Missing Justice – Chapter 1

If it’s true that dreams come from the id, then my id is not particularly creative.

The dream that makes its way into my bed tonight is the same one that has troubled my sleep almost every night for the past month. Once again, I relive the events that led to the deaths of three men.

The walls of the stairway pass as a man follows me upstairs. I force myself to focus on my own movements, trying to block out thoughts of the other man downstairs, armed and determined to kill me when I return.

Time slows as I duck beside my bed, reach for the pistol hidden inside my nightstand, and rise up to surprise him. The .25 caliber automatic breaks the silence; more shots follow downstairs. Glass shatters. Heavy footsteps thunder through the house. In the dream, I see bullets rip through flesh and muscle, the scene tinted red like blood smeared across my retinas.

I usually wake during the chaos. Tonight, though, the silence returns, and I walk past the dead bodies to my kitchen. I open the pantry door and find a woman whose face I know only from photographs and a brief introduction two years ago. She is crouched on the floor with her head between her knees. When she looks up at me and reaches for my hand, the phone rings, and I’m back in my bedroom.

It is four o’clock in the morning, and as usual I wake up chilly, having kicked my comforter deep into the crevice between my mattress and the footboard of my maple sleigh bed. I fumble for the phone on my nightstand, still ringing in the dark.

“This better be worth it,” I say.

It’s Detective Raymond Johnson of the Portland Police Bureau’s Major Crimes Team. A member of the search team has found a woman’s size-seven black Cole Haan loafer in the gutter, but Clarissa Easterbrook is still missing.

The call came only eight hours after my boss, District Attorney Duncan Griffith, had first summoned me to the Easterbrook home. It was my first call-out after a month-long hiatus and a new promotion from the Drug and Vice Division into Major Crimes. I was told it would just be some quick PR work to transition me back into the office.

So far, the transition had been rough.

When I pulled into the Easterbrook driveway that first evening, I cut the engine and sat for a few last quiet moments in my Jetta. Noticing Detective Johnson waiting for me at the front window, I took a deep breath, released the steering wheel, and climbed out of the car, grabbing my briefcase from the passenger seat as I exhaled.

I climbed a series of steep slate steps, a trek made necessary by the home’s impressive hillside location. Despite the spring mist, I was able to take in the exterior. Dr. Townsend Easterbrook was clearly no slouch. I wasn’t sure which was bigger, the double-door entranceway or the Expedition I’d parked next to.

Johnson opened one of the doors before I’d had a chance to use either of the square pewter knockers. I could make out voices at the back of the house; Johnson kept his own down. “Sat in that car so long, Kincaid, thought something might be wrong with your feet.”

At least my first case back on the job brought some familiar faces. I had met Raymond Johnson and his partner, Jack Walker, only two months ago, when I was a mere drug and vice deputy. But given the history, however recent, I felt a bond with these guys — the gunky kind that threatens to stick around for good.

“You must not have given up all hope, Johnson. You were waiting at the door.”

“I was beginning to wonder, but then you tripped something off walking up the path, and I heard a voice somewhere announcing a visitor. George fucking Jetson house. Gives me the creeps.”

The Easterbrook home wasn’t exactly cozy, but I’d take it. Neutral colors, steel, and low sleek furniture — the place was a twenty-first century update on 1960s kitsch.

With any luck, Clarissa Easterbrook would turn up soon, and there’d be no need to disrupt all this coolness.

Johnson caught my eye as I studied the house. “Look at you, girl. You’re almost as dark as I am.” He grabbed my hand and held it next to the back of his. Not even close. Johnson’s beautiful skin is about as dark as it comes.

“Yeah, but you’re still better looking.”

He laughed but it was true. He also dressed better than me — more Hollywood red carpet than police precinct linoleum. “Griffith dragged you back from Maui just for this?”

“I flew in last night. I sort of assumed I’d have Sunday to myself before I headed back in tomorrow, but the boss must have thought it would do me good to get some hand-holding practice while we wait for Easterbrook to turn up. You know, ease me out of drug cases into the new gig.”

