On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 14

Detective Longuria had driven his own vehicle to Bernadette’s house, which wasn’t exactly proper police procedure, but he didn’t mind bending a few rules here and there. Not if he got a result. And he usually did. His closure rate was the best at his NYPD precinct.

On the way to the Nyack police station, he let Bernadette sit up front with him. He was going easy on her, trying not to make her feel like public enemy number one. He had no idea what the DA would do with her, whether or not she’d end up with any charges, but even if she got off scot-free, he guessed she might never forgive herself.

Nor should she.

“Did you ever hear anybody call this guy by name?” Longuria continued the interview as they drove through Congers.

“No. The other detective already asked me that.” Bernadette looked out her window as if the scenery fascinated her. And this stretch of Kings Highway was not particularly scenic.

“How did he make an appointment? You had to write down something in the book, right?” Longuria glanced over. She didn’t look at him. “I’m guessing you’re scared to tell us his name. You think if we go after this guy, he’ll end up coming after you.”

“My friends are dead,” she whispered, still focused on the bare tree branches streaming past out the window.

“And we need to put the bastard who killed them behind bars, Bernadette. You can help us do that. You want him to kill again? You know he took another girl yesterday. From the mall.”

She turned her head toward him, eyes wide, shock scrawled across her freckled face.

“That’s right. The massage place has been closed, thanks to us. He was forced to branch out.” Longuria played his trump card.

She continued to stare at him without speaking.

“You want to make up for what you did to your friends? Save this girl’s life. Give us his name, Bernadette.”

Tears sprang to her eyes again, but she shook her head. “I don’t know his real name. He only used a nickname when he called. All the men used them.”

“So what’s his nickname?”

She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. A tear rolled down her freckled cheek.

“Don’t protect the bastard.” Longuria glanced over at her. “Help us nail him.”

“Charlie Chaplin,” she whispered the name.

Longuria went silent, absorbing the information.

He seemed to remember, although only vaguely, some story he had read once about Chaplin being involved in the murder of someone famous, maybe aboard a yacht. It seemed like a very strange nickname for a tall, thin, gray-haired man. But the two men did have one thing in common.

A first name.

In the Crown Vic, Ian cruised up the Palisades Parkway toward Bear Mountain Bridge. Angelica rooted around inside her monstrous pocketbook, mumbling to herself. Eventually, she pulled out two slightly dented apples and handed one to him.

He looked doubtfully at the piece of fruit, wondering if he was supposed to eat it or use it as a back-up weapon.

“Eat it,” she said.

He smiled to himself. When he crunched into the apple, he found it surprisingly juicy and sweet.

“You’re welcome,” she added, and bit into hers. “I never go anywhere without supplies. I don’t want anyone to go hungry. Especially myself.”

Ian laughed. “That’s a good trait. I’m the opposite. Always forgetting to eat, then getting so hungry I can’t even think straight.”

“Tsk, tsk.”

After some more crunching, he said, “I wonder how the Vanderwalds knew Janice was on the bridge, threatening to jump? They got there pretty damn quick. Fast enough to drive off with the car.”

“If Kaminski was telling us the truth, he was passed out. And unless Janice announced her intentions, no one wouldn’t have known where she was taking his car.”

“It could have been Longuria.” Ian was silent for a minute. “I was just wondering if Kaminski, or someone else, might tip off Vanderwald that we’re coming. The situation is going to be pretty dicey, even if our arrival is a total surprise. But if he knows we’re coming, we could walk into some kind of trap.”

“Do you really think either one of them could be that slimy? We’re talking about an innocent young woman’s life.”

“It’s very hard to say what people will do.” Ian frowned, concentrating on passing a car. “Money can be a strong motivator.”

Charles Vanderwald the Third hung up the phone in his study, his jaw muscles working, his face crimson. He banged clenched fists down onto his desktop twice, scattering a few loose notes. Then he walked into the kitchen where his wife of twenty-six years was sipping her cup of afternoon tea and reading a copy of Cosmopolitan.

“I have to go out for a while,” he told Bunny. “I’m not sure how long it will take, but I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

She nodded without looking up at him as she turned a page.

He held his the keys to the Caddy in his hand, but lingered for another moment. “Are you going to visit Janice this afternoon?”

“There’s no point, is there?” Bunny snapped her head up to glare at him, her eyes icy. “She’s a zombie. She doesn’t even know who I am.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” he cajoled. “She's been through a lot, but Dr. Blanchard tells me she's improving."

"You two think you can pull the wool over my eyes, but I'm not quite that stupid, Charles. I know you've arranged for your buddy to keep Janice drugged. I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish, but I bet Janice knows something she shouldn't."

"That kind of talk will not be tolerated." His jaw muscles tightened once more. "Think about your daughter. It would be good for her to have a visitor.”

“You go.” She laughed, a raw sound like something being torn in two. “Oh no. That’s right. You’re much too busy. So many important things to do.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he repeated, turned on his heel, and left.

Ralph Kaminski stood on a step stool in order to reach above his refrigerator. The cabinet up there was extra deep, as deep as the fridge. He felt around, trying to lay a hand on the bottle of Wild Turkey he had stashed all the way in the back. It was a gift from the Vanderwalds a couple of years ago, but he had set it aside. For an emergency.

