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Authors: Cassidy Salem

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BOOK: Think Murder
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Chapter 20
 

The Metro was packed even more than usual that afternoon. I held on to a pole, with both my hand bag and the tote bag hanging over my other shoulder. With each new jostle of the crowd, the tote bag threatened to slip off my shoulder.

As I watched the clumps of people getting on and off, I spotted a familiar looking man with short hair at the far end of the car. I couldn’t place where I had seen him before, nevertheless I was relieved to see him get off a couple of stops before me.

I hadn’t signed up to help at Cutie Pie, but extra hands are always welcome. It had been a rough day and I needed a distraction. Besides, I knew that Bruce had signed up for Friday and a sexy distraction might be the perfect thing to brighten my day.

Evan, Bruce, and Stacey were all there when I arrived. Stacy was wearing a low cut sundress and matching jacket. I had never seen her in anything other than pants. If I’m not mistaken, she had applied blush and eyeliner as well.

Stacey was surprised to see me. “Adina, what are you doing here? You’re not on the schedule.”

I bit my tongue before pointing out that she wasn’t either. Instead I replied, “I had a crappy day and no plans. Just wanted to visit with the dogs. I didn’t know I needed your permission.”

Stacey was clearly stunned by my surly response. She mumbled a quick “of course not” and slipped out the door with one of the dogs.

I let myself into the lab’s enclosure and sat on the floor. Brandy was happy to place his head in my lap while I rubbed his belly. When I asked if he wanted to go for a walk, he sprung to attention.

Stacey was coming in when we went out. I managed a weak smile and apologized for snapping at her.

I had been outside for only a few minutes when Bruce came out with both of the beagles.

“Better you than me.” I kept a cautious distance from the beagle brats. The last thing I wanted was to fall down again in front of this guy.

He hesitated before speaking. “Adina, I realize we don’t know each other very well. But you seem pretty upset about something. If you want to talk, I can be a pretty good listener.”

“Thanks for the offer. I’m OK now. It’s just some work-related stuff. I was still keyed up when I got here. I shouldn’t have spoken to Stacey like that. She didn’t deserve to take the brunt of my frustrations.”

“So exactly what kind of high-stress job do you have?”

“Actually, my job is pretty mundane. I work as an administrative assistant at a think tank. Even so, once in a while, the office politics can get to you. Nothing world shattering.”

The beagles were full of energy, bouncing all over the place. I noticed that Bruce kept his feet close together to keep the dogs from dashing between them, adeptly preventing the leashes from getting tangled. Smart move.

“Enough about me. What do you do when you aren’t walking dogs?”

“I’m a physiotherapist. I work at a clinic in Chevy Chase, about ten minutes from here.”

Imagine that. I had finally met someone in D.C. who wasn’t a lawyer, a politician, or in research of some kind. “Do you live around here, too?”

“Close enough. I live on Connecticut Avenue not far from the zoo.”

“One of my favorite places, the zoo, that is. I go there a lot.” We talked about the zoo until we had circled back to Cutie Pie.

Back inside, I played with some of the dogs while Stacey refilled the water bowls and Bruce swept up. Evan was out with the last of the dogs that needed to be walked.

I was standing not far from Bruce when I sneezed. Bruce and Stacy both turned toward me.

“Bless you.” He shook his head, “That was quite a sneeze.”

And then I sneezed again, even louder. When I reached into the pocket of my jacket to grab a tissue, I was surprised to see a folded piece of paper flutter to the floor. I didn’t remember putting anything in my pocket. I picked it up and saw that it wasa short not
e

Curiosity killed the cat. Stop asking questions or you’ll be next
.

I was trembling and on the verge of losing my balance when I felt a strong arm wrapped around my waist from behind. Bruce had caught me before I could hit the floor. Even though I was light-headed as he led me over to a chair, I couldn’t help noticing the enticing scent of his aftershave.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

I stared at the note where it had fallen on the floor. Bruce followed my gaze and picked up the note. His eyes widened as he read it. “Do you know what this is all about?”

“It’s a long story. It might have something to do with why a friend of mine was murdered last week. I think I’d better call the detective in charge of the case.”

