Note: What follows is a two-chapter excerpt from my third Laura McCallister mystery. The novel is currently untitled, and the text is only second draft. Please forgive any errors.
With a sigh, Detective Laura McCallister wiped the mayo from her face with a napkin. Then, she took a sloshing slug of coffee as she studied the scene before her. A diver came to the surface of lake in the middle of Prentice Park and gestured to the driver of a tow truck. A moment later, the slack in the cable behind the truck was taken up.
â€œItâ€™s Max Wendt,â€ Officer Jansen announced as he briskly approached her car. â€œWe found him. Actually, a mail carrier on her lunch break saw the car in the water and called 911.â€
â€œSince when do I get called to traffic accidents?â€ she challenged, her eyes minding the tow truckâ€™s winch. â€œI was actually sitting in a restaurant having lunch for a change. Imagine that.â€
â€œThe car was in neutral, Detective,â€ Jansen replied.
She offered no response, although she knew he expected one. Instead, she watched the back end of a dark green sedan slowly emerge from the water. Noting its position, she knew that it had gone in at a ninety-degree angle from the roadway. Its aim was intentional. The slight incline of the bank would not have allowed a great speed, especially in neutral. She knew the driver would have had ample time to exit the vehicle, if he had wanted to or had been able. Satisfied that the situation warranted a detective, she took another swallow of her coffee and exited the car.
â€œAny tread marks, Jansen?â€ she asked, still watching the sedan materialize as it inched backward to the shoreline.
â€œNothing,â€ he answered. â€œThe wife said he went missing on Friday, and it rained that night and all day Saturday. Anything that might have been here is long gone.â€
â€œIâ€™ll talk to his wife again, but did she say anything was wrong with Wendt? Depressed? Did they have a fight or something?â€
â€œNothing like that. She said he went to Briscoleâ€™s bar that night like he did every payday to blow off steam with his buddies. She expected him home by midnight.â€
She watched the rest of the car come into view, its cracks pouring precious evidence back into the lake. Cautiously, she neared the driverâ€™s side door and peered in. A body slumped face down from passenger side to driver side, its head nearly lodged under the steering wheel. Dark hair, jeans, and a red flannel shirt fit the description the wife had given.
â€œAll right, here we go, Jansen,â€ she said. â€œI want pictures before anything. Then, let Hastings in. Are CSU and Hastings here?â€
â€œEn route,â€ he replied. â€œI called them and you after the dive team told me what they found.â€
She withdrew gloves from a small bag in her jacket pocket, put them on, and then carefully reached through the open window. From the back pocket, she carefully retrieved a brown wallet, flipped it open, and read aloud, â€œMaxwell E. Wendt.â€ She handed the wallet to Jansen and headed to her car.
Since the park sat in the middle of the city, news had traveled swiftly, and a crowd began to gather. Officer Jessop tugged on two small boys who had snuck under the police line he had just strung. Reporters aimed cameras, most of them hoping for some gory shot that would play well on the front page or sensationalize the lead story on the evening news. McCallister studied them all as she leaned in to grab her camera from the glove compartment. She aimed the camera at the group and snapped several pictures, gazing between shots to see whether the action made anyone uncomfortable.
â€œCan you give us anything, Detective? Is there a body in the car?â€ one of the reporters shouted. â€œIs it Max Wendt? Thatâ€™s the plate number we have on him.â€
â€œI know as much as you do,â€ she responded with a shrug of her shoulders. â€œJust please be patient so if there is a next of kin involved, they find out from us and not some incorrect news flash.â€ She threw a cursory smile and made her way to the road.
As she walked, she looked for skid marks that the rain would not have washed away. Finding none, she took pictures from the road toward the car and the sparsely wooded shoreline. She noted trees on the opposite side of the roadâ€”trees that would not have allowed the car to go out of control toward the lake only to be shoved into neutral. From road edge to lake, that was the greatest distance the car could have traveled without a breakneck turn.
She brought the camera down and noticed the slow approach of the coronerâ€™s van.
â€œGood afternoon, Laura,â€ Dr. Peter Hastings called as disembarked.
â€œTook you long enough,â€ she chided her lifelong friend. â€œLooks like we found a man named Wendt who went missing Friday night. He doesnâ€™t look too bad for being in there almost three days. I expected worse.â€
â€œThe water temp this time of year averages fifty-three degrees. That would have slowed decomp, but now that heâ€™s out, itâ€™ll go fast. I need to get a move on,â€ he said. â€œAre you ready for me?â€
She gestured to the vehicle and then followed him as he made his way. He surveyed the body and the front seat as he stretched on his gloves.
