Among Friends

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Where Are They Now?

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The morning after the car crash outside Shelburne, Detective Sergeant Dvorak went out in the field to the site of another auto collision. There were no fatalities this time but a car was found to have contraband in its trunk, the lid having popped open on impact. The responding Field Force trooper had been suspicious when the driver, who had sideswiped a tree, was desperately trying to shut the trunk without success.

The new incident occurred along the same highway where, forty miles to the north, Detective Quinn had found the suitcase with its strange portrait gallery.

Trooper Cyrus “King Kong” Pruitt was six foot seven inches tall and built like a football linebacker. After one look at Pruitt, the driver, an average sized man, surrendered on the spot. Checking in the trunk, Pruitt saw a duffel bag. While the driver stood with his hands on the front fender, looking down at the hood, the big trooper unzipped the bag and saw bundles of coins that had been stolen from an arcade―the weekend’s takings from the coin boxes of several game machines, both electronic and mechanical.

After handcuffing the coin thief, Pruitt radioed the Rutland barracks to report his discovery. Natalie was up to respond as detective on duty. Pruitt left the duffel bag where he’d seen it, unzipped, and locked the perpetrator in the back of his cruiser.

Natalie arrived several minutes later in her unmarked car and parked behind the green Field Force vehicle. She got out and looked up at Pruitt as he walked over to greet her.

“Did you Mirandize him before he confessed?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.”

“Call me Sergeant. Good that he confessed, Pruitt. I’ll just need to take his formal statement after he’s booked. Let’s see the loot.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Natalie nodded at the pile of coin bundles and zipped the duffel bag shut. But when she reached for the handles, Pruitt’s long arm and huge right hand beat her to it. He pulled the bag out of the trunk and held it by his side.

“Pruitt, I could’ve lifted that,” Natalie snapped.

“Sorry, Sergeant. Just being a gentleman.”

“Next time don’t help me unless I order you to.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Put that evidence in the trunk of my car,” Natalie said. “Then transfer the prisoner to my backseat.”

Pruitt nodded.

Once Natalie’s car was so loaded, Pruitt stood by for further orders.

“Wait here for the tow truck, then search that wreck at the barracks in case this nitwit has anything more exciting than small change in his car.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Report back to me after the search is finished.”

Natalie slammed the door to her car and started the engine.

“Do I get a lighter sentence because I confessed?” the thief asked as Natalie shifted into reverse.

“Maybe. Now shut up until I can take your statement on a tape recorder.”

God damn him, Natalie thought. Could’ve at least let me try to pick that bag up, even if I needed two hands to do it. Assumed I was some helpless little lady, that dumb gorilla. So what if he picked that bag up like it was a package of toilet paper rolls. I oughtta make him count every last coin in there. Course he might not be able to count that high

After the arrest of the coin box bandit had been fully processed, Natalie changed into sweat clothes and went to the weight room. She wished she could show Pruitt something but that would have been beneath her dignity.

The locker room scale had balanced under Natalie’s weight at 117 pounds. She found a barbell resting on a set of poles for bench presses and noticed it was loaded with four iron plates at fifty pounds each. Natalie chalked the palms of her hands and carried the barbell away from the bench poles to use it for a dead lift. She could raise the bar from the floor mat up as high as her waist, repeating the exercise six times before Detective Johnny Billings barged in to interrupt her.

“Hey, there, Wonder Woman!” Johnny said. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is a workout,” Natalie said, holding the barbell up with more effort than she wanted her partner to know about.

“That must weigh more than a duffel bag full of quarters.”

Natalie dropped the barbell and planted her left foot on it.

“God damn him,” she grumbled to the smiling Johnny; he was more than ten years younger than Natalie and was a tall, handsome ladies’ man. “That idiot Pruitt’s been jabbering, hasn’t he? You come here to make fun of me?”

“No, Sergeant. You have a call from Lieutenant Morris in Williston. He said it might be something important.”

Natalie frowned and went to wash her hands.

“Morris say anything about what’s so important?”

“He mentioned a homicide case you were involved with. When I said I didn’t recognize the name of the victim, Morris said it was before my time. He said you’d recognize the name.”

“What name?” Natalie asked, drying her hands.

“Ashley Vickers.”

Natalie threw the towel aside and pushed past Johnny, who followed as she ran back upstairs towards her desk.

“Line three!” Johnny called after her.

Later on, Natalie met with her commanding officer, Lieutenant George Sweeney in his office. Johnny joined them.

“What’s this all about?” Sweeney asked, slouching in the high-backed chair behind his desk.

“There was a fatal crash yesterday up in Williston’s jurisdiction,” Natalie began. “The dead man wasn’t identified until this morning. His fingerprints are on file as a convicted murderer.”

“His name?”

“Graham Wright.”

“And he murdered someone in this state?” Sweeney asked with a frown. “Why don’t I recognize that name?”