My hands were still shaking as I reached for my cellphone. I searched my call log for the previous day, then hit the call button hoping I had correctly identified Jonathan’s number. He picked up on the second ring.

“Hi. It’s Adina Donati. I just found a threatening note in my jacket pocket and I’m kind of freaking out.”

“What does the note say?” I read it out to him.

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the dog rescue where I volunteer. We were preparing to lock up when I found the note.”

“I’m tied up at a crime scene and won’t be at the station until much later. You can bring the note to the station and give it to the officer on duty tonight or I can get it from you tomorrow. Is there someone there who can take you home?”

Looking at Bruce, I replied, “I was planning to walk but I can probably hitch a ride with one of the other volunteers.” Bruce nodded.

“Good. Take the note with you, but try not to handle it any more than necessary. I’ll call you later.” I grabbed a plastic baggie from a box on the shelf, placed the note inside, and put it in my bag.

Stacey offered, “Adina, if you want, I can drop you off on my way home.”

Before I could answer, Bruce announced, “I already told Adina I would do the honors.”

“Thanks for offering, Stacey. I really appreciate it.”

Stacey gathered her things and said a hasty good night. Bruce and I waited for Evan to return with the last dog so that he could lock up for the night.

To judge by the way Bruce hovered over me, I must have still looked a bit shaky. “Adina, are you OK? Maybe you should eat or drink something.” Without waiting for me to respond, he steered me in the direction of the nearby frozen yogurt shop, relieving me of the tote bag. I didn’t have the strength to protest. There was something comforting in the way he took command. Besides, it was almost 7 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten since lunch.

The yogurt shop was a quaint neighborhood business. A few small tables and chairs were outside on the sidewalk. They sold soft ice cream and yogurt, with a wide variety of toppings. I agreed to have a small natural yogurt with granola, and a glass of water. Bruce ordered a large yogurt with the works on top.

By the time I had eaten half of my yogurt, I was calm. Only then did Bruce ask about the note. “So, does this note fall under the category of mundane office politics or is your life more complicated than you let on?”

“It’s hard to explain. A friend of mine, Hilary, was murdered last week and the police haven’t figured out who did it or why. There is a slight chance that it has to do with something she was working on.”

“Why would anyone want to threaten you? Have other people in your office been threatened?”

“Not that I know of. You see, I’ve taken over the project she was working on, and I’ve been checking the accuracy of the some of the data. That’s the only reason I can think of…”

Bruce was curious about what had happened to Hilary and asked several questions. I tried to answer honestly without going into details. He seemed like a nice guy and I was attracted to him, but I wasn’t comfortable sharing too much information. I didn’t know him well enough. Of course, I was hoping that I’d get to know him better. Soon.

We had just finished our yogurt when my phone chirped.

“Hi. It’s Jonathan. Things wrapped up faster than expected. I’d like to swing by and get that note and ask you a few questions. Are you home yet?”

“Not quite. I’m on the way. Should be there in around 5 minutes.” I gave Jonathan the address and told him I’d see him there.

Bruce and I walked to the parking lot, where he beeped open a late model black Ford Explorer. He opened the passenger-side door and I climbed in. I gave him the directions to my apartment as he drove.

“Bruce, thanks so much for the yogurt and the conversation. Not to mention for catching me back there at Cutie Pie and chauffeuring me home.”

“Glad to help. I enjoyed your company.”

I didn’t have much time to ponder what that might mean. When Bruce turned into my street, I saw that Jonathan was already there. I thanked Bruce again, said good night, and hopped out.

Leaning casually against a dark blue sedan, the detective straightened up when he saw me hop out of the Explorer. Jonathan wore a dark brown suit with a beige Oxford shirt. The top button was unfastened and he wasn’t wearing a tie.

I waved to Bruce as he drove off. I walked over to Jonathan, unsure how to greet him. He smiled and shook my hand.

“I didn’t know D.C. detectives make house calls.”

“I wanted to pick up that note so that the lab can begin processing it as soon as possible. With a little luck, the lab techs might be able to lift fingerprints off it.” Warm brown eyes gazed directly into mine as he added, “I also wanted to make sure that you’re OK. You sounded awfully shook up on the phone.”

