Among Friends

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Woman On a Mission

WOMAN ON A MISSION

Natalie found Dan waiting up for her when she came inside through the kitchen door. She threw herself into his arms before taking a can of beer out of the refrigerator.

“What did you mean about this being a ‘personal case’?” Dan asked as they sat down together at the kitchen table.

It took a long while for Natalie to tell the story about the cabin in the woods, the trial, the sentence served, and the death of half the witnesses who’d survived into the current decade.

Dan, who’d said very little during his wife’s story, reached out and took her hand.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me about this before?”

“It was a long time ago. I was such a different person back then that she’s almost a stranger to me now. I’ve been trying to forget about all that since the trial. It’s probably why I never kept in touch with the rest of them, not even Toby.”

“Toby, huh? Did it stir anything in you, seeing him again?”

“Well…” Natalie said, pulling her hand back. “You see…”

She stood up and stepped behind Dan, then put her arms around his neck.

“Toby has aged really well,” Natalie told him. “He’s kept all his hair.”

She kissed Dan’s bald scalp.

“So what?” he said with a grimace. “You never knew me when I had hair.”

“You have nothing to worry about. Time for bed.”

Toby found three messages on his answering machine when he finally got home to his apartment in an old building near Washington Park. The first was from Betsy thanking him for dropping their son off at school; Ryan had called her to confirm his safe arrival. The second message was from a woman named Gina asking whether Toby was available to meet her for coffee that evening at seven; too late for that―Toby hoped she wouldn’t be angry that he hadn’t been able to return her call. The third call was from a woman named Kasey, another prospect for a date. Toby had actually slept with Kasey twice so far but was more attracted to Gina, who hadn’t done more than kiss him good night so far. Kasey’s message didn’t suggest a date but was “just saying hi. Call me sometime.”

Toby sighed and erased all three messages. He still missed Betsy. She was his type more than the other two. In fact his ex-wife was more his type than Natalie was now, given how much she’d changed. Toby had meant it when he’d said her strength was admirable but her vulnerability as a kid had been attractive to him. Betsy was still a “Birdie” but Sergeant Dvorak was not.

Gina was the right height for Toby and having more curves than Betsy wasn’t a bad thing at all. She was a pretty young woman in her early thirties but seemed unsure of how far to take things with Toby, hence the limit he’d come up against.

Kasey was a little taller than what Toby looked for in a girlfriend. Not quite taller than him if she was wearing flats; he could live with that. But Kasey was plain compared to Gina, let alone Natalie or Betsy. She was skinny and awkward. Her main appeal was giving Toby a sense of needing to be taken care of. Kasey was Gina’s age but seemed younger.

Toby had met Gina at the State Capital where she worked as a clerical aide in the department that handled licensing for small businesses. She wasn’t a source for any stories Toby was working on; they’d met outside the building a few times and he’d finally offered to take Gina to lunch.

Kasey had sent an article in to the Transcript back in October, a cover letter explaining it was a digest version of a book she had written about a true crime case involving a murder-suicide a few years earlier in Rhinebeck, New York. The packet, addressed to Toby personally, made its way to his desk. But the submission had three strikes against it.

First, the Transcript didn’t normally publish crime stories about ordinary murder; their mission was more along the lines of exposing public corruption or police misconduct. Second, Kasey was obviously an amateur: sending an entire manuscript without solicitation proved that. The proper approach would have been to send a query letter first to determine whether the publisher would be interested in the material based on the author’s description. Third, the poor quality of the writing made Toby’s head swim and he set the manuscript aside less than a third of the way through it.

Toby wrote a polite but firm rejection letter, emphasizing the first two points and kindly refraining from addressing Kasey’s writing skill. He would not return the unsolicited manuscript, per policy. The return address was somewhere in the Borough of Queens.

Within a week, a letter appeared in Toby’s in box from Kasey. He opened the envelope with trepidation but the message was not full of hurt feelings and resentment. That much was a relief but Kasey had gone on to ask for “constructive criticism” as an editor “if you’re not too busy with your regular duties”.

Toby took several days to write Kasey again, trying his best to stress the “constructive” part of his criticism. He suggested that Kasey considering enrolling in a continuing education class for nonfiction writing. When there had been no answer from the would-be author after several weeks, Toby assumed Kasey’s interest had been deflected for good.