â€œWhat about the position of the body, Hastings?â€ she quizzed. â€œIs that what youâ€™d expect from a man seated behind the wheel?â€
â€œNot exactly,â€ he answered with another scan of the front seat. â€œBut if youâ€™re about to drown, you donâ€™t generally stay calmly seated and patiently wait for the inevitable. He probably tried to get out, floated, or he could have been moved when the car drained as it was pulled out.â€ He looked to the diver. â€œWhat was the position when you found him? How strong was the current down there?â€
â€œHe wasnâ€™t much different from what he is right now, except his head wasnâ€™t under the wheel like that. The current wasnâ€™t strong at all.â€
â€œDid you open the window?â€ McCallister asked.
â€œNo,â€ he answered. â€œIt was already open.â€
â€œSo, if he was fighting for his life, Hastings, why didnâ€™t he just slip out the open window right next to him? Or why not open the door? Why go to the other side?â€
â€œLaura, think about it,â€ he reprimanded with a jerky shake of his head. â€œWould you have your bearings in a situation like this? Was it dark?â€
â€œYouâ€™re supposed to tell me time of death,â€ she countered. â€œYou tell me if it was dark.â€
â€œYou are no doubt the most impatient person I have ever known, Laura. If youâ€™d let me do my jobâ€”â€
â€œWhat about a positive ID? Can you at least give me that so I can tell his wife before all these reportersâ€”â€
â€œGo!â€ he ordered, vehemently pointing to the road.
â€œI know. I know,â€ she conceded, raising flattened hands in surrender. â€œIâ€™ll leave you be.â€ She spun on her heels and walked away.
She stood on the road and looked in all directions. In her mind, she tried to imagine which direction she would take if she needed to exit the scene quickly on foot. To the right, she would have headed to the parkâ€™s entrance that butted a usually busy street in Granton. To the left, she would have gone further into the park on a road that merely circled back to the entrance and the same busy street. Directly in front, a small playground and picnic tables edged a wooded area that would eventually bring her to a section of the city riddled with condominiums. By far, that would have been the optimal escape route for someone not wanting to be seen.
â€œRistow,â€ she called and then awaited the CSU techâ€™s approach.
â€œWhat do you need, Detective?â€
â€œWhen youâ€™re done here, I want a sweep from this spot all the way out of the park through the woods,â€ she ordered while gesturing in front of her. â€œRistow, find me somethingâ€”anythingâ€”that says someone else was here.â€
McCallister removed a notebook and pen from her pocket and began to transcribe what she knew and what she wanted to know. She had nearly completed the task when she received an elbow from Hastings.
â€œItâ€™s Maxwell Wendt,â€ he announced. â€œEverything fits, right down to the tattoo on his left arm and an appendectomy scar. Iâ€™d still like a visual ID, though. Iâ€™m not sure how the wife will take this, how sheâ€™d react to viewing. I can do dental records, if thatâ€™s better.â€
â€œAny idea how long heâ€™s been there?â€
â€œBased on my preliminary findings, Iâ€™d say Friday night is probably accurate, maybe Saturday morning at the latest.â€
â€œWas he alive when he went in?â€
â€œI honestly donâ€™t know. Like I said, this is preliminary. I wanted to be able to ID him for you and give you a ballpark time of death,â€ he said. â€œI need him in the lab for the rest. Iâ€™ll get you what you need as soon as I can.â€
â€œI know. I know,â€ she said with a smile. â€œIâ€™m sorry Iâ€™m so damn pushy. Itâ€™s justâ€”â€
â€œItâ€™s just the way you are,â€ he interrupted and then jabbed her again. â€œI know. I wouldnâ€™t recognize you if you werenâ€™t. Now, can I have the poor man?â€
She nodded and then motioned to Jansen. â€œPut up the tarps,â€ she called. â€œI donâ€™t want those damn reporters getting a thing.â€ Then, she spouted orders about CSU processing the scene, getting the car to the labâ€™s garage, and making sure Hastings got everything he needed. After receiving acknowledgements, she said she would go talk to the wife.
