Among Friends

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A White Lie

A WHITE LIE

Natalie had warned Dan that she might not be home that night. Although she’d broken Brenda down into something almost as good as a confession in less time than expected, Natalie decided to stay on in Burlington for the night. As a contingency she’d packed an overnight bag with clean underwear and toiletries plus a certain item from her own bookshelf.

After Johnny headed back to Rutland, Natalie went over to the Lakeshore Hotel to check in. She went right to bed after carefully hanging up the blouse and slacks. Natalie had left a message for Cheryl at headquarters to call her at the hotel. It would serve as an alarm clock in the morning.

The phone rang a few minutes after eight o’clock. Natalie sat up on the bed and debriefed Cheryl on the interview with Brenda. She explained why the ex-junkie’s story was credible in her opinion, pending further investigation. Cheryl agreed to bring in the sketch artist and let Natalie move forward on the tip from Brenda.

“We won’t have the sketch ready until this afternoon,” Cheryl said. “What are you doing in the meantime?”

“I’m going on a hunch about how that fake Brenda gathered some information on us. I’ll explain it when I see you.”

Natalie used the bathroom, took a shower, brushed her teeth and then touched up her hair, got dressed, and removed a book from the overnight bag. After a quick call to Dan, she sat down on the bed near the phone and flipped through some pages and made her choice.

A moment later, her call in to River Run Academy had been transferred to the Alumni office.

“Hi,” Natalie said after being greeted by a young-sounding female voice. “My name’s Christine White, used to be Christine Ohanian, Class of ’60.”

“Oh? How can I help you, ma’am?”

“I was trying to find one of my classmates, Toby Hughes. Do you have a current address for him?”

“Just a moment, please.”

Natalie was put on hold. While waiting, she found her own senior class portrait (Natalie “Birdie” Dvorak) and frowned slightly at the smooth skin on the girl’s face along with the silky dark hair that was decades away from sprouting gray strands.

“Mrs. White?”

“Yes?”

“I have an address for Toby Hughes and I can give it to you over the phone. But I can also mail you our most recent contact list for your graduating class.”

“That sounds good.”

“Are you still at 26 Burns Street in Brattleboro?”

“Yes, that’s right. But you know what? I’m over in Burlington today. Why don’t I come by and pick it up at your office, say in an hour?”

“That would be fine. Oh, and Mrs. White?”

“Yes?”

“We still have you as Christine Ohanian in our records. Should that be updated?”

“Oh, not really. I still go by Ohanian professionally. Long story. But don’t change it.”

“No, ma’am. Look forward to seeing you.”

“Thanks. Bye-bye.”

Natalie set aside the yearbook and went downstairs for a quick breakfast in the hotel café. Then she took the short drive from the Burlington waterfront to cross a bridge over the Winooski River. She parked in the visitor’s lot at River Run Academy and, getting out of her car, took a deep breath. Natalie hadn’t seen the campus since graduation day.

The buildings in the immediate area looked exactly the same. Red brick walls with whitewashed gables below green roof shingles. If there had been any new construction, it wasn’t immediately visible.

Teenage kids strolled here and there on the sidewalks, barely making notice of Natalie. She walked between the administrative offices and one of the classroom buildings. In her day, the language arts and civics classes were held in that place.

She followed the lane past the spot where Toby had first spoken to her and on to the library. It was still where it always had been, no exterior remodeling. Catching the odor of old books in the still indoor air, Natalie approached a wood-paneled information desk. A pudgy boy with brown hair down to his shirt collar was sitting behind the desk.

“Hi, good morning,” Natalie said. “I used to go to school here a long time ago. I was wondering if you keep copies of old yearbooks in the library. I know they used to be in here.”

“Yeah. Over in the reference section, those shelves opposite the encyclopedias, under the painting of the sunrise over the hills.”

“That old painting? I know where to find it. Thanks.”

“You can’t check yearbooks out, you know. But if you want to photocopy some of the pages, it’s a nickel per page.”

“Self-serve copiers?”

“Yes. Need change for nickels?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“When did you graduate?”

“Nice try, kid. I don’t want you to know how old I am.”

“I wasn’t― ”

“I graduated before you were born.”

Natalie found a copy of the 1960 edition with no difficulty. She made sure no pages had been torn out and then noticed a photocopier nearby. Then Natalie re-shelved the yearbook and headed back outside, retracing her steps towards the administration building.

Although the offices hadn’t been renovated to the extent that Natalie could notice, she was in for a small surprise. The Alumni Office was the second floor behind a wooden door with a frosted glass pane. Below the painted department name was the name of its director, Estelle Halliday.

Natalie gaped slightly at the name but went on to take hold of the brass doorknob and push it in. She glanced back and forth at the high metal shelves full of binders and a row of wooden filing cabinets, then looked at the reception desk.

“Hi,” said a young girl with strawberry blond hair in braids. “How may I help you?”

“I think I might have spoken to you over the phone a little while ago. I’m Christine Ohanian-White.”

“Oh, yes. I have that Class of 1960 contact sheet here ready for you. Last updated three months ago.”

Natalie heard the creak of a swivel chair from an open doorway to her left. A bulky woman came out of the back office and stared at Natalie.

“You aren’t Christine Ohanian,” she said. “Birdie Dvorak, what are you up to?”

“Good morning, Mrs. Halliday.”

The receptionist stared at the women standing and looking at one another. She held onto the contact list.

“So you’re head of the alumni office now?”

“For ten years.”

“Should I give her the list, ma’am?”

