Three Card Monte

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It had been a couple of weeks since we met the Willis couple and everything led to dead ends. The shoes were size 11 Cabalas which were the second most popular size in the city. Cabala’s estimated 10,000 pairs were walking around the Portland, Maine area. Well, that certainly narrowed it down. No prints or urine samples were found and Fritz, as thorough as ever, had dusted the whole place. Jason and Martha Headleton were contacted and had been vacationing on a Carnival Cruise in the Caribbean for a 14-day trip. They had arrived home two days after the shootings and were questioned but it didn’t help the investigation.

I spent the first couple of days going over Sanchez’s and my notes. There was also forensic evidence and interviews conducted by the boys in blue. The slug came up negative in the FBI and Interpol database searches and nothing else jumped out at me. I was sure that the shooter had used the bathroom but it had come up clean. Maybe he was one of those assholes you see that doesn’t wash his hands after they pee. I conducted secondary interviews on the Headletons, the nosy neighbor, and a few other residents from the Willis’ building but came up empty.

The only real lead was the note. It wasn’t much, more disturbing than anything; it was a calling card. Why do you leave a calling card in a murder? It was a game for whoever had done this. I had the feeling it would happen again. I searched the databanks of the city, state, and FBI for any similar cases where someone had left a note behind. Most were confessions of some rambling lunatic but none matched a simple date. What was the game and did it have anything to do with the Willis’s? I knew that if it didn’t and this was a random act, we were in a boatload of shit because figuring out why Mrs. Willis was targeted, gets a whole lot more difficult. In the hopes of finding out if this was a revenge or passion murder, the first focus had to be on her.

Sanchez and I did some checking on Mrs. Willis’s background, trying to come up with some kind of motive for the killer. We started off the morning with a visit to the Cookies and Crème Bakery. It was located in the heart of downtown Portland in an eight-story building called One City Center. It was basically an upscale donut shop which catered to the professional clientele from the office buildings in the area.

Since it was morning we decided to order coffee and pastries while we looked over the employees before we asked questions. It was a busy morning at Cookies and Crème but most people made their purchases and left so we were able to find seating easily. The counter staff wore hairnets, the bakers wore chef’s hats and everyone seemed to know their place with very little bumping into each other. Most of the staff was on the plump side, perhaps a side effect of working at a bakery, although I remembered Mrs. Willis had been very petite. I spotted what appeared to be the manager stepping out of a back office. She also wore the chef hat and shirt; hers was a shade of pink. She appeared to be in her mid-forties and looked as if she might have eaten a little too much of the profits. She had a wide smile on her face that made her attractive.

Sanchez raised her hand slightly, the universal signal for “I need service”, which normally is ignored at a restaurant by the wait-staff, but the cheery round manager made her way to our table.

“Can I help you?” she asked in a very pleasant voice.

I smiled back at her and said, “Hello, I am Detective Chamberlain and this is Detective Sanchez. Could we speak with the manager?”

“Yes, that would be me. I’m the owner Cindy Crawley,” she said as she put her hand out, which I promptly shook.

“We’re investigating the Willis murder/suicide and would like to ask you a few questions.”

“A terrible thing,” she started as the smile disappeared from her face. “She was a real pleasure. I didn’t know her husband, never met him actually. How could he do such a thing to that lovely girl?”

“We are trying to piece that together now. How long had she been working for you?”

“Oh, six months or so. I can get an exact date if you would like.”

Well that explained her still being petite; she had not worked here long enough for the pastries to take effect. “Yes that would be helpful. Was she close to any of your employees here? Did she have friends that may have stopped by to say hello?”

“No friends that I noticed, but she did go to lunch with Sarah often after her shift.”


“Yes, Sarah Colby, one of our bakers. She asked for a couple of days off after Vanessa died.”

“Could we have her phone number please?”

“Yes, I know it by heart 874-5472.”

“Has she requested any additional time off for any reason?”

“No, but I told her to take as long as she needed.”

“If you could please give us Miss Colby’s address as well that would be helpful, thank you. It is Miss Colby and not Mrs.?”

“Yes, Sarah is not married.”