“They usually do,” Johnson said. “Turn up, I mean. She probably went shopping and lost track of time or went out for a drink with the girls.”

“Right, because, of course, that’s all women do in their spare time: shopping and girl talk.”

“This is going to take some getting used to, Kincaid, after seven years of MCT work with O’Donnell.”

I didn’t react to the mention of my predecessor. “Just doing my part to lead you down the path of enlightenment, Ray. Clarissa Easterbrook’s an administrative law judge, not some bored housewife.”

“Oh, so it’s only women lawyers who excel beyond malls and gossip. Got it. Note to all detectives,” he said, as if he were speaking into a dictation recorder, “the new Major Crimes Unit DA says it’s still OK to dis’ housewives.” He dropped the routine and cocked a finger at me. “Busted!”

There was no arguing it, so I laughed instead. “Who’s in the back?” I asked, leaning my head toward the ongoing murmurs.

“Walker’s back there with the husband and the sister. We got here about half an hour ago, and the sister showed up right after. We haven’t been able to do much more than try to calm them down. We need to start working on the timeline, though. I stayed out here to wait for you. I suspect Dr. Easterbrook’s still getting used to having a brother in the house.”

It was unusual to have MCT involved so early in a missing persons case, but Walker and Johnson were here from the bureau’s Major Crimes Team for the same reason I was: to make sure that our offices looked responsive and concerned when the missing judge showed up and to triple-check that the investigation was perfect, just in case she didn’t.

“Sounds good. I’ll do my part for the family and any press, but for now you guys take the lead on interviews.”

“Music to my ears, Kincaid.”

He began walking toward the back of the house, but I stopped him with a hand on his elbow. “I assume you’re keeping things gentle for now, just in case. And absolutely no searches, not even with consent.” If Clarissa Easterbrook had encountered anything criminal, everyone close to her would become a suspect, especially her husband. We couldn’t do anything now that might jeopardize our investigation down the road.

“I should’ve known it was too good to be true. All DAs just got to have their say. It’s in the blood.” I could tell from his smile that he wasn’t annoyed. “No worries, now.”

We made our way to the kitchen, walking past a built-in rock fountain that served as a room divider. The Easterbrooks had sprung for marble countertops and stainless steel, Sub-Zero everything, but it looked like no one ever cooked here. In fact, as far as I could tell, no one even lived here. The only hint of disorder was in a corner of the kitchen, where the contents of a canvas book bag were spread out on the counter next to a frazzled-looking brunette. She had a cell phone to one ear and an index finger in the other.

Jack Walker greeted us. With his short sleeves, striped tie, and bald head, he had enough of the cop look going to make up for his partner. “Welcome back. You look great,” he said into my ear as he shook my hand with a friendly squeeze. “Dr. Easterbrook, this is Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid.”

There are women who would describe Townsend Easterbrook as good-looking. His brown hair was worn just long enough and with just enough gray at the temples to suggest a lack of attention to appearance, but the Brooks Brothers clothes told another story. On the spectrum between sloppy apathetic and sloppy preppy, there was no question where this man fell.

He seemed alarmed by the introduction. At first I assumed he was nervous. I quickly realized it was something else entirely.

“Please, call me Townsend. Gosh, I apologize if I was staring. I recognized you from the news, but it took me a moment to draw the connection.”

It hadn’t dawned on me that, at least for the foreseeable future, former strangers would know me as the local Annie Oakley. One more daily annoyance. Terrific.

“I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances, Dr. Easterbrook. Duncan had to be in Salem tonight, but he wanted me to assure you that our office will do everything within our power to help find your wife.”

When Griffith called, he had insisted that I use his first name with the family and assure Dr. Easterbrook that he would have been here personally if he weren’t locked in legislative hearings all week. Other missing people might disappear with little or no official response, but Dr. Easterbrook’s phone call to 911 had ripped like a lightning bolt through the power echelon. The wife was sure to turn up, but this was Griffith’s chance to say I feel your pain.

