On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 5

“McDaniel here,” he mumbled, his throat scratchy and dry.

“Ian? Are you alright?” It was Dr. Yeager.

“Er, I guess so. I must have fallen asleep at my desk. Jesus. What time is it?” He could have looked up at the clock on the wall but that didn’t occur to him. “What day is it?”

“Still Thursday. And it’s almost five. Quitting time. Sounds like you need to get to bed.”

Ian stretched and cracked his back. “I’m guessing you didn’t call to give me medical advice. What can you tell me about the autopsy?”

Papers rustled. “The victim was approximately fifteen years old. She weighed about one hundred pounds, probably slightly less, at the time of her death since we must account for some minor bloating in the water. Five foot six inches tall. A smoker, probably half a pack a day for the past year or more. She was missing all the eyelashes from her right eye. She was also covered in bruises and lacerations that were in the process of healing, some several days old, some several weeks old.”

“So... she had been beaten? Several days before she died?” Ian scribbled a note on his yellow pad. “And tortured?”

“Looks that way. No broken bones, except for her nose, so I’m ruling out a car accident. My best guess is that she was beaten with a belt. The metal of the buckle creates a particular type of wound.”

“How do you explain the eyelashes?” Ian had never heard of such a thing.

“She may have pulled them out herself. Could have been a form of self-mutilation. It’s not uncommon in girls her age. Especially those under a lot of stress.”

Ian tried to absorb this. “Do you have a cause of death?”

“She was strangled. Distinct finger bruising around the throat, hyoid bone broken. Whoever strangled her used his hands. No water in the lungs, so we know she was already dead when she entered the river.”

“Not a suicide.” Jumpers from the bridges over the Hudson were not rare, but this was clearly something much more sinister.

“No. Beyond that, she was not a virgin. I’d say she had been raped repeatedly, over time. Vaginal tearing and scarring. No traces of ejaculate. And she was underfed, had probably lost a minimum of twenty pounds over the course of the past few months, maybe more. No stomach contents whatsoever. In fact, most of her intestinal tract was also empty. She hadn’t eaten in days, possibly a week, before her death.”

The temperature in Ian’s office seemed to plummet. He imagined he could see his breath in the suddenly frosty air. This sounded like a case of deliberate, methodical torture. He had been exposed to many kinds of criminal behavior, even a couple of desperately sick serial killers, but this type of calculated and controlled violence was new to him.

“Dear God,” were his only words.

Friday morning dawned foggy and overcast. A dull gloom absorbed every ounce of light that struggled through the cloud cover.

Ian drove the Crown Vic up the Palisades Parkway toward Pomona, feeling all hope had been drained from the world. The trees stretched their bare branches toward the heavens in supplication, but today no God was smiling down upon them.

He pulled into the parking lot, cut the engine, and sat in stillness. The morgue looked squashed, as if a giant had stepped on it to create this low, squat structure with a flat roof. It appeared sad and subdued.

Like this day.

Like his mood.

A black Audi sedan pulled in next to him. Ian stepped out of his cruiser and walked around to open the passenger door for Mrs. Danvers.

“Hello, detective.” Her tone mimicked the flatness he was feeling.

Mr. Danvers emerged from his side of the vehicle, his face expressionless.

Ian greeted him, extending a hand. “Detective Ian McDaniel.”

“Jonathan Danvers.” He was a tall man, several inches taller than Ian who was over six foot. His hair was graying at the temples and he wore a gray suit to match. Everything about this day was gray.

They shook hands, then Ian led the way into the building and down the hall to Dr. Yeager’s office. An administrative assistant was typing away at her computer when they entered.

“Dr. Yeager is waiting for you. Go right in.” She tilted her head to indicate the direction.

Ian ushered the parents through the office door. They found Dr. Yeager seated behind his desk.

More hand shaking ensued.

“Well, I’m sure you’d like to get through the most difficult part first. Let’s see if we can make a positive identification.” Dr. Yeager led the entourage through the heavy steel door with its reinforced glass windowpane. Ian knew the ME had guided dozens of grieving parents and loved ones into this morgue, attempting to identify their next-of-kin. Witnessing their pain probably didn’t get any easier with time.

