Murder to the Metal
A Somebody’s Bound to
Wind Up Dead Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Too Lucky to Live
The First Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead Mystery
“In this entertaining, sexy debut, Allie is a sharp Stephanie Plum paired up with a hot partner. She quickly learns how adept a blind man can be in dealing with trouble. The original voice, humor, and unusual premise will appeal to Janet Evanovich readers.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“As the plot zigs and zags, readers will enjoy hanging out with Tom and Allie, whose quirkiness will remind some readers of Janey Mack’s Maisie McGrane.”
“Fast pacing, multiple plot twists, and humor, including a Stephanie Plum-like main character, enliven the story and keep the pages turning.”
Copyright © 2018 by Annie Hogsett
First Edition 2018
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017954237
ISBN: 9781464209994 Trade Paperback ISBN: 9781464210006 Ebook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
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Printed in the United States of America
Murder to the Metal
Chap; ter Twenty-six
More from this Author
For Margaret, excellent mother.
For John, excellent son.
Love and gratitude always.
& In memory of Paul.
“So close your eyes.
For that’s a lovely way to be
aware of things your heart
alone was meant to see.”
—“Wave” by Antônio Carlos Jobim
Family first. To Bill, the committed partner in all this writer’s dreams. To John, the best son, for love, joy, and road trips. For Vicky and Chet, sister and brother of the heart. Treasures. Yeah, Cujo. Fuzzy outlaw. You, too.
Poisoned Pen Press. Sherpas for my high-altitude journey. Lifesavers, all: Annette Rogers, Barbara Peters, Rob Rosenwald, Diane DiBiase, Holli Roach, Beth Deveny, Suzan Baroni, Raj Dayal, and Michael Barson, And of course, the “PPP Posse” of authors, a warm, kind circle of support.
My agent, Victoria Skurnick, for wisdom and patience. Even more wonderful in person.
Tina Whittle for reading the first of many final drafts, for solid advice from Day 1, and for the blessings.
Stacey Vaselaney, of SLV Public Relations, for PR miracles and fun. Meredith Pangrace, of MAP Creative for my beautiful website, and Bill, patient (mostly) webmaster.
Mary Lucille DeBerry— eagle eye on every line and hours devoted to protecting me from embarrassing myself. For raising the bar.
Thrity Umigar for being there and being you.
My Sisters in Crime, near and far. The tribe.
My book groups: You let me be “your author.” And a launch party, complete with friends, flowers, and wine? A high point in a writer’s life.
Bob Robinson, Car Man, for expertise and general encouragement, and Tech Guy, Chad Parker, for helping me create a tiny explosion in the plot. Bob, I assume you can start your car remotely?
Joe Valencic. (Jože Valenčič.) For helping me discover Lisa Cole’s Slovenian roots.
Tim Ash and Claude Brewer for research on scrapping.
Mark Valentine for turning my debut novel into a leather-bound work of art.
Steve Gluskin for Braille and cows.
Vicky Shorts. Without that AAA map of Cleveland, everybody would have been lost. Especially me.
The sustenance of friendship! Elaine, Bob, Doug, Thom, Laura, Maura, Kathy, Dan, Joe, Pat, and all the Lake-Dweller Neighbors of Shore Acres. For the “I Know Annie Hogsett the Author” Tee-Shirt Conspirators, and The Ripley Yippees, who baked me cookies in the shape of pencils. To Ms. Cece, of course, for turning Author Annie into a toddler Halloween costume. Truly, you all made this an amazing year.
And certainly not least, to Linn Raney for saying to me a while back, “I never go up Taylor. Way too many traffic lights….” Thanks, Linn.
Friday, February 24
Lady Obsession kills. She dumps the body of the climber into the blue crevasse. Chokes the arteries of the gourmand. Strangles the reluctant object of desire. Sometimes she kills by accident. Sometimes she kills by design.
Sometimes, Obsession is a murderer’s best friend.
Not every obsession is grand. Lloyd Bunker was driven by his need to avoid stoplights. Perhaps he couldn’t bear the moments of self-criticism that pounced on him at any pause in his forward motion. Maybe Lloyd’s demons could really get at him when he was backed up in traffic at the intersection known to the locals as Five Points, where East 152nd, St. Clair, and Ivanhoe come together in the shadow of Collinwood High.
He was happy to enumerate, to anyone who would stand still for it, the painful statistics: If you were heading south on 152nd, the total wait would be one minute, forty-five.
“And what’s worse,” he’d continue, the light of recollection firing his eyes, “that includes a full twenty-second lead allowed to oncoming vehicles, and all you can do is sit there and watch everybody else get to go. And don’t get me started about just missing the light and having to sit through the whole thing twice.”
Lloyd’s fingers would flex as he related this, as if drumming on an invisible steering wheel. Most people, even people who liked Lloyd okay, even the one or two who actually loved him, would murmur something sympathetic at this revelation and back away. Many of them knew he had similar numbers for intersections all over town.
On the night in question, Lloyd was told to pick up a package at an address off Euclid Avenue in Euclid. He liked how the avenue and the city names were the same. “Symmetrical,” he mused about it to himself. Satisfying how that all matched up.
The waiting was making him jumpy. Lloyd hated leaving the GTO outside unattended. They weren’t making cars like his anymore. It was the nicest thing Lloyd had ever owned. A total classic. 1967. V-8. 440. Black vinyl, bucket seats. “Linden Green” exterior. He didn’t think of it as green, though. Green was for grass. Linden was the name of a tree and the tree’s color wasn’t all that good either. He’d looked it up. Online had images of everything. No matter what anybody called the color, Lloyd’s GTO was the color of wind. Or rushing water, maybe. Fast like that. Pontiac should have come up with a better name.
He shivered. This place was haunted by the ghosts of too many stolen cars.
The minutes ticked by while he stood, feeling like a goddam jackass, on the freezing, damp concrete. He was a courier tonight, they’d said, and it seemed to him that the courier should get more respect. Even if he wasn’t permitted to know what he was courier-ing. He’d always felt, his whole life, that he’d come up painfully short in the Respect Department. Sometimes he could still hear his dad say, “You’re pathetic, Lloyd. What’s the matter with you?” He said that to himself sometimes, too. It made his eyes burn and his chest clench up when he thought how unfair—
But here at last was the man with the upfront money.
The envelope was fat. Lloyd had to stop himself from checking to see if it was all there. He’d never done a courier job before, but the deal was sweet. Whatever they were putting in the trunk of his car must be worth a lot to somebody. All he had to do was drive it down to Bratenahl, meet the guy, turn over the package, and the whole ten grand would be his, tax-free. It crossed his mind again that the logic, or lack thereof, of this plan might spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E. But he’d said yes and, anyway, he was already caught up in mapping his route.
The quick and easy way to get to the address would be to turn right onto Euclid, go a couple of miles, turn right on Noble, then right onto 152nd, and roll all the way to Lake Shore. From there, it was straight and smooth to Bratenahl and the gate, the long driveway, the porte cochère, where his package would be unloaded.
He’d looked up porte cochère so as not to appear ignorant, but as far as he could tell it was a glorified carport. He’d done a test run. Piece of cake. Empty-looking house. Lake view.
But now, at 11:45 on a Friday night at the end of February, everything grim and frozen, with a thin fog of snow in the air, that plan didn’t have much appeal. For one thing, at the very heart of that route was the goddam Five Points Intersection.
Plus, with the Cleveland Fifth District Police Headquarters parked, like, two blocks away, and who-knew-what in the trunk of his GTO, Lloyd could be stuck in a risky situation for a minimum of one minute, twenty-five.
So Lloyd altered the flight plan he’d filed with the guys. When he got to the Noble intersection, he kept going straight. Due to the late hour, a lot of the cross streets were blinking amber. Plus he proceeded to hit it lucky a couple of times. He was booking on toward downtown. Except for one pair of dim headlights behind him, he had the road to himself.
The snow picked up with bigger flakes and the swirl of rising wind. He’d better pay attention to how he stepped on the brakes now, but—good news!—he mostly didn’t have to even slow down. He was moving smoothly, slightly over the thirty-five-miles-per-hour limit. Green. Green. Green.
Occasionally he pushed his luck just a bit for an amber, but so far, he was pitching a perfect game. A near thing at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield, but all good. Lucky. His heart was pumping, his fingers, lightly resting on the steering wheel, tingled pleasantly. He felt alert, happy, almost powerful. Definitely in command.
He noticed, with a little grin, that the car behind him was closing the distance. Probably wanted to see what it was like to do an all-green run with a pro.
When he passed Severance Hall, before the turn to Chester, Lloyd told himself that when this job was done, he’d take Loretta to a concert of The Cleveland Orchestra. You didn’t refer to it as the Cleveland Symphony if you didn’t want to sound like a dumbass. Lloyd knew that for sure. He could learn.
He’d buy himself a good suit. Fancy shoes with a little bit of lift to them. A fine, thick topcoat that would camouflage the spare tire. He’d always felt ill at ease, almost scared, around rich people. But not this time he wouldn’t. Loretta would be impressed, too.
The sad feeling was sneaking up on him. She was so pretty. So smart and sweet. All the women who’d turned Lloyd down, and suddenly here was Loretta, saying she loved him. “Her Lloyd.” Even though she knew him pretty well. When he took her to the concert, he’d say it back this time. I love you, too, Loretta. He blinked. His eyes were burning again.
And, anyway, how many of those classical dumbasses ever had five-thousand dollars in their glove compartments? Not too damn many, he figured.
Severance was dark. The richies were tucked in all safe in their mansions by now.
He eased down onto Martin Luther King Drive. Right turn on red with a perpetual green arrow. Sweet. Still going strong. The perfection of this run must be an omen. Lloyd’s life was on a roll, ready for a big change.
He sailed past the VA Hospital and its shadowy parking garages. Lloyd never rode roller coasters and hollered woo-hoo, but he imagined he could be having that kind of moment now. He wasn’t one of those stupid, crazy, out-of-control guys, though. This was dead serious.
In his preoccupation with his mission, Lloyd was oblivious to the beauty of MLK on this night. How the boulevard snaked through Rockefeller Park, tracking alongside the icy black coil of Doan Brook. How the massive stone bridges hovered. Under the dim glow of streetlights, the statues and monuments in the cultural gardens were apparitions cloaked in snow. In India’s garden, Gandhi, frozen midstride with his staff in hand, wore a robe of white. None of this touched Lloyd because he was about to realize his lifetime goal of a one-hundred-percent Green Light Run.
He’d forgotten about the five-thousand dollars in the glove compartment and the five-thousand he had coming. Of his package he had no consciousness at all. He knew that, after the VA, there was one, single, solitary light on all of MLK and that was before the last bridge. No matter if that light was yellow, or even dead red when it came into his view. On a night like tonight he could slow down until it turned. If it was green, he could simply speed up. His heart was racing now.
