Iced Malice, page 9
“Is it the one who always sat in Karla’s section and talked with her a lot?”
“Yeah. Karla talked about him sometimes. Said he was nice.”
“So he wasn’t threatening at all? Karla didn’t feel like he was hitting on her?”
“Not that she ever said. I think she would have told me. Or at least said something to Stephanie.”
“What did you want to tell me about him?”
“She was late to work one time because of her car. It’s a real piece of junk, but it’s all she can afford. He was there that night and told her he knew a guy who was selling a car that she might be interested in. It was old, so not too expensive and his friend kept it in good shape. He offered to take her to see it”
“Did she go with him?”
“I told her to wait until I could look it over for her. She didn’t know crap about cars.”
“So she didn’t go?”
“I don’t think so. She was mad at me about leaving on spring break, and when I left, she said goodbye, but other than that she was barely speaking to me.”
“But she might have looked at the car?”
“I asked her friends about it. If she did, she didn’t tell anybody.”
“Did she ever mention the man’s name, the one who told her about the car?”
“Just his first name. It was Glen something. I can’t remember his last name. But she said he’s a manager at that big grocery store across from Hom Furniture.”
Kendall found Glen Jaeger in the breakroom of Festive Foods. She’d called ahead and arranged to meet him, but didn’t state the reason for the visit. The room, surprisingly orderly, held a few tables, a large magazine rack, and two refrigerators, along with various snack and soda machines. The air smelled of microwave popcorn.
A man wearing dark slacks, a golf shirt, and a red jacket sporting the store’s logo rose to greet her. He looked like he would never see his forties again, and she estimated his height at about five foot ten. When he held out his hand she noticed he had a small tic under his right eye.
“Mr. Jaeger, is there somewhere we could talk in private?”
He led her to a small office off a hallway behind the produce department. She introduced herself and showed him her ID. “You’ve probably guessed why I’m here.”
“About Karla, right? I couldn’t believe it when I saw her picture on the news—it was horrible. I haven’t been able to go back to Perkins since. She was a nice girl and an excellent server.”
“Did it occur to you to call us?”
“Not really. I didn’t know anything. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt her.”
“Did you ever see her outside of the restaurant?”
“I saw her here a couple times. She stopped in here for a few things now and then.”
“And did you talk to her here in the store?”
“I was usually too busy to do anything but say hello or wave.”
“I understand you gave her a tip for a used car. Do you know if she looked at the car?” Kendall didn’t mention that she knew he’d offered to take Karla to see it.
“No. I never talked to her after I told her about it. I gave her a phone number.”
As far as Kendall knew, Karla hadn’t mentioned that fact to her boyfriend or her friends. She’d have to ask if the number had shown up with Karla’s things or at her apartment. Kendall found it hard to believe Jaeger wouldn’t have asked the guy if Karla had looked at the car. She had Jaeger write down the man’s name, phone number, and address.
“In your conversations with Karla, did she ever tell you there was anything or anyone she was afraid of?”
“No, never. The last time I talked to her she said her boyfriend was renting a motor home with some other guys from school and they were going south in it for spring break. Karla couldn’t afford to go and she was mad at him for going without her.”
“Anything else you can remember?”
Jaeger smoothed back a strand of brown hair laced with gray. “Just that she said she’d get even with him. She was going to go out with another guy while he was gone.”
“Did she say who?”
“No. I don’t think she had anyone particular in mind.”
“Did you offer to take her out?”
Jaeger’s tic accelerated. “No, of course not. I’m old enough to be her father.”
Or her grandfather, Kendall thought.
She left Jaeger, picked up a few groceries on her way out and then drove to the address he’d given her. The address was that of an apartment building not far from the store Jaeger worked in. A young woman answered the door. Her husband, who managed another local food chain and used to work with Jaeger, wasn’t home. She told Kendall they had sold the car the day after they put it on Craigslist, and no, Karla hadn’t come to look at it. Not alone or with Jaeger. She gave Kendall the name of the man who purchased the vehicle.
If the car sale checked out, this was one more dead end.
The sun was just going down, the sky filled with heavy clouds. At least it wasn’t supposed to snow. Brynn had her learner’s permit but wasn’t supposed to be driving alone yet. However, bridge game her mother was at tonight wouldn’t break up until at least eleven, and now that Brynn had established herself in her mother’s life again, she had easy access to the house and the cars. Eileen had promised the Prius to Brynn when she got her official license and Brynn was taking early advantage of the gift. Her mother’s Prius was easy to drive, and Brynn carefully took all the back roads leading to Cadott.
Brynn drove into a long driveway that led to the dog kennels and the tidy ranch home of Daniel Simington, the biological father of Mackenzie Dixon, the girl who’d been killed in Wetzel’s accident.
Brynn dressed carefully for this meeting with Simington. Before their trip, Eileen bought her a pair of tinted contacts that would protect her eyes from the unrelenting rays of the south-of-the-equator sun. They were brown, and with the honey blonde wig her mother had bought her to go with it, Brynn’s appearance changed dramatically.