The body awaited them, hidden beneath a white sheet, on a stainless steel table. Dr. Yeager drew back the sheet to expose only the drawn, waxen face. Ian watched the Danvers parents as they approached.

“I don’t know,” Claudia whispered, her eyes fixed on the dead girl’s face. “It could be Jenna. But what happened to her nose?”

“Her nose was broken. I wouldn’t be surprised if she looks different because of that,” Dr. Yeager explained. “Did Jenna have any birthmarks? Tattoos? Jewelry that she always wore?”

“She had a tiny gold cross that her grandmother gave her. It was very delicate. With a diamond chip in the center.” Claudia looked up at Dr. Yeager hopefully. “I don’t think she ever took it off.”

The ME shook his head. “There was no cross. No necklace at all. This young woman was, however, wearing a ring.”

“Jenna had a lot of rings. She liked to change them frequently. Can we see it?”

“In a moment. What about birthmarks? Those will give us a definitive identification. In addition to the dental x-rays, of course. Did you ask your dentist to send those?”

“Yes, I left a message this morning,” Mr. Danvers spoke up.

“She has a butterfly-shaped birthmark. On her stomach, near one hipbone. She always talked about having it removed. But I thought it was pretty. Nothing to be embarrassed about.” Claudia glanced at her husband who scowled down at her.

Ian assumed the man didn’t want his wife discussing their daughter’s body parts with a couple of strangers. Or did he blame his wife for Jenna’s current situation? Did he have reason to blame her?

Dr. Yeager lifted a portion of the sheet to expose the girl’s thighs and lower abdomen. He must have already known that the birthmark was there, having completed the autopsy himself. He would have listed all the identifying marks on a chart. Ian watched as the ME revealed the truth to these shell-shocked parents: the butterfly-shaped birthmark left no doubt this was indeed their daughter.

The dental x-rays would confirm what everyone present already knew. Jenna Danvers had been murdered. First abducted. Then raped, tortured, beaten, starved, and finally, strangled and dumped in the river. Her parents didn’t need to hear all those sordid details. Ian could leave most of that out, unless they demanded to know everything.

But he had other matters to discuss with them. He had yet to discover the connection between their fifteen-year-old daughter and his missing wife. Besides sharing the same face and the same private school education, what else did the two women have in common? And did these parents possess clues that might lead him to Janice?

Out in the parking lot, Ian sat in his Crown Vic with the engine running. He had observed the Danvers parents with Dr. Yeager for the past hour. Even after seeing the birthmark, even after learning the dental records were a match, he could still read the disbelief on their faces. It wasn’t that they couldn’t believe the dead body was their daughter; they simply didn’t want to believe it.

Funny how the brain will twist itself like a pretzel to avoid knowing what it already knows.

Funny wasn’t exactly the right word.

After giving them a little time to absorb the news, and to ask Dr. Yeager a few questions, Ian had apologized but let the couple know they weren’t done yet. He still needed to complete a thorough interview. He could have done the questioning in Dr. Yeager’s office, but his stomach protested. The smells in the morgue always got to him. No amount of bleach or disinfectant could cover up the lingering odor of death. It seeped out of the bodies and through the cracks and permeated everything.

Mr. and Mrs. Danvers had graciously agreed to hold the interview in their home. Ian would need to search Jenna’s room, although he knew the police had already been through her things, back when she first disappeared. Maybe they had missed something. He couldn’t afford to take anything for granted.

He gave the couple a wave as they exited the morgue. Shifting into reverse, he pulled out of his parking spot and let them take the lead, following their brand new Audi. A light drizzle was coming down, coating the cars and the roads with a glistening film. There was absolutely no chance of this day becoming any brighter.

“Can I get you something to drink, Mr. McDaniel?” Claudia Danvers tiptoed around her husband, who had already poured himself several fingers of scotch.

