Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Two--Chapter 5

My evening plans had been to have dinner with Ellmann, grab Dix and take him to the pokey, then drop in on Danielle Dillon’s grandmother where I would discover some clue as to her current location. The only part that had gone according to plan was dinner. After Ellmann and I left Priscilla standing on the sidewalk outside Starbucks, he walked me to my truck and I drove home. I stripped my clothes off in the doorway and deposited them in the garbage can. After a shower, in which I scrubbed and washed everything twice, I found clean clothes and set out again.
If I’d had more time, I would have called it a day and picked up the search tomorrow. As it was, I’d already lost most of the day and had nothing to show for it. And I still believed Grandma would be the key I needed.
I had the sides of the top up on the Scout, and I cranked the music as I drove. I sang along with every song I knew, and some I didn’t. I didn’t want time to think. I knew if I had it, I’d compare myself to Priscilla. Really, I know there is no comparison. I mean, this is me I’m talking about here. And her. No comparison. But that didn’t stop me from comparing us all the same. And comparing us made me feel bad. I didn’t have time to feel bad. I had things to do.
Dillon’s grandmother lived in a fifty-five and older community off Timberline, north of Drake, across from the police station. The houses—all patio homes—are rather small, with cookie-cutter designs and obnoxious colors like crayon blue, orange-juice orange, and grass green. Grandma lived in a green one near the edge of the community. I took a moment to write down plate numbers then went to the door.
It was getting late, but I could see the blue light of the TV through the window. I rang the bell and waited. When the door opened, a seventy-year-old woman with a hunched back leaned on a cane and stared out at me. Her steel-gray hair was twisted back in a bun, and a chain dangled from both sides of her glasses. She wore a sweater, despite the weather, and mauve trousers that came up to her breasts.
“Mrs. Porter?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
Unlike every other house somehow associated with Dillon that I’d visited today, this one seemed to boast no art. In fact, from my position on the porch, I could see no pictures or knickknacks of any kind.
I handed her a card. She took it but she didn’t look at it.
“My name is Zoe Grey. I work for Sideline Investigations and Bail Bonds. I need to talk to you about your granddaughter, Danielle.”
“What about her?”
The old woman didn’t budge; she stood in the open doorway as if she grew there. Her demeanor wasn’t any more helpful.
“She missed her court date. I need to find her so she can reschedule.”
“That court date was weeks ago. Why are you only just now interested in finding her?”
“I’ve only been assigned her case today. Ma’am, if I don’t find her and get her back into the system by Sunday morning, you’ll lose this house to the bond company. Do you know that?”
“Some things are more important,” was all she said.
“There isn’t any reason why that needs to happen. If I can find Danielle, it will be a simple matter to get her rescheduled.”
“Simple,” she spat. “You bring her in, they’ll hold her until the court date. They won’t let her out again because she ran once. I’m not stupid. I know how it works.”
“Under many circumstances, that’s true. But not always. The reality is the jail is overcrowded; there just isn’t room for everyone. Even people who skipped once are being rebonded. There’s no way to know that won’t happen for Danielle.”
She sighed. “Look, kid, I appreciate you got a job to do, but mine is more important. It’s also more important than this house. I’m sorry, but I won’t help you. You can’t find her.”
She moved back into the house, closing the door.
My initial reaction was to take her words as a challenge. But that didn’t feel right. There was more desperation in her tone than defiance.
I reached out and put my hand on the door, halting it. She looked up.
“Why can’t I find Danielle? What will happen if I do?”
I saw something in her eyes then, something I’d seen on more than one occasion in my own. Protectiveness. I suddenly respected this woman and her determination. I didn’t understand what was going on, and once I did, I might not like what she’s defending, but I did respect her.
“It’s better not to find out.” She tried again to shut the door.
I held it open. “I’ll help her if I can.”
Then I stepped back and let go of the door. Grandma Porter gave me one last look then disappeared inside. The door closed, and I heard the deadbolt slide home.
I stood on the porch for a beat, staring at the door. I had no idea what had just happened, but I couldn’t shake the feeling it was significant. And I needed to figure it out in a hurry. My deadline for finding Danielle Dillon was quickly approaching, and it seemed now there was more going on that I’d originally suspected. But, then, that was par for the course.

