Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Shorts - Part 3 of "By Any Other Name"

Is it seeming to you like there's more between Dan and Denise than the case? Hmm...


They were just finishing dinner when the woman in blue reappeared with a small plate in each hand. She set one down in front of each of them with a flourish.

Dan looked from the heaping strawberry shortcake with whipped cream to the beaming hostess. “Excuse me, I think you’ve made a mistake. We didn’t order dessert. The menu said it didn’t come with the buffet.”

Her look was filled with pleasant conspiracy. She glanced furtively around her and then bent down closer to the table. “Well, just consider this on the house and we won’t mention it to anyone.” She winked at Denise and leaned a bit closer to her. Dan could just make out what she whispered. “This one’s quite the looker. You should keep him real happy.”

Denise flushed furiously and nearly put her hands to her face to hide a mortified expression. Dan really never thought much about his looks, but he couldn’t help but notice the whispers in the court clerk’s office every time he walked through. His dark hair and piercing black eyes above a slightly hooked nose put his ancestry somewhere in central Europe, but he had no idea where. He decided discretion would definitely be the better part of valor in this case so he pretended not to hear.

But she still flinched nervously when he touched her arm on the way out the door. When they finally made it outside, she couldn’t meet his eyes. “I am so sorry about that.”

Dan chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. I’m used to comments like that. Let’s just find your contact and get to the hotel. Did you bring a change of clothes, or should we stop in the little department store across the highway? I know I’d like to get a razor and a toothbrush. I should have followed my gut instinct and brought a bag.”

She smiled, a bit more at ease. “That would be great.”

A few minutes later, as he was waiting at the cash register of the store for Denise, he heard a deep baritone behind him.

“Hey! You’re The Hawk, aren’t you?” Dan turned around and spotted a man walking toward him with his hand held out to shake. His build and the way he carried himself screamed lifer cop, despite his casual clothing.

Dan likewise held out his hand. “That’s me. Dan McGraw. Do I know you?”

If the man was offended, he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. “Nah, I doubt it. I was a beat cop in your district in New York and saw you in court a few times. You were a legend on the street. When a case went to you, we knew another bad guy would be away for a long time. All that time, and not a single appeal succeeded on one of your convictions. Man! Are you working in Colorado now or just visiting?”

Dan chuckled. He did try very hard to only bring charges when there was sufficient evidence. Appeals on points of law weren’t acceptable in his mind and was one reason for his nickname. His appearance was the other. But only Justin had called him Hawk since he’d arrived. He found himself surprised that he sort of missed it. “I’m the D.A. up in Vail now. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember you. I probably did meet you— ”

The officer waved it off. “Like I said, I was just one of many. I’m Steve Loftgren.” He stared at something down an aisle and shook his head with a deep frown. Then he bent down a bit closer and lowered his voice. “I probably shouldn’t say anything, since I’m not officially on duty, but I’m really surprised you’re here with Denise Richardson. I’d be careful of her, if I were you. Nobody has anything on her they can prove, but just between us, keep an eye on her. Word at the station is she’s bad news.”

Dan’s brows shot up. While Denise claimed she’d never been here, the waitress’s familiarity did seem odd, and now a cop was calling her by name. Why would Denise lie, and what was she hiding?

It was nearly an hour later when Dan heard a knock on his motel room door. He was just about to call Justin, but softly replaced the receiver and took a single step to look through the peephole. Denise looked furious. Her hands were clutched into tight fists and she was grinding her teeth slightly as he opened the door.

“What’s wrong?” Dan asked.

“They won’t release the evidence,” she said, storming past him into the room. Then she raised a finger in the air. “No, let me correct that — they won’t release the evidence to me. I gave them my license and my employee ID, and the cops wouldn’t trade boxes.” She pulled his keyring from her pocket and dropped it on the table next to the window. “Thanks for letting me use the car, by the way, but apparently, you’ll have to be the one to exchange the boxes.”

