On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 4

The body washed up on the silty strip of sand early in the morning, before dawn. Nyack Beach State Park wasn’t officially open at that hour, but the footpath had no gate to keep people out. A jogger spotted a strange shape on the riverbank while passing through the parking lot. She ran straight home and dialed 911. A squad car was dispatched. McDaniel got the call from the chief shortly after that.

“Were you the first on the scene?” Ian asked as he picked his way over the slippery black rocks. The pill he popped upon waking was kicking in and the dull ache in his side was easing up.

“Yup,” Tim Martinelli told him. “And I had Sean with me.” He gestured toward Sean Donnelly, the newest recruit on the Nyack police force, who was bending over, his hands on his knees. “He puked his guts out in the bushes over there.”

“You didn’t touch her, right?” Both officers had been properly trained, but sometimes instinct kicked in and training went flying out the window, so Ian had to check.

“I touched the side of her neck, to see if there was a pulse. I don’t know why I did it. I knew she was dead. Then I returned to the vehicle and called it in.”

Ian nodded, was about to speak, when the body on the beach came into focus. His breath caught in his throat.

Janice.

This had been his first thought when the phone rang that morning: They’ve found Janice.

As he stood, witnessing the dirty blonde hair spread across the cold, wet sand, he knew it for a fact. Not only was his wife dead, but she had thrown herself off a bridge and into the Hudson as a final act of spite. He would be forced to put his hands on her once more, pull the strands of seaweed off her mottled face, and identify her. She would have known he’d be the one, that this job would land in his lap.

A tidal wave of jagged emotions rose like flotsam and jetsam inside his chest.

He had loved this woman once. Enough to marry her. Planned to raise a family with her.

Later, he began to hate her. To hate what she was doing to herself, to their marriage, to him. She became a dead weight around his neck, dragging him down.

A tiny bubble of relief floated up at the sight of her corpse. His marriage would finally be over. He could even find happiness again. But the wrecking ball of guilt quickly swooped in and crushed any sense of hope.

This was his fault. If he had tried harder, he could have done better. He could have saved their marriage. Maybe even saved her from this frigid, wet, sandy grave.

He approached the body cautiously, as if she might jump up at any moment and scream, “Surprise!” in his face. But the blue-gray cast of her skin told him this was highly unlikely. Bloat was setting in. Her arms and legs looked puffy, covered with mottled purplish-yellow swellings. Although his stomach was empty, the acid taste of bile crept up his throat.

Her fingernail polish startled him next: a garish shade of bubblegum pink. Not a shade he had ever seen on Janice before. Her color palate had always been more subtle than this. Soft beige and muted pastels. She never went in for anything gaudy. Where on earth had she been, before she entered the water?

He knelt down in the silty sand and stretched a latex glove over one hand. Gently, he detangled the strands of seaweed from around her face. What he discovered under the slimy, green-black tentacles was not at all what he expected.

The empty eyes staring back at him did not belong to his wife. In fact, these were not the eyes of a woman. Now that he was up close, he could see this was the body of a teenager, someone much younger than Janice. These breasts were smaller, almost child-like. The hips were narrow and boyish. This girl was painfully thin. Yet, he was struck by the eerie similarity.

Despite the age difference, this girl was a dead ringer for his missing wife.

Martinelli stood several feet behind him, waiting. “Is it…her?”

“No. This girl is just a teenager. Probably ten years younger than Janice, I’d guess. But the resemblance is uncanny.” Ian stood and turned toward the parking lot, swallowing the burning acid in his throat. “We better let the forensic team get in here before the tide starts to rise again.”

“ME is on his way. Should be here any minute.”

“Great.”

But Ian didn’t feel great.


“You don’t look so great.” Dr. Yeager removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, a characteristic gesture for the Medical Examiner.

Ian leaned back against the door of his Crown Victoria. Stomach acid continued to froth its way up his throat in an escape attempt, but Ian was determined not to puke. He glanced over at the ME. “I hear that a lot these days. Pretty soon, I’m gonna get offended.”

Why had fate dumped this poor girl’s body on his particular patch of sand? Another twenty miles down the river and she’d have ended up in New York City. Dead bodies turned up there on a daily basis. Here, she’d receive a little more attention, whoever she was.

Dr. Yeager smiled bleakly. Although he was almost forty years McDaniel’s senior, the two had hit it off from the start of the detective’s career. “At least they let you out of the hospital. But this business,” he gestured toward the beach, “can’t be helping.”

Ian met his gaze. “I was so sure it was Janice. I was positive.”

“I’m sorry, Ian. I can’t even imagine what you must be going through.”