One of my very first cases as a bond enforcement agent had been nothing but a series of dead ends, questions with no answers, and strikeouts. Blue and I had tracked that FTA for a week and a half, chasing rumors and shadows, banging our heads against the walls. We were the fourth to look into the case, and no one expected results; the bond company was ready to take the loss. Even Blue threw in the towel, moving on to more certain—and lucrative—hunts.
In the end, I found him. Or, technically, he found me. I’d been doing some late-night grocery shopping at King Soopers, the only twenty-four-hour option aside from Wal-Mart (and I hate Wal-Mart). I’d been picking up toothpaste when I saw the guy stroll by with his shopping cart. A chase (mercifully brief) ensued, and a small spectacle (a tackle and quick wrestling match) transpired, but I brought him in.
So far, I have not failed to bring in an FTA. One way or another, I always pull it out. More often than not, it’s because the people I’m looking for happen to walk right by me. And I had very little doubt I’d find Danielle Dillon. What I seriously doubted was that I could do it in two more days.
I spent an hour on the computer doing more research, then I did some mundane housework and went to bed. I lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, my brain busy. Thoughts buzzed inside it like a swarm of bees. But I didn’t try very hard to quiet it and go to sleep, fearing whatever nightmare this night had in store for me.
After an indeterminate length of time, I sat up and switched on the light. I retrieved the handcuffs from my bag and went down to the living room, flipping on a lamp and the TV. I found a rerun of MacGyver and pulled the bobby pin out of my hair, letting my bangs fall across my forehead. Then I cuffed my hands behind my back.
I had been something of an unruly teenager. I got in trouble for a few things that weren’t exactly legal, and I did a whole lot of other things I never got caught for. A lot of these things usually began with breaking and entering. Lock picking became something of a hobby. When I’d been kidnapped, my abductors had used handcuffs. I’d freed myself, but it had taken longer than I would have liked. My skills had gotten rusty.
Always one to learn from the past, I’d taken to practicing. Because of my shoulder, I hadn’t been able to cuff my hands behind my back until two weeks ago. Now, my breakout time was once again respectable, nearing impressive.
A new episode of MacGyver had just started when headlights flashed through the front window. I quickly freed myself then set the cuffs on the coffee table. Probably my visitor was Ellmann, but on the off chance it wasn’t, I thought it best not to be incapacitated.
Ellmann and I have only been dating about two months. Actually, we’ve only known one another for about two months. In the big picture, two months isn’t very long, but near-death experiences tend to speed up the getting-to-know-you process. And Ellmann continues to prove I can trust him. He knows some of my secrets, and he has a key to my house. He also keeps a toothbrush and some clothes here. The same is true for me. This is all very strange to me, but I’m slowly adjusting.
Ellmann, carrying a stack of files, let himself in then looked from me to the cuffs.
“What’s your time?” he asked as he closed and locked the door.
“From retrieving the pin to breaking out, about five seconds.”
He nodded as he came toward me. “Impressive.” He kissed my cheek then went to the kitchen, depositing the stack on the table.
“Thanks. What’s all this?”
“Work. The FBI arrived a few hours ago. The place is a madhouse. I couldn’t get anything done.”
“How’s the case going?”
I moved over to the cupboard and pulled down a couple glasses, filling them with water.
“We’re making progress,” he said, accepting the glass I handed him. “Thank you.”
“Sure.” I pulled out a chair and sat, my feet crossed under me.
Then his demeanor changed ever so slightly.
“I did a little looking into the Conrad thing,” he said.
I’d heard this tone of voice before. He used it when he believed me to be in very serious trouble. I could only assume he thought the same was true now. What did he know that I didn’t?
“What did you find?”
“Mitchell and Melissa Conrad,” he said, pulling a file toward him. “I told you their name sounded familiar.” I nodded. “That’s because I remember their case.”
“From the papers?”
He shook his head. “No, from around the station. Apparently it was pretty brutal, and the detectives working it couldn’t ever find any solid leads. The case is still open.”
“Okay, so, what happened?”
“Mitchell and Melissa Conrad were killed in their home, like you heard, and like I said, it was very brutal. But what I discovered when I went back and looked at the case file was that they were tortured before they were killed, especially Mitchell.”
Tortured? Perfect.
“The neighbor left that part out.” 
