Among Friends

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The Stalker in a Fur Coat

THE STALKER IN A FUR COAT

Natalie woke up after eight the next morning. She had slept alongside Elaine in the big bed where Luke usually took up so much space (“I won’t even notice you’re there,” Elaine had quipped at bedtime). Elaine was already up and around; Natalie could hear the coffee machine gurgle from the kitchen. The only other sounds also came from there as Elaine was opening and closing doors to the refrigerator and one or two of the cabinets.

Natalie used the bathroom and then got dressed in yesterday’s clothes. Hanging the blouse and slacks from hangers on the shower curtain rod to air them out was the best she could do.

Seeing the tub made her think of Toby’s clever trick to leave his license in Kasey’s apartment. As she buttoned the blouse, Natalie remembered thanking Toby for the clue.

She went back into the bedroom for a moment, wondering about where Kasey Miller could have gone. Toby’s car was left in that empty lot hours after children, teachers, and all other school employees would have gone home. There was a bus station around the corner; one possibility the police considered was that Kasey had taken a bus out of town before the terminal was covered.

But then she would have had to take a bus leaving quite soon to have avoided the police. So soon that the ticket agents would have recalled Kasey buying a ticket to places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. None of agents could say they’d seen her in the terminal.

Natalie walked towards the aroma of brewing coffee.

“Was there anything in your car that she might have found useful to escape or disguise herself?” Natalie had asked Toby.

“Yes,” he said so quickly that she’d been startled. “There was a black raincoat in the trunk. If Kasey looked in there, maybe she took it and pulled the hood up…”

“Good morning,” Elaine said when Natalie reached the kitchen.

“Up and dressed before me,” Natalie said, looking up at her. “That’s a first.”

“You had a long day,” Elaine replied, pouring a mug of coffee. “All that stress looking for your old boyfriend before― ”

“We’re just friends,” Natalie said.

“I said old boyfriend,” Elaine insisted, holding out the mug. “Here. Black coffee just the way you like it, you tough cop.”

“Did you watch the morning news?” Natalie asked, sipping from the mug.

“No, why?”

“I thought maybe there’d been some news about Kasey Miller being apprehended.”

“You would’ve got a call here, right?” Elaine asked, pouring flavored creamer into her own mug. “Didn’t you leave my number with the desk sergeant or whoever?”

“I left it with a Detective Coyle, so happens. But that’s really logical of you. I’m impressed.”

“Thanks. You know, I don’t have anything good for breakfast here. Want to stop and get diner food on the way to the hospital?”

“Might be more efficient to get a tray in the hospital cafeteria,” Natalie said, taking her seat at the small dining table.

“Ugh! Hospital food?”

There was only one car in the apartment parking lot that had green Vermont license plates on it. Kasey hadn’t seen where Natalie parked the night before but when she came back in the light of morning, a stroll through the parking lot was all it took to find the unmarked cruiser.

After leaving Toby’s car at the school, Kasey had put on the sweater to cover the butt of the revolver sticking up from the waistband of her slacks. She backtracked to a costume shop that she’d driven past on the last block.

Kasey found a black wig and a fake fur coat along with a pair of sunglasses with oversized lenses in the shop. She bought them all with cash and walked around for several minutes. Then she found a taxi near Capitol Hill, asked the driver if he’d heard about a cop being shot earlier that evening, and was told that the radio news had reported the victims had been taken to Albany Medical Center.

Kasey asked to be driven there so she could pray for the victims on the hospital grounds. The driver gave her a funny look but accepted the fare.

At the Medical Center, Kasey waited in the lobby for more than two hours, where she watched dozens of uniformed police officers coming and going. Finally, she saw Natalie Dvorak walking briskly towards the exit along with a young, male plainclothes officer.

It was the first time Kasey had seen Natalie in person. But having seen pictures of the small, dark-haired detective during her months of preparation, she had no trouble recognizing her target.

Acting on an educated guess, she stealthily followed the two detectives outside at a safe distance and watched them get into a car. The male detective got into the driver’s seat. Kasey hurried over to a taxi stand and asked to be driven to police headquarters.

She considered looking for Natalie’s car in the lot at the station but realized not just anyone could go searching for out-of-state plates in a police parking lot. Low on cash, Kasey realized there wasn’t going to be another opportunity and spent it all on a third cab.

