Detective Bonnie Blanchard slammed a thick three-ring binder onto her desk. She flopped into her rocking chair and stared at it: the Elizabeth Burns Murder Book. Nine suspects, only Butchie Block eliminated. Zero forensic evidence. Two useful witnesses, both hiding something. Since her promotion to homicide detective, she’d been assigned three slam dunks and this one. It had taken months of painstaking work to track down Marco Gonzalez, confirm that he’d docked his ferry early on the fatal night, and link that event to Nick Katanjiev and an unknown prostitute.
After all that, the Sheriff hands Katanjiev a get out-of-jail-free card.
Sheriff Joe and Nick Katanjiev have a confidential chat.
She sighed. She muttered. She opened a desk drawer and stared at a cellophane-wrapped pack of Quarry Filtertip Lights. She slipped that pack into the pocket of her leather jacket. Ninety seconds later, she was standing in the municipal parking lot near a red steel door, lit cigarette in her lips.
“This job is killing me,” she muttered, but there was no one to hear. Except for the inmates, she was the last smoker in the building.
Damn it, her hair would stink of tobacco all day. She smashed that half-smoked cigarette underneath the sole of her black boots, brought her personal phone out of her jacket’s inside pocket and dialed Tasha Wolf.
“It’s me,” she said into the phone. “Fogtown Gym. Half hour.”
She threw the pack of cigarettes into the trash.
“Here’s what we know,” Bonnie said as she and Tasha Wolf walked on parallel treadmills. It was the mid-day doldrums. They were isolated in a corner of a brick warehouse that had been retrofitted as a gym.
“Nick Katanjiev walked out of lockup without revealing the identity of the prostitute he used to lure Marco. He claimed the girl came in from out of state, had given him a fake ID, and disappeared a few days later. He described her as a chubby, blue-eyed blonde. I know that was a lie. The Sheriff knows that was a lie. The Sheriff’s love for Katanjiev I can’t explain. I leave the speculation to you.”
Tasha stepped off the treadmill to dig into her big fringy purse.
“No notes, no recording, right?” Bonnie said.
“Deep background,” muttered Tasha, still digging.
Bonnie stared through a salty windows at the gray wet fog that had enwrapped the ferry pier. Across from the gym, the Departure Lounge, all gray shakes and storm shutters, was just opening for the morning, three drinkers standing at the green door waiting to be invited in. A pathetic addiction, Bonnie thought, when it brings you to a tavern at 10 a.m.
“My speculation?” Bonnie said. “The prostitute was under age, which explains Katanjiev’s evasions.”
“Here’s my suspect,” Tasha said, and produced from the wreckage of her purse a cell phone, which she handed over. Bonnie hit her treadmill’s stop button and stared at the photo on Tasha’s phone.
“Nope,” Bonnie said, “that’s not it. The one we want is short, compact, medium build, not long and skinny like this, dark skin not pale, with a pixie haircut, salt-and-pepper. Marco described her as Chinese quote unquote and looking very young.”
“You’re looking at a photo I snapped of Katanjiev’s girlfriend,” Tasha said.
“Doesn’t fit,” said Bonnie, and handed back the cellphone. “Anyway, I’ve met Adora Vang. I used to work as parole liaison. She’s been a guest of the county three times, misdemeanor retail theft. She was a witness to the altercation between Block and Katanjiev at Jackson Falls. She claimed complete ignorance of the doings between her boyfriend and the ferry captain.”
Bonnie sighed. “I started out as a civics teacher. I thought with school hours, I could be home for my own kids. But schools have lost all discipline, and it turned out I wasn’t really a teacher, but the powerless warden of a juvenile jail. Sheriff’s Deputy paid better, and had a shorter path to retirement, so … how did you lose your way?”
Tasha let a coy smile break out on her face. She was happy with the shift to personal revelation, a sign that the deputy was beginning to trust her.
“I was led astray by rock ’n’ roll,” Tasha said. “You know WartHogg?”
“Wart. Wart Hog.”
“Seriously?” Tasha said. “You don’t know?”
“I’m not into music.”
“Joey Warkowski. I had him in the studio when he was just a busker with a guitar. Or should I say, he had me in the studio. If I were a car, I’d have a bumper sticker that said: I spread for musicians.”
Bonnie laughed, then coughed with the irritation of that cigarette smoke.
“Anyway, Katanjiev,” Tasha said. “What did he tell the sheriff?”
Bonnie tells Tasha that the Sheriff is discouraging certain lines of inquiry.
“Nothing. Denied Marco’s story. Had no alibi for the night in question. We couldn’t find where he had bought or rented the pimpmobile Marco described. We couldn’t find the female he used as bait. All we had was the fight between him and Butchie Block. Nothing amounted to a felony. Katanjiev had zero motive to do away with Liz Burns, so we’re looking for the motivator and can’t find him. Or her.”
“Karen Slater, do you know Karen Slater?”
“If you leak a word of this, I’ll hound you the rest of your life. Yes, Karen of the scrapyard family. The father, Ray Slater, and the Sheriff go way back. He’s got the county towing contract. He’s also been running a chop shop for twenty some years. Karen was engaged to Liz Burns’ son…”
“Sheriff is discouraging that line of inquiry. Not forbidding it. Just scoffing. That’s what frustrates me. The Sheriff riding herd. But Karen Slater had oodles of motive, and would have benefited by marrying into Taylor Burns’ inheritance. She was a cook at Smuggler’s Cove when she was a college student. Said to have restaurant ambitions. Fancy ones. She ran away with Rick Lowe a few weeks after Liz went missing.”
“I know Rick Lowe.”
“So do we. He’s locked up on fraud.”
Tasha chose not to reveal her jail interview with Rick. She was after a lot bigger story than just the Liz Burns slaying. Wouldn’t it be gloriously strange if she once again put the Jeff Road Strangler on the nation’s front pages?
“Do you know what I would like right now?” Bonnie said. “The Captains Breakfast at Diner24.”
“But we can’t be seen having a meal together,” Bonnie said. She slung a gym towel around her neck. “Nick Katanjiev is the missing piece of the puzzle. Who motivated him to distract Marco? Figure that out, and you’ve got the whole thing.”
Tasha pursed her lips. “No clue,” she lied.
As she watched Bonnie drive away in a sneaky-bland Sheriff’s SUV, Tasha picked up her cell phone.
Short, dark skin, salt-and-pepper pixie cut.
“Taylor,” she said into the phone. “What do you know about Artie’s new girlfriend?”