Among Friends

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A Clinical Study

A CLINICAL STUDY

Within an hour of the conference in the lieutenant’s office, it was determined that no one in the state by the name of Brenda Francis had a criminal record but there were five such people who had a driver’s license, none in Burlington or even Chittenden County. Natalie suggested the name was an alias to go along with the mail drop return address.

Johnny left Rutland to meet Petra. Over the phone, he hadn’t been able to dissuade her from looking for Rick’s visitor. But Johnny made a convincing argument that such amateur sleuthing could be hazardous and offered to escort her.

“Bet you didn’t have to twist her arm on that,” Natalie said with sigh as her partner made ready to drive back up to Petra’s house.

On her own, she considered another part of the puzzle. How would this Brenda have found out where any of them were located? In Natalie’s own case, she was something close to a public figure, having appeared on television a few times over the years, most recently and noticeably only months ago. After all, both Toby and Sharon had watched the press conference. Why not Brenda as well?

From the press coverage, she’d know that Natalie was based out of Rutland.

As for the others, only Toby had anything like a celebrity status. But even that was limited to the capital region of New York. How could she have found a cab driver or a shopkeeper in a very small city?

Then it came to Natalie. She checked her watch and figured it was already too late to call River Run Academy.

Toby phoned Gina from his desk at the newspaper. He apologized for not returning her call from the day before, saying he got back later than expected from dropping Ryan off at school.

“Why don’t I make up for that by taking you out to dinner this evening?”

“Oh, uh, I was free yesterday when I called but not today.”

“You’re seeing someone else?”

“Kind of.”

“Kind of? You like him better than me?”

“Toby! That’s… That’s really rude.”

“I guess you’re right. Sorry. But then I’m seeing someone else, too.”

“Well, we never agreed to be exclusive.”

“Right.”

“And, well, maybe we should check back with each other in another week or two.”

“So I’m your Plan B?”

“Toby! You know what? Right now, you’re not my plan anything!”

Gina hung up on him.

Fortunately, Toby was alone in the office just then. He glanced over at the two poster board mock ups for the coming week’s issue; a decision had to be made about which one to use. The headline story was the same: SIX REASONS WHY WE’RE AGAINST MARIO CUOMO FOR PRESIDENT. A sub-headline read: And Twelve Reasons Why George Bush Would Be Even Worse. The option on the left had the governor in caricature and the one on the right was a photograph of Cuomo.

Toby dug out his wallet and extracted Natalie’s police business card. He turned it over to get her home phone number where she’d written it down. Toby dialed that one and reached Dan instead of Natalie.

“This is Toby. Did Natalie mention me to you?”

“Yes, she did.”

“Sorry to bother you at home but I figured she might not be at the barracks this late.”

“It’s no bother. Sometimes Natalie works into the evening but it so happens she’s on her way home at the moment. So, have you got a message for her?”

“Just checking in to let her know I’m okay. You understand why?”

“Yeah, she told me about it. Glad you’re safe.”

“Thanks.”

Toby hesitated for a moment before adding: “She can reach me at home within the next half hour or so. I’m just finishing up at work, myself. That is, if it’s okay with you.”

“Okay with me? She doesn’t need my permission to call you.”

“That sounded bad, didn’t it?”

“Toby, listen. I know what you were to Natalie a long time ago. Doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t mind meeting you someday. My daughter lives in Albany. Maybe we could all get together next time we’re in your town.”

“I appreciate the offer. Natalie said you were a nice guy.”

“You’re fine with me, Toby. I’ll tell Natalie you called.”

“So here’s my plan,” Petra told Johnny as he stood in front of her in the kitchen. “We go out to this roadhouse at nine o’clock. I introduce you as my new boyfriend.”

Johnny cracked a nervous smile.

“C’mon,” Petra said. “What better way to explain why you’re there with me?”

“Couldn’t it be that we’re on a first date?”

“People will be more open with you if they think you’re gonna be part of the gang.”

“Well, maybe. So why this roadhouse?”

