Ian rang the doorbell a third time, stomping his feet on the welcome mat. Still no answer. He backed away from the front door and checked his list, taking yet another look at the peeling number stickers on the mailbox. Yup, a match. Maybe he should have called ahead.
The curtain in the door’s windowpane moved an inch to the side. Ian caught a glimpse of an eye peeking out. He fumbled for his wallet and stuck his badge up against the glass.
The deadbolt clicked and the door swung open.
A teenager wearing only a man’s extra large tee shirt stood in front of him. Her eyes were emerald green and enormously wide, rimmed in day-old black eyeliner. The neon pink dye in her hair was almost grown out, just covering the bottom couple of inches of her naturally carrot-colored hair.
“Hi there. Are your parents home?” Ian needed a parent’s permission to interview a minor. At least, technically speaking. If he interviewed this kid alone, anything she gave him wouldn’t be admissible in court.
“Um, I don’t think so. I could go check?” She made this a question.
“That would be great. And please put some clothes on. I’m going to need to speak with you for a minute.”
She stared at him as if he had sprouted another head. It was possible she wasn’t used to men asking her to put more clothing on.
As the girl disappeared down a darkened hallway, Ian checked his list once more. She must be Bernadette O’Sullivan.
A black Kitty Kat clock on the wall ticked loudly, swishing its tail back and forth. Ten-fourteen. The distinct aroma of cat permeated the house. Ian looked around, expecting to find at least a few more furrier felines.
This was the fourth house he had hit so far, and all the rest had been a bust. He had insisted that parents pull their groggy teenagers out of their beds only to learn they hadn’t seen or heard from Jenna Danvers in several years. He had been certain she would have kept in touch with her old friends, her classmates from the public junior high school. He couldn’t say why. It had just been a hunch.
“My mother isn’t home.” Bernadette returned to the living room wearing torn jeans and an oversized sweatshirt with the neck ripped out. There was no mention of a father. “I guess you need to leave?”
“If you don’t mind, I have a few questions for you first. It won’t take long.” Ian took a seat on the plaid couch. A tremendously fat tabby lifted its head to glare at him, but decided to stay put on the adjoining cushion. Perhaps this single cat was putting out all of the aroma. “Are you Bernadette O’Sullivan?”
“Who needs to know?” She leaned against a wall, looking bored. It was a well-rehearsed pose.
“I’m Detective McDaniel. I’m looking into the murder of your friend, Jenna Danvers.”
Bernadette’s already pale skin turned a shade of gray while her saucer-sized eyes widened further. “Jenna’s dead?”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Bernadette. I’m guessing the two of you were close.”
“We used to be. I mean, I haven’t seen her in months. But I knew something bad had happened. Because we used to talk every single day. Then nothing.” She slid slowly down the wall until she landed on the dingy carpet. Tears glistened in her black-rimmed eyes.
“Bernadette, I need to know everything you can tell me about Jenna. What was she doing out late at night the week before she disappeared? Did you go out with her?” Ian leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
The girl didn’t answer right away. Instead, she stared at her fingernails and picked off bits of chipped bubblegum pink polish. Ian recognized the color. He waited, holding his breath.
“You can’t tell my mother.” She lifted her eyes to meet his. If she removed the smudged make-up, he’d have said she was no older than twelve.
“We have to find the man who did this to Jenna. That’s the most important thing. I’m really not interested in getting you in any trouble.” Ian carefully danced around the promise. It was possible he might need to tell this girl’s mother everything.
“She got hired at Jade Palace. You know that Oriental massage place? It’s in Congers Plaza, like half a mile from here, up Kings Highway. I’d been working there for a while, like six months. I told her about the job. We were getting paid under the table because we were underage.” She sounded sullen, as if she expected to receive a lecture.
“What, exactly, were you hired to do there?” Ian knew what went on in that type of establishment, and it wasn’t shiatsu or acupuncture.
Bernadette returned to picking her fingernail polish.
“Did you give massages?” he asked, softening his tone.
