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Authors: Harry Dolan

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BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
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“On the phone, yes. It didn't go well. When I asked him if he was prepared to swear out an affidavit—to say that he lied about Pruett's confession—he wouldn't give me a straight answer. ‘I want to do the right thing,' he told me, ‘but it's hard to know what's right. And I need to be sure you're going to look out for me.'”

“What did he mean?” I asked. “Was he afraid of what would happen if he told the truth?”

Tolliver looked up at me. “That was the implication: that there were people who wouldn't like it if he changed his story. But it was also about money. He talked about making a new start. ‘I'd have to get out of this city,' he said, ‘and that won't come cheap.' Finally I put the question to him bluntly: Did Pruett confess to him or not? ‘I'll say what you need me to say,' he told me. ‘As long as you're ready to take care of me.'”

Tolliver shrugged. “That was the end of it. I knew he didn't care about helping Gary Pruett. He had called us because he hoped to get something out of it, and he'd be useless as a witness.”

I watched Tolliver reach down to the flowerpot and pluck a leaf of clover.

“What did Jana say when you told her?” I asked him.

“I never told her,” he said. “I saw her the day before yesterday, and I meant to tell her. But I knew she'd be disappointed. And she was different; she seemed happier than I'd seen her before. When I asked her what happened, she said she met someone. ‘What's his name?' I asked. ‘David,' she told me. So when I saw your name on the truck outside today, I knew who you were.” He rubbed the clover between his fingers, flicked it away. “So here we are, and Jana's gone. Do the police have any leads?”

I thought about how to answer. The only lead I'd been able to give Frank Moretti was a popsicle stick in the woods.

“I don't really know,” I said.

Tolliver got up from his chair. Out in the yard, Roger the dog was getting restless. He pawed at the dirt beneath the chain-link fence.

“You should be careful,” Tolliver said to me. “The boyfriend's always a suspect.”

I might have said the same about the college professor.

He brought out his wallet and handed me a card. “You'll want to steer clear of the police,” he said. “Call me if you need anything.”

I got up and took the card and wondered about Roger Tolliver. Because he was right: I was a suspect. Yet he seemed not at all suspicious of me. Maybe it was a code among defense lawyers: everyone is presumed innocent. Maybe he trusted Jana's judgment and assumed she wouldn't get involved with someone who would murder her. Or maybe he knew I was innocent because he knew exactly what happened to Jana, because he was the one who put his hands around her throat.

Impossible to tell as we stood on his deck in the sunset light.

“Who do you think killed her?” I asked him.

The question seemed to take him by surprise. “I couldn't begin to guess,” he said. “It might have been a random crime. The neighborhood where she was living . . .” He trailed off, as if nothing more needed to be said.

“What about Poe Washburn?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow. “Washburn has no violence in his record. I don't know what his motive would be.”

I pressed on. “What about the people Washburn was afraid of?”

“Why would they kill Jana?”

“They wanted Washburn to keep his mouth shut. Jana wanted him to talk.”

The idea seemed to bother him. I could see it in his posture, in his eyes. I suppose it might have been an act, but if it was, it was a good one.

“I assumed Washburn was making them up,” Tolliver said. “He wanted to justify asking me for money. I didn't believe there was a real threat.” The furrows worked their way into his brow again. “Do you think I was wrong?”

12

I
drove east on Quaker Hill Road in the last light of the day, past the spot where I met Jana Fletcher on the roadside. I'd left Tolliver without answering his question, but I'd asked him one last question of my own. I wanted to know about the file Jana had with her the night she visited him, the night we met. Tolliver confirmed what I had already guessed: that it held the notes from her research on the Pruett case.

The file had been on my mind since the night before. I remembered it in the white-tile room with Frank Moretti, and even then I thought it might be important. I pictured it: a thick green folder in the drawer of her desk.

I didn't tell Moretti about it.

I knew if I told him he would take it. It would probably be logged into evidence, and I would never have a chance to see what was inside. But if I didn't bring it to his attention, it might be overlooked. It might stay in the drawer, and eventually I might be able to get at it.

Now it seemed more important than ever.

When I turned onto Jana's street, the sky was a darkening gray. I pulled in under the oak and the branches swayed in the wind. Jana's front window floated in space, a black rectangle, a window into a void.

The police had put a seal on her door:
CRIME SCENE, NO ENTRY
. They seemed to have repaired the damage to the frame as well. They hadn't changed the lock and I still had my key, and it would be easy to tear through the seal. But maybe there was another way.

I walked around to the back, hoping I might find an open window. There was no second floor, so I had no chance of getting in with the ladder the way I'd done at Tolliver's house.

The windows were all locked. There was no seal on the back door, but it didn't do me any good. The door took a different key; mine wouldn't fit.

I went around front again to the landlady's side of the duplex. Her car was in the driveway, a big Mercury sedan alongside Jana's Plymouth. I knocked on her door. No answer. I could see lights behind the curtains of her front window. I knocked again and the lights went out.