“No. You can’t.” Ian shook his head and lowered his voice to a scratchy whisper. “I was glad to see her lying there. It was a relief. If she was dead, I might finally be able to move on.”

The ME took a moment to respond. “But it’s not her.”

“No. Which means I now have a dead girl and a missing wife on my hands.” Ian allowed his eyes to drift back to the river.

“They’re finishing up on the beach as fast as they can, before the tide carries away any more evidence. As soon as the photographer packs up, I’ll have the body transported up to Pomona. It’ll take a few hours, but I should have the autopsy done, minus the test results, by the end of the day.”

“Thanks, Paul. I guess I’ll see you later, then.” Ian’s posture drooped with the added weight of a new homicide investigation. If this was a homicide.

“Go get some food,” the doctor suggested, patting Ian’s shoulder. “You’re looking practically skeletal yourself.”

Ian couldn’t think of a witty retort. He remained silent as he watched the two young paramedics maneuver the shiny black body bag over the rocks.

If it wasn’t Janice sliding around inside that plastic sack, then why did it look so much like her? It felt like a trick. Was someone taunting him? Delivering a body designed to torment him? Who would do such a thing?

And why?


For the first time since he was released from the hospital, Ian entered his office and found himself alone. Detective Frank Longuria had finally vacated, leaving behind only the faintest trace of cheap aftershave in the air and a few fast food wrappers in the trash.

Ian exhaled his relief. Maybe now he’d be able to think.

Chief White had assigned him to the case of the dead girl on the beach. But he was having a hard time pushing aside the pressing need to find his wife. And the bizarre sense that the two cases must somehow be intertwined. It seemed implausible, and yet, he couldn’t let go of the notion.

His first step had to be identifying the body.

She washed up on the sand stark naked, with no clothing, no pocketbook, no ID bracelet, no tattoo of her name scrawled across her lower back. Missing person files would therefore be the place to start. And if Dr. Yeager could ascertain how long she had been in the river, maybe they’d have a shot at figuring out where she went in.

Ian started with the most recent missing person reports, and slowly worked his way back in time. He searched through the files for teen-aged girls who had disappeared from anywhere in Rockland County, but figured he’d probably have to broaden his parameters to include Westchester and possibly more northern counties if she had been dumped higher up the Hudson Valley.

Luck was on his side, it seemed, because he got a hit almost immediately. The parents of Jenna Danvers had reported their fifteen-year-old daughter missing this past July. Which meant she had been gone almost five months before turning up dead on the beach in Upper Nyack. The address listed for the parents was in the glitzy new condominium complex on the riverfront: Harbor West.

He reached for the phone and dialed their home number. A woman’s voice picked up after the second ring.

“Hello?” She sounded tentative.

“This is Detective Ian McDaniel. I’d like to talk to you about Jenna…”

“Ooohh,” the woman wailed into the receiver. Then she must have dropped the phone because Ian heard a loud clatter. “I’m sorry. I’m a basket case today. I heard on the news they found a body this morning on Nyack Beach. I haven’t been able to stop picturing Jenna, lying there, in the sand.”

“Ma’am? Please take a deep breath. Is your husband home?” Ian waited while the woman blew her nose.

“No. He’s at work. He’s an advertising executive in the city. Do you need us both?”

“Yes. I think it would be best. What time will he be home?”

“He takes the train from Grand Central to Tarrytown. He’s not usually home before seven.” More nose blowing. “Sometimes eight.”

Too late at that point for a trip up to the morgue. Change of plans. He’d have to run the photos by the mother. Alone.

“Do you think it would be okay if I came by with some photographs? I’d like to rule Jenna out if possible.” Or rule her in.

“Are these photographs very…gruesome?” Her voice was shaky.

He couldn’t lie to her. “Yes. You might find the photos disturbing. Do you have anyone close by who might be able to come over and lend some support?”

“I’ll see if my neighbor’s home. Can you hold on?”

Before Ian could respond, she dropped the phone again.

He waited, staring into the glossy, full color, dead eyes of Jenna Danvers. There was no doubt she had been quite a beauty once. She could have been Janice at that age. He was just guessing though, as Ian hadn’t met his wife until she was twenty-one.

After a few minutes, he heard some snuffling on the line. “Hello? Mr. McDaniel?”

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“My neighbor can spend the afternoon with me. She’s here now, so I guess we’re ready.”

“I’m on my way.”

The new condo complex called Harbor West, referred, Ian assumed, to the west bank of the Hudson on which Nyack was situated. The buildings resembled something he might have seen on the cover of a Dr. Suess book: pink stucco walls, built to varying heights, with round cutouts inserted here and there, seemingly at random. The older buildings occupying adjacent waterfront lots were constructed of traditional red brick. This place stuck out like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol on a banquet table.

