Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery (19 page)

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
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I offered them twenty bucks for a thermos of whatever hot liquid they had left and the two almost stale cinnamon crullers they were going to throw out anyway. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. They conferred, then accepted.

“Eh, if there’s ever something I can do for you…” My meant-to-be-amusing line from
The Godfather
fell on deaf ears and they tensed up, wondering if they’d made a colossal mistake and had, in fact, let a crazy woman into the store late at night. Now I felt like Babe, bemoaning the younger generation’s lack of a complete cultural education that should rightly include
The Godfather
saga, even the much-maligned number three.

The kids finished closing, locked up, and drove off in opposite directions, the only vehicles I’d seen on the road since I’d arrived. Now there were no cars in my end of the lot. I went back to my somewhat smaller
blind, taking cover on a stone slab in between a spirea hedge and a U.S. mailbox with an elongated front for drive-by mailings. The coffee was still too hot to drink, but it made a nifty heater. I poured some into the thermos cup, trying to calculate how late that much caffeine would keep me awake. I sat cross-legged on the curb, nestling the thermos in between my thighs, blowing on the steaming coffee.

I pushed the light button on my watch: 12:25. Cripes, I didn’t have to worry about Warren harming me, I’d be dead from exposure, sitting on a Belgian block curb for thirty-five minutes in this weather, which was gradually worsening. They’d find me in the morning, butt frozen to the ground, huddled around my Dunkin’ Donuts thermos like some suburban bodhisattva.

I was muttering to myself when I heard something behind me. Probably the wind, whistling through the shrubs, blowing soot and leaves in my eyes and making things even more uncomfortable. I flipped my hood up again and tried to find the cord to tighten it around my head but it must have come out in the wash or the end was floating around inside the seam. I grabbed both sides and held them tight under my chin with one hand. I heard more leaf crunching behind me and exposed one ear to hear better. The noise stopped.

Deer were faster and squirrels didn’t move around much at night. Wild turkeys? Raccoons, maybe. Hadn’t I seen them rummaging around at Babe’s? I was shifting position to get the circulation back in my legs when someone yanked me by the hood of my sweatshirt and pulled me to my feet. The sweatshirt was so big, I was temporarily blinded as it partially covered my face and my eyes.

My assailant grabbed me by the wrist and swung me around, knocking my coffee out of my hands, burning my fingertips. All I could make out before I was twisted around again inside the voluminous sweatshirt was a man with a pair of panty hose over his face. He wrapped his arm around my neck, and I tucked my chin down to keep him from choking
me. I tried to wrest myself away from him, and in the course of struggling I kicked the thermos of coffee on the ground. I picked up my right foot and kicked back as hard as I could into his right knee. He loosened his grip and doubled over. I bent down, picked up the container of coffee, twisted off the top, and threw the scalding hot liquid, aiming for the man’s eyes. I must have scored, because he cursed, his hands rushing to his eyes. My cowboy boots turned out to be a fashion do. The creep was a little too tall and I was too far away to reach the number one spot where no man wants to be kicked, so I aimed for his other knee, letting fly with as much power as I could. He cursed again and crumpled to the ground. Now I
reach the good stuff. I hauled off and gave him another kick, with my pointy boot seriously jeopardizing his ability to reproduce. He fell backward.

If he got up fast, I’d have less than a minute to get away. I got lucky: an eighteen-wheeler came by and slowed him down just long enough for me to run across the road, through the parking lot, and to Babe’s back door. The key was in my hand, but I could barely breathe and I fumbled for a few seconds, putting it in upside down. I looked across the street and saw the man staggering to his feet. I took the key out and tried it again. This time it worked. I locked the door behind me and called the cops as I heard him cursing and banging on the door. Then the banging stopped.


“Is this your edgy New York way of asking for a date?”

I suppose I deserved that, but I didn’t like it much. I’d just been attacked by a masked assailant. I’d twisted my knee, aggravating an old ACL injury. My wrist was still sore from being jerked around, and a thick purplish bracelet had come out on it in the five to ten minutes it took the cops to arrive. I didn’t think it was an appropriate time for verbal foreplay; I needed a bandage more than I needed badinage.