“Do you have a Diet Coke?” he asked her. Then he remembered Angelica’s instructions to avoid his usual beverage. “Or maybe a V-8?”

“We have tomato juice. Would you prefer a Bloody Mary?” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she seemed to regret them. Maybe it was the “bloody” part.

“Just tomato juice will be fine.” He secretly hoped Angelica was reading his mind at this moment, and totaling up his brownie points. He would have vastly preferred the soda. “Thanks.”

Ian took a seat on the corner of the couch, facing the father. “Mr. Danvers, do you remember the last time you saw your daughter?”

“More or less. I remember the last week, before she disappeared. She told us she was looking for a job. It was the beginning of her summer vacation. Then she started staying out late at night, well past her curfew. We yelled and threatened, told her she was grounded, but she ignored us. By the time she left for good, she had stopped speaking to us altogether.” This was the longest string of words Ian had heard the man put together. Maybe the scotch was unhinging his locked jaw.

“So you had no idea where she was going, late at night?” Ian took a sip of the thick, red juice and regretted his choice. He forced himself to swallow.

“None whatsoever.”

“What time did she come in, after those late nights?” The bars closed by two in the morning. If she was staying out later than that, she had to be at a private home or club, or just out on the street.

“Sometimes three, sometimes four in the morning.” Claudia answered this time. She must have been the one waiting up all night for their errant daughter.

“Are you sure it was that late?” The timing could be a crucial clue as to her whereabouts. Ian didn’t want to get it wrong.

“Yes, I’m sure. The last time, she didn’t come in until almost six.”

“And how did she look, after a night out? Was she wearing the same clothes? Was she disheveled? Did you have any idea what she might have been doing?”

Claudia Danvers glanced over at her husband. He frowned down into his drink. Ian felt she was asking permission to tell the truth, but he wasn’t sure her husband was giving it. She began to sniff and reached for a tissue.

“I know this is very difficult. You might feel responsible for what happened to Jenna. But I’m sure you did everything in your power to keep her safe. And hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Believe me, I know.” Ian didn’t want to reveal his personal stake in this case, but he needed to keep the conversation flowing.

Claudia blew her nose. “When Jenna came home, I could smell alcohol on her breath and cigarette smoke on her clothing. She also smelled of sweat. And…and…” The mother choked back her sobs as the tears rolled down both cheeks and dripped off the end of her nose.

“She smelled of sex. Are you happy now? You’ve gotten us to admit it. Our fifteen-year-old daughter was a whore. Okay?” Jonathan Danvers threw back the last of his scotch and launched himself off the couch to get another.

Ian tried to tread carefully. “Every detail is vital to our investigation. If I don’t have all the information, I can’t catch the guy who did this to your daughter.” He took a deep breath. “Can you think of anything else?”

Claudia looked off toward a corner of the room. “There was another smell. Something sweet and flowery. Maybe a cheap perfume. Or air freshener. Not a scent I ever smelled on Jenna before.”

“And when did you smell this? Do you remember exactly?” Ian pulled a small notepad out of his pocket.

“Just that last week. On those nights she came home late.” Claudia reached for her own glass of scotch. “It was repulsive. The cigarettes, the perfume, the make-up, the sex. Everything she was doing disgusted us. And it felt like she was doing it all to spite us. Just to hurt us. To make us pay for something. God only knows what.”

Ian let that go. Teenagers did all kinds of rebellious and possibly vindictive things. Although these parents had clearly held back information, he didn’t believe it was out of guilt.

“I know the police interviewed her friends at Rockland Day School back in July. But did you give them the names of her friends from before that? Because she’d only been at that school for a single year, right?” It was a wild guess, but possibly Jenna had not quite fit in with her new prep school peers.

The mother considered for a moment. “I don’t think we did.”

As Claudia wracked her brain to come up with a list of every friend Jenna had mentioned since grade school, Jonathan Danvers continued to sip his scotch and stare at the wall. Ian excused himself to examine the girl’s bedroom down the hall.

