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Authors: Brad Parks

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The Girl Next Door (24 page)

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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“What else?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean
nothing
? There’s got to be something else,” I said, because it ought to have been easier than this. It was in the Bad Guy Handbook somewhere: Jackman was supposed to leave easy clues for me to follow. Whether he did it before or after he waxed his mustache and donned his black cape was up to him.

“I’m looking at it right now. All it says is, ‘IFIW Meeting.’”

“Well, that’s still something,” I said, knowing it at least proved Jackman and Big Jimmy had been together, even if it didn’t tell me where. “Look, do me a favor and make a photocopy of that page then return the appointment book where you found it.”

“Sure thing,” Lunky said. “Anyhow, this was fun. Thoreau never mentioned civil disobedience could feel like a scavenger hunt. If you need anything else, just let me know. No one else around here ever asks me to do anything.”

I assured him I would, and he hung up. I killed the engine on the Malibu and walked toward the State Street Grill, finding myself looking forward to again seeing Nikki and her alluring green eyes.

What I saw instead momentarily rendered me incapable of putting one foot in front of the other. It was two men sitting at a window booth, bent toward each other in what appeared to be an intense conversation. One was the ill-tempered and combed-over owner of the State Street Grill, Mr. Papadopolous.

The other was Gary Jackman.

*   *   *

Not knowing what else to do, I positioned myself behind a tree for a moment. I would say I hid behind it, but this particular tree had only recently been planted and was probably fifty years away from being wide enough to offer a guy my size any real concealment, even if I turned sideways. But I at least wanted to get something between myself and the Jackman-Papadopolous conference.

The questions began pouring into my head. Actually, that’s not right. It was really just one question I kept asking myself in different ways: What were
they
doing together?
What
were they doing together? What were they
doing
together?

Or perhaps more pressingly: What had they already done?

I flashed back to when I saw them at the funeral home and replayed it in my mind: Papadopolous waving his arms around frantically, Jackman staying cool and collected—but eventually telling him to bug off, in a way that suggested they would talk again. I had, frankly, forgotten all about the encounter because it didn’t seem significant at the time. Besides, I had become convinced Jackman was my villain.

But now? Seeing them together again? It seemed to strain the bounds of anything that could be considered happenstance. I couldn’t think of anything that a mighty newspaper publisher and a small-time diner owner would have in common … except for the one employee they shared. And she was a woman who happened to be dead at the present time.

Were Jackman and Papadopolous somehow in on this together? Was
that
why there was no dented SUV in Jackman’s garage—because Papadopolous was actually the owner/driver of said vehicle?

In my one prior run-in with Papadopolous, he certainly acted like a man with something to hide, throwing me out of the diner because I was a reporter. Here I had thought the golf-club-wielding Jackman fit the profile of a killer. But I had to admit a short-tempered Greek guy—the kind of guy who wanted to corporally remove me from his restaurant—might be just as capable of violence.

But why would they both want Nancy dead? And how would they have discovered their mutual desire for her termination? Was Nancy also causing problems for Papadopolous in some way I had yet to discover?

All I knew was that I didn’t know enough.

I now really needed to track down Nikki Papadopolous, who might be my only source on whatever was happening between her father and my ex-publisher. Finding her would obviously require some finesse, inasmuch as I didn’t want to alert her daddy to my presence.

I eased out from behind my spindly little tree, casting one quick look at Jackman and Papadopolous, who were still engrossed in their collusion. I rounded the corner and jogged up the front steps, aware I would have to avoid the left side of the restaurant when I entered. Luckily for me, the office was on the right side. Nikki and I might be able to talk there without her father being the wiser.

Entering the second of the front doors, I found a woman at the hostess stand whom I recognized as being Jen the Waitress, Nikki’s friend. I positioned myself so I couldn’t be seen from the Jackman-Papadopolous table.

“Hi,” she said, smiling pleasantly. “Just one today?”

“Actually, I was here to see Nikki. Is she around?”

