Vineyard stalker, p.5

Vineyard Stalker, page 5

 

Vineyard Stalker
 


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  “You took the pictures. That’s about all you’ll have to say.” She looked at her watch. “You can see all three of them today. You have plenty of time. I think you should start with my cousin Sally. She’s right here in town. Will you do it?”

  I thought she was right about having one more day before the cops had to be called in.

  “It might be good to have the photos developed first, so we know what we have,” I said.

  “Actually, it may not make any difference,” said Carole. “What’s important is that they believe we have the photos.”

  She was probably right, especially since the prowler might be unidentifiable. “If we have a face to show them, we’ll have a stronger argument,” I said, feeling stubborn.

  “You can drop the film off downtown right now,” she said. “They have a fast service and you can pick the photos up in an hour, before you go see Sally.”

  “Where will I find her?”

  She gave me an ironic smile. “In a realty office, where else? Prada Real Estate, right up the street.”

  There were a lot of Pradas in Edgartown. Several of them worked for the town, but one, at least, had gotten into a more lucrative profession.

  “Who are the other two suspects?” I asked.

  “Give me a minute,” she said, and opened a file cabinet. In not much more than the requested minute, she pushed two eight-by-eleven envelopes toward me. “Names, ranks, and serial numbers.”

  I opened one envelope. In it were typed pages and photographs. “This is a pretty good dossier.”

  “The long arm of real estate,” said Carole. “We know everything and everybody.”

  She leaned forward. “Well, are we still in business?”

  “For today, at least.”

  “Thank you.”

  “One more thing.”

  “What?”

  “Where is your brother working?”

  She told me and I left her office with the camera. Because I’d been lucky enough to get a parking space, and was unlikely to find one farther downtown, I walked to the photo shop.

  “Well, J.W.,” said Sam, the proprietor, when I handed him the camera, “are you in the Carpe Noctis business now?”

  “Not so you’d notice. I don’t trust myself to unload this camera, so I’m going to let you do it. And I’d like to see the prints in an hour or so, after I feed my cats. Can you manage all that?”

  “I can indeed,” said Sam. “Feed them well.”

  I drove home and found Oliver Underfoot and Velcro irked by having been abandoned for the night, but in a forgiving mood, especially when I refilled their dishes and gave them fresh water.

  “It won’t be long before everybody’s home,” I said to them. “Only a few more days.”

  They thought that was good news.

  I watched them eat, tails in the air as they scoffed up their food, and I thought of the can of food left by the prowler. I hoped I was wrong about the poison, but stories of cat killers are not rare and I couldn’t forget the remark I’d heard as I lay dazed on the ground. I could understand and sometimes forgive people killing other people, but I had no grasp of cat killers. Such people were a cruel and dismaying mystery to me.

  And in this case, I now realized, the possibility that the prowlers were willing to poison Mr. Mephistopheles was one reason I was still on the job. I wanted them stopped, not because they’d shot me—that was understandable, given the circumstances—but because I suspected they were cat killers.

  By such small emotions are our lives changed. I once read about a diplomat who was so offended by Hitler’s halitosis that he couldn’t bear to talk with him and thereby lost a chance to try to prevent the invasion of Poland. Just as Hitler’s bad breath may have caused World War II, so my suspicions led me into trouble I might otherwise have avoided.

  I went out to the garden and picked enough beans for supper, then drove back to Edgartown. Along the bike paths the galloping moms were pushing their tri-wheeled baby carriages and walkers were taking their morning constitutionals while dodging the occasional amateur biker. The probikers in their skintight pants and racing helmets of course scorned the bike paths and insisted on riding on the highway. Bike paths were too slow and dangerous for them; they didn’t want to dodge walkers and families on rented bikes, they preferred to force irritated automobile drivers to dodge them.

  Prada Real Estate had a small parking lot behind the office. I left my truck there beside a lovely little Mini Cooper and walked down to the photo shop.

  The photos were ready and I gave them a quick study. They were not Pulitzer contenders, but a couple did show the shadowy face of the prowler as he’d glanced my way for some reason. In one shot, I could see the cat food can in his hand, and in another he was placing the can on the ground beside the cabin.

  I showed the best shot of the prowler’s face to Sam, the proprietor. “You know this guy, by any chance?”

  Sam looked and shook his head. “Looks like one of those Seals or Special Forces guys who sneak onto beaches in the movies. That black cap and the black clothes and that black face camouflage. You a combat photographer or something like that these days, J.W.? Is Martha’s Vineyard being invaded by the Marines?”

  “Nothing like that. Just somebody sneaking around at night.”

  “And you caught him in the act, eh?”

  “The camera isn’t mine,” I said. “I just brought it down here for a friend who wants to know who the guy is.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” said Sam. He studied the photo again and added, “I doubt if anybody else can, either, what with all the stuff the guy’s got on his face.”

  “Can you make me some more copies of these?”

  “Sure.”

  When he came back with the copies, I said, “You’re a photo pro. Do you happen to know anybody who can clean that camouflage off this guy’s face? I read someplace that they can do that sort of thing with computers these days.”

