Just One Look

Chapter 26


Perlmutter had broken the news to Lorraine Conwell as gently as he could.
He had delivered bad news plenty of times. Usually it involved car accidents on Route 4 or the Garden State Parkway. Lorraine Conwell had exploded into tears when he told her, but now the numb had seeped in and dried her eyes.
The stages of grief: Supposedly the first is denial. That was wrong. The first is just the opposite: Total acceptance. You hear the bad news and you understand exactly what is being said to you. You understand that your loved one-your spouse, your parent, your child-will never come home, that they are gone for good, that their life is over, and that you will never, ever, see them again. You understand that in a flash. Your legs buckle. Your heart gives out.
That was the first step-not just acceptance, not just understanding, but total truth. Human beings are not built to withstand that kind of hurt. That then is when the denial begins. Denial floods in quickly, salving the wounds or at least covering them. But there is still that moment, mercifully quick, the real Stage One, when you hear the news and stare into the abyss, and horrible as it is, you understand everything.
Lorraine Conwell sat ramrod. There was a quiver in her lips. Her eyes were dry. She looked small and alone and it took all Perlmutter had not to put his arms around her and pull her in close.
"Rocky and me," she said. "We were going to get back together."
Perlmutter nodded, encouraging.
"It's my fault, you know. I made Rocky leave. I shouldn't have." She looked up at him with those violet eyes. "He was different when we met, you know? He had dreams then. He was so sure of himself. But when he couldn't play ball anymore, it just ate away at him. I couldn't live with that."
Perlmutter nodded again. He wanted to help her out, wanted to stay in her company, but he really did not have time for the unabridged life story. He needed to move this along and get out of here. "Was there anyone who wanted to hurt Rocky? Did he have enemies or anything like that?"
She shook her head. "No. No one."
"He spent time in prison."
"Yes. It was stupid. He got into a fight in a bar. It got out of hand."
Perlmutter looked over at Daley. They knew about the fight. They were already on that, seeing if his victim had sought late revenge. It seemed doubtful.
"Was Rocky working?"
"In Newark. He worked at the Budweiser plant. The one near the airport."
"You called our office yesterday," Perlmutter said.
She nodded, her eyes staring straight ahead.
"You spoke to an Officer DiBartola."
"Yes. He was very nice."
Right. "You told him that Rocky hadn't come home from work."
She nodded.
"You called in the early morning. You said he'd been working the night before."
"That's right."
"Did he work a night shift at the plant?"
"No. He'd taken a second job." She squirmed a little. "It was off the books."
"Doing what?"
"He worked for this lady."
"Doing what?"
She used one finger to wipe a tear. "Rocky didn't talk about it much. He delivered subpoenas, I think, stuff like that."
"Do you know the lady's name?"
"Something foreign. I can't pronounce it."
Perlmutter did not need to think about it long. "Indira Khariwalla?"
"That's it." Lorraine Conwell looked up at him. "You know her?"
He did. It had been a long time, but yes, Perlmutter knew her very well.
Grace had handed Scott Duncan the photograph, the one with all five people in it. He could not stop staring, especially at the image of his sister. He ran his finger over her face. Grace could barely look at him.
They were back at Grace's house now, sitting in the kitchen. They had been talking for the better part of half an hour.
"You got this two days ago?" Scott Duncan asked.
"And then your husband... He's this one, right?" Scott Duncan pointed to Jack's image.
"He ran off?"
"He vanished," she said. "He didn't run off."
"Right. You think he was, what, kidnapped?"
"I don't know what happened to him. I only know he's in trouble."
Scott Duncan's eyes stayed on the old photograph. "Because he gave you some kind of warning? Something about needing space?"
"Mr. Duncan, I'd like to know how you came across this picture. And how you found me, for that matter."
"You sent it out via some kind of spam. Someone recognized the picture and forwarded it to me. I traced back the spammer and put a little pressure on him."
"Was that why we didn't receive any answers?"
Duncan nodded. "I wanted to talk to you first."
"I've told you everything I know. I was on my way to confront the guy in the Photomat when you showed up."
"We'll question him, don't worry about that."
