know of.” Ralph’s eyes slithered back to Ian’s face.

“My intern is doing a property search as we speak. If I find out there is a cabin, and you knew about it, you’ll be arrested for aiding and abetting.” Ian made eye contact to make sure all of this was sinking in. “I believe Vanderwald is holding another teenager in a cabin right now. If you withhold information from us, you will be an accessory to as many felonies as he’s managed to commit so far. I’m guessing we can include kidnapping, assault, rape, and murder.”

Ralph now looked truly miserable. “They don’t own a cabin, not one that I know about anyways. But I do. It’s just an old, run-down piece of shit up near Bear Mountain. I haven’t been in there since I was a kid. My dad kept it for hunting trips. But he died when I was sixteen. I had no urge to go there after that.”

As soon as Ralph mentioned Bear Mountain, Ian’s internal alarm bells began to clang. “We’re going to need the address of this cabin.”

“There’s no address. You know where Hell’s Hole is?”

Ian and Angelica both nodded, having cut school as teenagers and hung out on the rocks by the falls. Every spring, as soon as the weather warmed, local teens swarmed to this illegal swimming hole.

“You take that dead end road, park at the bottom, then hike down the trail that leads to the hole. Stay to the right and climb the hill, up past the falls, and around the side of the lake. About halfway round the lake, a path veers off to the right. There used to be a bunch of pine trees that blocked the view of the cabin from the lake, even in the winter. I guess they’re probably still there.”

“Did you ever mention this cabin to Vanderwald? Or offer to let him use it?”

“When I first went to work for him, he did a thorough investigation on me. Not just me, he did it on every employee he hired. Basically he said he needed to know everything about me before he could trust me. My life, my finances, everything had to be an open book. I agreed to it. I needed the money. So yeah, I assume he knows I own it.”

“Draw us a map,” Angelica suggested. “So we don’t get lost.”

Ian wasn’t sure a map was necessary. He paced impatiently while Ralph hunted down a blank piece of paper, then a sharpened pencil. Finally, the drawing process commenced at the kitchen table, amid empty candy bar wrappers and sticky rings from soda cans.

Angelica looked over the dick’s shoulder as he placed pine trees and water features, asking questions to get a sense of how far each landmark was from the next. Ian ran his fingers through his hair and tried not to scream in frustration.

By the time Ralph was done, they had a decent homemade map. Angelica looked supremely satisfied. Ian bit his tongue and hustled her out the door.

As soon as they were back in the cruiser, Ian snatched up the radio and filled Darlene in. After giving her a description of the cabin and its location, he asked her to try to contact Frank Longuria, perhaps at Bernadette O’Sullivan’s house. If she couldn’t reach him, he told her to send whoever was available to meet him at the cabin.

He wanted to make sure he had back-up this time. He had learned that lesson the hard way.

Detective Frank Longuria sat on the plaid couch next to the obese tabby cat, waiting for Bernadette to get dressed. It was bad enough he was going to grill the girl, her being underage and all, without a parent present. But to do it while she was wearing a thin, almost see-through tee shirt and nothing else, well, that would have been a crime in itself.

“Where’re your parents, anyways?” He yelled in the direction of her bedroom.

She emerged from the hallway wearing the smallest denim skirt he had ever seen and a shirt which barely covered her ample bosom. This was the kid’s idea of proper attire for a police interview?

“My mom works the night shift at Hogan’s diner. Sometimes she stays and serves breakfast, too, if they’re short-staffed.” Bernadette affected a bored expression.

“What about your dad?” Longuria leaned back and crossed his legs, trying not to stare at her naked stomach.

“He split. Years ago.”

“That sucks.” Longuria’s own father had ditched his family, left his mother to raise three kids alone in the Bronx. Deadbeat dads were the lowest form of scum in his opinion.

“Yeah.” Bernadette leaned against the wall and gazed at him from under her eyelashes.

“I need to know some more about your job at Jade Palace. You told Detective McDaniel that you’d been working there for about six months when Jenna Danvers got hired. Is that correct?” Longuria shifted into his detective persona, leaning forward and planting his feet on the floor.

“Yeah, I guess.” Bernadette chewed on a painted fingernail.

“Tell me about Candace Berry. Was she your best friend, too?”

Bernadette’s mouth dropped open, her wet fingernail suspended in midair.