He tried to calm his breathing, not think too far ahead. As he rounded a turn, he could make out the last bridge. The light was red. Good. That light was only fifteen seconds. An easy stretch of road with the brook a meandering shadow on his right. He was golden. He slowed, just enough. Nothing could stop him now—
As if in response to that thought, the unthinkable happened.
The GTO made an odd, muffled sound like a small backfire, and the engine died.
Saturday, June 17
I read a book once about Einstein’s E=mc2 formula. Before that, I’d never understood that you can’t go faster than the speed of light. No. Truly. You cannot. I assumed that Einstein foolishly ignored the fact that you can always press down a little harder on the accelerator. Apparently not. The laws of the universe do not allow for this.
I have a corollary to that law: There has got to be a thread-count of sheets that is the most threads you can ever jam into a single sheet. After that, add a single teeny thread more, and nuclear fission or fusion, one or the other, occurs. However, that maxed-out sheet, if you can afford it, is the very epitome of sensuosity. I know “sensuosity” is not a real word, but there’s a certain level of sensuousness that requires the invention of a whole new vocabulary.
My significant other, Thomas Bennington III, PhD, can afford a Speed of Light Formula Sheet such as the one I’ve described. In fact, as a five-hundred-fifty-million-dollar-MondoMegaJackpot-winner, he could probably afford a stack of sheets of this quality about a mile high. That’s how crazy rich Tom is. And I am, by default. Since I share his sheets and much, much more.
I met this Thomas the III, hot, blind, associate professor of English literature, in the middle of Lake Shore Boulevard in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was standing dazed and vulnerable after being honked at by an impatient woman in a Hummer. I rescued Tom and his groceries, plus his lottery ticket, from the street, and took him and his sexy white tee-shirt home on the bus to my run-down but charming cottage.
That first twenty-four hours changed everything. It was the Bulldozer of Fate. We had dinner and fell immediately, if not in love, definitely in like and absolutely, no question, in lust, and got started kissing out by the edge of my lakeside cliff, within the sound of my neighbor Ralph’s annoyingly loud TV.
The kissing which, let me say, was everything kissing should be, got all interruptus when Ralph’s TV blared out a number Tom recognized as the exact one he’d played to prove to a kid that you would not win the MondoMegaJackpot, even if you picked your very own, special, lucky numbers.
After that, the Mondo Ball really got rolling, and before the night was out, there was mayhem spread all over the place. But the Bulldozer of Fate (hereinafter, BOF) also delivered another opportunity for kissing and much, much more before the dawn went ahead and broke on the next day, which is when the news of the murdering began to break, too.
Before the BOF moved on, Tom and I were in love. That hadn’t changed. We were also in danger most of the time and that hadn’t changed either, but it was not as much in our faces right at that moment as it was during our first Mondo month. No surprise, however, that Jackpot = Chaos in Tom’s universe. I myself am ambivalent—on the more positive end of the scale.
I now knew, however, that, great sheets aside, there are many things unlimited money can’t buy. Real security, for one. Another day of life if someone is holding a gun on you. True love.
On a more mundane level, it could buy me a world-class glamour haircut, but, ten minutes post-salon, Glamour Girl would be gone. Again. And there’d be the ordinary, brown-eyed, friendly-as-a-golden-retriever-and-not-entirely-a-dog Alice Jane Harper. Cute, yes. Glamorous, no. But, once upon a recent time, I didn’t have enough money to get my car fixed and now here I was with a Tom Bennington. The Third. PhD.
I could deal.
Back to the bedding news. We owned only two sets of the E=mc2 sheets. One in white. One in a sage-y green, which I particularly admired. Tom didn’t care about the color but the man appreciated thread count. And the senuousity of it, too.
The sheets are pertinent to this report of the first case of the newly established T&A Detective Agency—of which I, Allie Harper, am The “A” and The Recording Secretary—because this case began for me right there between those sumptuous sheets. With yet another extremely disconcerting interruption.
It was eight a.m. on a gorgeous, warm Saturday morning in June. Tom and I were lying side by side between the aforementioned sheets in our temporary, but over-the-top-vast-and-luxurious rented mansion in Bratenahl, Ohio, a highly upscale, lakeside village, surrounded on three sides by the City of Cleveland. A watery-smelling breeze was moving the curtains gently in and out of the open windows, and I could hear Lake Erie right outside, murmuring a few suggestions about some wicked stuff Tom and I could be getting into soon.
Since this report is mostly for my own benefit—and possible memoirs—I should make a note here that if you are lying naked between Einstein-quality bedding, not only is the fabric that touches you thicker and smoother than anything you can imagine, but your own skin feels incredibly velvety, too. The infinitesimal interface between your skin and those sheets just vibrates with electrical heat.
Add to that the thought that your skin—all of it—is about to meet the skin—all of it—of someone you’re absolutely out-of-your-mind in love with?
Red alert, Alice Harper. But in a good way.
Imagine: I was lying on my back, allowing the top sheet to caress my entire front. Tom was lying on his front under that same top sheet. He reached out his arm and slipped one warm, highly welcome palm onto my bare, pink, sheet-caressed front. I let him do this. Gladly. Tom may be blind, but he always knows exactly where his hands are.
I am shameless.
“Mmm,” he proposed.
“Mmm, Mmm,” I replied, stretching deliciously so as to improve contact.
The doorbell chimed.
The chiming of that bell was the death knell of a unique, irreplaceable interlude. But Otis was on door-duty, and Otis was constitutionally unable to turn anybody away unless they brandished a gun or looked otherwise suspicious.
I could hear his deep voice and a higher-pitched voice. The cadence and the pitch of this voice suggested to me that the woman talking was upset about something. Otis answered her, his chocolatey bass a steady counterpoint to her squeaky, staccato soprano. They went back and forth like that for a minute or so. Then I heard the front door close and Otis’ heavy feet tromping up our majestic, sweeping staircase. Drawing near.
I got out of bed, with an unhappy glance at the handsome back of my beloved, grabbed my robe, and poked my head out the door of the master suite, trying to look sleepy rather than frustrated. I don’t think Otis was fooled for a second, but we glossed over that by mutual unspoken agreement.
“Ma’am—” he began. Otis was a Cleveland cop for twenty years before he saved my life in a parking garage, and became our bodyguard and a fully licensed private investigator in the State of Ohio. He was accustomed to referring to any woman, no matter how skanky and out of control, as “ma’am.”
For my part, when Otis called me ma’am, I was afraid he was about to ask me to step away from my car and keep my hands where he could see them. I’d mentioned this to him, but old habits die hard. Reminded by the quizzical arch of my brow, he backpedaled.
“Allie. There’s a lady here to see you. Says she’s a former colleague of yours. Ms. Loretta Coates? I woulda told her you were busy—” At this, Otis and I both diverted our gazes to somewhere safe.
“But she’s cryin’.”
I clenched my teeth. This was not going to be a quick and easy fix. Loretta Coates, at her best, could be high-maintenance and time-consuming. Loretta Coates crying? Could take all day.
“Give me a minute, Otis,” I sighed. “I’ll be right down. And can you make some coffee, please?
He nodded. “Okay, Allie.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was dressed and sitting across from Loretta in the downstairs study as if nothing had happened.
Which it had not.
The sunlight from the front windows stretched out in bright oblongs on the Persian carpet—“Priceless,” according to the rental agent. It reminded me of the ugly red-and-brown thrift-shop paisley dress I hated when I was about fourteen, but I hadn’t mentioned that to the agent. Just nodded politely and made a mental note to drink only red or brown things in that room.
Out back, Lake E was a steaming blue. Loretta and I both had big mugs of brown coffee. She wasn’t drinking hers. She was telling me about Lloyd, her boyfriend, who’d disappeared one snowy night in February, and who, she assumed, was dead.
“At first,” she was saying, “I figured he’d taken one of his crazy routes home that night and run off the road somewhere slick. Lloyd has this obsession with avoiding stoplights. I even broke up with him one time for about six weeks because he took us all the way to Strongsville on the highway to get us to a party in Chardon.”
I reviewed this itinerary, using the map in my head. The phrase “way ’round Robin Hood’s barn” came to mind. Understatement. I also noticed that Loretta was vacillating between past and present tense when she talked about Lloyd. Which suggested to me that, in Loretta’s mind, he was sometimes dead. Sometimes only missing.
She paused, sniffling wetly for about the fourteenth time, as Otis—thank you, God—appeared with a box of tissues cradled in his large brown hands. She looked up to him in gratitude, took one, honked apologetically, and crumpled it daintily in her hand. Otis set the box down on the end table, said, “I’ll just leave these, Allie,” and withdrew.
Loretta picked up the thread. “He was kind of OCD about that, you know? I swear, he could tell you the exact duration in seconds of every stoplight in Cleveland. It drives me absolutely batshit crazy. He was a terrible pain in the ass. But I loved him. I did. I’m pretty sure he loved me back. And he’s dead. That’s all there is to it. He has to be dead.”
She plucked another tissue from Otis’ box and pressed it to her eyes. I was nodding along, still composing my face around my surprise at having heard Loretta say “batshit” and “pain in the ass.”
Loretta worked at the Memorial-Nottingham Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. For a while after I moved to Collinwood from Shaker Heights, having righteously divorced D.B. Harper, dickhead lawyer and philanderer extraordinaire, and before I met Tom and became happy and accessory-to-a-massive-jackpot all in one day, I was a part-time librarian there. At Memorial-Nottingham, Loretta was a fixture.
She was mid-forties and pretty, but her attractiveness was impaired by the fact that she looked worried. A lot worried. Most of the time. Her blue eyes were perpetually widened by concern. Her eyebrows tucked in toward each other in a tiny wrinkly frown. Her lips, a lovely bow when she relaxed enough to smile, stayed pursed up.
Loretta worried about everything. She worried about global warming and crime lords. She worried that the teenagers who stopped by the library after school only checked out DVDs or that, when they checked out books, they chose the ones she found inappropriate for teenagers. She worried that her biological clock was approaching figurative midnight, and that it might rain before she figured out whether she’d left a window open at her apartment so she could call a neighbor and ask her to close it. She worried that the neighbor might not be home.
Like I said. Every. Thing.
This was a problem for me because being around a worrier par excellence like Loretta tended to drag my normally upbeat, confident self down a negative rat hole. When Loretta was puckering, I would catch myself surveilling the History & Geography section for crime lords, and feeling annoyed with myself. And with Loretta.
Of course, Loretta was entirely justified in being worried about Lloyd. I myself experienced an extra stab of concern when she said, “And, Allie, I had this feeling he was up to something. Something that was making him too excited and happy for his own good.”
I probed for more info from the “up to something” index, but she seized another tissue and wept into it some more. When she emerged, pale and bloodshot, she could only shake her head in response to my “Something? Like what?” questions, which I phrased three or four different ways. Until I ran out of new ways. And patience.
