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I stood at the door, looking and listening. The neighbor’s television continued to buzz in the background, but I didn’t hear anything else. Finally, I took a few tentative steps inside.
At first, I thought it was the work of vandals. Her stereo and VCR lay on the floor, the housing on each ripped off. Same for the TV set.
At the same time, everything looked too neat. The stuff on the floor wasn’t thrown about, but arranged in piles. A few videos here, books there—as if someone had cleared everything off to dust, then didn’t bother to put it back.
I wondered if the cops could have done this. Assuming they’d gotten a search warrant, this seemed like overkill for them. Then I saw her CD collection.
Someone had opened all the jewel cases and tossed them aside in a heap. I thought about what Agent Jergins said about Christof Stavos looking for a CD. The thought that the Mob could have been there made my stomach clench.
I did a quick survey of the apartment. Every room was much the same. Dishes, pots, and pans were stacked on any available surface in the kitchen. The dressers and closet in the bedroom had been emptied, their contents heaped on the floor. Thankfully, I didn’t find Melanie dead or disabled. Of course, that wasn’t proof positive that she wasn’t.
I checked each room again, more methodically this time, looking for something like a travel brochure, a credit card receipt, anything. In the kitchen, I picked through some stuff that looked like it came from a “junk” drawer—take-out menus, scissors, a bar napkin, rubber bands, and a small ball of string.
I took a closer look at the napkin. It was from Aces High, a strip joint a few miles up Route 1. The logo was an Ace of Spades with a half-naked woman, eyes closed and lips parted in the throes of ecstasy, sprawled across it. Someone had written “Connie” and a phone number on it. A friend of Tom’s, I supposed. Apparently, drinking and debt weren’t his only vices. I wrote the name and number in a small notebook I carry.
The bathroom didn’t offer much. The bedroom was a mess. I decided to assume for the sake of not taking all night that what I was looking for wasn’t in her clothing. Chances were it was on her dresser or in the wastepaper basket. I checked both and came up empty.
A small, dark blue address book, with an envelope tucked inside like a bookmark, lay on the bedside table next to the phone. The envelope was unsealed. Inside was a receipt for a post office box and a key. The stamp indicated a College Park zip code. According to the paper, the renter was Stephanie A. McRae.
I stared at the receipt, not quite believing what I saw. An ugly thought occurred—what if Melanie, pretending to be me, had rented the box. What if she’d applied for that credit line? How would she have gotten access to my personal information? Why would she do it?
I knew one thing—I had to see what was in that box. This didn’t look good, but I didn’t want to draw any conclusions until then.
The phone rang. Faintly, I heard the answering machine’s recorded message, a pause, and then tones. Realizing it must be Melanie, checking for messages, I snatched the phone up.
“Hello? Hello?” I said. No response. Only charged silence, then the mechanical clicks and pops of disconnection.
“Damn it,” I said. I hung up and tried *69, but it wouldn’t go through. So much for that.
The phone was a cordless with caller ID built in. The last caller was Unknown. Helpful. I fiddled with the buttons and managed to find out that someone named Bruce Schaeffer called a couple of days ago. The name sounded familiar, and I made a note of it.
I examined the address book again. It had occurred to me that Melanie might be staying with a friend or had told someone else where she was going. I flipped through it quickly. None of the names in it meant anything to me except Donna’s.
If I took the address book, was I disturbing a crime scene? I didn’t know for sure that this was a crime scene. Finding Melanie might be as easy as making a few phone calls. And if I found her, I’d advise her to go to the police. So I was doing the police a favor by taking it. That’s what I told myself. I stowed the book in my purse, along with the envelope.
I locked up behind me when I left and replaced the key under the mat. The early evening sky was a light bluish-gray haze. The humid air felt like warm Jell-O against my skin.
It was after hours at the post office so first thing in the morning, I’d check the box. As I headed home, I remembered who Bruce Schaeffer was—Tom Garvey had moved in with him after Melanie kicked him out. He called a few days ago, after Tom died. Why would he call Melanie? Could they have started a relationship? Maybe after she broke up with Tom. Maybe before. Stranger things have happened.