I waited, listening for movement behind the door. I thought I heard footsteps.

“I'll just keep knocking,” I said.

No answer. I knocked again, to show her I was serious.

The lights came back on. I heard a dead bolt turn and the door opened a few inches, until a chain-lock stopped it. The landlady's face appeared in the opening, scarf around her hair, eyes a bottomless black.

She spoke with a thick accent, like the loyal retainer in a vampire's castle.

“I don't like you, young man,” she said.

I took it in stride. “Roger doesn't either. Hardly anybody does.”

“Go avay,” she said, “or I call the police.”

“I wish you wouldn't.”

“I vill.”

“I don't like the police.”

“Who can blame you?” she said. “They are idiots.” She snorted to demonstrate her disapproval. “Who is Roger?”

“He's a dog,” I said. “Or a lawyer. But the dog's the one that doesn't like me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “This is a joke? I don't like jokes.”

“It's not much of a joke.”

“It is not a time for jokes. The girl is dead.”

The breath went out of me. All at once I felt very tired.

“You're right,” I said. “No jokes. I need to get into her apartment.”

“You can't get in.”

“I know it's sealed.”

“No one gets in. That is what they tell me.”

“There's no seal on the back door. If you could loan me your key—”

“What for?”

“It's personal,” I said. “There are things in there I need.”

“There is nothing in there anymore, nothing anybody needs.”

“It won't take long. The police will never know.”

She scowled, and somehow, for a moment, the scowl made her ancient face look young.

“Don't talk to me about the police,” she said. “The police are fools. Are you a killer?”

The question came from left field, and when I didn't answer at once, she got impatient.

“Did you kill the girl?” she said.

“No.”

“Good. Then stay avay from the police. Stay avay from this house. You have a family?”

“Not around here.”

“Doesn't matter. Go to them. Knock on their door. Leave me alone.”

She didn't wait for me to answer. She closed the door and I didn't try to stop her. I heard the dead bolt slide into place and stood for a moment on her steps, listening to the wind.

A path of paving stones led from her steps to the driveway. I walked down it, climbed into my truck, and sat looking at Jana's front door with its police seal: just a piece of paper,
NO ENTRY
, nothing really. I could walk up and use my key and tear the paper and I'd be inside, and what good would it do me? The old woman was right. There was nothing in there anymore.

She was full of good advice.
Stay avay from the police.
Take away the accent and it was the same message I'd heard from Roger Tolliver. Maybe I should listen to them. And if I wanted to stay away from the police, the first step was not breaking the seal on Jana's door.

I sat in the truck and started the engine, but I didn't leave. I looked at Jana's door and the black rectangle of her front window and watched the wind sway the branches of the oak, and the police came to me.

It was a black sedan, a Chevrolet, a stereotypical detective's car. It pulled into the driveway and I watched its lights go dark in my rearview mirror. Frank Moretti got out of it unhurriedly. He wore a gray suit like the one he'd worn the night before, this one a shade lighter. He crossed behind my truck, opened the passenger door, and climbed in.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

He looked different. Less tired than last night—that was part of it. But also smaller. In the room with the white-tile walls he had seemed like a large man, but now I could see he was no more than five nine.

“I can't answer you,” I said.

“Can't or won't?”

“I spoke to a lawyer today,” I said. “He warned me not to talk to the police.”

“He should have told you not to return to the scene of the crime. What did Agnes have to say?”

“Agnes?”

Moretti nodded toward the old woman's door. “Agnes Lanik. What did you two talk about?”

I looked at his car in the rearview and wondered where he'd come from and how long he'd been watching.

“Have you been following me?”

“Yeah, I've been following you,” he said dryly. “I've had a whole team of guys busting their asses following you, earning overtime. You're just that important.”

I thought of another possibility. “You've got someone watching Jana's apartment.”

“You're getting warmer. Are you going to tell me what Agnes said to you?”

“She told me to go away.”

“Doesn't surprise me. So why are you still here?”

I thought about the green file folder in Jana's desk. I could tell Moretti about it now and he would go in and collect it, and I would never get a chance to look at it. Or maybe I was wrong, maybe he'd be grateful. Maybe we'd sit in the cab of the truck and go through the file together. Maybe Agnes Lanik would bring us cookies. . . .

I decided not to mention the file.

“What do you know about Gary Dean Pruett?” I asked Moretti.

He took his time answering. I tried to read his expression, but all I could see was annoyance. Eventually he said, “I know he killed his wife.”

“Some people think he might be innocent.”

“What people are those?”

“Jana Fletcher was one.”

He let out an irritated sigh. “Where's this coming from?”

“The lawyer I talked to—he was one of Jana's law professors. Roger Tolliver.”

I gave Moretti a thumbnail sketch of what I'd learned: about Tolliver's Innocence Project and Jana's part in it. About Napoleon Washburn, who told Jana he lied about Pruett's confession.

“Napoleon Washburn,” Moretti said when I'd finished.

