After breakfast at Brewster’s Thursday morning, Danny leaned so far back on his chair I thought he was gonna go over on his head. Then he stretched back even more and lit a smoke. That was back in the good ole days when you could smoke in Brewster’s.
Our usual breakfast group was in the process of breaking up. John Garvey had already left. Nelma Wolfert, who started out as my parole officer and ended up as a friend, and Alan Bushnell, a sergeant on the Spencer PD, were up at the cash register chatting with Ilene as she totaled their bills. That left me, Danny, Bump, and Gruf sitting at the table, sipping coffee and smoking.
Me and my friends eat breakfast at Brewster’s every weekday morning. We push three tables together so there’s room for everybody. Brewster’s is a big ole hometown place where you can move the furniture around and joke and hit on the waitresses and nobody cares. The food’s good and the atmosphere’s friendly.
A sweet-natured waitress named Mary takes our table every morning. She’s got me so spoiled I don’t think I could face the world if I didn’t start my day seeing her pleasant smile.
I mentioned John Garvey. John’s a cop. At that time he was a rookie. He stands about five-eleven or so, and wears his brown hair buzz-cut. He left his home in Indiana to enter Ohio Highway Patrol School and came straight onto the Spencer force from there.
Staying in Danny’s and my spare bedroom in our super-fine double-wide three bedroom trailer out in Chandler’s Trailer Park was supposed to be a temporary thing until he could find a place of his own. But John’s a friendly, square, likeable guy who can cook like a sonofabitch, so it wasn’t long before Danny and me invited him to make the thing permanent.
I already told you about Danny. He’s tall like me and he’s got long, golden red hair which he usually wears pulled back into a ponytail. When he doesn’t have his hair tied back with the customary leather shoelace, and there’s a little wind, and the light’s right, he looks sort of like a freckled, goofy Jesus.
I tie my black hair in a ponytail, too. I got it all cut off a year or so ago, but that was a bad mistake. I knew it almost right away. So I grew it back. Grew back my mustache, too. The mustache grew back faster.
Anyway. Danny stretched back in his chair and lit a smoke. I glanced at the clock. It was a few minutes past eight. The weather forecasters had said we were gonna get hit by a blizzard, but they predicted it wasn’t gonna arrive until late afternoon. They were wrong. The front edge of the blizzard had blown into northeastern Ohio overnight and by breakfast time the storm had been hammering us for several hours.
Mary came around with the coffeepot and we all nodded yes to one last cup. As she poured mine, she glanced toward Brewster’s wide front windows and sighed. “Look at that snow.”
Gruf nodded. “How much of that shit are we supposed to get today, anyway?”
Danny said, “All.”
Gruf said, “All?”
Gruf grinned. “That could be quite a bit of snow. You think we can make it out to Ladonia in this stuff?”
We’d just started a job out in Ladonia. A friend of ours, Bud Hanratty, hooked us up with it. Three of his lawyer friends bought a big old two-story farmhouse and wanted to convert it to offices for their law firm. They wanted it remodeled, from the attic (climate-controlled for files and storage space) to the basement (kitchen, lunchroom, bathrooms, and conference room).
It was an awesome job. Which any indoor job during the winter months is an awesome job for a carpenter. It was gonna keep us working (indoors) for several months, and Bud had told us to charge them top dollar. We said, That’ll work.
Danny bounced his eyebrows. “We’ll make it out there, but will we be able to make it back in?”
Bump laughed and slapped a tip onto the table. “I’ll give you guys two days, and if I haven’t heard from you by then, I’ll send out the wiener dogs.”
The rest of us stared at him. Gruf said, “You mean the St. Bernards.”
Bump had stood and was looking around for Mary. He spotted her back by the waitress station and blew her a kiss. Then he turned back to Gruf. “No, I mean wieners. You do the math.”
We watched him saunter out the front door laughing.