At that moment, I heard Tom coming down the grand staircase with the smooth assurance of a man who’s honed his remaining four senses and added on what he calls the “blind man Spidey sense.” That one has proved to be almost superhuman from time to time. But mostly, he’s just really paying attention.
His arrival was a welcome interruption. Loretta was distracted by Tom’s tall, tan, fit, and handsome appearance—dimple and sexy white tee-shirt included—and the irresistible attraction of his intense interest. Nothing is so captivating to an unhappy human being as someone who truly, deeply listens to what’s on her mind. It helps that Tom empathizes at the drop of a hat. And, as noted, he is way hot. One look and Loretta stopped sobbing.
I gave Tom the short version of Loretta’s concerns about Lloyd maybe being over his head and getting into some sort of trouble, and he pressed her for “anything at all you can remember.”
For Tom, she thought extra-hard.
“I don’t have anything specific. You need to know this about Lloyd. He was the sweetest man. He had a kind heart. But something made him feel…oh…not good enough. Even though he was very smart, he had a problem with that.
“A couple of weeks before he disappeared, I sort of blurted out that I loved him. And he—I could see he really wanted to say he loved me, too. But he couldn’t. Right after that he started talking about being more of the kind of person I deserved. Who could give me things. Take me places. Allie, you know me. I don’t want to go places. I’m scared to travel. But I think those things Lloyd was talking about…they usually cost a lot of money.”
She was crying again and I was wishing I could go back and be a better friend to Loretta in our Mem-Nott days.
She got out another tissue. “That’s all I know. Just that bad feeling of Lloyd trying something dangerous and maybe doing that for me. I can’t remember anything more specific. Except feeling terribly, terribly worried. You know?”
I knew. I nodded and she told Tom and me about the last time Lloyd was seen on Planet Earth.
“He was on Euclid, headed west, at 11:52 p.m., Friday, February 24th. He ran the stoplight at Euclid and Mayfield. The flashy camera got him.”
When I’d first suggested—while under the influence of love and champagne—that Tom and I might become the T&A Detective Agency and use his money to help people solve their mysteries, he recommended we put my initial first, so as to prevent folks from assuming we only investigate in strip clubs.
By now, though, we realized that we would never be a detective agency with a logo and a business card, so I decided we should leave it the way it was. It gave us something to chuckle about. Which is always an asset in your business name, as far as I’m concerned.
The T&A was a work in progress. Apart from locating a missing Volvo for my former landlady and best friend forever, Margo—ill-advised teen joyride in the first degree—we’d yet to have a real assignment.
Therefore, The Lloyd Case was big. And an excellent example of the sort of case we had in mind. Mysteries of the heart. Answers for the kind of unanswered questions that leave cavernous holes in people’s lives. And since we would never have to worry about running our agency in the black, we figured we could make up the rules as we went.
One obstacle to my plans for free-for-all rulemaking was Otis. Tom was the T, and I was the A, but Otis was the only actual P.I. His status and expertise as a former Cleveland Police Officer made him a shoo-in for accreditation. At that moment, Otis was the man standing between me and my rightful cartes blanches for rulemaking and breaking. Otis actually knew the rules, and he fully expected us to follow them. Right then, I was thinking of a rule I wanted to break that very afternoon.
After Loretta left, Otis, Tom, and I convened in the breakfast room to discuss what the T&A Detective Agency could do to help Loretta find out what happened to her poor, stoplight-obsessed, almost-certainly-dead boyfriend.
While Tom and I enjoyed some waffles and bacon with juice and coffee, and Otis had his usual spartan yogurt and fruit, I was describing to Tom the view of the lake, which was shimmering like a cocktail dress in the mid-morning light.
View Narration is part of my job description in our relationship. I give him my eyes. He’s responsible for giving me his ears and his sixth sense for knowing when someone—unfortunately, me in particular—is telling a big fat fib.
I love my job.
Just then, though, he was frowning. “A cocktail dress? I’m having a little trouble visualizing.”
“You do remember sequins?”
I said this, knowing that Tom could rely on an extensive inventory of things he’d seen before he’d lost his sight to a stroke that doctors called “anomalous” in a twenty-five-year-old, but which did him permanent damage anyway.
He grinned. “Ah. Sequins. Thank you, Allie.”
Otis was frowning. “Our job is to find out what happened to Mr. Bunker so Ms. Coates can have peace of mind. But we don’t have much to go on. Okay. We know his car was on Euclid at the intersection with Mayfield at 11:52 on the night of February 24th.” He shook his head sadly. “That’s it.”
“If that’s what we’ve got, let’s take a look.” I swiveled on my chair and opened the top drawer of the breakfront that stood like an icon of French civilization against the wall. On top of the impressive array of silver cutlery which came with the house was a map of the City of Cleveland. It’s hard to find a paper map these days. I procured this one—perhaps the last in the known world—from the Cleveland Office of the Triple A. I valued it more than the silver spoons, which didn’t belong to me anyhow.
I spread out my map on the table. “Help me think about where Lloyd might have gone.”
I placed my finger at the intersection of Euclid and Mayfield. It marked the epicenter of University Circle, with its hospital complex, Severance Hall, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and, of course, Case Western Reserve University—whose University it is the Circle of.
I have to confess that at that moment, in my skeptical mind, the map was about as untrustworthy as a Ouija board. It’s a big world. How could we ever know where Lloyd got himself to that night? My confidence level was low. I was considering how easy it was to think about being an amateur detective, compared to actually needing to figure something out.
“Let’s at least assume that Lloyd was behind the wheel. Otherwise…” I moved on.
“So. All we know for sure about Lloyd is that he had an unusual aversion to stoplights and that he was here.” I tapped the map. “Where he actually ran one. Not by much, I don’t think. Somebody who organizes his life around not wanting to stop at an intersection obviously believes he’s supposed to stop on red. I bet he was sure he made that one.
“Tom? This is your campus, your territory. You don’t drive it every day, but you don’t have to think about driving when you’re there, and you sure seem to know where everything is. Tell us what you see, too.”
The very first day we met, right before we were run down by the Mondo BOF and the onset of true love, Tom suggested that we agree to “cut to the chase on all the sight metaphors.” This saves a tremendous amount of conversational gyration.
“Close your eyes,” he answered me. “Let’s build us a mental picture.”
I obeyed, allowing myself a quick peek at Otis to make sure he was playing along.
Unnecessary precaution. Otis’ calm black Buddha face was dutifully closed up for serious concentration. Back behind my eyelids, I smiled into the murky night of Friday, February 24th. Otis and Tom were pretty much always on the same page.
“I’ll start,” I said. “We know it’s dark. And probably snowing. I got that from Loretta and I checked online. Two to four inches and another two to four after midnight. We can be confident that Lloyd stayed on Euclid here. Since he ran the light.”
I squeezed my eyes tighter. “It’s late, it’s dark, maybe the streets are getting slick. If you keep going, there’s Church of the Covenant on your right and then Severance Hall.”
I pictured them both, majestic and beautiful, shrouded in falling snow. Euclid Avenue, four lanes wide, stretched out ahead, unfurling itself westward toward downtown. On a night like that, the landmark buildings of the Cleveland Clinic would be glowing. Hazy but iconic all the same.
“The Lloyd we know wouldn’t have turned up the hill, it’s a snare of lights and slowdowns.”
Tom was nodding along. “Agreed. Stop and go. He could have turned right at Severance onto East Boulevard. Go that way and you can circle by the Art Museum and on down to MLK. It’s pretty narrow and winding, but there are no lights until you get to the VA. He might have turned in there.
“Well, for sure, I don’t see him heading on downtown.” Otis threw in. “You have to stop a good bit, no matter if traffic is light. Even if he were headed somewhere in the city, I think he’d turn at Chester and take MLK because…”
I reached out, found his arm, and gripped it tight as realization struck. I knew that light. I myself loved its “free pass to MLK” arrow a lot. Now it was pointing the way. Here was a sign and a portent.
I got a shiver. Our Ouija board was working, after all.
My eyes popped open and February morphed back into June. I tapped the magic map again.
“Otis, you are a genius. And, anyhow, whether Lloyd turned at Severance or here, there’d only be a couple lights at the VA Hospital intersection. That time of night he could adjust his approach and be home free to the Shoreway. I think there’s only one light total on MLK between Chester and the lake. It’s all the way at the end.”
“And so many places down there for a man to disappear.” Tom mused.
We sat and thought on that one for a while.
Otis rumbled into our thoughtful silence. “Maybe we don’t know anything for sure, but at least we can ask Tony about any reports from MLK between the VA and the Shoreway that night. We already need him to find out if anything turned up on the missing person’s report Loretta filed back in February.”
Tony Valerio was a Cleveland cop, and he’d been a major player in last summer’s MondoMega crime-spree drama. In spite of his extreme aggravation with my meddling in official police business, we’d emerged as somewhat uneasy allies. He liked Tom. He already knew Otis. He could just about put up with me.
We wanted Tony on our side, but I also needed to keep him out of my sandbox for another couple of hours.
I cleared my throat. Tom and Otis shot me simultaneous facial expressions of sudden, profound suspicion.
“Uh. Before we call Tony? Loretta had a key to Lloyd’s house. That’s how she got his ticket after he disappeared. She left her key here with me.” I paused to craft my next couple of sentences for maximum nonchalance.
“Maybe we should go there today? Since Loretta gave me her key.” I arranged my expression to exude nonchalance and glanced at Otis. Sideways.
“That would be legal, wouldn’t it, Otis? Since Loretta has given us her permission. And her key…”
I was mentally reviewing the number of times I’d said “key” so far. It seemed weak to me, but that key was all I had. I let my voice trail away and went to silent running.
Otis scowled into the bottom of his fruit and yogurt bowl. “That’s a very gray area, I’d say.”
I locked my gaze on him until he looked up, met my eyes, and caved. “Okay. All right. No apparent downside. It’s not like anybody’s tearin’ up the neighborhoods searching for Lloyd. I figure the place has already been eliminated, assuming they even found somebody to go there. Tony would agree. Chances are, if we don’t find Lloyd, nobody ever will. We can go look around without getting into trouble. I just hope—”
I paid him off with my warmest love-you-Otis face and moved on. Briskly. “We’ll need you to drive, Otis”
Signed. Sealed. Delivered.
A word about the official T&A vehicle. Tom didn’t feel that money was the absolute root of all evil, exactly, but he’d had plenty of bad experiences of late to make him leery of its temptations.
His blindness rendered him mostly impervious to the lure of the glittery, flashy, and overpriced. However, he did have some weaknesses that I was more than willing to exploit. When it came to the selection of a car for our transportation and security, he was as vulnerable as any man to the voluptuous embrace of a luxury automobile. This went double for Otis, who always secretly envisioned himself either being or transporting a rock star.
All of which explains how we came into possession of the Ice Black Cadillac Escalade. Bose sound system and the leathery fragrance of luxury for Tom. Navigation and general cushiness for me. Every single thing about it for Otis. Besides, it looked very safe. Actually, it looked impenetrable. I like that in a car.
