Driving north, I had serial killers on the brain, and FM radio didn’t drown them out. Open windows didn’t blow them out. Dr. Agnes Ortloff was to blame -- she’d dissected them all in Criminology 102. Last Thursday after class at a local pub, we’d talked.
“Serial killers are chameleons.” With spiky red hair, Agnes had a cute figure but I also saw a wedding band. “Bundy, Dahmer, Speck, Gacy . . . all of them blended in.”
“Difficult to catch them, huh?” I said.
Agnes smiled. “Difficult, but not impossible. Here’s my business card, Frank. I should go, see you next week.”
“Thanks. Who knows? An FBI profiler might come in handy.”
“You just never know.” Waving, Agnes disappeared out the door.
Now a few minutes shy of noon, I followed a concrete mixer into Casanova. Someone had written “9-11-01, BIG MISTAKE!” on its rear grime. My family had resided in Casanova ages ago, and little had changed. After parking at Zugg's Bar & Grill, I got out of the car, activated its alarm, and went inside.
A tall man in gabardine pants rose when he saw me. "I’m Reverend Pomeroy," he said, pumping my hand. "You’re Mr. Johnson, the private investigator?"
"Call me Frank. Mr. Johnson was my daddy’s name. But I’m no longer a PI."
Pomeroy’s thumbnail scratched graying neck stubble. "In the Yellow Pages you’re listed under ‘Investigator.’"
"I go by ‘Professional Troubleshooter.’" As if he cared a fig. I presented my card.
At 12:28 p.m, the Reverend knocked back a bourbon. Amazed, I counted again the four empties before a waitress in tight green-denim jeans and a red T-shirt jotted down our orders. My egg salad on rye and his BLT both went on his tab. I watched the Reverend’s gaze follow her coquettish walk through the kitchen's doors.
“Nice toilet grippers,” I commented. Embarrassed, the Reverend hid behind his drink.
The room resembled a boxcar interior. Yellow burlap curtains over potted asparagus ferns leached out sunrays. Naugahyde booths lined one wall and an L-shaped beaverboard bar lined the opposite. The bar’s first earned dollar, a lipstick print on it, was framed under a TV tuned in to a NASCAR rally. I read a sign: “Sniper Bar & Grill, All You Need Is One Shot.” Behind a pass-through window, the fry cook sweated over the grill. I pitied him. When my gaze roved back, Pomeroy’s gray eyes narrowed.
"Johnson," he said, "I'm in deep trouble."
“Sure. You were romancing a married lady." I was guessing, but he’d sounded edgy, sheepish, even evasive over the phone. I knew something was up.
Pomeroy flashed prudish palms. "Whoa, easy. Gospel truth, I never touched her. She wasn’t that type of girl."
I hiked an eyebrow. "You said ‘wasn’t,’ as in past tense."
"True.” He leaned closer to me and spoke in a whisper. “Wanda Jacobs was, uh, murdered. Her throat was cut."
"And now you’re nicknamed OJ," I said.
"That’s a lie! I didn’t do it. Look, even as we speak, the Church Board is convening to sack me. It’s playing hell with my nerves."
"What’s the Sheriff’s take on it?" I asked.
"There’s not enough evidence to charge me," Pomeroy said. “Yet.”
"Were you bedmates with the lady?"
"Never. We were never lovers. She’d just left her abusive husband, Denny. Her family, the Striblings, has been in the church for generations. Wanda came to the parsonage twice weekly for counseling.”
“Counseling, huh?” I broke in.
“Just hear me out, okay? Last Thursday afternoon, Wanda didn’t show up. I notified the sheriff after her apartment telephone went unanswered. Next morning, a maid found her. Naked, draped over a TV stand. She’d driven to Harrisburg and died between 4 and 6 p.m. the night before."
"Which motel?" I asked.
He sipped before replying. "Red Rover Inn."
"Wanda Jacobs drove to Harrisburg. Why?"
"After racking my brain,” said Pomeroy, “I haven't a clue."