“It’s a hangout. A lot of Rick’s old buddies come in there. It’s the best place to see as many of them as possible all at one time.”

“That’s reasonable,” Johnny agreed. “So how did we meet and what do I do?”

“You’re a customer at the record shop. You do like music, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I like hard rock.”

“Hair bands?”

“Not that so much. More like the Stones or Led Zeppelin. The Who. Bands that were big when I was in college.”

“Okay, so to explain why you don’t look like a rocker, you have some straight job…”

“Insurance adjuster?”

“Yeah. You really should lose that tie and suit coat.”

“Coat needs to stay on so they don’t see my badge and gun.”

“But that tie at least…”

Petra reached up and loosened Johnny’s necktie. She took the knot out of it and dragged the thing out from under his collar. Then Petra ran both hands down Johnny’s shirt front.

“Oh, you’re in good shape!”

Johnny pulled her hands away from his torso.

“Let’s keep things professional,” he said tersely.

“Professional,” Petra parroted with a grin. “We want to make this look real, don’t we? Better get used to me touching you, Detective Billings.”

She put her arms around his waist and pressed her big breasts up against him.

Johnny squirmed but Petra held him more tightly.

“Can’t we wait till we get to the roadhouse?”

“What for? We have a few hours. Let’s make it more real. Am I so ugly, then?”

“No…”

Petra giggled.

“Would you get in trouble for using that second gun in your pants on me? Feels like a big caliber weapon against my tummy…”

“Stop it,” Johnny whispered.

“Who’s gonna know? I don’t love you, Johnny Detective, but you’re cute as hell. Cute and single, right?”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point, then? A guy like you. I bet you have lots of girls. What’s one more, one who’s helping you solve a murder?”

“I’m not supposed to get involved with witnesses.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Petra said. “I might report you if you don’t do what I want. I’ll call your captain and say you got your hands on my boobs. That you wanted to make things look real for your undercover job. Under my covers.”

“Don’t try to blackmail me.”

Petra stepped back and walked away from Johnny. Then she turned to face him, smiling.

“Just a one-time lay,” Petra said. “Do it with me and I won’t say anything. Blow me off and I might make trouble for you.”

“You might make trouble for me either way.”

“Yeah. Isn’t that exciting?”

Johnny took off his suit coat and removed the shoulder holster.

Natalie was brushing her teeth for bed at 11:00 when the phone rang. Dan picked up the bedside extension.

“Hello? Yes, she’s here.”

Natalie spit the toothpaste into the bathroom sink and walked into the bedroom.

“Toby?”

“Johnny.”

Natalie took the phone from Dan and sat on the bed.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Brenda Francis.”

“You found her?”

“She’s in custody. One of Petra’s friends pointed her out to me. In case she’s guilty, I brought her over to the Burlington lockup. After all, if she did commit the crimes, it’s here that she did ’em.”

“Cheryl will appreciate that. Want me to come over?”

“I don’t know. Should we wait till tomorrow to question her?”

“No, I think we should go at her as soon as possible in case she tries to think up an alibi.”

“Start without you?”

“Yeah. I’ll be a while. Need to get dressed and drive up there.”

“Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, I was just getting ready for bed. This Brenda you caught, she fit the general description?”

“Well, she’s thin and young. Wouldn’t take her for a hooker. Claims to work at Woolworth’s. Said she doesn’t know what I was talking about.”

“Uh-huh,” Natalie said, standing to pull down her pajama bottoms. “She admit to knowing Rick?”

“Yes, before I made the arrest.”

“Petra didn’t know the woman?”

“No but Brenda’s a friend of a friend.”

“Hold on.”

Natalie set the phone down on the bed and took off the pajama top. She hurried over to a chest of drawers, chose a pair of navy blue slacks and put them on. Then Natalie picked up the phone again.

“Had Petra heard the name Brenda Francis before?”

“No.”

“Dan,” Natalie said to her husband, “get that red blouse out of the closet. Dark red. Yes, thanks.”