“He finished a twenty-two year sentence last November.”

“Duly released and now dead,” Sweeney replied. “What of it?”

“He killed Ashley Vickers,” Johnny said.

“Now that name’s more familiar,” Sweeney replied after a moment’s reflection. “Wasn’t she some kid, a schoolgirl?”

“She was a recent high school graduate who was strangled during a summer trip with friends,” Natalie said. “They were staying in a cabin in the woods, northern Franklin County.”

“How come you know the details better than me?” Sweeney asked.

“I was there.”

“There? How could you have been?”

“I was at the cabin, sir. Ashley Vickers was a friend of mine. I saw her lying there dead on the floor. It was damn well my first murder.”

Sweeney stared at her.

“My first murder,” Natalie repeated. “But I was just a witness, not a cop. Obviously.”

“So, wait. Morris called you about the I.D.? Did he find your name on the witness list from the original reports?”

“Not exactly.”

“What else? Out with it, Dvorak.”

“Graham Wright and Ashley were alone in the cabin on our second day. The rest of us went for a long hike. When we got back, Graham’s car was gone and we found Ashley strangled with Graham’s belt. That was enough to get him convicted for murder in the second. Graham was the cousin of Ashley’s boyfriend; his family owned the cabin. The defense tried to argue that the rest of us―there were five of us―banded together to alibi one another because Graham was unpopular, the ideal fall guy.”

“No truth to that, I hope.”

“No, sir. But here’s the reason Morris called me. Graham was traveling with a suitcase, northbound to an unknown destination; departure point also unknown. But they opened the suitcase and found four photographs taken on the first day of that trip. They were in a binder, tacked onto a cardboard sheet. My picture was one of them.”

“The other three?” Sweeney asked.

“Toby Hughes, Sharon Parker, and Richard Gresham.”

“The alibi witnesses,” Johnny remarked.

“You said there were five of you,” Sweeney said. “Who was missing?”

“Tom Wright; he was Ashley’s boyfriend and Graham’s cousin. He died in Vietnam.”

Sweeney nodded.

“So this Graham Wright was carrying around pictures of the four people who might have cleared him of the murder charges but who instead conspired to put him away for it. In his warped mind, that is.”

“Not only that but he stuck thumbtacks into the faces of Sharon and Rick but not mine or Toby’s.”

“How would Graham have even got copies of pictures that were taken on the trip?” Johnny asked.

“The roll of film was from Ashley’s camera,” Natalie explained. “She shot all the exposures and left the roll out in plain sight but it went missing before we left the cabin. I suppose Graham picked it up that morning and took it with him when he left. He must’ve sent it off to be developed and mailed to himself.”

“Why didn’t Graham go with you on the hike?” Sweeney asked.

“He was still sleeping when the rest of us got up. Too much Wild Turkey. Ashley was too hung over to join us. That’s how those two ended up together at the cabin without us.”

“Graham was unpopular, you said?” Johnny asked.

“Yes. He was a little weird, I can say now. Awkward, clumsy, even though he was a few years older than the rest of us.”

“No one worried about that weirdo being alone with a pretty teenaged girl?” Johnny asked. “She was pretty, wasn’t she?”

“Upper class good looks, yes,” Natalie said. “But Graham didn’t seem like the type who’d molest his cousin’s girlfriend, if for no other reason than Tom would’ve killed him for it. Tom was bigger and stronger than Graham.”

“Well, you can’t always predict what a psychopath will do,” Sweeney said. “Especially not if you were naïve kids back then. But I worry about the thumbtacks through the faces of those two friends of yours.”

“So do I,” Natalie sighed.

“Are you in touch with those old friends?” Sweeney asked.

“Frankly, no. I haven’t seen any of them since the day I testified at Graham’s trial.”

“Do you know where any of them are now?”

“Not really. We went to different colleges and I never had any mutual friends at the University who could give me any updates. My mother saw an article about Tom being KIA or I might never have heard even that much.”

“Is it that big a deal?” Johnny asked. “If Graham was out for revenge, he can’t get you now.”

“Maybe not me and maybe not Toby,” Natalie replied. “But the placement of those tacks for Rick and Sharon…”

“Why not take a drive up to HQ and see what their data banks might have on the old gang?” Sweeney suggested. “I don’t suppose you’d be satisfied waiting for a fax report.”

“No. I’d also like to get a thorough review of the case file, from arrest to sentencing. I was so upset at the time I didn’t follow anything in the press. I gave my testimony and never wanted to hear anything else about the trial. Until now.”

Sweeney nodded and watched the detectives get up from their seats.

“Natalie,” he said.

“Yes, sir?”

“Just curious. Why didn’t you ever mention this to me or Johnny here? We’ve both partnered with you and as far as I know, your experience with the Vickers murder case never came up since you joined the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.”

“I suppose I was trying to forget it ever happened.”

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