Lloyd lived in a one-family house on Ridpath Avenue in Collinwood. A street of modest-sized houses, mostly carefully maintained. Flower boxes. Bicycles in the yards. One notable junker car, an ancient Chevy sedan with an insouciant mustache of rust emblazoned across its hood, parked facing the wrong way. Older folks walking their dogs and sitting on their porches. Kids everywhere. Idle hands on a warm summer afternoon.
I noticed I felt more at home here than in Bratenahl. I also noticed that the Escalade was broadcasting “movie stars or serious drug deal” up and down the block. Almost before Otis silenced the purr of the big motor, the vehicle was mobbed by eager boys and girls. Otis sighed. I knew he was envisioning ten pairs of grubby hands pawing his meticulously applied shine.
He stepped out and loomed over the kids in all his big, dark, well-dressed officialness. Otis still knew how to “do cop” when he needed to. The children were not easily intimidated—they were growing up in Collinwood. But they stepped back.
Otis made eye contact with the tallest of the boys and signaled him to move closer.
The kid stepped up.
Otis leaned down. “Nice car.” Not a question.
The boy nodded.
“Give me your hand.”
This was almost too much. The boy took a step back but then made contact with the force field of his cohorts behind him. His reputation was at stake. He braced his shoulders and reached forward. Otis took the small brown hand in his huge one and gently turned it palm up. “What’s your name?”
“You know about fingerprints, right, A.J.?”
The boy bobbed his head vigorously.
“That’s good. Well, look.”
He selected the kid’s index finger and placed it gently but firmly on the shiny surface, gave it the obligatory side-to-side roll, and then returned the hand to its owner.
A.J. peered at the smudged print on the gleaming Ice Black door. He nodded again, his expression hovering between fear and excitement.
Otis nodded, too.
“That’s your own fingerprint, A.J. Nobody else’s anywhere is like yours. If you never put your hands where they’re not supposed to be in this world, your prints won’t ever get you in trouble. I’d like that. Wouldn’t you?”
The boy eyed the smudge, worriedly, and looked back up at Otis. “I guess so.”
Otis pulled an immaculate hanky from his back pocket and buffed away the print.
“Now. You and your friends are welcome to admire this car. But not to touch it. And if you do, I’ll know. And don’t assume you can just rub out your prints, like I did. Somebody always misses one. Okay?”
“Good. You’re in charge, A.J. Don’t let your friends do anything stupid.”
He glanced at Tom and me where we stood, well back of the car ourselves, somewhat intimidated by this performance. I was resisting the impulse to bury my own guilty hands in my pockets. Otis acknowledged our deference with a satisfied nod. “We should go.”
Lloyd’s house was on the north side of the street and differentiated from its neighbors by its lawn, a tangle of grass at least a foot tall. The three of us stood on the front walk like we were waiting for an invitation.
Everything about the scene spoke of months of neglect. The windows were opaque with grime. The blinds, splotched and sagging, were pulled all the way down. The porch was layered with the debris of winter, the pollen of spring, and the dust of summer. A heap of newspapers by the door was slowly recycling itself. For at least a couple of weeks, the Cleveland Plain Dealer delivery person must have pretended Lloyd was still reading his paper.
The old-fashioned porch swing appeared functional but pathetic, nonetheless. Behind it, a climbing rose still scrambled up its trellis, still blooming, still dispensing its perfume, as if it remembered that happier, prettier days had transpired here.
I imagined Loretta showing up in early March, before the rose offered one bright spot of hope. Finding Lloyd not around. Worrying.
The street was all quiet now. The children were standing as close as they dared to the Escalade, but even they were subdued, like visitors viewing the body at a wake. I could hear the shush of cars on 156th and a bird talking some birdly trash, but the rest was silence.
I was experiencing the eyes-boring-into-you feeling I’d learned to call “Creepy Eye” when the MondoMegaMadness was in full swing last summer. The watchers may have been out of sight, but I could feel their gaze, fixed on the back of my neck. I was also entertaining the very uncomfortable awareness that Lloyd was missing and only presumed dead. What if he were at home and receiving visitors? Alive and waiting, armed against intruders. Or home and dead. Possibly long, long dead. Either way, I was not reassured.
Tom was feeling the tension, too. “Allie. There’s something…”
He was doing what I was learning to think of as “Tom’s Full-Body-Listening.” Stripped of the supreme distraction of sight, he was free to absorb everything in his environment—sound, smell, taste, vibration, proximity, and much, much more.
“I’m a bat,” he’d say without embarrassment. “I can’t see. But I feel what’s around me. A lot better than most sighted people do. I have my own radar.”
This bat thing always sent me straight to, “Mmm, Dracula!” and that thought would devolve into fantasies of Tom biting my neck and changing me into a creature who would live forever in his darkness, probably naked, and be able to make love to him for all eternity. I never talked about this idea but I believed he intuitively knew.
However, right now, Tom wasn’t using his blind radar on me.
“I hear…water. And there’s a smell, too. It’s thick. Musty. Woodsy. I can—I can taste it.”
I took a deep breath. I could smell it now, too, and I did not want to taste it. I fished in my purse for the key. Otis stepped up, hanky in hand, to turn the knob. I wondered if his junior detectives were noting that Otis was the enemy of all prints everywhere today.
The door was designed to open inward, but it was currently hung up on something. Otis put his shoulder to it and pushed until it gave way enough that we could see inside. The smell rushed out to meet us.
Mildew, mold, decay, thick and pungent enough to make my eyes sting. And the sound of water. Water dripping. Water everywhere. It trickled down the walls from the second story. It stood in puddles on the floor. Saturating—no, make that supersaturating—everything. The wallpaper was peeling right off, the plaster under it dissolved, revealing bare lathe. Sodden carpet and swollen flooring blocked the door. Ruin everywhere.
Otis was the first to speak. “Damn. He’s been scrapped.”
My heart sank as I took in the moldering destruction. The expression “scene has been compromised” didn’t do this justice. Anything I hoped to find—telltale paperwork, incriminating answering machine messages, any useful anything at all—was toast. Or whatever the soggy opposite of toast might be.
Plus, even if I might be game to slog on in there and have a look-see, Otis now had me firmly by the arm.
“No, Allie. It might have not been a crime scene before, but it totally is now. I have to call this in. And if you put a foot inside that door, it will be obvious that you did that. On the floor. On you. You don’t want that kind of attention for something that’s going to get you nowhere anyway.”
“Hell, Otis. Okay. Can we at least sit in the swing until the cops show up?”
He unpacked the slightest suggestion of a smile. “You and Tom can, Allie. I’m not sure it would hold the three of us.”
When they arrived, the cops appeared to share Otis’ assessment of the usefulness of a premises search. After squeezing in and sloshing around enough to make sure Lloyd was not in residence, they came back out and focused their attention on Otis.
They were deferential to Tom, and didn’t regard me with much suspicion. I appreciated that. I’d attracted considerable unfortunate attention up at Fifth District Police Headquarters the previous summer. If Tom was now unofficially identified in the community as “The Blind Mondo,” I was for sure “his nutso girlfriend.”
They took down some information. They promised to inform City Services about the situation. Then they nodded politely, got back in their squad car, and departed the scene. They did not trouble us—or themselves—with the “And why were you here?” question. I figured Otis was enough for them.
After a few minutes, the neighbors who had been lured out by the arrival of the squad car dispersed. Even the kids were gone by the time we got back to the Escalade. One was still hanging around, though.
A.J. was standing a judicious distance from the SUV, his eyes fixed on Otis. “It was scrappers, wasn’t it?”
This got Otis’ full attention. He squatted down so they were eye-to-eye. “You saw something.”
The boy nodded. “Yeah. Maybe a month ago. Before school let out. Some guys in a beat-up brown van. My mom is part of the Neighborhood Watch thing, but she doesn’t watch much. Too busy. But I saw them. And a light was on overnight, too. It was raining a lot that week. Nobody outside to see or hear anything.”
“What did the guys look like?”
“Guys. Three or four. One black guy, couple of white. Maybe. I only ever saw their backs as they were leaving. Skinny. Grungy. Boots.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t want to say and then be wrong and get in trouble for snooping around. Nobody seemed to care.”
Otis fished in his jacket pocket and brought out a card. “Listen, A.J., if you see anything else around that house, this is my phone number. Call me. 24/7. Don’t DO anything. Guys like that—you don’t want to mess with them. Just call me, okay?” He handed the card to the boy who looked at it like it was LeBron’s autograph and then tucked it carefully into the pocket of his jeans.
“If I help you sometimes, could I maybe ride in your car?”
“Sure. Your mom would have to say it’s okay. But remember what I said about calling me and not DOING anything?”
“I got that part.” And he strolled away, cool. Little cucumber. He made me think of Rune, the kid Tom was trying to dissuade from gambling when he bought the one and only lottery ticket of his life.
A.J. showed the same wary intelligence, the same intrepid curiosity that made Rune so great. Rune, who lived in Pittsburgh now with his Aunt Iona, Uncle Clarence, and his four cousins. Hidden away from Mondo notoriety. And danger. Iona arrived at the precise moment Tom and I were hoping to adopt him. Iona was a wonderful lady and it was right for Rune to be with his family, but that was still a sore spot for us. We missed him, but we knew he couldn’t be safe with us right now. Not even for a visit.
Tom talked about marriage before the Rune disappointment, but he hadn’t mentioned it since. When I applied Allie’s Full-Body-Listening, everything I could see, hear, taste, touch told me Tom and I were forever. But it was only natural to ask myself sometimes if I was the blind one in the Allie + Tom equation.
I couldn’t inquire about that so instead I jumped to another question that was top of mind. “Otis, what’s a scrapper?”
Ten minutes later we were scrunched into a booth at Chloe’s, the diner up on 156th. The lunch crowd was cleared out so it was the three of us with our burgers and handcrafted chips. Afternoon sunlight glinted off the Escalade outside the front window. It rippled artfully down over the sculpted front of Tom’s still pristine and awesome white tee. Close enough to touch and yet so far—Lordy, Allie. Get a grip.
We respected Otis’ desire to eat his Chloe’s Special Burger in peace, but he was slowing down now, so Tom repeated my question for me.
“You said Lloyd was scrapped, Otis. And A.J. said the people he saw were scrappers. I’ve heard of it, but what’s scrapped about what we found there? I call it ‘drowned.’”
“A mess. That’s what it’s about, Tom. About folks so screwed up in the head and so desperate they’ll trash a whole house—do maybe a hundred-thousand dollars in damage—to pry loose a hundred bucks’ worth of scrap metal. They break right into walls. Drag away fixtures, appliances, whatever they can break loose. Sell them for…something. Pennies.”
I was having trouble shaking off the sight of dripping walls and green sludge everywhere. “But, Otis, why turn on the water? That seems unnecessarily malicious.”