Dan stared at her, looking for any chink in the armor of anger and moral outrage, but he couldn’t find any. Until he got some information from Justin, he could only treat her at face value as one of his colleagues and trust her. “Did they give a reason? Why did the police have the evidence anyway? What happened to your contact at the D.A.’s office?”

Her laugh was short and bitter. “So much for confirmations! It’s the opening weekend of pheasant hunting season here, and he forgot he made plans. There’s another broken link for the defense to hammer at. He took the box to the police station with instructions to trade with me, but they wouldn’t. No reasons. The sergeant wouldn’t even come out front. But the dispatcher said he promised to wait for you if you can get over there right away. He’s off tomorrow, and we’ll be sunk for Monday’s hearing without the evidence.”

“Tell you what. Why don’t you relax for a few minutes and I’ll drive over there. I’ll help you go through the evidence when I get back — give you some tips for your first time solo in front of Judge Stone.”

She sighed and the fury seemed to leak out of her, leaving annoyance and weariness behind. “Thanks. I’m probably still too wired about the snub from the police to remember a damned thing right now, but I’ll try to calm down by the time you get back.”

Dan’s visit to the police station left him with more questions than answers, and led him to a pay phone on the side wall of a gas station a block away. The first call had been fruitless, but Justin promised to call back with more information. After half an hour of sitting in the SUV, the pay phone finally rang, but the news wasn’t what he expected to hear.

“Are you absolutely positive, Justin? There’s something really strange going on here.” Dan’s frustration was growing by the second. “There’s nothing in her background search that might place her in this town during the past few years? Shoplifting, check kiting, fraud — those are pretty serious accusations, even without formal charges, to have passed the screen with flying colors.”

Justin’s voice was firm; confident. “I did the original search myself, Hawk. I even called Tom from Human Resources down here to pull her employment file after you talked to the police sergeant. Every date is accounted for with multiple sources. She’s led a completely uneventful life and as far as I can tell, has never been further east than the Denver airport. I don’t know what to tell you. Have you asked her? She’s always been completely up front with me. She wouldn’t react badly to being asked — especially if you were the one doing the asking, if you know what I mean.” Justin’s voice took on a teasing edge that bothered him.

Dan was taken aback and pulled the receiver away from his ear to stare at it. He braced himself angrily against the brick wall of the gas station as the implication finally sunk home. His reply came out through gritted teeth. “No, I don’t know what you mean. Care to explain it to me?”

There was a long pause and Justin’s voice was filled with stammering embarrassment. “You mean she didn’t tell . . . I . . . aw, hell, she’s gonna kill me!” A nervous chuckle found its way over the wire. “But she’ll probably have to wait in line, because the whole office is going to kill me first.”

“The office?” Dan’s first instinct was to raise his voice, so he lowered it instead until it was a baritone growl. “I’m the subject of a betting pool? So this whole trip is a set-up . . .as what? — a blind date? I would have thought this sort of junior high crap was beneath you, Justin.”

Justin’s voice sounded slightly panicked. “No, no. It’s not like that! I swear to you everything I’ve told you is true, Hawk. I did plan to drive her, and the counselor did say it was a bad idea. Yeah, Denise has . . . well, a crush on you but she absolutely does not know anything about the pool. It’s just been so flamingly obvious to the rest of us since you hired on, that we wondered when you’d finally notice. One thing led to another and . . . well, you know it gets out of hand. You started the Tad/Angie pool back in New York, if I remember right. Please, though, for God’s sake, don’t tell Denise. I’m begging you, Dan. She would be humiliated, and she deserves better!”

Dan tapped his fingers on the wall in rapid staccato. Unfortunately, Justin was right about the pool he started several years before. But it was annoying to be on the other side. “We’ll talk about this when I get back. But for now, keep digging and then call me at the hotel if you come up with anything. The point will be moot if she lied on her job credentials.”