Twenty-five minutes later, she pulled into the Wendtâ€™s gravel driveway, just outside the city limits. Numerous vehicles were lined up in front of the house, and she recognized the scene as a family gathering, that huddling that goes on to brace for bad news and yet still beat the hope drum no matter how empty it sounded. It was limbo. It was hell. And what she was about to do was to eliminate the limbo and intensify the hell.
She knocked on the front screen door, although there were already numerous faces on the other side of it staring her down. They already knew. In their guts, they already knew.
â€œIâ€™m Detective McCallister, Granton Police Department. I need to speak with Grace Wendt,â€ she said to glazed expressions.
â€œGracie!â€ one of them finally called.
As if McCallister had already delivered the news, she heard, â€œNo. Please, no!â€
The group slowly parted, and a man approached, nearing dragging a distraught woman with him. She covered her face with her hands and shook with sobs.
â€œIâ€™m Maxâ€™ brother,â€ the man said. â€œWalter Wendt. This is Gracie, Maxâ€™ wife.â€
â€œPlease, please, donâ€™t say it!â€ the woman shrieked. â€œPlease just tell me heâ€™s okay. I wonâ€™t be mad at him. I swear I wonâ€™t be mad at him.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Mrs. Wendt,â€ McCallister said, forcing herself not give into the tears trying to force their way out, trying not to loathe life for what she was about to do. â€œWe just found his car in Prentice Lake. Iâ€™m afraid your husband is dead.â€
The womanâ€™s knees gave out from under her, and her brother-in-law tried to hold her up like a heavy rag doll.
â€œCome on, Gracie,â€ Walter encouraged. â€œLetâ€™s be strong. Max would want you to be strong. Johnny needs you to be strong. Weâ€™ll get through this. Come on, Gracie.â€ He hoisted her until he could hold her in his arms.
McCallister offered Walter an apologetic look. â€œIâ€™m so sorry,â€ she said. â€œI need to ask some her questions, but I can wait. Iâ€™ll be out by my car when sheâ€™s ready.â€
He nodded appreciatively, and McCallister took leave. She sat in the front seat of her car with her legs hanging out and lit a cigarette. Willfully, she shook the image of the devastated woman from her mind. She told herself that hell was better than limbo, knowing was better than being tormented by the unknown. Then, she busied herself with her notes, and not more than ten minutes later, Walter Wendt neared her car.
â€œI think sheâ€™s ready,â€ he said and pointed to the front porch where Grace Wendt sat on a bench.
McCallister followed him to the porch where she reiterated her sympathies.
â€œWas he drunk?â€ Grace asked. â€œIs that how it happened?â€
â€œWeâ€™re not sure yet,â€ McCallister answered. â€œIs that a good possibility? Was that something he did?â€
Grace laughed. â€œHe only had the guts to come home drunk once, and he paid for itâ€”dearlyâ€”for a week. I thought maybe he got drunk and was just afraid to face me.â€
â€œThe coroner has to run tests, Mrs. Wendt. I canâ€™t answer your question right now. But the more information you can give me, the easier it will be to determine exactly what happened.â€ She paused and then asked, â€œYou were expecting him home by midnight. Correct?â€ When she nodded, she asked, â€œWhen was the last time you saw him or talked to him?â€
â€œHe headed to the bar about eight-thirty. I think I called him around ten to ask him bring milk home on his way.â€
â€œWhat kind of mood was he in?â€
â€œHe was in a good mood. â€¦ I could tell he was drinking, but I also knew he wasnâ€™t drunk. He said he was shooting pool and taking everybodyâ€™s money.â€ She stopped talking and seemed to lose herself in thought.
â€œThen what, Mrs. Wendt? I know this is hard, but please keep talking to me. Help me understand.â€
â€œHe said heâ€™d bring milk home,â€ she answered very despondently. â€œWhen he wasnâ€™t home by twelve-thirty, I started calling. â€¦ I feel so bad now about being angry. I had no ideaâ€”â€ She started crying again.