The Danvers family lived in number 216. Ian pressed a button in the foyer and was quickly buzzed into a lobby area where he caught the elevator up to the second floor. The walls were painted in pastel shades of lime green and lemon yellow. Perfect for an old folks home located in the Florida Keys, but strange for suburban New York.

A well dressed middle-aged man was waiting to board the elevator when Ian arrived at the second floor. His penetrating blue eyes stared straight into Ian’s as he stepped aside to let the detective pass. The look seemed belligerent, almost a challenge, as if the man felt he had to protect his turf. Also strange.

When Ian found the apartment, Mrs. Danvers opened the door before he could knock. A petite woman, her artificially blonde hair curled just below her chin.

“You got here so fast.” She spoke breathlessly, as if she had been the one hurrying.

“We don’t want to waste any time identifying the…um…victim.” Ian had almost used the word "body." He must be tired.

Mrs. Danvers led the detective into a living room large enough to host a gathering of the United Nations. He spied the neighbor seated in the center of an enormous, horseshoe-shaped couch.

“I’m Claudia Danvers. And this is my neighbor, Irene Koszanko.”

“You have a lovely home, ma’am.” Ian sounded exactly like the kid on Leave it to Beaver. Eddie Haskell.

“Thank you. We’ve only been here about a year. And Jenna’s been gone almost half that time.” Mrs. Danvers sat close to her neighbor, although there was enough space on the couch for at least twelve more people.

Ian remained standing. “So Jenna disappeared shortly after you moved here?”

The mother nodded.

“Did you have any suspicions about what happened to her?”

“To be honest, we assumed that she ran away. She didn’t leave a note, or call us, but she had been acting up for quite some time. You know how teenagers can be.”

Irene nodded her head. The woman must have been in her eighties, at least. Ian hoped she wouldn’t have a stroke when he pulled out the crime scene photos.

“I have to warn you, these images are graphic. You’ll find them disturbing. I wish it could be avoided, but there’s no way around it.” With that little speech, he slid the eight-by-ten photographs out of their envelope and arranged them on the glass coffee table in front of the two women.

He didn’t have to wait long for a response.

“Noooooooo,” Mrs. Danvers howled, her eyes rolling up into her head.

Irene reached out a bony hand and patted her neighbor on the knee. “There, there. Would you like me to get you a drink, Claudia? A scotch, maybe?”

Without waiting for an answer, Irene rose and shuffled to the sideboard where the liquor cabinet was located. Mrs. Danvers, meanwhile, made a fruitless effort to control her weeping.

Ian waited as patiently as he could. He knew this was a process, and no amount of foot-tapping or knuckle-cracking would move things forward at a faster pace. But the questions were piling up in his mind, like a traffic jam at rush hour.

Once Mrs. Danvers had her drink in front of her, Ian sat down on the sofa next to her.

“I take it this is Jenna.” He pointed to the photograph.

The mother sniffed, blew her nose twice, then nodded.

“And you haven’t seen or heard from her since July?”

She nodded again.

“Do you have any idea where she might have been all this time? Who might have let her stay with them? Family? Friends?”

She shook her head. “The police asked us all these questions when we filed the missing person report. We don’t have any family in this area. So they talked to her friends and teachers at Rockland Day School. No one was able to help.”

“She went to Rockland Day School? In Valley Cottage?”

This was beyond strange. Janice had also attended this very expensive, elite private school. Could it be a coincidence?

“Yes. Last year was her first year there.” She paused, and took a sip of her scotch. “Jenna was in public school before that, but she wasn’t living up to her potential. She was cutting classes and smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. Maybe experimenting with marijuana. Her grades were abysmal.”

“And did things improve when she switched schools?”

“At first. Or maybe we were just kidding ourselves. We imagined she was doing better. The first quarter, she did get a couple of Bs. But her grades quickly fell again. And then she stopped talking to us. Completely.”

“Did you get her help? Did she see the school counselor? Or anyone?”

“Noooo.” Mrs. Danvers broke out in a fresh wave of tears.

Irene gave him a disapproving glare.

“I’m sorry. I know this is very difficult. But the more I can understand about Jenna, the better chance I have of finding who did this to her.”

And possibly finding Janice in the process. The two were linked. Somehow. He was sure of it.

“Who did this? Did someone do this to her?” Mrs. Danvers looked shocked, as if she hadn’t considered the possibility of murder.

