Chapter 9

When Myron entered the small police station Jake’s chin was coated with something red and sticky. Might have been from a jelly doughnut. Might have been from a small farm animal. Hard to tell with Jake.

Jake Courter had been elected sheriff of Reston, New Jersey two years before. In view of the fact that Jake was black in an almost entirely white community, most people considered the election result an upset. But not Jake. Reston was a college town. College towns were filled with liberal intellectuals who wanted to lift a black man up. Jake figured his skin color had been enough of a disadvantage over the years, might as well turn the tide. White guilt, he told Myron. The best vote-getter this side of Willie Horton ads.

Jake was in his early fifties. He’d been a cop in a half dozen major cities over the years – New York, Philadelphia, Boston, to name a few. Tired of chasing city scum, he’d moved out to the happy suburbs to chase suburban scum. Myron and Jake met a year ago, investigating the disappearance of Kathy Culver, Jessica’s sister, a student at Reston University.

“Hey, Myron.”

“Jake.”

Jake looked, as always, rumpled. Everything about him. His hair. His clothes. Even his desk looked rumpled, like a cotton shirt kept in the bottom of a laundry hamper. The desk also had an assortment of goodies. A Pizza Hut box. A Wendy’s bag. A Carvel ice-cream cup. A half-eaten sandwich from Blimpie. And, of course, a tin of Slim-Fast diet powder. Jake was closing in on two hundred and seventy-five pounds. His pants never fit right They were too small for his stomach, too large for his waist. He was constantly adjusting them, searching for that one elusive point where they’d actually stay in place. The search required a team of top scientists and a really powerful microscope.

“Let’s go grab a couple burgers,” Jake said, wiping his face with a moist towelette. “I’m starving.”

Myron picked up the Slim-Fast can and smiled sweetly. “‘A delicious shake for breakfast. Another for lunch. And then a sensible dinner.'”

“Bullshit. I gave it a try. The shit doesn’t work.”

“How long were you on it?”

“Almost a day. Zip, nothing. Not a pound gone.”

“You should sue.”

“Plus the stuff tastes like used gunpowder.”

“You get the file on Alexander Cross?”

“Yeah, right here. Let’s go.”

Myron followed Jake down the street. They stopped at a place very generously dubbed the Royal Court Diner. A pit If it were totally renovated, it might reach the sanitary status of an interstate public toilet.

Jake smiled. “Nice, huh?”

“My arteries are hardening from the smell,” Myron said.

“For chrissake, man, don’t inhale.”

The table had one of those diner jukeboxes. The records hadn’t been changed in a long time. The current number one single, according to the little advertisement, was Elton John’s Crocodile Rock.

The waitress was standard diner issue. She was grumpy, mid-fifties, her hair a purplish tint not found anywhere in the state of nature.

“Hey, Millie,” Jake said.

She tossed them menus, not speaking, barely breaking stride.

“That’s Millie,” Jake said.

“She seems great,” Myron said. “Can I see the file?”

“Let’s order first.”

Myron picked up the menu. Vinyl. And sticky. Very sticky. Like someone had poured maple syrup on it. There were also bits of coagulated scrambled eggs in the crease. Myron was losing his appetite in a hurry.

Three seconds later Millie returned, sighed. “What’ll it be?”

“Give me a cheeseburger deluxe,” Jake said. “Double order of fries instead of the coleslaw. And a diet Coke.”

Millie looked toward Myron. Impatiently.

Myron smiled at her. “Do you have a vegetarian menu?”

“A what?”

“Stop being an asshole,” Jake said.

“A grilled cheese will be fine,” Myron said.

“Fries with that?”

“No.”

“To drink?”

“A Diet Coke. Like my low-cal buddy.”

Millie eyed Myron, looked him up and down. “You’re kinda cute.”

Myron gave her the modest smile. The one that said, Aw, shucks.

“You also look familiar.”

“I have that kind of face,” Myron said. “Cute yet familiar.”

“You date one of my daughters once? Gloria maybe. She works the night shift.”

“I don’t think so.”

She looked him over again. “You married?”

“I’m involved with someone.”

“Not what I asked you,” she said. “You married?”

“No.”

“All right men.” She turned and left.

