Edwards was right — what I did was foolish, and there might be hell to pay in the future. But as much trouble as the Schaeffer’s would like to cause, they didn’t often run out into the county to do it. They knew damn well half of them were liable to get arrested at any moment. The warrants didn’t stop for their behavior, both in and out of Schaefferville. It gave me a small sense of peace — though if I ever went back and I didn’t have an army, I’d probably end up dead before taking three breaths.
By the time I got back to town, Elmira and Coleman were ready to allow me to see Audrey. She was sitting in a holding cell, all by herself, reading a book Coleman provided her.
“Ronnie,” Audrey said.
“Babe,” I said. We locked our hands together despite the bars. “I don’t know what evidence they have, yet, but I know a girl says she saw you murder Ellen Henry, or at least with her last. We both know that’s a load of malarkey, but… What can you tell me about Ellen Henry? Her family? Boyfriends?”
“She had dated a young man named Jake. Jake Creel. I remember him, because he was always… weird when he’d come to see her. Kind of like…” She looked around, then whispered. “Like he liked the truckers more than Ellen.”
“That could certainly be a lead. Anything else? Friends, people she spent time with?”
“No one really springs to mind. Her parents were normal, or they seemed so to me.”
“All right. I’ll look into them. In the mean time, I have a few favors I might be cashing in.”
“That’s enough time for now, Ron,” Elmira said. “You better find that attorney soon. The hurricane won’t delay arraignment for long, and she won’t be in holding after that. Bail or upstate.”
I nodded. “I’ll keep looking for a guy.” Then I kissed Audrey as best I could through those damned bars. “Love you.”
“Love you, too, Flyboy.”
My next stop: cashing in a favor, even if the person doing it didn’t yet know they owed me. I left the station and headed right into the morgue. True to form, Henry Wedgewood sat at his desk, taking notes, not paying any attention to the door behind him. I could have killed the guy without him knowing I was there. His sister, Gwen Jacobs, once fell under the power of the Salt Marsh conspiracy. Using his role as coroner Wedgewood helped fake her death, and he was one of the few souls who knew she still lived. Fortunately for Audrey, I knew it, too.
“Wedgewood,” I said.
His massive form moved faster than I imagined he could. He stood and turned to face me all in one motion. “Damn it, Cavanaugh!”
“I need a favor,” I said.
“I’m sure you do,” Wedgewood said. “I’ve just finished going over your girl’s victim. I won’t lie or give you evidence, or any of that.”
“Not even for your sister, Gwen?” I asked.
He looked surprised, but then his face twisted into one of anger and annoyance. “How dare you bring up the dead to curry favor…”
“Cut the shit, Wedgewood. We both know Gwen isn’t dead, and neither is her husband. Gwen Jacobs is alive and well — in southern France, last I heard.”
His face sank for a moment. “How do you know that?”
“I like Gwen, I like her husband, and I did my best to help them. I’m not asking you to do anything to go against your sense of justice. I just need to know what’s going on so I can help Audrey.”
Wedgwood sighed. “Come with me. I hope you aren’t bothered by bodies.”
I followed the portly Wedgewood into his operating venue, catching my first glimpse of Ellen Henry in her present condition. She lay on a cold, stainless steel table, her arms at her side. Naked as the day she was born, her skin a sickly pale, with a hint of green-grey. Her long blond hair flowed over the sides of the table, her eyes closed, her body still. The skin around her neck wore bruises from the last moments of her life.
Bruises marked her body in several places, and some faded with age — not all the damage done to Miss Henry happened the night she died.
“This is Ellen,” Wedgewood said. “Notice the bruising around her neck. Tight grip, small hands — small, womanly hands.”
“That doesn’t mean Audrey did it,” I said.
“No, it means a woman did it. She was found in her doorway,” he took a picture from a folder and handed it to me. “Choked to death. Wearing the pencil skirt she likely wore to work at the truckstop, her blouse, hose and heels, and her bra. No jewelry aside from a bracelet and a pair of earrings, but initial reports indicate she wasn’t prone to wearing much jewelry. Make-up on her face, her purse undisturbed — nothing clearly missing.”
“What about the older bruises on her body?” I asked.
“You noticed that? Good eye,” Wedgewood said. “Likely, she was in a fight some time before that. Punches to her ribs, if I had to guess. A few on her back. She also apparently was beat with a belt or whip not too long ago. Her back and buttocks have bruising and lacerations consistent with that sort of violence.”
“You can’t think Audrey did that,” I said.
“I don’t,” Wedgewood said. “But I don’t think it was done by a woman in any case — just the murder, based on the finger size. Also, she has skin under her nails from her attacker and while I can’t pin that on a person, the skin has make-up mixed in with it. I’d guess she scratched her attacker’s face.”
“Audrey has no scratches,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Well, you better get the detectives to get a good picture of her face — without make-up.”
“I’ll ask,” I said.
“Maybe I should,” he said. “Anyway,” he pulled a white sheet over the body of Ellen Henry. “She was recently sexually active, but no assault — and it wasn’t immediately before her death.”
“She has a boyfriend, then,” I said. “Which means there may be a motive there — maybe another woman.”
“Perhaps,” Wedgewood said. “I only interpret what I see: a woman strangled Ellen to death.”
