Black Rock Bay, page 11
“Was he asking about anything in particular?” Mia pressed.
“He talked to Joe—my boyfriend—about the winters a lot,” Quinn said. “Like if Joe was feeling sad or depressed and stuff like that. Isolated. The reporter kept using that word—‘isolated.’”
That rang true with what Patty had said. But was it a cover, like she’d insisted? Or were they linking the cases prematurely?
“Do you know anyone else who talked to him?” Mia asked. “Were they asked similar questions?”
“Ellen—Ellen Baxter, she’s a waitress at the Silver Spoon—had coffee with him,” Quinn said. “He paid for it and everything. Said he would expense it.”
Izzy couldn’t tell if the emphasis was derision or if Quinn was impressed.
“She said it was more of the same, though.” Quinn leaned forward, her forearms braced against the desk. “That he just kept talking about ‘isolation’ and death and winter.”
“Did he mention anything to you about what he was going to be doing on San Sebastian?” Mia asked. “Even offhand?”
Quinn’s eyes went distant, like she was combing through conversations, looking for information. “He was real creepy like. I think he mentioned . . . Do you remember that family?”
“On San Sebastian, maybe thirty years ago? It was a couple with a toddler. They killed the baby and then themselves,” Quinn said, an eagerness in the tilt of her words, the kind that coated the voice when discussing something particularly sensational and morbid. It happened with most people. Izzy was used to it by now, but it still left an unsettling feeling in its wake. “The guy was psycho, absolutely terrible.”
Mia shifted as well, and Quinn caught the movement. The excitement on Quinn’s face died in that instant at the clear signal that Mia was about to end the conversation. “Oh. Oh . . .”
“All right, thank you.” Mia stood before Quinn could get anything else out. The woman sat back against her chair, eyes wide. Maybe she’d been caught as off guard by their abrupt departure as Izzy had. “We’ll be in touch. Eventually, we’ll need a flight back to the mainland.”
“Of course,” Quinn said quietly, remaining seated even as Mia and Izzy started toward the front of the shop. “Actually, wait up.”
They paused, turned. Izzy’s eyebrows raised a silent prompt.
“I don’t know if it means anything . . .”
Izzy’s attention sharpened. From experience, when witnesses prefaced information with that, it usually did, in fact, mean something.
“But . . . ,” Mia prodded.
“I’m friends with Bobby Jane, one of Max Verdon’s daughters?” Quinn waited for Mia’s quick nod before continuing. “Well, she said her dad said the guy had been asking about an artist who had been on the island a few months ago. Tried to keep it real casual like, didn’t even mention his name or anything. But Max noted it, so.”
An artist. Like one who could have cycled through the residencies up at the Bell mansion. The place Robert Twist had apparently visited several times. The place Lacey Bell now lived. The place Martha Lowe thought Bix Bell was buried.
“That’s very helpful, thank you,” Mia said, in a way that would probably leave Quinn thinking the opposite. It was a good tactic. The quickest way to kill this kind of speculation was to make it seem boring, useless.
They saw themselves out the door.
Once they stepped outside, Mia stopped, then leaned against the wall of the ferry building, her head tipped back against the brick, the muscles in her throat rippling as she swallowed heavily. When her lashes fluttered open, her lips quirked up, but without humor.
“She had greedy eyes.”
There was no need for further explanation. Izzy knew what she was talking about. Quinn had reeked of it, that desire for gossip. It didn’t even seem malicious, just borne of boredom with daily life.
Mia looked away, toward Main Street, staring at something. Izzy followed her gaze to a diner situated at the corner of the block.
“Hey,” Mia said, pushing away from the wall. “Let’s get lunch.”
Lunch wasn’t just lunch, Izzy realized two minutes later when they stepped into the diner. A perky young woman with Shirley Temple curls and dimples in peachy cheeks that were more freckles than skin greeted them in passing, her arms weighed down with a heavy tray.
Once Izzy caught a glimpse of her name tag, she understood why they were stopping by.
Ellen Baxter. The waitress who had gotten coffee with Twist.
The dip and swing of her voice was nearly melodic as she directed them to take a seat “Wherever you like.”
“That’s the Ellen that Quinn mentioned?” Izzy asked as they shrugged off their jackets and slid into one of the booths.
Mia peeked over her shoulder and then turned back to the table to grab one of the menus. “Don’t ask her anything yet, okay?”
In the light pouring through the window, Izzy could see each sleepless night in the thin veins that crisscrossed beneath Mia’s eyes, saw the toll of being back on the island in the downward slant of her lips, in the lines by her mouth. Some of her careful mask worn down after her moment with Quinn.
Trauma and grief didn’t have an expiration date, and working this case had to be a shock to Mia’s system. It was understandable, but Izzy wondered just how much it was compromising Mia’s objectivity when it came to the case.
They waited in silence for the few minutes it took for Ellen to make her way toward the table. After they’d placed their order, Mia stopped Ellen before she could turn away.
“You didn’t grow up here, did you?”
The waitress’s smile dimmed, the dimples slipping so that her cheeks were smooth. “No, moved here a few years back.”