Yet in February, another letter came in to his office with Kasey’s name on the envelope. He was startled to see a return address in Albany instead Queens. Inside was a message from Kasey thanking Toby for his advice and an announcement that she had a new job in the capital city as a drug store clerk. Kasey signed below her phone number, noting “call me if you want, no pressure”.

At that moment in Toby’s personal life, he was in a committed relationship with a petite woman named Helen; she was near his age and got along with Ryan. So if Kasey had some ridiculous notion that she could move Upstate and pursue a man she’d never seen in person or even spoken with over the phone, Toby wasn’t going to encourage her. He did not reply to Kasey’s letter.

Not long after. Toby found out that Helen had been cheating on him with her next door neighbor. He broke things off in a furious rage and within a day, found Kasey’s last letter still in his desk at the office.

Toby met Kasey for drinks at a bar around the corner from the Transcript’s building. She was excited to meet him and asked if Toby might review her revised manuscript. Still angry at Helen, Toby said yes, hoping to be invited back to Kasey’s apartment.

“Can I drop it off at your office tomorrow?” Kasey asked.

He touched the woman’s bony knee under the table as a way of showing interest in something other than Kasey’s book. She giggled and pushed Toby’s hand away.

“Don’t you like me?” Toby asked.

“I… I have a crush on you,” Kasey whispered. “But I’m scared.”

“Don’t be scared.”

“But I really want you to be my mentor, too. Can you just read my book first? Then we’ll see.”

Toby gave her a nod. Kasey pulled his hand over to place it back on her knee. She asked Toby tell to her about his family and his life experience.

“Why are you interested in murder?” Toby asked a long while later.

“My father was killed when I was a little girl.”

“Oh, my God,” Toby sighed. “How did that happen?”

“I don’t want to go into that now. Listen, maybe I should go. Walk me to my car?”

Kasey kissed him goodnight by her compact Mazda. Before noon the next day, Toby had the 325-page manuscript on his desk, packaged in a cardboard box that Kasey delivered in person. Some of his colleagues in the news room teased him about the skinny, homely writer/clerk and what she’d brought to him. Toby suffered through that and took the box home with him.

The quality of the writing had noticeably improved from the digest version. It was hardly another In Cold Blood yet didn’t seem much better or worse than the run of the mill true crime genre Toby had perused now and then over the years. With a lurid paperback cover, Kasey’s effort could conceivably find its place on a rack in the drugstore where she had her day job.

Before Toby reached the last page of the manuscript, he had met and dated Gina for the first time. Using this reading chore as an opportunity to get revenge sex from Kasey didn’t seem so important anymore.

But when Gina resisted his strong hints at carnal ambitions, Toby invited Kasey over to pick up her boxed tale of tragedy. Sure enough, he got Kasey to spend the night with him.

The phone rang as Toby began to get undressed. His first thought was that it was Natalie, calling to make sure he’d made it home alive and well.

“Hello.”

“Toby?”

“Hi, Kasey. I would’ve called back but I didn’t assume you’d still be up.”

“I just thought I might try one more time.”

“I’m glad you did. Sorry I got back so late. I, uh, ran into an old friend from school. We got to talking and had dinner together in Burlington.”

“Lady friend?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh.”

“Not that kind of lady friend.”

“You sure?”

Toby smiled and carried the phone over to his bed.

“Let me put it this way. Would you like to come over now?”

“Yes!”

Kasey reached his apartment faster than Toby expected but that was no cause for complaint. She was wearing a red shirt with slate gray slacks. Her curly blond hair seemed a bit disheveled but her narrow face was brightened by a big smile and wide, excited green eyes. The nostrils of her button nose flared.

Toby greeted Kasey with a kiss. Then he poured her a drink which she carried into the bedroom.

The phone rang after sunrise, waking both Toby and Kasey. He picked up the receiver and heard Natalie on the line. It was her first check-in call.

Having Kasey with him, Toby said little and listened as Natalie said they were expecting fingerprints on the photographs Johnny had collected from Mrs. Wright and that she would conduct interviews with Rick’s ex-girlfriend and Sharon’s widower as well as the gift shop employees.

“Are you tired?” Natalie asked. “You keep grunting at me.”

“Yeah, I’m tired. Sorry. Good luck with the interviews.”

“Who was that?” Kasey asked after Toby hung up the phone.

“My friend from yesterday.”

“You called her Natalie?”

“Yes. She’s a cop with the Vermont State Police.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah, maybe she’ll have some good material for another true crime book after you get that last one published.”