He couldn't take his eyes off the picture. She had done all the talking. He had told her nothing, except that the woman in the photograph was his sister. Grace pointed at the crossed-out face. "Tell me about her," she said.
"Her name was Geri. Does her name mean anything to you?"
"I'm sorry, it doesn't."
"Your husband never mentioned her? Geri Duncan."
"Not that I remember." Then: "You said was."
"You said was. Her name was Geri."
Scott Duncan nodded. "She died in a fire when she was twenty-one years old. In her dorm room."
Grace froze. "She went to Tufts, right?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
Now it made sense-why the girl's face had seemed familiar. Grace hadn't known her, but there had been pictures in the newspapers at the time. Grace had been undergoing physical therapy and ripping through way too many periodicals. "I remember reading about it. Wasn't it an accident? Electrical fire or something?"
"That was what I thought. Until three months ago."
"What changed?"
"The U.S. attorney's office captured a man who goes by the name Monte Scanlon. He's a hired assassin. His job was to make it look like an accident."
Grace tried to take it in. "And you just learned this three months ago?"
"Did you investigate?"
"I'm still investigating, but it's been a long time." His voice was softer now. "Not many clues after all these years."
Grace turned away.
"I found out that Geri was dating a boy at the time, a local kid named Shane Alworth. The name mean anything to you?"
"You're sure?"
"Pretty sure, yeah."
"Shane Alworth had a rap sheet, nothing serious, but I checked him out."
"And he's gone."
"No sign of him. I can't find work records for him. I can't find any sign of a Shane Alworth on the tax payroll. I can't find any hit on his social security number."
"For how long?"
"How long has he been gone?"
"I've gone back ten years. Nothing." Duncan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out another photograph. He handed it to Grace. "Recognize him?"
She took a long look at the photograph. No question about it. It was the other guy in her photograph. She looked up at him for confirmation. Duncan nodded.
"Creepy, huh?"
"Where did you get this?" she asked.
"From Shane Alworth's mother. She claims her son lives in a small town in Mexico. That he's a missionary or something and that's why his name doesn't pop up. Shane also has a brother who lives in St. Louis. Works as a psychologist. He backs up what the mother said."
"But you don't buy it."
"Do you?"
Grace put the mystery photograph on the table. "So we know about three people in this photograph," she said, more to herself than Duncan. "We have your sister, who was murdered. We have her boyfriend, Shane Alworth, the guy over here. He's missing. We have my husband, who disappeared right after seeing this photograph. That about right?"
"Pretty much."
"What else did the mother say?"
"Shane was unreachable. He was in the Amazon jungle, she thought."
"The Amazon jungle? In Mexico?"
"Her geography was fuzzy."
Grace shook her head and pointed at the picture. "So that leaves the other two women. Any clue who they are?"
"No, not yet. But we know more now. The redhead, we should get a bead on her pretty soon. The other one, the one with her back to the camera, I don't know if we'll ever know."
"Did you learn anything else?"
"Not really. I've had Geri's body exhumed. That took some time to arrange. A full autopsy is being done, see if they can find any physical evidence, but it's a long shot. This"-he held up the picture from the Web-"this is the first real lead I've had."
She didn't like the pitch of hope in his voice. "It might just be a picture," she said.
"You don't believe that."
Grace put her hands on the table. "Do you think my husband had something to do with your sister's death?"
Duncan rubbed his chin. "Good question," he said.
She waited.
"Something to do with it, probably. But I don't think he killed her, if that's what you're asking. Something happened to them a long time ago. I don't know what. My sister was killed in a fire. Your husband ran overseas, I guess. France, you said?"
"And Shane Alworth, too. I mean, it's all connected. It has to be."
"My sister-in-law knows something."
Scott Duncan nodded. "You said she's a lawyer?"
"Yes. With Burton and Crimstein."
"That's not good. I know Hester Crimstein. If she doesn't want to tell us anything, I won't be able to apply much pressure."
"So what do we do?"
"We keep shaking the cage."
"Shaking the cage?"
He nodded. "Shaking cages is the only way you make progress."