I wasn’t sure why it made such a difference. Being brutally raped and murdered in front of your husband, who was then also killed in such a horrible fashion that people refused to live in the house again, seemed bad enough. Being tortured, though, that was somehow worse.
“The neighbor didn’t know. Details of the torture were never released to the press, by some miracle.”
How was Danielle Dillon connected to the Conrads? Did she know something about their deaths?
“When I looked over the case file,” Ellmann went on, “I noticed some things. The murders were different in a lot of ways, but the details of the torture are almost identical to those in the cases I’m working now.”
“Wait,” I said. “What do you mean? You said Caroline Marks was murdered. You didn’t say she was tortured first.”
Whoever tortured Caroline Marks would be found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty in a minute flat. If the guy ever made it to court. Caroline Marks was beloved by her fellow citizens. If she had ever run for an elected position in this city, she would have gotten in by an almost unanimous vote.
“She wasn’t,” he said gently. “But her case is connected to a dozen others, and some of those others were. We don’t know what’s going on yet, what the connection is between everyone, why some were tortured and others weren’t, but we’re working on it.”
“A dozen others?” I repeated, my voice little more than a whisper. “There is a serial killer in Fort Collins? Fort Collins doesn’t get many serial killers.” Rapists, yes. Serial killers, no.
“Thank God for that. Unfortunately, it’s got one now. But it isn’t just here; there are cases in multiple cities in the state, including Denver, Aspen, and Vail. Which is why it took so long to put the cases together. And there are likely incidents elsewhere. We just put the word out nationally and already have possible hits in California, Florida, and Georgia. And we expect to find more.”
“Are there any leads? Any suspects?”
“There’s a lot more information to work with now; we’re still sorting through it. The task force just came together. Things will start moving faster now. I need to know what you know about the Conrad murder.”
“Nothing more than what I told you. I was looking for Danielle Dillon, running down her old addresses, or addresses she’d been associated with somehow in the past. One of them was a place off Highway One. The place looked abandoned. A woman a few houses down, the neighborhood busybody, told me no one had lived in the house since last August, when the couple living there was murdered. She told me their names, how they died—which was wrong—and that their next-door neighbor had found the bodies when she heard their eighteen-month-old son screaming. I wasn’t sure it was connected to my FTA, but I wanted to check.”
“If your FTA is associated with that address, I want to talk to her.”
“Yeah, sure, you can have first run at her. As soon as I find her.”
“Are you having any luck on that front?”
I shook my head. “No. Her grandmother put up her house as collateral on the bond. I went to talk to her tonight, but she wouldn’t help me. She said it wasn’t important to her that she’s going to lose her house. I think she thinks she’s protecting Danielle.”
“From what?”
“No idea.” Yet.
“Does she have somewhere else to go?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I have to keep digging.” I looked at the files now covering my kitchen table. “Since you brought your work, I assume you’re planning to stay here tonight.”
“It’s better than being at the station. Plus, I thought this way I might get to see you for a while. It’ll be more than I’ve seen you all week.”
If he couldn’t work in his office, he could have gone to his house. I believed him about wanting to see me, but that wasn’t the whole story. He knew more than he was saying.
If I had to guess, it was something he’d found while looking into the Conrad murder. If he thought my FTA was connected, he could have been worried that I, by association, was also connected. That meant he was worried about what kind of trouble I’d stirred up today, running around town asking all sorts of questions about Danielle Dillon. What did he know that I didn’t? And why was he keeping it from me? I always found out; it was just a matter of time.
“You know you won’t get much sleep if you stay here,” I said.
He reached over and took my hand, squeezing it. “I know. But I don’t sleep real great at my house either, because I worry about you being here alone, having nightmares.”
“They’re just dreams. And I’m a grown-up. I’m supposed to be able to handle things alone.”
“Fair point. But I care about you. It’s unsettling to know you’re suffering.”
“I don’t need a rescuer, Ellma—I mean, Alex.”
“I’m not trying to be one. I’m trying to be your boyfriend. This thing we’re doing, it’s a partnership. That means we take things on together.”
I sighed. “I suppose I don’t always make that very easy, do I?”
He grinned. “No, Zoe, nothing much about you is easy. But, then, I don’t really go for easy.”
He pulled me onto his lap and kissed me.
“And I don’t care if you call me by my last name,” he whispered. 

Read chapter 6.

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