She told the driver that her husband’s mistress was at the police station to file a false report against her for harassment. Kasey said she needed to find out where her husband was meeting the girlfriend so that her own attorney could prove an affair.

“I have to be my own private detective,” she said. “I have two hundred dollars for you if you can follow her car to my old man’s love nest. It might be a hotel, I’m not sure.”

“Just don’t do anything crazy while you’re in my cab. What kind of car does she drive?”

“I don’t know but it has Vermont license plates. I can point her out when she comes outside. Then we’ll both find out which car she’s driving.”

And eventually Natalie did appear, walking all by herself. The cab driver was able to tail Natalie’s car all the way to Elaine’s apartment.

“Your husband’s girlfriend looks like a cop to me,” the driver said.

“She is.”

“You better know what you’re doing, lady.”

“I do. Take your money. It’s all my show from here.”

The fur coat was Kasey’s blanket overnight. She had found some cover in a vacant lot down the street from the apartment, sleeping in brief cat naps of up to twenty minutes at a time until the sun rose. Kasey didn’t worry about someone bothering her since she was armed and dangerous.

After Kasey had scouted the parked cars, she found a nearby bus stop bench to sit and wait for her target to appear, waving away bus drivers as they stopped to see if she needed a ride.

Kasey was seized by a thrill, knowing this was going to end it all. She’d never escape but at last all four would pay. Even though Toby wasn’t dead, Kasey had punished him; he’d be scarred for life.

Natalie Dvorak would go down like Sharon Parker. There would be no cultivating a relationship this time. Kasey had been confused by Toby’s desperate chatter. She had almost accepted his offer to make her an author.

This time there would be no more talking. That is, the revolver would say all that Kasey needed to tell Natalie.

“So do we take your car or mine?” Elaine asked as she and Natalie got into the elevator.

“Maybe we should drive separately,” Natalie suggested. “That way you can head over to work without either of us needing to come back here for the other car. I might as well go back home directly, myself.”

“All right,” Elaine agreed as the elevator descended.

The tenant parking spaces were closer to the rear door than the visitors’. The two of them emerged from the building and separated as Kasey watched.

She got up from the bus stop bench and crossed the street, making for the entry way gap in the fence. Kasey dropped the wig and coat in the crosswalk; she’d already thrown away the sunglasses.

Entering the lot, she passed the tall young woman who had come outside with Natalie. Kasey didn’t care when this person stopped and stared; witnesses didn’t matter now. There were four bullets left in the cylinder and they all had Natalie’s name on them.

Kasey turned away from the witness and started after Natalie, pulling the gun out from her waistband. She quickened her pace, trying to narrow the gap between them to point-blank range. Of course, if Natalie heard Kasey’s footsteps and turned to look behind her…

What Natalie did hear was a string a sounds in such rapid succession that they seemed like a single auditory event. A scream, a gunshot, and a heavy thud like the sound of a car crashing into something.

She spun around, reaching for her sidearm in its hip holster as she moved. Her gun drawn, Natalie saw Elaine standing over the body of a woman. The body was lying next to a light blue Econoline van, a large dent in its side. There was a revolver just like Natalie’s on the pavement at Elaine’s feet.

Natalie holstered her gun and ran over to the other two. Elaine was standing there in what Natalie recognized as shock: her stepdaughter’s skin was pale and she was staring ahead, motionless. Because the woman’s face was visible, Natalie saw that it was Kasey Miller.

Natalie dropped to one knee, touched Kasey’s neck to look for a pulse and didn’t find one. She stood up, stepped over Kasey, and went to Elaine.

“Honey, it’s me,” she said. “Look at me.”

Elaine slowly turned her gaze down at Natalie and blinked a few times.

“Nat, is she… ?”

“You should sit down.”

Natalie led Elaine towards the low fence. She heard a glass door slide open from a second-story apartment. A middle-aged woman came out to her balcony and stared down at the scene in parking lot.

“Police!” Natalie shouted, pulling out her badge.

The tenant was too far away to see just what law enforcement agency the badge represented but she nodded.

“Ma’am, please dial 911 and tell them an officer needs assistance! Also have them send an ambulance!”

The woman nodded again and disappeared inside her apartment.

“Ambulance?” Elaine muttered after Natalie sat her down. “She gonna be all right?”

“Stay there,” Natalie said.