“When I was younger, I lived here,” Mia said. “I was just trying to place you but wasn’t sure.”
Ellen paled further. “I didn’t grow up here.”
The reaction was out of sync with Mia’s casual tone. Hunted. Ellen looked hunted. But they’d barely asked her any questions yet.
By now Izzy was realizing that most people on the island probably knew exactly who they were and what they were after. But this was small talk. Only someone who was hiding something would flinch over it.
“Ah, okay.” Mia’s tone was still relaxed, but Izzy could tell she was surprised as well. “How do you like St. Lucy’s?”
Ellen took a step away from their table, her flight instinct obviously triggered. “If I can’t get you guys anything else?” But it wasn’t really a question, as she was almost out of range of a normal conversation by the time she finished the sentence.
They’d played the interaction wrong. Mia had played the interaction wrong.
It didn’t happen often, not for Mia. But maybe Ellen’s sunny facade had thrown her.
“Actually.” Mia stopped Ellen before she could retreat to the kitchen completely. “You can get us some answers to a few questions.”
Any last traces of warmth that had been left seeped out. “I don’t think I have any of those.”
Mia sighed and dipped a hand into an inner pocket. She pulled out her badge, held up the leather case, ID facing out. “Now how about those questions.”
Ellen’s arms came up again, her fingers digging into the bare flesh. Her uniform was inexplicably short sleeved, an old-fashioned-type yellow dress with stiff fabric that never fit anyone correctly.
There was a battle being waged behind those shuttered eyes. The girl could still resist, force them to get a warrant. Or she could give them what were probably half truths and lies anyway. The choice seemed obvious to Izzy.
Ellen’s gaze swept the room once, her shoulders tense as she tried to make herself small. “Not here. I’ll take my smoke break. Meet me in the alley in five.”
Dropping two twenties on the table, Mia slid out of the booth, and Izzy followed. They headed outside and then took a hard right into the small alleyway behind the diner.
She glanced at them but didn’t say anything as she leaned against the diner’s wall and attempted to light her cigarette. On the third try the flame took, and the slim stick shook in her hands.
“I don’t know what I can tell you,” Ellen finally said, holding the cigarette near her leg instead of bringing it to her lips.
“You know we’re looking into Robert Twist’s death,” Mia started, gentle, like she was trying not to spook a skittish animal.
Ellen jerked her head in a quick affirmative but didn’t look at either of them. Izzy had the impression she would sink back into the wall if she could.
“Can you tell us about him? We heard he talked to you. Took you to coffee.”
At the last bit, Ellen flinched. Then clearly tried to hide the reaction.
They were all bundled, hands gloved and shoved in pockets, chins dipping beneath the collars of their coats in a vain hope that it would keep their faces protected.
The back alley in the middle of winter left a lot to be desired for an interview space.
“I don’t know what there is to tell,” Ellen said. “He hit on me when he first got here. I finally agreed to get coffee with him.”
“Was it a personal interest, or did he want to talk to you about the story he was working on?”
The girl swallowed, a flush of pink riding along her cheekbones. Embarrassment. Or they were just chapped from the wind. Could be either.
“I thought it was a date until he started asking about you.”
And so another confirmation that Twist was digging into that night at the lighthouse.
“What was he asking?” Izzy chimed in. Ellen’s attention swung toward her, eyes wide, pupils dilated. It was as if she’d forgotten there was a threat to her right side as well. She stared at Izzy, frozen, then looked back at Mia.
“If I knew you.”
Mia’s head tipped. “But you didn’t. What would there have been to say?”
“Knew of you.” It was muttered under her breath.
Izzy was reminded of Patty last night. People always ask questions about Mia. No wonder she hadn’t returned to St. Lucy’s.
“Oh yeah? And what did you know about me?”
There was a pause, and Ellen’s arm came up to wrap around her midsection. Comfort, defensiveness. The other hand still held the unsmoked but lit cigarette.
“What people say about you,” Ellen said, a tremor in her voice. “That you . . .”
Mia and Izzy waited. In the silence Ellen’s chin tipped up. False bravado?
“Did you? Did you kill them?”
The intensity with which Ellen was watching Mia made Izzy wonder what kind of past Ellen had. Ellen’s eyes were greedy but not the same way Quinn’s had been. This . . . this was tragedy—guilt even—searching for a companion.
Mia huffed out a breath beside Izzy. It seemed more of an are you serious with that question than an admission of any kind.
“No,” Mia said, and Izzy hated herself for how she listened for any hesitation.
Ellen’s eyes went blank once more.
“How often did you see Robert when he was here?” Izzy asked, hoping to right the dynamics of this interview.
“Three times, maybe four.”
That seemed like a lot for a date that hadn’t turned out to be a date. “You went out with him again after that first coffee?”
Ellen turned to study Izzy’s face, searching for a trap maybe. “Yes.”
“Did you go to his cabin?”
The blush on Ellen’s cheeks deepened, but she didn’t blink. “Yes.”
“Did he talk to you about the interviews he was conducting?” Mia asked.
Ellen jerked her shoulder. “Just how frustrated he was that no one would talk.”
