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Murder On The Mind

Murder On The Mind

Murder On The Mind 24

CHAPTER 13

  We sat down to eat dinner watching the kitchen TV. The top story on the six o’clock news was indeed the anonymous tip the cops had received on where to find the last of Sumner’s remains. The reports sounded so sanitized. The man was viciously killed, gutted like a deer, and the news media tiptoed around the truth. I suppose they were looking out for the tender sensibilities of children in the audience, but was the reality of Sumner’s murder that much worse than the violent fantasy of network dramas?

  A brown-eyed blonde reporter with big hair from Channel 7 stood by the roadside with a live report. We even saw our shovel. I was surprised she didn’t try to interview it. She hinted it was the murderer who’d tipped the cops.

  Yeah, right.

  After dinner, I went back to my room to draw up a research list for the library, but found I couldn’t concentrate. I tried going over the news clippings, with the same results, and instead toyed with the idea of calling Maggie. I thought about her a lot lately. I wondered what her apartment looked like, where she shopped for groceries, what she liked to do on cold winter evenings, if she slept in flannel or nothing at all. . . . And I wondered if it was too soon to call her again.

  I had to force myself to think of other things. Something bothered me about my first visit to Sumner’s neighborhood—nobody seemed to have seen anything the night the body was dumped. People usually want to be helpful, especially in a murder investigation. Of course, I hadn’t spoken with all the neighbors. If I had my own car, I might’ve spent a day tracking down everyone.

  Someone had to have seen something the night of the murder.

  Stretching out on my bed, I realized that so far I’d been pretty timid in pushing this investigation. Not my usual style. But I’d been busted down to field investigator, and then unemployed for so long. And that stupid mugging. . . . Richard’s reluctance to believe in me hadn’t helped, either. But ultimately, the problem was mine. So what was I going to do about it?

  I’d been a damned good investigator, so why was I holding back? Despite my success earlier in the day, I knew I couldn’t depend on my funny feelings to solve the case. I had to do some real, hard-nosed digging. I wanted to talk with Sam Nielsen, the reporter from The Buffalo News, and I needed to make my peace, or at least attempt it, with Detective Hayden.

  I hauled myself up and headed for the kitchen. Searching the cabinets, I found an unopened package of rainbow chip cookies. I stared at the drawing of the little hollow tree. My mother had drilled into me that you should never, ever take cookies from an unopened package when you hadn’t paid for them yourself. Despite the fact that Richard’s millions could buy a lot more cookies, the rule still applied.

  I closed the cupboard door and again longed for my own car, so that I could go buy my own cookies or nachos or beer. Having no money put a definite crimp in that scenario. I hadn’t owned a car in years, although I’d always kept my license current. In Manhattan, a car was pointless; murders occurred to protect parking spaces. But occasionally Shelley and I would rent a car and spend summer weekends at quaint little bed-and-breakfast inns in Cape May or head for the Green Mountains of Vermont.

  I shook my head clear of the memories, then realized I’d remembered something good about my time with Shelley. Two years after her death, it still hurt to think about her.

  Standing in the middle of the kitchen, I realized that for the first time since the mugging I felt downright bored. I truly was on the mend. I looked around and caught sight of the phone book on the counter. What I really wanted was to call Maggie.

  And say what?

  Instead, I found myself flipping through the white pages, searching the columns of six-point type. I already knew Sharon Walker’s name wasn’t there, but there was a James M. Walker listed at an East Aurora address.

  My finger traced back and forth under the name. All I had to do was pick up the phone, call old Sharon, and maybe we’d have ourselves a real nice conversation. Excuse me, ma’am, did you kill Matt Sumner?

  A glance at the wall clock reminded me it was getting late to pull that kind of a stunt. The worst that could happen was she’d hang up.

  Grabbing the phone, I punched in the number. What the hell.

  One ring.

  Suddenly nervous, I wished I’d taken time to write a script. Hello, Ms. Walker, I’m taking a survey.

  No.

  Two rings.

  Maybe she wasn’t home.

  Three rings.

  I hoped to God she wouldn’t use the phone’s call-back feature—or have caller ID.

  “Hello?” A woman’s voice.

  Ready or not.

  “Hi, this is Ken with Niagara Associates. I’d like to ask you a few questions about the Buffalo media.”

  For a moment she said nothing. I heard a TV in the background. “A survey?”

  So far so good.