She’d lied to Simington on the phone and told him she was doing a follow-up article on him for the blog that interviewed him after the accident. Now she had two things to feel guilty about.
Brynn wasn’t sure what to ask the man; she just wanted to find out what had really happened to Wetzel. She was convinced he’d been murdered, because she hadn’t seen the cards turn out as explicit a message since she did the readings for the Glausson woman and her daughter last year at the psychic fair.
If there was another murderer out there, Brynn wanted him stopped. She stepped out of the car wearing a pair of slacks and a blazer bought at Goodwill that she hoped would look professional. Guilt created by her broken promise to Kendall niggled at her, but not hard enough to make her turn around and head for home.
She was greeted by a cacophony of barking dogs as she walked to the house. Simington opened the door before she could press the doorbell. He looked like his picture. A small man, he was barely five foot eight, wiry, with a large, bushy mustache in a light brown shade that matched the ring of hair circling his shiny head.
“Hello, Brynn,” he said. She hadn’t bothered to give a fake name.
He led her to a breakfast nook off the kitchen where he had two places set with mugs and napkins. The middle of the table held a large platter of brownies with different kinds of frosting.
“I have coffee ready. Hope you like decaf.” He filled their mugs and set out sugar and creamer. Brynn wasn’t a fan of coffee, but wanted to appear friendly and filled her cup with enough creamer and sugar to kill the taste. She plucked a brownie from the tray, one with fluffy white frosting and coconut on top.
“You know,” he said, “before we start, I need to tell you that since the first time your blog interviewed me, I’ve become a different man.”
Brynn wasn’t sure what he meant, but she knew that people told you the most when you were quiet. She took a bite of the b
“I had a hard time after my wife divorced me. Not that I blamed her. I wasn’t a very good husband or father. We got married young, and I hadn’t sowed my wild oats, I guess. I went out with my buddies too much when I should have been home with my family. I lost my job and really hit bottom for a while. But here I am; I pulled myself out of it, and I started this business. I’m not rich, but I have everything I need. My girlfriend lives in town and she spends most weekends here and helps out with the record keeping. Life is good again.”
“What did you think about Charles Wetzel freezing to death?” She decided to get right to the point.
“I can’t lie; there was a time I would have been dancing around my living room when I heard that news. Now it just seems like a waste. He was a young man whose life was ruined by that accident. Just like the other kids in the car.”
“Did the police talk to you after Wetzel died?”
“No, they didn’t. Why would they? It was an accident.”
“Some people think it might not have been.”
“I thought about that, too. What if someone wanted him to pay for what he had done? The police must think it was an accident or they would have been looking for me. Luckily, I had an open house here that night. Not many people showed up because of the weather, but a couple from Wausau couldn’t get their car started when they were ready to leave, so I took them home. My girlfriend Kathy was with me, and they treated us to pizza when we got there. We didn’t leave Wausau until after midnight and had to drive home in a blizzard. Took two hours.”
Brynn suddenly felt tongue-tied. This hadn’t been a good idea. She just didn’t have the right skills for getting people to talk. “These are really good brownies.”
“Made them myself.” He grinned. “Cooking is something else I’ve learned to do. I don’t think I ever lifted a finger to help while I was married to Mac’s mother. Sometimes I wonder why she stayed with me as long as she did.”
“Was there anyone else from that time who would have it in for Charles Wetzel?”
“Sure—the other parents of the kids in his car. Who else would care enough about the accident to do that to him?”
Brynn swallowed the last piece of brownie and hoped it would give her the nerve to ask what she’d really come for now that he’d given her the right opening. “How about Alice, your ex-wife?”
“Allie? You must be kidding. She wanted him to pay for what he did all right—she wanted him behind bars for the rest of his life. We don’t stay in touch often, but once in a while she calls me in the middle of the night, crying about our daughter and her son. Her second husband, the boy’s father, left her about a year after the accident. I can’t really blame the guy; he was really torn up about their son.”
He paused here and refilled their coffee while Brynn waited with one of the dogs leaning against her knee. She ran her hand over its silky head and the dog rested its head on Brynn’s knee, hungry for more affection. Or maybe a brownie.
Simington grinned. “That’s Shirley. She sure has taken a liking to you. Anyway, Allie feels like it’s all her fault that the kids were even in the car that night, and she just can’t get over it. She works, keeps her house clean, and goes to her support groups every week. That’s it. I don’t think those meetings do much for her, but she gets to talk about it, over and over again. I told her I didn’t think it was healthy, that she needed to get out and do something fun; not to forget, of course, but to let go.”
“Which support groups does she go to?”
“One of them is for parents who have lost a child. It’s through the hospital, but they meet at some church. She joined a national group too, the one run by mothers who lost kids to drunk drivers. Allie drives all the way to Beloit for their monthly meetings. I think they just keep her riled up. There’s another one too, I think it’s a grief support group.”
That was it. Alice Dixon, “Allie,” formerly Alice Simington, couldn’t get over her children’s’ deaths. Obsession made people do strange things, bad things. Brynn knew all about that and nearly died because of a teenage girl’s obsession. It was time for her to leave. She had what she’d come for. She thanked Simington for letting her talk to him and promised she wouldn’t put anything about his ex-wife in what she wrote.