“What was she carrying?”
“An overnight bag and one cosmetic case.”
“None has been mentioned.”
After the waitress brought our orders, I asked between chews, "Wouldn't Denny her husband be Suspect Number One?"
"Good ole boys can vouch for his alibi," said Pomeroy. "I’m a bachelor. My reading a Bill Pronzini novel went unnoticed."
“Which title?” I asked, half-testing his response.
“Bleeder,” he said without hesitation. “Look, what it boils down to is that I don’t have an alibi, at least not one that anyone else can back up.”
“Not unless Pronzini's Nameless Detective can testify for you. What’s my role in all this?”
Pomeroy’s tendons corded above the crew-neck sweater as he grappled for righteous passion. “Go catch Wanda’s actual killer and clear my name of all blame.”
"Murder cases are best left to local law . . ."
Horning in, Pomeroy dangled a wallet. "Name your price."
"Thirty-two cents a mile. $350 per diem. Expenses extra," I said. He nodded. I forwarded him a contract from my own billfold. "One day retainer. Include a phone number, day and night." He signed my contract copy, returned it with three $100 bills. "I won’t waste your money so let me check around. By tomorrow, I’ll call you."
Pomeroy’s jaws slacked, but I was out the door. The reek of hot tar from the corrugated pipe plant over the bridge reminded me of a shipyard. Why did I feel like Pomeroy was running a game on me? Scowling, I unlocked my Crown Vic and pulled a notepad to dash off my initial impressions, but the page remained a blank.
At a pay phone outside the typewriter repair shop, I dialed a contact in Richmond, Virginia. I explained to her what I needed.
“This goes on your tab,” she said, “which is longer than Pinocchio’s nose.” Her fingertips banged on a computer keyboard.
“Next time in your city, I’ll square it. And that’s no lie.”
“That’ll be the day.” She recited the criminal database record from her monitor screen. “Hmmm . . . Denny Jacobs . . . one felony assault. On probation for three years. Two arrests for disturbing the peace. Charges later dismissed. That’s it, I’m afraid.”
"Thanks," I said. "That's a big help."
I pounded a gentrified Main Street all afternoon, and everybody reported the same. Wanda Jacobs was a decent Christian girl. Her death was a brutal, senseless tragedy. My client was a womanizer as well as a killer. On the other hand, Denny Jacobs was a rowdy but harmless tenth-grade dropout, which ran counter to the way I remembered him.
Beside the pyramid of oil cans, I plunked a quarter into the newsstand coin box and plucked out the local paper. Reverend Pomeroy’s dour portrait was splashed on Page 1, and the write-up was in the usual lurid prose. Little of value was revealed about Wanda’s slaying that I hadn’t already learned but I tore out Pomeroy’s picture. Right now, Wanda’s self-aggrandizing lush for a preacher and clever brute for a husband were running neck and neck as my leading suspects.
"Denny likes to tie one on every then and now," Zuggs was telling me. “But for sweet God’s sake, we all do.”
I'd snooped my way back to his bar and grill where I sat at the counter. "Except when he binges, maybe Jacobs has a short fuse. Did he ever tune up his old lady?" Peanuts beside the saucer of lemon wedges and olives had a rubbery staleness.
Zuggs refilled his beer schooner and lit up a White Owl. He spewed smoke through the side of his mouth to irk me, a reformed drinker and smoker. "Who? Wild Wanda in her blue moo-moo? With her, it was step right up, state your pleasure.”
"Even to play Denny's speed punch bag?"
"Ah, okay. Now I’m hip from having spotted you in here earlier with Pomeroy. He hired you to save his bacon."
"What if he did?"
"You're canoeing up the wrong rapids, friend. I was with Denny that night." Zuggs exhaled in my face. "We pitched horseshoes, and you can’t break that alibi."
"You saw him every minute?"
Zuggs sloshed himself three mean slugs of Johnny Walker Red, and I wondered how he managed to turn a profit. "If I didn't, another buddy will plug any missing times. Denny didn't zip off all the way to Harrisburg, pull a knife job on Wanda, and then drive back here to stand his next turn."
