Authors: Vicki Delany
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Women Sleuths, #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary Fiction, #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
John Winters didn’t make it home. He’d intended to. He’d run back to the station to get his car, and headed out of town, at a speed that should have had patrol officers pulling him over. Fresh snow had fallen high on the mountains, but in the valley it was all turning to slush, and everything, snowbanks, cars, boots, even peoples’ pant legs, were brown and dirty. What a photographer would find to take pictures of at this time of year, he didn’t know.
Pictures. One picture. He slowed down as he came to a side road, and turned into it. The road was plowed, although no one lived on it. It ended at a construction yard.
Once he was out of sight of the highway, Winters pulled over, and rolled down the window. The forest was dark and wet from last night’s rain, the air full of the musty odor of decaying leaves soaked by snow melt. The deciduous trees were stark and naked. Long strands of pale green lichen hung from the branches of the firs. It was very quiet.
He held his hand over his jacket pocket and touched the spot where the photograph lay. He imagined it felt hot beneath his fingers.
Ron Gavin had removed evidence from a crime scene. And John Winters had taken it. He tried to convince himself it wasn’t really evidence—just an insignificant bit of flotsam found amongst the dead man’s possessions.
Imagine telling that to a judge.
Imagine the judge showing the photograph in open court.
It wasn’t as if the picture had been taken yesterday. It was old enough that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize Eliza. Most men wouldn’t—they wouldn’t be looking at the face. His stomach clenched.
What was it doing in Steiner’s room anyway? Had the man carried it around for thirty years? Porn wasn’t exactly hard to come by these days, most of it a lot more explicit than this single shot of a drugged-up teenager. A drugged-up naked teenager.
According to Gavin, it was on its own. Not part of the guy’s collection to peep at on cold nights in strange hotel rooms.
What was Steiner doing with the picture? Did the man know Eliza lived in Trafalgar? Had he brought it with him for some purpose?
Blackmail? To remind her of the fun times they’d had in the good old days?
The guy was a professional photographer, from Vancouver, and looked to be in his fifties. It was entirely possible he knew Eliza. Professionally as well as…
Winters pounded his fist against the steering wheel.
Just because Steiner had a picture of Eliza in his possession didn’t mean Eliza had anything to do with him. Barb Kowalski, the Chief Constable’s assistant, kept a picture on her desk of Brad Pitt dressed up like a Greek god and looking a total fool. If Barb were murdered in the office, they wouldn’t be dragging Brad Pitt down for a line-up.
Eliza Winters was hardly on the Brad Pitt scale of celebrity, but she did have some fame in her own world.
He tried to tell himself he felt better about having the picture removed from the scene: it was of no more significance to the investigation than Brad Pitt in a leather skirt.
Slowly, he pulled the offending item out of his pocket. He closed his eyes, took a breath, and looked at it.
She was probably being coerced. Drugged up and didn’t know what she was doing. She’d told him that the agent her mother hired had chaperoned the wide-eyed innocent from Saskatoon around the fleshpots of Europe, watching out for her like a eunuch guarding the Sultan’s harem. Perhaps on one occasion Eliza escaped from the over-zealous supervision of her chaperone and some bastard fed her drugs and abused her.
Good thing Steiner was dead. Or John Winters would kill him.
He put the picture away, and put the car into gear. He’d been heading home, ready to demand his wife tell him what was going on. Instead he’d assume she knew absolutely nothing about it.
But his mind couldn’t let go of one niggling thought: how uncharacteristically edgy and bad tempered Eliza had been over the last few days.
Meredith Morgenstern stared at the most famous woman in Canadian journalism. “You can do this,” she said, her face set into determined lines. “You will do this. You have the stuff.” She nodded firmly, then looked away from the washroom mirror, turned on the tap, and poured soap into her hands. She believed in being positive: to achieve something, you had to visualize it happening.