â€œMrs. Wendt, was he depressed lately? Was anything weighing on him?â€
â€œNothing beyond the usual,â€ she said. â€œPaying the bills. Getting the shed finished.â€ She absentmindedly pointed to the side yard, to a large half-built structure. â€œThat damn shed.â€ She shook her head. â€œHeâ€™d come out here with Johnny, our son, to work on it, and then theyâ€™d end up throwing the football around all afternoon. The two of them â€¦ two ten-year-old boys when theyâ€™re together.â€
McCallister continued as she saw the tears rise again, â€œAny problems with his friends? At work?â€
Suddenly, Walter interrupted, â€œWhy all the questions, Officer? You make it sound like he did it on purpose!â€
â€œHe would never! Max would never!â€
â€œWeâ€™re simply trying to determine what happened,â€ McCallister assured. â€œLike I said, the more we know, the easier it will be to understand what happened. You want to know what happened, donâ€™t you?â€ She gave a stern look to Walter.
â€œOf course, we do!â€ he said and then bowed his head.
â€œThen, what youâ€™re telling me is that nothing has been any different lately. Correct?â€
They both were adamant.
â€œSo you have no sense that he maybe he did it intentionally or someone did it to him. Youâ€™re convinced it was an accident. Is that accurate?â€
Again, they were both very adamant, and with a glance, McCallister could tell that all the eavesdropping relatives at the door were equally convinced.
McCallister gave them both her business card and asked that they call if they thought of anything that might be helpful. Walter agreed to identify the body at the coronerâ€™s office after he retrieved Johnny from school and brought him home to learn that his father was dead.
When McCallister hit the bottom porch step, she stopped and turned to Grace. â€œIâ€™m very sorry you lost your husband, Mrs. Wendt. I promise I will do everything in my power to find out what happened.â€
Grace nodded at her with a slight smile. McCallister returned the smile and then left them to deal with their hell.
A short time later, McCallisterâ€™s car skirted the curb in front of Briscoleâ€™s, a small neighborhood bar on the edge of town. She noted that while it was very close to the Wendtâ€™s home, it was far from Prentice Park. She entered the bar and gave her eyes time to adjust to the dim light. An older man sat at the end of the bar, nursing a beer and watching cable news. The bartender looked to be a man of about sixty, his bald head catching the light from the TV screen above his head.
â€œWhat can I get for you, miss?â€ he asked with a broad smile.
She approached the bar as she flashed her badge. â€œDetective McCallister, Granton PD,â€ she clarified. â€œI was hoping I could talk to the bartender who worked on Friday night.â€
â€œThat would be me, Charlie Briscole,â€ he replied. â€œWhat can I do for you, Detective? Are you sure I canâ€™t get you anything? How about a cup of coffee?â€
That she agreed to and stood silently as he poured her a cup. When he set it on the bar, he said, â€œI supposed youâ€™re here about Max. Any news?â€
Suddenly, she found herself wishing that the reporters had spread their tidbits of information. â€œActually, we just found him in Prentice Lake. Heâ€™s dead.â€
â€œOh my God!â€ he said, and even in the dim light, she saw his face go ashen. â€œWhat happened? What the hell was he doing there?â€
â€œI was hoping you could help me figure that out. Do you remember what time he left here on Friday?â€
â€œOf course, I do. I already told the officer on Saturday. He left about 11:15 after he ran out of money. He wasnâ€™t much of a pool player, but that never stopped him from bragging and betting.â€
She asked about his mood and level of intoxication. He described him as being in good spirits and assured her that none of his friends would have let him drive if he had drunk too much. He said that right before he left he and his buddies were laughing, trying to come up with some excuse for being broke so Gracie didnâ€™t string him up from the clothesline.
â€œHe even had to borrow five bucks from someone because Gracie needed him to stop at the store. â€¦ I felt so bad when she started calling that night. The first couple times she called she was mad, and then, she was downright scared. Everybody took off and started looking for him. I donâ€™t think anyone would have thought to look by Prentice Lake. What the hell was he doing way over there? How is Gracie? Oh my God, her heart must be broken.â€
She asked about their relationship and was told about childhood sweethearts who married as soon as they both turned eighteen. He said they had just celebrated twenty-five years of marriage. She asked whether he was friendly with any women at the bar on his payday outings.
â€œWell,â€ he began, â€œI hate to turn on my own kind, but he was a man. So, yes, when he was drinking, heâ€™d flirt. But not unlike his pool playing, I donâ€™t think he was anything more than a big talker. He knew where he lived and that someone was waiting.â€
She finished her coffee and then asked about other patrons in the bar that night. He said there were no unfamiliar faces and jotted down as many names as he could on a napkin. She thanked him for his time and placed a five-dollar bill on the bar just as her cell phone sounded in her pocket.