“Nah. Scrappers aren’t—” He frowned and fished around for the perfect word. “They mostly aren’t aware enough to be malicious. They didn’t turn on the water. They just didn’t bother to turn it off when they cut into the lines. And it worked well for them. Who’s going to slop around in there looking for prints or evidence? The scene is destroyed. Totally.”
This sent me right back to how morose I was feeling. How our chances of finding anything more about what happened to Lloyd were slimmer than none. And how I was going to have to break it to Loretta about the house being ruined.
I was staring sadly down at the remains of my lunch and considering a piece of Chloe’s peach pie for comfort’s sake, when the street door opened and Tom said, “Hello, Tony.”
I looked up. It was Tony Valerio, all right. In his “I am an officer of the law and you most assuredly are not” uniform. He paused inside the door, hands on hips within easy reach of his weapons—Glock, Mace, Taser, the works. He was packing his stern face, too. Especially for me.
I needed a distraction.
“Tom!” I exclaimed with a cheery interest I did not feel. “How on Earth did you know it was Tony?”
He grinned. “Right after the car door slammed, a guy out front said, ‘Hey, Tony.’” He gestured to the vacant spot in our booth. “Have a seat. You want something to eat? I believe Allie is thinking about pie.”
This did amaze me. “How did you know?”
“Babe. I do not have to see you to know what you’re thinking.”
Valerio slid into the booth next to Otis. The monobrow formed a veritable ledge of disapproval. “Word has it you were apprehended at another crime scene, Ms. Harper.”
“‘Apprehended’ is not a fair word.”
“You got a fairer one?”
“I think it would be more appropriate to mention that when we merely showed up on Mr. Bunker’s porch and discovered that intruders had been in the house, I encouraged Otis to alert the proper authorities.”
“Merely showed up? With a key.”
“Mr. Bunker’s—I paused. “Girlfriend” didn’t do justice to what Loretta had been to Lloyd, or what his memory was to her now, but maybe I was a bit oversensitive on that point. “Mr. Bunker’s friend, Loretta Coates, a former colleague of mine at the library, gave me the key so we could check to make sure—” Tricky here. “—to make sure he wasn’t…uh…home. Would you like some pie, Tony? The peach is really good here.”
“I’m going to say one more time that getting mixed up in official police business is a leading cause of death amongst wannabee P.I.’s.”
“I would take that very much to heart, Tony, if I wanted to be a P.I. I do not.”
I felt comfortable with this. It was even the truth, for a change. I wanted to do all my investigating while standing safely in the shadow of my real P.I., under the protection of his gun, with no need at all for any gun of my own. I wanted the investigating done by me to be more of an intellectual adventure. I’d already been shot once and I hadn’t liked it.
Reassured to be wearing the righteous armor of the truth for a change, I pressed on. “And as far as I know, there is no ongoing investigation into Lloyd’s disappearance. He’s missing. That’s all. Gone, but not forgotten by Loretta Coates. As far as I can see, nobody else is thinking about Lloyd anymore.”
Tony sighed. “Pass me a menu. I need pie.”
I chalked that up as a victory for The Wannabee. Tony, being an honest but realistic Cleveland cop, would have to gloss over our modest misbehavior, given that I was right. Nobody at the CLE PD had the leisure to figure out what happened to Lloyd.
I ordered the pie, too, à la mode.
Things got more congenial after that, and everybody at the table had pie with the à la mode and coffee to go with it. I waited for the sugar to kick in and then I eased another inquiry into the chitchat. “How come I’ve totally missed this scrapping thing?”
The question wiped all the pie happiness off Valerio. “You don’t want to know. It’s a mess, Allie.”
I nodded toward Otis. “I heard. But how does it work? How often does it happen?”
“Way too often.” Tony held up his coffee cup and the waitperson came and refilled it.
“You’re stonewalling me, aren’t you?”
“Every minute of every day.”
“I’m curious, though. How come I’ve never heard of this?”
“Do you really want me to do research on my own?”
I had him. I knew it. I waited until he was completely done with the long, drawn-out, aggravated-yet-somehow-resigned sigh.
“Okay. But only to keep you out of it. Right?”
“One absolutely might hope.”
Sarcasm. But I’d set him rolling now.
“Scrapping got big because of one of those perfect storms.” He sighed again. “First, there’s the drug addicts and minor criminals. They need small or large amounts of money virtually every day and their lives are too disorganized for jobs or…or anything. Scrapping is who they are most of the time.
“Then, as if that could be worse, regular folks, kids a lot of the time, but grown-ups who should know a lot better—” He was in his head now, his expression cramped by disapproval and pessimism.
“They get themselves hooked on prescription painkillers, which are cheap if your doctor prescribes them after your major surgery and crazy expensive—thirty…fifty dollars a pill expensive—if you buy them on the street. And guess what’s cheaper? Heroin, is what. So now there are all these rich suburban idiots driving around our neighborhoods looking for H. And overdosing. And getting shot by dealers and common muggers. That’s a mess almost nobody saw coming.”
He was pushing the last forkful of pie around on his plate. I was thinking maybe he’d fallen off his train of thought entirely, but he shook his head and started up again.
“On top of that, times are still tough around here. People drift out of the marginal ne’er-do-well category and into the desperate-need-of-money/no-job-available category.
“Then—concurrently—the housing market took that dive. And in Cleveland it was already down, so that hit hard. Scams. Bank fraud. Foreclosures. Vacant houses. Easy pickings. And about the same time, the demand for scrap metal went up. So the money got better.”
“How much money are we talking about?”
“For a while copper hovered around four bucks a pound. It’s not there now, but still it’s money, and heroin is cheap and available. Couple of hours of trashing a house and you can at least get a fix. They go after other metals, too.”
“Brass. Bronze. Aluminum. Steel somewhat.”
“Girl, you would not believe. Besides vacant houses? Manhole covers. Cemetery flower urns. Somebody swiped a three-thousand-pound Buddha out on the West Coast someplace. Catalytic converters have platinum in them, so suddenly your car starts running extremely loud.”
“But that would—”
“Cause problems for people? You think? Manhole covers cover up big deep, dangerous holes, right? City is starting to weld them in place now, which is major ass-pain for guys who have legitimate reasons to go down in there. Oh, and power companies really need their copper wire that the electricity runs through. And the miserable sons of bitches who are swiping the metal out of transformers and substations get themselves fried—which I could almost feel sorry about—and that knocks out the power, too. It’s one, giant—”
“Mess. I’m beginning to see.”
“It’s ugly. It’s dangerous. Sometimes people go away for a weekend and come back to the sort of thing that happened to Lloyd. For what? For nothing.”
“But Tony, somebody somewhere has to be making major money on this. Where’s the real profit?”
He clunked his mug down hard and iced me with a look. “Nowhere I would ever expect to find you, sweetheart.”
I let it drop. Apart from my own nosiness, I couldn’t see how the scrapper angle was relevant to what happened to Lloyd before or during his disappearance. The house thing was bad, and I knew it would be disheartening for Loretta, but assuming Lloyd was dead—which I was thinking he most likely was—he was beyond caring about the condition of his home. I needed to let that one go.
I shifted gears.
“Otis mentioned you might have seen the missing persons’ report that Ms. Coates filed in February. Can you tell us anything at all that might give us some insight into what might have happened to him?”
Ha! Diversionary tactic. I’d intercepted Tony at the point where he was about to start yelling at me and knocked him off-kilter so far that, after a short disoriented pause, he simply answered my question.
“We didn’t find anything, Allie. I looked at the file before I headed down here. I passed the Escalade on my way to Ridpath Avenue.” He risked half a smile. “I know how you can’t go by pie without stopping….
“Officer checked out his house back then. He wasn’t there and it hadn’t been touched, as far as she could see. Ms. Coates had already contacted every hospital and doc-in-a-box in town. More than once. Early morning on the night Lloyd went missing, someone called in a blue/green vintage GTO broken down and being towed away by a non-tow-truck-type vehicle on MLK. Thought it seemed funny. You may have heard that ‘seems funny’ doesn’t cut it with the 9-1-1 folks? It was gone by the time a car got a minute free from actual crimes to drive by. Could have been a hijacking in a pinch, I suppose.”
I nudged Tom and kicked Otis on the ankle. MLK. That much we had some evidence for. Oblivious to our moment of detective triumph, Tony continued.
“By the day the Coates lady filed her official report, and somebody connected the dots, there was nothing to see down there. It snowed ten inches that weekend. Then thawed early the next week, low forties, pounding rain. The brook was high out of its banks. Everything bone-cold and sucking mud. Nobody looked too hard or too long. And that was it. No other calls. Nothing.”
I scouted around for a facial expression that would indicate to Tony that I was discouraged and losing interest. I didn’t have to look far. I could feel it on my face.
Tony recognized authentic disappointment when he saw it. “Well, I gotta get back in the car. Still some shift left.” A sad smile. “The ‘f” is silent.”
He extricated himself from the booth and groaned as he straightened out his knees. “Enjoy the rest of your day, Allie. I’m looking forward to not seeing you around.”
Sunday, June 18
I would have preferred to spend Sunday morning at my leisure. In bed. Reading the Sunday funnies to Tom. That’s a euphemism. So I was dismayed to find myself, after barely twenty-four hours, back in the company of Loretta. It felt as if she’d hardly left the house and here she was back again. Not crying nearly as continuously, though.
It helped that I invited her for brunch and that Otis was cooking. I had a hard time remembering my life before Otis became our full-time, live-in bodyguard, P.I. Guy, and aspiring Food TV chef. It seemed very far away and Otis-deprived. Otis was happy, too. He had his own wing, which equaled a house in luxury square footage, and complete access to both the main and second-floor kitchens where he exercised his chefly skills every chance he got. Plus his salary was Arco Security Guard x 4. With excellent benefits. Win/Win/Win. All around.
Loretta and I were sitting at one of the tables on the pool deck surveying a spread that included French toast, lightly dusted with powdered sugar and a taste of maybe cinnamon, a compote of fresh fruit, a side of bacon, and of course Otis’ premium coffee. The big, numerous flower boxes were flowering in color-coordinated pink and rose. The lake was shimmering all sequin-like again.
If I could have swapped in Tom for Loretta and Otis, my morning would have been complete. As it was I was only marginally okay. I was getting to the part about Lloyd’s house and that was bound to change the tone of the day for the worse.
When I added up everything we had on Lloyd, it totaled less than nothing. Without a paper trail or any other possible evidence I might have discovered in Lloyd’s swamp before it got to be a swamp, there was nothing to investigate. In the figurative search for the needle that was Lloyd, we had not found even an intact haystack. Tony Valerio would have been delighted by what a bust at mystery-solving the T&A was turning out to be.