I nodded. “Apparently, people call him Poe.”

“I'm supposed to believe he killed Jana Fletcher?”

“Maybe not him. Maybe someone else who wasn't happy he was talking to Jana.”

“And I'm supposed to go chasing after this shadowy figure?”

“I'm not telling you what to do.”

Moretti gave me a slow-burning look. “No, you're not,” he said. “You might keep that in mind.” I started to respond and he stopped me with a raised hand. “Listen to me,” he said. “I want you to leave here and go home. I want you to stop talking to people about this case. I want you to realize how lucky you are. I could go to a prosecutor right now with the information I've got about your relationship with Jana Fletcher and your nonexistent, I-was-out-driving alibi, and I'll wager I could get him to bring an indictment. I haven't done that, because I'm willing to dig deeper, to look past the obvious. And every word out of your mouth tends to make me regret that decision.”

He opened the door beside him, started to climb out.

“Wait,” I said.

He glared at me. “You've dodged a bullet. Stop trying to get back in front of it.”

•   •   •

W
hen I got home that night Sophie was asleep. I found leftover Chinese carryout in the refrigerator. I took the food onto the balcony, along with a bottle of beer, and sat out there as the night grew chill.

At some point I went in and found a candle, because candles made me think of Jana. I put it on the balcony railing and watched the flame. At another point I went into my office and brought back the phone book, because I wanted to know where Napoleon Washburn lived. Apparently, I liked dodging bullets.

There were four Washburns in the phone book, but only one with the initial
N.
The address was on Lynch Street. A rough neighborhood. Suitable for a thief.

By eleven o'clock the food was long gone, the bottle was empty. I hadn't made up my mind about Washburn. Eleven was too late to visit civilized people, but maybe not too late to visit Poe.

Moretti had given me a lot to think about. I remembered his glare as he climbed down from the truck, but that wasn't the end of our conversation. He was too keyed up. He had more to say to me.

He stepped up into the truck again, slammed the door. “I'm giving you a gift,” he said. “You don't deserve it, but I'm giving it to you anyway. You think we've been watching Jana's apartment? Wrong. We've been watching the old woman's. There's an unmarked car across the street. Don't bother to look. We're watching for the grandson, Simon Lanik.”

He paused before continuing. “Simon hasn't been seen since Jana died. There's a warrant out for his arrest in Massachusetts, for something that happened years ago. He assaulted his girlfriend outside a bar in Boston.”

“That's not quite the same,” I said. “Jana wasn't—”

“Shut up. Listen. Agnes Lanik owns seven other houses in this neighborhood. Simon collects the rent for all of them. We've spoken to the tenants. Most of them are young women. They told us how he operates. If Simon comes around for the rent and you don't have it, he suggests there might be another way you can pay. The suggestion's not very subtle. Sometimes he makes it even if you've got the cash. Sometimes he cops a feel on the way out, just because he can.”

Moretti looked at Jana's door, then back to me. “So what do you think is more likely?” he said. “That Jana died because she talked to Washburn—or that Simon Lanik came to hassle her about the rent and things got out of control? Say Lanik propositions her. Maybe he gets grabby. She tells him to back off, says she'll file a complaint. That's the last thing he wants. He puts his hands on her throat, just to shut her up. It goes from there.”

I could imagine it: Simon Lanik with his greased hair and silk shirt and leather pants. His arrogance. Jana, thinking she could handle him. Threatening to go to the police, because the law would be on her side. Was that the way it happened, on the spur of the moment, with no premeditation on Lanik's part? It didn't seem quite right.

“What about the popsicle stick?” I asked Moretti.

He shook his head as if I'd disappointed him. “What about it?”

“If Lanik didn't plan to kill her, if it just happened, how does that fit with the idea that someone was watching her from the woods?”

“We don't know that anyone was watching her.”

“We don't know that Lanik killed her either. Was he violent with any of the other tenants?”

Moretti gave me the slow burn again and his voice went quiet. “I'm through discussing this with you. Go home.” He reached for the door handle, opened it.

“Did you even look for the popsicle stick?” I said.

He held the door open and breathed the night air. “Yes,” he said after a while. “I found it. I sent it to the county lab. One of these days, they'll get around to testing it. And they won't find anything on it, because it's been lying on the ground for who knows how long. Or maybe they'll find a fingerprint, and maybe they'll match it to Poe Washburn or someone he knows, someone involved in an elaborate plot to cover up the truth about who murdered Gary Pruett's wife.”

Moretti climbed out of the truck, turned back to me, and said, “I can tell you right now it won't happen, because it doesn't happen. What happens is that women like Jana Fletcher are killed by men they know, men like Simon Lanik. And the reasons, when you discover them, turn out to be small and ordinary and stupid.”

No anger in his tone, just resignation. He closed the door; he didn't slam it. I watched him in the rearview mirror, the same unhurried walk to his car. Engine. Lights. He backed out onto the street and drove away.

BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
12.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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