And Easterbrook clearly was in pain. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” he said, his voice shaking. “I feel foolish now that you’re all here, but we weren’t sure what we should be doing. Clarissa’s sister and I have been calling everyone we can possibly think of.”

“That’s your sister-in-law?” I asked, looking toward the woman in the corner, still clutching the phone.

“Yes. Tara. She came in from The Dalles. I called her earlier to see if she’d heard from Clarissa today. Then I called her again when I saw that Griffey was gone, too.”

Walker tapped the pocket-size notebook he held in his hand with a dainty gold pen that didn’t suit him. Most likely a gift from one of his six daughters, it looked tiny between his sausage fingers. “Dr. Easterbrook was just telling me he got home from the hospital at six-thirty tonight. His wife was home when he left this morning at six.”

A twelve-hour day probably wasn’t unusual for the attending surgeon at The Oregon Health Sciences University, even on a Sunday. Looking at him now, though, it was hard to imagine him steadying a scalpel just four hours ago.

Easterbrook continued where he must have left off. “She was still in bed when I left. Sort of awake but still asleep.” He was staring blankly in front of him, probably remembering how cute his wife is when she is sleepy. “She hadn’t mentioned any plans, so when I got home and she wasn’t here, I assumed she went out to the market. We usually have dinner in on Sundays, as long as I’m home.”

“You’ve checked for her car,” Walker said. It was more of a statement than a question.

“Right. That was the first thing I did once I was out of my scrubs: I changed clothes and walked down to the garage. When I saw the Lexus, I thought she must have walked somewhere. I tried her cell, but I kept getting her voice mail. Finally, around eight, I thought to look out back for Griffey. When I saw he was gone too, I drove around the neighborhood for what must have been an hour. I finally got so worried I called the police.”

In the corner, Clarissa’s sister snapped her cell phone shut and blew her bangs from her eyes. “That’s it. I’ve called everyone,” she said, looking up. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

“From the District Attorney’s office,” Townsend explained. “Ms. — Kincaid, this is Clarissa’s sister, Tara Carney.”

It was hard to see the resemblance. My guess is they were both pushing forty, Tara perhaps a little harder, but they had been different kinds of years. Clarissa was a thin frosted blonde who favored pastel suits and high heels. Tara’s dark brown pageboy framed a round face, and she looked at ease — at least physically — in her dark green sweat suit and sneakers.

She acknowledged me with a nod. “I called everyone I can think of, and no one’s heard from her today. This just isn’t like her.”

“She’s never gone out for the day without telling someone?” Walker asked.

They both shook their heads in frustration. “Nothing like this at all,” Townsend said. “She often runs late at work during the week, we both do. But she wouldn’t just leave the house like this on the weekend. With the dog, for hours? Something must be wrong.”

We asked all the other obvious questions, but Tara and Townsend had covered the bases before dialing 911. They had knocked on doors, but the neighbors hadn’t noticed anything. Clarissa hadn’t left a note. They didn’t even know what she was wearing, because when Townsend left that morning she was still in her pajamas.

Her purse and keys were missing along with Griffey, but Townsend doubted she was walking the dog. She always walked him in the morning, and sometimes they walked him together after dinner if they were both home. But she didn’t take Griffey out alone after dark. Anyway, we were talking about ten-minute potty trips, not all-night strolls.

Walker was rising from his chair. “Finding out how she’s dressed is a priority.” He was shifting into action mode. “If we go through some of her things, do you think you might be able to figure out what she’s wearing?”

You would be the one to go through your wife’s belongings,” I corrected. We had to keep this by the book. “I think what Detective Walker’s suggesting is that you might be able to tell what clothes are missing if you look at what’s here.”

“Right,” Walker agreed. “And it would help to get a detailed description out as fast as possible.” It would also help us determine if we were all wasting our time. Maybe Clarissa had packed a suitcase and her dog to run off voluntarily with a new man — or simply to a new life without this one.

“You either overestimate my familiarity with clothing or underestimate Clarissa’s wardrobe. Tara, can you help? I doubt I can be of any use.”