  “Do you regularly read The Buffalo News?”

  “On Sunday. I get it for the coupons.”

  Had I expected a quaver in her voice? Maybe some kind of intuitive message that screamed she was Sumner’s murderer? Instead, she sounded like any ordinary person answering an annoying phone call.

  “May I ask your favorite local television and radio stations?”

  “Well, I watch Channel 7 news at six o’clock most nights. And I listen to WMJX in the mornings.”

  Time to risk it all. “How do you feel the local media has covered the Matt Sumner murder?”

  A long silence, followed by a click.

  I replaced the phone on the hook, knowing I’d pushed her too quickly. I’d gotten no insight and didn’t know anything I hadn’t known before.

  Stupid. Definitely a tactical error. After all, the news had been filled with our little treasure hunt. Had I inadvertently tipped her off that she had not gotten away with murder, and that someone was now hunting the hunter?

  What if I spooked her into leaving the area? Or worse, what if my call pushed her into doing something potentially lethal to someone else?

  Suddenly, taking the timid approach to my investigation seemed a lot smarter than pushing things—or potentially dangerous people. And yet, I never asked the woman’s name. What if the telephone number had been reassigned? Maybe I’d never even spoken to Sharon Walker.

  Antsy, I wandered over to the refrigerator and looked in. The six-pack of Canadian Ice beer looked inviting, but I wasn’t supposed to drink while on medication. I’d already pushed my luck with the whiskey earlier. I needed to get some non-alcoholic beer to tide me over. Such thoughts reminded me once again of my transportation—and monetary—deficit.

  Brenda’s key ring hung on a decorative brass rack near the door. Their bedroom and Richard’s study were in the back of the house, away from the garage. I could sneak Richard’s car out. They’d never hear a thing.

  Instead, I headed for the study. Richard was still up, reading from some leather-bound medical tome.

  “Don’t you ever sleep?”

  He glanced at the grandfather clock across the way. “It’s not even ten o’clock.”

  “I know, but if you were asleep I could steal your car and joyride around town.”

  He looked at me with suspicion. “Where do you want to go?”

  I shrugged. “Somewhere for junk food. Hang out.”

  “Hang out where?”

  “Maybe Orchard Park.”

  He sighed, letting the book slam shut. “Why?”

  “I want to see Sumner’s neighborhood at night. See whose lights are on. Nothing special.”

  He looked . . . resigned? Maybe he still felt guilty for goading me into confronting my fears upstairs. He shoved the book aside, stood, then neatly pushed in the chair. “Okay. Let me tell Brenda.”

  “Ask if she wants to come.”

  That cheered him. “Okay.”

  I went back to my room, changed into some shoes. By the time I found my jacket, Richard was waiting for me in the kitchen.

  “Brenda said she isn’t into male bonding.
But if we get wings, to bring some home for her.”

  We trudged out to the garage, stamped the snow from our shoes before getting into the Lincoln. In a minute or so the big car’s heater kicked in and we’d reached Main Street. Richard turned right, heading for the Thruway.

  I watched the streets flash past. Traffic was light. We’d make it across town in no time, which was good, because through the power of suggestion, the thought of spicy Buffalo wings began to get to me.

  Richard pulled into the turn lane. “Why do you really want to go to Sumner’s neighborhood?”

  “I don’t know. I keep thinking about it. I feel like I need to be there. Tonight.”

  “You’re not expecting the murderer to return to the scene of the crime, are you?”

  “It’s not the scene of the crime. And no, I don’t know what to expect. I just expect. . . .” Anticipation gripped me. “Something.”

  He turned onto the entrance ramp. “You want to get something to eat first?”

  “What did you have in mind?”

  “I didn’t want anything until Brenda mentioned wings. Now that’s all I can think of.”

  I laughed. “How about on the way back?”

  He nodded, his gaze still fixed on the road.

  “Things seemed to have thawed between you and Brenda. Everything okay?”

  “We’re negotiating.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “We’re going to look for ways to expand our horizons.”

  “You don’t sound thrilled.”

  “Right now I’m willing to try anything to please her. Besides, like you, she thinks I need a job. She’s been calling clinics and gathering information. She’s got it in her head we’re going to volunteer as a team.”

  “What do you think about that?”

  “The idea’s still too new. I haven’t had a lot of hands-on experience in a long time.”

  “Is that why you’ve been burying your nose in books?”

