Authors: Allen Wyler
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Dead Ringer
Where he stood was an imposing figure—six feet four, two hundred-twenty pounds, early fifties, jet-black hair gelled straight back with a moustache/goatee combo expertly dyed to match. She suspected the dye job because any man his age should have at least some gray.
She immediately felt something off-putting about him. Couldn’t say exactly why, but she would figure it out later. “Robert Ditto?”
“I am.” He came around the desk offering his hand. He wore tan slacks and an expensive-looking black polo shirt. Cashmere maybe. Made her feel inadequate in the navy pantsuit she’d been so delighted to discover at the Nordstrom Rack sale last year.
She shook his hand, saying, “Detective Sergeant Wendy Elliott, Seattle Police,” as if the receptionist hadn’t already clued him in. Then she offered her identification.
He waved it off. “No need. I’ll take your word for it.” He gestured for her to sit in one of two contemporary black leather chairs facing the desk.
“Nice office.” Wendy glanced around for a wastebasket to dump the empty Diet Coke can. Seeing none, she held it up. “There a wastebasket I can throw this?”
“Trash? Oh no.” Ditto hurried back to her, a pained expression on his face, and extended his hand. “Here. Let me have it.”
She gave it to him.
He stepped over to a wet bar. “Forgive me for preaching, but do you realize how much landfill is required just to handle recyclable waste like this? Waste that otherwise could be used again and again? It’s huge.”
“No.” Wendy felt her face warm with a mixture of embarrassment and belittlement. Should’ve just left the fucking thing in the car and let it go flat. But no, she just had to finish it because the only thing worse than warm Diet Coke is flat Diet Coke. Now Ditto was at a wet bar sink rinsing it out. The entire dynamic of this interview had suddenly gone sideways.
She watched him turn the can over, drain the water, shake out the last drops before putting it in a blue plastic recycle bin under the counter. As if this were some sort of religious ceremony.
“There.” He faced her again, drying his hands on a bar towel.
“Who’s that?” Wendy asked, pointing at one of the posters. Not because she gave a rat’s ass, but because she wanted to put some mental distance between the empty can fiasco and the point of this interview.
Am I being over-analytical again?
A trait Travis had always accused her of.
“Mr. Hockey.” Ditto smiled with unabashed reverence and awe. “Gordie Howe’s his real name. Probably the best damn hockey player to ever hit the ice. Played for the Red Wings.” He stared at the poster, momentarily transfixed. “Know much about hockey, Detective?”
Perfect. He seemed relaxed talking about something he obviously knew a lot about. “Nothing.” She settled into one of the chairs. To her, any activity that involved freezing your ass off seemed ridiculous.
Ditto folded himself into the desk chair and faced her. “You know what a hat trick is?”
“Tell me,” Wendy said as if she meant it. She crossed her legs and relaxed, getting more into character.
He grinned. “In sports, a hat trick is doing something successfully in three consecutive tries. Three home runs in three times at bat. Three touchdown passes in a row. That sort of thing. In hockey, a Gordie Howe hat trick is to score a goal, do an assist, and get involved in a fight during a single game. That’s how good he was.”
Sounded like testosterone bullshit, but there he was, talking. “You from Detroit?”
Ditto nodded. “Born and raised in Hamtramck. A suburb of the Motor City. Everyone calls it a suburb, but I call it an armpit ’cause of all the garlic-stinking Polacks.”
She realized he’d said this in all seriousness and felt herself squirm.
“Now what can I do for you?” Ditto asked, straightening his posture, getting down to business.
“Does your company own a black Suburban?” Wendy knew damn well it did. DMV showed it registered to Ditto’s Funeral Home Inc.
Ditto’s smile vanished; his posture straightened more. “Ah yes, we do. Why?”
“We’re investigating a missing persons report. A routine inquiry.” Lupita Ruiz’s disappearance, however, was anything
but routine for her. They were close friends, especially after Lupita rescued her from what could’ve been a very ugly rape. On the other hand, Redwing, her commanding officer, couldn’t care less about Ruiz or the other missing working girls she’d been investigating since her transfer from the Vice to Missing Persons.
