Authors: Jennifer L. Jennings
hen I woke up the next morning around eight, I made a pot of coffee and checked my phone. A voice message from Lois letting me know that Claire had never come home last night.
And she never showed up for work.
I returned Lois's call with a lump in my throat.
“Sarah, did you get my message?”
“That's why I'm calling. Where are you?”
“At the bakery. I got here at six, and when Claire didn't show, I called my father. He's here right now, filling in. She's never skipped work before.”
I could hear voices in the background, and I figured Lois had customers to tend to. “I'm heading to Sanford right now. I'll call you as soon as I know anything. Till then, just try and focus on work. You'll be there all day?”
“Yeah, I'll be here. Peter is coming in early to help out. Sorry to make this short, but I gotta go.”
“Hang in there,” I said.
When Carter lumbered into the kitchen in his boxer shorts, he poured himself a mug, then joined me at the kitchen table. He must have noticed my tight expression. “What's wrong?”
“Lois is rightly concerned. Claire never came home last night. Didn't make it to work, either.”
He took a sip of coffee and ran a hand through his thick, gray hair, probably needing a moment to wake up so he could think clearly. “She's a grown woman. Maybe she spent the night with a new lover interest.”
“Apparently, she's not in the habit of doing things like that. In any case, I'm heading to Sanford. Are you feeling well enough to join me?”
Carter downed the rest of the coffee and stood up. “I can be ready in five minutes.”
When we left the house by 8:45, I zipped up my jacket against the chill. The sun was shining, which only created the illusion of warmth. In reality, it was bitter cold. April was right around the corner. But that didn't mean we still wouldn't get a snowstorm.
Once we got inside my car to leave, I turned the key in the ignition but nothing happened. I tried again and again.
“Shit. My battery must be dead.”
“I thought you just got a new battery,” he asked.
“Do you still have those jumper cables in the trunk?”
“Good. Pop the hood and I'll give you a jump.”
While he jogged back to the house to grab his car keys, I got out and went around to unlatch the trunk. I leaned over to grab the cables but froze.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.
No. My eyes were playing tricks on me. It couldn't be real. A sick joke.
Frozen in terror, all I could do was stare at Claire's body.
Her pale, lifeless body.
“Sarah, did you find the cables?” Carter called out. “C'mon, we need to get a move on.”
I couldn't speak. My mind was a complete blank. Nothing made sense.
Carter appeared next to me in an instant. “What's wrong?”
I opened my mouth but couldn't speak.
I could only point.
Carter sucked in a breath. “God help me.”
“Should we check for a pulse?” I asked, numbly. “Maybe she's still alive?”
Carter bent over the body, touched her arm and quickly withdrew his hand. “She's frozen, Sarah.”
“I don't see any blood.”
“Ligature marks on her neck.”
“She was strangled?”
“Looks like it.”
I felt like I might throw up, so I turned away, hunched over, hands on knees.
Carter put his hand on my back. “I'm calling 911.”
As he explained the situation with the person on the phone, I could only stand there in a state of numb shock, hoping to wake up from this nightmare. The same question kept repeating itself in my head. Why would someone put her in my trunk?
Was I being framed for murder?
“Sarah, they'll be here in a minute.” Carter's voice reached me, and I stood erect.
“Are they going to arrest me?”
“At the very least, they'll take you in for questioning. You've done nothing wrong so don't panic.”
“She's dead because of me.” Overwhelmed with sadness and regret, I didn't know whether to cry or vomit. “Someone found out that I was following her. They were afraid I'd discover Claire's secret.”
“It's not your fault that Claire got mixed up in some shit. You were just doing your job.”
There was nothing Carter could say that would make me feel better.
Nothing could bring her back.
n hour later, Detective James sat across the table and listened to my story while I sipped on a cup of lukewarm coffee. Luckily, we'd worked together on other cases, and I liked him. He was a no-nonsense sort of guy in his fifties with thinning brown hair and a decent build for his age. He was an honest and fair man and I knew he'd understand I could never be responsible for killing a young woman.
I took a deep breath and tried to remember Carter's words. Don't panic. Keep a level head. Just tell the truth and everything will be fine.
“My friend Lois hired me to keep an eye on Claire after she found a stash of money under her bed. I assumed Claire was mixed up in some kind of illegal drug transaction and I followed her to Sanford and to a camper in the woods. She left the bag of cash there and went home. An hour later, she got into a blue pickup truck, never to be seen again. Until, that is, I discovered her in the trunk of my car.”
Overcome with emotions, I had to take another deep breath and force the image of Claire's dead body from my mind. “I think he killed her because she threatened to expose him. Or, at least, expose some crime they were involved in.”
“Let's assume you are right,” he said, leaning back in his chair to assess me with quizzical eyes. “Why not just dump the body in the river, or bury her in the woods? Why go to all the trouble of putting her in
“Whoever this person is, he or she must have found out that I'd been tailing Claire and wanted to send a message. Although, I can't imagine what that message is. If they just intended to freak me out, well, they've succeeded in doing that.”
I had no idea what was going through his mind as he stared at the opened notebook I'd given him, with all my scribblings about the case. Certainly if I were guilty, I wouldn't have called the cops on myself.
Finally, he glanced up at me with a blank expression as if he wasn't sure he could believe me.
“Look,” I finally said. “I'll be happy to take a polygraph test. And you won't find my DNA or fingerprints on Claire's body, I can tell you that.”
