After She's Gone (West Coast 3) - Page 43

Insomnia had become Detective Rhonda Nash’s best friend. One she hated. It crawled into bed with her each night and wouldn’t let go. Even though she worked long hours, exercised her butt off whenever she had a minute, tried her best to meditate in what little free time she had, felt exhausted when she tumbled into bed, Ronnie just couldn’t fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning.

Her damned brain wouldn’t shut off. No amount of warm milk, counting sheep, deep breathing, clearing her mind, or swearing and punching her pillow could change her routine or keep insomnia at bay.

Last night had been no different from those of the past three months, she thought, as she found an open slot in the parking structure, then cut the engine of her Ford Focus. Her mind already on the day stretching before her, she grabbed her laptop, locked the car, then hurried down four flights of stairs. Emerging from the open-air building she flipped up the hood of her raincoat. A soft Oregon drizzle was falling from the heavens. As it was not yet seven in the morning, the sky was still dark, streetlights glowing, the city starting to come alive. Buses rumbled down the one-way streets while bikes sped past, tires hissing on the wet pavement as the riders cut through the few cars, trucks, and vans already moving through the west side of the Willamette River.

Nash jaywalked quickly, crossing the street between the lights to dash through the doors of the Justice Center, taking the elevator up to the Homicide Division.

As the rain puddled onto the lift’s floor she thought she probably should find a different, less stressful job, should give up all the cop crap and the tension that came with it, but she couldn’t. Becoming a detective had been her life’s ambition. So here she was pushing forty, married to a career that wouldn’t leave her alone at night, one that invaded her dreams and chased her out of bed before dawn while her friends were busy balancing their careers and home life, husbands and children, school and work schedules.

But she couldn’t see herself as a nine-to-fiver, or a doting stay-at-home mother and wife. “Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks,” she said under her breath.

Besides, she loved her job, especially in the early morning, which was the most peaceful time of day in the office after the crazies of the night had been dealt with and before the morning shift got into full swing. This was a time when she could think and plan her day, a time before her partner showed up, or many of the other desks in the large room cut up into cubicles were filled with other cops on phones, writing reports, questioning suspects, or generally taking up space.

Nash hated the lack of privacy involved. She would have preferred her own office complete with walls, maybe a window, and a door that she could open or close depending upon her workload and mood.

As she stepped into the division, she noticed that she wasn’t alone. A few other cops were already seated at their desks, on their phones, reading files, or keying info into their computers. A couple of them were standing together, a newbie named Trish Bellegarde was trying not to be rude to Kowalski, who had trapped her into a conversation. Nash had been there. Kowalski was a decent enough detective, the “old man” in the department. He sported a white crew cut, jowls, glasses that he was always polishing, and a good ol’ boy attitude that was a pain in the butt. Retirement loomed for Kowalski and for that Nash was grateful. She just didn’t like the guy.

After hanging her coat in a locker and leaving her bag in a drawer at her desk, she went into the lunchroom, found a carafe of coffee, and poured herself a lukewarm cup. Good enough, for now. Back at her desk she discovered she’d already acquired a dozen or so e-mail messages since she’d left the office sometime after six the night before. As she sipped from her cup with her free hand, she scrolled through the missives, sorted out reports and filed them along with autopsies and statements, then saw a more personal note from Whitney Stone.

Oh joy.

Stone had worked her way up as a freelance reporter and now produced and starred in her own reality-type mystery show. Nash had watched a couple of episodes and thought Stone was long on innuendos and short on facts. Worse yet, Stone, originally a native of the Southwest, maybe Arizona or New Mexico, Nash thought, had lived in Portland for a while, and since Portland had achieved a newfound “cool” status, Stone had adopted the city as her own. Now she was always nosing around, looking for a juicy story she could sink her teeth into and, sometimes, at least in Nash’s opinion, exploit.

The woman was photogenic enough to be a model, so she made crime reporting look good.

Now, she was sinking her investigative teeth into the Allie Kramer case, asking for an interview with Nash.

“Forget it,” Nash said under her breath, but noted that Stone had mentioned in her e-mail that Cassie Kramer had left Mercy Hospital.