“I was. I almost fainted, again. Believe it or not, before all this happened, I had never fainted.” I rifled around in my bag until I found the baggie containing the note and handed it to Jonathan. He read the note without removing it from the transparent plastic bag. “Where did you say you found this?”

“It fell out of my jacket pocket when I pulled out a tissue.” His eyes followed my hand as I pointed to my pocket.

Just then his phone rang. He held up his hand to signal me to wait and listened intently to the caller. In response to whoever was talking on the other end, he said, “OK, I’m on my way.”

He groaned and told me that he had been called out on another case. It was a busy night. “I guess you are going to have to come to the station tomorrow after all.” He consulted the calendar on his phone, “Can you meet me there at 10:30?” I told him that would be fine.

I looked around my apartment and let out a sigh of relief. Good thing I didn’t have to let him, or anyone else, see my messy apartment that night.

I tossed my bag on the desk and kicked off my shoes. It had been an exhausting day, physically and emotionally. Thinking back, Dr. Stickler’s rant paled in comparison with the ominous note. Was it a serious threat or someone simply trying to scare me? How could it have gotten in my pocket? I had my jacket on almost all day long. Creepy to think that someone had gotten close enough to put it in my pocket without my noticing.

At the same time, I felt like the damsel in distress in some bizarre fairy tale, except I had two knights in shining armor coming to my rescue. Both of whom I was beginning to like a lot.

In case I ever did want to invite one of these fine knights into my humble abode, a thorough cleaning was long overdue. I started with the main living area, putting things away, dusting, and vacuuming. I looked around and was pleased with the results of my efforts. My nervous energy depleted, the kitchen would have to wait for another day.

Chapter 21
 
 

I woke up early the next morning. My mind was racing, making it impossible to go back to sleep. Instead, I got up and made myself a cup of tea. While the water boiled, I surveyed the state of my tiny kitchen area. If I couldn’t sleep, at least I’d do something constructive. I washed the dishes and cleaned the tiny counter and the top of the range. By the time I finished cleaning, I had to reboil the water for my tea.

I sat at the desk with a sense of accomplishment and opened my laptop. I still had an hour before I needed to leave to meet Jonathan at the police station, so I went on Facebook to see what my ‘friends’ were up to.

Before I knew it, the hour was almost up. I would have to hurry if I didn’t want to be late. I threw on my favorite jeans and a mossy green cotton pullover that emphasizes my meager curves, and my new Sauconys. I had to run to catch a bus on Wisconsin Avenue. The bus stopped a couple of blocks from the police station, and I speed-walked the rest of way.

The officer at the entrance took my name, and I sat down to wait. Jonathan came in sight a few minutes later. He looked different. He wasn’t wearing a suit. In its place he wore an olive green and navy polo shirt, with dark blue jeans. He wasn’t hot like Bruce, but he did look good in jeans.

Jonathan greeted me with a smile and led me past an open space area to a small cafeteria. He asked if I’d like to drink something before we got started. Thirsty from all that running, I quickly downed a glass of water. I noticed a vending machine in the corner and started rummaging in my purse in search of coins. I had fished out one quarter when Jonathan slid a dollar bill into the machine, “Diet Coke, right?”

“Yes, thank you.” I smiled as he passed the can to me.

He got a can of Sprite for himself, and led me to his desk in the open area. The area was almost empty, with the exception of a uniformed policeman and what I assumed was a plainclothes officer engaged in a serious discussion at the other end of the room. Jonathan walked over to a basic metal desk and motioned for me to sit in the chair at its side.

I must have looked puzzled. He commented, “I figured we might as well sit here at my desk today, unless the squad room gets noisy.”

I shrugged, “That’s fine.” In the meantime, he pulled out a spiral notebook and was ready to take notes, again.

“So tell me where you were yesterday before finding that note, and who you were with. Let’s see if we can pinpoint the timeframe when someone might have put it in your pocket.”