“I think you forgot to mention to Detective McDaniel that you had already recommended one friend for employment at the massage parlor. Before Jenna Danvers. What happened to Candace, Bernadette?”

With her eyes on the carpet, the girl whispered something.

“What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” Longuria leaned further forward, cupping a hand behind his ear.

“She disappeared.” Bernadette’s voice cracked.

“Huh. Can you tell me the circumstances?”

The girl shook her head without looking up. The dyed pink ends of her hair covered her face completely.

“Bernadette, you gotta know this is serious shit. Excuse my fucking French. You’re just a kid, and I wish I could keep you out of this, but it looks to me like you’re in it real deep. Right up to your ass. If you don’t tell me everything you know, right here and now, I gotta haul you in. No way around it.” He paused, letting the threat sink in. “Now how would that make your mom feel?”

Longuria thought he saw a tear fall onto the carpet. Then he heard a sniff.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know what happened to her.”

“You didn’t know what happened to Candace?”

“I didn’t see her leave.” Bernadette paused, wiping her eyes with a fist. “She used to sleep over here every weekend. Her parents were way strict, but my mother was always gone. She’d sleep over here so she could do whatever she wanted. We got the idea to get a job at Jade Palace when we were getting pizza next door. They had this little sign in the window. Help wanted.”

“Okay. Was Candace giving massages?” Longuria softened his tone since he was getting some cooperation.

“Not at first. But this customer saw her cleaning up one night, and he told the manager he liked her. He wanted her. So Igor was like, you gotta give this guy what he wants. Candace was flattered, I guess. The guy had loads of money, you could tell, and Candace had nothing. So she did the massage.”

“And then what happened?”

“She told me the guy was really nice. He said he liked her a lot. He wanted her again the next weekend. He gave her a big tip, like an extra twenty bucks or something. So she said okay.”

“She gave him another massage?” Longuria had been a cop for a lot of years, but he never stopped being surprised by the bad choices people made.

“Yeah. But I never saw her after that. I was cleaning, and answering the phones, and the place was really busy.” Bernadette slid down the wall and sat on the carpet, hugging her knees. Longuria had to look away to avoid an eyeful of what was underneath that tiny skirt.

“Why didn’t you come forward at the time? Why didn’t you tell the cops what you knew?”

“Igor said to keep my mouth shut. He gave me a big bonus, and told me I’d be very sorry if I talked to the cops. None of our friends knew she’d been working there.”

“Okay. You were scared. I get that. But you kept on working there?” Longuria knew he was treading a fine line. He wanted to seem sympathetic enough for her to open up. But he had to keep poking to get at the truth.

She raised her red-rimmed eyes to regard him. “I liked it there, okay? Igor gave me a pretty good raise after Candace left. And that guy who liked her didn’t show up anymore. For a while, anyway.”

“Then what happened?” Longuria could tell she was holding something back.

“Then…then…” The tears began to spill down Bernadette’s pale cheeks. She hiccupped, and tried again. “Then Igor told me to find another friend. Somebody who looked like Candace. He offered me a b…b…big b…bonus.”

Longuria’s tongue froze in his mouth. His jaw wouldn’t work either. He shook his head back and forth several times in disbelief. “So after Candace disappeared, you volunteered Jenna. Your best friend.”

“I didn’t know what else to do. I was afraid he’d kill me if I said no.” Her eyes went wide, pleading.

It wasn’t his job to judge her. His job was to get the facts and arrest the perp. But there was no way he was going to let her off the hook for throwing her friend to the wolves. No, this killer was worse than a wolf. At least a wolf killed quickly and efficiently. “I hear you. Now I need you to tell me everything you know about this man. Have you ever seen him anywhere else, besides the massage parlor?”

“No, I don’t think so. I already told that other detective as much as I could. The guy’s old. He’s got gray hair.” Bernadette scowled, her arms crossed tightly over her chest.

“Would you be willing to work with a sketch artist? Maybe we can get a likeness.”

She considered for a moment, then shrugged tentatively. “I guess. Will I have to go down to the police station?”

The girl look scared. Damn right, she should be scared. She had fucked up. But again, she was just a witness at this point.

“Yeah. I’ll give you a ride. But you might want to put some more clothes on first. It’s below freezing out there.” Longuria stared pointedly at her bare legs.

Bernadette grabbed a fake fur coat. “I’ll be okay.”

He wondered if she would be.

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