“I don’t know. An autopsy is being conducted as we speak. I’ll have more information by the end of the day.” Ian paused, thinking. “You and your husband will need to take a trip up to the morgue to make an official identification. But that can wait until tomorrow morning. Can your husband take the day off work?”

“I’ll ask him. I should call him. He should know what’s going on.” But she made no move toward the phone. Instead, she reached for her scotch and finished it off. “Maybe one more of these first?”

Irene dutifully refilled the glass at the sideboard. She didn’t offer Ian anything, he noticed. He was pretty sure she was mad at him.

“How about we talk more tomorrow? I can drive you up to Pomona, to the morgue, if you’d like?” He rose stiffly, his wound aching again.

Time for another Vicodin, his ribs told him.

“No, that won’t be necessary. My husband likes to drive. We can meet you there. What time is good?” With the second scotch in her hands, Claudia Danvers seemed to be loosening up. She almost smiled at him as if they were making social arrangements.

“Ten o’clock should be fine. I appreciate your cooperation.”

He made it out into the hallway before reaching into his pocket and popping the lid off his pills. He tossed one down without any water. He was getting to be a pro at this.


Back in his office, Ian looked down at his yellow legal pad. He needed to take some notes on the interview he had just finished, but his thoughts kept wandering away. Like the river after a heavy storm, his mind was murky, thick as mud.

Could be the painkillers in his system.

Or he could be distracted by the fact that he hadn’t called or visited Angelica since walking out on her the evening before. Sure, he had a good excuse. He’d been busy all day. But that didn’t lessen his feelings of guilt.

She had been trying to help him. And instead of thanking her, and appreciating her, he had rejected her. Knowing all about her history of being hurt by men, he should have been kinder. More considerate. For all he knew, Angelica was sitting in front of some makeshift altar at this very moment, stirring a bubbling potion with a rooster’s foot, chanting some ancient incantation in order to curse him.

At that moment, his phone rang.

Ian jumped, his heart racing. He really needed to cut back on the Vicodin. He wasn’t feeling at all like himself. “McDaniel here.”

“Skin of toad and eye of newt,” Angelica chanted in his ear. “Bubble and boil. Lose a boot.”

Ian laughed. “Is that the best curse you can come up with?”

“On short notice, yes. In my defense, losing a boot in this weather could be pretty painful.” She didn’t sound angry. That was good.

“I was just thinking about you.” He leaned back in his chair and stuck his feet up on the desk. Both shoes were still present and accounted for. That was also good.

“I know.” He could hear the smile behind her words.

“I miss you,” he admitted.

“I’m glad to hear it. Last night it seemed like you couldn’t get away from me fast enough.”

“I feel bad about walking out on you like that. But I may have caught a break today. Did you hear about the body on the beach?”

“No.” She must be calling him from the Coven because dishes clattered in the background along with high-pitched giggles. Probably Bruce, the bartender. Along with Felix, the hostess.

“Dead girl, but I think I’ve already got a positive ID. So that’s the good part. And the weird part is: she’s a dead ringer for Janice.”

“Dead ringer. Get it?” Angelica was a fool for puns.

“Yeah. I knew you’d like that one.”

“Seriously, though, that is strange. You must have had heart failure when you first saw her.”

“I did. But that’s not the only thing. This girl attended Rockland Day School, which is where Janice went.”

“Wow. Getting weirder by the second.” Angelica took a sip of something. “But my next client just got here so I better hang up. Just called to tease you, for a change.”

“Well, thanks for thinking of me. I’ll see you soon.”

“You better.”

He hung up.

There was no denying he had strong feelings for Angelica. But something was nagging at him, like a little gnat buzzing in his ear. There was another reason he had walked out on her, despite his feelings for her.

In a flash of clarity, he saw the problem.

Ever since the summer, when Angelica first arrived back in Nyack after a decade away, he had relied on her for assistance with his toughest cases. And nineteen eighty-seven had been The Year of The Corpse in the lower Hudson Valley. Three homicides in August, then two more over Halloween weekend. Angelica had used her sixth sense to help him track down suspects and witnesses in each of these cases. Most recently, she had used her powers to save his life.

Of course he appreciated everything she had done for him. But now his ego was at stake. He needed to prove to himself that he could do this job. On his own. Despite the wound still aching in his side. Despite his dependency on a drug that fogged his brain. Despite his missing wife distracting him and the sleazy NYPD detective taunting him.

Sitting at his desk, Ian placed his left hand over his case file and held his right hand up in the air. He swore in front of God and his cup of cold coffee he would not ask for help on this case. He would do it by the book. He would do it properly.

And he would do it by himself.

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