I suggested that we all go upstairs together while Tara looked through Clarissa’s closet. Johnson offered to stay downstairs in case anyone knocked, but Easterbrook assured him that the house’s “smart system” would alert us if anyone approached the door. Of course, Johnson already knew that, so I gave him a warning look over my shoulder to join me as I followed Townsend and Tara up the hammered-steel staircase. No way was he sneaking around down here while the family was upstairs, especially in a house with its own intelligence system.

The Easterbrook master suite was the size of my entire second floor, a thousand square feet of spa-style opulence. Townsend led us through a large sitting area, past the king-size bed, and around the back of a partial wall that served as the beds headboard. I couldn’t help but notice that the lip balm on the nightstand was the same brand as my own, the paperback novel one I’d read last year.

The back of the suite contained a marble-rich bathroom adjoining a dressing area roughly the size of Memphis. Townsend wasn’t kidding about his wife’s wardrobe.

Tara started flipping through the piles of folded clothes stacked neatly into maple cubes. The hanging items looked work-related.

After she’d gone through the top two rows, Tara blew her bangs out of her face again. “She tends to wear the same few things when she’s around the house, but the ones I can remember are all here. I just don’t know.”

Townsend stood in the corner of the closet, seemingly distracted by a pair of Animal Cracker print pajamas that hung from a hook. Tara was unfazed by the moment’s poignancy, or at least she did not let it halt her determination. She was examining rows of shoes stacked neatly on a rack built into the side of the closet. “Well, it looks like her favorite black loafers are gone. Cole Haans, I think. But I can’t tell what clothes are missing; she’s just got too much stuff.”

She walked over to a Nordstrom shopping bag on the floor next to the dressing table. She pulled out a red sweater, set it on the table and then reached back in and removed some loose price tags and a receipt. “These are from yesterday,” she said, looking at the receipt. “Town, these are Clarissa’s, right?”

She had to repeat the question before he responded. “Oh, right, she did mention something about that last night, I think.”

“Can you tell anything from the tags?’ Walker asked.

“No,” Tara said. “Well, the brand name, but then it’s just those meaningless style names and numbers.”

“Did anyone go shopping with her? We could find out what she bought from them,” I suggested. I knew I told Johnson I’d leave the questions to them, but I couldn’t help myself.

Townsend seemed to wake up for a moment. “I believe she went with Susan, but –”

“I’m sorry.” Walker interrupted, holding up his pen and pad. “What’s Susan’s last name?”

Tara looked disappointed. “Susan Kerr, a friend of my sisters. I’ve already tried calling her, and all I got was the machine.”

A store clerk would be able to determine from the item number what clothes Clarissa purchased Saturday. It wouldn’t be easy to get that information at eleven o’clock on a Sunday night, but it was worth trying.

“We’ll track someone down from the store,” I suggested, looking toward Ray and Jack. “Can’t we pull a number for someone at Nordstrom out of PPDS?” The Portland Police Data System compiled information from every city police report and was the handiest source for accessing an individual’s contact information.

Within a few minutes, Walker had the home telephone number of a store manager mentioned in a recent theft case. A manager would not be involved in your average shoplifting case, but this one had been unusual. An employee at one of the local thrift stores had bilked Nordstrom out of thousands of dollars in cash by taking advantage of its famously tolerant return policy. The bureau estimated that every Nordstrom brand dress shirt donated to the thrift store during the last two years had been returned to Nordstrom stores for cash by either the employee or one of her friends.

Hopefully the manager would be sufficiently grateful to the bureau for cracking the case that he’d forgive us for calling him after ten o’clock at night. Walker made the call on his cell to leave the Easterbrooks’ line open, just in case.

As it turned out, the Easterbrook phone rang just a few minutes later. I found myself watching Townsend to see how he responded. Did he really expect the caller to be Clarissa? Or did he act like a man who already knew we wouldn’t be hearing from her? So far he seemed legit, if dazed. He hadn’t made any of the obvious slipups, the ones you see on Court TV. Using the past tense, buying diamonds for another woman, selling the wife’s stuff, things like that.