This was news to Nash and it shouldn’t have been, since Cassie Kramer was very much a person of interest in her sister’s disappearance. The day was starting out just great, she thought grimly. It wasn’t yet eight and already Nash was irritated enough to reach for a bottle of Tums to calm her nervous stomach. After popping three chalky tablets, Nash dialed the hospital and met roadblock after roadblock in the form of a taciturn receptionist who could quote HIPAA compliancy rules and hospital regulations without the least inflection in her voice. Biting back her frustration, Nash persevered and after cutting through what seemed to be reams of red tape concerning privacy, was told, “Miss Kramer is no longer a patient at Mercy Hospital.” A few more inquiries to a local cab company and she learned that Allie Kramer’s sister had been driven to a car rental agency. More telephone calls ended up revealing that Cassie Kramer had, indeed, left the gloom of Portland for the sunnier climate of Los Angeles.

Nash made a call to the LAPD and a note to herself.

Then she searched through the rest of her never-ending in-box of e-mails. Once she’d dispensed with the ones she could, she picked up her phone and checked her voice mail. Fortunately it consisted of only a few calls. Again, Whitney Stone had recorded a similar message to her e-mail. She wasn’t alone. Two other reporters had left their name and number. Nash didn’t bother to call them back. If they were professional, then they knew the protocol, which was to go through the Public Information Officer.

Besides, she didn’t have any answers. The Kramer case was a puzzler, the primary reason Nash was losing sleep, even though there wasn’t a homicide, at least not a proven one yet. A famous person was missing under suspicious circumstances, but her stunt double had been shot on the last day of filming, when the cast and crew had been called back to Portland to reshoot a scene. Had those shots been accidental? Or had Lucinda Rinaldi been the intended victim? Maybe Allie Kramer, who hadn’t shown up that day, had been the ultimate target? Had she known she was in danger, been tipped off somehow and made herself disappear, putting another woman in danger? That was hard to believe. Why stay away so long? Why not reach out to family, friends, or the police if she’d felt so threatened?

Nash thought hard, swallowing coffee by rote. She wondered if it were possible that the killer had found Allie Kramer and kidnapped and/or killed her when he realized his mistake at targeting the wrong woman. That was a possibility. A long shot, but a working theory because Nash was certain that Sig Masters, the actor who’d actually pulled the trigger, hadn’t intended to shoot Lucinda Rinaldi or anyone else. Nash remembered questioning him and the man had broken down and cried, shaking his head, swearing he’d gotten the prop gun from the locker; and the woman who had the key, Ineesha Sallinger, the prop manager, corroborated Masters’s story and swore her key to the prop locker had been with her for the entire time it took to film the scene. Though the room where the locker was located had been left open during the shoot, the locker itself had been secure. Sallinger had sworn that no one could have exchanged the guns.

But someone had.

The pistol used in the shooting looked identical to the prop, but it had been armed with real bullets. The only fingerprints upon it were Masters’s. Not even Sallinger’s had been found anywhere on the barrel, trigger, or grip. That in and of itself was odd. A prop gun should have several sets of prints on it. The prop manager, maybe someone who had loaded it with blanks, and the shooter, to start with. The gun seemed to have been wiped clean until Sig had received it. Sallinger explained that question away by saying that she’d been wearing gloves that day. The Portland wintry weather had been cold and wet.

So where the hell was Allie Kramer? Or her body?

Dumped into the Willamette River? Buried in the wooded slopes of the West Hills? Shoved into a trash receptacle beneath a concrete slab? Rotting in a dark room or under a house somewhere?

Or alive and held captive by a nutcase, an over-the-top, possibly homicidal fan?

Nash chewed on the edge of her paper cup as her mind whirled with questions she couldn’t answer. The furnace rumbled, blowing warm air into the department, as other detectives began to report for duty and start their shifts. Computer keyboards clicked and phones began to ring in other cubicles, but Nash was lost in thought, caught in the mystery that was Allie Damned Kramer.

Nash had other cases to deal with, of course. Over the past weekend there had been a knifing near the waterfront and there was always escalating gang violence that a task force was dealing wit

h, but this, the disappearance of Allie Kramer, was the one that kept nagging at her, digging into her brain, teasing her. Was it because Allie was a celebrity, a local girl who’d conquered Hollywood? Or was it just that the elements were all so intriguing, a puzzle not easily solved?

And now Cassie Kramer, very much a person of interest in her sister’s disappearance, had flown the proverbial coop. There was the rumored jealousy and fights between the sisters. Cassie, the last person to see or communicate with Allie, had admitted that she and Allie had “argued” on that fateful visit.

What had happened? Nash wondered, not for the first time. The broken wineglass, the furniture that had been moved according to impressions on the throw rug, the yelling that a neighbor had attested to.

Tags: Lisa Jackson West Coast Mystery
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