Through a long, rectangular window, I stare down at a woman, busily attended to by a member of the hospital staff. A complex system of electrical cords and intravenous tubes distend from the various folds in her forearms and nose. Quietly, I open the door, step inside.
The room is white, sterile. A tinkering sound disrupts the buzz of filaments in the overhead lights.
I stand back as a uniformed orderly continues making up the patient’s bed.
In the corner, a television, set to the local news station, shows a crowd of reporters gathered in front of the police precinct. A Breaking News headline features across the top of the screen. The volume is off, but a closed captioning display carries the dialogue.
The station’s lead correspondent stands, microphone in hand. “Here comes police captain, Peter Dobbs, now,” she says, stepping forward as Dobbs exits the precinct. Over his shoulder stands officer Dykstra, the incompetent corporal with whom I’d had a run in at the water cooler two days earlier.
“Captain Dobbs, what can the police tell us about the three men found murdered inside the Serendipity Wellness & Day Spa?”
“Nothing more than you already know.”
“Can you at least speak to whether those killings were related to the drive-by shooting death of a man in a phonebooth just a few blocks away?” another asks.
Dobbs widens his stance, places his hands to his hips. “Preliminary evidence suggest no connection between the two incidents. Any suggestion to the contrary, at this point, is pure speculation. That having been said, we’re still gathering evidence. Next question.”
“She’s only got about two minutes before the medicine takes over,” the orderly says, pulling my attention from the television to the woman lying motionless in bed.
I nod my understanding then wait until she exits the room. As the door closes behind her, I drag a chair across the floor to the side of the bed.
It makes a loud scuffing sound.
Her body stirs. Eyelids flutter like the wings of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. When they open, a pair of sleepy eyes peers up at me.
Color warms her cheeks. There’s a natural beauty to her face, a symmetry and simplicity I find attractive.
Pale pink lips, cracked and peeled, move. “It was you,” she says, her voice faint and weak.
“It was me,” I say. “You’re going to be all right now.”
The muscles in her cheeks raise the dimple folds on either side of her mouth. “You caught him,” she whispers.
“Caught him?” I say, shaking my head.
A white, trembling hand, clothed at the wrist in surgical dressing, lifts off the bed. Finger extended, she points to the television.
“You caught him.”
Dobbs continues his interview on the screen. “Him?” I say. “What about him? Do you know that man?”
“He’s the one…” she says, her breath falling short.
“The one?” I prompt.
“The one,” she repeats.
“He’s the one who what?”
The pillow ruffles as she moves her head. Laboring to lift her arm, she turns it over to display her bandaged wrist.
“He’s the one who…,” her breath falls short, “…who did this to me.”
“That man?” I say, pointing at Dobb’s image. “You’re sure?”
The nod is slight, but discernible. Her mouth forms around a word but there’s no air behind it.
Following her gaze to the television screen, I watch as Dobbs calls for one last question. When I look down again, her eyes are closed.
In that moment, infinity shrinks to about ten seconds or what feels like an eternity of time during which I’m unable, or perhaps unwilling, to think. A wave of exhaustion breaks across my shoulders. Knees falter and my legs give way as I grip my hands around the bed’s metal railing to lower myself back down into the chair. Finally. Proof. A witness. Someone who could finger Dobbs for at least attempted murder. The trick would then be to connect that charge to the other murders. The skin in my forehead furrows. After a couple of minutes, I stand, head for the door.
Near the hospital’s admittance desk, I remove my cellphone, call Cassie.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“You saw her? How is she?”
“We need to talk.”
“I’m at the car rental agency,” she says. “Do you need me to come and get you?”
“I’ll meet you out front,” I say and hang up.
Fifteen minutes later, Cassie saddles up next to the curb. “Where are we headed?” she asks, once I’m inside, seatbelt fastened.
“He was there,” I say. “She can ID him.”
“Her statement matched his description?” she asks.
“Even better,” I tell her.
Cassie arches an eyebrow into a question mark.
“She ID’d him from the television as he was being interviewed about the shootings last night.”
“With or without prompting?” Cassie asks.