Easy enough to visualize success, but she was a discouragingly long way from achieving it. She needed a break. A big story, a juicy story, a story that would hit the pages and the screens of the big media. She needed attention.
To Meredith’s eternal disappointment she was still working here, in her home town, on the exceedingly thin, one-section local newspaper. When she’d been studying for her journalism degree the
Trafalgar Daily Gazette
had offered her an internship. She accepted the position because she could save money living at home for the summer. When she graduated, she found herself being hired on full time, and figured it would do as a stop-gap until something better came along. It was now two years later and absolutely nothing better had come along. She was beginning to lose hope. It was not a good time to be trying to get established as a newspaper reporter: all over North America papers were cutting staff or shutting their doors permanently. She needed a big story, on which she could make a big splash, something, anything, to bring her to the notice of the city papers, or, dare she hope, TV.
The chances of getting such a story in Trafalgar B.C. had seemed remote. An American TV anchor had come to town last summer, trying to stir up trouble he could then report on, and strung her a line about a job opening at his cable network. Jerk. He’d scurried home soon enough with his tail between his legs, and was now looking for job openings for himself.
It didn’t help that the local police, in the person of Sergeant John Winters, weren’t exactly enamored of her.
At least Meredith had that to be proud of—she wasn’t any police patsy, to be used to plant information or avoid unfavorable stories as and when it suited them. She tried to use her local contacts, she’d been to school with Moonlight Smith after all, but Molly was too junior, too afraid of the brass, to be of any use as a source.
Meredith was the only child of elderly parents. Her mother had been the advanced age of forty-four when she got pregnant, finally giving up after years of trying, and her dad fifty. People had always mistaken her parents for her grandparents, something her father in particular seemed to be quite proud of. For a teenager, it was plain embarrassing.
Being an only child, Meredith had grown up with all her parents’ expectations resting on her shoulders. Being a daughter of old-fashioned parents who thought they were modern those expectations had consisted of having a promising career yet also staying in Trafalgar and settling down with a “nice young man”. They wanted grandchildren. And as her mom was now 71 and her dad 77, they wanted them soon!
Well, that wasn’t going to happen. She’d miss her parents, and knew it would break their hearts when she moved away, but that was life. She had plenty of time to think about getting married and having children and it wasn’t her fault her parents were so darn old. But she didn’t have plenty of time to get ahead in her career. Some of her J-school classmates had already landed positions in major media. One woman who, probably not incidentally, was the niece of some bigwig in the Prime Minister’s office, was reporting the Calgary news for the CBC.
Meredith’s teeth gritted at the thought. If she was ever going to get out of Trafalgar, and be rid of the
Trafalgar Daily Gazette,
she had to do something to make someone of influence notice her.
Now she just might have her chance. A prominent fashion photographer, murdered.
She gave herself a wink and a thumbs up, and left the washroom. The paper’s staff photographer was stuffing his phone back into his pocket and the last of his bagel into his mouth.
“Let’s head back to the hotel,” she said. “We need to get a picture of Steiner’s widow. I’m going to call up and ask if she’ll see us.”
“Because she’s the widow, that’s why. We need a picture to run alongside a piece on the guy’s history.” Meredith was hoping for an interview with Mrs. Steiner. It would be nice, although she didn’t say so out loud, if the wife had done the deed and Meredith Morgenstern had all her thoughts on tape.
“Won’t that be intrusive?”
Meredith rolled her eyes.
“What do you mean tomorrow? This is a hot story, we need to move fast.”
“Joe just called. Reminded me to get over to the Catholic Church. They’re having a reception for a visiting missionary family.”
“You are kidding me, right?”
“Why would I do that?”
Joe Gessling was the editor and owner of the paper. He had such a poor instinct for news Meredith wasn’t at all surprised to hear that he wanted pictures of the congregation eating dry cookies and drinking overly-stewed tea rather than a possible breaking development in a celebrity murder.
The photographer said, “Catch you later.”
She watched him walk away. It wasn’t much of a problem. Meredith figured she could take better pictures with her own camera than that juvenile hack did.