My eyes traveled over the booths thinking how different this Wanda was from the chaste one townspeople had portrayed. A geezer mopped the terrazzo tiles, racking stools on the bartop as he went. A blonde in zebra-striped culottes and green open-toed sandals smoked. Her vodka-cranberry was near empty and she looked over at me as if I was her two-legged ATM. "A crew of good ole boys could lie just as easy as one could,” I said.
"Hey, if you don’t believe me, kick your ass to the curb, Johnson."
The late summer evening I invaded was a purple haze. Finches whickered in the pyracantha, and I happened to see a man-shape kneel behind my Crown Vic. After slipping up, I plugged my .44 behind his right ear and said, "Drop that knife. After that, rear up extra gentle. Jack your hands high in full view."
After a crisp flinch, he did as ordered, each motion exaggerated in its slowness. I stooped down, plucked up the Buck knife. When the would-be slasher faced me, I laughed. "Denny Jacobs about to carve up my tires."
He sneered. “Get bent.”
I frisked him and came up empty. My thumb tested the Buck knife’s edge. “Yep, stropped razor sharp to slit your wife’s windpipe.”
“You can’t pin murder that on me,” he said.
“Maybe. What’s say we run down to Harrisburg?”
“Why? The sheriff just arrested Pomeroy!”
“All the more reason to go. Move it!”
Jacobs jerked his chin downward. “How many you wasted with that magnum?”
“Careful,” I said, unlocking the Crown Vic. “There’s a first time for everything. Crawl in and drive.”
Jacobs, kneading the steering wheel as we left Casanova, pedaled the accelerator at an even gait. "After all this time -- what now, six, seven years -- you're still galled at me? Why? Because you figure I treated your kid sister like a heel?"
"I figure this hog-leg will blast off your kneecap."
He went on. "I dated her once, twice maybe. We went disco bowling, nothing happened, hear? My conscience is clear on that score."
"You had a perverse way of showing it," I replied.
Headlights showed through tinsel bugs lacing the windshield. Their globs were random hits splattering glass, aglow for a few moments before darkening.
"You instigated that bar brawl," he said. "Whiskey stokes me, and your throwing a rape accusation in my face made me see red."
I made a guttural noise. "My apologies."
Jacobs seemed pleased. "The DNA will establish its paternity and prove my innocence."
"I'm nailing you for Wanda’s murder. You gave me all the proof I need.”
“Bah! That Buck knife?”
“You better believe it’s physical evidence,” I said. “While you lie on the death row gurney with cyanide mainlined in a vein, I’ll blow you a wet kiss through the viewing glass.” Even as I said it, the hollowness of the threat echoed inside me. Wanda’s mysterious trip to Harrisburg didn’t fit with my limited understanding of the facts.
"Johnson, you're one vindictive bastard."
"Less mouth, more driving. By those orange cones, veer off. Head to the Red Rover Inn across from the old slaughterhouse."
Steel-belted radials thrummed down the ramp. "I was with eight other guys pitching horseshoes,” said Denny. “You can’t change or deny that fact."
“We’ll see about that.”
We trammeled into the Red Rover Inn's paved entrance sleighing underneath a red and white retractable awning. A sallow glare filled the motel’s lobby.
"Any M.E. affixing the time of death builds in an uncertainty," I said. "Conservatively speaking, it could vary a couple hours either way."
I exploited my advantage. "Backing off 4 p.m. by two hours could put you here as early as 2 p.m. which leaves loads of time before your alibi with the good ole boys kicks in. So, you ready to own up?"
"Wanda and I may’ve fought, but I didn't cut her."
"Have it your way. Okay now, we slide out here and hike in together. You tear out for the territories; I'll smoke you. Because that's how I am. Vindictive."
"You're a certified psycho," said Jacobs, unlatching his door.