Whoever was calling, it wasn’t Clarissa. Listening to one side of the conversation was frustrating. “I see . . . Where was he? . . . No, in fact, she’s . . . missing.” — Townsend’s voice cracked on that one. “The police are here now . . . Yes, that’s terribly kind of you, if you don’t mind.” Some more earnest thank-yous and a goodbye, and Townsend set the phone back on its base.

“That was a fellow who lives a few streets down. He works with me at the hospital. He and his wife were leaving the Chart House and found a dog running in the parking lot with its leash on. It’s Griffey.”

Walker had reached the Nordstrom manager, who generously offered to meet him at the store to track down what Clarissa Easterbrook had purchased yesterday and was — we hoped — still wearing.

About fifteen minutes after Walker left, a voice similar to the one that announces my e-mails at home declared, “Good evening. You have a visitor.” Ray was right. Creepy George Jetson house.

I looked out the living room window to see a man in his fifties struggling to keep up with an excited yellow Lab dashing up the slope to the front door, straining against the leash. A woman of roughly the same age followed.

When Easterbrook opened the door, the Lab finally pulled free from his temporary handler, dragging his leash behind him. He leaped on Easterbrook’s chest, nearly knocking him over. He was a sticky mess from the drizzle, but you could tell he was a well-cared-for dog. Townsend absently convinced Griffey to lie down by the fountain, though the panting and tail thumping revealed that he was still excited to be home.

A dog like Griffey probably had an advanced degree from obedience school, unlike my dropout, Vinnie. Vinnie was actually expelled. Or, more accurately, I was. When it became clear to the teacher that, despite her instructions, I caved to Vinnie’s every demand to avoid his strategic peeing episodes, she suggested that I re-enroll my French bulldog when I felt more committed to the process. Two years later, Vinnie and I have come to mutually agreeable terms. He has a doggie door to the backyard, an automatic feeder, and a rubber Gumby doll that he treats like his baby, but if I don’t come home in time to cuddle him and hear about his day, there’s hell to pay. Griffey, on the other hand, appeared to do whatever Easterbrook told him.

Easterbrook introduced Griffey’s new friends as Dr. and Mrs. Jonathon Fletcher. I guess you have to give up both your first and last names when you marry a physician. Dr. Fletcher’s looks said doctor more than Townsend Easterbrook’s. In contrast with the flashy Expedition and high-tech house, I noticed that the Fletchers pulled up in a Volvo station wagon.

Mrs. Dr. Fletcher did her best to provide comfort. “I’m certain Clarissa’s just fine, Townsend. A misunderstanding, is all. We just have to find her, and that’s that. Now, when’s the last time you saw her?”

She made it sound like we were trying to track down a lost set of keys.

“This morning,” Townsend said. “She was still in bed. I had back-to-back surgeries, and when I got home she was gone.”

“Well, dear, I’m surprised you even get a chance to operate anymore. Jonathon tells me how busy you are, developing the new transplant unit. Sounds like that’s going extremely well.”

Apparently Mrs. Dr. Fletcher was so used to her job as conversationalist to her husband’s colleagues that she was slipping into autopilot. Understandably, Townsend cut her off.

“Who knows? Still so much to do,” he said. Translation: Who the fuck cares about the hospital right now? “I didn’t even realize Griffey was gone until a couple of hours ago. When did you find him?”

“Right around ten,” Dr. Fletcher said. “A group of us were leaving our function at the Chart House, and this feisty fellow was running around in the parking lot. Initially, everyone assumed he escaped from one of the neighborhood yards or something. But then someone noticed he was dragging a leash. Our friend went after him, figuring someone had lost hold of him. When he checked the tag, what do you know? Our own Griffey Easterbrook.”

The Chart House sat just a couple of steep miles down from the Easterbrook home. The elegant restaurant was locate on the winding, wooded section of Taylor’s Ferry Road that ran from the modest Burlingame neighborhood in southwest Portland, up about two miles to OHSU, and then back down again into downtown Portland. Spectacular views of the city made the route one of the most popular spots in the area for walks, runs, and bike rides.