I fortified myself with a sip of Otis’ high-test brew and slogged in. I explained about the GTO maybe having been seen down on MLK, figuring that for sure Loretta would have called to check on her missing persons’ report—multiple times—and already knew. She had. She did. I wondered why she hadn’t mentioned that the day before, but then I remembered her state of mind on that occasion and my own reluctance to probe. At last, I turned, ever so gently, to a description of the condition in which we discovered Lloyd’s home.
I was surprised. She took it well. Granted, I didn’t lay it on too thick about the flood, the sludge, and the mildew, but I made it clear that Lloyd’s place was a teardown. She found the whole scrapper thing as confusing and terrible as I did, but she held up to the news without crying. Maybe knowing that Lloyd had nothing to come home to now, made his disappearance more palatable. Or more final.
She actually patted my hand. “You tried, Allie. I appreciate that. I do. Maybe it’s time for me to admit he’s gone and he’s not coming back. I’m probably never going to find out where or how.”
Wouldn’t you know? Right when Loretta starting letting Lloyd go, I started hanging on to him. Maybe I was realizing this was going to be an inauspicious start for the T&A. Maybe I was getting all chafed about how Valerio was going to show me his most irritating, self-satisfied face the next time I saw him.
I could have let the whole thing drop and gone back to bed with Tom for the rest of the day.
“I was hoping we’d discover some real evidence at the house. Paperwork. Pay stubs. Banking stuff. Tax info. Address book. Something. Anything. Now that avenue is closed to us and I don’t…”
Loretta’s expression hushed my mouth.
“But Allie, I have all that stuff about Lloyd. Why didn’t you ask me?”
Ah. Why, indeed?
I’d glossed over the most fundamental truth about Loretta: She was a librarian, for mercy’s sake. Information was her stock in trade. And any information she had access to would be expertly collated, filed, and safeguarded.
I’d let my estimation of Loretta as an over-emotional worrier blind me to her indisputable value as an excellent practitioner of her profession. I didn’t want to upset her with a lot of questions. Worse than that, I hadn’t thought to ask.
I sent my brain a mental reminder to also follow up on the “I had a feeling Lloyd was up to something” dead end, too. For an irritatingly dogged person, I’d let an inexcusable ton of stuff slide.
Loretta was our first, best resource regarding Lloyd, but I was focused on him, what he’d had, what he’d done, where he’d been. I’d been focused on me, how clever and capable I was about to be. And on Tom, how smart. And hot. And I’d neglected to ask Loretta some of the most rudimentary questions. In other words, I’d been stupid.
“I don’t know why I didn’t, Loretta.” False. “I should have. I wasn’t thinking.” True.
She patted my hand again and I tried to hide how much worse that was making me feel. I sat up straighter and began afresh. “So. Tell me what all you’ve got.”
She settled back in her chair with a smug smile that reminded me how close to get-out-of-jail-free-and-back-in-bed-with-Tom I’d been.
Too late now, Alice. Suck it up.
“Well, first, you’d have to have known Lloyd. He was an interesting guy. I wasn’t joking about the OCD thing. Not that it’s anything to joke about, but you know how challenging…although apparently he was actually OCPD. I guess that means he had obsessive compulsions, but believed that was a good, smart way to be. Oh. Wait. I just remembered.”
She vanished into her purse, which, from what I could see, was eons better-organized than any purse of mine, and pulled out a small manila envelope. Handed it to me. Teared up. “I wanted you to see—this is Lloyd.”
I took the envelope from her and extracted the photo.
Lloyd. Our case. Loretta’s lost love. I smiled into his anxious expression. He looked right past me. No eye contact. It could have been a fifth-grade school photo if the guy in it wasn’t fifty-something and wearing a real suit and a tie that didn’t clip on.
Lloyd was the boy in every elementary school class I’d ever been in—the kid with the clean, round cheeks, slicked-down thrice-combed hair, and the worried, self-conscious blue eyes. The smart one who never had the answer when he was called on. Too insecure, too beaten down by something or someone, too wounded to let the smile creep into his eyes.
Or to say, “I love you, too, Loretta.”
Damn. Lloyd broke my heart.
I blinked hard before I looked up. Not that Loretta would mind if I cried about Lloyd, but I didn’t want to threaten her hopes about how he might still be playing the slots in Vegas.
“Oh, Loretta. He’s handsome. And very smart. Even I can see that.’
She was nodding. Smiling, even while she was still blotting some tears. Happy, in spite of everything, that it was so obvious to me why she was so proud of Lloyd.
“He got an economics degree from John Carroll and he was a CPA, too, but he—” The smile faded. “It didn’t help him very much. He had these weird ideas and wasn’t the least bit shy about sharing them, so he could never hold down a job very long. Until recently. I mean, people could only be patient for so long. I don’t know how I—”
She stopped herself from speaking disloyally of the almost-certainly dead. I jumped in to give her a hand, “You said, ‘until recently.’ He got a job?”
“Yes. He said it was ‘security work’ for some big company. Odd hours. Lots of nights. I figured, maybe, night watchman? You can see how that would be perfect?”
I could see. “And he liked that?”
“He was so relieved to find work he could actually do and not get fired. It didn’t pay much, at least to start. But it was steady. Regular hours were good for him. And recently, they’d given him other assignments. Things he was good at, but could do on his own. The way he needed to do things.”
“If he was an accountant, how come he gave his paper stuff to you? Even his address book?”
“He knew I’d take care of it all and he could get it from me at any time. The whole accountant thing left a bad taste in his mouth, Allie. You can imagine. He felt he was very competent, but his clients kept leaving him. And all the while he assumed everything he was insisting on doing for them was absolutely necessary and worth any extra cost involved with the extra stuff. They weren’t grateful. He never understood that.
“I was so delighted—and amazed, too, I’ll tell you—that he was able to stop handling his own paperwork. There wasn’t much but he handed over everything. I paid his bills. I have his W-2s. His financial picture was not complex. Although lately I could see he was getting cash under the table for some of the things he was doing. Which worried me. But I didn’t want to get him going, so I didn’t make a big deal about it.”
“A lot of cash?”
“Not a ton. A decent amount, in addition to the salary. That was not bad either. It all added up. And he was expecting more. He was so pleased about that. I suppose I should have asked him about it but I was trying to be…I don’t know, Allie. Let him do his own thing. Not worry so much all the time.”
There it was again. The something Lloyd might have been up to that got him disappeared. A big payout, on top of his salary, and some non-negligible cash-under-the-table. I’d follow up on that now.
I patted her hand. Feeling better.
“No worries, Loretta. We’ll figure this out.”
“Thanks, Allie. You can keep the picture. I have lots of copies. Lloyd was such a handsome man.”
By one-thirty I was following Loretta down Lake Shore. She lived in a tall lakefront building not more than a mile from our own luxury Bratenahl estate. This amazed me because I thought Loretta would concoct all kinds of concerns about living high up. I shouldn’t have given that any consideration. Her apartment was second floor and not on the lake side. She explained it was cheaper like that and less likely to get, in her words, “lashed by storms.”
I was secretly relieved when we found the door appropriately locked and her place in apple pie order. I’d been primed to consider breaking, entering, and general destruction to be the order of the day. This was all Loretta. Tidy and cozy with lots of books, naturally, and a pleasant view out to lawn, river, and trees. I sank down on a plump couch, admired my surroundings, and savored the normalcy.
For about a minute. That’s how long it took for Loretta to put her fingers with unerring certainty upon the spot where she’d filed the Lloyd papers—but not find them where she’d left them.
Let me say one thing for the record: Hell hath no fury like a librarian who can’t find something she’s looking for. Her search devolved from a harpist’s delicate pluck straight to shuffle, pummel, and paw. Her long years of discipline did not permit her to start pitching things out of the drawer as I would have done, but she was close. At last, she turned to me in quavering consternation. “Allie. The file is gone.”
This, I had deduced.
I started to ask if she was absolutely sure about where she’d put it, but stopped myself when I heard my survival skills screaming.
Mouth brakes. Sometimes they save our lives.
“—aware of anyone who might have a key to your place? Besides you.”
Oh, well. Him. I bet Lloyd would have one of those labeled key chains. With Loretta’s name and address right on it. Probably said, “Lloyd’s files are here” too. So anybody could—
That pulled me up short. Who was this so-called “anybody?”
I figured Lloyd, being probably dead, did not come here and snatch back his file. My neck tingled. Who would have connected Lloyd—and his papers—to Loretta? And how? And when?
I tuned back in as Loretta continued her review of key holders. “—And the management people do. In case you lock yourself out. Or die.”
I tried to hide my despair while sorting an unmanageable number of puzzles. Here was yet another lesson on how vast and unruly the real world of crime is. As opposed to the world of crime fiction. Whatever happened to a standard tidy handful of relevant clues?
I reminded myself to have the T&A’s second case work out more like the plot in a TV show. “Father Brown,” maybe. Short, to the point, easier. With murderers who smirked and sneered rather tellingly.
I dragged myself back to Loretta’s list.
“My friend up on the tenth floor, lakeside. Lisa from Channel 16.”
At this, Loretta’s rage and despair eased ever so slightly. She had a celebrity friend.
Ah. Coincidentally, I knew Lisa, too. Except I always referred to her as HummerWoman. She was the one who honked at a blind man in the crosswalk in front of Joe’s Super Market last summer and changed my life to unrecognizable.
In gratitude for her having hooked me up with the man of my dreams and five-hundred-fifty million smackeroos, I forgave Lisa and vowed never to reveal the circumstances of our meeting. We were getting to be pretty good friends.
For Loretta, I projected mild intrigue.
“Oh, really? The reporter?”
Loretta beamed. “Yes. She did such a wonderful story about the Memorial-Nottingham Library, and we discovered we both lived here. Now we run into each other in the bar downstairs a lot. It’s a happening place.”
Loretta, I hardly knew ye.
All this was more information than I could collate. I stuffed the list of key holders into a file drawer in my head. I hoped this file drawer was more secure than Loretta’s.
“Look, Loretta. You need to change your lock. You can give a copy of the key to Lisa.”
Why I trusted Lisa, I don’t know, but after that one breach of humanity, she’d stood up like a mama lion for us.
“And give one to me. That should handle your getting locked out.”
I did not add “or dying,” but I saw it cross her mind.
I walked over to where she was sitting—scared, sad, betrayed by her own private Dewey Decimal System—and packed as much comfort as I could muster into a teensy shoulder squeeze. “Don’t worry, Loretta. I bet you have a lot of those details in your head. Now’s not the time, though. You need to recover. And change that lock.”
She nodded. “I’m sorry, Allie. I thought I could help you find Lloyd, and I lost it all—”
A human face is a fine-tuned instrument. Right then Loretta’s was playing me the opening bars of “Except for one thing.”
“The address book, Allie. It’s a book. Not a file. So I put it on…”
She didn’t even have to show me where. I was a teeny bit librarian myself, after all. I walked over to the bookcase and pulled out a small volume, bound in black leather.
It was filed under B. For Bunker.
