Authors: Jonathon King
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction, #ebook
She thought about letting him. Then she thought about the assault classes she’d taken from an old paranoid bar manager. She relaxed her legs as best she could and tightened her arm muscles at the same time and waited until she felt him start to probe her.
“That’s a girl,” he said. “Just relax and…”
She snapped her right elbow back as hard and as high as she could and felt the point hit something that went concave and then stop solid against a jagged edge. When she felt him roll with the blow she twisted out from under him but lost purchase on the slick grass and went down.
“You fucking bitch!” he growled, and she was on her hands and knees groping for her jeans and cussing him back when she looked up.
In the light of the teacup moon she saw him step forward. With one hand he was pulling up his pants and with the other he’d come up with a small silver-plated handgun.
“Think you’re the tough one now, Suzy?” he said, and his eyes were flat and hard.
The last thing she ever recorded was the glint around the .22-caliber black hole pointed in her face. Her brain did not have time to even register the flash.
met Richards for a late breakfast at Lester’s. Turns out, neither of us would end up eating. Settled alongside of what used to be the main highway into Port Everglades, Lester’s is one of those old chrome-sided diners where the coffee comes in huge ceramic mugs and the waitresses are as chipped and sturdy as the glassware. It used to be the spot for truckers hauling fuel and whatnot from the port to points north. Later it was the shift change hangout for cops when the sheriff’s office headquarters was nearby. Remnants of both pasts still walked in on a regular basis. I got there early and took a booth near the back. The new vinyl crackled under me when I slid in.
“Hiya, hon. Coffee?”
The waitress was sixty if she was a day and the red shade on her lips was the color of fire engines before they went to that fluorescent yellow green. She was already balancing the birdbath-sized cup and saucer in her hand. Few people stopped at Lester’s if they were afraid of caffeine.
“Please,” I said.
The ceramic setup clattered like two rocks when she put it down. She poured from the plastic pitcher in her other hand and the aroma was my heaven.
“Ya knowwhatchawant, hon?” she said, like it was all one word.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“Ain’t we all?” she said and slid a menu next to the coffee and winked before leaving.
I sipped the coffee and watched the patrons over the rim. Guys on the counter stools with long-sleeved flannel shirts rolled up to the elbows, rumpled jeans and thick-soled boots. Two young women facing each other in a booth. The bleached blonde was facing me and I could see her red-rimmed eyes and she kept exhaling and shaking her hand in between low words. It was hard from a distance to tell if the dark smear on her cheekbone was a bruise or a swipe of running makeup. The back of her friend’s head just kept bobbing, listening. Two guys, medium height and build, slid out of another booth. They were clean-shaven and dressed in pleated slacks and polo shirts. The one with his back to me had a lump that was belt high under his shirt. When he leaned over to put a tip on the table the fabric pulled up over the clip-on holster, exposing the leather. When I looked up beyond him, his partner was checking out my eyes. Cops casing the customers, I thought. How typical.
Richards came in ten minutes late. I caught the blonde top of her head bobbing just below the windows as she walked up from the parking lot. In heels she was taller than most men. She hesitated just inside the vestibule and I couldn’t tell if she was finishing a cell phone call or putting on a fresh layer of lipstick. She stepped in and turned the opposite way first. She was in a beige, silk-looking suit and her hair was longer than I remembered. It was pulled back into a thick braid that hung down her back like a wheat-colored rope. When she spun and spotted me she smiled. As she approached, I raised the big cup to my lips, uncertain what my face was showing.
“Max, I’m really sorry I’m late.”
I put the cup down and started to get up to greet her but she slid gracefully into the other side of the booth. There would be no quick embrace, kiss on the cheek or uncomfortable moment.
“Not a problem,” I said. “You know my motto: Have coffee, will sit and muddle.”
I wrapped my fingers around the cup.
“Habits that never die,” she said.
“Not until I do,” I said and watched her. “You look great. Still running?”
My direct compliment, even if she got it a lot from others, brought a tiny flush of color to her cheeks.
“Cycling, actually. A friend of mine got me into it. So we put in sixty or seventy miles a week. I’m enjoying it. It’s a lot less damaging on the knees. You’d like it.”
I tried to imagine myself in some bold-colored, skin-tight jersey and wearing a helmet with a little mirror sticking out the side. I didn’t respond.
