If i run, p.13

If I Run, page 13


If I Run

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  I realize he’d never tolerate my going into the evidence room without his blessing. I’ll just come back later.



  If you have to take the first job that comes along in a town you’ve never been to, you could do a lot worse than a counter job at Simmons Cell Repair. I like the people I work with, though they find each other difficult.

  One of the college students my boss mentioned in my interview is really a sixty-nine-year-old widow named Cleta who’s trying to get a business degree. She loves changing the radio station in the store to fifties music, to which she dances and shakes her hips as she moves around the store.

  The other one, Rachel, really is of college age—twenty or so—and she marches to a different drum. She sits at the counter today, deeply engrossed in drawing on the inside of her forearm with a gel pen. “What are you doing?” I ask.

  “Giving myself a tattoo,” she mutters, distracted.

  “You already have one.”

  “It’s not real,” Cleta says from the other side of the store. “At least not all of it.”

  I’m not sure I understand. I step over to Rachel and study the paisley design on her left arm. “Just some of it’s real?”

  “Yeah,” Rachel says, carefully tracing over the faded ink. “I went for a real tattoo, but it hurt. I hate pain. Wound up with part of the design before I got sick and had to quit.”

  “So do you draw the rest in every day?”

  “Yeah. If I don’t, it just looks like I’ve been writing on myself.”

  “You have been writing on yourself.”

  “Yeah, but when I do this, it’s art.”

  I smile, glad I’ve never gotten a tat. “I have a friend who got a Chinese saying tattooed on her calf. She didn’t even know what it said.”

  Rachel looks up. “Did she find out?”

  “Yeah, a while later. It said, ‘Exit to the right.’ ”

  “What? Why would she have that?”

  “Probably someone’s joke,” I say. “But what if it had said something profound, but something she profoundly disagreed with? Like, what if she quoted the Qur’an, then became a Christian? Or what if she quoted the Beatles, then decided she hated their music? My dad was like that. He’d loved the Grateful Dead since he was a teenager, but then when he started playing their stuff for me, he didn’t like them anymore. What if he’d had Deadhead etched on his skin, only to find that he wasn’t one at all?”

  Rachel looks up at me, amused. “You think too much,” she says.

  “Yeah, I’ve been told that before.”

  We laugh a lot together, and it feels good to have new friends. The work isn’t hard. The learning curve has been easy, since I read the manuals of all the phones and practiced how to work them in the store my first day. I’ve picked up enough to wait on customers and check in their phones.

  “Do you think the person who dropped this phone in the toilet cleaned it off before he brought it to us?” Cleta asks, putting a damaged device into a Ziploc bag.

  “Doubtful,” Rachel says. “It’s not like swabbing it with alcohol would be the first thing on their mind.”

  “Gross,” I say. “Do we have alcohol wipes?”

  “No, but we should so get some,” Rachel says, looking up from her tattoo. “Do you know how many different kinds of bacteria are on people’s cell phones? E. coli, staph, botulism . . .”

  “I thought botulism was food poisoning,” I say.

  “Still . . . you name it, it’s on those phones. Once I got a boil on my finger that swelled up like a basketball. I swear it was because of the germs on somebody’s phone.”

  I grin. “Like a basketball? Really?”

  “Well, maybe like a melon.”

  “It was a golf ball,” Cleta corrects. “More like a ping-pong ball.”

  “That’s still pretty big,” I say.

  “We should wear gloves,” Rachel adds. “Seriously, it should be a requirement of this job.”

  “We could if we wanted, right?”

  “Yeah, but I never do things I don’t have to do.”

  I can’t help laughing. They both crack me up.



  I go back to the police department after lunch, and when I’ve made sure Keegan isn’t on the first floor, I quickly push into the evidence room. The place is dimly lit and smells of dust and mold. The little woman I saw earlier—the one from the video Keegan was watching—is sitting at the desk, trying to open a bottle of pills. I wait quietly and watch as she gets the bottle open, pours some out in her shaking hand, and throws them into her mouth. She gulps down a glass of water, then puts the bottle of pills into her purse.

