A light drizzle had left a hazy screen on her car’s windows. Maureen Thompson flipped on the windshield wipers and watched them clear, swish, swish…swish, swish. Her home, inviting and cozy, sheltered by a dripping overhang of branches, glittered against the dark veil that draped the early morning hour. Was the title of Chief Inspector worth the pain of leaving her family on the other side of that door?
A little face appeared under the curtain of the front window of her home. Her youngest, Michael, waved at her. She blew him a kiss. He blew one back. Then she put the car in reverse and pulled away from her cozy nest.
She punched in the number for Dispatch. As she turned the first corner, her Bluetooth buzzed in her ear.
“Yes. This is Chief Thompson. Can you locate and push me through to Jackson Tyler? He might be using his private phone.”
Her earpiece was silent as she left her neighborhood and turned toward the freeway. Then it buzzed. “Thompson.”
“Any news?” Jack’s voice was a whisper.
“You must be sitting with Tom. How is he?”
“In and out. I think he’s trying to wake up. What’s going on?” She heard him get up and walk across a tiled floor.
“Balmario reported that one of his informants told him about a turf ‘disturbance.’ I say that with a grain of salt. It was a border dispute turned fight club. A kid had his face smashed in. Aggrieved parties took revenge. Word on the street is that the avenger was a boss, and the euthanized party was Taiwanese.”
“Your river vic’?” Jack said.
“I don’t know yet.”
“You think Evan Fischer was involved?” said Jack
Maureen sighed. “You mentioned that his father was named Conti.”
“Who is in witness protection.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard the rumors,” said Maureen. “I’m just covering all the bases, following a hunch.”
“I am going to Walgreens to interview Evan’s colleagues and to pass around some pictures. I know you want to sit with Tom. I just wanted to keep you in the loop.”
“Yeah, thanks. I was planning to go to Walgreens later today. Do you want me to accompany you now?”
“Not at this time. I want you to tell your partner when he wakes up that we are all praying for him.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Walgreens was pervasively quiet, but not in a peaceful way. Drab monotone made the place feel haunted, like she’d stepped into a German Expressionist film. Ghostly floor personnel stocked shelves floating quietly from aisle to aisle in isolated silence. The cashier, a lone sentinel at the front of the store, stood like a mannequin staring listlessly into space. The only bright spot of color was a group of three young women, possibly teens, whispering and giggling over a make-up display. When they saw her looking at them, they quickly fled the store without buying anything. Probably truant, she thought, and possibly shoplifting.
Maureen Thompson wasn’t here for that.
The clerk at the front counter was in her late fifties, early sixties. Her dark skin looked sallow against the green Walgreens’ tunic. Her garish pink lipstick did nothing to counteract her pallor. Her gray hair was mid-length and heavy, and teased into a weird puff on the top of her head before it cascaded down her back. It was a young style for a woman of her age. Brown overtones suggested that she periodically dyed it. Rounded shoulders created a mousy effect that negated her restoration efforts. As Maureen approached, she fussed with the hem of her tunic. Then she smiled with a grin that was as faked as her hive of partially restored hair. “Welcome to Walgreens,” she said with a slight accent.
Maureen held up her credentials. “I’d like to speak to the manager.”
A startled look creased the cashier’s brow. She left the counter and hurried down the nearest aisle where she slipped into an ‘Employees Only’ door. A minute later, she came back through it. “He’s on the telephone.” Her eyes shifted from side to side as if to assess traffic before she crossed a road. “He comes soon.” Then she hustled back to her place at the front counter. Not once did she smile again, even in a fake manner.
After three minutes, the manager joined Maureen. “I am in the middle of a crisis,” he stated before introducing himself as Rodney Heathe. His disheveled appearance was that of someone who had hastily thrown on clothes to greet her at the door.
Maureen held up her credentials. “I appreciate you are busy, but can I trouble you for a few moments? I am inquiring about one of your employees, Evan Fischer.”
“Of course,” he said. He fiddled with his cobalt tie, making it more crooked than it was a moment ago. Was he always nervous, or was he just reacting to her presence? “Evan Fischer, ideal employee until this morning.”