â€œDetective, itâ€™s Ristow. You still interested in something to prove someone else was here?â€
Lights flashing, McCallisterâ€™s car screeched to a halt in front of the police lines in Prentice Park. She flew out of her car, ducked under the yellow tape, and yelled Ristowâ€™s name as loudly as she could.
From a distance, she heard, â€œUp here, Detective. Follow the tape.â€
She did as instructed, heading into the wooded area behind the playground. Soon, she came upon Ristow and another tech rummaging in their equipment cases.
â€œWhat did you find for me, Ristow?â€ she asked with a hopeful smirk.
Ristow pointed to a tree, and there McCallister saw a zippered plastic bag, containing a blue cell phone, tied to the trunk with a dark red ribbon.
â€œDid you call it? Is it his? Whose is it?â€
â€œItâ€™s Wendtâ€™s all right. Jansen had his number from the missing persons report, and I turned the phone on. He has an Elvis ringtone, by the way, in case you need to put that in your report.â€ She smiled. She was proud of herself, pleased to hand McCallister one of the straws for which she notoriously grasped.
McCallister scrunched her face in confusion and stared at the tree. â€œWhy the hell is it bagged and tied to an f-ing tree?â€
â€œThatâ€™s your job, Detective. I only take pictures of it and process it in the lab. What it means, Iâ€™m afraid thatâ€™s yours.â€
McCallister rolled her eyes at her and said, â€œThen letâ€™s get it to the lab. What are we waiting for?â€
Impatiently, McCallister watched one of them cut the ribbon while the other recovered the bag. They bagged, labeled, signed, and, as far as McCallister was concerned, took their sweet time with all of it.
Nearly an hour later, the prize was being removed from the bag in the lab. Ristow meticulously applied fingerprint powder to it, inside and out, eventually declaring it print-free. She then turned it on again, and they both studied the list of recent calls. Jansenâ€™s was there, as well as a multitude from his frantic wife. They scanned the list of text messages, and again, there was a slew from his wife, little love notes she seemed to have sent to him while he was at work. Nothing jumped out at them.
â€œWhy the hell was it bagged and tied to the tree?â€ McCallister thought aloud. â€œWho the hell bagged it and tied it to the tree?â€ Her thoughts swirled like cyclones. She despised the sensation of something being right in front of her and being unable to see it. Suddenly, she shouted, â€œDrafts! Check his message drafts!â€
Ristow quickly thumbed the menu. â€œBingo!â€
They both looked to the small screen, and a draft of a text message read, â€œStupid fucking cops!!!â€
â€œWhat the hell is this?â€ McCallister shouted. Her thought cyclones took on speed and sucked up everything in their paths.
â€œWell, weâ€™re not that stupid,â€ Ristow said. â€œLetâ€™s look at his photos.â€ She thumbed them to the screen, and another â€œBingo!â€ burst forth. There was a photo of Max Wendtâ€™s car nearly submerged on the darkened Prentice Lake. The picture bore a timestamp: 10/17 11:56 pm. That happened to be four minutes before the curfew Grace Wendt imposed on the night her husband went missing.
McCallister stared at the minuscule picture, willing herself an eye keen enough to determine if she could see Wendtâ€™s head behind the wheel as the car sunk. She begged to see a reflection in the back window of whoever held the cell phone and snapped a picture as though it was a sunny afternoon at the zoo and not the moment of murder. Expectedly disappointed on both counts, she asked Ristow to have the photo enlarged and enhanced. Ristow agreed and added that she would also fume the plastic bag for prints and see what they could do with the ribbon.
McCallister nodded with encouragement but said, â€œIf the person was smart enough not to leave even a partial on a cell phone, I doubt weâ€™ll find anything, but definitely, process anything and everything.â€
She left Ristow to her work and headed to her own area of the station, her thoughts still fiercely aloft. She went to the buildingâ€™s roof, lit a cigarette, and paced. Then, she hurled herself into the cyclone of thought. A family man out with his friends, headed home early, ends up on the other side of town at a park. His car lands on the bottom of a lake with his body in it, while someone took a picture, someone used his phone to mock the police, someone bagged and tied the phone to a tree. Who? Why? How? From experience and a skeptical nature, she knew that things were not always what they seemed. From her last murder case, she also knew that suicide could convincingly disguise itself as murder and vice versa. Could he have done it himself? Shoved the car into the lake, took a photo, used and planted the phone, and then swam to his car to await his watery death? She knew it was simultaneously both feasible and incredible. Why would he do something like that? A life insurance policy that would pay on murder but not suicide? Was he protecting his family, securing their financial future? But if so, what the hell made him feel the need to abandon life and his family?