Monday, June 19
Lisa Cole, intrepid reporter for Channel 16, was reading aloud to me from a notebook she’d pulled out of her purse. By focusing, laser-sharp, on the page, she was avoiding my eyes and ignoring the fact that I was moving my head, slowly but firmly, from side to side.
“Listen to these quotes, Allie:
‘I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare.’
‘The money came in and the love walked out.’
‘If I knew what was going to transpire, honestly, I would have torn the ticket up.’”
She looked at me. “Is that how Tom feels, Allie? Do you?”
“Lisa,” I dragged her out of her notebook with the iron grappling hook of death in my voice. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that you yourself played a role in the “Lottery Miracle on Lake Shore Boulevard.” A role you would not want to see—how shall we say?—highlighted as ‘Ms. Honkin’ Hummer’ in the blockbuster movie about me.”
I had her there.
She’d been bugging me for weeks to have lunch at her expense in exchange for my human interest story about the Mondo. This was naiveté on her part. I could no longer be bought with a lunch. She could not even have bought me with a lunch in Paris, France.
Unbeknownst to her, we were there because I thought she might cast some light on the Lloyd situation. I moved to make my position even clearer. “Lisa, I’m paying for this lunch. I’m only ever-always paying for lunch.”
“Can I quote you?” The reporter vanished and who was left, grinning mischievously at me, was my new friend Lisa, who’d been born in the neighborhood and changed her last name from Čebulj to Cole to shake loose some consonants.
I returned the grin. “Oh, I think that’s universally understood. Not news anymore. And, yeah, I read those quotes in the Plain Dealer. You left out the ones from the friends and associates of the dead winners. Like ‘He didn’t deserve this.’”
I didn’t add that I was an admirer of the honest man who said, “I regret the drugs. I can’t say I regret the women.”
She shrugged. “It was worth a try. So it was you who maneuvered me to this lunch?”
“True. But luckily it’s a good lunch.”
It was, too. We were hiding out in an under-occupied section of the patio at The South Side Restaurant and Bar in Tremont. Nobody, as yet, had identified us as Minor TV Star and Slutty Mondo Girl, respectively, and come over to just say hi. I was deep into the Cobb salad, which was creatively deconstructed into delicious bits of perfectly grilled chicken, roasted onions, applewood-smoked bacon, and general yum. I love to dig for the happy bits in a salad. And a Bloody Mary never hurts either.
“So what do you want to know?”
“I’m looking into a disappearance for a former colleague of mine.”
“This the T&A in action?”
“You don’t know about that. You never heard a word. On pain of complete ratting out on the Hummer incident.”
“I know. I know. But I love the idea. It’s The Justice League. Solving crimes. Righting wrongs. Finding out the truth. What I thought being a reporter would be like back in my ignorant childhood.”
I considered this for a moment. Only Otis—handsome, black, muscles-all-over from the post-heart-attack weight-losing and working out—was Justice League material. But Tom did have the secret powers of his Spidey sense. And Valerio did fill a role of the insider guy with dark knowledge and hidden skills. The concept fell apart when it got to me. I had nothing. Bad hair. Easily accessed heart. Perhaps too easily accessed much, much more—
I aimed my blush at the remains of the salad, until the warmth receded somewhat.
When I resurfaced, Lisa was grinning again. “You were thinking about Tom. Is it true what they say about blind guys…?”
“Reading your body like Braille? Off the record?”
“On my mother’s žganci ” She crossed her heart.
“What is that?”
“Grits. Not important now.”
“Ah, God. And he’s handsome and über rich. You are so lucky.”
“I’m not sure I want the likes of you too close to the T&A League, Miss ‘Ah God.’”
“No. You do. Tom would never give me a second glance. Er…moment of attention. Except as a friend someday, I hope. He’s got reason not to like me much.”
“True. But I keep telling you he’s over that. It could happen. If you’re kind and helpful to me.”
She got all down to business then.
“Who’s your former colleague? And who’s missing?”
“The colleague is a friend of yours. Loretta Coates.”
“Oh, Loretta. I like her. We’re friends. She’s a sweetheart. Worries too much, though.”
“Well, not this time. The missing person is her boyfriend Lloyd Bunker.”
“She has a boyfriend?”
“He’s been missing since February. We have reason to believe he’s dead.”
“Wow. That completely sucks. But, Allie, I don’t know anything about it. Loretta’s missing boyfriend is not sensational enough for 16. Unless there’s oh, I dunno, a serial killer or maybe Democrats practicing witchcraft involved. What are the details?”
“There are no details. His car, a green ’67 Pontiac GTO was seen, apparently unoccupied, down close to the last bridge before the Shoreway on MLK in the early hours of Saturday, February twenty-fourth. After that, nada. All I have, besides that, is the fact that his house in Collinwood was scrapped and Loretta’s file with his stuff was swiped out of her apartment. So, except for his address book—What?”
On the word “scrapped” Lisa’s expression changed for the much more interested.
“Scrapped? I know some stuff about scrapped.”
“Great. I want to know some more stuff about scrapped, but, even then, I’m not sure it’s related to Lloyd’s disappearance.”
“It’s related to every kind of crime you can imagine. Drugs. The heroin kind of drugs. Meth, too. Cocaine. And now there’s fentanyl. Plus B&E. Vandalism. Murder. I—”
At that very moment, as things were getting juicy, the inevitable happened. Lisa’s cell went off like a bomb. “Heart of Rock and Roll.” Huey Lewis and The News. Naturally.
After that she was instantly answering, standing, walking, saying good-bye to me.
“Yes? Sure. Got it. I’ll be there. Give me ten. I’ll meet the van. Sorry, Allie. But listen. I have a file. I’ll have it copied and get it delivered to you tomorrow. Thanks for lunch. Bye.”
Film at 11.
At least I still had some chicken. And the Bloody Mary.
Glorious mornings! Amazing sunsets!
“This remarkably designed, gated estate overlooks Lake Erie and offers breathtaking water views and spectacular gardens on 2 1/2 impeccably manicured acres. Magnificent pool with 3 levels of expansive, connected decks. Private sand beach. This French-Revival masterpiece, circa 1914, designed by one of the legendary architects of his time, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Fully equipped, completely updated gourmet kitchen, with every modern amenity and convenience feature. 10 spacious bedrooms, 8 splendid baths. An extraordinary walk-in sky-lit shower is the gem of the sumptuous master suite. The last word in luxury. 9000+ square ft, 5 fireplaces, fully-equipped fitness room. Lake views from your treadmill! Central air. Five-car garage. Gatehouse. State-of-the-art security system by Magna-Protect, Inc.
Ask about leasing possibilities.”
Like many, many advertisements, the realtor’s listing sounded way too breathtakingly magnificent to be true, but back in late March, we were desperately looking for a big, safe place to hide. The rock-solid construction, walls, and gates, plus the impermeable security system fit the bill. And renting beat buying, even though we certainly had three million to spend.
So here we were. Palace of Versailles, Cleveland, Ohio.
When I was married to my philandering dickhead lawyer, we lived in a pleasant four-bedroom Colonial in Shaker Heights. So during those interminable years I’d experienced what I would formerly have considered spacious surroundings.
That place was a lot roomier than the cramped ranch where I’d been raised in the company of my mom and dad and my big brother who grew up to be a narrow-minded, pain-in-the-ass fundamentalist preacher. No disrespect. There were only the four of us but that house felt like the cabin of a space shuttle—all the attendant problems of choreography and waste disposal without the thrills of weightlessness.
Aggravation makes the space grow smaller, I say.
But nothing prepared me for occupying a rental house the size of Times Square. Nine thousand plus square feet is, like, five metric tons of feet. I could have dropped our entire small-town shuttle into the master bath. Given that we were renting and the true owner spirited a lot of his irreplaceable items into climate-controlled storage, much of the house consisted of immense, gorgeously paneled, heavily fireplaced but under-furnitured spaces that took a while to merely walk through.
Whenever I gazed into the living room, which opened directly into the dining room, which opened into—wait for it—the ballroom, the word “skateboard” skipped through my wicked brain.
We’d rented the mansion—in spite of our discomfiture with the yawning emptiness and over-the-top opulence—based on its availability and our need for kickass security, which this place was touted as having. Once Tom’s mental map of it all was complete, he’d shrugged and said, “Well, at least there’s not a whole lot to trip over. And the security system is intense.”
So why on that Monday afternoon after my Lisa Lunch—with Tom and Otis off on some professor-related mission—was I not feeling secure? Why was I, in fact, feeling like an ant captured by an eight-year-old in a very big jar?
A storm was moving in, churning the lake dark and wild, and a relentless wind made the old joists creak and groan. I was holed up with the only surviving copy of Lloyd’s address book in a tiny study located at the top of the main staircase. It was my favorite room in the house—although I liked the master bedroom a lot, too—because it was sized for coziness. According to the real estate lady, it was devoted to the storage of the household linens back in the day. 1914 was very, very far back.
The room was almost entirely paneled in cupboard doors but it sported one built-in space filled with ranks of fat, wooden rails, over which, I presumed, the family’s freshly ironed linens were hung. Why it was up here, so far from the basement laundry, I couldn’t fathom. Unless nobody cared that the servants had to traipse up and down the back staircases. There were two of those.
For me it was like time-traveling to a moment in history when I’d almost certainly have been the one ironing tablecloths and traipsing. Fortunately for everyone involved, there was now an excellently appointed full-scale laundry room on the first floor. One on second, too. So those bases were covered.
I loved my tiny getaway for its thick rug, its lovely arched window, and the small desk with its old-fashioned green-glass-shaded lamp. Except for the ghosts of pissed off maids, the room had a friendly vibe. The scent of lavender still lingered after all these years. It offered all the makings of a cozy library. Unlike the one downstairs that only required stone lions by its double doors to fully realize its pretensions.
I paged through Lloyd’s book, wondering where to start, and also wondering how he could have brought himself to leave it with Loretta. I answered myself that it must have been his backup, with his most current info stored in his now long-missing phone and his waterlogged, rusted-out computer. Lloyd was a man who would have wanted backup out the wazoo.
He was also a man who liked to check and recheck the pages in his book. Some showed signs of being more over-handled than others. I was most interested in those, but I decided to start with the A’s and be systematic in my research. In memory of Lloyd.
Trying to pay attention to the search, and ignore the storm building at my back, I arrived at a well-thumbed spread in the Cs. I pictured Lloyd returning to it often, checking and rechecking. Making sure. Other than a listing for Crispy’s Tasty Eats with phone number and the neatly inscribed notation, “Crispy’s carryout menu in top right desk drawer,” these two pages were dedicated to something called CyCLE, Inc. with landlines and cells all duly labeled. E-mail addresses and after-hours details, too. Was this the corporate employer Loretta mentioned?
“Cy” sounded cyber-ly computeresque to me, and the CLE, uppercased like that, had to be the Cleveland International Airport designation that was the brand of the city before LeBron James made it popular for us to call our town “The Land.”