“OK. I wore the jacket to work yesterday. My allergies were acting up so I folded up several tissues and put them in my pocket where I could reach them fast anytime I needed. I rode the subway to work as usual.”

“At work, I spent most of the day at my desk. Except for when I was called into Dr. Stickler’s office for a major scolding – he was very unhappy that I had discussed the project with you.”

Jonathan rolled his eyes. “I expect as much. Let’s get back to that later. Were you wearing the jacket then?”

“I’m not sure. It might have been draped over the back of my chair.”

“OK. What next?”

“I went to lunch at Alfredo’s with my boss, Matt.” Anticipating his next question, I added, “Definitely wore the jacket to lunch. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon in the office, working or at least trying to.”

“While you were at work, did you remove any of the tissues from your pocket?”

“I don’t think so. I had taken an antihistamine in the morning, and I keep a box of tissues on my desk year round.”

“I’m guessing that if you left the jacket on your chair, someone could have put the note in your pocket when you were away from your desk during the day. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it’s a possibility.”

Before I had time to react, Jonathan fired off his next question. “After work, where did you go and how did you get there?”

“I went directly to Cutie Pie, the dog rescue center where I volunteer. I took the Metro.”

“On the Metro, did you stand or were you seated?”

“I wish. It was rush hour. Standing room only, and very crowded.”

“Did you notice anyone standing closer to you than normal or brushing up against you? Anything at all out of the ordinary?”

“No. Not that I recall.” It was disconcerting to realize how little attention I had paid to my surroundings.

“OK. So, you were at Cutie Pie when you found the note and called me. Who else was there with you yesterday?”

“There were four of us – Stacey, Evan, Bruce, and me. We walked and fed the dogs, as usual. The note fell out of my pocket when I sneezed. More accurately, when I grabbed a tissue after I sneezed.”

“Tell me about the other volunteers. How long have you known them?”

“Let me see. Stacey is a nursery school teacher. I don’t know her very well. She started volunteering around the same time I did. Around a year ago. Evan is a tax lawyer. He’s been volunteering there longer than I have. Bruce, the guy who gave me a ride home last night, is a physiotherapist. He began volunteering at Cutie Pie a week or two ago.”

Jonathan’s tone changed. “Interesting. So you don’t know Bruce very well, do you? Yet he gave you a ride home.”

“Not really. But he seems nice enough. We’ve chatted a bit while walking the dogs.” I wondered where Jonathan was heading with this line of questioning.

“OK. Then, in all probability, the note found its way into your pocket at work, on the Metro, or at the dog rescue center.” He continued, “The most troublesome possibility, and I fear the most likely, is that someone followed you and planted it on the Metro. On the other hand, if someone at your office was responsible, it might be more of a malicious prank than an actual threat.”

He went on to ask about the climate at work, and I reluctantly told him about Carol’s accusations and her resentment of me. The odd feeling I got around people in the office, as if people were looking at me differently since Hilary’s death.

We also discussed the project and Dr. Stickler. Although Jonathan didn’t come out and say so, I sensed that he suspected that Hilary’s death might be connected to the Land Use Survey.

“After you called on Thursday, I had an interesting conversation with Glen Gardner. He’s quite a character, but I can’t rule out the possibility that he’s on to something. So I called Dr. Stickler first thing yesterday morning. He didn’t appreciate my asking questions and was not volunteering any information. I was, however, able to find out where the project funding is coming from – some group called the Coalition for a Greener America.”

“I’ve heard of them. They’re big supporters of green energy. Kind of makes sense that land conservation would be an area of interest for them.”

“I have been checking into their members, where their funding comes from, and what else they finance. We haven’t yet come across anything suspicious… Adina, I don’t want you to get into more trouble with Dr. Stickler, nonetheless, what can you tell me about the problems with the project you’re working on?”

“Well, the study is examining the repurposing of land in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky – meaning land that was intended for preservation or agriculture that is now approved for commercial use.” I weighed Dr. Stickler’s admonitions against the fact that the data had already been published on the internet for all to see. “The data showed a bizarre spike in 2012 for a specific district in West Virginia.”

“Only in West Virginia?”

“Yes. Land was repurposed in the other states and in other parts of West Virginia, but not at a significant rate.”