I scanned a 360 and saw the motor court was dead calm. My .44 poked Jacobs' spine right about behind his heart. Inside, the desk clerk was a middle-aged fellow, his toothy grin orange from munching on Cheetos. NBC’s Profiler was on the shabby TV sprouting honest-to-goodness rabbit ears.
"Yes sirs," he said. "You desire a double, or two singles? Makes no never-mind to me. Not one blessed bit."
"If it makes no never-mind," I asked, "why did you bring it up?"
The clerk gave me the once-over. "I keep a sharp eye on my guests."
"Your vigilance slacked off last Thursday," I said. "When the corpse detail carted off that girl killed in one of your rooms."
The clerk stopped smiling. "Who the hell are you? "
I rousted out a counterfeit police shield I had bought off the Internet. "Detective Weems, Homicide. Out of town." I gestured at Jacobs. "You recognize him?"
"No more than I do you."
After unfolding Pomeroy’s newspaper photo from my shirt pocket, I next showed it to him. “How about this man?”
“Again, no more than I do you -- ”
I interrupted him. "If my questions cause you heartburn, sir, we can go run this at your sheriff's office. Makes no never-mind to me."
He reacted with enlarged eyes, upraised palms. "Sheriff’s office? Heartburn, who me?" said the clerk. "Not at all, nope. I was about to call the sheriff on a detail I just remembered. Probably not critical, though."
"Let me be the judge of that."
"Well, last Thursday afternoon a joker rolled up in a van," said the clerk. "Checked in, an hour later checked out of Room 8. Weird, eh? When that gal drove up a mite later, I assigned her the same room like I always do."
“This girl in Room 8,” I said. “Was she a regular here?”
Half-nodding, the clerk’s eyes narrowed. “First Thursday of every month she rented a single in Room 8. Later, I’d spot her sashaying across the tool rental yard. She had a yen to go clubbing and pull the choo-choo with the party boys.”
"This joker in the van, any idea who he was?" I asked.
"Well, Detective Weems, that's the why it slipped my mind until a while ago. He looked like your regular Joe.”
“Describe him,” I pressed the clerk. A new insight was haunting me. I was seeing anonymous masculine fingers unlatching the bathroom window for later entry. Murderous eyes were scoping out the future slaughter pen in Room 8.
“He was medium height, medium build. Brown hair, brown eyes. Bookish. White, in his mid to late forties. Drove a white Ford van. No, he didn’t sign the registry. He settled up in cash long since spent, too."
“He didn’t ask for one,” the clerk replied. “I didn’t offer it.”
“They’ve been busted for months. Sorry.”
“Any chance for me to see Room 8?”
“I dunno. It’s been cordoned off in that yellow tape. I can call the cops to let us inside.”
“Not necessary,” I said. “Nothing distinguishing about this joker in the van, huh?”
“Nope. Like I just described him, a regular Joe.”
Hooking thumbs in his belt, Denny Jacobs grinned at me. "He looked like your regular Joe, like a face in the crowd, like a plain vanilla wrapper. How do you like ‘em apples, Detective Weems?"
The clerk looked at me funny. “Good Lord, if he’s her killer, how do you catch him?”
“Better call yourself a taxi, Denny. Otherwise, it’s your trusty thumb getting you back to Casanova.”
“Say what?” said Denny.
“Hand me your damn phone,” I told the clerk. Dr. Agnes Ortloff answered on the second ring and I explained to her my situation.
“The M.O. you describe,” said Dr. Ortloff, “strikes me as a classic serial killer’s. He must’ve watched and learned her habits, coming to the motel every month on the same day. He scoped it out, lay in wait, did the job, and slipped away.”
A burgeoning snarl lumped in my guts. “What are my chances of nabbing this killer?”
“Until he strikes again,” she said, “not very promising, I’m afraid. Look. We can talk about it after class, no? Strategize your next options.”
“That sounds about right,” I said before hanging up on her.
Driving off from the Red Rover Inn, I came upon Denny Jacobs, his thumb out. I didn’t bother to stop for him.