Ditto said nothing, just sat watching her, expecting her to explain further. She held his gaze for a moment and noticed that Ditto was looking more nervous with each second of dead air. Interesting.
She waited a few more beats before asking, “I assume it’s a company vehicle and not your personal car?”
Ditto seemed to consider his answer. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“So that means you have a list of people who use it?”
He shifted in the chair, gaze drifting toward the ceiling.
Wendy swore she could hear his mental gears grinding.
“Any one of my employees can use it.”
“Have a sign-out sheet, some kind of record of it?”
“We do, but why do you want to know?”
She debated how much to tell him. Ditto seemed very tense. She couldn’t tell if it was irritation or something more sinister, which made her even more interested in the interview. “Fair enough. Let me be more specific. Do you know who was driving the vehicle on the tenth?”
Ditto pursed his lips and seemed to think about it. “The tenth of this month?”
With a frown he turned to his computer monitor, nudged a keyboard closer, and started typing. “It wasn’t used that evening.” He shook his head for emphasis. “At all.”
Her pulse quickened. Her lie meter pinged. From the back of her mind came a whispering suspicion that this might finally be the break she’d been looking for.
“Let me make sure I have this straight. You’re saying no one drove it the night of the tenth?”
“Right. No one drove it that night.” Ditto’s forehead glistened with sweat in spite of the AC cooling the room.
She decided to give him one more chance to pull himself out of the hole he’d dug. “You’re absolutely certain about that?”
Ditto shot her an icy stare. “What did I just tell you? Are you accusing me of something, Detective?”
Wendy looked him directly in the eye as she asked, “Is it possible there are times when an employee might use the vehicle without you knowing?”
He seemed to relax a bit. “It’s possible, I guess. After all, someone’s on call round the clock, so, yes, since you put it that way, it’s entirely possible.” He nodded.
“And they could have done so without it appearing on that log you’re looking at?”
Ditto said, “What I’m saying is, there’s no record of a pickup that night. None at all.”
Rather than press the question, Wendy decided to change tactics. “You have staff here twenty-four hours a day?”
“No. Yes. I mean
live here. And, uh, so does another employee.” Ditto looked down at his desk for a moment, then added, “Let me clarify. I have an apartment in the building. Another employee rents space on the second floor. We don’t, uh, live together.”
Curious. Wendy wondered if the employee was male or female. Not that it made a difference, but still …
Ditto licked his lips again. “See, my business requires someone to be available 24-7. What I mean is, if we get an after-hours call—that’s nine to five—the van might be used, depending on the call, but that’s precisely why I’d have a record if it had. See what I’m saying?”
Not really. What she did see was Ditto verbally backtracking, and this made her more intrigued. “So what you’re saying is, it’s unlikely the vehicle would be off the premises if it wasn’t used specifically for business purposes and therefore would have shown up on your log?”
Ditto shook his head and looked down at the edge of the desk he was gripping. He relaxed his hands, met her gaze. “Help me out here. What does my van have to do with a missing person? That’s what you said this was all about, didn’t you?”
Wendy said, “The missing person’s a prostitute. She was last seen in an area that is under video surveillance. A camera happened to record a Suburban there at approximately the same time she went missing.” Well, sort of. Close enough to the truth to sound convincing. Signs posted on utility poles along that particular stretch of Aurora Avenue—a high drug and prostitution area—warned of video surveillance. What actually happened was a patrol officer noticed a black Suburban illegally parked in an alley. The officer ran a routine license check, which meant the location and the time were officially recorded. When Wendy ran across it, she included it as part of her weekly investigative report about a string of missing women she’d been working up.
Ditto gave a nervous laugh. “Excuse me, but all this concern about a hooker?”
“Yes.” Would he be as dismissive when she shoved the search warrant up his ass? She reached down to grab her purse.
He seemed to realize a change in the interview mood and sobered immediately. “Hey, the city’s full of Suburbans. There’re probably hundreds on the streets around here. Why come to me?”
Wendy chose to give him something to sweat about. “Your license plate was a partial match to the one seen.”
“I see.” Ditto began drumming a pen on the desk, saying nothing. Then he carefully returned the keyboard to its original spot and cleared his throat. “So, we finished?”