“Listen. Get started with her like we agreed, I’ll be up there ASAP.”

She hung up and took the blouse. It had a loose enough fit that there was no need to find a bra.

During the drive up to Burlington, Natalie drank a cup of coffee from a plastic to-go cup. She checked in with the third shift desk sergeant at police headquarters and was directed to the interview room. There was an adjoining observation annex; Natalie went in there and met a city plainclothes officer who was standing by the one-way glass, looking in on Johnny and Brenda Francis.

After a brief set of introductions, Natalie watched for a moment. She wasn’t paying attention to her partner’s voice coming through the intercom, preferring to take in the young woman at the table. The face wasn’t clearly visible since she was looking at the table top, brown hair hanging down past her shoulders. Thin, pale wrists extended out from the sleeves of a dark green, cable-knit sweater. Brenda’s hands were delicate.

Natalie gave the city cop a nod and went back into the hall. She opened the interview room door without knocking and stood at the threshold.

“Billings,” Natalie said, beckoning with a head toss.

Johnny walked away from the table and Brenda looked up. Her dark eyes were puffy from crying; her face was rounder than Natalie had expected. Their eyes met as Johnny passed by Natalie, who then shut the door.

“What d’you have so far?”

“She says she doesn’t know anything about Rick’s overdose except that it happened. He was a friend, she’s been to his apartment but not since a month or so before he died. She says she’s not a junkie and never knew Rick when he was still using.”

“Alibi for the night he got that lethal dose?”

“Not really. The date was so long ago, Brenda says she isn’t sure what she was doing. But she says it must have been her usual routine. Home by eight or nine, in bed before midnight.”

“She lives alone?”

“Yes.”

“Lived alone last October?”

“Yes.”

“She say anything interesting?”

“Not really.”

“You get into the letters to Graham Wright?”

“No, Sergeant. I wanted to keep it on the Gresham case. Her involvement with the deceased, whether she was there when he died, whether she heard about who might be responsible.”

“Does she know Petra?”

“No, like I said, Petra didn’t know Brenda’s name. Brenda knew of Petra but hadn’t met her. Thinks she might’ve seen Petra around without knowing who she was.”

“How’d it go down when Brenda was pointed out to you?”

“Go down?”

“Did Petra confront Brenda or did she let you handle it?”

“She was good. Held back and let me take Brenda in. I told Brenda she was wanted for questioning in a wrongful death case, didn’t say who the dead person was until I got her into the interview room.”

“Was Brenda on the scene right away?”

“No, Petra took me to this bar. We waited around for about an hour until someone, this guy, told us he knew who Brenda Francis was. We asked him to hang around in case Brenda walked in so he could point the girl out. Told him some story about wanting to meet Brenda because Rick had talked about her and we were curious about who she was. Brenda showed up just a few minutes later. Petra kept the guy occupied while I went over to talk to our suspect.”

“You weren’t drinking on the job, were you?”

“No, Sergeant.”

“Was Petra good company?”

“What d’you mean?”

“What time did you run Brenda in?”

“About half an hour before I called you.”

“10:30,” Natalie nodded. “You left Rutland a long time before that. Didn’t even get to that bar until a little before 9:30 from what you just told me. Did Petra make you dinner at her place before you two went out?”

“I had something.”

“I bet you did,” Natalie told him with a smirk.

“Are you here to interrogate me or the suspect?” Johnny sputtered, his face reddening.

“You’re busted, Johnny,” Natalie said, poking him in the belly with her left index finger. “I know you too well.”

“So?”

“I’ll let you off with a warning this time. Keep it in your pants if you’re dealing with a witness. And don’t split hairs about Petra not being a witness to a crime. That goes for informants, too.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“All right. Now go stand by the looking glass. I’ll question Brenda on her prison pen pal.”

Natalie opened the interview room door.

“Can I go home now?” Brenda asked.