“You look like you’re still canoeing,” she said, giving her own shoulders a hunch and closing her fists in a mock muscle pose. I had kept some upper body mass on my lean, six-foot-three-inch frame.
“You do still have the Glades place, right?”
“Yeah. In fact I’m heading out back out there today.”
“OK.” She shifted her voice. “Let me tell you about this case, then.”
I watched Richards’s eyes while I sipped coffee and listened to her words. She’d been working on the disappearance of three women. All of them had vanished over the last twenty months. Their only connection was that they had worked as bartenders at small, out-of-the-way taverns in Broward County, they had no local family connections and their work histories were transient and sketchy. She hadn’t found any long-term boyfriends, at least none appeared to be looking for them, and there had been no apparent signs of foul play at the apartment addresses the women had given their employers.
“So where’s the FBI on these cases?” I asked, knowing the feds usually get their fingers into missing persons investigations if they show any overt signs of criminality.
“No interest,” she said. “Too busy looking for weapons of mass destruction.”
Sarcasm did not become her.
“These are women in their mid-twenties out living on their own. They keep hours that have them in and out of their apartments at all kinds of weird hours. Folks they work with rarely even know their last names. Hell, I got one set of parents that didn’t even know their daughter was in Florida.”
She suddenly looked very tired.
“You talked to parents?”
She nodded and then waited, waving off the waitress who’d approached with an order pad poised.
“I’ve been volunteering at Women in Distress, you know, the center and shelter for domestic abuse victims.”
This I knew. When we had still been dating, Richards had taken in a friend, a woman who was being abused by a fellow cop. They’d spent late nights talking, discussions that hadn’t included me. There had been some kind of kinship, maybe even a shared experience. Richards had become a protector of sorts, and furious.
The boyfriend had come to an ugly end on Richards’s front lawn and the angry look in her eye at the time had not left my memory. It was heated and righteous and remorseless and now as she told her story, I thought I saw it flicker behind her gray irises, under control, but still there.
Afterward she’d taken her friend to the center, and then joined as a volunteer to “do something,” she’d said at the time. Several times before we finally drifted apart I’d tried to ask her out and she’d begged off because she was “at the shelter.” I never called it an obsession. People do what they need to do.
“Amy Strausshiem was the most recent girl to disappear,” Richards started, setting her jaw, putting her game face on like she always did when she was determined not to show emotion. “Her mother came into the shelter. The woman had been to a dozen city police departments. She’d tried to talk the newspapers into running a story. She’d been to dozens of bars in the area, tacking up posters. She’d been to drug clinics, homeless shelters and the goddamn morgue, Max.”
Her eyes had moved on to a spot somewhere behind me, unfocused.
“All I could do was listen, no different than anybody else had done. I’m a detective but I’ve got no bodies, no ransom notes. These aren’t children, or Alzheimer’s patients or Saudi immigrants. Nobody gives a damn. They’re just young women who are gone.”
I knew that it was true of nearly any big metropolitan area. South Florida’s missing girls were no different. Even the famous ones—Beth Kenyon, Colleen Parris, Rosario Gonzalez, Tiffany Sessions—were never found. Hell, in 1997 a man fishing in a canal spotted a rusted, overturned van in the water not far from the roadway. When the police wrecker pulled it out, they found the bones of five teenagers inside. They’d been missing for eighteen years.
Richards was on her own on this one, some kind of a mission to keep women safe on the planet, tilting at Cervantes’s windmills I thought, but I wasn’t going to say it to her face.
“OK,” I said. “What makes O’Shea stand out in these disappearances?”
She again set her face.
“Two of the girls who’ve gone missing were definitely seen with him and a third one, maybe,” she said.
“He’s been in all of the bars where these girls worked just before they vanished and seems to have a circuit of places that he rolls through on a regular basis. Maybe trolling.”
He’s Irish, I thought, but didn’t say it.
“He’s had opportunity and he’s an ex-cop who would know enough about how things work to get away with abducting these girls without leaving an obvious trail.”
She stopped and was looking down at the table, maybe assessing how flimsy her evidence sounded when it was spoken out loud and left hanging out there. I stayed silent, knowing there had to be more.
“He’s been involved in this kind of thing before, Max,” she said, finally meeting my eyes.
Few people could surprise me the way Richards could.