Smiling, Wendy stood and smoothed her pants. “One more thing. What exactly is that vehicle used for?”
He stood too and seemed befuddled by the question. “Like I said, for business. Why?”
“This is a funeral home, right? I thought morticians used a hearse.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “True, we are a mortuary, that’s how I started this business. But I’ve long since expanded.”
When running the license plate she had wondered about the name “Medical Research Center of Seattle,” the car was registered to, thinking it sounded a little strange. “What kind of research does a mortuary do?”
Ditto cleared his throat. “We’re the biggest supplier of anatomical parts on the West Coast.”
“You know. Parts for surgical demonstrations.”
“No, I don’t know. Mind explaining that?” Wendy clutched her purse, a little freaked.
“See, you got new technologies and devices emerging all the time. A new type of hip replacement, a new way to take out a slipped disk. Surgeons got to learn how to do it, so they
take a course. In the course you got to use something, right? And it’s got to come from someplace. That’s what we do. We provide the material.” This said with a look of pride.
Her stomach knotted. “Just so I understand, what you’re saying is, you supply dead bodies?”
“Yes, yes, of course. But not necessarily whole bodies. Maybe an arm or a leg or whatever part they need.”
Suddenly the room felt ice-cold. Wendy felt as though she had to get away, get some air before she fainted.
Ditto’s phone rang.
HE PHONE CALL GAVE
Ditto a thank-you-Jesus excuse to cut the conversation short. Maybe buy him some time while he got his goddamn thoughts together. “Excuse me. I need to answer this.” He wanted the bitch out of the office so he could figure a few things out and, if need be, do some fucking damage control.
He picked up the phone. “Robert Ditto here.”
“Got us a potential problem, my man,” Leo said. “You free to talk?”
Leo Gerhard was in Hong Kong running some sort of teaching session for a bunch of Chink brain cutters. Supposed to be routine with no glitches anticipated. But the edge to Leo’s voice tripped a tingle in Ditto. Problems occasionally developed during acquisition trips but never during routine demonstrations.
. Great timing.
“Someone’s in the office at the moment,” Ditto said. He stifled the urge to look up to see how much Detective what’s-her-name was tracking. He knew she was listening to every word, probably evaluating his every move. Hell, he’d be doing the same if the tables were reversed. He also knew he wasn’t completely hiding his nervousness. She’d be an idiot not to pick up on it. Never had been good at lying, which was why he never played poker anymore. And he
Suburban … But, he reminded himself, he didn’t even know if it was connected to anything. Not yet at least.
“It’s important,” Leo said with obvious concern.
“What’s the problem?” Fucking Chinks were always a pain in the ass. Problem was, their money was as good as anyone else’s. And in this competitive business, you never wanted to lose even one account. “Can’t it wait?”
One word. That’s all Leo had to say for Ditto to understand this
important. Well, shit, only one thing to do.
Ditto said into the phone, “Hold on a sec.” Then turned to the detective. “Sorry. This is an extremely important call, and I need to take it in private. You can find your way out, can’t you?”
She pulled out a business card and tapped it on his desk. “Here’s my contact information. Ask around. Check specifically if your vehicle was used the night in question. Maybe it was, and you just don’t know about it. Let me know for sure what you find out, one way or the other. Okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ditto moved to the door as a way of herding her out. “I’m on it the moment I’m off this call.” He opened the door for her and then, with the calm undertaker’s smile learned at his father’s knee, said, “It’s been a pleasure, Detective.”
Ditto closed the door behind her, waited a second before cracking it to peek out, just to make goddamn sure the bitch wasn’t trying to listen. Good, she was almost to the reception area now, walking with the purpose of someone very impressed with herself, maybe because of being a detective and all. Had to admit though, nice ass.
Then he was at the windows again, the phone to his ear. “Sorry. That took longer than I thought. Tell me what’s up.”
“The surgeon, the one doing the demonstration? Fucker claims to know the donor.”
Ditto replayed that comment in his mind twice. “Wait a second. I’m not sure I follow. You’re in Hong Kong, right?”