Among Friends

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The Return of Birdie Dvorak

THE RETURN OF BIRDIE DVORAK

Natalie called Lieutenant Sweeney to say she’d located one of her three old friends and would be going to meet him in Burlington, giving Sweeney the hotel name and room number where Toby was waiting for her. Natalie also said she’d learned that the other two had died recently under unnatural circumstances, to put it mildly.

By the time she placed the call to Sweeney, Natalie had already signed out the State Police summary of the Ashley Vickers case (the full court record was at the archives of the Franklin County courthouse in St. Albans) and had received faxed copies from Burlington P.D. about both Rick and Sharon’s wrongful death reports. No arrest had been made in the murder of Sharon Parker and the case was still open.

Natalie wanted to call the detectives in each case and also her friend Lieutenant Cheryl Grant on the Burlington force but felt the need to reach Toby first. She drove as fast as possible from headquarters to the Lakeshore Hotel, short of using the detachable police light on the roof of the unmarked cruiser. She barely exceeded all the posted speed limits.

The day was warm enough that Natalie had removed her blazer before getting into the car. She took the elevator up to the third floor at the hotel carrying a briefcase containing the reports, her badge and gun in full view, each clasped to her belt. She was wearing a white blouse and brown slacks along with her typical flat healed lace-up black shoes.

Natalie knocked on the door of room 306.

“Yes?” Toby’s voice replied.

“Police,” Natalie said. “Open up!”

She heard the chain come off the door and the dead bolt clack open. Then Toby was facing her across the threshold.

He gaped down at her.

“Natalie,” Toby murmured and stepped backward so she could enter.

“Are you okay?” Natalie asked, stepping briskly over to the desk.

“Yes,” Toby said, pushing the door closed.

She put the briefcase down on the desktop and turned back towards him.

“You seem nervous,” Natalie said. “Is it the gun?”

“I barely noticed it.”

Then Natalie realized what had thrown her old boyfriend off kilter. She’d chosen the blouse because it had the right sleeve length but, as usual, it meant there was a tight fit across her shoulders and over her arms.

“Never saw you so muscular,” Toby said with a slight smile. “It wasn’t so obvious when you were on TV in your uniform.”

“The uniform’s tailored for me. This blouse was off the rack.”

“Is that a police requirement, bodybuilding like that?”

“Not exactly but it helps.”

Natalie paused for a moment to consider whether to elaborate.

“My first husband,” she said at last, “the city cop, he beat the living shit out of me after we were married for a few years.”

“Oh my God!”

“I divorced him a long time ago, Toby. Then I joined the force myself and started to work out. Sure, it was good for the job, especially with me being so damned short, but then, too, it was a way to feel like I could defend myself. And I have a black belt in tae kwon do.

Toby smiled at her and took a step forward.

“You know, I’ve never hugged a policewoman.”

“I’ll give you a moment as an old friend and not a cop,” Natalie said, holding her harms out to him.

They embraced and Natalie felt Toby’s hands massaging her from the small of her back up to her shoulder blades.

“Okay, okay. So now you know it’s not padding. Stop.”

“Sorry,” Toby sputtered, backing away from Natalie again.

“It’s no big deal,” she said. “Better than grabbing my poor little tits. They haven’t changed much.”

“I… I always loved your boobs,” Toby said, blushing.

“Yes, I remember that. You were one of the few guys that gave them the kind of attention they deserved. Now, go sit on the edge of the bed. Keep your hands on the mattress.”

Toby obeyed.

Natalie walked up and stood over him.

“Remember how you took care of me that awful day at the cabin?”

“You wouldn’t leave my side,” Toby nodded. “Wouldn’t even stay in the car when I went into the bait shop to call the police.”

“You held my hand, cuddled me, whatever I needed to feel protected.”

“Sure, I― ”

Toby flinched as Natalie took his glasses off. She put them next to his right hand and leaned down.

“This is Birdie, thanking you.”

Natalie put her hands on Toby’s face and kissed him; he responded. The kiss went on longer than she’d planned and it started to become intoxicating for her. Natalie stood up quickly and gazed down at Toby’s questioning face.

“That’s it,” she said in a firm tone directed to herself more than Toby. “No more Birdie. Sergeant Natalie Dvorak doesn’t cheat on her husband.”

“I never expected―”

“Not your fault.”

Natalie turned and walked back towards the desk. She shuddered, thinking about the kiss and recognized the urgency of getting back to investigator mode.

“So,” Natalie said, opening the briefcase, “you protected me when we were kids. This time, I’m here to protect you.”

“Protect me?”

“Yes. There’s something I didn’t tell you over the phone.”

