The news Bruno had told me was incomprehensible. “Are you kidding me? The victim back there was Sarah Jacobs?” I leaned against my car, not fully trusting my legs anymore.
“Yes,” Bruno said simply. He looked around and paused for a minute as a few officers who were helping canvas the scene walked within earshot. “Alex, I need you to leave but we need to talk. Meet me over at Camp Washington Chili at one AM. They are open late tonight. I should be all wrapped up by then. Don’t go home. Don’t call Kelsey. Just drive someplace out where no one will notice you and then meet me.”
“OK,” I said because I had to say something. I simply got into my car and drove off out of the parking lot. My mind was reeling. I struggled to concentrate on the road. Needing to find someplace I could think for an hour or so, I drove across town to the Cincinnati Museum Center. A few weeks ago it had been the subject matter of some nighttime images. I knew it would be deserted but with some places to park that were out of the way. The restaurant Bruno wanted to meet at was also only a few miles north. The drive took about ten minutes. Parking along the main entrance road of the museum, my mind was shaken, unable to comprehend what was happening. Wanting desperately to call Kelsey, I got out of the car instead to get some fresh air and think.
First, I am called to a brutal crime scene a few days ago. Nothing unique as it was part of my job. Photographing crime scenes happened on a somewhat regular basis. Chilling but the truth. What I thought back then was an instance of pure coincidence, knowing the victim, Zoe Burke. She was a client from around a year ago. She thought she was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend. A week and a half of me tracking him proved to not be the case.
Then a few days later, I get called to a crime scene by Bruno where the victim is the exact person I was hired to locate and take some pictures of her. The similarities of the two victims were undeniable. The same person murdered both of them. No uncertainty about the murders. None at all. How in the world could these two people be related? Did they happen to know each other, worked together or went to the same school? I had absolutely no idea. These are the questions Bruno would be asking and investigating.
Speaking of Bruno, why did he want me at the scene? What was his reason for having me come down to where Sarah Jacobs’ body was dumped so I could see her? He obviously didn’t want me there to take pictures of the scene. It had to be for something else. What, though? None of this made any sense. I needed answers.
I checked my phone for the time as everyone did these days. The watch industry would be gone in a decade. I had parked here and been walking around processing the situation for well over an hour. It was getting close to one AM. Wanting to get there ahead of time in case Bruno finished early, I got back into my car and drove to the location of our meeting.
Camp Washington Chili was one of the best known independent restaurants that specialized in Cincinnati style chili, a Mediterranean spiced meat-based sauce served over spaghetti noodles with an obscene amount of shredded cheese on top. The restaurant itself is a nineteen-fifties style diner and is extremely popular with the local residents who stay away from the larger chains.
The restaurant was famously open twenty-four six. Open all day and night six days a week but closed on Sundays. In actuality, they were open until four AM on Sundays to capture the late night weekend partiers who needed something to eat after a night of drinking and festivities.
I parked in the lot and walked in about ten minutes to one in the morning. The place was mostly empty as most of the partiers had come and gone already. Not seeing Bruno anywhere, I picked an empty booth in the back with a good sightline to the front door so I could see him when he arrived.
The waitress stopped by and asked what I wanted to eat. Not being hungry in the least bit and unsure if I would ever eat again, I said I was waiting for a friend and just wanted some coffee. She nodded her head and brought me a steaming hot cup that was surprisingly good for this late at night.
Staring at the door unable to think, I waited for Bruno. He showed up a little after one AM like he said he would. He sat down in the booth across from me and without looking at the menu ordered a cup of coffee and a platter with eggs, sausage, hash browns, and toast when the waitress followed him over.
“What the hell is going on?” I said as soon as the waitress was out of earshot.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” he said looking me in the eyes. “Tell me what’s going on. All of it. Don’t leave anything out.”
I spent the next fifteen minutes going over the case from the beginning. From my initial meeting with the client at my office and through my unsuccessful attempts to locate and take pictures of Sarah Jacobs. I added as much detail as possible, which had me going back a few times in the story as I remembered information that might be useful. Bruno simply listened, not asking any questions nor taking notes. The waitress had brought his food out and he ate while I talked.
When finished, I added, “How can you possibly eat something after a gruesome crime scene?”
