Dead in the Dark by Bill Capron
The dumdum tore into her back, the spreading mass transferring its deadly momentum to her stationary body, lifting her off her feet, spinning her, driving her back into the dark alley behind the restaurant. She rolled like a rag doll, arms and legs akimbo, coming to rest at the side of the building. Her eyes turned to the man facing her, his legs spread, his smile hard and triumphant. The word why was forming in her mind when the second bullet’s sound filled the night.
I was on a stakeout in the greater Northwest, checking out a likely insurance fraud. With my strange gift of sight, the colorless view of night was only a darker version of my day world, a little tougher to discern, but all there in vivid black and white and gray. One doctor told me that my retina had the normal number of cells, but no cones, so maybe I see in the dark like a cat, but be that as it may, I see a lot. And there’s nothing wrong with my hearing.
It was a typical Friday night in Portland’s premier yuppie center, residents as well as tourists clogging the sidewalks on the warm summer night, jaywalking between the clogged crawl of cars looking for parking spots that didn’t exist. A couple of drunks were yelling at each other in front of the bar where my target was parked. In another twenty minutes he’d have a snoot-full and would rise from his wheelchair, tired of waiting for the waitress I’d paid to cut him off, and walk with an unbelievable steadiness to the bar. I fiddled with the digital camera to pass the time.
The shot reverberated off the buildings and the evening tableau stopped, like the pause button on the VCR, then a couple got down on their knees in case it was a drive by shooting. Yeah right, in this traffic. I’m one of those people who reacts when he hears danger, drawn like a moth to a flame. I grabbed my pistol from under my seat and was out of my car moving towards the alley when the second shot rang out. As I moved through the frozen crowd it seemed to melt in my wake, slowly following behind me.
She was propped up against the wall of the restaurant, her lower body at a strange angle to her torso. Blood ran black across the front of a pale white blouse, over her right hip and onto the pavement. I knelt down and cradled her pretty head as blood-enfolded air bubbled from her lips. When she died the muscles relaxed and the pretty face smoothed into a doughy semblance of the original. I sat hard and let her head rest on my blood soaked knee. I know she didn’t care, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
The uniformed female cop helped me disengage from the dead girl. She asked me what I was doing with the gun; I told her. She asked if she could have it; I gave it to her. She pushed back the crowd and we waited for homicide. We knew each other, dated once, but she didn’t acknowledge it to keep things professional. Diane Simpson was a good-looking blonde, about five-eight, one-twenty, three years on the force, an efficient woman making it unapologetically in a man’s world. I think she found me a bit too loose with the rules, but who knows what women think?
When homicide arrived, Carter and Dandridge, the shortest cops on the force, they gave me the evil eye. If I was there, I must be guilty of something. Dandridge, the ugly one, smelled the barrel of my revolver, then dumped the unfired shells into his hand. He put them in his pocket and tossed the gun back to me. I could see it in his eyes, he was considering the political value of taking me into custody, if only for a few hours, curry some friendships at the executive level. The idea was transitory, they were good cops, and they had a job to do; and I might know something, and if they hassled me, I’d keep it to myself. I’m that kind of guy, and they know it.
They did their thing for an hour as a veritable phalanx of uniformed cops under bright halogen lamps set up their yellow tape and scoured the pavement for evidence. Simpson and another female cop worked the crowd looking for witnesses, or anyone who knew the girl. Carter extracted a wallet from the dead girl’s purse. I listened hard. Her name was Jessica Long, and she was seventeen. Ten minutes later one of the uniformed cops said there was a missing persons on her, she’d been gone two weeks. The parents lived in Gresham.
~ ~ ~
They were questioning me for the third time, like some kind of training exercise for rookie cops, when the parents arrived. They’d been to the morgue, their eyes were wet. The woman dabbed her cheeks dry with a Kleenex. She was a carbon copy of her gray-haired daughter, and from a distance looked more like her sister. In a way she looked the younger of the two, more immature, less worldly, less certain. The husband stood six-four, eye to eye with me, fifty pounds heavier, but not fat. His black hair was thinning and I could see his scalp. His skin was deeply lined, as if he was the picture of Dorian Gray for his forever youthful wife. They held hands like lovers.
It was two in the morning when they shuffled out of the police station. I met them at the bottom of the stairs and introduced myself. Even up close the woman’s face was smooth, and the transparent wispy gray hair was the real thing. Her voice was soft, blurred, his was firm. I said I was sorry about their daughter. I gave them my card and asked them to call if there was anything I could do. He took the card and put it in his pants pocket, and then they shuffled on, almost as if I hadn’t been there.