She walked over to pick up Kasey’s pistol before someone else found it, pocketing the thing in her blazer, wrapped in a handkerchief. Natalie noticed that the stray bullet had punctured and flattened a tire on someone’s Toyota.

Then she went back to Elaine, ignoring the first few people who’d stopped to watch from the sidewalk.

“I threw her, Nat,” Elaine murmured in a trancelike voice. “I got her wrist and threw her like I did with Daisy Dynamo last week. Only Daisy just kind of ran backward into the turnbuckle. This woman, she just flew in the air like… like… I don’t know what… I think she hit that van.”

“Shhh,” Natalie whispered. “Just sit there quietly. I’m right here with you.”

She figured that whoever Daisy Dynamo was, that wrestler had to be a lot heavier than Kasey Miller. Heavy with the kind of muscular insulation that would have protected Daisy when Elaine had thrown her. Kasey was dangerous with a gun or syringe. But the lightweight, small-boned killer had not been built for surviving a hard landing against a sheet of automotive steel.

There would be no leaving Albany that day. The crimes Kasey committed in this jurisdiction were moving towards closure. Part of that process was taking statements from Elaine and Natalie. An attorney from the prosecutor’s office met with Elaine separately from Natalie, who was otherwise occupied with helping Broderick and Coyle with the police paperwork.

How Kasey had tracked Natalie to Elaine’s home became clear when the third taxi driver came forward to give a statement. That revelation had disturbed Natalie; she tried to cover her anxiety with humor.

“That disguise,” Natalie said to Broderick, “was so stupid it actually worked.”

The gun Kasey had dropped in the parking lot was confirmed in a ballistics report to have been the one used at the traffic stop to wound Toby and Officer Gilbert. A few days later, a second report would also indicate that it had been the murder weapon in the Sharon Parker case.

After getting back to the apartment in time for dinner, Elaine had a call from Luke. It didn’t go well.

“Yes, I’m glad I stopped her,” Natalie overheard Elaine telling him. “But it’s nothing to be proud of! No, the District Attorney said I won’t be charged with anything! That’s not the point either…”

After the call, Elaine asked Natalie to take her back to Vermont.

“I need to get away for a while. Could I stay at your place? Daddy won’t mind.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t. Of course you’re welcome. I need to see Toby this evening. You still want to meet him?”

“Oh, yes!”

The overtime police guard was no longer needed outside Toby’s room. Natalie and Elaine went right in and found Toby sitting with the top of the bed elevated. He was dressed in a thin cotton hospital garment, an IV tube leading from a plastic bag to a needle in the back of his left hand.

“Well,” Toby said, smiling and adjusting his glasses. “Is that Elaine with you?”

“That’s the one.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Toby said.

“Same here,” Elaine said in a soft voice.

“Natalie, you married into a race of giants!”

Elaine blushed but then smiled. Natalie was relieved. The girl hadn’t smiled since the parking lot incident.

She and Elaine sat down in chairs alongside the bed.

“I saw you both on the TV news,” Toby said. “They made you out to be a real heroine, young lady.”

“Oh,” Elaine replied, her smile vanishing.

“Not how you see yourself, is it?” Toby asked.

“No. I only wanted to stop that woman.”

“The Medical Examiner said Kasey was in the early stages of osteoporosis,” Natalie said. “Brittle bones. How could you know that, honey?”

The examiner had said more than that when Natalie and Broderick met him in the morgue. Natalie wouldn’t share those details with Elaine:

Wrist bones above the right hand are mostly crushed; right shoulder’s been dislocated. The impact, of course, killed her. Skull fracture; multiple broken vertebrae in the spinal column, both cervical and thoracic. It looks as if the woman fell off a roof or was hit by a truck.”

But didn’t Miller have weak bones?”

Probably would’ve developed osteoporosis later in life if she never did anything about it, yes. But she was certainly small boned…”

“I won’t try to cheer you up,” Toby went on. “But we all know you didn’t want to kill Kasey. You were just put into a bad situation and reacted in a way you were trained to react.”

“But…” Elaine protested.

“It was a move you’ve practiced,” Natalie said, patting Elaine’s forearm. “In that situation, your adrenalin gave it all more force than you’d use in a match. I think everyone understands that.”

Toby nodded and said: “You know what? I should’ve stopped Kasey when I had the chance. If I could change things, I would, even if Kasey had to die at my hands instead of yours.”