Like now.

He poured himself a large mug full of the amber liquid and left it sitting on the kitchen table. The table where he had drawn the map. The map which would get him killed.

Ralph had discovered the meaning of the phrase between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes there was no good choice. Sometimes, after so many bad choices, it was too late to make a good choice.

He sank to his knees next to his bed. When was the last time he had vacuumed this carpet? He had no clue. The whole place was a pit. A total sty. But it didn’t matter anymore.

Sliding one hand under the bed, he located the shoe box where he had hidden the pills. It had taken many years to accumulate as many as he needed. Now he had more than enough. There had to be hundreds in here. Everything from prescription barbiturates to over-the-counter sleep aids to painkillers. A smorgasbord.

He was ready.

Longuria greeted the straight-laced receptionist at the station's front desk with a wink, then breezed back to McDaniel’s empty office with Bernadette in tow. The Boy Wonder had told him he planned to find a cabin somewhere in the woods where he thought the girl was being held. How, exactly, he had come to these conclusions was not clear.

“Have a seat, Bernie. Does anybody call you that?” Longuria watched her roll her eyes. “I guess that’s a no.”

She sank into Ian’s spare chair and sighed. “How long is this going to take? My mother’s gonna have a conniption when she gets home and I’m not there.”

Longuria seriously doubted this was true, as the mother routinely worked all night long while her fourteen-year-old daughter cleaned up at a local whorehouse. Even if this mother was completely deluded about her daughter’s activities, she certainly didn’t keep the girl on a short leash.

“Give her a call.” Longuria indicated the phone on the desk. “Leave a message on the machine if she’s not home yet.”

While Bernadette placed the call, Longuria went to see about a sketch artist.

Darlene, the dispatcher, waved him over. “Detective Frank Longuria? I have a message for you.”

“Lay it on me, woman.” He smirked at her, always happy to push someone’s buttons.

“Lay it on your own self,” Darlene fired back, giving him the evil eye. “My name is Darlene Smith. You can call me Ms. Smith. You want your message or not?”

“Sassy! I like that in a woman.” Longuria winked at her.

“You can keep your likes to yourself because this woman don’t give a rat’s rear end what you like. Detective McDaniel wants you to meet him at a cabin. I wrote down the directions he gave me.” She handed him a slip of paper.

Longuria glanced briefly at the paper. “Who do I need to talk to about getting a sketch artist in here? I got a witness in McDaniel’s office and she’s underage. I can’t leave her here alone.”

“Bring her out. We can stick her at a desk.” Darlene waved a hand at one of the empty cubicles. “I’ll call the sketch artist. In the meantime, I can keep an eye on her.”

“Thanks, dollface.” Longuria returned to his smirk. “I owe you one.”

“Oh no, you didn’t.” But Darlene smirked right back.

Ian and Angelica stepped out of the Crown Vic into the fading rays of late afternoon sunshine. Clouds were creeping in from the west. The sun would be setting in less than an hour, leaving them very little daylight. Ian checked the glove box and found a heavy-duty flashlight. He slipped it into his jacket pocket.

“I’m really not comfortable with you tagging along on this one, Angel.” He placed both hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “If this wasn’t such a rush job, I would have dropped you off at home. But I can’t waste a lot of time yelling at you. Please stay in the car.”

“No way. Sorry, but I’m the only backup you’ve got right now. I know I’m not much. But I hope I’m better than nothing.” She smiled up at him, hands on her hips.

He shook his head. “I should have known better. When do you ever listen to me?”

“I listen to you all the time. I just ignore most of what I hear.” Her smile widened. The woman really thought she was funny.

“I give up. Let’s get going. But when I tell you to hang back, you have to listen. If anything happened to you, it would be the end of me.”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “That’s enough mushy stuff. We’ve got work to do.”

She took off down the path toward the falls, opening their homemade map. Ian had no choice but to follow.

Hell’s Hole was part of a cascading series of small waterfalls with an underwater cavern created by large boulders. Brave souls, usually also intoxicated, would slide down the rapids on their rears, searching for the hole. Drownings were not uncommon here. Usually once or twice each summer, the park rangers and state police would be called to the scene to fish out a teenager who’d hit his head on the way down. Or had discovered the underwater chamber only to become disoriented once inside it, trapped between the crashing water and the slippery rocks. Between a rock and a hard place.

The falls tumbled from a murky, leaf-strewn lake just up the hillside. One time back in high school, Ian had cut classes to come here with a group of friends. A black snake swimming across the surface of the lake had startled him, sending a jolt of primal fear through his veins. The image, coiled deep inside his mind all these years, reared up like a cobra as Angelica preceded him along the trail next to the water’s edge. He pictured a water moccasin slithering out from the bank and attacking, its sharp fangs sinking into her flesh. He almost called out to warn her. Logic told him there were no snakes roaming around in this thirty-something degree weather, but his thudding heart wasn’t so sure.

Angelica turned back to look at him. He shrugged in embarrassment, guessing she had been listening in on his paranoid thoughts.

