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CHAPTER SIX

Molly was long gone by the time I made it back to my office, and Dan had been cagey enough to get through the rest of the day yesterday and all day today without bumping into me once. There had been Dan-sightings all over the airport, but I never managed to catch up with him. I sat down at my desk to try to find the bottom of my in-box.

I dispensed with the mail from headquarters-the usual warnings, threats, and recriminations disguised as reports, memos, and statistics-putting it aside to ignore later. I reviewed the station performance report from Dan, which said we were over budget and under-performing. No kidding. And I drafted a perfunctory response to a perfunctory question from Lenny asking why that was. Most of what was left was from the suspense file, things that Ellen Shepard had reviewed and filed for later handling. Many of the documents had her handwritten notes in the margins. Her handwriting was careful, neat, and very controlled. You could have used it to teach cursive writing to schoolchildren. Halfway through the stack, I began to get a sense of her, to hear her voice. She spoke a language we shared, the language of work.

You could tell by her questions that she was new to an operation. She had lots of them-questions about the equipment, manning, about why we do things the way we do, about people who worked for her and how much things cost and why. Her inexperience showed, but so did her doggedness. When she hadn't gotten a thorough answer, she'd simply asked again. And judging from her correspondence with the union, she didn't back down. She may have been a staff person and she may have taken a good field assignment away from someone more qualified-say, for instance, me. But I had to admit that she had worked hard. She had tried.

When I finally hit the bottom of the stack, I had one item left that I didn't know what to do with. It was an invoice from a company called Crescent Security. It had no notes, no questions, nothing to indicate why it was there and what I should do with it. So I did what I usually did in those situations-suspense it for a few days and deal with it later. With that taken care of, I sat back in my chair and stared straight ahead. It had already been dark for several hours, and the windows had turned into imperfect mirrors, reflecting back to me a picture of institutional emptiness-and there I was in the middle of it. As I sat and stared at my reflection, which was particularly chalky in the hard-edged, artificial glare of the fluorescent lights, I wondered, vaguely, what other people like me were doing tonight. I wondered if Ellen had ever looked at herself like this and wondered the same thing.

It occurred to me that if I couldn't see out because of the light, then anyone on the ramp could look up and see in. From down there my office must have looked like a display case in the Museum of Natural History. I went over to close the blinds and took a quick peek outside. I was relieved to see the operation humming along. Tugs were rumbling back and forth, tractors were pushing airplanes off the gates, and crews were loading boxes and bags and trays of mail into the bellies of large aircraft. A line of snow showers had passed us by to the south, bringing in its wake slightly warmer air that hung in a dense, wet fog that diffused the light on the ground and softened the scene. If Monet had painted our ramp, it would have looked like this.

It was time to go home-or at least back to my hotel. I did a quick search of the desk, thinking maybe I would find the file on Angelo DiBiasi so I could keep my promise to Lenny. I hadn't had a chance to ask Disappearing Dan about the case, and at the rate I was going, it would be another week before I was ready to make a decision. I found a drawer filled with hanging files, each with a color-coded tab labeled in Ellen's handwriting. I riffled through the neat rows and found nothing on Angelo. I tried the middle drawer. Nothing there except company phone books, a bound copy of the union contract, a few office supplies, and a pocket version of the OAG. The Official Airline Guide was a typical airline employee accouterment, a schedule for all airlines to all cities. Ellen's was more current than mine, so I threw mine out and tossed hers into my briefcase. When I did, something slipped out from between the pulpy pages. It was a United Airlines frequent flier card-and it was issued in Ellen's name.

What was she doing with this? Only real passengers had these. The only point in having one was to earn free air travel, and we already had that. And to earn miles you had to, God forbid, pay for your ticket. Airline employees would do almost anything before they did that. I thumbed through the guide to see if Ellen had been gracious enough to highlight a destination or turn any corners down. I should have known better. I was willing to bet that Ellen had been a bookmark kind of a girl-no turned-down pages allowed. The guide had neither, but on the back of the card was the phone number for customer services. If United was like our airline, I could call their electronic system and get the last five segments she'd flown, a very helpful feature if you've forgotten where you've been.

I dialed the number and connected. The electronic gatekeeper asked for the account number, which I punched in straight from the card. The second request was a stumper. I needed Ellen's zip code. The airport zip code didn't work, which meant she must have used her home address on the account.

I hung up and went to look for it in Molly's Rolodex. I hadn't realized how quiet it was in the office until the phone rang in the deep silence and nearly launched me out of my shoes. As I answered the phone, I felt guilty, as if I'd tripped an alarm with my snooping. "Majestic Airlines."

"The Marblehead police are trying to get in touch with you." It was Kevin on the other end and he didn't bother to say hello.

"Why?"

"They're holding Danny."

"For what?"

"I'm not sure, but they want you to go and pick him up. Do you want the cop's name and number?"

I took down the information as well as directions on how to get to Marblehead. It was about thirty-five minutes up the coast from the airport.

"I've got another call," he said. "Do you need anything else?"

"No. Wait What's in Marblehead?"

"Ellen Shepard's house."


The buzzer was loud in the quiet lobby. When it stopped, the door to the back offices opened, and Detective Pohan leaned out to greet me, keeping one foot back to prop open the door. He was in his late forties with a slight build, baleful brown eyes, and a droopy mustache that was as thick as the hair on his head was thin. "You got here quick. I appreciate that. You want to come on back?"

I followed him down a long, narrow aisle that ran between a row of offices to the right and a cluster of odd-sized cubicles to the left. I noticed there wasn't a whole lot of activity. Maybe the Marblehead detective squad didn't have much call for a night shift.