“This morning,” she said, as she wrote it down. “And you expected him at what time?”
“I expected him at nine. He’s worked here for two years and has never been a second late. He’s one of my best employees.”
“Full-time or part-time?” she said.
“Full-time since last Christmas,” said Heathe. “May I ask what this is about? Is he in trouble with the law?”
“No, Sir,” said Maureen. “Evan did not go home last night, and his grandmother is worried about him. As of now, we are considering him a missing person. Any information you can give us could help find him. Sometimes information that doesn’t seem relevant is very relevant.”
“Of course, of course.” Mr. Heathe wrung his hands, clearly worried. “He has a girlfriend,” he said.
“Do you know her name?”
“Brianna, Brenda, something like that,” said Heathe.
“Something like that,” said Maureen. “Which is it? Brianna? Brenda?”
“He refers to her as Bree.”
Maureen said, “Is this Evan?” She showed Mr. Heathe the screenshot that Jack took of the picture in Claudine Fischer’s house.
“Yes, that’s him. That’s Evan.”
“Have you ever heard him talk about mixed martial arts?”
“No,” said Heathe.
“Do you know any kids around here who mix it up?” said Maureen.
“I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t live in this part of town.”
“I have another picture I’d like to show you. It isn’t pretty, but maybe you would recognize this person.” She showed him a picture of her river victim.
Heathe grimaced. “Is he dead?”
“Yes he is. I know it’s disturbing, but have you ever seen this boy?”
“I don’t want Evan to be in trouble.”
“Why would you think Evan is in trouble?”
With a brusque wave, Heathe turned away and said, “No, I have never seen this man. I don’t know where Evan is, and I am a person short today.”
Something about Mr. Heathe was a sharp rock in Maureen’s shoe. “Sir, I have one more picture. This one is easier, I promise.” She showed him a picture of the tattoos on the victim’s neck and shoulders.
“Please, Sir. If you recognize these tats, it may help us find Evan.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I do not recognize any of these pictures except Evan’s. I have business to attend to.” His arms were crossed, and his jaw was set. It was obvious the interview was over.
Maureen closed her picture app. What was he hiding? She said, “Okay, Mr. Heathe, I am going to give you my card. Call if Evan shows up, or if you hear or see anything. May I have permission to speak to your employees?”
“I’ll let my people know.” He flapped away, a battered and caged bird set free.
Even though Heathe claimed he did not recognize the dead boy, when she showed him the tats she could swear there was recognition. What was she dealing with here?
Maureen didn’t learn much interviewing the other employees on duty. Following her instincts, she decided to approach Mr. Heathe one more time. Maybe his memory was a little clearer after thinking about her questions.
She walked to the pharmacy counter, which was closest to the “Employee’s Only” door.
“Did you need something from the pharmacy?” asked the pretty woman on duty.
“No, I wondered if you could let Mr. Heathe know that I’d like to speak with him one more time.”
“Of course. Excuse me.” She exited a door to her left that ultimately led to the hallway behind the “Employee’s Only” door. When she returned it was through that door. “I’m sorry. Mr. Heathe has apparently slipped out. He had some personal business to attend.”
“I see,” said Maureen, nodding. “Well, he has my card. Ask him to contact me when he returns?”
As Maureen left the store, she thought, “Personal business. Yeah, right.” Disheveled clothes, nervous affect, Heathe was definitely on her follow-up list. She couldn’t drop the notion that he was hiding something, but if her suspicion was correct, she couldn’t factor that any of Heathe’s omissions related to the case in front of her. As she approached her car, she noticed a small piece of torn paper stuck under the wiper on the passenger’s side. Someone had scrawled some letters into it using an empty pen. She held it up to try to make out what it said. It could be a name.
As she unlocked her door, she searched for people hanging around the lot. The three cars parked at the far end, were empty, probably employee cars. There was no one on either side of the street gawking, lurking or even walking. She held the tiny slip of paper. Was it happenstance, or had someone added another piece to her puzzle? The lab would figure it out.