Jen smiled again, but this time in a way that suggested it perhaps wasn’t unusual for young men to come there and ask for Nikki.

“Sorry, she’s not around right now. It’s her day off. You’re the reporter who was here the other day, right?”

“That’s me.”

She pointed toward the left side of the restaurant and said, “Is it something Gus can help you with? He’s just back there.”

Gus? Who was Gus? Then it dawned on me that she was gesturing toward the diner owner. Of course his name was Gus. What else would a guy named Gus Papadopolous do in New Jersey other than own a diner?

“That’s okay, actually,” I said. “He, uh, had some anger-management issues the last time I tried to chat with him.”

“Yeah, he has those a lot. Once he goes off about something, there’s just no talking him down.”

Noted.

“Actually,” I said. “Would you mind giving me Nikki’s number? She left a message for me at the office, I just forgot to write her number down”—or, rather, Tina never gave it to me, but I didn’t want to get lost in details—“and I feel rude not calling her back. Do you have it by any chance?”

Jen glanced back toward Gus’s table for a second. “Yeah, sure,” she said, took a phone out of her pocket, pressed some buttons, then dictated ten digits to me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m Carter Ross, by the way.”

I extended my right hand. “Jen,” she said, shaking it. “Jen Forbus.”

“Thanks, Jen Forbus,” I said. “You’re a real sweetheart.”

She smiled and I gave her a quick salute as I departed. I walked around the corner toward the pizzeria I had visited the day before—I was still starving, after all—and gave Nikki a ring. We established she would meet me at the pizzeria, and before long I was shoveling the first of two slices into my mouth.

I was finished with both slices—and a life-giving Coke Zero—and was starting to get tired of sitting there by the time Nikki arrived. Then I saw her and realized it had been worth the wait. She was wearing a light green, knee-length summer dress made out of some gauzy floral-print fabric. It was wrapped around her and secured at her waist with a little spaghetti string. I had untied that string with my eyes at least twice in the time it took her to cross the restaurant toward my table.

“Hi, there,” I said, feeling the smile overtake my face as I rose from the booth.

“Hey, there, handsome,” she said, and I accepted a kiss on the cheek. She was lightly perfumed and freshly made up. Her dark hair—which she wore up while at work—was now down just below her shoulders. She looked nothing short of fabulous, and I wondered if the effort had been on my account. One way to find out.

“I hope I didn’t interrupt anything,” I said. “You look like you’re about to go out on a date or something.”

“Oh no,” she said quickly, then added, “It’s just so nice to wear a dress on a hot day.”

So it
was
for me. But we were pretending it wasn’t. I could play that game. I could play it all day and all night if she wanted.

I tried to remind myself I was there for, you know, business purposes; that she was the daughter of the man who might have helped murder Nancy Marino; that this was potentially an important interview.

I needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to be like those guards at Buckingham Palace. They don’t let
anything
distract them from their duty—not goofy, picture-taking tourists; not those ridiculous fur hats they wear; not even beautiful Greek women.

Then I got another eyeful of that summer dress and realized the British Royals would be toast under my watch. I gestured to the opposite side of my booth and said, “Have a seat.”

*   *   *

She sat. I smiled. She smiled. It could have been awkward, but wasn’t. I have come to believe human interactions are at least partially governed by things we barely understand, things that determine—without our active participation in the process—whether we’ll be able to get along with someone or whether it will always be a struggle. There was no struggle with Nikki. It was easy.

“You want anything to eat or drink?” I asked.

She laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” she said, “I just spend all day asking people that question.”

“Oh right,” I said, and I was tempted to pass the next several hours just studying her face and making delightful small talk. But I forced myself to stay on task. “So you called me about something?”

“Oh yeah,” she said, clearly a little distracted herself. “My dad interrupted us yesterday before I had a chance to tell you something about Nancy. And I don’t know if it even matters anymore or not. But I thought you should know.”

“Okay.”

“This guy came in last week and was asking my dad a lot of questions.”

“About Nancy?”