“OK. That jibes with what seemed to be making Glen Gardner so nervous.” He paused. “It might be a coincidence, but did you happen to notice that the Explorer that Bruce was driving last night had West Virginia plates?”

“No.” I stared at Jonathan. The possibility that nice, good-looking Bruce might be involved in Hilary’s death hadn’t occurred to me. “He does sort of have an accent – not quite southern, at least I don’t think so. That must be a coincidence.”

“Tell me, Adina, when did you first meet Bruce?”

“Last Saturday at Cutie Pie. He helped me up after I got knocked down by a couple of beagle puppies.”

The corner of Jonathan’s mouth twitched. “Well, that was nice of him. And convenient timing.”

“I didn’t start working on Hilary’s project until Monday. It must be a coincidence.”

“Maybe. When Bruce drove you home last night, did he ask you anything special?”

“Well, of course, he asked me what the note was all about, and he asked a bit about my job.” I told Jonathan that Bruce had taken me to the frozen yogurt place and we had chatted for a while.

Jonathan frowned when I told him that I had discussed Hilary’s murder with Bruce, even if I hadn’t gone into any details. He was unwilling to rule out the possibility that Bruce had an ulterior motive for volunteering at Cutie Pie and getting close to me. Perhaps as a way to get information on the project or the case.

“Even so, we don’t know that Hilary’s death had anything to do with that project. We’re still checking out other possibilities.”

When I pushed for details, he mentioned that the police had not yet ruled out the possibility that Hilary had witnessed or unwittingly taken a picture of something. “So far, the tech guy that has been going through her photo archives and cloud storage hasn’t spotted anything that raised a red flag.”

“Adina, the lab will check the note for fingerprints, however it’ll take time for the results to come back.” He put down his pen and notepad, then raised his warm brown eyes to gaze into mine. “In the meantime, please be extra careful. Can I offer you a ride home?”

“I’d hate to inconvenience you.”

“No inconvenience. I’m heading out now anyway. I only came in today to file reports from last night and take your statement.”

“In that case, thanks. A ride would be great.”

He smiled. “Let’s go then.”

We stopped by the entrance, where he signed out. The officer on duty gave Jonathan a conspiratorial wink and smiled at me.

Jonathan’s Chevrolet Impala was parked in a small lot around the corner. Not new, but it appeared to be in good condition. It also happened to be the same make and shade of dark blue as most of the other cars in the lot. The absence of any insignia didn’t do much to disguise the fact that it was the police department’s version of a “company” car.

It was a short ride home, much faster than on public transportation. Jonathan commented on the pleasant almost suburban feel of the neighborhoods in that part of D.C., and asked how I came to choose that particular location. I told him the truth. The apartment buildings closer to Georgetown are lovely but more expensive – especially if you don’t have flat-mates. I had settled for what I could afford in a relatively safe area.

When we had pulled up in front of the house, Jonathan turned to me with a somber expression. “The note may very well be a malicious prank. I hope so. Still, if you sense anything out of the ordinary, and I mean anything, contact me immediately.”

I told him I would and thanked him for the ride. I got out of the car and was surprised to see that he did, too. I wasn’t sure what to think.

“I just want to see you safely to your door. Then I’ll take off.” He surveyed the front of the house and noted, “You said you live in a basement apartment. I don’t see any entrances to a lower level from here. You go in through the house?”

I showed him the opening in the hedges and the narrow sidewalk, with three steps leading to the basement level passage. He frowned without commenting. I looked around, trying to see things through his eyes. Bleak open hallway, without a gate. Totally obscured from the view of neighbors and passersby. For George, who probably wasn’t declaring the income, it was a great set up. But I guess it really isn’t the most secure location. Next time I spoke to George I would have to ask him to put a gate at the entrance level passage.

I took out my key and unlocked the door, debating whether or not I should invite him in for coffee. Hard to know what protocol applies when a nice detective gives you a ride home.

I turned to look at Jonathan. “Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”

He smiled. “I’d love to… maybe some other time. I have to get going now. I’ll keep you posted.”

I thanked him again, and he left.

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