For some reason, Kasey seemed to find the notion arousing. Toby would be going in to work late; Kasey had an evening shift so she didn’t miss any work time.

There were three distinct fingerprints lifted from the photographs taken by Ashley and sent for development by Graham. Graham’s own fingerprints, naturally, and two other sets that didn’t belong to anyone with a criminal record in Vermont. Johnny had the prints submitted to the FBI for further examination in case there was a match for an out of state offender. That would take several days to determine, however.

The local print and electronic news media had run the story of an ex-con who’d served a sentence for murdering a teenage girl being killed in a car crash on Sunday morning. No connection between Graham Wright to other crimes was been mentioned since Natalie and her cohorts had yet to firmly establish any. Such speculation was not for public consumption.

Natalie had to assume Graham’s death would be met with little sorrow. Those who might have noticed Graham’s release with disapproval, such as the Vickers family, could now take solace in the fact that the convicted murderer had only enjoyed barely more than four months of freedom.

Natalie wasted little time wondering about public opinion. She and Johnny drove up to Burlington shortly before noon to meet with Petra Cole, the woman who’d told the city cops that Rick couldn’t have killed himself with that heroin injection by accident.

From the Burlington P.D. report, Natalie knew that Petra worked at a record store downtown. The woman lived in a small but nice house near the university and had been expecting their visit. She opened the front door even before the detectives reached the welcome mat. Petra Cole was about six inches taller than Natalie and was chubby with long black hair and a pale complexion. Large brown eyes looked over her visitors, lingering on the handsome male one.

“You’re from the State Police?” Petra asked in a husky voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny said, showing his badge. “I’m Detective Billings and this is Sergeant Dvorak.”

“Come on in.”

Petra invited the detectives to sit in the living room where they occupied a small sofa. Their witness sat in a leather upholstered armchair, a low, glass-topped coffee table between them.

“I’m glad you’re interested in reopening the case,” Petra said. “The local cops just didn’t want to hear it, that Rick was clean. Someone did it to him, I just know it.”

“We suspect that, too, Miss Cole,” Natalie told her.

“Is there some drug ring involved?” Petra asked. “Like maybe some thugs who couldn’t get Rick to go along with them so they forced him to shoot up?”

“Was Rick ever involved in drug trafficking, to your knowledge?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah, a long time ago, I guess. That’s why I wonder if he got killed by dealers. This was before I met Rick but he told me when he was using, he used to help move packages from the airport. Did it to pay for his own habit.”

“But he got clean without turning state’s evidence on the dealers, right?” Johnny asked.

“That’s right. Rick said they’d leave him alone if he took a live and let live attitude.”

“So what makes you think drug dealers killed him last year?” Natalie asked.

“I can’t think of who else. Maybe they lost some other people who could move that smack for them. Maybe someone else ratted them out and made it look like Rick dropped the dime.”

Natalie nodded.

“So that’s what you’re investigating?” Petra asked.

“We can’t be specific about what we are looking at,” Johnny replied. “But we can say it seems possible Rick’s death was linked to at least one definite homicide.”

“I tried to tell them that even if Rick had relapsed, he wouldn’t have been so dumb as to fix with pure heroin.”

“Right,” Natalie said. “Now, had Rick mentioned meeting some new friends or acquaintances shortly before he died?”

“No.”

“Pardon me for asking,” Johnny said, “but according to the police report, you were Rick’s girlfriend but you and he weren’t exclusive.”

“No need to apologize,” Petra sighed. “I liked Rick a lot but we weren’t in love, no. You think maybe he picked up the wrong chick?”

“Could be,” Johnny said. “Maybe an old girlfriend from his junkie days. A fix for old time’s sake.”

“Like the girl might’ve accidentally given him the bad shit? She’d have to be pretty naïve to get that wrong.”

“So he didn’t mention anyone,” Natalie said. “Did any of your mutual friends tell you about seeing Rick with someone else? Not necessarily a woman but maybe a man, someone your friends didn’t recognize?”

“No.”

Johnny looked at Natalie who gave him a nod.

“Do you know Rick’s downstairs neighbor at his apartment house?”

“I’ve seen the guy but I couldn’t tell you his name.”

“Well,” Johnny said, “you might not know this but the Burlington police spoke with the neighbor. The night before you found him, the man downstairs said he saw Rick come home with a woman. He was on his way out so he didn’t hear anything from Rick’s apartment. He just glanced up and saw this woman following Rick up the stairs. Didn’t see her face, so there wasn’t much to go on. No resemblance to you, though, so you were never under suspicion.”