She looked back at Toby, who was still sitting on the bed. He hadn’t even picked up his glasses.

“Come over here,” Natalie said. “Don’t act like I’ve detained you, or something.”

Natalie sat in the desk chair and waited for Toby to bring over an armless chair that had been placed next to a floor lamp in the corner.

“What didn’t you tell me?”

“Look at these.”

Natalie handed over a photocopy of all four photographs from Graham’s binder.

“Where did these come from?” Toby asked. “They must be those pictures Ashley took that first evening.”

“No doubt. They turned up in Graham’s personal effects at the crash site. There were tacked to a thin sheet of cardboard inside a three-ring binder. Look closely at the pictures of Rick and Sharon.”

Toby adjusted his glasses and squinted.

“Holes through their heads,” he said.

“And they’re dead.”

Toby stared at Natalie.

“What, you think we’re all on Graham’s hit list?”

“That’s what I think.”

“But Natalie, how could that be? He only got out of prison after Rick died.”

“It might have been dumb luck that Rick overdosed before Graham could get his hands on him, true. But I read the police report on Rick. Have you read it?”

“No. Burlington’s not on the Transcript’s news beat.”

“Then how did you know Rick died before I did?”

“Sharon told me. She and I kept in touch off and on over the years. Sharon was the only one I ever heard from.”

“And her murder? Who told you about that?”

“Sharon’s husband. It’s not like he called me up and broke the news within twenty-four hours. I just called to wish Sharon a Happy New Year and…”

“Understood.”

“Now, back to Rick…”

Natalie picked up her black-rimmed reading glasses from a case next to the pile of folders. She looked over at Toby and smiled after putting them on.

“Looking more my age?”

“You’ve aged gloriously,” Toby said.

“You’re still damned cute yourself.”

“Fly away, Birdie,” Toby said with a wink.

“Right. Now according to the police report, Rick had been driving a cab here in town for about… six years, working the airport and ferry dock, among other places around town. He wasn’t married but had a girlfriend. The investigating officer notes she was not a ‘steady girlfriend’ but that she insisted Rick had kicked the heroin habit years ago, even before he started driving a taxi.”

“So why would he shoot up all of a sudden?” Toby asked. “Of course a relapse can happen at any time.”

“Yes, but Rick shot himself up with junk that was too pure. Not something an experienced junkie is likely to have done.”

“Not likely, but possible.”

“Suspicious circumstances. He might not have been alone when he died. Rick was seen with what looked like a prostitute that night. Took her up to his place but that’s not conclusive. The girlfriend was the one who called it in the next morning. She found him stone cold dead. Suspicious circumstances, see?”

“Yes, but how could Graham have been behind that assuming this was foul play?”

“A fellow con, one who got out before Graham. Someone who knew Graham came from a wealthy family. Assuming at least one parent or sibling didn’t disown him, they could have facilitated a contract.”

“Seems pretty far-fetched.”

“So why the tack through Rick’s head in the photo?”

“Maybe he found out that Rick OD’d and thought, ‘Good! One of them down.’”

“So what about Sharon? That was no accident.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Toby said with a nod. “And she was murdered after Graham was released. Hey, where was he released to?”

“Graham wasn’t paroled so he didn’t have a requirement to register with any agency.”

“And he didn’t leave a forwarding address at the prison, I suppose.”

“My partner’s following up with Graham’s family, trying to see whether he moved back with his folks, or something. He crashed on Highway 7 northbound but we don’t know whether he was going home or leaving it.”

“Maybe leaving it to meet with his accomplice to plan your murder or mine.”

“Don’t be sarcastic.”

“I’m not. But this is all pure speculation for now.”

“Sure. From speculation we develop a theory. Then we look for evidence to support our theory.”

“Well, I have to agree what happened to Sharon was suspicious. Shot dead on the street in Burlington, Vermont? I’m a little surprised I missed that on the wire service reports.”

“I was on vacation when that happened,” Natalie said with a nod. “Must be how I missed it, myself.”

“What’s the police report say about it?”

Natalie pulled out the file on the Sharon Parker murder. She read through the familiar police jargon and mentally noted the key points. Altogether it was what they’d refer to as a “stone cold whodunnit”, the worst kind of murder because there was a lack of suspects or motive, as she explained to Toby.

“Wouldn’t robbery be the motive?” he asked.

“Possibly. But there were no indications that Sharon resisted her attacker. Someone wants cash, they show the victim a weapon and tell her to hand it over. She hands over the loot and the thief runs off, having got what he wants. Normally there’s no interest in killing the victim unless they fight back―if then. Why risk a harsher sentence when all you want is money and not to take a life?”

