On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 8

Ian’s knees buckled. He grabbed the back of a chair and sank into it. "I’m sorry. Can you say that again?”

Darlene spoke slowly this time: “Your wife. She’s on the T.Z. bridge. You need to get over there. Right now.”

“Okay." He tried to breathe but his chest felt too tight. "I’m on my way.”

Her words made sense in his brain. He understood them. And yet, he couldn't move. His mind and body seemed to have disconnected from each other.

Finally, he pushed himself up and called out. “Tim?”

Martinelli was in one of the back rooms, continuing the painstaking search for hidden documents, cash, or other evidence. He poked his head around the corner. “What’s up?”

“I’ve gotta go. Family emergency. I’ll get Darlene to send someone else over here.” Snatching up his overcoat, Ian jogged out to his cruiser. He revved the engine and peeled out of the parking lot. Traffic was light on Kings Highway. He flipped on his dashboard light and pressed the pedal to the floor.

As he flew past Congers Lake, the wheels inside his head began to spin as fast as the wheels beneath his vehicle. Sergeant Niklaus would have almost certainly been called to the bridge by now. Although everyone in the department had done the mandatory coursework in suicide prevention, the chief had sent Niklaus into the city for additional training. Ian guessed it had to do with his attitude. He would have agreed with the chief, had he been consulted. Sergeant Niklaus was in dire need of an attitude adjustment. Maybe a compassion infusion, if such a thing was available.

Sure, this job could make a person hard. And a cop needed that tough outer layer, that protective shell. Without it, no cop could make it through a single day on the beat. Let alone an autopsy. Or a fatal car crash.

But the tough exterior wasn’t enough. A cop also needed something underneath that. A cop had to have a beating heart beneath the badge.

Sergeant Niklaus might have started off with a heart. He’d been married once. No, twice, Ian remembered. But twice divorced, too, before he even hit forty. Ian heard how the sergeant talked to female witnesses and suspects. If he’d been married to the big oaf, he would have walked out on him, too. Without a backward glance. The guy could be a real ass.

Maybe the additional training had paid off. Maybe the sergeant could dredge up some semblance of empathy and keep Janice from jumping. Just long enough for Ian to arrive. Because of course she wanted her husband there. Of course she would wait for him.

But what for, exactly?

Did she want to show her husband how much pain he had caused her? Did she want her husband to ride in on a white stallion and save the day? Or did she want to hold off just long enough to have her husband witness her suicide? To create an imprint on his brain of the woman he had once loved leaping to her death? So the image would be seared into his memory with a red-hot branding iron. Sure to leave a permanent scar.

What if he didn’t get there in time? What if the Hudson had already swallowed her up in its turbulent waters? Would he be devastated? Or grateful?

Ian suddenly felt as though the two halves of his identity were unraveling, coming apart like bad knitting falling off the needles. His cop side had to save his wife. There was no other choice. But the husband side of him was ready to be done with her. He would be relieved to be finally finished. Her suicide, no matter how painful and traumatic, would at least be an ending.

He made it past the traffic cones, past the police cruisers with their flashing light bars, past Officer Sean Donnelly directing traffic--gesturing at every car to keep it moving, keep it moving, nothing to see here--until he came to a familiar car parked on the shoulder. The same car that kept turning up everywhere, like a bad penny.

And Ian saw his wife standing on the hood of that car, an older model maroon Oldsmobile, perched at the edge of the railing, ready to leap. Sergeant Niklaus, with a megaphone, stood twenty yards away, not putting any pressure on the jumper, as he’d been instructed in his training.

Ian hadn’t missed a thing. He was right on time.

He knew she would wait for him. This whole fucking show was for him.

Ian parked the Crown Vic behind the row of cones, as close as he could get to the sergeant, and stepped out of the vehicle. Keeping an eye on Janice, he inched forward along the railing. A sparkling necklace of lights from the bridge was reflected in the black water below, shimmering and writhing like an electric eel. Ian felt something similar twisting and contorting in his gut.

“Hey!” He had to yell above the noise of the traffic, the wind, and the churning of the river below them.

Lowering the megaphone, Sergeant Niklaus said, “Thank God you’re here. She’s been saying she’s gonna jump unless she gets to talk to you.”

“You’d think she might try picking up a phone.” He didn’t care how bitter he sounded. Janice had pushed him too far this time.