“What was that all about?”

Jake shrugged. “Hope she’s not getting Gloria.”

“Why?”

“She kinda looks like a white version of me,” Jake said. “Only with a heavier beard.”

“Sounds enticing.”

“You still with Jessica Culver?”

“Guess so.”

Jake shook his head. “Man, she’s something else. I’ve never seen nothing that looked that good in real life.”

Myron tried not to grin. “Hard to argue.”

“She also got you wrapped around her finger.”

“Hard to argue.”

“Lots of worse places for a man to be wrapped around.”

“Hard to argue.”

Millie came back with the two Diet Cokes. This time she almost managed to smile at Myron. “Good-looking man like you shouldn’t be single,” she said.

“I’m wanted in several states,” Myron said.

Millie did not seem discouraged. She shrugged, left. Myron turned back to Jake.

“All right,” Myron said. “Where’s the file?”

Jake flipped it open. He handed Myron a picture of a handsome, healthy man. Tan, fit, wearing tennis shorts. Myron had seen the picture in the paper after the murder.

“Meet Alexander Cross,” Jake began. “Age twenty-four at the time of the murder. Wharton graduate. Son of United States senator Bradley Cross of Pennsylvania. On the night of July twenty-four, six years ago, he was attending a party at a tennis club called Old Oaks in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The esteemed senator was there. It’s a pretty ritzy place – fancy food, indoor and outdoor courts, hard court, clay, lit, unlit, the works. Even grass courts.”

“Okay.”

“What happened next is a bit fuzzy, but here’s what we have. Alexander Cross and three buddies were taking a walk around the grounds.”

“At night? During a party?”

“Not unheard of.”

“Not common either.”

Jake shrugged. “Anyway, they heard a noise coming from the western end of the club. They went to check it out They ran into two suspicious-looking youths.”

“Suspicious-looking?”

“The youths were – what are they calling us today? – African American.”

“Ah,” Myron said. “Is it safe to assume that Old Oaks did not have a lot of African American members?”

“Like none. It’s exclusive.”

“So you and I could never be members.”

“Real shame,” Jake said. “I bet we’d have loved that party.”

“So what happened next?”

“According to the witnesses, the white youths approached the black youths. One of the black youths – later identified as one Errol Swade – reacted by whipping out a switchblade.”

Myron made a face. “A switchblade?”

“Yeah, I know. Such a clich?. No imagination. Anyway, an incident ensued. Alexander Cross was stabbed. The two youths ran. A few hours later the police caught up with them in north Philadelphia, not far from where the youths lived. During the apprehension, one of the punks pulled out a gun. A Curtis Yeller. Sixteen years old. A police officer shot him. Yeller’s mother was at the scene, from what I understand. She was cradling the kid in her arms when he died.”

“She saw him being shot?”

Jake shrugged. “Doesn’t say.”

“So what happened to Errol Swade?”

“He escaped. A nationwide manhunt began. His mug shot was in all the papers, sent to all the stations. Lot of cops on it, of course – the victim being the son of a U.S. senator and all. But here’s where things get interesting.”

Myron sipped the Diet Coke. Flat.

“They never found Errol Swade,” Jake said.

Myron felt his heart sink. “Never?”

Jake shook his head.

“Are you telling me Swade escaped?”

“Appears so.”

“How old was he?”

“Nineteen at the time of the incident.”

Myron mulled that over a moment. “That would make him twenty-five now.”

“Whoa. A math major.”

Myron did not smile. Millie brought the food. She made another comment, but Myron did not hear it. Twenty-five years old. Myron couldn’t help but wonder. It was a dumb thought Unforgivable. And maybe even racist. But there it was. Twenty-five years old. Duane claimed to be twenty-one, but who knew for sure?

But no. It can’t be.

Myron took another sip of the flat soda. “What do you know about Errol Swade?” he asked.

“A pedigree punk. He had already been in jail three times. First offense was stealing a car. He was twelve. Assorted felonies followed. Muggings, assaults, car thefts, armed robberies, drugs. Also a member of an ultraviolent street gang. Guess what the gang was called.”

Myron shrugged. “Josie and the Pussycats?”

