Tasha Wolf was smoldering jealous of Penny LaFore. Penny was blonde, cute, skinny, and enrolled in an elite college. Well, elite by local standards. You’d think Trinity was Notre Dame the way its graduates swanned about town.
Because she was cute, Penny had wormed her way onto the Jefferson Road Serial Homicide Multi-Agency Data Review Task Force. Damn it, Jeff Road was Tasha’s story. They should have put her on that task force. Tasha had broken that news while the local cops were snoozing. Nobody knew there was a serial killer on the loose until Tasha Wolf, girl reporter, put it on the front page of Shipwreck Bay Currents.
Three years ago, when it was a daily newspaper, not a weekly give-away.
So now the sheriff and his horny deputies, wanting a blonde to gawk at, had given Penny a year-round job as weekend police steno. Tasha would kill for a job like that. Think of all the story leads! It was enough to make a frustrated Tasha say: “Medium signature mocha, soy, no whip.”
Penny, behind the espresso machine, smiled. Her brilliant teeth suggested a yacht-owning orthodontist.
“My favorite disc jockey,” Penny lied.
That rankled with Tasha. A put-down wrapped in a compliment. “Eh,” Tasha said. “So I hear you’re working for the sheriff now.”
“Two shifts a week,” Penny said. “I’ve given my notice here, but they keep saying they need me.”
Tasha leaned over the counter, almost kissing those tumbling blonde curls. “Jeff Road,” she whispered.
“Oh,” said Penny, hand to her mouth. “Can’t talk about that.”
“The report? Not released yet,” Penny said. She frowned, then brightened. “Still revising. You know. Gotta pass official muster.”
Tasha looked around, saw no eavesdroppers, and said, “Give me a clue. I’m starving here.”
Penny steamed espresso, banging the port-filter. It seemed excessively theatrical to Tasha.
“Totally off the record, I swear,” Tasha said. “Come on, I’m buying at BBB. Margaritas!”
Penny shrugged. She was weakening. “I’m busy tonight,” she said.
“Tomorrow,” Tasha said.
Penny sighed. “Okay.”
Build A Better Burrito was one of the street-level businesses in the repurposed department store that now housed Console Graphics. Console’s high tech workers took the grand escalator up to their inflated salaries, while ground floor retail space was rented to high-traffic businesses. BBB had taken a step up from its burrito brethren by specializing in strong margaritas, and that, rather that food quality or ambiance, had driven Tasha to pick the meeting place.
She figured this Penny kid, 105 pounds, couldn’t stand up to BBB’s mega-margarita.
Margaritas for two.
Tasha let Penny babble on about Trinity College, and how remote it seemed from the world, up there on Holy Hill. She said her Dad was on The Board, and had led the Sodality Chapel Funding Drive, and that made it a little awkward sometimes, and she hoped the professors didn’t think she’d take advantage of that. She said the frat boys at Trinity mostly sucked, they invited you to their boring parties so they could say: Hey look dudes, here’s my latest bimbo.
Tasha listened while Penny talked. She was mildly amused when Penny blessed herself and prayed grace over a foil-wrapped burrito. How quaint!
“You’re not hungry?”
“I thought I was,” Penny said, and pushed away a burrito she’d not bothered to unwrap. “I’ll take it home.”
Tasha carried away the messy corpse of her burrito and its foil coffin. She returned with two more giant Margaritas in plastic cups.
“Oh my gosh,” Penny said.
“They’re delicious,” Tasha said.
Penny pretended she didn’t want that drink, but she was already flush with sugar-booze rush. She felt relaxed now and realized she liked this rough and tough Tasha, the voice that echoed from the radio, playing retro-punk music and delivering police news and the latest scandals. Penny envied her. Tasha was a real grown up with a job and a daring, seedy reputation. This evoked in Penny a sense that she was missing the delights of the low life. Tasha was a groupie, a nighthawk, sidling up to every guitar strummer who stumbled through town. She was rumored to be an easy lay who followed Joey Wartkowski and WartHogg from club to club before they got famous. Her father, the TV broadcaster Leonard Wolf, had committed suicide, revealing twin addictions to bimbos and casinos, shocking a city that considered him a televised deity.
“I love the salty rim,” said Tasha, licking the glass with a greenish tongue.
Penny consumed her margarita through a straw.
“It’s fantastic, don’t you think?” Penny said. “What’s happened in this part of town? It’s so glitzy and gleamy now.”
“I want to know about the Strangler,” Tasha said.
“Well, you understand,” said Penny. She looked over her shoulder. “…don’t you think it’s really chilly for this time of year?”
“Six, seven, eight,” Penny said.
“Seven eight what?”
“People at the margarita bar.”
“Penny! What did the task force find out about the Strangler?”
“Well, statistically, depending on, you know, the anomalies, you should be able to alert on just the second murder. Geography is a big factor. The geographical range … fourteen.”
“Fourteen what? Counties? Towns?”
“Different kinds of burritos.”