“Thank you,” I said, turning to go.
“One more thing, Cavanaugh,” Wedgewood said.
“Don’t think you can kid me about Gwen. You wouldn’t rat on me over her death being fake, any more than I’d rat on you over Phil Broussard’s suicide.”
“What?” I asked. Phil Broussard had been the chief of police before Coleman, and he’d been neck deep in the Salt Marsh syndicate.
“The note was a great touch, especially in his own hand, but you can’t fool me. The world is better without him.” Wedgewood winked at me. “Go get the real killer, now.”
The only thing Anderson enjoyed painting more than women tied up and nude or nearly nude, was destruction. The storm didn’t bring much, but it brought enough. He sat by his window, the canvas illuminated by what sunlight fought through the clouds. From this position he had a clear view of the path the tornado took through town. No reports on the radio of fatalities, yet, but several houses and cars utterly destroyed.
For the first time in months, Anderson put the finishing touches on a painting without interruption. He closed his eyes for just a moment before mixing up some deep red paint to sign with his name, initials near twice the size of the other letters. Anderson stared out at the destruction, then his painting, and began to put away his tools, setting brushes aside to be cleaned.
His lover, Amber Aguirra, lay on her side, asleep in the bed. The blanket crept down her body over the course of her nap, exposing her bare back and naked behind. Anderson hesitated before putting away his supplies. He would love to paint her that way, a surprise present for her when she awoke.
But fate intervened. The phone rang, and Amber stirred.
“Yes?” Anderson answered gruffly.
“Your friend, Cavanaugh, went into Schaefferville today.”
“Interesting,” Anderson said. “Will I be paying my respects?”
“No, he made it out.”
“That is quite impressive,” Anderson said. “What made him go into it?”
“A young woman named Ellen Henry was murdered, cops picked up Audrey Carmen for it,” reported his snitch.
“Ellen Henry, you say? That name is awfully familiar.”
“I don’t know anything about her, just that she’s dead now.”
“Unfortunate for her,” Anderson said. “Any idea why the Schaeffer’s would be involved?”
“No,” came the response. “I told you all I know.”
“You better keep doing it,” Anderson said. He returned the phone to its cradle, and turned back to Amber. She had rolled onto her back and kicked the blanket off entirely. Anderson smiled at her naked body and her utter lack of shame from the moment she entered his apartment. It was a thing of beauty, her confidence, her lust. Anderson closed the curtains and joined her on the bed.
He’d need rest before he could chase Ron Cavanaugh down.
Before visiting the coroner, the case didn’t have many directions other than investigating people who knew Ellen and hoping to get lucky. Now I could choose from any number of directions: the bruising, the whipping, her possible sexual partners, her family, and her ex-boyfriend Jake. The biggest problem would be figuring out where to go first given the disarray of the town at the moment.
The best option seemed to be Jake Creel. He may have been her ex-boyfriend, but that didn’t mean they stopped seeing one another entirely. The man may well know what caused the bruising I’d seen. Maybe another young woman got into a fight with Ellen over Jake. Or maybe Jake left Ellen and she fought a new girl. If he couldn’t shed light on the injuries she sustained before her death perhaps he could point me toward who she most recently spent time fucking.
After a few years doing this job it didn’t take me long to track down Jake. He lived with his parents in the penultimate neighborhood around town: not the rich elite with butlers and drivers, but close enough to throw a baseball into the windows of a mansion. Creel’s father ran one of the textile mills in town for the Donnelly family. Before making my presence known I cased the house, observing their yard and their neighbors. No one home on either side of the street, houses boarded up, cars gone. Still, it cost me nothing to knock.
Several moments after I knocked on the door a baby-faced boy opened it and stuck his head out.
“Yes?” He asked. I guessed him to be about fourteen and waiting on his first shave.
“I’m looking for Jake Creel,” I said. “It’s about Ellen Henry.”
“I’m Jake Creel,” he said. He opened the door and stood in it, and I took him in. He wore a yellow dress shirt under his light blue sweater-vest, a pair of khakis, and slick black shoes. All of these while he sat around the house. Not exactly normal by Mississippi standards. He stood short of stature, slight, narrow — and I instantly understood why Audrey might assume he played for the other team. Dainty described the boy just right.
“When was the last time you saw Ellen?”
“Several weeks ago. Why? Who are you, sir?”
I narrowed my eyes. “You aware she was murdered?”
He put a hand over his heart. “Goodness, no.”
For a moment I considered that he might be putting on a show for my benefit, assuming I was a cop, and I took a long look at his face, looking for a scratch or signs of one, then a decent look at his fingers. Short, dainty. Womanly, even. Maybe he did it.
“She was. Strangled. Your hands look to be about the right size.”
“I assure you I was not involved, sir. I was at work late last night.”
“I didn’t tell you when she was killed,” I said.
“I assumed,” Jake said. “Given that this is the first I have heard of the tragedy.”
“Where do you work?”
“Dwyer Accounting,” Jake said.
An interesting answer. My best friend, Murphy Dwyer, recently split off from his accounting firm to start his own — to be his own boss — and I wasn’t aware of him hiring anyone.
“Stay in town,” I said.