“No resemblance?” Petra asked with a scowl. “What does that mean?”

“From behind, he noticed skinny legs in torn fish-nets and a denim skirt. Guessed the girl was in her twenties.”

“Does that sound like anyone you know of?” Natalie asked.

“No! Listen. I’m not mad at you two but why didn’t anyone ask me this in October?”

“I couldn’t say, ma’am,” Natalie replied. “The working assumption was that the woman Rick was with could’ve been a junkie hooker who accidentally overdosed him. Not enough description to track her down.”

“Rick didn’t see hookers,” Petra insisted.

“Maybe it was a non-professional pick up,” Johnny said. “Does that sound like his type?”

“Look at me,” Petra snapped. “Do you think Rick was into skinny girls?”

“Well…” Johnny said; Natalie knew that her partner slept with women who had a variety of shapes and sizes.

“It doesn’t mean this mystery woman had anything to do with Rick’s death,” Natalie said. “But that’s what we have to go on at the moment. If that doesn’t sound like anyone in his circle than I guess that’s it for now.”

“I’ll ask people if some skinny bitch was hanging around at the time,” Petra declared. “I think the cops around here thought he was just another dead druggie. Well, fuck them! I can do a better job finding out who she was. Give me your card and I’ll call you when I track down that bitch. Don’t let me get my hands on her or I’ll be up for manslaughter!”

Johnny pulled out his business card and gave it to Petra.

“I think we can chalk up your friend Rick’s death to a coincidence,” he said as they drove away from Petra’s house.

“Can we?”

“Some hooker messed up and gave him pure junk. She saw what she’d done and got the hell out of there, left him to die in his bed.”

“A hooker for sure?”

“An ordinary pickup probably would’ve at least called an ambulance.”

“No chance Graham was involved?”

“As you’ve told me before, Sergeant, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible only because it’s barely possible. Only if Petra hauls in some confessing little tart who implicates Graham will we ever be able to prove it.”

Natalie nodded. Her gut rejected the notion of coincidence but instinct was not evidence.

“If Petra does break the case for us,” Natalie said, “will you give her a nice reward?”

“Sergeant, I’d take her on a weekend getaway to Key West.”

“Separate beds?”

“What kind of reward what that be?”

The gift shop was not far from the Lakeshore Hotel. Johnny parked in the customer lot next to the brick building housing the shop. The storefront was taken up by floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and there was a door in the center.

Natalie and Johnny went inside, making a bell jingle above the doorway. A few customers were browsing the shelved displays of knick-knacks, calendars, books, toys, scented soaps, and many other types of souvenirs. There was a cabinet stocked with bottles of maple syrup and a rack of T-shirts towards the back.

“You must be from the state police,” a tall, gray-haired man behind the centrally-located counter said as the detectives approached.

“Yes sir,” Natalie said, then introduced herself and her partner.

“I’m Edward Giese,” the man said. “I… I was Sharon’s husband.”

“I went to high school with Sharon,” Natalie said. “I transferred to River Run for my senior year. We were friends.”

“I know,” Edward replied. “She mentioned you.”

“She did?”

“When you were on TV last fall―that public address about the fugitive couple―Sharon said she’d known you at River Run.”

“I’m glad she mentioned that,” Natalie said with a smile. “Sorry we lost contact or you and I might have met under happier circumstances.”

“Sharon explained that. She told me about what happened in the cabin, that it was too painful for some you to keep in touch.”

Natalie nodded.

Johnny separated to quietly question one of the female store clerks over by a poster display.

“I feel better that you’re the one following up on the case,” Edward told Natalie. “I know you care about her.”

“I’m sure that the local police care.”

“I assume that you’re more highly trained, though.”

“Well, I don’t have a whole lot of questions for you, Mr. Giese. They may be questions that you answered a few months ago.”

“That’s all right. Anything that can help.”

“It’s true, then, that no one got fired from the staff here, or quit angrily that you know of?”

“Yes, that’s right. I would’ve heard about anything like that.”

“Shoplifters?”

“Nothing like that since last summer. The shoplifter was some tourist who went home. A kid, actually.”

“Kid, like grade school, or a teenager?”

“Ten years old or something. Don’t imagine he’d come back from Ohio with a gun six months later.”

Natalie nodded.

“What about this? Did you notice a repeat customer in here who stopped showing up after you lost Sharon?”

