Jefferson Lamar was right! He was right about me avoiding Dale Morgan. He was right about me doing it because walking into a prison was just too painful. He was right about my dad. Of course he was.
But there was no way I was going to admit it. Not to Lamar. Not to myself.
With that in mind (or more accurately, not in mind, since I refused to think about it), I spent the next few days after the Team One fundraiser trying to prove to myself that I didn’t need to talk to Dale Morgan to help me solve the case.
I went back to the park where I’d met Reno Bob and sat in my car and kept an eye on him, just waiting for him to do something suspicious. He never did.
I went back to Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation and hung around in the check-cashing place next door, as inconspicuous as I could be under the hot pink and orange umbrella I’d borrowed from Ella that rainy afternoon. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to see. Maybe nothing. Maybe I was just trying to pick up on vibes, or impressions, or whatever. But except for that weird mechanical dog in the car waving and waving and waving some more, I didn’t see anything unusual. Or anything helpful, for that matter.
I reexamined the crime scene photos and reread the suspect and witness interviews, and I realized that if I’d been paying more attention the other umpteen times I’d read through the file, I could have saved myself the pleasure of meeting Steve the Strip Man. There was a rust-colored mark on Steve’s interview transcript that showed there had once been a paperclip attached to it, and a free-floating, handwritten note in the file with said rusty paperclip still attached. Eliminated, it said. Incarcerated.
Just like Reno and Bad Dog at the time of Vera’s murder. But not at Central State.
Did it matter? Not if Vera was the intended victim all along, and Jefferson Lamar was just the patsy who got in the way.
With all these questions swirling in my head, and as long as I had the file out, I reread the newspaper articles about the murder. By now, I knew the details by heart. Maybe that’s why, for the first time, I bothered to look at the byline above the stories.
The same name appeared over and over, and it sounded familiar. Just to check, I grabbed the morning’s Plain Dealer and paged through it. Mike Kowalski was still around, all right. That day, there just happened to be an article about him at the top of the Metro section. Apparently, he was some kind of hotshot because he’d just won a national award for investigative reporting. I skimmed the article that appeared below the picture of Kowalski holding some fancy-looking plaque and looking uncomfortable about being in the spotlight. According to his editor, who was liberally quoted in the story, Kowalski had what no other reporter in town did: a line on some incredible (and very secret) sources, spot-on information, and the added bonus of using all that to just about singlehandedly put a local drug kingpin out of business. I was sure the cops would be thrilled to hear it.
Oh yeah, Kowalski was a journalistic superhero, all right, but I called him anyway, and I was all set to give him my song and dance about restoration and research. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. He was a fan of Cemetery Survivor. In fact, he said I was one hot chick and his favorite thing about the program.
Just how desperate was I?
I made a date to meet him for coffee anyway.
Thanks to that photo that ran with the story about him, I recognized Kowalski the moment I walked into a neighborhood bar called Sullivan’s, even though he wasn’t wearing tights and a cape like I expected.
It was just as well. Kowalski was a middle-aged bald guy with a triple chin. He was wearing khakis, a blue oxford-cloth skirt, and a tie that was light blue with yellow polka dots that were supposed to be there and a bunch of food stains that weren’t. Kowalski had beady eyes. They lit like Fourth of July fireworks the moment he caught sight of me.
I did my best not to get grossed out, slid into the booth across from where he sat, and ordered coffee. There was a fat cheeseburger and a double order of fries on the plate in front of him. He added a lake of ketchup and looked me over.
Don’t worry, as soon as I heard that “hot chick” comment, I knew what was going to happen, and I had wisely dressed appropriately: black pants, a fitted, long-sleeved blouse buttoned all the way to the top, and sensible shoes. I was so not sending pick-me-up messages.
He was so not getting it.
“Research, huh?” Kowalski grinned the way older guys always do when they’re trying too hard to impress a younger woman. “You sure you weren’t just looking for an excuse to meet me?”
I’d already decided there was only one sure way to a reporter’s heart, and I kept to my plan. I’d stopped at Garden View that morning and made copies of all the newspaper articles in the police file, and I pulled them out of my purse and plunked them on the Formica table. “I’ve been reading your clippings. You must know more than anyone about the Vera Blaine murder.”
He chewed a couple fries and washed them down with a slurp of coffee. “I’ve been thinking about writing a book about it. Hey, if they make it into a movie, you want to star?”
He wasn’t serious. I wasn’t interested. I twinkled. “That would be terrific. Only it might not happen for a while, right? I mean, it takes a long time to get a movie made. By then, I’ll be too old to play Vera.”