“Close. The Stains. Short for Bloodstains. They always wear a shirt dipped in a victim’s blood. Kinda like a Boy Scout badge.”

“Charming.”

“Errol Swade and Curtis Yeller were also cousins. Swade had been living with the Yellers since his release a month earlier. Let’s see what else. Swade was a dropout Big surprise. A coke addict. Another shocker. And a major league moron.”

“So how has he eluded the police for so long?”

Jake picked up his burger and took a bite. A big bite. Half the burger vanished. “He couldn’t have,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“No way he could have stayed out of trouble this long. Impossible.”

“Hold up. Did I miss something here?”

“Officially the police are still looking,” Jake said. “But unofficially they’re sure he’s dead. The kid was a dumb punk. He couldn’t find his ass with both hands, never mind hide from a nationwide dragnet”

“So what happened?”

“Rumor has it the senator got a favor from the mob. They knocked him off.”

“Senator Cross put out a hit on him?”

“What, that surprises you? The guy’s a politician. That’s like a step below child molester.”

“Weren’t you elected sheriff?”

Jake nodded. “There you go.”

Myron risked a bite of his sandwich. Tasted a bit like a sink sponge. “Do you have a physical description of Errol Swade?” he asked, almost hoping the answer was no.

“I got better. I got Swade’s mugshot.” Jake dusted his hands off, rubbed them on his shirt for good measure. Then he reached into the folder and withdrew a photograph. He handed it to Myron. Myron tried not to appear too eager.

It wasn’t Duane.

Not even close. Not even with plastic surgery. For one, Errol Swade was much lighter skinned. Swade’s head was shaped like a block, completely different from Duane’s. His eyes were spaced too far apart. Everything was different. His height was listed as six-four, three inches taller than Duane. Can’t fake being shorter.

Myron almost sighed with relief. “Does the name Valerie Simpson pop up in that file?” he asked.

Jake’s eyes caught a little fire. “Who?”

“You heard me.”

“Golly, Myron, that wouldn’t be the same Valerie Simpson who was murdered yesterday?”

“By coincidence it is. Is her name in there?”

He handed Myron half the file. “Hell if I know. Help me look.”

They went through it. Valerie’s name was only on one sheet. A party guest list. Her name along with a hundred others. Myron jotted down the names and addresses of the witnesses to the murder – three friends of Alexander Cross’s. Nothing else of much interest in the file.

“So,” Jake said, “what does the lovely and dead Valerie Simpson have to do with this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Jesus Christ.” Jake shook his head. “You still yanking my chain?”

“I’m not yanking anything.”

“What have you got so far?”

“Less man nothing.”

“That’s what you said about Kathy Culver.”

“But this isn’t your case, Jake.”

“Maybe I can help.”

“I really don’t have anything. Valerie Simpson visited my office a few days ago. She wanted to make a comeback, but somebody killed her instead. I want to know who, that’s all.”

“You’re full of shit.”

Myron shrugged.

“The TV said something about a stalker doing the job,” Jake said.

“Might be him. Probably is.”

Silence.

“You’re holding back again,” Jake said. “Just like with Kathy Culver.”

“It’s confidential.”

“You’re not going to tell me?”

“Nope. It’s confidential.”

“Protecting someone again?”

“Confidential,” Myron said. “As in not to be divulged. Communicated in the strictest of confidence. A secret”

“Fine, be that way,” Jake said. “So how’s your sandwich?”

Myron nodded. “Maybe the ambience isn’t so good, but at least the food stinks.”

Jake laughed. “Hey, you got tickets to the Open?”

“Yeah.”

“How about getting me two?”

“For when?”

“The last Saturday.”

The men’s semis and women’s finals. “Tough day,” Myron said.

“But not for a big-time agent like yourself.”

“Then we’ll be even?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll leave them at the on-call window.”

“Make sure they’re good seats.”

“Who you taking?”

“My son Gerard.”

Myron had played ball against Gerard in college. Gerard was a bull. No finesse about his game. “He still working homicide in New York?”

“Yep.”

“Can he do me a little favor?”

“Shit. Like what?”

“The cop on Valerie’s murder is a devout asshole.”

“And you want to know what they have.”

“Yeah.”

“All right. I’ll ask Gerard to give you a call.”

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