Jenna had thoroughly embraced the punk rock scene. On the top of her dresser was a photograph of her, although it was difficult to recognize her with the heavy black eyeliner and the neon pink mohawk. How long ago had this photo been taken? Her hair showed no trace of that pink dye today. Was the dye permanent? Or would it wash out? Had it grown out in the five months she’d been missing? Had someone cut her hair to remove the dyed section?

Her drawers contained ripped tee shirts and cut up sweatshirts alongside acid-washed jeans. Mini-dresses and leather skirts hung in her closet. The Clash and the Sex Pistols glared from posters on the walls.

Returning to the dresser, he sorted through all the containers on top. Her jewelry box was filled with rings of every size, along with numerous safety pins and a black leather dog collar. But he couldn’t find the small gold cross her mother had described.

Ian picked up the photograph and took a closer look. Sure enough, the tiny gold cross was nestled at the base of her throat. Her mother must have been telling the truth. If Jenna would wear the cross with the punk outfit she sported in the photo, she never took it off.

So where was it now? Lost at the bottom of the river? Or kept as a trophy by her killer?

On his way out, Ian practically ran straight into the tall gentleman with the piercing blue eyes. The stranger stumbled to a quick halt, mumbled an apology, and continued down the hallway to a door at the far end. He inserted a key, and disappeared a moment later.

“Is there any way to tell how recently Jenna’s hair might have been cut?” Ian was on the phone with Dr. Yeager.

“Yes, I’d say her hair was cut in the past week or so. The ends are very blunt.”

“Give me your best guess. Was it a professional job? Are the ends all even? Or do you think her captor just chopped off her hair?”

One of the reasons Jenna Danvers had appeared so similar to Janice, especially when Ian first saw the body, was because of the hair. The color and the length matched Janice’s exactly. Was this on purpose? Ian then remembered Jenna’s mother Claudia also happened to wear a similar cut, about shoulder-length and curled under. In fact, Janice's mother also had a similar color and cut. Maybe this was just a popular style?

“I’ll take another look. Can I call you back?”

“Sure. Thanks, Paul.”

Ian hung up the phone and peered at his notes. He had passed the list of Jenna’s friends’ names on to his researcher, a humorless woman who was interning in the department while completing a degree in Criminal Justice. Once she provided addresses and phone numbers, he might have to divvy those up and get some help with interviewing. There were about twenty names on the list.

He also needed to speak with an expert from the state crime lab up in Albany about an estimation of where the body entered the Hudson. He was sure there was no way to pinpoint the exact spot, but perhaps they could narrow it down to a few of the most likely places.

The phone rang.

“McDaniel here.”

“I don’t like to jump to conclusions, but I’ll give you my gut feeling. I think the haircut was a careful, but not professional job. All the ends are not exactly the same length. One side of the head is slightly longer than the other.”

“You don’t think it could have been done on purpose? Some kind of asymmetrical hairdo?” Ian was no hairstyle expert. His own mop of wayward curls rarely, if ever, appeared symmetrical.

“My guess is no. The difference between the two sides is slight. About half an inch. I’d say it was an amateur doing his or her best.”

“One more thing, while I have you on the line. You said you think Jenna was in the water for less than twelve hours. Can you be more specific? Less than twelve but more than six? Or eight? What is the minimum?”

“The skin was just beginning to loosen. Bloating had begun, but was still in the early stages. Given the water temperature, it’s really a tricky thing to gauge. Cold water can actually preserve a body, somewhat.”

“So, would you say at least six hours?”

“What I’m telling you is that I can’t give you an exact number. I wish I could. But giving you the wrong information could be just as detrimental as not enough information. Possibly even worse.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Ian sighed. “I don’t think any of this gets us much closer to nailing the bastard, unless we happen to find him and he kept the hair. Or the cross.”

“Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Yeah. Stranger things have happened.”

Ian didn’t know for sure, but he assumed the expert in Albany would need more information than just where a body landed and a vague approximation of how long it had been in the river. He dialed the number anyway, crossing his fingers that he wouldn’t be laughed off the line.

