From a plastic bin underneath her bed, Tasha scavenged her notes on the Jefferson Road Strangler.
Daniel Burns, under police interrogation, had described Maureen Antonio as a student he barely knew, a druggie dropout. Tasha had no trouble believing this, having endured two years of BCC herself, in the years before Dan Burns taught there. Bayside Community College students were often troubled, and the description of Ms. Antonio wasn’t improbable.
Still there was something loose-endy about it. Or maybe, Tasha thought, it’s just my sympathy for her family, erupting again.
She had interviewed the Antonio family. Hard working blue collar. Dad drove for UPS. Mom kept the books at a lumber yard. They had two daughters, Christina, a biologist living in British Columbia. And Maureen, a drug addict who’d wanted to be a police officer. Maureen fell in with bad people, especially a junkie boyfriend. She was 19 in 2015, the last year of her life. She hadn’t ever had much of a job, except at the Mall. Nobody there remembered her, and her junkie friends from those days were scattered, or a few, dead. Tasha’s interviews had turned up very little of use, except for this one fact. Maureen’s last residence had been a rental on Wilson Street, in a shabby house, converted into four small apartments and rented out by Billie McGinn.
On the face of it, that meant nothing. But Tasha had never run down that lead. What the hell, she told herself.
At Diner 24, Steffie Voss ordered the Bacon Lovers Mac And Cheese. Steffie, you’re eating your way to a gastric bypass, Tasha thought. Not to mention eating a hole in my slender budget. Tasha, claiming to have eaten dinner at home, ordered tea.
Tasha had Steffiie figured. Carbs were a substitute for the love Steffie wasn’t getting, particularly from Taylor Burns. Taylor was sponging off her now, and would be doing so until he went off with some skinny hottie and broke Steffie’s heart. When the new love affair sputtered, Taylor would come running back to mama/Steffie.
It was a good thing Steffie’s apartment didn’t allow pets, or she’d be a cat rescue lady for sure.
Some Shipwreck Bay gossips suspected Taylor in the shooting of Butchie Block. Tasha didn’t buy it. Taylor was too much of a priss. She suspected Taylor was lying low because he’d taken too many drugs supplied by his pal Artie, was gobsmacked by the loss of his job, and the sudden reappearance of his former fiance Scrapyard Karen Slater.
The relationship between Steffie and Taylor caused Tasha to be sly about revealing what she was after. “I’m working on a feature,” she told Steffie, across a gleaming green Formica table. “It’s about the strangler’s victims. All the stories were about men, right? The pervert Garland, and the hero, Taylor’s dad. What about the women?”
“Right,” Steffie said. “You’re not hungry?”
Tasha shook that off. “So that’s what I’m after. A profile of the six victims. For instance, Maureen Antonio. The family told me she was a good daughter, up until the last months of her life. They’re perplexed and heartbroken. How was this daughter lost to them? They don’t understand or even accept it really. She drifted into prostitution. How does a parent deal with that? Anyway, Steff, the victim was a tenant of Summit Properties, right?”
Steffie sipped Coke through a straw. “I remember that, yes.”
“I take it there was a rental application?”
“I probably copied it for the cops but I don’t remember.”
“Is there any way I could get a look at that?”
Steffie put down her fork and wiped her lips with a paper napkin. “It’s supposed to be confidential.”
“Steff, she’s dead.”
“I don’t know.”
“The dead have no privacy, take it from me. Look what came out about my father after he died.”
“It’s just that …”
“How about: We never had this conversation, totally off the record.”
“I could look for it, I guess.”
“How’s it going with Taylor?”
Steffie plowed her fork through a field of cheesy macaroni. “He’s moody.”
‘It’s been a rough year,” Tasha said, “for a lot of people.”
“If he gets a job in Austin or San Jose, I’ll never see him again. I’m hoping he waits it out. I’ve been calling around. People I know at Console. It looks like they’re having an OK quarter. Not gangbusters. And you know Taylor’s neighbor Rhonda, the HR lady? She says it’s not utterly hopeless for a callback. I’ve been doing some readings, you know, the Tarot, and some of the cards are hopeful.”
“Call me if you find something on the Antonio girl,” Tasha said. “Please?”
Tasha was thrilled when her cellphone rang and lit up with the name SVOSS.
“I’ve thought it over,” Steffie said, “and I can’t give you a copy. I mean, if it ever got out, all the details, everybody would know it was me who gave it to you. So I’m sorry. But I did memorize some things I can tell you.”
“Oh.” Tasha tried to mask her disappointment. “Okay, then.”
“We use an outside company to run tenant background checks. There was no information from previous landlords. Wilson Street was her first solo rental.”
“She had a credit score in the high 300s.”
“Is that bad?”
“Very. The rent was $850 a month and her pre-tax income was under $1900. We look for a 3-to-1 ratio and she wasn’t even close. Criminal …”
“I think I already know the criminal. One arrest for disturbing the peace at a college party. Charges dropped.”
“Yep. From my notes I see I had called over to the Mall and talked to the manager at Cyd’s Fashion. Maureen had worked there 7 months, made $11 an hour plus a sales incentive, and worked a 35-hour week. No benefits. I know. I worked there once. Anyway, manager said she was a good employee, generally, but sometimes failed to show up for her shift. I didn’t bother to check Want-A-Burger, her only other listed employment.”
“May I ask why not?”
“The managers don’t last long. We also run a check with a second company, deep background looking for bankruptcies, evictions, car repossessions, that kind of thing. She came up clean.”
“Still, Summit leased an apartment to a party girl with a police record who didn’t make enough money to pay the rent.”