“Can’t think of anyone like that. I might not have noticed, though. If a person was casing us out, he or she might’ve been smart enough to come at different times of the day so the same clerks wouldn’t see him twice.”

“True. What about anyone who applied for a job and didn’t get one?”

“We haven’t hired anyone new in about a year.”

Natalie looked around the shop and saw Johnny handing another business card to the woman he’d been interviewing.

“Was it always Sharon who made the cash deposits at night?” she asked, looking back at Edward.

“Y-yes,” Edward replied. “I… I never would have let her do that if I thought it wouldn’t be safe.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. Is that because Sharon closed up here?”

“Yes, that’s right. I have a second job down at the pier, part time in the evening. We needed extra income for the kids’ college expenses.”

Natalie gave him another nod.

“Mr. Giese, we believe this was not some random robbery. To that extent, you didn’t do anything wrong allowing Sharon to handle the cash runs. We think Sharon may have been targeted by someone deliberately. Someone who may have found out that she handled the cash deposits and used that knowledge as a cover for murder. It doesn’t make sense that an ordinary thief would have… done it that way. In fact, it’s not likely Sharon saw anything coming.”

Edward frowned.

“But she didn’t have enemies,” he said. “Really, no one! Sharon was loved!”

“She was a sweet girl when I knew her,” Natalie replied. “Fun-loving, outgoing. Doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that. But there’s a reason why Sharon might have been targeted.”

“What reason?”

“It’s still being investigated. I shouldn’t say more at this time.”

“Why not? What harm could it do? I’m no vigilante. Can’t you give me a name?”

Natalie closed her eyes for a moment.

“There is one name I can give you,” she said softly. “It’s the only name we have right now, I swear to you.”

“What name?”

Natalie glanced at the stack of newspapers on the counter a few feet to Edward’s left.

“There’s a front page story that will explain why I’m here today.”

Edward grabbed the top copy of the Burlington Free Press. The story about Graham’s death was below the fold so it took Edward a moment to see it.

“I… I missed this…”

Natalie looked away and spotted Johnny talking to a different female clerk, smaller and younger than the last one he’d questioned.

He’s going to run out of cards, she thought.

“But he’s dead,” Edward said, getting Natalie’s attention back. “You think that man killed my Sharon?”

“We think he may have been involved. If there’s an accomplice, we want to catch that person. If it was Graham Wright acting alone, we’d like to close this case.”

“Why would he want to do something to Sharon?”

“Sharon was one of the witnesses at Graham’s trial. What she said, what I said, helped convict Graham for Ashley Vickers’s murder. If he blamed us, he may have wanted to get revenge once he was released from prison.”

Edward let the newspaper drop onto the counter in front of him.

“Then I guess you’d better hope there isn’t any accomplice out there.”

“I can defend myself, Mr. Giese.”

Edward nodded gravely.

“If anyone tells me anything you could use, I’ll call you.”

“Anything about what happened to Sharon,” Natalie said. “We can determine whether it’s useful.”

“Do you have a card with your phone number on it?”

“I might have a few left.”

Toby walked Kasey to her car, just as he had done the evening of their first kiss. The kiss by Kasey’s car was more passionate this time.

“I’d like to see your apartment for a change,” Toby said, holding her in place against the driver’s door.

“I’d be embarrassed. Yours is a lot bigger and nicer than mine.”

“But you moved to Albany to be closer to me. I think I ought to have a look at what I got you into.”

“Well, not today,” Kasey said, pushing gently against him. “I have to change and get to work.”

“When, then?” Toby asked, giving her room to open the car door.

Kasey smiled and touched Toby’s face.

“After work tomorrow?”

“Your work or mine?”

“Yours. I have the day off so I can get the place cleaned up, presentable. I could make dinner.”

“Sounds great,” Toby said. “What’s on the menu?”

“Nothing fancy. You like pasta?”

“Sure, who doesn’t?”

By the time Natalie and Johnny returned to the Rutland barracks, Lieutenant Sweeney had a faxed report in from the prison for them to look at.

“The visitors’ log is nothing much,” Sweeney told them in his office, opening a manila folder at his desk. “The only person that came to see him over the past year was his mother. But the correspondence file is better reading. A few items are very interesting. You know they open all incoming mail, right? They keep photocopies on file of everything coming in and out. Dvorak, have a look at this little correspondence between Wright and an admirer. Five letters. Three in to Wright, two out from Wright. Here.”