Two weeks later the mother called me. There was no vague blur to her voice, she was angry. The investigation was going nowhere, and as far as she could see, the police didn’t care about a runaway girl. I explained the cops go where the evidence leads them, and cases like this often take a long time, sometimes years until a serendipitous lead put them back into the hunt. She said she knew who killed her daughter. I met with the parents, Janis and Doug Long, at their home that night.
~ ~ ~
Jesse Parnham was twenty-two, a firefighter, married for about a month to his high school sweetheart two years earlier. He had known Jessica since he was fifteen and she was ten. She tagged along after him like a little sister until he went away to college. He married and divorced during the summer after his sophomore year. He went back to school but dropped out after a month. He came home and landed a job with the local fire department. After his parents died in a car crash last year, he took up residence in their house. At first it was like the old days, Jessica would be there every day, then one day she stopped. Jesse called and left messages, but Jessica never returned his calls. Janis Long recognized the look in Jesse’s eyes. She did her best to keep them apart. I asked why the police didn’t consider him a suspect. Doug Long said Jesse was supposedly asleep in the station house. They didn’t believe it.
I started tailing Jesse when he left the station at the end of his shift that night, eight o’clock. He walked, no, trudged is a better word, the mile to a bar three blocks from his house where he took a stool at a tall table in the far back corner. He was six-one, one-eighty, a good-looking kid with strong features and thick dark hair. By eight-thirty he’d finished three beers, and by nine it was six. I was still nursing my first, some kind of slowness record for me.
When he started on his eighth beer I pulled up a chair. His features were blurring as the alcohol bloated his skin. I asked, “So, how’re you doing?”
And he told me, in all the meandering haphazard detail of the slurring talkative drunk, about the love of his life. I’d give it to you as he related it to me, but that would be a bit too meandering. Briefly, this was his tale.
He was in love with a dead woman, or maybe just a girl, he hadn’t straightened it out in his head yet. Jessica went from tagalong kid to beautiful girl, but she was only seventeen. I recalled that old song, ‘Young Girl Get Out of My Life’, by the Union Gap. So, he tried to keep her around him all the time, maybe until she got old enough. Jesse never told her he loved her, though they discussed what it would be like if he was in love with her, like a hypothetical problem; then she’d think about it, laugh, and they’d go on the way they were. One day he broached the topic, seriously, said he might really want to be in love with her. Jessica said she wasn’t the kind of girl he could love anymore. She picked out the most superficial of reasons, “Could you love a girl with nipple rings?” He said no. She said that was the tip of the iceberg. He did some cogitating on it, decided he could stand the nipple rings, and the rest of it. By then she was gone and he never got a chance to tell her.
Hell of a tale, eh? Simple, childish, even inane. But you learn a lot about truth in my business, that often people lie even when they don’t have to, because they can. Jesse Parnham, his face clouded by booze, had that deer-in-the-headlights look. He spoke the truth, because it was all he knew, and his pain was too great even to protect himself.
He worried me. “So, Jesse, you going to drink your way to forgetfulness?”
He looked at me with surprise, his features gathering strength to reassemble the handsome lad who’d entered the bar. “No, but it makes grieving easier.” He looked within. “I missed a cue somewhere. Sure, I’m twenty-two, but I’m not exactly world-wise. But I should have known more than Jessica. I should have helped her. So I’ll get plastered for a month, kick myself in the gut, cry myself to sleep.” He turned wet eyes to me. “And when I’m done, I’ll go back to being staid stable me.”
He finished his beer and I drove him the three blocks home.
From the car I called Dennis Doyle, a homicide cop I know. He was working the night shift, and, from the sound of his voice, he was deep into death. Even after fifteen years he doesn’t like murder and murderers, the presence of a dead body lowers his timbre an octave.
“So, what do you want, shamus?” It was the moniker he’d put on me, his code word for respect. “Calling me, you must think we’re friends, or something.”
I ignored the barb and asked him if he remembered the Jessica Long murder.
“Sure, nice girl, maybe a little wild, but who isn’t these days. Not likely we’ll get the shooter.” A pause, then, “You working for the parents?”
No need to lie. “Yes, I need some information.” He was silent, I continued, “Could you find out if the girl had her nipples pierced?”
“Don’t need to check, shamus, I saw the file.” He explained, “I had a murder like it a year ago, except the shooter didn’t use a dumdum bullet, so the connection wasn’t real solid. But, back to your question, yes, she did.”
~ ~ ~
I got some sleep, then called Janis Long. I rang her doorbell at nine. She gave me a drawn tight smile and let me in. I asked where her husband was. She said he went to work, that she didn’t tell him I was coming. I asked why.