“Sit tight for a while longer,” Natalie said with a smile. “I’m Sergeant Natalie Dvorak, a detective with the Vermont State Police, Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Detective Billings, the man who’s been questioning you so far, reports to me.”

“Okay,” Brenda said softly.

“Is there anything you need to tell me about the other detective’s conduct?”

“What? No, he was all right.”

“Just making sure.”

“I… I don’t know anything about what happened to Rick. I told him that already.”

“I’ll be asking you some different questions.”

Natalie sat down across from Brenda.

“Did you dress up for Halloween last year?” she asked.

“What?” Brenda gasped.

“A costume with fish-net stockings as part of the outfit?”

“No!”

“Have you ever worn stockings like that?”

“No, I haven’t. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Detective Billings told me you denied ever having used a needle to take drugs.”

“That’s right! You don’t believe me, you can check for track marks!”

“Do you own a typewriter?”

“There are weird questions!”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t have a typewriter.”

“They sell typewriters where you work?”

“I don’t know. I think so, in office supplies. But I’m with accessories. Hats, gloves, shoes.”

“I see.”

“What’s a typewriter got to do with anything?”

“You had an address in South Burlington last year.”

“No, I didn’t. You’re crazy!”

“A mail-drop address.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I’ve read the letters you sent with that return address.”

“What letters?”

“The letters you typed up, signed, and mailed last August and September to the state prison in Marble Valley.”

“No!” Brenda screamed.

“Three letters with your name on them. If we subpoena the mail-drop service for the account owner of the return address, are we going to find your name?”

“No! It’s not possible!”

Natalie sat back in her hard wooden chair. Brenda seemed terrified but so far hadn’t stumbled in trying to deny involvement.

“Who was it that was executed?”

“What?”

“You wrote to the prisoner about someone close to you being wrongfully convicted and executed. Who was that?”

“No one,” Brenda gasped. “I couldn’t have written that! I never knew someone who get executed. Nobody!”

Natalie frowned in thought.

“Don’t you see, someone signed my name to those letters! You can compare my signature, can’t you?”

Natalie couldn’t do that. The incoming correspondence was all typed; the name wasn’t literally signed.

“Couldn’t it be a different Brenda Francis? My name’s not that unusual, is it?”

“You’re the only Brenda Francis who knew Rick Gresham. The prisoner who received those letters also knew Rick.”

“Oh, but… But… Don’t you see? Someone used my name!”

“Really?” Natalie asked. “Who’d do a thing like that?”

“I don’t know! Don’t you think I’d tell you if I knew?”

“How did you know Rick?”

“I just knew him from around.”

“Around where?”

“Where I hang out after work, on weekends. That roadhouse where your detective found me.”

“How long ago did you and Rick meet?”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“Approximately.”

“I met him last summer.”

“How did you meet?”

“He was just there with a group. My group mixed with his group and we got introduced. I think it was at this lakeside music festival in July or August.”

“But you never met his girlfriend Petra?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It just didn’t ever happen, that’s all.”

“You weren’t seeing Rick behind her back and wanted to avoid her?”

“No, me and Rick were just friends.”

Natalie looked at Brenda for a moment.

“Take that sweater off.”

“Why?”

“Just do what I tell you.”

Brenda pulled the garment up over her head where she sat and placed on the table to her right. She was wearing a white, sleeveless T-shirt under the sweater, the cotton thin enough to show a pink lace bra underneath; Natalie figured it was a B-cup. Brenda’s exposed arms were deficient in flesh under the chalky white skin.

“Turn your wrists up.”

Natalie gently pulled one arm towards her and then the other, looking for needle wounds. There weren’t any.

“Told you so,” Brenda said.

“Maybe you didn’t want track marks to show on a hot day since you’re no street person. What if I strip search you? Any needle marks between your toes or on the inside of a thigh?”

Brenda shivered.

“If you’re cold you can put the sweater back on.”

“I’m clean,” Brenda whispered.

“For how long?”

Brenda swallowed and held her head in her hands.