  “They can do almost anything with computers these days,” said Sam. “I’m not a photo manipulator myself, but I know a guy who is. Lives right here in town, in fact. He can erase what you don’t want and add what you do and you’d never know the picture had been changed. You want me to see what he can do with these?”

  I gave him the best photos. “Give him these and let’s see what he can come up with. The quicker the better.”

  Sam grinned. “I’ll tell him it has to do with Homeland Security. That might speed him up.”

  “Tell him whatever you want, Sam.” I thanked him and carried the camera and the rest of the photos back up the street and stashed them in the truck. Then I went into the Prada Real Estate office. Looking at the little Mini Cooper, I remembered when VW Beetles were all the rage and Beetle drivers would hold rallies to celebrate their cars. I’d heard that Mini Cooper people did the same. We are odd animals.

  A neatly dressed receptionist eyed me and put a smile on her face even though I did not have the look of a normal customer-to-be since I get most of my clothes from the thrift shop. On the other hand, there are a lot of scruffy millionaires around these days, so she couldn’t be sure who she was talking to. I told her I wanted to speak to Sally Oliver. She said that Ms. Oliver was with a customer and asked if she could be of any assistance. I said no, I wanted to see only Sally Oliver. She smiled and said of course and asked me my name. Then she spoke into a phone, apologizing for intruding and saying there was a Mr. Jackson waiting. She listened and hung up and waved me to a chair. I wondered if it hurt her face to smile so much.

  It was another room adorned with pictures of houses, buildings, and properties available for purchase. This one, however, also included photographs of an attractive and muscular young woman running, swimming, biking, and accepting a trophy. The magazines mostly dealt with home design, architecture, lifestyles of people far richer than I was, and gourmet cooking. I was reading one of the latter, amazed at how long and complex some recipes could be, when an office door
across the room opened and a large young woman, who was surely the same one in the photographs, ushered a middle-aged man out with many a smile and encouraging word. When the man was gone, she turned to me and said, “Please come in, Mr. Jackson.” She put out a manicured hand. “I’m Sally Oliver. How may I help you?”

  Her hand was powerful but businesslike and somehow friendly. Did people teach you how to shake hands like that in real estate school? Was there a course in hand shaking? In smiling? In looking honest and concerned and caring? If so, Sally Oliver had graduated cum laude.

  “I have an interest in some land in West Tisbury,” I said, after she’d shut the door behind us and we’d taken chairs across her desk from one another. “I’d like to talk with you about it.” Sally Oliver’s eyes lit up. I must have said the magic words.

  6

  “Of course,” she said. “Are you buying or selling? We handle purchases and sales all over the island. Tell me about the property you’re considering. Perhaps I’m familiar with it.”

  “I believe you are,” I said, and told her where it was. “A cousin of yours lives there. His name is Roland Nunes.”

  Her warm smile cooled a few degrees.

  “What is it that you’re getting at, Mr. Jackson? Are you interested in buying the land?”

  I didn’t deny it. Instead, I said, “I’m here because I think that as a trustee of that land you should know what’s been going on up there. Are you aware of the vandalism that’s occurred?”

  Her eyes became hooded. “Vandalism?”

  “You don’t know about it?”

  She eased back in her chair and her voice became careful. “No. My cousin and I aren’t in close contact. What’s happened?”

  I told her of the damage to the garden and the shed, and of the dead skunk in the water barrel.

  “And what’s your interest in this, Mr. Jackson?”

  “I was asked to go up there with an infrared camera and get photographs of whoever was doing the damage. I did that.” I put the photo of the prowler on her desk. “I have more of these, but this one’s typical. Do you know this person?”

  She seemed torn between curiosity and caution, and didn’t look at the photo although one hand inched toward it before she drew it back. “Why do you think I might? What are you suggesting?”

  I skipped the most obvious reason and created another one that might actually be true. “My guess is that whoever hired the guy in this picture is trying to scare your cousin away. Probably to scare him into selling. You’re the trustee of the land. You may be next on his list.”

  She looked at the photo but still didn’t touch it. “Why would I know this man?”

  “He knows who your cousin is and he may know you. If he does, you may know him. Do you?”

  She finally picked up the photo. “Does Roland recognize him?”

  “You’re the first to see the picture. I just had it developed. Roland sees it next.”

  She studied the camouflaged face, then shook her head. “I can’t really tell what he looks like. Do you know who he is?”

  “No.”

  “What’s he doing?”

  “He’s putting a can of cat food on the ground beside your cousin’s cabin. A cat lives with your cousin. I suspect the food in that can contains poison. I’m having it tested.”

  She stared. “He tried to kill the cat!? I have a cat!”

  I didn’t think there was a real estate class in how to look horrified, so I took advantage of her shock and told her about my chase after the prowler and its abrupt ending. “The point is,” I then said, “that these guys are not kidding around. One of them considered killing me right there while they had the chance and the other one’s only argument for not doing it was that they hadn’t been paid to kill anyone yet. Emphasis on yet. Your cousin is in somebody’s sights and you may be too. You’re sure you don’t recognize this guy?”