She shook her head. “We answered the phone, made appointments, and cleaned up the rooms. It wasn’t so bad. The manager gave us free drinks and cigarette breaks. It was pretty cool. You know?”
Ian nodded, encouraging her to go on. “Then what happened?”
“It was like Jenna’s third or fourth night. And one of the regular girls didn’t show up. So they needed somebody to fill in. To do the massages. I was like no way. I’m not touching some hairy-ass stranger. I wanted to quit, like just walk out. But Jenna volunteered to do it.”
Huh. “So how did that go?”
“I didn’t really get a chance to talk to her about it. I mean, I was cleaning up and she was pretty busy. They had a lot of clients lined up that night.”
“Did you talk at the end of the night?”
“No, that was the other weird thing. Jenna got offered a ride home from some old guy. And she took it. She seemed happy about it, too. She just waved to me, and she had this big smile, like she was off on a date or something.”
“What can you tell me about this man?” Ian pulled a small notepad out of his pocket. He hadn’t taken his Vicodin that morning as he was trying to wean himself off those pills, but he didn’t want to risk forgetting something vital to the investigation. And his mind had been less than razor-sharp.
“He was an old white guy. Gray hair, with a droopy kind of face. And tall, like your height, I guess. He looked like he had money. And he paid cash.”
“Do you remember anything else? What type of clothing he wore? His voice? Anything he said?”
Bernadette closed her eyes for a second, as if picturing him. “He had nice looking clothes. Blue shirt and dark blue pants. I remember because his eyes matched his outfit. No tie. Shiny brown shoes. And a leather belt.”
Ian stared at the girl for a few seconds. Even after five months, he could tell she was picturing the man clearly. She was either a very good witness, or she had been thinking about giving this information to someone and had carefully planned what to say.
“He made an impression on you?”
“He scared me. I guess Jenna must have liked him, but I thought he was creepy. There was no way I’d want to touch that old skin, all loose and baggy. And there was something about his eyes. Scary.”
“Did anyone call him by name?”
“No. The men don’t use their real names. Especially the ones with money.”
“When men call on the phone to make an appointment, how does that work?”
“They use a first name only, or a nickname. Like Cat Stevens. Or Henry the Eighth. Stuff like that.”
“Do you remember the name this guy used?”
“Shit.” Bernadette squeezed her eyes shut. She seemed to be thinking hard, but it could have been an act. “Sorry. It was something funny, I think. Something that made people laugh when they heard it. I can’t remember it now.” She sounded upset with herself.
“Don’t worry about that. If it comes back to you, just give me a call.” He dug one of his cards out of his wallet and placed it on the coffee table.
He could organize a raid, but Ian bet that a place like this didn’t keep any written records. Unless a customer used a credit card, there’d be no way of tracing him. Or would there? If a man called from his home phone to make an appointment, the telephone company would have a record. But would the killer have made such an obvious mistake? Would he have thought far enough ahead to avoid this trap? Maybe not.
“Bernadette, can you think of anything you haven’t told me yet? Anything at all?” Ian held her gaze. “Did you see this man’s car, by any chance?”
“Yeah, but only from far away. I couldn’t tell you much about it, except it was big. Something like a Cadillac, you know, fancy. They were driving away and I started to walk home. Alone. At four in the morning.” Her eyes were glistening, again. “Jenna was my best friend. How could she do that to me?”
Ironic, Ian thought, that Bernadette had been ditched, left to walk the streets alone late at night, but she was the one who made it home safely. And the girl in the fancy car with the rich old man had disappeared.
Ian decided to swing by Jade Palace, just to get a visual on the place and the surrounding area. A raid was probably the way to go. If he could gather most of the uniforms, and borrow a few from other jurisdictions, they’d be able to overwhelm the staff instantly, before anyone could hide, delete, or shred the information he needed.
Despite the name, there was nothing overtly “oriental” about this tiny storefront in the Congers Plaza. It sat between a check cashing establishment and a greasy-looking pizza place. The plate glass windows and single door were all papered over to deter peeping eyes. There was a large sign over the entrance, but no words, not even Chinese characters, on the front door. Just four numbers. The address of the place.