It was not, however, the safest place for a woman alone at night. About a year earlier, two guys from the DAs office were taking a run there after work. They heard what they thought was a couple goofing around behind the bushes, a man wrestling his squealing wife or girlfriend to the grass. Fortunately, the woman heard them talking as they ran past and yelled, “Help, I don’t know him.”

The bad guy got away, but the ensuing publicity had called the city’s attention to the potential dangers of the area. It was no longer common to find women alone on the path after dark.

The Fletchers’ discovery of Griffey there was not a good sign.

Johnson must’ve been thinking the same thing, because he decided to revisit what I thought had been our mutual decision not to search the Easterbrook/Jetson home. He pulled me aside while Townsend continued the conversation with the Fletchers.

“I know we’re playing it safe, but finding the dog changes the picture. We need to go through the place now while he’s still playing victim. If we wait until a body shows, he might lawyer up.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t like it,” I said. “Look at him — he’s a basket case. Later on, his state of mind might vitiate any consent we get from him. If, God forbid, her body does surface, we can easily get a warrant, since this is her house. We won’t need to have probable cause against the husband.”

“And what do we do about the fact that our doctor can move whatever he wants and start dumping evidence the minute we’re out of here?”

Johnson’s point was well taken, but it wasn’t enough to justify a thorough search this early in the case. Not only could Townsend try to throw out the search down the road, we’d pretty much be killing any chance we had of continued cooperation from him. In any event, if Townsend was involved in his wife’s disappearance, he certainly could have disposed of any incriminating evidence before calling the police.

I explained my thinking to Johnson and proposed a compromise. “Why don’t you offer to take a look around to make sure there’s no sign of a break-in? I don’t have a problem with you doing a general walk-through; I just don’t want a detailed search yet. If you check for broken windows and the like, we can at least look for the obvious and avoid any major fuckups.”

“Okay with you if I ask him about it in front of his buddies?”

I gave a quick nod. If Townsend felt pressured to consent to a search because his friends were around, so be it. Courts only care about claims of involuntariness if the supposed coercion comes from law enforcement.

Before Johnson walked away, I added, “We should also get people searching up on Taylor’s Ferry. Hopefully, by the time the department has a search plan together, Walker can tell us what she might have been wearing.”

Griffey perked up when Tara came down the stairs, apparently satisfied that nothing helpful was going to come from foraging through her sister’s closet. I’d already been positively disposed toward her based on her obvious concern for her sister, and I warmed to her even more when she found the energy to get down on the floor with her sister’s dog and comfort him with a bear hug.

After a few minutes spent on introductions to the Fletchers and the inevitable words of comfort, Tara grew antsy again. “Griffey, up,” she commanded, pointing him toward the stairs. “Sorry, I can’t sit still. You mind if I throw him into the tub real quick, Town? He’s a little crunchy, and it’ll give me something to do.”

It was clear that Tara’s nervous energy was grating on her brother-in-law; he seemed more at ease once she’d followed Griffey to the second floor and he could turn his attention back to the Fletchers.

“I keep expecting the phone to ring, but I’m not sure exactly what kind of call it would be; maybe a ransom demand or something. Obviously, I want it to be Clarissa explaining that this is all a misunderstanding, that she went with a friend somewhere and forgot to leave a note, and Griffey just happened to get out . . .” He was just rambling. I didn’t point out that the leash suggested Griffey had not simply escaped from the yard, but that someone had been walking him. Townsend would come to the realizations in his own time.

I was beginning to think that a ransom demand would be good news at this point. At least it might indicate that Clarissa was alive.

“This lifestyle of ours,” Townsend said, looking around. “Why does any of it really matter? Maybe it just invites problems.”

Johnson used the moment as his in to ask permission for the walk-through. Consistent with everything else about the man, his transition was smooth.