On his way back to the motel, while waiting for the light to change at one of the few signals in town, Dan happened to glance sideways. He watched Denise walk out of the office of a small motel right across the street. She didn’t notice him before turning onto a walkway that ran the length of the rooms. He quickly flipped on his blinker and turned into the lot. He slipped out of the vehicle, shut the door quietly with his hip, and shadowed her until she stopped in front of a darkened door.

“Looking for something?” he asked from a foot behind her. She jumped and then held a hand to her chest. The key dropped out of her hand and he picked it up. The room number on the door matched the key ring tag.

“God, don’t do that, Dan!” She took the ring from his hand and took a deep breath at his raised eyebrows and suspicious face. “Okay, I know I should have waited for you to get back, but I am glad you’re here. Maybe you can answer a legal question. Is it considered breaking and entering when you’re opening a door with a key and the room is registered to you?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “What’s this about, Denise? Why did you rent a second room at a different motel?”

She held up the key until it glinted in the dull yellow beam overhead. “That’s my point. I didn’t rent the room. When you went to pick up the evidence, I stopped by the grocery to get a word search book to calm down. Two different people greeted me by name in the check-out. When I walked the couple of blocks back to the restaurant to have a cup of coffee to ponder that puzzle, the same waitress stopped me and handed me a small stack of receipts she claimed I’d left.” Denise lowered the key and then dug in her pocket with the other hand. She handed him several slips. She pulled one from the pile and held it up to the light. “This is a receipt for this room, signed with what I’d swear was my own signature. The clerk says it was me and, supposedly, I just checked out in a hurry with a tall blond man and said I’d be back to clean out the room before morning. But look at the time on the receipt — we were just passing through Denver when this happened!”

Now fully intrigued, Dan looked at each receipt and compared the times with their schedule. “You’re right. Here’s breakfast from the buffet shortly after we left Vail, and here’s gas at the corner station while we were passing Limon.”

She swung the key on the ring. “So, is it legal to search the room? I want to know what the hell is going on. If we leave it until morning, she’ll already be gone.”

Dan took a deep breath and tapped the stack of receipts against his leg. It was a good question. He shrugged. “Boy, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a charge that would stick, considering the evidence. But let’s knock first, just to be safe.”

“I did that when I got here, but what the heck—” She raised her arm and rapped on the door with closed knuckles. They waited for a few moments but there was no sound inside the room. After a second, harder knock with no response, Denise took a deep breath and pushed the key into the lock.

Wincing at his own stupidity, Dan quickly wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her back firmly, twisting away from the door before she could turn the knob.

He could feel her frantic heartbeat against his chest as he whispered next to her ear. “Just in case someone is expecting us to open that door— let’s not help by painting on the bullseye.” She tensed with sudden understanding and nodded quickly. With both of them standing behind the solid wood of the door jamb, he turned the knob and pushed the door inward quickly.

There were no flashes of light, no explosions of sound or motion. The room remained dark and still. But Dan still used caution when he awkwardly snaked his hand around the wall to flick on the light switch without leaving his protected position.

After a few more moments of tense listening, they finally went in the room and shut the door. Even with the preparation of the receipts and witnesses, it was still a shock to see a black wig styled like Denise’s hair hanging on the corner of the headboard and snapshots of her taped to the mirror. Dan found himself comparing the casual jeans and dress shirt Denise was wearing to the revealing string bikini in one photo. He cleared his throat and quickly turned away before he could remember the scent of her shampoo or the beat of her heart against him.

Denise’s voice filled with horror. “My God! This woman is stalking me! Some of these are from last summer at the pool and this one is at last year’s office Christmas party!” She started to reach for the photo, but then pulled back her hand. “Damn! I should have thought to bring gloves. I don’t want my fingerprints all over this stuff.”

Dan took in all of the boxes and bags, filled with months of careful planning, and sighed. “Actually, I think it’s time to bring in the police. There’s more involved here than simple mistaken identity.”

...[more next week]

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