Danny said, “Oh. I get it. He’s saying he’ll send wiener dogs because we’re a bunch of wienies. What a funny guy.”
I said, “We’ll cram into my truck. My truck can go through anything.”
My black Toyota Tacoma had the four-wheel drive. The odometer had just rolled past a hundred twenty-five thousand and the thing still ran tight as a drum. I loved my truck.
We drove east on Third Avenue out of town and then cut over toward Ladonia on Route 89. It was slow going. Heavy snow and strong wind all the way. I barely made it out of second gear.
Danny was folded into the back seat. He leaned forward between the headrests and propped his elbows on the corners of the seat backs. When he belched, you could smell the bacon.
“I bet the power goes off. All that heavy snow on the lines. I bet the Highway Patrol closes the roads. Aw, look at this guy.”
A county plow roared toward us. He was going so fast his blade was throwing the snow a good twenty feet in the air. He flew past us and my windshield got pelted with the salt that was being whipped out from the back of his truck. We all turned to watch him go by. Just after he passed us, his blade caught a mailbox and sent it flying with a loud thwack.
Danny yelled, “Hooo. No mail for you.”
Ladonia, Ohio, is about ten miles northeast of Spencer. It pretty much consists of the Ladonia Volunteer Fire Department, the house we were working on, and Ladonia Hills Apartments. Oh, yeah—there’s the Lo-Lites Bar, too, but it’s on down the highway another half mile.
I turned into the driveway and pulled all the way back to the garage. We each grabbed a snow shovel from my truck bed, spaced out along the driveway, and started throwing snow. The wind howled in our ears as we worked.
Danny had the middle section. After a few minutes, he walked over to the Dumpsters we’d rented, shoveled snow off the lid of one, and looked inside. He yelled, “Sonofabitch. They did come and empty these things last night.”
I could barely hear him over the wind. I shouted, “They did? That’s great.”
I wanted to yell that I took back everything I’d said and I guessed he did know how to sweet-talk refuse hauler dispatchers, but it was too hard to yell into that wind. I decided to save it for later. I worked my way out to the edge of the highway, threw my last shovelful, and bent over to stretch my back. I saw that Gruf had already worked his way to the part Danny had cleared, and Danny had another shovel or two before he reached my part.
Gruf was carrying his shovel toward my truck and I saw that he was going to drop it in the bed. I had my mouth open to yell that they were extra shovels, and we’d leave them in the garage for the duration, when the air was suddenly filled with a bloodcurdling scream. I jerked straight.
Danny yelled, “What the fuck was that?”
It sounded again, high and shrill in the thin, cold air. I turned and began to run up the driveway. Danny was just ahead of me. Gruf was turning his head this way and that, trying to hear where the noise was coming from. That second scream seemed to last forever. You could hear the terror in it.
As I got closer to the house, I realized the screams were carrying on the wind from the apartment complex next door. I yelled, “The apartments. Come on.”
I began to run toward the sound. Gruf pounded along right behind me. We crossed the wide strip of side yard and ran between two of the apartment buildings, following the screaming sound. Two long rows of three story brick buildings faced each other across the long, wide parking lot.
Now we could see the screamer toward the far end. She stood on the far side of a parked, snow-covered car, screaming, staring at something inside. We raced down the length of the parking lot toward her. The plow hadn’t been through yet. We followed the tire tracks of some earlier vehicle.
The girl saw us coming and began to point into the snow-covered car. She was hopping up and down now and still screaming. She was trying to make words but the screaming was getting in her way.
We ran around the back of the car, stopped, and stared. Danny came pounding up behind us. The driver’s side door was open and there was a blonde sitting behind the wheel, not moving. The girl continued to scream.
Gruf took her by the arm and pulled her away past the back of the car, out into the traffic lane, telling her, “You gotta stop screaming now.”