She poured me a cup of coffee and averted her eyes. “You’ve got to understand, Jessica was his little girl,” her voice caught, “but she wasn’t a little girl anymore. If you go looking for that little girl, you won’t find her, or her killer.”
I nodded. She told me of a girl more troubled than the one she and Doug first described to me. Mind you, a good girl, but experimenting with a budding adult body and non-standard ideas on how life should be lived. Still, her mother believed she’d find her way. She had a good moral compass, she knew right from wrong. When I asked about the nipple rings, she said she didn’t know.
We went to Jessica’s room. I asked if she kept a diary. Janis said yes, that the police had asked too, but it wasn’t in the house. She left me alone in the room.
I went through the drawers, the clothes she’d never wear again. She had a little pull-out drawer in the middle with receipts. I found the one for the body piercer, Holes-R-Us in Sandy. She paid for four nipples.
The storefront sign said open at eleven, so I had some breakfast, then walked back to Holes-R-Us. The store was run by a single body, maybe female, with tattoos and studs everywhere. When she spoke though, she had a firm voice, a radio voice.
She gave me one of those looks like I was too straight to be there. “Cop?” she asked.
“Private,” I told her; I explained what I needed.
She searched through a log book. “I remember them. High school girls. Didn’t want their parents to know.” She gave me a defiant look. “Not my job, you know.”
I nodded. She continued her search. “Here it is. Jessica Long and Randi Wells.”
I called Janis Long and she said she’d have Randi at the house at three-thirty. When I got there, she left us alone. I turned to Randi, equally as pretty as Jessica; they must run in packs, or maybe everyone is better looking than I remember.
I got to the point, “You and Jessica had your nipples pierced at the same time?”
She blushed, then nodded, too embarrassed to speak.
I reassured her, “That’s okay, Randi, I had to be sure it was you. I need to know about Jessica, and,” I stated the obvious, “the two of you were pretty close.” The girl nodded and I continued, “The police have hit a dead end, but they don’t know about you.” I read alarm on her face. “If you help me, they’ll never know.”
She had a high-pitched little girl voice that didn’t match the woman’s body. She told me everything. Jessica had met a man, Gerry-O, about twenty-two, downtown at Pioneer Square. She ran away to live with him. It was true love. Randi didn’t know where he lived, but she had a picture of him that Jessica gave her. She fished the photo out of her purse and said she was thinking about telling the police, but she didn’t know how. She said Jessica left a message on her answer machine the night she was killed. She said she was coming home.
~ ~ ~
I contracted two hip-type young operatives, Bob and Ray, and went to Pioneer Place where I waited and relaxed. On my third cup of coffee he showed. Bob and Ray were in a circle of boys/men tossing a hacky-sack with their feet. Bob saw Gerry-O and flipped the hacky-sack in his direction. Gerry-O caught it expertly, flicked it back into the center and joined the circle. They were all talking when I made my way to the more comfortable environs of the Hilton for supper and then home.
It was two days before I heard from the operatives. They gave me an address for Gerry-O, an apartment in the Northwest, paid for by a small string of cut-rate hookers he ran. Bob assured me Gerry-O would be out all afternoon.
I picked the lock to the back door of the ground floor apartment and took my time going through his things, such as they were. I found the gun behind the hot water heater, and Jessica’s diary. There were two pictures, one of Jessica, and another girl, even younger. The date stamp on the back was from eleven months earlier. I read the diary, then tore out the last three pages. I stuffed the diary, Jessica Long’s life, into my pocket. I left everything else as I found it.
~ ~ ~
Gerry-O was arrested that afternoon buying heroin from an undercover cop, arranged by my operatives and Doyle. While they had him in custody, the cops questioned his friends. They found he knew Jessica and had corralled her into his band of youthful whores. The cops got a search warrant, found Gerry-O’s stash, then charged him with two counts of murder, Jessica Long … and Dennis Doyle’s unsolved case.
I reread the last entry in Jessica’s diary, “I can’t believe I did this, I’ll never feel clean again. Never! As soon as it’s dark, I’m going home to where I’m loved, if they’ll have me.” She put little girl hearts before and after the word ‘loved.’
~ ~ ~
I met Janis Long for lunch. She wrote me a check. I gave her Jessica’s diary. She opened it to the last page, the dated entry a month previous. I told her that’s all there was. She didn’t believe me, but she let it be.
After she left, I leafed through the three pages again. Two weeks of hell. If she’d survived, she might have come out of it all okay. If …
I called Jesse Parnham, took him out to supper and told him the whole story. He was strong, and he had a good moral compass himself.