I pulled over and looked up Schaeffer’s address in Melanie’s file. He was a few minutes away. It was a long shot, but I could at least ask if he knew where Melanie was.
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Schaeffer lived in what was euphemistically known as “affordable” apartments, literally on the other side of the tracks. The look-alike buildings were brick boxes—16 units to a box—with shutterless windows as stark as lidless eyes. The lot was full, but I managed to find a space at the far end, near a Dumpster that smelled like something died in it. I parked, walked to his building, and clanked up the metal stairs.
I heard the banging long before I reached the third floor—someone pounding on a door. The chances it was Schaeffer’s were only one in sixteen, but sure enough that’s where she was. With odds like those, I should have been playing the horses at Laurel Racetrack instead of looking for leads on a missing client.
The woman was taking a break when I got there, leaning against Schaeffer’s door, her face twisted into a scowl. She was about my age, short and rail thin, wearing a halter top, cutoffs, and red plastic flip-flops with butterflies on them. Her light brown hair was pulled back, held loosely with one of those hair clips that look like something you’d use to seal a bag of potato chips. She glared at me, as if I were to blame for her problems.
“No one home?” I asked.
“Oh, probably there is,” she said, in a dull voice. “Bastard isn’t answering.” She pounded the door again, several times. I was surprised her fist didn’t leave dents. Finally, she swore and flipped the bird at whoever might be inside.
“I wouldn’t waste my time,” she said, and flounced off before I could think of a reply. After a few moments, I knocked on the door, more softly. Schaeffer might have been there, but not answering. In the mood the woman before me had been in, I wasn’t sure I blamed him.
As I waited, the door to the adjoining apartment opened a crack. A red-faced, balding man in boxers and one of those ribbed tank tops reserved for guys over seventy peered at me with impassive, bloodshot eyes.
“Hi,” he said. He had a breathy voice. The smell of alcohol and garlic wafted toward me.
“Quite a scene.”
“You noticed, huh?”
“Been noticing lots of stuff. This place is turning into Grand Central Station. Dangerous, too. You know, just this week, they found a man shot to death in there.”
So Tom died in the apartment. “How awful,” I said.
He belched loudly. “You bet it is.”
More alcohol and garlic. I tried not to breathe too deeply.
He rambled on about our horrible society, and how no one is safe anymore. I smiled and nodded politely, and was about to excuse myself when he said, “You looking for Bruce? He’s probably working out.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Now, what was the name of that gym?”
“Kent’s Gym. Right down 197.”
I snapped my fingers. “Of course. Kent’s Gym. Thanks.”
Creepy guy. I could feel him staring after me as I walked downstairs.
The Mustang coughed to life with some encouraging gas pedal footwork on my part. I couldn’t make a left when I hit the main road, so I went right and maneuvered over quickly to pull a U-turn at the next median break.
Behind me, someone honked his horn, long and loud. I looked back and saw a big, black car with dark windows trying to move to the left lane, holding up traffic in the process. I could picture a blue-haired lady or an old man in a hat hunched behind the wheel. I made the U-turn and noticed the black car did the same.
Out of idle curiosity, I kept my eye on the car. It was a Lincoln, gleaming like it had just been driven from the dealer’s. I turned in at the entrance to the parking lot, watching to see if the Lincoln followed. It did.
Could it be following me? Why? Nerves, I thought. The heat must be getting to me.
Kent’s Gym was in an old shopping center on Route 197 with a discount grocery and a place that sold ninety-nine-cent greeting cards. I wove through the lot and found a space near the gym. As I was putting the car’s roof up, I saw the Lincoln again. It came down the aisle, at a leisurely pace and with a slight bobbing motion, as if it were floating. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed to slow a little as it neared me. The big car had a gaudy, chrome hood ornament and chrome trim. Something about the design suggested a rolling, black casket. I shivered and my skin popped goose bumps, despite the evening’s warmth.
I also noticed it had New York tags.
The car glided away, never stopping, back to the street, where it merged into traffic and disappeared into the evening haze.
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