She stomped her cigarette and instantaneously lit another.
If he didnâ€™t do it, who the hell did? And why? And why taunt the cops? Why not just let the car and the body settle to the silty bottom in a seemingly clueless state? Why announce that someone did it? Why announce it to the cops? A murdererâ€™s objective was to take care not to leave clues. What kind of murderer intentionally left clues? She knew too well that it was the kind who left false clues to mislead, the kind who wanted to get caught, or the arrogant kind who didnâ€™t think they could.
Again, she extinguished her cigarette and then made a beeline for her car. Intently, she drove to Briscoleâ€™s and came to a pause in its parking lot. She looked to her watch and recorded the time in her notebook. It came upon half past four. Purposefully avoiding forethought, she eased into traffic and headed to Prentice Park, observing her surroundings and mentally registering her passage through one of the four intersections in the city with a traffic camera. Once in the park, she pulled to a stop by the crime scene, still abuzz with activity. She recorded her time of 23 minutes, acknowledging that late afternoon traffic would have slowed her down, compared to a Friday night. If Wendt left the bar at 11:15, drove to the park in an unhurried 23 minutes, and the picture was taken at 11:56, whatever happened to him occurred within a minimum window of 18 minutes. Except, that made it all sound so easy. That made it seem like all she had to do was simply determine what had taken place in those 18 minutes. Simply? Things were rarely that simple, unless someone wanted them to be.
With yet another mission in mind, she hightailed it back to the station. Within moments of her footfalls in the parking lot, she was demanding footage from the camera at Pine and Main for the night in question. Her mind continued its spinning as she watched frame after frame of stops and starts, red lights, yellow lights, green lights, streetlights, headlights, and blinkers. The abundance of light sources turned the wet pavement into a cluttered mirror.
When her phone sounded in her pocket, she hit pause and answered. Jansen informed her that the scene was processed and asked for further instructions. She advised him that since his shift had ended, both he and Jessop should head home, but then, she added, â€œI know itâ€™s probably a long shot, but get a couple of uniforms to do a door-to-door in the neighborhood on the wooded end of the park. If someone left by that route, maybe somebody saw or heard something.â€
She disconnected and clicked the mouse on the play button. Not five minutes later, a green sedan made its way into the top of the computer screen, its timestamp: 23:24:37. The car eased through the green light and swiftly vanished from the screen. She quickly paused and asked the tech how to watch it again in slow-motion. He rolled his chair next to her and reached over to make the program do what she needed. Intently, she studied. She could see Wendtâ€™s hands on the steering wheel, the dim light making the rest of him barely visible, and then the car was out of sight.
â€œPlay it again,â€ she instructed.
Three more times she studied until finally she yelled, â€œStop!â€ She leaned closer to the screen and pointed to the darkened passenger side. â€œThatâ€™s a hand. A hand comes up and goes back down,â€ she said. â€œDo you see it?â€
The tech moved several screens back and then several screens forward. He repeated the sequence several times. â€œI think you could be right, Detective,â€ he concurred. â€œBut watch this.â€
Several keystrokes later, all four camera angles from the intersection were on the screen. Again, they watched frame by frame.
â€œThatâ€™s Wendt!â€ she declared, pointing to a shot of the driverâ€™s side. â€œThere!â€ she yelled a second later. â€œThereâ€™s someone in the passenger seat! Can you zoom in or something?â€
The tech did so, but the passengerâ€™s face was obscured by a raised and bent arm. â€œHow convenient,â€ he remarked. â€œWe get this a lot, people trying not to be seen by the camera. Why else would you ride around with your arm wrapped around your head like that? We get carloads of teenagers shooting the moon, too.â€
She stared at the still frame, realizing that identification wouldnâ€™t be as easy as it could have been, but she at least knew that between Briscoleâ€™s and that intersection, someone else entered the twisted tale. She asked the tech, â€œSince youâ€™re such a wiz at this, would you guess male or female? I look, but I have no clue.â€
â€œHm, letâ€™s see.â€ He moved closer to the screen. â€œIâ€™d say it could be either, but certainly not a brawny male, by any means.â€
McCallister nodded and added to the list, â€œAnd a light colored shirt â€¦ with short sleeves. Thatâ€™s odd for the middle of October. Itâ€™s already been in the thirties at night.â€
â€œAnd dark blond or light brown hair. Probably short.â€
Running out of anything else distinguishable, she asked, â€œCan you to turn all this into photos for me? Preferably good close-ups of the people in the car?â€ When he smiled and nodded, she added, â€œAnd a name and address on that passenger â€¦ if you have time, of course.â€
â€œOf course,â€ he replied and quietly laughed. â€œIâ€™ll have them ready for you in the morning, Detective.â€
She thanked him for his invaluable help and headed upstairs to her desk. She had just sat down when the Captain Greeleyâ€™s voice made his presence known.