Niklaus grunted his agreement then lifted the megaphone. “Detective McDaniel has arrived. I’m handing this over to him.” He then presented the device with a sarcastic bow. “Your turn, Romeo.”

“You’re not going anywhere, right? I might need your expertise.” Ian accepted the megaphone, his eyes on the sergeant. “How do I get her down?”

“You tell her whatever she wants to hear.” Niklaus shrugged. “You know I’m no good at this marital shit. My wives might not have killed themselves, but they sure as hell tried to kill me.”

“That’s comforting.” Ian took a step past the sergeant and closer to the maroon Olds. Janice was still perched on the hood, only about a foot from the railing.

He wondered if she had planned this ahead of time, as a way of getting him back, or if this was a spontaneous response to something. Did something happen tonight that sent her onto this bridge?

“Janice,” he spoke into the megaphone. “I’m here. Why don’t you get down from there so we can talk?”

She turned toward the sound of his voice. He saw the surprise in her eyes. Had she not expected him to show up? She yelled something but the wind carried her words away.

“I can’t hear you, Janice. I’m coming closer.” Ian walked slowly toward the maroon Olds. Sergeant Niklaus tiptoed a few steps behind him, like an elephant trying to hide behind a giraffe.

“Stay right there!” Janice shouted over the roar of the wind.

The two men paused. They were ten yards away. Too far to charge her. If they rushed forward now, she’d still have time to jump before they could grab her.

Ian yelled without the megaphone: “We can’t talk like this! You need to get down!”

“You need to leave that whore!” He could see now that Janice’s face was streaked with tears.

The love, the friendship, the intimacy of their relationship had died so long ago, Ian couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his wife cry. Maybe it was that morning she held their stillborn son in her arms. At that moment, Janice had broken down. And she had stayed broken. That was almost four years ago.

But the tears over their dead son soon dried up. Along with the communication. The sex. Pretty much everything that defined a marriage.

“Get down from there and we can talk about it.” Ian took another step closer. He wasn’t willing to flat out lie to her and claim he'd give up Angelica. She’d see right through it, for one thing. And it just wasn’t in him.

“Stop! I mean it! I’ll jump!” She turned to face the railing, flexing at the knees as if preparing to launch herself.

Ian was exhausted. He had used up all his adrenaline on the raid. His ribs were aching. He longed for a Vicodin. He hadn’t popped a painkiller in more than twenty-four hours.

And he was closing in on a killer. This was the first time he had pursued a homicide case completely on his own, with no outside help. He had found a witness to the girl’s probable abduction. He had been in the process of discovering the abductor’s name.

And Janice, the pampered princess, the spoiled brat, had to step in and pull his attention away from what mattered. His job. The case. Justice for that poor dead girl on the beach.

So he kept walking.

He could hear Sergeant Niklaus behind him, making sputtering noises about slowing down or stopping or giving her more space. But he wasn’t listening to that bullshit anymore.

This was his wife. He was going to get her down off the goddamned car and put her somewhere she could sober up. He was done playing her game.

As he stepped up next to the Olds, he saw how violently she was shaking. Her legs weren’t going to hold her up much longer.

“I’m here now.” He extended a hand toward her.

Janice collapsed to her knees. Then her head came down, as if she was bowing. Or maybe praying. Praying for strength. Or forgiveness.

“Give me your hand,” Ian said, gently. “Let me help you down.”

Janice sobbed, chest heaving, forehead banging against the hood of the car. Ian grabbed her wrist with one hand. Sergeant Niklaus hurried forward, and the two men each took her by an arm and got her feet back on solid ground.

“Can you take her to the hospital? I need to head back to Jade Palace.” As far as Ian was concerned, he was done here.

Janice remained silent. She stared at Ian with red-rimmed eyes as he cuffed her wrists and helped her into the back of the sergeant’s car. He slammed the door without another word.

“Thanks for your help.” Ian offered Niklaus his hand.

As they shook, the sergeant laughed nervously. “They never taught us that technique.”

Ian shrugged. “Might not always work.”

Ian had no choice but to drive all the way across the bridge heading east. He cursed his bad luck, his bad choices, his very bad wife, and the concrete barrier between the two sides of the bridge preventing him from simply turning around mid-span. At the first exit for Tarrytown, Ian finally executed a U-turn and headed back to Nyack. The entire process was ridiculously time-consuming, even at this hour of the night, with minimal traffic.