“And she was lucid?”
“People have been known to say all sorts of things while under sedation,” Cassie says. “I’m simply introducing the possibility that this could have been the medicine talking.”
“And if she’s still holding to that story once the medication wears off?”
“All right,” Cassie says. “For the sake of objectivity, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a minute, so don’t get upset, but if Dobbs really did go to her house, why did she let him in?”
“I told you, the day before, she’d gone to the station to file a missing persons report. It’s possible Dobbs could have used that as an excuse, saying something as simple as he was following up.”
“A cop showing up at your house to follow up on a missing persons report that’s a little strange, isn’t it?”
“Strange to you and me, but to someone unfamiliar with police procedure maybe not so much.”
Cassie’s features harden. “So, we’ve got him on attempted murder. How do we nail him on the other two murders?”
“Although it’s strictly circumstantial, Vance’s phone log could be used to prove motive, means, and opportunity for his murder. As for the girlfriend, Mary, we’ve got nothing.”
“Not nothing,” Cassie challenges. “Clearly, Dobbs had the security footage erased so we’d never see who she left the club with that night. That’s evidence right there.”
“Circumstantial evidence almost never holds up in a murder conviction let alone two.”
“What? Are you worried the defense is going to accuse you of murder dumping?”
“I’m worried that a without any real evidence all we’ve got is the accusation of a stripper that she was attacked in home without provocation by a decorated police captain with an impeccable record and no motive.”
“And you’re sure none of the girls at the club remember seeing anything.”
“It was a busy night and a lot of these girls do this job with their eyes closed, so to speak. From speaking with nearly everyone who was working that night, no one seems to remember seeing her leave, let alone with whom.”
“What about outside?” Cassie reasons.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, one of the neighboring establishments.”
“What about them?”
“What do you mean what about them, what are we talking about here?”
“Six seconds ago, I thought a pretty good handle on the conversation. Now, I’m completely lost. What are you talking about?”
“I’m asking if you’ve checked to see if any of the neighboring establishments have a closed-circuit video system with an angle on the club’s parking lot that might allow us to see who she left the club with that night.”
I shake my head, not out of negation or confusion, but at the utter genius of it. “Of course,” I say, “why didn’t I think of that before. All of the neighboring establishments would have their own security cameras. One of them is bound to have an angle on the strip club’s parking lot.”
“Point the way,” Cassie says.
I offer directions as Cassie threads traffic on our way across town. It only takes twenty minutes before we pull up on the opposite side of the street from the strip club’s parking lot.
“The Frisky Kitten?” Cassie says, reading off the sign. “Who the hell came up with that name?”
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s got a certain playful charm,” I say, before directing her attention to the row of businesses fronting the club’s parking lot. “Now, when you go in there, be sure to—”
“Wait a minute!” Cassie objects. “You’re putting this on me?”
“Why not?” I say. “It fits your job description.”
“What’s wrong with you doing it?”
“I don’t understand. You’re always begging me to let you out from behind the desk to try some real fieldwork. Here’s your chance.”
“Fieldwork, really? Running down CCTV footage?”
I shake my head. “I know it isn’t sexy, but that’s ninety-six percent of investigative work. The fact of the matter is, CCTV footage is private property and we’re operating without a court order. They’re not obligated to hand it over to us.”
“And what, you think because I’m a woman they’re more likely not to object?”
“I don’t think they won’t object simply because you’re a woman, I think they won’t object because you’re a woman who looks great in a mini-skirt and knee-high boots.”
“Ouch!” she says. “On second thought, if it’s powers of persuasion we need, it’s probably best you don’t go.”
It takes all of fifteen minutes before Cassie returns to the car, pen drive in hand, sporting a suppressed grin between her cheeks.
“That was fast,” I tell her. “They gave you a copy of the footage just like that?”
“No, not just like that,” she says, “but if I told you how I did my job, you might someday come to the false conclusion that you could do yours without me.”
Back at my office, I hunch over her back as she slides into the seat at her desk, opens the lid of her laptop.
Leaning in, I’m suddenly engulfed by the rich scent of honey and almond.