Steffie sighed. “As for drinking and drugs, we’d have no tenants at all if we ran a strict screen for that. And look, I never told you this, but Billie prefers women tenants to men. She just does. People think of Billie as a monster, but she’s got a huge, huge heart. She remembers what it’s like to be broke, alone and in debt. A young single woman struggling to make a living? Billie’s real likely to give her a break.”
“So there you go. Not a lot to go on. Maureen Antonio also listed herself as a police science student at BCC, but those records are not public. Tenants typically claim to be on an upward path, so, we pretty much discount academic ambitions.”
“Thank you, Steff, that will help.”
“And there’s one last thing. February, 2015. She was ten days behind in the rent. So she gets a visit from the Russian Mafia. I’m joking. We call him the Russian Mafia. Actually, he hates Russians.”
“You’re talking about Nick Katanjiev.”
“He’s our ten day guy. Miss the rent by ten days and he knocks you up. Not to say knocks you out.”
“What happened when he called on Ms. Antonio, then?”
“She paid the rent on Day 11, and on time after that. He’s a pretty effective rent collector. I mean, Billie wouldn’t use him if he wasn’t.”
“I owe you, Stephanie.”
Tasha quit the call feeling she had something, but she couldn’t say exactly what. She texted Maggie, who was having lunch at Mike Fink’s Deli.
Maggie toyed with the dressing-drowned remnants of a Nine-Veggie Salad while Tasha struggled to tame a pastrami sandwich.
“So I’m wondering,” Tasha said. “The Bulgarian.”
Maggie shook her head.
“Well, I mean he worked at the Wonder Bar, right?”
“No, never. He kept the tips, that’s it. Completely informal. Nick hasn’t been in for months. Ladies Night has petered out. Hey, I just made a joke.”
“But you know Nick, right?”
“What do you need to know about him?” Maggie rattled the cubes of an ice tea. “That he’s a pimp? Maybe. A hot-pillow joint out on Airline Road. His girlfriend, Adora Vang, she’s his partner in crime, or so they say,”
“Huh,” said Tasha.
“Definite light bulb if Billie McGinn’s rent collector is also running a whore operation. By the way, how’s Paul?”
“Don’t deflect, Tasha. What are you up to?”
“A couple of months before she was murdered, Maureen Antonio got a visit from the Bulgarian. He demanded the rent and got it. Despite the fact that she was broke. Hmm. That’s all.”
“When Tasha Wolf says hmmm, there’s trouble ahead, that’s what I know.”
“Adora Vang,” Tasha said. “Adora Vang.”
Adora answers the knock.
On a hunch, Tasha called Stephanie, and found out that yes, Nick Katanjiev and Adora Vang had leased an apartment from Summit Property Group. Like Steffie, they enjoyed a 10% employee discount on the rent.
Always go after the soft target first, Tasha had learned. When you track down the hard target, you want to know the answers already. Tasha parked behind the Bulgarian’s apartment. From a friend at the DMV, she had learned that Nick drove a 2017 black Road Ranger. No such car was parked in the lot, which gave Tasha the courage to knock on the door of #17.
“Are you from the …” Adora said, and then looked Tasha over. “No you’re not.” She swung the door to almost closed. “Who are you?”
Tasha flashed a faded photo: Maureen Antonio smoking a cigarette outside the notorious Crosstown Tavern.
“Do you know her?” Tasha said. “She’s missing.”
Adora eased the door open a bit, leaned into the post, examined the photo. It showed a pouting young woman, dark of complexion, petite, with eyeglasses and wavy black hair.
“Why ask me? Adora said.
“Because, well, I was sent here by Billie McGinn,” Tasha lied. “You know Billie, right? Billie wants to find this girl.”
“Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know her.”
“Maureen was a tenant of Billie’s once, up the road here, on Wilson.”
“Look, Adora, it’s Adora, right, haven’t I seen you on Poke Island? Maybe at Artie’s place?”
Adora stepped back.
“I didn’t want to shock you,” Tasha said. “But his girl was the last victim of the Jefferson Road killer.”
“I am sorry, but don’t be stupid, why would I know anything about that?”
“I thought, maybe since you work for Billie … “
“I do not work for Billie.”
“But your husband does?”
“What do you know about my so-called husband?”
Don’t push her Tasha.
“This kid Maureen, she was only 19, barely out of high school.”
Adora glanced at the photo. “It is a heartbreak, I’ll say. Too young.”
“And when she lived over on Wilson, she got in trouble. You know. With the police.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Arrested for prostitution.”
Adora looked away.
“Only two months before she died,” Tasha said. “While she was a tenant over there. I believe she might have been a drug addict, as well.”
“There are so many sad stories. You should go now.”
“You’ve never seen her around?
“I can’t say.”
“A lot of girls look alike.”
“Because you know, her family, they’re good folks, solid, honest, and they would love to know what happened to their daughter and how exactly she fell into the monster’s clutches.”
“I would not know that.”
“Forgive me, but I saw your name, and Nick Katanjiev’s name, on papers up at City Hall. Flash Entertainment. You signed those papers. What kind of business was that?”
“Nick’s stupid dream.’
“Maureen Antonio was the treasurer of Flash Entertainment, was she not? And you didn’t know her?”
“Nick did the paperwork, not me. Now I am going shut this door.”
“Then you’ll be shutting the door on the grieving family of this innocent girl.”
“I am ashamed for those girls.”
“Stupid girls who go into prostitution. It should be outlawed.”
“It is outlawed.”
“I have to go now.”
She shut the door and the lock clicked.
That click removed all doubt from Tasha’s mind: Adora knew Maureen Antonio.