Mike O’Malley stood in the doorway of Babe’s office with another cop who looked so young I thought I could smell the milk on his breath. When did everyone start to look so young?

“Come in,” I said, showing him into Babe’s den.

The note I’d asked Babe to tack on the door for Jeff Warren was still there, flapping in the wind that had made the night seem colder than it was. I opened the door wider to let the cops in and tried to casually pluck the note off the door and shove it in my pocket without catching O’Malley’s eye.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I cataloged my physical complaints out loud this time, then gave Mike the broad strokes without exactly telling him what I’d been doing hunkered down in an empty parking lot well past my usual bedtime. He noticed I left that part out.

“My coffee machine is broken,” I said, jumping in with an explanation too fast. Tactical error. Never volunteer anything when you’re lying. Take a breath, fidget with something, wait until they ask. It gives you more time to make up something believable.

O’Malley was polite enough not to raise his left eyebrow, the diplomatic response I’d seen him deliver far too often that spoke volumes and was loosely translated as “That’s a crock.”

“Let me make sure I have this. Someone accosted you in the parking lot after you got your late-night coffee and crullers and instead of running to your car and locking yourself in and driving away, you sprinted across the street to an obviously closed diner, hoping that Babe had left the back door open—even though she’d recently had a prowler?”

I’d forgotten about that. Were they officially calling him a prowler now? I thought he was still a trespasser. At that moment I hated Countertop Man, O’Malley, and Jeff Warren, my presumptive attacker. And I hated the word
. It was like
. It somehow qualified my experience.

“Yes,” I said defiantly, as if it was the most logical thing in the world to do. Sometimes short and sweet did the trick.

O’Malley closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, knowing there was more to the story. “Show us where it happened,” he said.

I followed the cops into the parking lot and locked the office door behind me. From where we stood, it was obvious there were no cars in the parking area near the Dunkin’ Donuts. The three of us unnecessarily looked both ways, crossed the deserted road, and entered the lot.

During one of our periodic truces, Mike had told me that in the
Springfield police department it was customary for newbies to ride with the more experienced cops for at least six months. O’Malley had been on the force for more than ten years, so it wasn’t unusual to find him babysitting one of the newer guys. Most of them moved on to bigger departments elsewhere, where they could actually use the sophisticated forensics training that was standard these days, but they got their starts in small departments like the one in Springfield.

Up until that point, O’Malley’s charge hadn’t said a word, but he was chomping at the bit to prove his worth to his superior.

“Excuse me, sir. Carjacking?”

It was a logical assumption for Milk Breath to make, since my car was nowhere in sight. They looked at me, waiting for an explanation. I told them my car was at the other end of the lot and took my time concocting a legitimate reason for something that, in the suburbs, was tantamount to lunatic behavior, i.e., not parking as close to your destination as humanly possible. Nothing was coming; the well was dry. I paused, picking up the now empty thermos while something halfway reasonable sprang to mind.

“I wanted to burn a few extra calories,” I said, trying not to look up and to the left, which I’d read somewhere was a sure tip-off that the speaker was lying.

O’Malley’s eyebrow lift was barely perceptible. That time he couldn’t control it, but it was definitely there, even if he spared me the full drawbridge-raise treatment. I was grateful.

The cops left me briefly and made a show of investigating. The young one did most of the talking. I knew I hadn’t given them much of a description. A man wearing panty hose. Suntan, looked like control top from the way his features were distorted and his lips were pulled back like a woman with a bad face-lift. He was five foot ten or thereabouts, average weight. He didn’t try to rob or rape me, and didn’t say anything to reveal either an accent or a manner of speaking, just the
one expletive, repeated twice, referring to an activity he wasn’t likely to be engaging in that night or any time soon thanks to my extremely pointy Lucchese cowboy boots.

“Anybody else see this guy? Maybe the kids from Double D?”

I shook my head. “They were gone by the time he attacked me.”