That seemed to be a given.
“No one talks here, though,” Ellen continued.
“They talk about me,” Mia countered.
“Yeah, well, only when they think I’m not listening.” The words bent toward bitterness, and Izzy could relate. It was common ground she could exploit.
“Do people talk about other things when they think you’re not listening?”
“A lot of people talking about a lot of things these days,” Ellen said, lifting her cigarette to tap the ash. She still didn’t bring it to her lips. “Robert stirred up the whole town.”
“What were they saying?”
“Just the normal stuff. About that night. Those girls who came to the island.”
“The Bell girls,” Mia clarified.
Ellen nodded her confirmation. “About their parents, too.”
There was an edge to Mia’s voice. “What about them?”
“No one knows where they are really.” Ellen lifted a shoulder, clearly not invested. But she’d relaxed since the conversation had moved away from her direct involvement. She probably was eager to keep them headed in this direction rather than circling back. “How they’d always been strange.”
“Strange how?” Izzy asked, because it didn’t seem odd to her that they hadn’t returned to the island where their daughter had died.
“Rumors about what they did up in that mansion.” Ellen peeked at her beneath heavy eyelashes. “With all those drifters about.”
Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, Izzy guessed. That kind of environment was bound to attract gossip like that. Again, none of it raised red flags. “Anything else?”
Ellen stared at the ground, her breathing gone a little shallow. She’d been holding herself so tight, so rigid, that she was almost shaking with the effort. People got this way around cops sometimes, even when they weren’t guilty of anything. Those people usually had a past.
Ah. That name was becoming familiar.
“What about him?” Mia asked.
“He was talking to Jimmy about the Bells.”
That name kept popping up, too. Izzy added him to her list of people of interest.
Ellen rolled her eyes. It was so unlike every other guarded moment that it was almost startling. “Is there any other Jimmy?”
“Okay,” Mia said. “They mentioned the Bells? Charles and Bix.”
“Cash had asked Jimmy to find their current address.” Ellen finally slipped the cigarette between her lips. They were going to lose her soon.
“Why’d he ask Jimmy?”
Ellen didn’t answer right away. Instead, she dropped the cigarette to the ground, where it sizzled against the snow. At their curious looks, Ellen gestured toward her hair, her clothes.
“I don’t smoke. I just need to smell like I took a cig break.”
And that was just as telling as the rest of the interview. Because normal people lying, they don’t think that deep. They tell their bosses they’re going for a smoke break and then do whatever the hell they’re trying to do for fifteen minutes before returning, smelling nothing of ash and burned lungs.
Ellen was hiding something. Ellen was scared. But even after all that, Izzy didn’t think it had anything to do with the Twist case. That was just her gut speaking, though, and what did her gut know?
“Anyway, Jimmy was there that night, you know.” Ellen started shifting toward the door. “The night at the lighthouse.”
A flicker of something crossed Mia’s face, but Izzy couldn’t read it. Her best guess was surprise.
“Did Jimmy know where they were? The Bells?”
Ellen shook her head. “Told Cash to ask that girlfriend of his.”
“And who would that be?” Mia asked.
There was a beat of silence, and Izzy leaned forward, her body recognizing the confused silence from Ellen before her mind processed that she should be braced for a kick.
“Lacey Bell,” Ellen said slowly, as if their ignorance was somehow a trick.
Ellen’s eyes swung between them, before landing on Izzy. “Said it was a sore subject with her. Didn’t want to bring it up. Tragic history and all.” There was something about the way she said it that hinted at animosity rather than sympathy.
“You’re not friends with her, I take it,” Izzy guessed.
“Define ‘friends.’” Ellen pushed off the wall. She was done.
“That’s a no.”
“That’s a your time’s up, Detectives,” Ellen said with an authority that was at odds with the abused, frightened persona she’d adopted during most of the interview. There were complexities there, maybe a hardness they might be foolish to discount. “You can take anything else up with my lawyer. Cash Bishop. Think you might know him already.”
She was good enough to know not to wait for a response to that perfect parting line.
Mia watched the door slam shut as she bounced a little on her toes to restore feeling.
Ellen’s perfume still lingered, but underneath it was something acidic. Something that smelled like fear.
“Scared,” Izzy muttered beneath her breath.
“Very,” Mia agreed. But there was more to it than that.
Did you kill them? No one had ever asked her that before. Straight-out like that.
Mia blinked and swayed, the world going a little hazy. It was happening with more frequency these days, where she seemed to disconnect with reality for a heartbeat.
She still hadn’t eaten today, hadn’t slept last night. The insomnia was an old companion, almost comforting in its familiarity. Days and nights and eternities were lived in those hours, those hated hours where mindless infomercials and empty streets became her only friends.
Even when her limbs ached, a deep and restless throb, her mind three paces behind, tripping over nonexistent cracks because of exhaustion, her body would fight sleep. If she lay down on the bed, anxiety would slip into her veins and she’d be worse off for even trying. Sometimes the only rest she got was when she dozed off in a chair or at her desk, desperately clinging to consciousness. Her body liked a good fight. Her body liked winning.