“Did Mrs. Willis receive an unusual amount of phone calls or anything you would consider odd before she died?”

“I don’t recall her ever even receiving a call here to be honest except from her husband. Vanessa mentioned he worked graveyard shift at some stock company. Maybe the pressure got to him.”

“Maybe. Did Mrs. Willis fill out an employment application that might help with prior work history?”

“Well yes, I have it in the back office. Please, excuse me?” The bakery owner disappeared into the back to retrieve the information. She returned quickly carrying a photocopy of the application with an address for Sarah Colby written on the back. “If you need anything else please let me know.”

Sanchez took the paper and thanked her. We made our way out of the bakery and into the warming spring air. The sea breeze was normally mild this time of day, usually getting stronger around mid-afternoon. We sat down on a bench in a small park that separated two busy streets open to pedestrians only. The unseasonably warm air brought out people from all over the city after a long winter and many of them milled about with nowhere to go and happy with that. Even though the temperature was a warm fifty-five degrees there were a few brave souls in shorts and skirts. The park was filled with mostly young people performing a graceful ballet as they greeted each other with fresh smiles.

On opposite sides of the streets, boutiques lined the brick sidewalk offering everything you could want to purchase from vintage clothing to candy. There were also three coffee houses that brewed various flavors of strong local roasted beans. Most of the shops had wooden facades decorated and painted in bright colors, though many needed to be touched up after the harsh Maine winter. The buildings were all made of brick, most five or six stories tall, with the Willis apartment building only a couple of city blocks away.

I called Sarah Colby who answered on the third ring. “Is this Sarah Colby?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” she answered in a young high-pitched voice.

“This is Detective Chamberlain of the Portland Police Department and I am calling to see if we can come over and ask you a couple of questions regarding Vanessa Willis?” What she didn’t know was that the bench we were sitting on was directly across the street from her apartment building and no would not have been a good answer. So far the murder/suicide circumstances did not place Ms. Colby as a suspect in my mind. I had decided to call her first as a courtesy. If I had thought she had anything to do with the Willis’s deaths, I would have walked right up and knocked on the door.

“Uh yes, I suppose so. If you think I can help,” she answered.

“I hope so, Ms. Colby. We are on our way down now and should be there shortly.”

We gave Sarah Colby about 5 minutes before Sanchez and I knocked on her door. “Ms. Colby, I am Detective Chamberlain and this is Detective Sanchez, thank you for seeing us on such short notice.”

“Sure, come right in. Please don’t look at the place, it’s a mess and I just don’t seem to care much right now,” she said. I did not agree with her assessment of the place as it had only a few dishes in the sink, a couple of glasses and used tissues on the coffee table. A blanket was haphazardly folded over the arm of the sofa and I guessed she was camping out on the couch. A scene from “The Notebook” was frozen on the TV – not that I have watched it but I could tell from the DVD case. She was tall, mostly legs, and her hair was cut in a bob. She reminded me a lot of Mrs. Willis actually, they could have been sisters. Her eyes were slightly red as was her nose from blowing it too often. She did not have any make-up on and her lightly freckled complexion was apparent on her fair skinned face. She was obviously upset about her friend’s death.

“Just a couple of questions if you don’t mind”, I said, as she sat back on her couch. She directed us to sit on a love seat facing the couch. “How well did you know the Willis’?” I began.

She took a tissue from the box and blew her nose before she answered. She looked at me directly at first. As she spoke, she made eye contact with Sanchez as well. “I knew V, that’s Vanessa, very well and we had become quite close, actually we were best friends really. We worked together at Cookies and Crème and we kind of meshed right from the start. She was so sweet,” she ended as tears began to well up in her eyes.

“Did you know her husband well?”

“No, I didn’t know Fred much because of his strange work hours but we got together a couple of weekends ago for a cookout at Deering Oaks Park. He adored her from what I saw.”

“Did Mrs. Willis ever mention anything odd about their relationship?”

“Other than the fact that she hated his hours, no. They made it a point to eat dinner together every night and spend time together. See she would sleep at night while he was at work and he slept while she was gone so they made it work.”

“Did she ever mention anyone having a problem with her or Mr. Willis?”