Simington insisted on wrapping some brownies for her to take home and then walked her out to her car, followed by all three of his Staffordshire terriers. He called them Staffies, and told her if she ever wanted a dog, they were a wonderful breed, friendly and smart. The dogs clustered around her as she talked to Simington, each pushing for his share of attention whenever Brynn petted one of them. They were nice, especially Shirley, but she had to tell him that she couldn’t have a dog because of her cat, Malkin. Malkin hated dogs.
Brynn’s apartment was dark when Kendall got home with her groceries. Weary, it took every bit of her remaining energy just to unload the few items she had purchased after talking to Glen Jaeger. She put it all away and then scoped out her refrigerator and chose a carton of butter pecan ice cream—sweet, comforting and no preparation necessary. After settling in front of the TV, Kendall dug into the cold treat. Just as she scraped out the last bite, there was a soft knock on her door. She rose to answer it, expecting to see Brynn.
Shari Nashlund, Nash’s soon-to-be ex-wife, stood there dressed as if she’d just run out of the house, her feet still encased in a pair of blue terrycloth slippers. Kendall’s stomach, with its slurry of ice cream, churned. Shari’s appearance here couldn’t be good news. Had Nash changed his mind about their divorce?
“Can I come in?” Shari asked.
Kendall led her inside. “Can I make you some coffee?”
Shari’s voice wavered. “No, I don’t think so.”
Shari’s eyes looked like she’d been crying. Kendall waited for her to speak, for once not intimidated by the other woman’s smallness. Was it Ryan? It couldn’t be Nash. Someone from the Milwaukee police would have contacted her. Finally, Kendall asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s about Nash,” Shari began, her eyes tearing. I didn’t want to tell you on the phone. A lieutenant from Milwaukee called me.”
They called Shari? Kendall felt sick with dread. This was not a time to be offended because she hadn’t been the one they called; officially, Shari was still his wife. Kendall felt like a knife had sliced into her gut. Nash must be injured—she couldn’t wrap her mind around anything worse.
“Tell me,” Kendall insisted, thinking she didn’t really want to know.
“The assignment Nash was working on wrapped up three days ago. What they did will never be made public, but they said that Nash and the rest of the team are heroes. They wouldn’t tell me any details, just that we should be proud of his work on the team. They saved thousands of lives.” She choked on the last words.
Kendall, her knees like jelly, ushered Shari over to the sofa and sat next to her. “What about Nash, is he all right?”
“He didn’t come back in from undercover, and the others don’t know where he is. They think he’s dead.” She began sobbing. Kendall reached for her and took her in her arms. Dammit. She should be the one being comforted, not Shari.
Her brain couldn’t make sense of what she’d heard. She’d known nothing about what they were working on but had suspected an affiliation with Homeland Security. Nash couldn’t be dead; Kendall would have felt it. His death would be like losing a twin, that was how close she’d become to him.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t do this,” Shari said, drawing away from Kendall and wiping her face with a tissue. “I haven’t even told Ryan yet. God, how am I going to tell him his father’s not coming back?”
“You don’t know Nash isn’t coming back,” Kendall snapped, then softened and said, “We don’t know what happened—not yet. I’ll make some calls and see what I can find out, okay?”
“Do you know where Ryan is tonight?”
“Why don’t you call him and have him come here? If you like, we can tell him together.”
Shari and Ryan left Kendall’s apartment after midnight. Brynn stopped in after ten—surprised to find them there—and left after being informed Nash was missing. Kendall saw that Brynn was upset by the news, but was feeling less and less like supporting everyone else while she craved nothing but a good cry without observers. Besides, she wanted to call TJ in Milwaukee, hoping that she could put her in touch with Detective Conlin. He wouldn’t be able to tell her much, if anything, but there were always whispers and gossip in a police station.
Kendall called their number the minute the door closed behind Shari and Ryan. Conlin answered the phone quickly.
“Hi, this is Detective Halsrud calling from Eau Claire.”
“Kendall, I’m sorry about Nash,” Conlin said. “I just heard about it today.”
Kendall had met TJ Peacock, a private investigator, and her boyfriend, Richard Conlin, a Milwaukee detective, a year ago when she followed the trail of a missing girl to their area. Conlin had put in a word for Nash when he was trying to get back into police work in a bigger city. Now Kendall wished she’d never told Nash that she knew someone on the Milwaukee force. “I’m hoping you might know something about it. All they told his ex-wife was that he was missing.”
“I can’t tell you any more than that either.” The detective hesitated few seconds. “My guess is it had something to do with national security, but that’s not based on anything I know for sure. I do know one of the guys on the team, that’s how I heard they needed another person in the first place. I’ll try to talk to him for you, but don’t count on getting any feedback from him. These undercover guys are good at keeping things quiet.”
Kendall hated to ask her next question, but did anyway. “Thanks. I appreciate your help no matter what. I have to ask you, though—do you think his being missing means he’s dead?”
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