Ian cruised around to the back of the building. He discovered a dumpster for each unit, as well as a row of steel doors set into a single-story wall of concrete block. He figured he’d need a couple of units on the back door, plus a couple on the front, and a couple of officers inside. That should do it.
He forgot to ask Bernadette if she’d ever seen any weapons in the place. He’d have to swing by her house once more. He didn’t want any nasty surprises.
And he had to find out when her mother might be home so she could sign a release form giving permission for her daughter to be interviewed. Sure, it was after the fact, but no one needed to know this.
By noon, Ian was seated across from Chief White in her office, hashing over the details for the raid. He had learned the massage parlor didn’t open until five o’clock each evening, but was normally bustling by eight or nine. The girls worked as long as the clients continued to come through the doors, occasionally as late as four or five in the morning. After conferring with the chief, they decided ten o’clock would be the best time for the raid.
“Make sure you get all the paperwork done. Anything we find in there has got to be admissible,” Chief White warned. “Let me know if you need me to hassle a judge.”
“Okay. And I’ll try to get Evelyn to come in today.” The intern was not fond of weekend hours. But if she dared to mention the word “overtime,” he was going to fire her ass. He wasn’t sure he could actually do that, but he could definitely threaten it.
“I’ll get on the horn to Clarkstown," Chief White said. "Let them know we need to borrow a couple extra units tonight. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You wanna ride along?” Ian had never known the chief to tag along on a bust, but he thought he’d offer. It was the polite thing to do.
“Aren’t you cute?” The chief laughed at him. “You don’t need me getting in your way. You know this old body don’t move too fast these days.”
Ian protested, as he knew he should. Chief White hushed him and shooed him out of her office.
He jogged down the stairs, remembering that first day back, when he could barely climb a single flight without getting winded. He still hadn’t popped a painkiller, and his ribs were not an issue. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Or maybe he should credit Angelica’s strengthening teas and high protein diet. Maybe his body was simply doing its job and repairing those damaged cells.
Whatever was going on, he was finally feeling good again. Like himself.
And he had kept his promise.
This was the first homicide case on which he had yet to solicit the help of a certain fortuneteller. Every piece of information, every witness, every shred of evidence, he had uncovered himself. With honest work. No magic mumbo jumbo.
As he entered his office, his phone was ringing.
“You sound upbeat today.”
It was Angelica, of course. Every time he thought about her, she dialed his number.
“I am. Things are moving forward at a good clip. I’m hoping by the end of the night, we’ll have the name of the killer.”
“You must be referring to the dead body on the beach.” She sounded snippy.
“That’s right.” He guessed she was feeling left out since he hadn’t consulted her even once during this investigation.
“Any word from Janice yet?”
Was she trying to bring him down? “Nothing yet. I did meet the private investigator she hired to spy on us, though.”
“Really? Did he have any information to share?”
“Just that he had taken some photos of the two of us. You and me, I mean. Janice must have figured out I was seeing someone.”
“I guess she was more in tune with you than you realized.” Angelica was definitely pushing his buttons. “I hope you’ll find her soon.”
Her words were pleasant enough on the surface, but Ian could tell from her tone that she was not happy with him. However, he’d made a pledge and he planned to stick to it. No consulting on this case.
“I better go now. I’m really swamped.”
“That’s fitting. For a slimy crocodile.” And she hung up on him.
Ian sat in his cruiser, the engine running and the heater on low, in front of Bernadette O’Sullivan’s house. He had finagled her mother Geraldine’s signature onto the correct form before interviewing her daughter for the “first” time. Now he had Bernadette’s statement in writing. Everything was official, the groundwork properly prepared.
The sun had set several hours earlier, but Ian had the feeling this day was only just beginning. He was antsy, wired, and nervous, electricity running through his veins.
He had presided over a planning session for the raid, gotten the warrants in front of Judge Evan Williams and had them signed, so now it was just a waiting game. He checked the digital clock on the dashboard again. Ten minutes until go time.
