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Authors: Harry Dolan

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BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
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10

T
he central police station in Rome is in the old courthouse building on North James Street. There are broad steps in front that lead down to a plaza with a pool and a fountain. There are cherry trees planted around the pool, and benches among the cherry trees.

I'd been there before and I knew the fountain was something to see, especially after sundown when they turned on the lights around the pool. But at three in the morning there was no one to appreciate the spectacle: the lights had been dimmed and the water had gone still.

I walked down the courthouse steps and through the plaza, past a sign that read
NO LOITERING AFTER
DARK
. I didn't loiter. I came to the street and thought about my truck, which would still be at Jana's. I could get a cab to take me there, but there were no cabs in sight.

I hiked a block to a bus stop and sat on one end of the bench under the shelter. An elderly black man in a trench coat sat on the other end. His coat had a tear along the shoulder that had been mended with duct tape.

“Do you know when the next bus comes?” I asked him.

“Somewhere 'round six a.m., I guess.”

“Is that the one you're waiting for?”

“Might as well wait for that as wait for anything.”

There was a map of the bus routes on the shelter wall, and a quick check confirmed that none of the routes would take me anywhere near Jana's apartment, even if I wanted to wait until six. My back ached from sitting in the white-tile room, and the cut on my temple itched. I was tired. I took out my phone to call a cab, and the display revealed seven missed calls, all of them from Sophie.

I tried to imagine what I might say to her, came up with nothing, put the phone down on the bench. I leaned my head against the plexiglass wall of the shelter and closed my eyes, just to rest them.

The man in the trench coat said, “You got the wrong idea, son, sleepin' in a bus stop. Cops'll roust you for sure.”

“I'm not going to sleep.”

He laughed. “Think I know what a man looks like when he's 'bout to sleep.”

I slept. Had a dream too, though I don't remember much of it. I know there was candlelight in it, and Jana Fletcher, and she was alive.

I woke with the man in the trench coat shaking my shoulder.

“Come on now, son, your ride's here,” he said.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes.

“You're a lucky fella,” he said. “Ride like that.”

I looked around for a cab, then remembered I hadn't called one.

The man in the trench coat was trying to hand me my cell phone. “I took the liberty of makin' the arrangements,” he said. “Figured you wouldn't mind.”

On the other side of the street, a car sat by the curb. The hazard lights blinking, the driver's door open. A woman stood by the door. Cat's-eye glasses and her hair gathered in a clip. Sophie.

“Your phone rang while you were sleepin', so I took the liberty,” the man in the trench coat said. “Good thing I did, since it was your lady callin'.”

Sophie was watching me but she stayed where she was. She didn't cross the street.

“Go on now,” the man said. “You'd be a damn fool not to go with a lady like that.”

•   •   •

T
he following afternoon I woke up in my own bed for the first time in ten days.

The blinds were closed but I could see daylight seeping through. I sat up, swept the covers off, planted my feet on the floor. Raised a hand to my temple and felt the stitches Sophie had put there after she brought me home.

She'd been unnaturally calm in the car.

“Seven times I called you,” she'd said.

“I'm sorry.”

“I heard on the news, about that girl. Local news, eleven o'clock. I didn't know where you were. I called and you didn't answer.”

“The cops took my phone.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Why would—”

“I thought you were with that girl and you were dead, just like her. The news didn't mention you, but I thought maybe they wouldn't—maybe they'd wait until the police notified your next of kin. And that's not me, I'm only your fiancée. They'd be trying to call your damn mother in Florida—”

“Sophie, I'm alive.”

“Seven times. Finally some detective answered, and he passed me off to some
other
detective, and he wouldn't tell me anything, except that you couldn't come to the phone, you were being questioned.”

“That was probably Moretti—”

“So then I knew you were alive, and I was left to wonder if you were a suspect in a murder.”

“I'm not.”

“Is that why they kept you there half the night?”

“Well, I might be, a little,” I said. “But it'll pass. I didn't do it.”