  He laughed. “It can’t hurt to brush up.”

  The conversation petered out. I considered telling him about my call to Sharon, but what good would it do? I could berate myself without his input.

  Richard took the Orchard Park exit. We drove in silence to Sumner’s quiet neighborhood. The roads were empty on this snowy March night.

  Still as death.

  At ten-fifteen we rolled slowly past the Sumner place. Lights blazed in the living room and other parts of the house. Was Claudia home alone, or had she gone out, leaving the lights on a timer to fool burglars?

  We went to the end of the street. Richard pulled into a driveway to turn around. “Now where?”

  “Can we stay a few minutes? I feel like I have to wait for something.”

  “Another psychic message?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He looked jittery. “We can’t just park. Someone’s bound to call the police. I mean, the neighbors have to be nervous after what’s happened.”

  He had a point.

  “I’m probably making more out of it than I should. I just felt like I should be here tonight.”

  He nodded and started down the street, putting on his left turn signal, even though there was no one behind us. I too looked both ways for oncoming traffic and saw a man and his dog jogging farther down on Freeman Road.

  “Turn right, will you? I want to catch up with that jogger.”

  In seconds we were moving parallel to a guy who looked to be in his mid-thirties. I hit the power window control. It slid down with an electronic hum, the cold air blasting in.

  “Sir? Sir?”

  The man looked straight ahead, picked up his speed. The dog barked, but he yanked it along with him.

  “Sir?”

  He glanced over to me. “I don’t want any trouble.”

  His words startled me. Hadn’t I said the same thing to the muggers just weeks before?

  “I’m investigating Matthew Sumner’s death. You jog this neighborhood on a regular basis? Maybe you saw something.”

  He slowed, and Richard braked along with him. He stopped beneath a street lamp, giving us the once over.

  “What do you want?”

  I got out of the car, handing him my business card. “I’m investigating Matt Sumner’s death,” I repeated.

  He examined the card, gave me another quick once-over.

  “Did you jog around this neighborhood a week ago Thursday?”

  “I run most nights.”

  “Do you know where the dead man lived?”

  He looked down the road. “Back on Forest. The gray house with the ornamental cherry trees out front.”

  I nodded. His dog, a big, happy black Lab with a wet nose the size of ripe plum, sniffed my coat. He yanked the leash and the dog sat.

  “I jog down all these streets on a regular basis. I try to get in three or four miles a day, so I pretty much know the neighborhood. Who parks in their driveway, who parks in the garage. Stuff like that. One night, a couple weeks ago, there was a strange car in that driveway. I figured they had company.”

  He didn’t even have to describe it. Just as he spoke, I could see it. A dark, full-sized station wagon, with a chrome roof rack. I couldn’t tell the make or model, but it looked to be in good shape. Snow lazily drifted to earth in big flakes, covering the driveway. I wondered if the police had noted the tire tracks or if the snow had melted before Claudia Sumner had discovered her husband’s body.

  “—wagon. It was black, or dark red. Something like that. The funny thing is, it was backed right up to the garage door.”

  “Did you see anyone?”

  He shook his head. “The garage door was down. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought.”

  “What time was this?”

  He let out a breath. “I usually start out about eight thirty, so it would’ve taken me about fifteen minutes to get there. Maybe eight forty-five.”

  I looked at my watch. “You’re late tonight.”

  “One of the kids is sick. The whole day’s been shot.”

  “Have you talked to the police about this?”

  “I didn’t think it was important.”

  “Would you be willing to?”

  He shrugged. “I guess. But what good would it do? I didn’t see anyone and I didn’t see the license plate.”

  “The cops like to be thorough. Your name, sir?”

  “Paul Linski. I live a couple of blocks from here over on Cherry Tree Lane.” He gave me his phone number, and I told him the police would be in touch. I patted the dog, and Linski waved as he took off down the road.

  I got back in the car.

  “You knew,” Richard said. “When you were talking to him, you already knew what he was going to say.”

  “When he said he saw the car, I knew it was a dark-colored station wagon. If I can find some pictures online or at the library, I might be able to pick out the year and model.”

  Richard put the Lincoln in gear then pulled into a nearby driveway to turn around. “This is too weird. You are too weird.”

  “Thanks. I love you, too.” Satisfied with what we’d accomplished, I turned my thoughts to a more important issue.

  “So where’s a good place to get wings?”