A big Cleveland tech outfit would certainly need a night watchman.
In my mind I constructed the large, cold, many windowed hulk of an office complex. I saw Lloyd in a drab—but very neatly pressed—uniform walking a long, darkened corridor. The narrow beam of his watchman’s flashlight swerved from wall to wall, making creepy shadows everywhere. This image spooked me out even more. My neck tingle was back.
The thunder was getting closer. When the wind rose enough to chill my actual neck, I got up to look. The lake was navy blue, shot through with whitecaps, but the horizon had vanished and the murk of the oncoming downpour was already blanking out everything in its path. Trees on the lawn were slashing around like mad. When lightning stabbed the lake right in front of me, I stepped back and closed the window. That lowered the volume considerably.
Right then, in the semi-silence I’d created by shutting out the uproar, a door slammed downstairs.
For a precious ten seconds, I stood dead still, listening for another sound and trying to talk myself out of having heard the first one. This did not work. The atmosphere was still vibrating from the force of that bang.
Someone was in the house with me. I was a sitting duck in this tiny space. To punctuate that thought, another flash of lightning killed the power. With the light doused, the room felt even more trap-like.
That flushed me out. Padding as silently as I could, over floorboards that creaked with age, I let myself out into the hall. Left? Right? Up? Down? So many directions to choose from. So little time. I figured I needed to pick a bedroom and a closet and go with it. Hopefully, my intruder would be as confounded by the multiplicity of choices as I was.
So. Not the master suite. Too obvious. I turned away from it, blanked my brain into randomness, followed the hall past one, two, three sets of closed doors, and picked the fourth one on the side away from the storm.
The furniture in this dim space was blanketed in dust covers. There were three doors, lined up. The first one creaked when I touched it and revealed floor-to-ceiling shelf space. The second opened into a bathroom. The third one was exactly the closet I wanted. Large. Long and narrow with the door at one end. And full of long, formal dresses I’d bet had been left here since 1925. Even in the dim light and my panicked state of mind I couldn’t help but observe that they were arranged by color.
I eased my way deep into the closet and slid myself down. My back was jammed comfortingly against the wall and my arms were embracing my jellied knees. Immediately I needed to pee. Immediately after that I told myself to shut up about peeing.
Hiding in that closet, wholly in touch with how passionately I hated Hide and Go Seek when I was a kid, I rediscovered something: There is no sound scarier than no sound at all. Bad as it would have been to hear someone sneaking toward me, it was way worse to, like, dilate my ears for the teeniest whisper, the slightest, most muffled step, the softest nearby inhalation. And hear nothing. Staying put and not running out screaming, I would argue, was the practice of patience at its highest level.
I sat. I waited. The floor was hard. Time passed. The dresses smelled of a sickening combination of heavy perfume and cedar. The air was stuffy. I still had to pee. I wished I’d learned to meditate. I wished I could slow my heartbeat and put myself into a trance like those cool operatives in thrillers. I wished I had a Memory Palace I could escape to. I sat and breathed as calmly and soundlessly as I could. Sometime after all that—I cannot believe this myself—I fell asleep.
I woke up an unspecified time later to hear someone hollering my name. Tom. I staggered to my feet, pawed my way out of the hovering clothes, ran out into the hall and into his arms. It was almost like nothing had happened.
The storm was over.
The power was back on.
Tom and Otis were home.
I checked in my cozy study. The address book was gone.
Dusk had fallen on one of the longest days of the year, which was working out to be one of the longest damn Mondays of my life. Tom and Otis were trying to cheer me up. Otis drove the Escalade up to the Beach Club Bistro in Euclid and brought home two large Arcadia Club Pizzas. The Arcadia boasts the undisputed Chewy Crust Ruler of this galaxy. And on that sublime foundation the Bistro people layer red sauce, asiago, sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, ham, bacon, and provolone. No kidding.
There are times you truly need to eat something that will shorten your life.
Otis also made me his signature cosmopolitan, with extra vodka, fiercely shaken until tiny ice crystals formed inside its pink wonderfulness. In a large shiny cocktail glass. With a slice of lime.
All this was not Michael Symon’s Lola or the Velvet Tango Room but it was doing the trick. One bite and one sip at a time, I was getting better. But I still felt able to complain. This was not cracked up to be a one cosmo night.
I took another sip and let Otis’ pink magic seep deeper into my elbows. “My record on this whole case is so sucky.” Even I could hear the loathsome self-pity. It sounded faraway.
“First, it never occurred to me to ask Loretta for any serious information about Lloyd. I only wanted her to stop crying. Then when I got around to it, it was long gone. I lost his house. I lost his file. Now I lost his address book. And it’s only been, what?” I counted on my fingers. “Three days? And that’s counting today. I need more pizza.”
Otis passed me a new slice, and Tom said in an annoyingly soothing voice, “Allie, you did not lose Lloyd’s house.”
“Feels like it.” I applied more delicious pinkness to my gray mood.
“Maybe it feels that way to you, but as far as we know, that scrapping thing is totally unrelated. Lloyd’s house was an easy target for those guys because it was abandoned.”
“Which…” I pointed an accusing finger at Tom and then realized he couldn’t be intimidated by that. I put the finger away and proceeded, ignoring Otis who was suppressing a definitely obnoxious smile. “Which he abandoned by having been made dead. On purpose.
“Somebody else’s purpose,” I added with as much dignity as I could find, “as we now know. Almost for sure.”
“Still not your fault. And only about twenty-four hours elapsed between the time Loretta first came here with her problem and the time you both went looking for Lloyd’s papers.”
“But what if they’d still been there after only twenty-three hours elapsed?”
“What if you’d discovered whoever took them, still in Loretta’s apartment. Taking them?”
“That would have been bad. Very bad. I wasn’t prepared for that guy. I didn’t have Otis.”
Otis patted my hand. “I’m glad you appreciate my value for those occasions. Next time, I’ll be there.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you patronizing me, Otis?”
“Maybe a little. Here. There’s a drop more in this shaker.”
“That was a splash, Otis. I know a splash when I see one. I forgive you, though.”
I took a long sip and returned to my whining. “But now we don’t know anything. This right here—where we’re sitting now, in this exceedingly gigantic kitchen at this tremendously massive granite bar—is square one.
“We’re back at square one. Again. It’s embarrassing. I myself am embarrassed. Got any more cosmo in there?”
Otis pushed the cocktail shaker out of my reach. “No, Allie. This is not square one. First of all, you’ve learned a couple of very important things in only three days.”
“Such as somebody definitely doesn’t want you to find out anything about Lloyd. Which means that you now know almost for sure that Lloyd didn’t just run off the road back in February. Because that’s exactly what Tony would like you to think.”
Tom was frowning. “That’s what I would like you to think, too, Allie. But clearly Otis is right. And now—”
“And now what?”
“And now that somebody or somebody related in some way to that somebody has stolen Lloyd’s papers. Unless you think Loretta mislaid them.”
“Librarians do not mislay.”
“But even if she did, through some un-librarian-like aberration, you now have definite proof. Because somebody knew enough about Lloyd and Loretta to break in and take the file. And now somebody, who knows enough to come here, came here today for the address book. And—let’s not forget—is somehow capable of bypassing our crack security system.”
Here was critical and troublesome information that needed serious processing, but I wasn’t quite done beating up on myself.
“I should have taken it with me into the closet.”
“No. I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad you took yourself into the closet and stayed there.”
“You don’t think that person would have killed me, Tom? Not dead.”
“Allie. Wake up. Somebody killed Lloyd. Oh, maybe he’s out there somewhere, on the run, or—”
“Playing the slots in Vegas! That’s what I was hoping, Tom. Although Loretta wouldn’t approve, I don’t think…”
Tom tabled my Vegas theory and went on, “But if that’s the case, why not tell Loretta he’s alive, at least? Let her know. Highly unlikely, I’d say. So now we know there’s somebody who doesn’t want us to find out anything about him. Maybe they came here to get the book and now they have it, they’re satisfied. I sure hope so, but you should know as well as anyone that murder breeds murder, and it keeps getting easier on down the line.”
He had me there.
“I remember. And, also, there’s the big, foggy, danger…part…you mentioned. That somebody is one step ahead of me. Us. All. The. Time. To know to steal Lloyd’s file from Loretta. To know I had the address book. To know all everything. Somebody’s psychic or…something. That’s just—Crap. I’m too…sleepy to talk about this anymore.”
“I agree. You’re right. It’s all too much for tonight. Let’s go to bed.”
“Mmm. There’s a good idea.”
Otis quickly occupied himself with clearing off the remains of dinner and Tom and I guided each other up the stairs to the bedroom, where I shucked off my clothes in record time and hopped into bed.
Tom joined me shortly thereafter and I was dismayed to see that he was wearing his PJs. Anyhow, he still looked sexy.
I told him so.
“You look sexy in your PJs.”
“I assume you do, as well.”
“No I don’t. I am not wearing any PJs.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
I threw my arms around Tom’s neck. My head was all warm and fuzzy and untroubled by the sorrows of the world, and my entire body was answering his powerful gravitational pull. I kissed him so as to communicate willingness. He kissed me back in a warm and friendly way, but then he unwrapped me from his neck and other parts and kissed me again, in a pleasantly firm, nighty-night sort of way.
“Oh, no. I figured you would want to make fabulous love to me. It’s been decades.”
Tom pulled our lovely silky sheet over both of us. It felt very sexy. “I’m painfully aware, Alice. But I feel I should only make love to you when your mind is in your body.”
“Really? Seems kinda stupid to me. You were so sexy when you said ‘un-librallian-like abbleration.’”
“I’m glad you liked it. But there we are.” He kissed me that friendly kiss again. “Goodnight.”
And that was the end of Day Three in The Case of Lloyd Is Missing.
Tuesday, June 20
The Komatsu PC300LC weighed seventy-seven-thousand pounds. It was either old, or, having been exposed to the elements at their most formidable for most of its working life, it merely looked old. Its bold yellow was faded to a sickly ochre and big patches of rust had broken through all along the back of the cab. The kid wasn’t paying attention to any of that. He was enraptured by the Komatsu’s brute strength.
The man in the cab wasn’t even wearing a hard hat. The big excavator was resting on two long slabs of splintered wood that formed a parallel track for it to run on. This track was in the middle of a big old rusty barge. The barge was floating on the lake, about ten feet out from shore. It couldn’t float away because two big poles that looked to the kid like I-beams, were stuck down through the deck and into the lake-bottom.
The only other occupant of the barge besides the operator of the Komatsu was wearing his hard hat and using a motor to make the poles go up and down so the barge could turn and move. If the pole didn’t go in far enough, the guy in the cab would raise the shovel high in the air and bang right down on it.
The shovel looked to the kid like a dinosaur head. A Tyrannosaurus Rex. Big teeth. Slobbering silt and water. He thought this was th