“But what about the case itself?”
“I’m not sure what you’re …
“Maureen Antonio. That one. The last pathetic victim.”
“You’re talking right past me.”
“On the night Maureen Antonio was strangled, Joseph Garland was in alcohol rehab at the Workman Clinic.”
“I guess I heard that.”
“The clinic has alarmed doors and windows, and a proctor at the main entrance.”
“So yeah, we know that, he slipped out somehow. I mean it’s not a Supermax. There’s no bars on the windows.”
“And,” Tasha said, “the Antonio girl’s panties were the only ones that had been laundered.”
Penny sipped her drink.
“So, speaking of anomalies,” Tasha said, “did your group address that one?”
“We were looking at statistics, like from all over the country, you know, other serial killers.”
A group of Console’s techies, all wearing badges, pushed through the revolving door with a woosh. “Air pressure,” Penny said. “Did you ever think, like when you’re flying in an airplane, you’re supported only by air pressure. Air pressure’s amazing don’t you think?”
“Back to Joseph Garland’s alibi.”
“Well, I suppose that clinic, I mean, the proctor could have been sleeping. Or the alarm was faulty or Garland somehow bypassed it. I mean, no system’s perfect.”
“And he sneaked back in without being missed?”
“Seems that way. Escaping from lockup, it’s a great alibi if you want to get out and do a dirty deed. The best. I mean, that alibi, it threw the police off for a while.”
“Garland kept the victims’ underwear as a souvenir. But only the last victim’s were laundered. Why?”
“Maybe they were really disgusting dirty.”
“Or maybe Maureen Antonio’s underwear was planted.”
Penny cocked her head. “Planted?”
“Chain of custody for that evidence: private eye Dan Burns, responding deputy Charles Stenner, evidence tech Peter deBeer. He delivered it to the evidence room, which is camera monitored. So … how well do you know Dan Burns?”
“He’s not an actual professor. You had a class with him, right?”
Penny held up two fingers and drained her margarita, eyes down on its sinking icy foam.
“What did you think of him?”
“Well, he’s a very strict teacher, but I always thought he was nice man, no nonsense, though. He’s like, retired military.”
“Dan Burns is the man who invaded Garland’s garage and found that horrible souvenir underwear, right?”
“What are you saying?” Penny said, feeling challenged.
“Dan Burns is also the husband of a woman who disappeared, correct?”
“Tasha, you have an evil mind.”
But while putting up a barrier to Tasha’s insinuation, Penny began thinking. She had seen Billie McGinn in Dan Burns’s office at BCC. Penny’s mentor, Deputy Bonnie Blanchard, suspected real estate was the motive behind the murder of Liz Burns. And wasn’t Billie the queen of real estate? What was Billie doing talking with a Police Sciences instructor?
“No,” Tasha said, “whoever strangled those six girls, that’s who had an evil mind.”
“I’m drunk,” Penny said, and pushed away the giant empty margarita cup, salt still clinging to its rim. “I’m very sensitive to salt,” she said. “I can tell you one thing, though, you never heard it from me. You should talk to Rick Lowe. He’ll set you straight. He was in alcohol rehab with Joseph Garland on the night Ms. Antonio was strangled.”
“Rick Lowe’s in California, or Nevada, nobody seems sure.”
“Nope,” Penny said. “I know exactly where he is. Unless somebody bailed him out.”
“He’s in jail?”
Penny nodded. “They nabbed him last night.”
“Bayside Jail? On what charge?”
Penny shrugged. “I feel like really stupid telling you.”
“It will be public record.”
“He used my phone to … it’s complicated. Anyway, he borrowed my phone and stole my number and made a bunch of fake charges and then bought a really expensive phone and pawned it. That’s where they nailed him.”
Tasha sat back and thought, not about stolen phones, but about serial killers. Rick Lowe had told the police long ago that he couldn’t be sure that Joseph Garland hadn’t slipped out of rehab that night. But Rick was a scam artist, and the cops were too eager to close the Jeff Road case. Tasha wanted to question Rick herself.
She re-focused on Penny.
“I’m sorry about your phone. But I want to run this past you. Dan Burns broke into Garland’s garage, found all that underwear in a toolbox under the workbench, so his DNA is all over them. Contaminated evidence, right?”
“I don’t know,” said Penny. “I don’t know what you’re saying. He’s a very nice man. He’s a great teacher and he was always fair to me, and he’s a hero in this town, and personally I think he’s very brave. He took on a pervert who was coming at him with a shotgun, didn’t he? I think you should watch what you’re saying, Tasha. You could like ruin somebody talking like that. Think about how the gossips in this town ruined your father’s reputation.”
“I don’t need to a reminder,” Tasha said.
“You’re not going to write anything are you? Oh my god, you are, I’m going now, leave me out of it.” She blessed herself. “I never talked to you, and if you say that, and I’ll deny it.” She looked around, hoping no one would recognize her.
“Oh my God why did I even talk to you?”