  She shoves her reading glasses higher on her nose, chains hanging from each side.

  Though I’m only a few feet away, she hasn’t heard me come in. I walk quietly across the floor and stand in front of her like a student waiting for his teacher to acknowledge him. The plaque on her desk says Sara Meadows.

  Finally, she pulls her glasses down her nose and looks up.

  “Hi,” I say. “I’m Dylan Roberts. I’m a private investigator working with the department on the Brent Pace case.”

  Her eyes narrow, and she takes her glasses off now, lets them drop to her chest. “Do Detectives Keegan and Rollins know that?” she asks in a smoker’s voice.

  “Yes, ma’am, they know. I’ve been hired by the Pace family to find the girl they believe killed their son. I understand you knew Brent.”

  She sits up straighter and looks at the door, as if expecting someone else to come through. Her eyes are dull as she moves her gaze back to me. “How do you understand that?”

  “I knew Brent. We were friends since childhood. That’s why his family hired me.” I know that doesn’t answer her question, but I’m hoping it will make her trust me.

  She’s already pale, but I watch her blanch even more. “I . . . I don’t know who you’re talking about. Are you allowed in here?”

  “I have some police privileges,” I say.

  She tries to get up, knocks her chair over. It crashes to the floor, and I lunge to catch her before she falls. A metal door opens at the back of the room behind her desk, and another small woman rushes to the front. “Sara? Are you okay, hon?”

  Ms. Meadows rights herself and reaches for the chair, but she can’t quite bend to get it. I set it up for her.

  “Excuse me,” she says in that shredded voice. “I need a minute.”

  “Sure, hon,” her coworker says. “You go back and lay down. I’ll take over here.”

  Ms. Meadows hobbles to the back.

  “May I help you?” the other woman asks.

  “Is she all right?” I ask in a low voice. “I just wanted to talk to her, but she doesn’t seem well.”

  The woman leans across the desk. “Cancer,” she whispers. “She’s worked here so long. She insists on still coming in, but she’s in stage four.”

  That explains the meds.

  “I’ll help you,” she offers. “What do you need?”

  I draw in a deep breath. “I really just wanted to talk to Ms. Meadows. I’ll come by later.”

  “Yes, do. She’ll probably be okay after she rests a little.” She drops her voice to a whisper. “We have a cot back there for her. Honestly, I don’t know why she doesn’t want to be at home. If it were me . . .”

  “I’m surprised the department allows her to stay,” I say quietly.

  “Chief Gates refuses to let her go,” she says. “He says she has a place here as long as she wants it. Bless her heart. Do you want me to give her a message?”

  I’m not sure I want to give her my name. Keegan might hear that I was here. “No, that’s okay. I’ll talk to her later. Let her rest.”

  I leave the department and get lunch. An hour or so later, I go back to the department, again careful to avoid Keegan as I slip into the evidence room.

  Ms. Meadows is back at her desk. She looks up when I come
in, and this time she glances toward the back as if making sure we’re alone. When I reach her desk, she says, “What do you want?”

  I keep my voice low. “I know that you did an interview with Brent Pace before his death. I wanted to talk to you about it.”

  She swallows nervously, then gets up and turns away. She picks up the file she’s working on and slips it into a tall cabinet behind her. She stops to write on a Post-it note. When she comes back to the desk, she hands it to me.

  “Be there at seven thirty tonight. I’ll talk to you then.”

  My heart stumbles as I take the card and see her address. She turns away again, dismissing me. I want to tell her I’m sorry about her cancer, that I appreciate her agreeing to talk to me, but I can tell she wants me out of here. I slip out into the hall and hurry to my car.