He grabbed his burger and took a bite. Ketchup, mustard, and onions oozed out of the bun and slopped onto his plate, splashed his tie, and added a couple new polka dots. “We can make an exception,” he said, with his mouth full. “For you, honey, I’d do anything.”
I added sweetener to my coffee and took a sip. “Let’s start with your articles.” I spread them out. “You wrote a lot of them. You were really well connected to the case.”
“I was a jerk.” He didn’t sound embarrassed, just sorry. “I was fresh out of J school and I took every assignment my editor offered me. I worked my butt off. But then, I was itching to make a name for myself. I thought the Blaine case would do it for me.”
He set down his burger so he could grab some more fries. “If it did, would I be sitting here right now?”
I thought back to the story in the morning paper, and believe me, I wasn’t trying to score points, just stating the facts when I said, “You’re some kind of god when it comes to investigative reporting. You won-”
“That big award. Yeah, right. Blah, blah, blah.” You’d think a guy who’d been singled out for his excellence would be a little more thrilled. Kowalski waved the whole thing off like it was nothing. “You’re young,” he said. “Someday maybe you’ll understand.” He chuckled, though I didn’t know what was supposed to be so funny. “Or maybe not.”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what we were talking about. My best bet was to keep the conversation on track.
I thumbed through the articles until I found the one I was looking for. “I’m curious,” I told him, “about the desk clerk from the Lake View Motel, this Aaron Burton guy.”
Kowalski darted a look at me that I could read as clearly as I could his lame pick-up line. He was wondering if there was more to me than just a great body and a pretty face.
Was that good or bad?
Rather than worry about it, I stayed focused. I pointed to one of the articles, and because it was upside down to him, I read out loud. “You quoted the desk clerk here… ‘“They was here plenty,” said Aaron Burton, a Lake View employee. “I seen them before, lots of times.” ’ ”
I set down the article, planted my elbows on the table, and gave Kowalski a level look. “Why would a desk clerk at a seedy motel lie about a thing like that?”
Kowalski finished his coffee and waved the waitress over for more. It wasn’t until after she poured and he added three packs of sugar and four of those little creamers that he bothered to answer me. “What makes you think he lied?”
“It’s hard to explain.” True enough, since the only thing I had to go on was the word of a dead guy who swore up and down that his and Vera’s relationship was nothing more than what was appropriate for a boss and his secretary. “I don’t think Lamar and Vera were having an affair.”
Kowalski tipped his chin in the direction of the article I’d just read to him. “That’s not what that guy said, is it? And he was there. You…” He gave me a quick once-over. “At the time, my guess is that you were maybe in kindergarten.”
I smiled because Kowalski’s voice was tight and that beady gaze of his was focused on me in a way that told me he was getting pissed. I didn’t know why, but I knew that if I didn’t keep things on an even keel, he was going to ask me to leave, and I was going to lose out on anything he could tell me. “But here’s the thing… Aaron Burton never testified at Lamar’s trial,” I said, and I knew this because I’d been through the file so many times and double-checked my hunch just in case I’d missed something. “In fact, the cops never even interviewed him after the murder. If his testimony was so crucial to the case-”
“Apparently it wasn’t. They convicted Jefferson Lamar without it.”
“But why? How?” I was amazed that an investigative reporter with Kowalski’s reputation didn’t see what I was seeing. “They couldn’t have used the quotes in your articles to prove anything.”
He had a fry in his hand and he tossed it on his plate, where it landed in a pool of ketchup and added another spot to his tie and one on his shirt. “You think I wasn’t telling the truth?”
“Not at all!” I was losing Kowalski and I was losing him fast. I scrambled to keep my questions coming at the same time I sidestepped around his ego. “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not a professional. I mean, not like you. I’m just a cemetery worker looking for a way to look good on a silly TV show.” I leaned forward. “You want to help me, don’t you?”
He sat back. His gaze flickered from my face to the front of my shirt.
I avoided the temptation to get up and leave.
It was a good thing, because the next second, Kowalski gave in.
“Aaron Burton was a druggie,” he told me. “The reason he never testified was that by the time of the trial, nobody could find him.”
“And you think-”
He pushed away his plate. “He didn’t testify because the cops could never find him. The kid probably OD’d or something. Chances are, he was lying dead somewhere and maybe nobody ever found the body.”
“Seems awfully convenient, don’t you think?”
“Not for Burton. Not if he was dead.” Kowalski hauled himself out of the booth and tossed a twenty on the table. “I’ll get your coffee,” he said. “That way I can go back to the office and tell people I bought lunch for a beautiful woman. They won’t believe me, but what the hell.”
And just like that, he walked out.