“Yeah. They went into a booth in the back of the restaurant, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I just saw my dad getting pissed off like he always does and waving his hands in the air a lot. I asked him what it was about later and he said, ‘Nancy.’ And I was like, ‘What about Nancy?’ But he was just fuming about affidavits and subpoenas and stuff like that.”

“So your dad was going to have to give an affidavit or else he’d get subpoenaed?”

“Something like that, I guess. Yeah. I’m not a lawyer or anything.”

Neither am I, of course. But I’ve learned enough about the law to know that whenever subpoena power is involved, things are usually pretty interesting.

“So who was the guy?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t know. He just came and left. But then I saw this business card tacked to the bulletin board in the office. I made a photocopy for you.”

She pulled a folded sheet of paper out of a small green clutch she was carrying. She handed it to me, and I unfolded it to see contact information for Peter Davidson, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. It had an address in Newark and a phone number with a 973 area code.

“National Labor Relations Board?” I asked. I knew the NLRB was a federal agency, but I was only vaguely familiar with it from articles I had read. Usually, the NLRB was called into negotiations that had become huge pissing matches between labor and management—sort of like what the
Newark Eagle-Examiner
had going with IFIW–Local 117.

But I was still confused. “What would the NLRB want with your dad? You guys aren’t unionized, are you?”

She shook her head.

“So, uh, okay, I don’t get it,” I said, intertwining my fingers on the back of my head.

“I tried to pump my dad for information, but he told me it was nothing to worry about. He’s not the kind of man who likes to unload his problems on other people, even his own daughter. Especially his own daughter. I asked him two or three times, and he just patted me on the head and said, ‘Eet’s fine, eet’s fine, no troubles.’”

But there were troubles. There had to be. And maybe they were substantial enough to turn Nancy Marino into the kind of obstacle that made Gus Papadopolous every bit as interested in her removal as Gary Jackman. All I knew was feds just didn’t waltz into your place of work and threaten you with a subpoena unless there was trouble
somewhere
. The trick was figuring out where.

Or maybe, at least for now, the better question was when it started.

“You said the guy was here last week,” I asked. “What day?”

Nikki cast her eyes upward and found the answer swirling in an old ceiling fan. “Monday,” she said. “It was Monday.”

A timeline was assembling in my head. On Monday, a representative from the NLRB waltzed into the State Street Grill to talk about something that had Gus Papadopolous waving his hands in the air. On Tuesday morning, the black SUV began stalking Nancy on her paper route—at least according to Mrs. Alfaro’s memory. By Friday, Nancy was dead.

So Gus was involved. He had to be, right?

But did that mean Jackman
wasn’t
involved? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But if it was no, why did I keep seeing them together?

It was, potentially, a brilliant bit of criminality: any prosecutor could tell you nothing weakens a murder case like having two suspects, each of whom has an equally strong motive. In the absence of good physical evidence—which this case was unlikely to have—each suspect ostensibly guarantees reasonable doubt for the other, because each defendant’s attorney can argue, hey, it wasn’t my guy, it was the other guy. Unless the prosecutor can find some kind of reasonable link between the perpetrators—e-mails, phone calls, payment of some sort—and charge them together, there’s pretty much no case.

I suddenly wished I had snapped a quick cell phone picture of the two of them sitting at that booth. Not that it would truly prove anything—given enough time, I’m sure they could concoct a reasonable cover story—but it would at least establish that the men weren’t total strangers.

Or, for all I knew, they might have another tie. Maybe one everyone—or at least Gus’s daughter—knew about already. I focused on Nikki and tried to act nonchalant.

“Hey, this may seem like a strange question, but does your dad know a guy named Gary Jackman by any chance?” I asked.

“Uh, I don’t know. Who is he?”

“He’s the publisher of my newspaper, which sort of makes him like my boss.”

Or ex-boss. But let’s not quibble.

“Gary Jackman,” she said, pondering it more deeply. “I don’t think so. But it’s not like I know all my dad’s friends, you know? He does a lot of stuff with the Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce, so he’s always bothering people about that. Why do you ask?”

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
10.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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