â€œLaura. Laura. Laura. And what have you been up to today?â€
â€œJust changing rolls of toilet paper in the restrooms like my job description instructs me to. And you?â€
â€œOh, just twiddling my thumbs like mine instructs. Occasionally, I wander over this way and wonder what that crowd is doing out on the front sidewalk.â€
â€œShit! The press! I plumb forgot.â€ She stood and glanced out the window, seeing reporters and camerapersons pace like zombies in a b-movie.
â€œWell, get me up to speed on the case first, and then you can go frustrate them.â€
She filled him in on what had proven to be a wild-ride of an afternoon. They both agreed that the next steps were contingent upon lab work and what the coroner had to say.
â€œIâ€™ll order extra patrols for the park area,â€ he offered. â€œIf he was murderedâ€”which it sure seems likeâ€”as soon as this person knows we found Wendt, Iâ€™d bet money theyâ€™ll go back to see if we got the cell phone.â€ He shook his head. â€œIf this turns out to be what it looks like, itâ€™s pretty sick. â€¦ But they all are, arenâ€™t they?â€
After Greeley left, she scanned her mind to make sure she had done all she could at the moment. It seemed odd to her to be calling it a day. The first day of most murder investigations tended to be long and rigorous. She barely resisted the urge to call the coronerâ€™s office, deciding to trust that he would call if he had anything and knowing that badgering him never hastened his conclusions.
She made her way downstairs and out the front of the building to be overrun with questions from the press. She raised her hand to pause them.
â€œEarly this afternoon, a postal worker reported seeing a car in Prentice Lake,â€ she began. â€œOur dive team discovered the body of Maxwell E. Wendt, who was reported missing last Friday. Our team recovered both the body and the car. The cause of the accident remains under investigation.â€
â€œIf it was an accident,â€ one of them yelled, â€œwhy is a detective on the case?â€
â€œThatâ€™s all Iâ€™ve got, people,â€ she shouted as she started walking away. â€œIâ€™ll give you more information as it becomes available.â€
â€œDetective McCallister, ifâ€”â€
â€œThanks for your time, everybody,â€ she added and quickened her pace. She had just rounded the corner of the building by the employee parking lot when she heard a familiar voice behind her.
â€œLaura, wait up,â€ Kate Sutter, a reporter for the Granton Journal and a close friend, called. â€œDo you have time for a cigarette, or are you rushed?â€
Abruptly, McCallister stopped and turned to face her. â€œDonâ€™t you have to get your story in?â€
â€œI just did,â€ she replied with a boastful smile. â€œI only needed confirmation.â€ She began laughing. â€œAs a breed, we reporters are quite capable of figuring things out on our own. Sometimes we only need you to make it official.â€
McCallister chuckled as she gestured for Kate to follow her. She retrieved her cigarettes from her pocket and offered one to Kate. â€œAnd what has your breed figured out?â€
â€œThe way the car went in the lake makes the chances of it being accidental very slim. Hence, thereâ€™s a detective on the case.â€
â€œOh,â€ McCallister said, holding a lighter in front of Kate. â€œThanks for the tip. Iâ€™ll have to look into that. â€¦ Now, what did you want? Was it honestly just to share a smoke?â€
â€œActually, I was going to suggest calling our far better halves and all meeting somewhere for dinner.â€
McCallisterâ€™s head hurt from the thoughts being tossed about there. She had visions of slipping into her partner Hollyâ€™s arms for a long spell and then sliding into a hot bath.