After rounding the lake, Angelica veered off on a side path that led into a ravine. Ian was reminded of the path he had stumbled down in his dream, looking for Janice. Exposed tree roots threatened to trip him. He should have worn hiking boots for this, he realized too late as he slipped on a smooth rock. Angelica’s footwear looked much more stable than his own.

Looming in front of them, high on the hillside opposite the ravine, was the stand of pine trees Kaminski had mentioned. Ian remembered the cabin was situated just behind the pines, hidden from view.

A perfect hideout.

Angelica slowed her pace. Ian caught up to her and whispered into her ear. “I want you to hole up in the pine trees and stay put. I’m going to try to get closer to the cabin and figure out if anyone is in there.”

“Please be careful, Ian.” Her eyes held his for a moment, then she stepped aside to let him lead the way.

He drew his weapon as they moved into the grove of pines, the dry needles beneath his feet stifling any sound. The tall evergreens cut off all remaining daylight and the temperature dropped more than a few degrees. Ian felt as though he had stepped into another world. A cold, dark underworld.

Tilting his head to the side, he indicated Angelica should move off the path and into the trees. She followed his suggestion, disappearing behind the trunk of a large conifer. He paused, listening for her footsteps. When she seemed to be in place, he continued to move forward.

Stepping toward the edge of the shadowed grove, Ian caught sight of the cabin through the trees. As Kaminski had described, it was very small, probably only a single room. There was no chimney. No homey smell of wood smoke. Ian doubted there could be running water or electricity out here. The thin, wooden shell would do little to block the cold or the wind.

He thought he heard a sound, coming from the direction of the cabin. It might have been the breeze. The tall tree trunks moaned as they leaned with the wind, as if the slightest movement caused them pain. But as Ian closed the distance between himself and the shack, the sound grew louder, more insistent.

He flashed back to his dream.

The sound coming from the cabin was the same music he had heard while Janice was waltzing in the woods with the tall, thin man. The Blue Danube? Or something just as familiar. He knew he had listened to it as a child. Maybe a piece his mother had taught him on the piano?

Inching closer, the sound changed again. The music morphed into the piercing cries of a wounded animal. Howling and keening. Maybe a wolf or a fox. A moment later, as he neared the cabin, Ian could make out words. The voice was not animal, but human. A woman crying. He could clearly hear her sniffles interspersed between sobs.

And then the prayers began in earnest.

The emotion behind the cries was so raw, it paralyzed him. He felt impelled to make it stop, at any cost, but at the same time, he was terrified to witness the pain and desecration contained inside the decrepit shack.

He forced his mind to focus on the task at hand. To assess the risks and the way forward. To block out the terror and make a plan.

The cabin was perched on the hillside, not quite at the crest of the hill. He could see a door facing the pathway, but no windows on the front or the side facing him. The terrain around it was mostly cleared, and at this time of year, the undergrowth had died back. There was nothing taller than a few tufts of weeds between the pines and the cabin to provide cover. The minute he stepped out from the grove of evergreens, he would be exposed. The killer would see him coming.

He listened again for Angelica. The only sound he could hear was the continued muffled prayers coming from the cabin. He silently said a quick prayer himself: please keep Angelica safe. If he took the time to worry about his own fate, he would remain paralyzed, stuck behind these tree trunks, cowering in fear. He couldn’t afford those thoughts right now.

Crouching low, he scurried up the path to the front of the cabin as fast as he could. He hit the dirt in front of the door. Everything was still, except for the young woman’s voice droning the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. Forgive us our trespasses.

He couldn’t be sure she was alone in there, although he heard no other voice. Vanderwald could be hiding, just waiting to take him by surprise when he entered. He could be wielding a weapon. Possibly even a gun. Ian had no clue what lay behind the weathered wood of the cabin's door.

There was a padlock situated just above the doorknob. Locked. The woman inside must be alone.

The metal of the hasp was still somewhat shiny, not rusted, unlike the doorknob itself. Ian surmised the lock had been added recently, maybe within the past year. He felt a sudden surge of hope; perhaps he already knew about the only victims this killer had claimed.

He reached up a hand and pulled on the padlock. Of course it didn’t open. That would have been way too easy. He jiggled the hasp to test how securely it was attached to the door. No wiggle. The old wood seemed to be holding firm.

He hadn’t thought to bring an ax or even a small hatchet. It wouldn’t have been quiet, but it would have done the job. A crow bar, or even a pocketknife, would have been helpful. But all he had was a flashlight and a gun. Bashing the lock with his Maglite would only break the light. On television, cops always shot the lock to open the door. This was a dangerous move which by no means guaranteed success.

Rising up from his crouch, he took a couple of steps back, away from the door. He didn’t want to alert Vanderwald of his presence any sooner than necessary. But he also didn’t want to accidentally shoot a bullet through the door and into the praying captive. He pointed the revolver at the lock and yelled, “Get down on the floor!”

Taking aim, he hoped the young woman wasn’t tied to a chair directly behind the door. Then he heard a voice behind him.

“I wouldn’t do that, Ian.”

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