“Do you really want the list?”

“Yes. Police business, Mrs. Halliday.”

“Katie...”

Natalie took the list from Katie.

“May I speak to you in your office?” she asked Mrs. Halliday.

“Well spoken, Birdie. ‘May I’, not ‘Can I.’”

“You taught us well, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me ma’am,” Mrs., Halliday said. “You’re older now than I was when you were a student in my classroom.”

“Old habits.”

“Police business, you said?” Mrs. Halliday said as she led Natalie towards the back office.

“Yes. Would you like to see my badge?”

“Oh, I’d love to see it!”

It wasn’t until two o’clock that Brenda was able to provide her description to the sketch artist. Before that, Natalie had lunch with Cheryl and told her friend how she’d tested a hypothesis for how the killer was able to locate certain graduates of River Run Academy.

“So she could know Toby’s in Albany,” Cheryl said, holding the contact list open to the page with his information on it. “Better warn him.”

After lunch, Natalie called Toby’s home number. She left a message on his machine asking for a return call right away (“Unless I reach you at work first”). Then Natalie called the Transcript only to be told that Toby had taken the day off.

“Listen,” Natalie told the man at the paper. “There’s going to be a fax coming in from the Burlington Police Department to Toby’s attention. It’s not for a news story, at least not for now, but it’s important that Toby sees it. What’s your fax number there?”

Then she called Toby’s home number again. The message she left on the machine was for Toby to stop by his office for a faxed sketch of the suspect. Natalie went on to briefly describe the “false Brenda” as thin, blond, approximately age 25-30, about five-six. Curly hair as of about seven months ago, small nose, and green eyes.

After all that, Natalie was impatient waiting for the sketch to be completed. She used the phone in Cheryl’s office to call Lieutenant Sweeney and then Dan while the artist worked. Getting through both calls, Natalie leaned back in Cheryl’s chair and put her feet up on the desk. A few minutes later, Cheryl opened the door and gave her a scowl.

“You look like my daughter being a brat, if I had a daughter. Get those cute little shoes the hell off my desk and come see the sketch.”

There had been no return call from Toby by the time Natalie left the police headquarters for Sharon’s gift shop, copies of the sketch in a folder inside a briefcase she’d borrowed from Cheryl. The shop was close enough for her to walk.

“I think I saw that woman in here,” one of the shop clerks said, studying the photocopied drawing.

No one else seemed to have noticed the False Brenda.

“Think carefully,” Natalie told the young woman. “What time of day was it? Do you remember her in sunlight or after dark?”

“Why?”

“Just think and then tell me. Don’t wonder why I ask.”

“Night,” the shop clerk said after a moment spent biting her lower lip.

“Good. Now that was December so it got dark outside hours before closing time. Can you remember if she was in here near the end of your shift?”

“Not sure.”

“Did you close the shop with Sharon or did you go home before she locked up?”

“I’d leave after we closed but Sharon was always here after me.”

“Ever have to remind this woman it was closing time? ‘Good night and thank you’?”

The clerk shook her head.

“I… I’m not even sure I saw a customer that looks like her.”

“C’mon, don’t give out on me now. Think some more. Where was she browsing?”

“Craft jewelry. Yes! That’s it! She tried on earrings. Sharon helped her. They had a chat but I was too far away to hear what they were saying.”

“How soon was this before Sharon was killed?”

“I don’t know. Not long. A day or two.”

“Thank you, honey. I might be showing you a real mug shot later. Or even get you in for a line-up. That’d be more conclusive than a sketch.”

“I guess it would.”

Back at police headquarters, Natalie found Cheryl right away in the foyer.

“Message for you, doll,” the lieutenant said.

“From Toby?”

“Indirectly.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Your partner Johnny called here, said Toby contacted the Rutland barracks to check in.”

“But I left him your number here!”

“I know, I know. Obviously, Toby didn’t get your message.”

Natalie put the briefcase down on a nearby chair.

“Where the hell was he calling from?” she muttered.

“Maybe he went out of town,” Cheryl suggested, picking the briefcase up. “Come on, my office.”

Natalie followed her back to the corridor past the desk sergeant.

“I hope he’s off for a day drip,” Natalie said anxiously. “Johnny didn’t say whether Toby mentioned hearing about the description?”

“Didn’t say.”

“Damn it, I need to call that bum back!”

“Sure.”

Natalie reached Johnny right away.

“I didn’t talk to him myself, Sergeant,” he explained. “It was just a message relayed from the switchboard about half an hour ago. ‘Just calling to say I’m okay.’ Nothing more.”

“Hell,” Natalie reacted. “Wish he’d left a call back number, or something. One of the sales clerks at Sharon’s store said she saw Sharon waiting on a customer who looks like that woman in the sketch.”

“We got our copy by fax,” Johnny said.

“Yeah, and I had a fax sent to Toby’s newspaper office. Gave him a verbal description on his home answering machine. I want him to be on the lookout for her.”

“Unless she shoots him in the back like she did to Sharon.”

“God damn it, Johnny! Toby probably called in from a pay-phone someplace. We’re lucky he even bothered to do that much. At least we know he was alive half an hour ago. Now, let the switchboard know if Toby calls again, you need to take the call personally.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Natalie hung up the phone and looked helplessly at Cheryl.

“I bet you’d like to drive down to Albany,” she said.

“Yeah,” Natalie admitted. “But where the hell would I look for them?”

“Toby and False Brenda?”

“Either, whichever one I could find first.”

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