“Funny you’d still be here so much later after they closed.” I’d forgotten that he used to work at the police substation and probably knew their routine almost as well as they did. Mike told his partner to go back to their patrol car and wait for him. He’d walk me to my car.

“Is your car really here?” O’Malley asked when the other man left.

“Of course it is.” I pointed to the far end of the lot near the gas station, and we started walking.

“My young partner is suspicious. He thinks your boyfriend roughed you up, and you’re protecting him. He’s not right, is he?”

I didn’t feel like announcing that I had no boyfriend. We both knew it. “Of course not. Your partner should be a novelist, not a cop.”

“You’re up to something, aren’t you? You, Babe, maybe that whack job friend of yours from New York?”

And to think Lucy was always asking how he was. “Hey, she’s
whack job friend. Just leave Lucy out of it.” I wasn’t looking forward to the sermon I knew was coming, so I said nothing more and just kept walking to my car.

“Who was the note for?” he asked. Aaayy. My oh-so-subtle sleight of hand had worked on the kid but not O’Malley; I’d never make it as a magician.

I wasn’t used to telling so many lies in one night; it was exhausting. How in hell had Caroline done it for so long? I looked around for inspiration. All I saw were the patrol car’s flashing red lights reflected in the windows of the closed shops and my own Jeep a hundred yards in the other direction. I unlocked it with the automatic button on my car keys. The lights turned on and instantly I could see something was different.

I’d slid right in next to another car, larger than mine, one of those I assumed was in the gas station’s lot being repaired. Now it was gone. I tried drawing a mental picture of the car but all I could remember was that it was a dark-colored SUV with unfamiliar-looking license plates, not Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts.

Just then, O’Malley and I heard a screech of brakes. An eighteen-wheeler slowed down, then blew by us. I couldn’t see much from where we stood, but I thought I could make out the silhouette of a baseball hat and longish hair flying out the open driver’s side window. Leaving the scene of the crime? Or maybe Jeff Warren hadn’t been my assailant. Could he have gotten to his truck and back so fast if he had been the one to attack me? And why would he come back?

Then it hit me: Warren had passed by earlier to drop off his randy coworker, unwittingly giving me time to get away from my attacker. Thanks, Jeff. When he returned for our appointment, he saw the cop cars, freaked, and hauled ass out of there.

“Shoot,” I said, louder than I meant to.

“You expecting a delivery?”

“Sort of.” I watched as my savior barreled toward Virginia. Then my phone rang, breaking the silence.

“I guess city folk and the rich really
different. I never realized you were such a night owl,” he said, folding his arms and looking at me as if he’d never seen me before.

Yeah, that was me, party, party, party. I gave him a weak smile. The phone continued to ring.

“You gonna answer that?”

I worried that it was Warren phoning to curse me out for calling the cops and maybe even siccing them on him as he sped across state lines until I saw the number.

It wasn’t Warren: it was Babe checking up on me, right on the dot at 1
I repeated her name loud enough so O’Malley could hear who
I was talking to. She peppered me with questions until she overheard Mike’s voice and finally believed that I was okay.

“All right, missy, what’s going on?” he asked.

I said nothing, but he wasn’t going to let me off that easily.

“There’s nothing to tell.” And there wasn’t—not yet anyway. Maybe Warren
the hapless, accidental catalyst of this whole Caroline Sturgis business and maybe
was the hapless, accidental victim of an opportunistic mugger. Maybe. But somebody I knew once said that there was no such thing as a coincidence.

“Why are you cross-examining me?” I said. “I’m the victim here, remember? I’m not supposed to go out after dark? What is this, Victorian London? Is Jack the Ripper on the loose stalking women?”

“I’m not cross-examining you; I simply asked a question. It’s what I do for a living.”

I hated that he was being so rational, and I, tired and irritated, was not.

O’Malley insisted on following me home and sprinted back to Babe’s to join his colleague in the patrol car. As soon as his back was turned, I dialed Warren’s number. No answer. I was leaving him a long-winded message when the cops returned. I abruptly hung up and pretended I’d been fidgeting with my seat belt. O’Malley pulled parallel to the Jeep and pointed straight ahead, telling me to go.

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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