She needed to interview Mrs. Steiner, but first she had to go to her car and get her camera.
Winters’ phone rang as he headed back across the big black bridge into town. Strands of mist, as thin as gossamer, spun webs around the mountains and stretched down into the river valley. A single patch of black cloud covered the sun.
“Where the hell are you?” Ray Lopez asked.
Winters didn’t answer the question. “What’s up?”
“Mrs. Steiner waltzed up to the hotel about fifteen minutes ago, and Dave Evans told her she couldn’t come in. She started making a fuss. Fortunately, Peter was in the lobby and recognized her. He’s put her in a conference room, with a cup of tea, and I’ve been looking all over for you. No one saw you leave.”
“I’ll be there in five.” Winters snapped the phone shut.
Josie Steiner was an attractive young woman—if you liked them overly-made up, skeletal thin, nervous and edgy. Her cheeks were gaunt, and her heavy eye make-up had run, making puddles under the sharp, piercing eyes. Her fingernails were long and painted bright red, but one was broken, and she chewed at the ragged edge. He found himself wondering if that was all she ever ate. What with the claws, the bony face, and hard eyes, she brought to mind a hawk. She looked to be in her early twenties and he shuddered to imagine what she’d look like in middle age.
Lopez had informed the woman of her husband’s death before Winters arrived.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Steiner,” he said, offering his hand. Her grip was not that of a hawk, more like a sparrow. She studied his face, sizing him up, but didn’t say a word. A tray of tea, small sandwiches, and pastries was on the table. There were definite advantages to conducting an investigation in a nice hotel.
“Mr. Steiner has been taken to the hospital,” he told her. “Detective Lopez will accompany you to see him shortly.”
She nodded, picked up her tea cup, and put it back down without tasting it. A damp, torn tissue was on her lap. Her blond hair curled around her shoulders, well cut, expensively colored, and fashionably disheveled.
“But first,” Winters said, “I’d like to ask you some questions. If that’s all right with you?”
Not waiting for her to agree, or not, he began. “Can you tell me the purpose of your visit to Trafalgar?”
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion, and what might have been a trace of hostility. “Why do you want to know?” She spoke with traces of a Quebec accent. A strange response, he thought, to a routine question.
“This is a police matter, Mrs. Steiner. Are you here for business or pleasure?”
“My husband is doing a story for
Mountain Traveler Magazine
.” She dug in her cavernous bag, all leather and chains and buckles and zippers, and pulled out a packet of fresh tissues. She wiped at her eyes. “I suppose I should say he
doing a story.”
“I wouldn’t have thought there would be much to take pictures of at this time of year. Everything’s brown and dirty.”
photography is not about
, Inspector,” she said. “It is about truth.”
It was a poor attempt to put him in his place, and he let it go.
“Sergeant,” he corrected her. “Have you been to Trafalgar before?”
“To the Kootenays?”
“This area? Trafalgar, Nelson, Castlegar?”
“Has your husband been here before?”
“He might have,” she admitted with a shrug. “Before we met. We’ve only been married a short while.”
“You and your husband don’t share a hotel room?”
The tears had stopped, but her eyes glistened with moisture. “Is that any of your business?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Did you see your husband, or speak to him this morning?”
“You didn’t have breakfast together?”
“No. We normally do our own thing in the morning. I don’t eat breakfast, and I always go to the gym first thing.”
“Did you do so this morning? Go to the gym?”
“Yes. I was there until around nine. After, I returned to my room, showered and changed, and went shopping.” She nodded toward a pile of bags stacked in the corner.
“Did you hear any sounds coming from your husband’s room?”
“You didn’t check on him? Pop your head in to say good morning?”
“I told you I didn’t.” She grabbed a sandwich and bit into it as if she were biting Winters’ head off.
“You’re traveling with a woman by the name of Diane Barton?”
“Do you know where Ms. Barton is?”