Without taking her eyes off the road Sophie made a fist and punched me in the shoulder. She punched me again, harder. And again.

“You didn't do it,” she said, echoing me. “Did you think I thought you did it?”

•   •   •

A
t home she peeled the Band-Aid from my temple and looked at my cut. I hadn't done much to clean it up; there was still dried blood around it.

“What happened?” she asked.

I told her about the young patrolman at Jana's apartment.

“You can't mess with this, Dave. It won't heal properly, and it could get infected.”

“Sew it up,” I told her.

She arched an eyebrow. “Now you trust me to sew it up?”

“Just do it. You've got stuff here, don't you?”

“I've got a suture kit,” she said, “but it'll hurt. I don't have anything to numb it.”

“Do it. How bad could it be?”

“Let's find out.”

I was all right while she cleaned the cut, with water and with alcohol. Then she got her kit and put the first stitch in, slowly and methodically, tugging on the thread.

“Oh my god, that hurts,” I said.

Sophie bit her lip. “Two more.”

“Promise?”

“Maybe three.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Stop wincing.”

“There's a needle,” I said, “piercing into my flesh.”

“Just imagine what this is doing for me.”

She put the last stitch in, tied it off, and snipped the thread.

“Now leave it alone,” she said. “And stop letting people shove your face into walls.”

•   •   •

I
opened the blinds in the bedroom and the daylight didn't kill me, so I went around the apartment and opened all the blinds we had. Sophie was gone, but she'd left me a present: a box of big waterproof bandages on the kitchen table. I brewed coffee and drank a cup. Poured another and took it into the spare bedroom I used as an office.

This was 1998 and I had a computer that took up my entire desk: a monitor as big as a footlocker, a CPU tower, a keyboard and mouse—all connected by a tangle of cables. I booted it up and checked my calendar. I'd slept through a home inspection scheduled for one o'clock, and I had another at five. It was almost four now. Too late to cancel, and I'd have to hurry. I needed a shower and I still had to pick up my truck from Jana's.

I got as far as the doorway before turning back. I returned to the desk, opened the middle drawer, and saw a folded sheet of paper: the list of names I'd copied from Jana's address book. I'd tossed it in there days ago.

Around a dozen names, and only one was familiar: Roger Tolliver, one of Jana's professors. I had his phone number but no address.

I didn't have time to deal with the list, not if I wanted to keep my appointment. I had to choose one or the other.

I wavered and decided I could look up one name and leave the rest for later. Roger Tolliver—that would be the one. I could've used the computer, but those were the days of dial-up Internet. The phone book would be faster.

I found him.
Tolliver, R.
Right where he belonged, between
Tolliver, Paul
and
Tollman, Julia
. And when I found him my choice was made. I forgot about my appointment. Roger Tolliver lived on Quaker Hill Road.

•   •   •

T
he houses on Quaker Hill Road kept their distance from one another. Most of them were relics from the forties, with stone chimneys and white clapboard. But Tolliver's house was different: new construction, two stories with an attached garage; brick façade in front, vinyl siding everywhere else.

I got there after five, because it took that long to shower and eat and arrange a cab ride to retrieve my truck. I thought Tolliver might be home, but when I knocked I got no answer. Let me revise that: no one came to the door. I did get an answer. Tolliver had a dog—a big, angry, deep-chested dog, from the sound of him. The kind you might see at a prison camp, straining against a leash, baring his teeth, snapping at the air, reminding you that it would be insane to try to escape.

The dog started barking as soon as I knocked and kept it up even when I stepped down from the porch. I went around to the back and pushed through some hedges growing beneath a window, and when I leaned close to the glass I could see him in there. Less wolflike than I had imagined. He was a shepherd, Anatolian, pale tan with a black muzzle. Still barking like a mad thing, like he had caught one of the prisoners cutting a hole in the fence, trying to run.

But it turned out he was the one in a cage. Tolliver kept him in a metal crate, barely big enough for him to turn around—probably to stop him from eating the furniture.