“New shampoo?” I ask.
“You noticed,” she says, placing a strand to her nose and inhaling. “Do you like it?”
As the screen opens to the desktop, Cassie inserts the pen drive. A moment later, a Video Player window pops up. Pressing play, the video opens to a darkened parking lot, lit by a single cone of light from a wall-mounted security lamp on the back of a neighboring building. The footage is grainy but, despite the late hour, the streets are far from empty. Pedestrians traverse the sidewalks as cars appear backed up at the stoplight.
“This is a direct view of the parking lot from a bar across the street,” Cassie narrates. “The owner had it installed a few months back after the windows were smashed twice in a four-month period.”
“What am I looking for here?” I ask.
“Keep your eyes on the door over here,” she says, indicating the building’s side exit. “This door leads to the girls’ changing room. Now, you said Jennifer’s friend’s shift ended at two o’clock. Well, here, it’s eighteen minutes past two when this woman steps outside.”
It’s far too dark to see the face of the woman exiting the building’s side door but the description is spot on. Ample architectural proportions, she’s a cuddly thing, not very tall, and a bit on the plump side with wavy brown hair. The laxity of her dress is blown tight against her torso.
Moments later, a man comes around from the front side of the building. He’s tall, broad, and lumbering, probably somewhere in his mid- to late-fifties. The way he approaches, it’s clear they’re strangers, though she doesn’t seem at all troubled by his presence. He pulls out a packet of cigarettes and offers her one. She accepts, leans in as he provides a light. Afterwards, the two settle into what looks to be a casual conversation.
“Now watch,” Cassie says as a taxi cab pulls up. Eyes narrowed, I watch as the driver of the cab appears to direct a question to the man who, responding with some sort of affirmation, then turns to the woman, says something. It’s not a farewell, rather an invitation. She seems to consider it, then, grinding out the cigarette with her heel, steps off the curb as the two enter the cab together.
“Is there any way to enhance the image to get a better look at this guy’s face?”
“No,” Cassie says, “But watch this.”
Directing my attention back to the screen, I watch as the cab makes a loop around the parking lot before exiting onto the street. Pausing the video just as the cab noses out into traffic, the frame freezes over a view of the front end of the car, supplying a clear view of the license plate.
“We may not know the name of her escort,” Cassie declares as she opens the Google search browser on her computer, “but, with the passage of the city ordinance requiring cabs to equip themselves with GPS tracking systems to record mileage and fares, we should be able to find out exactly where they went together that night.”
Googling the number of the cab service, Cassie’s able to get ahold of a manager who, after verifying the cab’s license plate, comes back with a travel log from that night, which confirms both passengers exited the vehicle at the same location. Cassie punches the address into Google Maps, which brings up an aerial view of a large apartment complex five miles away from the strip club.
“There has to be at least a hundred units in that complex,” Cassie says, her voice tainted with disappointment.
“Forward the address to my phone,” I tell her. “I’m going over there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get a list of all the tenants who live in that building. Afterwards, we’ll sort them by age and gender.”
“Are you delusional?” Cassie says. “No landlord is just going to hand over a list of information on their tenants. In fact, I’m quite sure there are privacy laws that preclude them from doing just that.”
“That’s why I’m not going to simply ask for it,” I say, lifting my coat.
“You think you’re going to be able to just charm it out of them?”
“You’d be surprised what a handsome smile and an official looking badge will get you these days.”
“And if the landlord isn’t a woman?” Cassie asks.
“Of course, it’s a woman. All uptown landlords are women.”
What I assumed would be a mature divorcée with a penchant for flattery and men with a badge turned out to be a 280lbs. former weightlifter named Carl who, as it turns out, was so impressed with what he’d been reading of my exploits in the papers these past couple days that, for five hundred dollars, he agrees to furnish the list.
Later that evening, after sorting through the tenant’s list, I decide to revisit the apartment complex determined to knock every door, interview every possible suspect.
But as I arrive on the street, there’s a police patrol car parked outside. On the sidewalk, two officers attempt to mollify a woman who stands pointing hysterically up at the building.