At exactly five minutes before ten, he drove to the end of Bernadette’s street and waited by the stop sign. When the rest of the units passed by, Ian pulled out, tires screeching. The troops sped down Kings Highway, light bars off, sirens silent. They were counting on an element of surprise.
The six units cruised into the parking lot and took up their respective posts, blocking off the exits and entrances to the strip mall with their vehicles. They hoped to trap as many clients and employees as possible. Of course it would still be possible for suspects to flee on foot through the wooded area behind the stores. But with a total of twelve armed officers, not counting himself, Ian guessed no one would escape through the cracks.
The officers, all sporting bulletproof vests, checked their weapons. Sean Donnelly grabbed a battering ram for the rear door. Ian led half the group toward the front door as Sergeant Niklaus took the rest of the officers around back.
“On my count of three,” Ian spoke into his walkie-talkie. “One, two…”
On “three,” he heard the battering ram smash against the steel door around back. Ian simultaneously stepped through the front door and pointed his gun at the tall, dark, and not-so-handsome man behind the counter. “Hands behind your head. Stay right where you are.”
The rest of the officers streamed in behind him, invading the massage rooms. They escorted the occupants, hastily zipping and buttoning up, onto the sidewalk outside. An overpowering odor of cheap jasmine perfume pervaded the place, wafting past him as the employees and their clients trooped through the lobby area. Ian figured it must be the massage oil they used. Everyone was quickly cuffed and stashed in the squad cars, due to the cold.
Ian made his way through the line-up of young, female masseuses, asking questions in order to ascertain if anyone might remember Jenna Danvers or the man who had driven away with her. Unfortunately, employee turnover seemed to preclude anyone overlapping shifts with Jenna five months earlier. These girls all claimed to be fairly new to the business.
He took a good long look at each of the clients.
They were all men, three of them Caucasian, one African-American. Out of the three Caucasians, two were clearly much too young, probably in their late twenties or early thirties. The last guy was a bit older, maybe late forties, but completely bald and overweight. It didn’t look like any of them had much money. Not one of them matched the description of the man who had offered Jenna Danvers a ride home.
It wasn’t surprising. Even if the man who killed Jenna had found her here, and that still wasn’t a given, he might not choose to return to this particular hunting ground again. After all, it would be risky. Some psychopaths might thrive on such risks, getting a thrill out of returning to the scene of the crime, or the place where they first met or abducted their victims. Others might calculate the risk and decide against it.
At this point, it was going to come down to the paperwork. It was still possible the killer’s name, credit card number, or telephone number could be found somewhere in Jade Palace’s records. Ian planned to keep the manager up all night. Or for several days and nights. As long as it took.
Almost midnight. They had been going through the books and files for close to two hours. Ian had kept Martinelli with him, but told the rest of the crew to book the suspects and then head home. He wished he had asked a few more officers to stay because sorting through the paperwork was as slow as wading through a river of cold molasses.
As Ian suspected, the record keeping at Jade Palace was less than thorough. Way less than legal. However, in order to keep the phones working, an integral part of the business, the management always paid the phone bill. Bell Atlantic would therefore have a record of every call made to or from these phones. He would need to subpoena those records. This would take more time.
The appointment books were worthless, as Ian had already known they’d be. The names written down when customers called on the phone were exactly as Bernadette had described; Billy the Kid, Charlie Chaplin, Elton John, and Donald Duck were all regular patrons. In fact, all of these clients had received massages the night that Jenna went missing. Of course there was absolutely no record of employment for Jenna Danvers or Bernadette O’Sullivan.
The telephone continued to ring all evening as they went through the books. The ugly manager whose name was Igor, aptly enough, answered each time, advising customers that there had been a water main break and all massages were canceled for the next two days.
Ian admired his optimism.
Igor tapped him on the shoulder as he perused yet another logbook. “Telephone is for you.”
“Thanks.” Ian took the receiver. “McDaniel here.”
“Ian, we’ve got a problem.” Darlene, the dispatcher, was speaking fast. It had to be serious for her to track him down in the middle of the night. “It’s your wife. She’s on the Tappan Zee Bridge. She’s threatening to jump.”