Danny and I stepped up to the open door and leaned in, being careful not to touch anything. A section of the gray dashboard casing stuck up out of plumb from where the blonde had evidently kicked it as she struggled. A length of yellow rope was looped over her shoulders, and you could see frozen blood stuck on it up near her neck. Her face was so distorted it was unrecognizable. Her eyes bulged and her jaw seemed to be dislocated.
Danny and I drew back like a single organism. Danny said, “God.”
The other girl had stopped screaming. Gruf yanked off his gloves and fumbled his cell phone from his inside pocket. He was talking to the girl, trying to get her to stay quiet while he called 911.
There were two little purses sitting on the front passenger seat, one black, one brown. I looked past the tangled blonde hair of the dead girl and saw a black leather cue stick case sitting on the back seat.
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I said, “Oh, shit.”
Danny said, “What?”
I moved to the back of the car and brushed snow away from the license plate. It said REDHOTZ.
Gruf watched us while he quickly finished rattling off our location to the dispatcher. Then he snapped his cell closed. “What?”
I said, “It’s Gwen Dillon.”
The girl began to scream again. Gruf told her, “You’re really gonna hafta stop that.”
I looked over at them. The girl was a little brunette. Now I recognized her as another member of the Lo-Lites pool team. She wasn’t wearing a coat. All she was wearing was a fuzzy little white sweater, jeans, and high-tops. She shivered uncontrollably and her teeth chattered and there was a voice sound, too, like a low-grade scream, or a hum. Like there was an engine running inside her or something.
I said, “Come on. Let’s wait for the cops inside.”
Trying to stay on the tracks we’d already made in the snow, Danny and I high-stepped away from the car and then all four of us made for the nearest building entrance. Once we were inside, I peeled off my Carhartt and wrapped it around the girl. She was still humming.
I said, “You were at Smitty’s last night. You’re on the Lo-Lites team.”
I said, “What’s your name?”
Her words, when they came, gushed out like a dam had broken. Rushing, tumbling words and rattling teeth.
“Allison. Allison Burgess. My boyfriend dropped me off at Smitty’s last night because my car’s at the BP getting a new battery? So then I didn’t have any place to put my purse? So then Gwen says, Well put it out in my car.”
Gruf interrupted her. “Allison? You need to slow down and breathe.”
She nodded. “Okay. Right. Yeah. So Gwen says, Put your purse in my car so then I did and I locked it because she never locks it herself? So then after my set was over my boyfriend was there and I wanted to get my purse but Gwen’s car was locked and I couldn’t find her . . .”
Gruf said, “Allison. Breathe.”
She nodded. “Right. Breathe. So I couldn’t find Gwen to give me her keys? So then my boyfriend’s all, I gotta get up and go to work in the morning let’s go. So then I go, Well if you’re in such a fucking hurry let’s just go and I’ll get my purse tomorrow and you’ll hafta give me a pack of your cigarettes. I’m dumping him. I swear to God.”
Danny said, “You and Gwen share an apartment here?”
She shook her head. “Share? No. She’s 2C and I’m 3B.”
I said, “In different buildings?”
She shook her head. “See the three doors? A, B, and C.”
She pointed a shaking finger at the building across from the doorway where we huddled.
She said, “Gwen’s got a fucking two bedroom with a balcony and everything? I just have a one bedroom. I can’t afford the two bedroom. I don’t have help like some people I could name. I just have my jerk boyfriend. Soon to be ex.”
I said, “Your boyfriend brought you home without your purse last night so you figured you’d get it back from Gwen this morning?”
She nodded. “So then this morning the BP called that my car was ready and my boyfriend goes, I don’t know what time I’ll be over, but I’m not waiting around. You better be ready. I gotta dump him he’s such a jerk.”
Gruf said, “Allison . . . ”
She said, “I know. I’m breathing. So then I had to get my purse back from Gwen’s car so I could pay for my car? So then I thought, Well maybe I won’t hafta wake her up because she doesn’t like that when you wake her up? So then I thought, Well maybe she didn’t lock her car. Because she usually doesn’t. Did I already say that?”