He assumed Janice had been hiding out at the Blauvelt home of Ralph Kaminski, the private investigator. He’d donate his right testicle to science if that wasn’t Ralph’s maroon Olds she had driven onto the bridge to use as a launching pad. No wonder the dick had taken off on him. Ian could bring him up on charges of obstruction and wasting police time. As far as he was concerned, Kaminski and Janice both needed to experience some time behind bars.

Janice had appeared stunned as he slammed the door and left her cuffed in the back seat of the sergeant’s cruiser. The look in her eyes was pure devastation. But there was something else he had noticed in that moment. Something subtle. What was it?

Driving on autopilot, he raced back through his memory, zeroing in on Janice’s face. Not just her face. It was more than that.

When she was sliding off the hood of the car, he had noticed it then, as well.

A tiny sparkle at the base of her throat.

Janice was wearing a necklace. A piece of jewelry he had never seen before. Something small and delicate. With a sparkling diamond chip that lay in the hollow of her throat.

A gold cross. A cross exactly like the one in the photograph in Jenna Danvers’ bedroom.

As soon as Ian had re-crossed the bridge, he took the very first exit for Nyack, heading straight to the hospital. As he drove, he snatched up his radio transmitter and instructed Sergeant Niklaus to wait for him in an empty corner of the parking lot near the Emergency Room entrance.

He wanted to catch Janice before she was admitted into the psych ward. Once she was in the mouth of the machine, it could take days to schedule an interview with her. Or worse, she might be drugged. She might not be allowed visitors. Any number of things could go wrong.

Ian spotted Sergeant Niklaus’ cruiser in the far corner of the lot. He appreciated the privacy this empty spot would afford him. He needed to tread lightly as Janice had certain rights. Like the right to immediate medical care. Which they were withholding temporarily in order to conduct an interview in the parking lot.

Ian parked his vehicle alongside the sergeant’s. Stepping out, he calculated his next move. There were so many unknowns, so many possible pitfalls. He had to get this right or a killer could walk free.

He opened the back door of the cruiser. “Can I sit with you for a minute?”

Janice stared at him, obviously surprised to see his face again. Then her eyes narrowed. “Five minutes ago you didn’t even say goodbye to me. You couldn’t be bothered. What the hell do you want now?”

Ian asked again, “Can I please sit down with you? It’s freezing out here.”

Wordlessly, she slid over and made room for him. Sergeant Niklaus remained at the wheel, silent as a statue.

“Can I see the necklace you’re wearing?” Ian kept his voice quiet, interested, not accusatory.

Janice moved her shoulder-length hair out of the way without hesitation.

Ian leaned toward her and inhaled the typical blend of dirty ashtray and cheap wine on his wife. He had not missed this aroma. In the center of the tiny gold cross, a diamond chip caught the light from a street lamp, reflecting miniature rainbows across the backseat and ceiling of the police car.

“Where did you get this?” Again, he tried to keep his tone neutral.

She scowled at him. “It was a gift. Just because you never give me anything doesn’t mean no one else can.”

He wasn’t surprised at the jab, but it still stung. “This is very important, Janice. I need to know who gave this to you.”

“Why? What could possibly be so important about me getting a little gift?” She turned her face away from him, sticking her bottom lip out like a child.

“Was it Ralph Kaminski? Did he give it to you?” The dick had given, or at least loaned, her his car. Maybe the necklace as well?

Janice crossed her arms and chewed her lip.

“A young girl is dead, Janice. We believe she was wearing a necklace like this before she was murdered. It was missing from her body when we found her. I need to know if this is the same necklace. So you need to give it to me. Sergeant Niklaus will make sure you receive a receipt. If it was taken from our victim, it will have to be returned to her family, though.” Ian waited.

Janice stared straight ahead.

“You can remove the necklace yourself and hand it to me. Or the sergeant and I can remove it for you. The choice is yours. But I don’t have all night…” He wanted to add: for your infantile bullshit.

But he bit his tongue.

The clock on the dashboard crept closer to two in the morning as they sat, waiting for Janice to get over her childish pouting. He still needed to return to Jade Palace to complete the search. And now he needed to process this new piece of evidence. He wondered if the necklace could harbor minute traces of DNA, perhaps from blood or skin cells. He had to get it to the lab.