He held up his hand to stop me. “I know you didn't kill this woman, Sarah, but you understand this line of questioning is part of the process, so bear with me.” He gestured to the last page in my notebook. “Remind me who Tom Parker is again.”
“Claire's neighbor,” I said. “Lois and I spoke with him last night around six. He's the one who saw her leave in a pickup around four-thirty last night. He didn't get a good look at the driver. I thought maybe it was Claire's ex-boyfriend. He has a red pickup, but then I went to his apartment and Claire wasn't there.”
“You went to the ex-boyfriend's apartment?”
“I delivered a pizza. I wanted to see if Clair was at his place. Anyway, I watched his apartment from about 8:45 until 10:30 ish. No sign of Claire.”
The detective gave me a sideward glance and I thought he'd want to know more about the pizza delivery but he just closed the file. “Okay, I guess that's all the questions I have for now. I'll be getting in touch with your client to corroborate your story.”
“Have you contacted Claire's cell phone company to get her call history? She probably received a call from the guy in the pickup before he went to her house.”
“We found her cell phone in her sweatshirt pocket. The only two calls she received yesterday were from Lois Mackey's cell phone.”
“That's right,” I said. “Lois called her several times when she never came home. Did you find Clair's purse or a wallet in my trunk with her body?”
“No, just the cell phone. Forensics has your car in the warehouse, and they're going through it as we speak. Hopefully, our guy left us a fingerprint when he dumped the body.”
“Are you going under the assumption the killer is a man?”
“For now, yes.”
“Speaking of her cell phone,” I said. “Have you been able to notify her next of kin? According to Lois, Claire has no family in the area.”
“I have someone working on that.” His phone made a beeping sound and he checked it. “I have to make a call to my superior and give him an update. In the meantime, go grab yourself something from the vending machine before we head out.”
“Where are we going?”
“You're going to show me where that camper is. I'll contact the Sanford Police Department to give them a heads up.”
I offered him a weary smile. “Thank you for trusting me.”
* * *
When I walked into the front lobby area, I saw Carter and Lois talking quietly by the doors leading outside. As I approached them, Carter reached out to hug me.
“How'd it go?”
“Could've been worse.” I turned to Lois and she hugged me, too. I noticed her body was shaking. That made two of us.
“Sarah, I don't know what to say. I had no idea anything like this might happen. I mean, I knew Claire was in trouble but I never thought she'd end up dead.”
“I am so sorry,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I feel partly responsible.”
She closed her eyes and tilted her head forward. “I'm the one who feels responsible. I hired you to follow her and then she winds up in your trunk. Who would do something like that?”
“I honestly don't know. Someone with a sick sense of humor, perhaps? Someone who wants me to suffer.”
Lois checked her watch and frowned. “I have to go back to the house. A policeman is coming by to go through Claire's things. I talked to Peter and he's going to have to manage the bakery by himself today.”
“Does he know what happened?”
“Yeah. He couldn't believe it when I told him. He's very concerned about you, too.”
“Tell him I'm fine and, just so you know, Carter and I have a working relationship with the detective in charge. He's a good guy. We're heading to Sanford in a few minutes.”
“So you're off the hook?” Carter said.
“I'm not sitting in a jail cell, so that's a good sign, right? Do you wanna take a drive with us?”
Carter said, “My time would be better spent questioning the neighbors for a witness. If we're lucky, someone might have seen a blue pick-up driving around last night or early this morning.”
* * *
By 1:15 pm, I was sitting in the passenger seat of Detective James's unmarked police cruiser heading north on 95.
“I just got the results from the preliminary autopsy report.”
I held my breath. “And?”
“Time of death occurred between 9:00 and 10:00pm last night. According to the ligature marks on her neck, she was strangled, probably with a rope approximately half an inch wide.”
Placing a hand over my throat, I couldn't begin to imagine the horror of what she went through. “So she was killed just a few hours after she left in the pick-up.”
“It appears so.”
“Well,” I said. “Andy Pinkerton sort of has an alibi since I watched his apartment between 9:00 and10:30. Although I still can't be positive that Claire wasn't inside his apartment last night.”
“I'll get his statement,” the detective said. “As soon as we get back.”
Passing through the Sanford exit and onto the winding road through the woods, we could see a plume of smoke rising above the trees.
As soon as we pulled onto the dirt road, my fears were confirmed. As we neared the area where I'd seen the trailer, all that was left was a pile of melted plastic and charred debris. I couldn't see any flames but dark smoke billowed up towards the sky.
“Someone torched the camper,” he said, “He knew we were coming.”
We drove up and parked about a hundred feet away from the pile of burnt rubbish. “I'm calling the fire department to make sure they send some firefighters down here as soon as possible. I'm surprised nobody noticed the fire and reported it.”
He got out of the car and inspected the ground. He took some photos of the road and the surrounding property, then came back to the car where I sat. “If I had to guess, the fire has been smoldering for at least six to eight hours. This road is a muddy mess. I was hoping we'd see tire tracks.”
“Why would someone burn down the trailer when they simply could've moved it.”
“I'll get a team out here to search through the pile, just in case, although I don't hold out much hope of finding anything we can use.”
It suddenly occurred to me what had happened. “When I followed Claire here yesterday, I parked behind her car off the main road, then came in on foot. Maybe the owner of the camper drove by, noticed my car and kept on going. Then, when I left, he either wrote down my license plate number, or followed me home.”
“Let's head back to Bridgeport. I want to stop at Ms. Kendall's home and look through her things. Her laptop might hold some of the answers we're looking for.”