“Unless it’s some lunatic thrill killer.”

“Well, unless I’m wrong, there’s been no other killing like what happened to Sharon in the three plus months since then. We’d have a terror situation in this city if there was some maniac on the loose. That would have come over your wire service printers.”

“No doubt. And whoever shot Sharon took the money, right?”

“Yes, to make it look like a robbery.”

“The police interviewed all the employees, I’m sure.”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Is there anything about someone who got fired from the gift shop?”

“You sound like a cop.”

“It’s your cop ears,” Toby said with a chuckle. “I’m speaking like an investigative reporter.”

“Okay. Well, not sure. No reference to anyone leaving their job at the shop. Only four employees under Sharon, all of them gave statements. No suspects suggested. If someone had quit or been fired, I think we can assume one of the employees would’ve said so.”

“Should we assume?”

Natalie smiled. Then she picked up the phone after looking at the report again. She dialed the Burlington police headquarters and asked to speak with the detective who’d filed the report. Natalie left a message for him to call her back at the hotel.

“Okay, while we’re waiting for that,” she said, “let’s look at the murder that started this all.”

Natalie pulled the summary report from her briefcase. This was a thick document in a manila file discolored with age.

“Let’s see if Graham really had a good defense,” she said.

“You can’t be serious!”

“What? I never paid much attention to the trial at the time. I didn’t want to think about it when I was eighteen. Were you in the courtroom when that fat lawyer rebutted the state’s case against his client?”

“No, I was busy with school.”

“Did you follow the case in the newspaper?”

“Not really. No, not at all. There might not even have been any coverage in the Ithaca press anyway. These days, a case like that would be all over the electronic media. Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters would be covering it on 20/20.”

“Well, then. Let’s learn something together.”

Natalie held up a few pages and read over the text. It was a photocopy of typescript from the court reporter’s office. Toby got up from his chair to use the bathroom while Natalie kept reading.

Just as he was flushing the toilet, the phone rang. Toby stood back at the bathroom doorway and listened.

“Hello, Dvorak here.”

“Well, so it’s true,” the voice belonging to Lieutenant Cheryl Grant said. “You’re digging around in my jurisdiction again.”

“Yes, Cheryl. Should I have called you first for the sake of protocol?”

“Never mind. What’s your interest in the Parker case?”

“A couple of things. First of all, I knew her in high school.”

“What? Why are you asking about it now?”

“There’s been a development in a related case that might get this one closed for you.”

“That would be nice. Were you close friends with Sharon Parker?”

“Once upon a time, I was. High school was a long time ago for me, even longer ago for you.”

“Right. I’ll never forget the day we had Abraham Lincoln come to our one room schoolhouse as a substitute teacher. I told him he should grow a beard and run for President.”

“Anyway, it’s not personal in the sense of Sharon being a friend. It goes back more than twenty years. She and I were both witnesses at a murder trial for another classmate who was strangled at a cabin. Five of us testified; another kid on the trip was charged and convicted of the murder.”

“A bit late to be murdering a witness, after the conviction.”

“It gets worse, Cheryl. Five witnesses, three of us are dead, two recently.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Not at all. Sharon was the most recent death. The other was also in your jurisdiction, a cabbie named Rick Gresham. Heroin overdose last October.”

“That leaves three, right?”

“One got killed over in Vietnam in ’68. That leaves me and one other witness. He’s here with me in the hotel room.”

“Protective custody?”

“Maybe, if there’s someone out there we need to be protected from.”

“Like who? The convicted killer?”

“He’s dead, too.”

“Now you’ve gotta be winding me up.”

“God damn it, no! He was killed out on 7, between Shelburne and here. The VSP detective on the scene found a kind of hit list with our faces on it.”

“Faces?”

“I’ll explain that all later.”

“Okay, okay. Why don’t I come over and see the two of you?”

“Sure. You have the room number.”

“First, just what was it that you wanted to ask Scott Ryland about?”

“Whether he was told about any disgruntled ex-employees at Sharon’s gift shop who might’ve had it out for her.”

“I’ll ask for you. What else are you doing there?”

“Reading over the court case records from 1961, particularly the defense argument.”

“How’s your friend doing?”

“Fine. His name’s Toby Hughes.”

Natalie looked over to him and smiled.

“He was my high school sweetheart.”

“You need a chaperone?”

“Not really.”

“Look, I’ll stop and get us a large pizza from that place you like. Don’t forget to call Dan and tell him you won’t be home for dinner.”

“Right, I’ll call him.”

“And, if I find that hotel bed all messed up, I’ll kick your little ass.”

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