“I have to eat when I can,” he said putting down his fork and covering the remaining food. “It’s going to be a long night and if I never ate after a seeing a mutilated body, I would starve to death.”
He paused for a minute while the waitress cleared his plate and refilled our mugs with fresh coffee. “Alex, needless to say, I have a ton of questions.”
“So do I,” snapping back at him. “You think I don’t?”
“First off, calm down. We will have to move somewhere less public if you can’t keep your voice down and drawing attention to us.”
“Big surprise. I am worked up over this.” I was at least a bit quieter. “This whole thing is freaking me out. One client and the subject of an active case have both been killed in just a couple of days. Brutally beaten and savagely killed. Obviously by the same sick demented individual. The murders themselves are enough to push me over the edge but my office was also ransacked. Surprisingly, the robbery is the least bad thing that’s happened in the past few days.
“Even with everything I just said, you know what’s bothering me the most? The one thought that keeps coming back? The one incident that happened that is bugging the crap out of me right now? The most disturbing thing? It’s why you wanted me to see Sarah Jacobs’ crime scene earlier tonight.
“Under no circumstances have you ever, not one single time, asked me to a crime scene to ask my opinion. Never. Zoe Burke and Sarah Jacobs were obviously killed by the same person. Any rookie on the force would come to the same conclusion. They were virtually identical. A textbook relationship between the two. So linking the two murders wasn’t the reason. You told me to leave my camera gear at home and flat out told me you didn’t want me taking pictures of the scene, so being there for my photographic skills is not it. I can only think of one reason then and if it’s true, it is going to really piss me off.”
I stared at Bruno trying to read him. After a couple of decades of interviewing and interrogating people, he was too stoic to interpret. I continued without adverting my gaze.
“You wanted to see my reaction to her body to see if I did it.” I said nothing else. It was his turn to talk.
“I was doing my job. Nothing more and, for damn sure, nothing less. Two women brutally killed in a couple of days. The obvious link is you. One former client and one you are searching for. I had to follow up on it. Police detecting what I do. No one is above suspicion. Period. Don’t think I actually thought you did it. Not a chance. I had to see your reaction to the scene. It was obvious to me you had no clue who she was tonight until I told you.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence,” I added extremely sarcastically.
“Grow up and think about it. We both know for sure you had absolutely nothing to do with the two murders directly, but it is too much of a coincidence for them to not be connected to you in some way.”
His concern stopped me. “I hadn’t thought of the possibility of there being a connection to me. I assumed the consensus would be the two victims either knew each other in some way or I was the one who killed them. The middle ground never occurred to me.”
“Whatever happened and to whatever degree you are involved, this is going to be bad. With two gruesome murders of single women, the press is going to have a field day with the story. They will get a hold of your name and bring you into this. Half the damn department is already working on the case and it will be impossible to keep your name out of this. I am going to delay any connection for as long as I can but I will have to add you to the investigation as a person of interest. Nothing I can do about you being investigated. With our relationship, I won’t be the one asking the questions to you from here on out. That’s why I wanted to talk now.”
I stared at Bruno in complete disbelief. He was right. I was pretty much screwed. “What’s next?” I asked, finally able to get my voice.
“Drive home and go about your business like usual. The worst thing you can do is freak out and do something abnormal. It’s something all investigators look for in determining a guilty conscience. Go be with Kelsey and let her know what the heck is going on. Then go take some damn photographs or something similar. Don’t do any private investigative work at all and for God’s sake don’t call the client. I am planning on doing the notification first in a few hours once we get his address. Keep your cell phone on you at all times and in cell range. I don’t want you to be out in the woods someplace and we can’t find you. As soon as we determine a time of death for Sarah Jacobs, we can eliminate you as a suspect.”
“I am a suspect? This is unbelievable,” I said shaking my head in disbelief.
“Don’t read too much into it. Poor choice of words. Also, I need your notebook for the case. I will hold on to it until I put it into evidence tomorrow. Actually, later today. Let’s go.”
Bruno stood up from the booth and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table for breakfast and a decent tip. We both walked out to my car. I unlocked it and went in to grab the investigative notebook for Sarah Jacobs. It was in the back seat underneath my camera gear.
There was a big problem, however. One that made this horrible situation instantly much, much worse.
It wasn’t there.
The notebook was gone.