He started by asking Dr. Easterbrook if he’d ever noticed anything that might suggest that someone was scoping out the house or following them, perhaps planning a way to get to Clarissa by herself.

“No, nothing at all like that,” Easterbrook replied. “This neighborhood is so isolated up here. We hardly see anyone on our street who doesn’t live here.”

“Can you think of anyone who has a conflict with you of some kind? Someone who might be motivated to do something to scare you or retaliate against you?”

“Why would someone hurt Clarissa to get to me, detective?”

“Just exploring all possibilities, doctor. Maybe a disgruntled patient from the hospital? A former employee?”

“No, ” Townsend said, slowly shaking his head. “Clarissa would occasionally get some threats about her cases, but she always assumed they were only blowing off steam. Never anything we considered seriously. No one would want to hurt her. She’s such a good person.”

“I was just exploring all the possibilities,” Johnson repeated. “Come to think of it, we should probably take a look around and make sure there’s no signs of a break-in, just in case. Do you mind?”

“Of course not, but I’m sure I would have noticed something earlier. Given the security system, I don’t see how anyone could have gotten in.”

“As long as you don’t mind, I’ll go ahead and check it out. No harm, right?”

Johnson sidled off before anyone might want to stop him, and the Fletchers seized the opportunity to extricate themselves from a situation where they knew they couldn’t be of much help. As they launched into their goodbyes, feeding Townsend more premature assurances that everything would be okay, I caught up with Ray. Truth was, I didn’t want to be alone with Townsend, struggling like the Fletchers to avoid all those lame clich�s — this will all work out, only a silly misunderstanding, and other completely useless pronouncements suggesting the speaker had any clue as to how the night would end.

We hit the basement first. My basement is a dark, damp, dusty wreck of concrete and cinder block that my imagination has populated with thousands of spiders and their cobwebs. The Easterbrooks’ had been finished into a laundry room and a home gym that had better equipment than my health club. Not only did we not fine any bodies, blood, or guts, there weren’t even any windows to check. In place of the flimsy things that are so often kicked in for basement break-ins, the Easterbrooks had glass bricks.

Climbing back up the stairs, we could hear Townsend letting the Fletchers out the front door, so we headed up to the second floor, where Tara had Griffey in a bathroom off the main hallway. She was fighting to get a dog brush through the hair on his hind leg. Predictably, Griffey stood compliantly while Tara tried to avoid pulling his entire coat off by the roots.

She looked up at us from the tile floor, removing her hand from the brush to push her bangs from her forehead. The brush stayed entangled in poor Griffey’s coat. “I was just wondering whether I should show this to you. I thought he felt a little crusty downstairs when I was petting him, but it looks like he’s actually got something dried on his coat back here.”

Johnson knelt down and looked more closely at the side of Griffey’s hip. Then he reached into an interior pocket of his suit jacket, removed a latex glove, and slipped it over his right hand.

“Do you mind giving us a second, Ms. Carney?”

Tara seemed surprised by the request but left the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

“Looks like clay or something,” Johnson explained, “like he brushed up against it here on his side.”

“Shit. We should have gotten the crime lab over here immediately when the Fletchers called.”

I was beginning to panic. Why the hell hadn’t Johnson been on top of this? “Wasn’t obvious,” he said, responding to the unspoken question. “Until you’re certain what you’re dealing with, it’s hard to decide what kind of resources to put into it. Considering the small chance of any evidence off the dog, plus the likelihood that we’re dealing with a runaway wife, and it’s a tough call.”

It made sense, but it didn’t excuse the fact that we nearly allowed Tara Carney to take what might be our best piece of evidence so far and soak him in a bathtub.

Johnson flaked some of the beige paste from Griffey’s coat into an evidence bag, then marked it with his name and the date using a Sharpie pen.

Shit. What else had we missed? “I think we should go ahead and get the crime lab out here and search around Taylor’s Ferry. Everything about this feels bad.”

“Your call,” he said, pulling out his cell phone.

This new gig was going to take some getting used to.

Copyright © 2004 Alafair Burke