  “Anybody who would poison a cat would do anything!”

  Like many people, both men and women, she was more appalled by cruelty to an animal than to a human being. My problem was not knowing if she was shocked because the prowler was both cruel and unknown to her or because he had used techniques she hadn’t imagined when she hired him.

  “The cat is fine,” I said. “But we don’t know what will happen next. Look at the photo again. Take off that camouflage in your imagination. See the face underneath it. Have you seen that person before?”

  She put her teeth over her lip and stared and frowned and shook her head. “No, I don’t recognize him.”

  “There are experts who can clear that gunk off his face,” I said, not knowing if I was right, “and I’ve gotten my photos to one of them today. Once we ID this guy, we can learn who he’s working for. After that the police will make some arrests and this business will be done.”

  “Do you really know someone who can strip away that makeup?”

  “Sure,” I lied, “but it may take a day or two to get it done, and we may not have that long before more violence occurs. You might be able to save us some time.”

  “How?”

  “Can you think of anyone who’s so interested in getting that piece of land that he’d hire a couple of thugs to frighten your cousin into selling?”

  “No! I don’t know anyone who’d do a thing like that!” Her voice was firm, but her eyes looked full of thoughts.

  “I’m going to be talking with the people on either side of the land where your cousin lives. Can you tell me anything about them?”

  She seemed almost offended. “You’re off base there. Neither of them would break the law just to get the land. They’re both rich enough to buy what they want legally.”

  “Not unless the owner can sell what they want to buy, and in this case it’s my understanding that your cousin doesn’t plan on moving.”

  She grew angry. “But I want him to. You know that, don’t you? You know that I want to sell the land. Is that why you’re really here? Because you think I hired those killers? Is that it?”

  “They aren’t killers yet. At least they haven’t killed anybody that I know about.”

  I watched her anger flare like fire then slowly ebb and become smoldering coals of resentment. “If you think I hired them, why are you here? Why are you telling me all this? Why did you show me your precious photograph?” She flipped the photo back onto the desk.

  “I don’t know who hired them,” I said, “but whoever it was should know I’ve got the photos and that I plan to ID the guy in the pictures and that when I do he’ll tell the cops who hired him and that person will be smart to deny everything and drop the whole plan before he does something that’ll land him in jail. Tell me about the people who live beside your cousin. All I know about them is that they like stone walls and can afford to build long ones.”

  She became sulky. “You think that I did it. You think that I hired those men.”

  I felt like a bully. “If you didn’t, you’re in the clear. If you did, you aren’t.”

  “I didn’t!”

  “I’ve never said you did, but if the police get into this they’ll be interested in asking you some questions because you’re bound to be on their short list of suspects.”

  “The police?” Her brow knotted.

  I retrieved the photo, and decided it was time for the carrot.

  “Look,” I said, “I want to keep the police out of this, too, but I need your help. Can you think of anyone who might have hired those men? If we can find the employer, both you and Roland will be better off.”

  “I honestly can’t think of anyone. I wish I could help.”

  “You’re sure it’s not the abutters? They both want the land, I’m told.”

  “No. I’ve met them both, and I don’t think they’re the sort who’d do such a thing. They’d be more likely to offer so much money to Roland that he couldn’t afford not to move. Then they’d buy the land from me.” She frowned at me. “By the way, just who are you working for? You seem to know a lot about
Roland and me. How’d you find out about the prowler?” She grew bolder. “Are you a private detective of some sort? Do you have some identification I can see?”

  “I’m not any sort of licensed investigator,” I said. “I was asked by a private party to photograph the intruder and I was told what I know about the situation by the person who hired me.”

  “And who was that?”

  “If you wish, I’ll ask if I can reveal my client’s identity. If the answer is yes, I’ll tell you who it is. Until then, it’s confidential.”

  “You need a license to be a private investigator.”

  “You don’t need one to ask questions.” I dug out my wallet and handed her my driver’s license. “I can understand why you might be upset by this business, and I want to be square with you. This is me. I live up in Ocean Heights. For what it’s worth, I used to be a cop in Boston.”

  I watched her scribble my name and address on a piece of paper, then frown slightly and look at the information again.

  “You wouldn’t be the Jackson who owns that nice piece of property up by Felix Neck, would you?”

  The air in the office seemed to change. “I own a few acres there,” I said. “My father bought them when the land was cheap.”

  Sally Oliver was suddenly back in her professional role. “I imagine your taxes must be pretty high these days. I’m sure I can get you top dollar for any land you’d be willing to sell.”

  “I’m hanging on to it for the time being,” I said. “Can I have my license back?”

  “Of course.” She handed it back along with one of her cards. “Please let me know if you change your mind about selling.”

  Her hostility and her curiosity about my employer seemed to have melted away in the warmth of a possible sale. I put the license and card in my wallet and returned the wallet to my pocket. “I’m going to talk with the abutters this morning,” I said.

  “They’re not the people you’re looking for.”

  “You may be right,” I said. “If you think of anyone else I should see, I hope you’ll let me know. My number’s in the book. I don’t have an answering machine, I’m afraid.”

 
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