“I kicked it after Rick died. That scared me. If you check it out, I went to rehab last November. I got my act together, started working at Woolworth’s after I got out of rehab.”

“So Petra didn’t know about you because you were getting fixes with Rick, not because you were sleeping with him?”

“Yes but he didn’t shoot up very often, at least as far as I know.”

“Did you and Rick meet the way you said, at a music fest?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t know anything about how he died, like who gave him the fatal dose if it wasn’t you?”

“I swear I don’t know.”

“But you have no alibi for the night in question?”

“No.”

“Any talk among the junkie community about who might be responsible?”

“Not that I ever heard.”

“How soon did you check in for rehab after Rick died?”

“I don’t know.”

“Days or weeks after?”

“Oh, it was a day or two.”

“So maybe you didn’t hear anything because you separated yourself from the junkies.”

“Yes, you know how it is.”

“Now think carefully, Brenda. Sometime between the time you met Rick and when he overdosed, was there a female junkie who hadn’t been on the scene before and who got to know you, made friends?”

“People come and go, Sergeant. You get friendly with someone who you think can help get you your fix. Whatever it takes, including having sex with them. There were some girls like that, yeah. Not that I fucked any.”

“Were any of them skinny like you?”

“Jeez, most junkie chicks are skinny! Not all of them, maybe, but that’s what you see most of the time. I’m still thin just because I always was. I meant it, I’m clean now.”

“Okay. What about a thin woman close to your age who hung out with you sometimes but never took a fix with you?”

“Uh, no.”

Natalie thought for a moment.

“What about a social worker who might have met you, tried to get you into rehab?”

“They don’t do that, Sergeant. They wait for you to decide to come in to kick the habit. What you’re talking about, that sounds like some missionary, or something.”

“Any missionaries come by and talk to you?”

“No. You have to understand, I wasn’t hanging around some shooting gallery.”

“No drug charges on your record?”

“No, and you can check that out easy enough.”

“Right.”

Brenda’s face suddenly shifted into surprise, eyes widening and mouth gaping.

“What’s on your mind, Brenda?”

“There was a woman who did come by once. There was a group of us out at Battery Park long about Labor Day, I think. She was dressed pretty nicely, came over to us with this clipboard.”

“What did she tell you?”

“Said she was from a clinic and that they were trying out some new drug to treat addiction.”

“A clinical trial?”

“Yes. One of my friends gave the lady some attitude, asking why she thought we looked like drug addicts. The lady said the clinic had a tip; she said she’d apologize if that was bad information. But if any of us were interested, there would be free dosages at the clinic and a… what’d she call it?”

“Financial incentive?”

“Yes. She called it a stipend.”

“How much?”

“Fifty a month.”

“I’ll bet this lady suddenly had a bunch of dope addicts ready to sign up.”

Brenda shrugged.

“She had you write your names on the clipboard?”

“Yes, so we could check in at the clinic and get the medicine and collect the stipend.”

“In cash, no doubt.”

“Right. In cash.”

“What was this researcher’s name?”

“I don’t remember. I don’t think she gave us a name. Just the name of the clinic, of course.”

“And when you got there, no one heard of any paid clinical trial?”

Brenda shook her head.

“It wasn’t like she asked us to pay for the treatment.”

“She wanted your name, honey. Did she look like you?”

“No. She was blond with this little nose.”

“What about her height, her build?”

“Oh. Well, she was something like me that way. Not as skinny as me, maybe, if I can remember it right. But she was dressed in a long coat. Height? Well, I wasn’t looking up at her face, or down at it. I guess not or that would’ve been something I’d remember.”

“Probably. Could you describe that fake researcher to a police sketch artist?”

“What, right now?”

“No, not right now. It’s past midnight. Could you come back here sometime tomorrow and help us out?”

“You mean I’m free to go? You don’t think I did any of those things?”

“I don’t think you had any involvement.”

“Well, yeah. I mean if it helps find who killed Rick, I’d do anything!”

Natalie thanked Brenda and watched her put the sweater back on. Then she got up and opened the door.

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