“What? In serial abductions?” I said. “Jesus!”
“Not serial,” she quickly corrected. “But the disappearance of a woman known to him and to other cops in your old city of brotherly love.”
I must have been staring. Nothing in my memory even hinted at the kind of case she was talking about.
“I’m sorry, Max. I know you don’t exactly keep up with news from home,” she said, giving me a break. “A few years ago there was a hell of a dustup in your old division. Somebody sent in an anonymous letter accusing four local officers with having sexual relations with a young counter clerk at a local twenty-four-hour convenience shop. Faith Hamlin, an adult, physically, but the background on her was that she was working with a preadolescent IQ.”
I shook my head, not sure I even wanted to hear.
“Faith worked the overnight shift at the store. Someone dropped a dime on the eleven to seven patrol crew that included O’Shea, said they were all getting sexual favors behind the counter or in the back room while on duty. Internal affairs probably would have deep-sixed the allegations, but the letter was full of names, times, dates.”
“Was the girl the one who wrote the complaint?”
“But she substantiated it?”
“No,” Richards said. “IA interviewed her but according to the reports, she denied everything. No sex, no inappropriate actions by the cops, all of whom she said she knew by name, but they’d only been nice to her and protected the place at night while she was working.”
“OK,” I said. “So they drop it, no complainant, no crime.”
“Except a couple of days later, she disappears,” Richards said. “Gone.”
Richards caught me staring again while I tried to put the scenario together in my head. Preposterous? No. I’d heard the same kind of shit before. Cop groupies. Gangbangs. The tales got passed around in the locker rooms all the time. It was the victim and the disappearance that twisted this one.
“Don’t tell me IA still dropped it?” I finally said.
“No. Actually I was quite impressed with the investigation that they did. Some woman is running the show up there and she’s tough,” Richards said. “They ground down all four guys, including O’Shea. Polygraphed three of them and got confessions on the sex acts but they all said they didn’t know where Faith was and had no part in her disappearance.”
“Three of them?” I said, knowing the answer. O’Shea refused the polygraph and quit. The investigation never turned up a body or signs of a crime. They had nothing to hold him on.
“He got a Florida driver’s license eighteen months ago and gave an address down in Hollywood,” Richards said. “He’s been working security jobs on and off with Wachenhut and the Navarro Group, mostly pulling guard duty at marinas and car dealerships.”
“Come to Florida. Shed your overcoat and your problems. Hell, cruise the beach and pluck oranges off the trees,” I said.
I caught her watching me, a grin pulling at one corner of her freshly glossed mouth.
“Max, you sound like the CliffsNotes of
The Grapes of Wrath.”
“OK,” I said. “I’ll plead to intellectual plagiary. But what you’ve got is still circumstantial.”
She went silent for several beats and again was looking beyond me.
“He’s got this way about him,” she said, shifting back to my eyes. “It’s this quiet confidence. He’s not one of those ‘Hey, baby. Let’s party’ kind of guys. He’s good-looking, smart and knows just the right things to say to these kinds of women to lure them, get them to let their guard down.”
The quizzical thought running through my head must have been on my face because she answered before I could ask how she’d managed to get all her detailed observations.
“He tried to pick me up,” she said and then seemed to wait for my reaction.
“In a bar?”
“Yeah. While I was working on the case.”
“You went undercover?”
“Yes,” she said.
“As a bartender to try and get someone to abduct you?”
“That’s a blunt way to put it, but yes, basically to get a feel for what these girls were seeing and maybe get lucky enough to pull a suspect list together.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “O’Shea made you?”
“Yeah. Probably before he actually asked me out,” she said. “Picked me up after work on our first date and when I got into his car he asked if we needed to stop at the P.D. so I could punch out my time card.”
She was shaking her head at the memory.
“Hey, hard to pull that on a good cop. And the guy was a good cop when I knew him,” I said.
She seemed to gather herself.
“But not when you didn’t know him, Max. His department file showed three reprimands for undue use of force during arrests. He lost time while he was in an employee health services program, which probably meant he was drying out someplace even before the Faith Hamlin case.”
The waitress came by. I nodded my head to another refill and took a long sip. I’d hate to see what my own department file would show. It had already made me a suspect once in South Florida.
I looked up at her and maybe she could see the doubt in my face, or maybe she thought she needed to put an exclamation on her motivation.