•   •   •

P
eople are careless.

When Roger Tolliver left his house that day, he made sure the doors were locked, front and back. The windows too, at least the ones on the ground floor. But who bothers to check the windows upstairs?

I had a ladder on my truck. I got it out, extended it, leaned it against the front of the garage. Above the garage, a section of the roof sloped up to a pair of windows on the second floor, and I could see that the one on the left was open several inches.

Walking on a sloped roof can be dangerous if you don't have experience. I had plenty. Sometimes when you're doing an inspection, you don't need to climb on the roof; you can see everything you need to see from the ground. But I always go up. The customers like it. You're doing something they wouldn't want to do themselves. It makes them think they're getting their money's worth.

I climbed up, popped the window screen out, raised the sash. Slipped through into what looked like a guest bedroom. Replaced the screen. The dog was barking louder than ever.

I found the stairs and went down to him. Tolliver's house had a great room with a fireplace. There was a stone floor around the hearth, and the dog's crate sat on the stone. I knelt by the crate and let the shepherd sniff the back of my hand, and his barking gave way to a guttural growl—which seemed to be as close as we were likely to come to being friends.

More growling as I backed away from him and crossed to the front door. I unlocked it and went outside, took my ladder down, collapsed it, and returned it to the truck. When I came back in, the dog had forgotten all about our friendship. We were back at the prison camp and he had caught me trying to scale the gate.

I let him bark. I hoped he might wear himself out. Hard to estimate how much time I had before Tolliver got home; college professors make their own schedules. I thought he lived alone, based on what I'd seen so far. There were framed photos on the stairway wall of a man and two young children, a boy and a girl—presumably Tolliver and his son and daughter. No wife in any of the photos. I checked the closet near the entryway and found men's coats, but nothing for a woman or a child. There were toys and games in the closet, packed away, as if Tolliver's kids visited him but didn't live here.

Down to business. I had two reasons for my illegal entry into Roger Tolliver's house, and they were easy to summarize: buttons and popsicle sticks.

I tackled the second one first. Found the refrigerator in Tolliver's kitchen, opened the freezer door. He had frozen pizzas, frozen fish. No popsicles, but he liked ice cream. He had pints of Häagen-Dazs, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream bars.

Ice cream bars on wooden sticks.

Which proved nothing, of course. How many people have ice cream bars in their freezer?

I closed the door and went looking for buttons.

•   •   •

C
onsider: On the Night of the Doe, when I met Jana Fletcher on Quaker Hill Road, she had a bruise on her cheek. It seemed likely, now, that she got it from her professor, Roger Tolliver. But if I asked him, he could deny it. He could say she already had the bruise when he saw her that night, or that she was never in his house. And I couldn't prove him wrong.

Unless I could find her buttons.

On that night in the rain, Jana had been dressed in black. Her blouse had been open at the collar, with two buttons missing.

I looked for them everywhere in Tolliver's house. I could picture them: milky white like pearls against the black of the blouse. All of Tolliver's carpets were white or off-white, so I found myself crawling over his floors, searching sometimes by touch. The dog barked all the while. I looked between cushions, under furniture. I started on the ground floor and moved up, and when I'd looked in every corner and along every mopboard I came up empty.

Then I thought to look in the closets. I found it in the closet of the guest bedroom—Tolliver's vacuum cleaner.

I detoured to the bathroom at the top of the stairs and grabbed a towel, brought it back, and spread it on the bedroom floor.

Downstairs the dog was going wild. From the sound of it, we had a full-fledged manhunt under way. I pictured soldiers running in black boots, searchlights sweeping over the ground.

I pried the vacuum cleaner open and wrestled the bag free. Used my pocketknife to slice it open. Reached into the gray mass of dirt and dust and hair. Naturally the bag was almost full. I started emptying it one handful at a time, spreading the mess on the towel, searching it with my fingers.

BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
4.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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