Sweeney gave Natalie the letters, stapled together. She put on her black-rimmed reading glasses and looked through them. Sweeney lit a cigarette while he and Johnny waited for her to finish.

“Wow,” Natalie said, offering the pages to Johnny.

“Never mind the raw material,” he said. “Can you give me a summary?”

“Sure,” Natalie replied, setting the correspondence on her knee. “First letter is date stamped last August. It’s one of those prisoner fan letters you hear about from some woman who goes on about how she knows Graham was wrongly convicted. Knows it because she ‘studied’ the case. She found out his term is almost up but promises to help clear Graham’s name after the fact so there won’t be a felony on his record.”

“What’s this true believer’s name?” Johnny asked.

“Brenda Francis. Her letters were typed; Graham’s replies are hand-written. Brenda’s return address in South Burlington.”

“Local gal.”

“It’s a mail-drop address,” Sweeney said. “I already checked that out before you got here.”

“Graham wrote back,” Natalie said, leafing through the correspondence as she spoke, “pretty much immediately. Thanked Brenda for her interest and said it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Brenda writes again, early September, says that someone close to her was wrongly sentenced to death. Too late to help that person, unnamed, but Graham can be her new crusade.”

“Brenda’s an attorney?” Johnny asked.

“Doesn’t say she is,” Natalie replied, “but you’d expect she’d use it as a selling point if she was a lawyer. Graham wrote back a week later and said he could appreciate Brenda’s emotional connection and suggests they meet in person after he goes home to mother. Gave her the address in Vergennes but not the phone number.

“Brenda writes once more and promises to work something out so that they can meet after Graham has had a chance to transition back to the outside world. Nothing here to show Graham wrote her again from prison. Not too likely that could’ve been missed by the corrections department censors.”

“No,” Sweeney agreed.

“Is this our accomplice?” Johnny asked. “Brenda Francis?”

“Well, you tell us,” Natalie replied. “Did Mrs. Wright say anything about some eager, idealistic woman named Brenda who came to see Graham?”

“No. She said Graham had no visitors while she was at home.”

“And if we were to take Brenda’s letters at face value, a woman like that would be only too happy to meet Graham’s mother. Tell her about those plans to clear her son’s name.”

“How would she do that, anyway?” Johnny asked. “Get you and the other three to recant your testimony?”

“There is no way to clear him. So those letters might have been a way to get Graham’s attention. Then maybe, after prison and without censorship, this Brenda could say what she really had in mind. Revenge against us. Not the kind of discussion Graham would want to have in front of his mother.”

“Suppose this Brenda has a pair of fishnet stockings?” Johnny asked.

“Maybe not a coincidence, after all?” Natalie responded with a smile.

“If she was picking up mail in South Burlington,” Sweeney said, “she was certainly in the area where she could locate and eliminate Rick and Sharon. Perhaps got ahold of some pure H to take out Rick first to show Graham that she was serious.”

“Impress him?” Natalie wondered. “Could be. I still wonder why Rick was murdered in October, assuming for now Brenda did it, and Sharon didn’t get killed until December.”

“The more time between the deaths, the less obvious the connection,” Johnny said.

“And if Graham was stubborn enough to stay twenty-plus years in stir rather than admit guilt for parole,” Sweeney added, “he could have the patience to eliminate each of you months apart.”

“Except he’s dead,” Natalie reminded them.

“And Brenda Francis might want to carry on the mission,” Sweeney said. “She started without him and she’s probably willing to finish without him as well.”

“Okay,” Natalie said, “so maybe Graham was rushing up to Burlington to meet Brenda last Sunday, getting himself killed in the process. What could have been so urgent to risk his life that way? The two witnesses who lived in Burlington were already gone.”

“Maybe Brenda was in some kind of trouble and he was out to help her,” Johnny said.

“Hell, we can figure that out later,” Natalie said. “What I’m worried about now is what might happen to Petra if she does run into Brenda, looking for Rick’s murderer.”

“Petra?” Sweeney asked.

“Rick’s girlfriend,” Johnny said. “The one who found his body. We let her know about the alleged hooker going home with Rick. We asked if that half-assed description fit anyone Petra knew of. She said no but she’d look into it herself. Maybe we shouldn’t have encouraged that but if Brenda is a woman on a mission then so is Petra.”

“Call her up, Johnny,” Natalie said. “Try to charm her out if it.”

“What if she won’t listen?”

“See her in person,” Sweeney told him. “Distract her with that smile of yours.”

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