â€œNo shoptalkâ€”I promise,â€ Kate assured. â€œJust a friendly dinner, a little needed distraction from the crazy day this has been. Even for a Monday, this was over the top.â€
She knew that to be true and suddenly found herself accepting the offer. Both called home, and Holly and Claudia agreed to meet them at Riverbend restaurant in half an hour.
A short time later, McCallister sat in her car in the restaurantâ€™s darkened parking lot. She leaned her head back and tried once again to make order of the chaos in her mind. It was to no avail; she needed more information before anything would make sense.
Suddenly, the passenger door opened, and Holly scooted in, smiling broadly. â€œHowâ€™s my babe of a cop?â€ she asked after kissing her.
â€œIâ€™m just fine. And howâ€™s the love of my life?â€
â€œIâ€™m better now,â€ she replied, resting her head on McCallisterâ€™s shoulder. â€œI missed you.â€ Then, she slapped a folded newspaper onto McCallisterâ€™s stomach. â€œHereâ€™s your job prospect for the month. I thought today would be an excellent day to tempt you.â€
McCallister grabbed the paper and tilted it toward the parking lot light. Holly had been doing this for years, finding and circling an ad in the Classifieds section of the newspaper. Once a month, a red magic marker would prompt McCallister to consider an alternative to police work. Every other day of the month, Holly supported her, but on that one day, she voiced her discontent, her fear, quite flamboyantly.
â€œWhat is it this time?â€ McCallister asked while she scanned the columns. â€œExotic dancer?â€
â€œOh, you wish. Never in a million years would I letâ€”â€
â€œParking ramp attendant!â€ she gasped after reading the ad. â€œYouâ€™d stick me in a little booth all day?â€
Holly giggled. â€œActually, I would. Itâ€™s a respectable job. Just think about it. You could read your ratty old novels all day, stay warm, stay safeâ€¦ Itâ€™s perfect, babe!â€
â€œAnd how about I lock you in the utility room in your art studio? You wonâ€™t be able to paint, but youâ€™ll be warm and safe all day.â€
â€œHow about we lock us both in the utility room? That would solve everything.â€
â€œNow thatâ€™s the most tempting offer youâ€™ve made yet.â€ She paused to laugh, and then with a suddenly serious tone, she said, â€œBut, Hol, our work isâ€”â€
â€œI know. I know,â€ Holly interrupted. She squeezed McCallisterâ€™s thigh. â€œItâ€™s just thatâ€¦ Thereâ€™s another wacko out there again, isnâ€™t there, Laura? And youâ€™re going to go look for him. I just hate this.â€
Without warning, Kate and Claudia appeared in front of the car and started drumming on the hood.
â€œCome on, you two!â€ Claudia yelled. â€œGet a move on!â€
â€œWeâ€™re coming,â€ McCallister shouted. She clutched Hollyâ€™s hand, kissed it gently, and said, â€œCome on, Hol. Letâ€™s just go have a nice time at dinner, and weâ€™ll talk when we get home.â€
â€œI donâ€™t need to talk. I just need a promise.â€
McCallister grimaced. She could not promise half the things she knew Holly needed to hear regarding to her work. I promise I wonâ€™t put myself in danger. I promise I wonâ€™t get shot. I promiseâ€¦ She closed her eyes tightly and braved, â€œPromise what?â€
â€œJust promise you wonâ€™t go so far away this time. Do what youâ€™ve got to do, but keep your heart with me. Please. Iâ€™ll be gentle with it.â€
â€œHol, I love you! I can promise that in an instant. My heart never leaves you. My mind, thoughâ€¦ I promise Iâ€™ll do my best. And if I go drifting off too far without even knowing it, you have my permission to bean me a good one.â€
Holly gripped her hand. â€œYouâ€™ve got a deal. But, babe, I donâ€™t need your permission to bean you a good one. Itâ€™s my job.â€ She laughed, swatted her arm, and ordered, â€œNow, get out of the car, and letâ€™s go have a nice time.â€
They enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and all the while, McCallister sensed that the three of them were akin to that family gathering. They braced for something bad at the same time they beat the hope drum. They were huddling around her, propping her up for something, and this confounded her to no end. Was she misreading? Was it merely a coincidence? Did they have a bad feeling or know something she didnâ€™t? Or had Holly simply called in reinforcements in her effort to keep her grounded during what she figured loomed ahead? Whatever it was, McCallister did not like it. Even in the midst of the laid-back camaraderie, her skin crawled.