“She leaves it unlocked like she thinks nobody would dare rob her. So then her car was all covered up with snow and all the windows were all covered with snow and I couldn’t see in and then when I tried the back door to get my purse and it wasn’t locked but she was sitting there in the front seat. I go, Gwen? Gwen?”
The hum started again and began to pick up some volume.
Gruf said, “Don’t start screaming again, okay? Please.”
She nodded and the volume of the hum dropped.
I said, “Last night. You couldn’t find Gwen? Did she go somewhere?”
She nodded. “Somebody got a cigarette?”
Danny was first with his pack out.
Gruf said, “Are you allowed to smoke here in the hall?”
She said, “I’d like to see somebody try and tell me not to,” and gave us all a hot glare.
Danny thumbed his lighter and she sucked flame.
I said, “So, Allison. Last night.”
“The bar was closing and you couldn’t find Gwen?”
Allison said, “Somebody better call the cops.”
Gruf said, “Already did.”
It occurred to me that Ladonia was too small to have a police department. I wondered if the highway patrol would handle this.
I said, “Which cops are coming, anyway?”
Gruf grinned at me. “Highway Patrol dispatcher switched me over to Spencer PD.”
I said, “Shit.”
Danny grinned, too. Because we were all thinking the same thing. If Spencer PD were the responders, that meant it was gonna be Alan Bushnell’s case, and he was not gonna fucking believe we were right in the middle of it.
Gruf said, “Well, at least Alan won’t be out here this morning. At least it’s not on his shift. . . .”
Alan pretty much works third shift. Works third shift, and then stops at Brewster’s and eats breakfast with us before he goes home. He’s got the seniority to work any shift he wants, but he says first and second shifts are too boring.
Danny was standing with his back to the door. Every few minutes he glanced outside over his shoulder. All of a sudden he pushed the door open. “Hey. Stay back. That’s a crime scene.”
He looked back at us. “They’re gonna be all over that car in a minute.”
He hurried outside. With him out of my way I could see out the glass door into the parking lot. Three guys in ski jackets and jeans were shuffling uncertainly on the sidewalk across the way. They really wanted to go have a look for themselves. Danny walked toward them, gesturing and explaining.
There was a sound on the wind. I couldn’t tell if it was the wind howling or if it was a siren. I stepped back in and pulled the door closed.
I said, “Allison. I got a couple quick questions for you before the cops get here.”
She peeked up at me from behind her shaggy brown bangs.
“You said after you played last night, you couldn’t find Gwen?”
“It wasn’t the first time she went off with somebody without telling anyone.” She smirked. “It was just the first time last night.”
“But her car was still there in Smitty’s parking lot?
“Do you know where she went, or who she was with?”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea, but I’m not saying.”
Gruf said, “You’re gonna hafta tell the cops anyway . . . ”
Her jaw stuck out. “Says who? I’ll just say, Gee, I don’t have any idea where she went, Officer.”
Gruf said, “I hear the siren.”
I said, “Allison. Do you know who killed her?”
Her eyes skittered toward the door. Her voice went soft. “She turned twenty-nine in September. She was a Virgo.”
I nodded. Virgo. Got it. Whatever that means.
She said, “I remember the night of her birthday. We were all in Lo-Lites. We all work there. Guys were buying her drinks all night and she got lit. She was upset that she was twenty-nine already. After we closed, it was just a few of us girls. She told us, I’m making a solemn vow. I’m gonna get a rich husband before my thirtieth birthday.”
Allison drew a ragged breath. “Now she’s not gonna get the husband or the birthday.”
I said, “Allison. Do you know who did this?”
Gruf said, “There’s the cop car. Let s go out. Hey. Is that John?”
I said, “Hang on.”
I didn’t want to let her get away from us until she told us what she knew. But Gruf, distracted by the arrival of the cops, was already halfway out the door, taking Allison with him.