“Aaron Schillman? This is Ian McDaniel. I’m down in Rockland County. I got your name from Dr. Paul Yeager. He told me you’re the guy to talk to about bodies in the Hudson.”

“Go on.” The guy had a nasally voice like a nerd with a permanent head cold.

“We found a body yesterday morning, at dawn, on the sand at Nyack Beach State Park. Yeager says she wasn’t in the water more than twelve hours. Maybe as few as six. I was wondering if you could give me any sense of where she might’ve been dumped. She was already dead when she went in. Not a suicide.”

“Was the abdominal cavity punctured?”

“Uh, no. Why do you ask?”

“And she wasn't weighted down?"


"Then the perp wanted her to be found. When the mob does a hit, and they want a body to stay missing, they weight it down and puncture the gut. That way, the gases can’t fill the abdominal cavity and cause the body to float.”

“Maybe the guy was an amateur. Maybe this was his first kill.”

“Could be. But definitely not mob-related.”

Ian heard some crinkling of paper.

“Okay. I’m looking at a map. Of course I know the Hudson like the curly black hairs on the back of my hand. But I had to check on the location of this ‘Nyack Beach,’ as you call it. Now that I see it on the map, there is no doubt in my mind. There’s only one spot where a body could be dumped and end up there in less than twelve hours but more than six.”

Ian was dumbfounded. He opened his mouth but no words came out. He closed it again.

“Hello? Detective? You still there?”

“Yes, I’m here. I’m just in shock. I was under the impression an exact location would be very difficult to pinpoint.”

“I see. Of course. You were assuming that my reputation must be inflated. That I’m way too young to be known throughout New York State, if not the entire Northeast, as the foremost expert in Hudson River currents and corpses.”

Way too young? How old was this guy anyway?

“I’ll have you know I went to Wesleyan when I was only fourteen. I finished my graduate degree last year.” He sounded like he might still suck his thumb at night.

“Mr. Schillman, I really don’t need to know your age or your credentials. If Paul Yeager tells me someone is an expert, I believe him. I just need to know where the body went in.”

“Bear Mountain Bridge. Or somewhere very close. My second guess would be Tompkins Cove or Stony Point. The area around Haverstraw Bay is wide and shallow. It would take some time for a body to pass through there. If it had been dumped further south, it would have washed up at Nyack Beach in under six hours, barring any intervention. So it couldn’t have been dumped much higher or lower than Bear Mountain.”

The dork sounded supremely smug about his calculations, but Ian didn’t care. In fact, he felt like kissing the little fucker.

After contacting the state police at the barracks near West Point, Ian grabbed a quick lunch out of the vending machine in the basement. Peanut butter cups and corn chips along with a Diet Coke. There was no V-8 juice in the machine. He found himself explaining the circumstances inside his head in case Angelica was tuning in. He hoped she wasn’t going to lecture him the next time he saw her. Who was he kidding? Of course she would.

He munched the chips as he headed north again on the Palisades Parkway. Checking the rear view mirror, he spied a maroon car in the right hand lane behind him. Was that the same Olds that had followed him through Nyack? He slowed and switched lanes to see what the car behind him would do.

After about twenty minutes of cruising at the speed limit, the maroon Olds was still there, in the same lane as his Crown Vic, hanging back behind a blue pickup truck. Not very well hidden, either.

Ian had arranged to meet with the state and local police in three different locations where it looked to him, at least on the maps he had examined, like someone might be able to dump a body under the cover of darkness. He put on his blinker and took the exit for the bridge. As he pulled off onto the ramp, he kept an eye on his rear view mirror. The maroon Olds slowed to a crawl then followed him off the Parkway and down the ramp.

At the stop sign, Ian jerked the Crown Vic to a halt, threw the gearshift into PARK, and opened the door. The pain of the steering wheel jabbing into his ribs only pissed him off more. Just to let this asshole know he wasn’t playing games, Ian drew his weapon as he approached the Olds, pointing the revolver directly toward the driver’s head.

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