"So we should start with shaking Josh at the Photomat," Grace said. "He's the one who gave me that photograph."
Duncan stood. "Sounds like a plan."
"You're going there now?"
"I'd like to come along."
"Let's go then."
"As I live and breathe. Captain Perlmutter. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Indira Khariwalla was small and wizened. Her dark skin-she was, as her name implied, from India, more specifically Bombay-had started to harden and thicken. She was still attractive but not the exotic temptress she had been in her heyday.
"Been a long time," he said.
"Yes." The smile, once a dazzler, took great effort now, almost cracking the skin. "But I'd prefer not to rehash the past."
"Me either."
When Perlmutter started working in Kasselton, he had been partnered with a veteran a year from retirement named Steve Goedert, a great guy. They struck up a deep friendship. Goedert had three kids, all grown, and a wife named Susan. Perlmutter did not know how Goedert met Indira, but they started up. Susan found out.
Fast-forward past the ugly divorce.
Goedert had no money left once the lawyers were through with him. He ended up working as a private investigator but with a twist: He specialized in infidelity. Or at least that was what he claimed. To Perlmutter's thinking it was a scam-entrapment at its very worst. He would use Indira as bait. She would approach the husband, lure him in, and then Goedert would take pictures. Perlmutter told him to stop. Fidelity was not a game. It was not a prank, testing a man like that.
Goedert must have known it was wrong. He hit the bottle pretty good and never came out. He too had a gun in his house, and in the end he too did not use it to stop a home invasion. After his death, Indira struck out on her own. She took over the agency, keeping Goedert's name on the door.
"A long time ago," she said softly.
"Did you love him?"
"None of your business."
"You ruined his life."
"Do you really think I can wield that kind of power over a man?" She shifted in her chair. "What can I do for you, Captain Perlmutter?"
"You have an employee named Rocky Conwell."
She did not respond.
"I know he's off the books. I don't care about that."
Still nothing. He slapped down a crude Polaroid of Conwell's dead body.
Indira's eyes flicked to it, ready to dismiss, and then stared there. "Dear Lord."
Perlmutter waited, but Indira said nothing. She stared for a little while longer and then let her head drop back.
"His wife says he worked for you."
She nodded.
"What did he do?"
"Night shifts."
"What did he do on the night shifts?"
"Mostly repossession. He did a little subpoena work too."
"What else?'
She said nothing.
"There was stuff in his car. We found a long-range camera and a pair of binoculars."
"So was he doing surveillance?"
She looked at him. There were tears in her eyes. "You think he was killed on the job?"
"It's a logical assumption, but I won't know for certain until you tell me what he was doing."
Indira looked away. She began to rock in the chair.
"Was he working a job the night before last?"
More silence.
"What was he doing, Indira?"
"I can't say."
"Why not?"
"I have clients. They have rights. You know the drill, Stu."
"You're not a lawyer."
"No, but I can work for one."
"Are you saying this case was attorney work product?"
"I'm not saying anything."
"You want to take another look at that photograph?"
She almost smiled. "You think that will make me talk?" But Indira did take another look. "I don't see any blood," she said.
"There wasn't any."
"He wasn't shot?"
"Nope. No gun, no knife."
She looked confused. "How was he killed?"
"I don't know yet. He's on the table. But I have a guess, if you want to hear it?"
She didn't. But she nodded slowly.
"He suffocated."
"You mean like he was garroted?"
"Doubtful. There are no ligature marks on the neck."
She frowned. "Rocky was huge. He was strong as an ox. It had to be poison, something like that."
"I don't think so. The M.E. said there was substantial damage to the larynx."
She looked confused.
"In other words, his throat was crushed like an eggshell."
"You mean he was strangled by hand?"
"We don't know."
"He was too strong for that," she said again.
"Who was he following?" Perlmutter asked.
"Let me make a call. You can wait in the hall."
He did. The wait was not long.
When Indira came out, her voice was clipped. "I can't speak to you," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Attorney's orders?"
"I can't speak to you."
"I'll be back. I'll get a warrant."
"Good luck," she said, turning away. And Perlmutter thought that maybe she meant it.