  At seven fifteen, I drive to Sara Meadows’ house—a small Craftsman with an open carport. Her car is in the driveway. It’s still light out, and her neighbor is working in the yard next door. I start to pull into the driveway, then I think better of it and park at the curb. I go to the cobwebby front door, ring the bell, then after a moment, knock hard in case she’s hard of hearing.

  A dog barks behind the door. Some of his barks flip to yelps, then lower to barking again. She doesn’t come to the door, so I knock harder, ring the bell twice more. The dog is going crazy inside.

  I walk around to the carport, find a side door, and knock on the glass. The dog changes rooms. He’s closer and more frantic. There’s no way the woman doesn’t hear me.

  “Can I help you?”

  I swing around and see the next-door neighbor standing at the edge of the driveway, her pale blue capris dirty at the knees. “Oh, hi,” I say. “I have an appointment with Ms. Meadows, but she’s not answering her door. Have you seen her?”

  She takes off her gloves. “I saw her come home from work. I know she’s in there.”

  The dog keeps barking and yelping, as if in pain.

  “Do you think she’s all right? I know she’s not well.”

  The neighbor knocks hard on the side door. “Sara?” she calls through the glass. “Sara, are you all right?”

  I imagine it’s the door to the kitchen. It’s probably the door she uses most of the time.

  “Sara?” The woman turns to me and says, “She’s been getting sicker. She might not be able to get to the door. Let me call her.” She pulls her cell phone out of her pocket and dials. We hear the phone ringing in the house, but no one answers.

  Now I see the concern on her face. “Wait here,” she says. “I’m going to get the key she gave me.”

  I wait as the woman disappears into her house, then comes back. “Who did you say you are?” she asks as she puts the key in the lock.

  “A friend from work,” I say, not sure I want her to know my name.

  The door opens and the woman steps inside. I wait on the steps as the dog goes nuts, yelping and barking and leaping in circles. Before she goes far, she bends over to stroke him, and he gets quiet.

  The screen door closes behind her, and I can’t see in as she walks farther into the house. I hope Ms. Meadows is just asleep after a long day of work in that dusty evidence room. If her neighbor wakes her up, she’ll be groggy when we talk. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

  Then I hear a scream.

  I reach for the latch of the screen door as the neighbor comes stumbling out. She’s already calling 911. “There’s an emergency,” she says into the phone. “My neighbor is bleeding on the floor. I think she’s dead!”

  Bleeding? From cancer?

  I push past her into the house and find Sara Meadows lying in a pool of blood. I kneel and check her vitals. “Tell them there’s no pulse,” I yell to the neighbor.

  I get on both knees and start to apply CPR, but then I see the bullet wound right over her heart. I look up and scan the room. There’s a bullet hole through the back window.

  Sara Meadows was murdered.



  Grace, I think this phone is fine,” Mr. Simmons tells me as he hands me an Android phone. “But click through it and make sure nothing needs to be restored. Check the calendar, the e-mail, the photos. If the last entries were weeks ago, or if the whole thing is empty, that tells you something. Also try to get online to see if the browser works.”

  People who drop their phones in water would be surprised to know that all they do here is wait for them to dry. Yes, the techs take the phones apart, remove the battery and all, but then they just wait it out. Often the phone comes on when they put it back together, and then they charge enough to make you think they did surgical magic on it.

  He disappears into the back, and I lean on the counter and click around on the phone, hoping I don’t botch this up. The calendar has recent entries, so that seems fine. When I check the owner’s e-mail, new messages load, so that looks okay.

  Finally, I click on Photos, and there’s a long pause as it tries to load. I start to yell back to Mr. Simmons that this customer may have lost his photos, when a few pictures finally appear.

  I click on one, and it fills the screen. It’s a scruffy-looking man sitting at a kitchen table, drinking coffee. I start to advance to the next picture when my gaze snags on a newspaper on a buffet table behind him.

  Even though it’s tiny on the screen, I recognize the photo—it’s Laura, Lucy’s missing granddaughter. I zoom in and can just make out the headline. “Volunteers Search Forest for Missing Teen.”