“The only ‘should have’ that matters is that Kasey shouldn’t have tried to kill us,” Natalie said bitterly.

Elaine broke the brief, awkward silence.

“So you guys were boyfriend-girlfriend way back?”

“Long ago,” Toby confirmed. “When we were younger than you are now.”

“Were you two in love?”

“Elaine!” Natalie scolded.

“Well, I was in love,” Toby said. “I can’t speak for Natalie, of course.”

“All right, so was I. Are you satisfied?”

“I guess so,” Elaine replied with a smirk.

“Are you going to continue wrestling?” Toby asked. “Or is that something you need to think about?”

“I probably will. Mom wants me to stop but she never wanted me to wrestle in the first place. I guess I’ll have to face her if I’m in Holbrook for a few days.”

“Just know that she cares about you,” Natalie said. “Cares and worries like a Mom has to.”

“Then Luke thinks that it might be good for me as a wrestler, what happened this morning. Like it makes me more scary for the fans. I didn’t want to hear that!”

“He meant well,” Toby suggested.

“Spoken like a real ex-boyfriend,” Natalie said with a snort.

Toby surprised her by smiling.

“Betsy came in to see me,” he said.

“His ex-wife,” Natalie explained to Elaine. “Well, that’s nice.”

“Somehow nearly losing someone makes you appreciate them,” Toby said.

“I hope she takes you back,” Elaine blurted.

“I hope for whatever’s best for everyone,” Natalie remarked.

“You have kids?” Elaine asked.

“One son. Ryan. He goes to River Run like me and Natalie did.”

Elaine nodded.

“Is that his picture?” she asked, looking at a framed photograph on the bed table to Toby’s right.

“Yes,” Toby said. “Betsy brought it in this morning.”

Elaine got up from her chair and stepped over for a closer look.

“He’s cute,” she commented with a smile. “Will he be back in Albany for the summer?”

“Yes, he will.”

“Elaine,” Natalie sighed, “he’s sixteen years old!”

“Seventeen next month,” Toby added with a grin.

“You aren’t helping,” Natalie complained.

“I was just kidding,” Elaine said to her only to quickly shake her head at Toby when she thought Natalie couldn’t see the signal.

“Out! I’ll meet you in the lobby in twenty minutes. Let’s leave tonight.”

“Okay,” Elaine replied. “Nice to meet you, Toby.”

“See you later.”

Elaine smiled at him before turning to walk out of the room.

“Troublemaker,” Natalie said.

“What, you think she’s too big for my kid?”

“Elaine’s first love was a shrimp like you so she might like Ryan. But she lives with Luke; you shouldn’t give children matches to play with.”

“Elaine might intimidate Ryan, anyway.”

Natalie smiled and hoped Toby was right.

“I think I’ll pick up where Kasey left off and write her story, our story,” Toby said after a moment.

“Is there real money in true crime books?”

“If they’re lurid enough, I guess. Imagine the film version.”

“Sounds like you have.”

Toby nodded with a chuckle.

“Sissy Spacek as Kasey.”

“Yeah, maybe. Who would play you?”

“Dustin Hoffman.”

“Oh, I see. Short but intelligent and sensitive. And what about the role of Natalie Dvorak?”

“Sally Field.”

Natalie laughed out loud and shook her head.

“Only if you want to make me too likeable,” she gasped, catching her breath. “I’m not so cute anymore, am I?”

Toby stopped smiling.

“Let’s not go there again,” he said.

Natalie nodded and stood up from her chair.

“So it’s finally all over,” she said. “We have what’s called closure, right?”

“Maybe we have a new beginning, too. With that horrible experience behind us, don’t you think it won’t be so painful to keep in touch?”

Natalie reached down and squeezed his hand. What happened to Ashley, whether it was Tom or Graham who’d done it, wasn’t the reason she’d avoided Toby for all those years. It was easier to explain it that way, to present it as an excuse.

“I thought I’d lost you a long time ago,” Natalie said. “What I’d been afraid of was coming true and it made me sad. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that you were someone I’d been with the first time I saw a murder victim. But you were the boy I wasn’t good enough to keep. I had to go my own way and do my own things in life.”

“And now that you have, you can face me. Is that it?”

Natalie smiled and picked up her small purse, signaling she was ready to leave.

“Who really knows, Toby? I’d like to be friends, though. We’re old enough to handle it, I think.”

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