“No, she was a very nice person and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her.”

“Money troubles?”

“Fred gets paid well and she didn’t seem tight with a buck – not loose mind you but certainly not tight. She certainly never complained of being broke.”

“If he made such good money then why did Mrs. Willis work at a bakery?”

“Boredom. She said when she first moved here from Chicago she found herself hibernating in her apartment. It was a way for her to get out and meet people. Besides, she loved baking and it gave her a little of her own funny money. She had gone to school for culinary arts back in Chicago.”

“So, you didn’t get the impression she needed the money?”

“No, she tried to pay for our lunches when we would go out a couple times a week. Although most of the time I’d pay for my own. I didn’t want her to think she had to buy our friendship. We used to go over to the Barnes & Noble by the Maine Mall and browse after our shift. Fred usually slept until four or so anyway. I swear she could read a book a day. As a matter of fact we had spent a couple of hours that very day at the bookstore. She bought a biography on Diana.”

“Do you know much about her, prior to her moving here from Chicago?”

“Not much. Both their families live in the suburbs out there. His work transferred him to this area about a year ago, supposedly a promotion. I don’t recall V ever mentioning a prior job between college and Cookies n’ Crème.”

“What was the name of the culinary school?”

“The International Culinary School at the Illinois Institute of Art. She owned several t-shirts and sweatshirts from the school.”

“Any strange characters showing up around her or did she mention bumping into the same person over and over?” asked Claire.

“Not that I noticed.”

“Enemies or someone she had a disagreement with?”

“No, she was pleasant to everyone. I really can’t believe this has happened.” With tears beginning to stream from her eyes she reached for the box of tissues on the table. She tried unsuccessfully to wipe them from her face but the tears kept slowly coming.

“Well, I guess that’s all for now. If you think of anything we should know about please give us a call.” I handed her my business card which she placed on the coffee table.

As we walked outside in the mild spring air I looked over at Claire, “Well, are we getting anywhere?”

“No, I hope this isn’t some random nut job.”

We went back to the precinct to make some calls. Claire took the college and Mrs. Willis’ parents and I took the husband’s office, his old Chicago office, and his parents. We went out for coffee around three to compare notes.

Claire began, “Mrs. Willis graduated high in her class at the International Culinary School at Illinois Institute of Art at 25, four years earlier and her file was pretty clean. Her parents were absolutely devastated as you can imagine. The father is an ex-cop by the way and made me promise to update him. He said his daughter had met Fred in 2006 when she worked for a catering business, she had been working his company’s Christmas party. They were married in 2008 and were very happy.”

Claire had also confirmed her employment application and also that she had never worked after she got married until beginning her employment with Cookies n’ Crème. Also, there were no known enemies or problem people in her life. Must have been nice.

I told Claire that the background on Fred Willis was much the same. Good job, well liked, and hard working. He had moved up the ladder in Chicago and the Portland job was indeed a promotion in late 2009. He was vice president of Asian Trades and basically second in command of the Portland branch. A quick look at his bank account showed a six figure salary and a million dollar portfolio, with a couple of hundred thousand in liquid funds. No unusual withdrawals or anything that would red flag us on gambling or extortion. We had basically nothing.

“Well, where do we go from here?” asked Claire.

“Let’s take another look at forensics in the morning,” I said without much hope.

“Ok. What are you doing tonight?”

Immediately, warning lights went off. Claire had set me up on several blind dates, none of which warranted a second date. “I’m watching a ball game.”

“The Red Sox aren’t playing tonight.”

“Little League is.”

“Who do you know in Little League?”

“Nobody, I moonlight as a scout for the Red Sox and I need to check out the pitching staff. Have you seen the sox bullpen this year? They need all the help they can get. Besides, I’m not going on another one of your blind dates. The last one you hooked me up with laughed like a horse. After one joke I wanted to gag her with a bridle.”

“No blind date. I’m going out with a couple of friends tonight and I thought you’d like to tag along. No pressure.”

I thought about that for a minute and it beat watching reruns of Rescue Me. “OK. What time and where are we going?”

“About 8:00. Meet me at Gritty’s down in the Old Port.”

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