Ian took a deep breath. “That’s it. I’m done fucking around here.” He reached toward his wife. “I could use a hand back here, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Niklaus opened his door and started to get out, allowing a gust of frigid air into the vehicle.

Janice relented. “Okay. Okay. I’ll give you guys the damn necklace. Jesus. The thing is so tiny, I can’t believe you even noticed it.” She reached behind her neck, taking forever to unclasp the delicate hook.

Ian held open a small evidence bag and allowed Janice to drop the gold cross and chain into it.

“It can’t be worth much,” she added in a petulant tone.

He then stepped out of the car, closed the back door, and addressed the sergeant. “Thanks, man. If you can get anything else out of her, I’d really appreciate it. But I’m done here.”

“Maybe a few days on the psych ward will encourage her to cooperate.” The sergeant grinned at Ian before pulling out of the corner parking spot and heading over to the Emergency Room entrance.

Ian watched them go.

It was hard to believe he had willingly, maybe even happily, married the woman in the back seat. But they hadn’t known each other all that well. They had met at a bar, both of them fairly drunk, started casually dating. But Ian knew now there was no such thing as casual sex. No matter how casual he might have wanted it to be, the baby changed all that. In an instant.

Time was supposed to heal all wounds. But he had found this formula did not apply to all wounds. Some wounds lingered. And festered. He touched his wounded rib cage tenderly. At least this particular wound was slowly getting better.

Climbing back into his Crown Vic, Ian drove toward Congers. No need for speed this time. There was not another soul on the road. Nowhere to buy the cup of coffee he desperately needed in order to keep going. But he had to keep going anyway. He had to return to Jade Palace, finish up the search. Then he planned to personally chauffeur the necklace in his pocket across the bridge to the forensic lab in White Plains. He wasn’t taking any chances with this crucial piece of evidence.

As he drove, he turned the facts over and over in his mind, trying to piece together who might have murdered a young teen, a girl who resembled his wife in so many ways. If it was true that someone had given Janice the necklace, did she know this person was a killer? Or an accessory to a murder? Who could she be protecting?

Or was it possible Janice, herself, had beaten, tortured, starved, and murdered her look-alike? Then tossed the dead girl in the river? Then couldn’t live with her crime and decided to commit suicide?

But the girl had also been raped, he reminded himself. Repeatedly.

Could Janice have been a party to such a heinous crime?

The killer cruised past Jade Palace for the fourth time that night. He had made his appointment by phone for a midnight massage, but when he arrived, he found the parking lot blocked off by police cars. He had simply driven past, slowly, trying to ascertain the extent of the problem. It appeared the place had been raided.

This was disturbing, to say the least.

He had been extremely careful for the past few months. He made every phone call to the massage parlor from a public telephone booth, never used his real name, and always paid cash for services rendered. Yes, a handful of people who worked here would recognize his face. If he ended up in a police line-up, that could prove disastrous. But the manager knew enough about him, and his money, to keep his mouth shut. And to make sure others did the same.

Unless the police combed through every single record, going back for a number of years, they would find nothing to implicate him. However, it was possible he had initially called the massage parlor from home. Perhaps the very first time. And no more than once. That first massage appointment would have been more than three years ago. Would they trace the telephone records back that far? He doubted it.

The next time he drove by, around two in the morning, most of the police cars were gone. He found a pay phone by a convenience store and dialed the number again. The manager answered and gave him a ridiculous excuse: a water main break. He understood that Igor wanted to contain the problem, keep the news from spreading to all of the regulars. This made sense. But how long would it take to get the place up and running again? On the phone, Igor had said “a couple of days.” What did that mean, exactly? Could he schedule another massage by, say, Tuesday? And what was he supposed to do until then?

The craving inside him was like a caged animal. It was ravenous, pacing back and forth. He had to let it out. It needed to feed.

He experienced a sudden pang of regret. Perhaps he had finished off his last concubine too soon? Of course, by the time he ended her life, there was very little of the original fire left in her eyes. She had been a wildcat in the beginning. But his final domination over her had probably come too late, not too early. She had eventually been reduced to a mere shell. No energy. No power to fight or resist. His timing had been slightly off.

No matter. He was learning with each conquest. The next time, he would come even closer to the perfection he sought.

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