  I frown. Miss Lucy told me they did those searches in the first weeks after Laura went missing, but none since. Why would this guy have kept that article for two years?

  Maybe it’s just an old picture. I check the date on the snapshot. It was taken last month.

  My interest piqued now, I click through the rest of his pictures, studying details in his house. There’s one photo of a towheaded baby in a bouncy seat. I click ahead to the next one—a fiftysomething woman who must be his wife, her blondish-gray hair piled on top of her head, bags under her eyes so puffy that she could carry cargo in them.

  There, again, I see another article about Laura. This one says, “Shady Grove Teenager Missing.”

  Another two-year-old article lying around the house. Why?

  I study the woman. She’s wearing a tube top, definitely an odd choice for her age and size, but she’s dressed it up with a pendant necklace.

  It’s one I’ve seen before—an old cameo pendant. I zoom in. It looks just like the one Laura Daly was wearing in the picture of her in her homecoming dress.

  That’s impossible. But then, cameos aren’t exactly rare. Must be a coincidence. When I finish looking through his pictures, I open the owner’s Internet browser and check his search history. Most people don’t realize they’ve left open every article they’ve ever read. Sure enough, I see that his are all still there. Frowning, I flick through them. There are other articles about Laura, most of them over a year old. He must have read every article written about her on this phone.

  Maybe he knows the family, or he’s a relative or a neighbor. His fascination with Laura may be nothing more than concern over another Shady Grove citizen. But it bugs me.

  I tell Mr. Simmons that the phone seems to be functioning correctly, but I dig for the customer’s receipt and get his phone number and address. Frank Dotson. I’ll ask Sandra if she knows him.

  I make sure I’m out front when he comes to pick up the phone. He still looks scruffy, unshaven for days, and his hair is scraggly and dirty. He smells like old cigarettes and body odor. His teeth are yellow, and one of the front ones is missing.

  He seems way too interested in me, smiling and flashing that gap in his teeth, asking if I’m new in town. I tell him yes, that I just moved here.

  “What brings you to Shady Grove?” he asks.

  I hesitate for a moment, then decide to go for it. “I have friends here. The Dalys.”

  He blinks hard, then wipes the place above his lip where beads of
sweat have burst out. “I don’t believe I know them,” he says.

  I know that’s not true. He’s well acquainted with the Daly family, at least through articles about their missing daughter.

  He leaves pretty quickly after that, and I shove his address into my pocket. Something isn’t right about that guy or his wife. I may as well look into it. I don’t have anything better to do.



  I think about leaving Sara Meadows’ house before the police arrive, but since I went in and checked her vital signs, they’ll want to know the details. Besides, I want to know what happened. Did someone kill her because she was going to talk to me?

  The neighbor is hysterical and seems to have forgotten me. I stay in the carport, leaning against Ms. Meadows’ car. When the first responders drive up, I meet them down the driveway, tell them who I am and that I’m working on a case with the department. I tell them what I know, then listen as they get the neighbor’s account. They quickly declare it a crime scene and begin securing the area. Radio transmissions go crazy as everyone realizes it’s Sara Meadows, the evidence lady they’ve all worked with.

  “You say you had an appointment with her?” the first officer asks me.

  I look toward the backyard, wondering if the killer had a hard time getting back there to take his shot. There is a gate, but it’s open. “Yes. This afternoon we talked at the department. She asked me to come here at seven thirty.” I pull out the Post-it note with her address, hand it to him. “I got here a little early, but no one came to the door. I didn’t see anyone else. The neighbor was working in her yard. She is the one who called.”

  The neighbor is sobbing now, and I hear her telling the other officer that she didn’t see anyone but me.

  “What was it about?” my guy asks.


  “Your appointment? Why were you coming to talk to her?”

  “As I said, I’m working with the department on the Brent Pace case. She knew Brent, so I wanted to talk to her about their last conversation.”

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