The last office in the row was a conference room. The door was closed, but I could see Dan through the window, sitting alone at a table. All eight fingers and both thumbs were drumming the tabletop. I couldn't see it, but I would have bet that his knees were bouncing like a couple of pistons.

Pohan reached for a file from his desk. "Ellen Shepard's landlord says Majestic Airlines is handling the affairs of the deceased."

"We are?"

"We've been instructed to call this fellow in Washington if we had any problems." He held the file open, inviting me to read the name he was pointing out. "Here, I don't have my glasses on. What is that? Castle? Castner?"

"Caseaux," I said, emphasizing the last syllable the way Lenny did. "Leonard Caseaux. I work for him."

Pohan nodded in Dan's direction. "This one asked us to call you first."

"He did?" I checked again to see if this was the right guy. What was bad enough that Dan had felt a need to call me, of all people? "Why is he here, Detective?"

"He was caught breaking into Ellen Shepard's house."

"Breaking in?"

"It's the second time. The first time the landlord saw him trying to climb through a window. This time he got all the way through, but he set off the burglar alarm."

I looked at Dan through the window. He'd grown still and was staring down at the table like a wind-up toy that had wound down. He looked sad. "Do you mind if I talk to him?"

"Go ahead. He's not in custody or anything."

Pohan opened the door and followed me through. Dan popped up immediately and stood with his hands in his pockets. "I'm sorry about this," he said, trying to look at me as he spoke, but mostly maintaining eye contact with the floor. His cockiness was all gone. It was hard to be angry with him when he looked like a guilty puppy about to be smacked with a rolled-up newspaper.

"Why were you crawling through Ellen's window?"

"To get into the house."

"For what possible reason?"

His eyes cut over to Pohan. From the way they looked at each other, I knew Dan and the detective had covered this ground before. Pohan checked his watch, dropped the file on the table, and sighed deeply. "Why don't we sit down?"

When we were all settled, Pohan took charge. Nodding in Dan's direction, he said, "You can ask him, but my guess is he's looking for whatever we missed that will prove that Ellen Shephard was murdered."

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Rumors were one thing, but hearing the word "murdered" uttered by an official detective in these official circumstances gave it more weight than I would have liked. "Is there reason to believe she was?"

"None."

I turned to Dan. "What makes you believe Ellen was murdered?"

"Because I know she didn't kill herself."

Pohan leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands clasped together. "Mr. Fallacaro, I know Miss Shepard was a friend of yours, and I know you think we didn't do all we could, but we can't change the facts of this case."

I could almost see Dan's blood pressure rising, so I went for a diversion. "For my benefit, Detective, could you outline the facts of the case?"

Pohan leaned back in his chair and reached up to stroke his mustache in what seemed to be an old habit. He let his attention linger on Dan for another moment, then opened the file.

"There was no evidence of forced entry. According to you, Mr. Fallacaro, the dead bolt was locked when you got there. You used the landlord's key to get in."

He paused for confirmation, got none.

"All windows and doors were secured. No evidence of a struggle. According to the autopsy, the only signs of trauma were in the neck area around the rope. No blows to the head. Landlord identified the rope. Said it had been in the attic of the house for several years, so no one brought it in with them. She was on prescribed medication for chronic depression-"

"She was taking anti-depressants?" I asked.

"Yes."

I looked at Dan, but it was impossible to tell if he had known that already. If he hadn't, he was hiding it well.

"We found an empty bottle of wine in the house. From her blood alcohol, it looks like she drank the whole thing herself that night. Drugs, alcohol, depression" His voice trailed off as he closed the file and spread his hands over it. "This thing was ruled a suicide from the get-go, and we have found nothing to indicate that she was murdered."

Dan's chair squealed lightly as he sat back from the table. "She never would have killed herself," he said, "but if she did, she would have left a note."

"That's not always the case. You might be surprised to know that most suicide victims don't leave notes."

Pohan's patience impressed me. Dealing with angry and grieving survivors must be part of his job, the same as dealing with irate passengers was part of mine. I'd rather have mine.

Dan was shaking his head, looking as if he'd never, ever be convinced. Pohan was the more rational of the two men, but Dan's the one I had to work with.

"Detective, I didn't know Ellen, but from what I've seen, she was meticulous. If she took the time and effort to hang herself, which is not an impulsive act, wouldn't you think she would have included a note in her planning?"

He leaned back in his chair. "She was thirty-five years old and unmarried. She had no family. By all accounts, she wasn't seeing anyone. Who would she leave a note for?"

Dan's response was volcanic. "She had friends. People cared about her."

Pohan raised his hands as if to still the waters. "I'm sure she did. It's clear that you cared about her. All I'm saying is maybe she didn't know that. Maybe that's all part of the explanation for why she did it."

It was hard to argue a point like that. I watched Dan as he rocked back and forth in his squeaky chair. Pohan watched us both. "This isn't the cleanest way to close this thing out," he said. "Lots of unanswered questions, I know, but that's what happens in suicides. Unfortunately, I've seen it over and over. I'm sorry."

No one said anything and Pohan discreetly checked his watch, probably thinking there wasn't much else to say. When we didn't make any move to leave, he smiled sheepishly. "Listen, I'd offer you some coffee or something, but I've got to pick up my kid. Hockey practice."

"Of course," I said. Then I looked at Dan, slouched down in his chair, defeated. "Detective, I know you have instructions to call Mr. Caseaux, but do you think this time you'd be comfortable letting me handle things?"

His face scrunched up under the big mustache, and I knew I was asking him to do something he didn't want to do. "I said I'd call you first, but I never said I wouldn't call Caseaux. We have pretty specific instructions."

"I know you do. How about if I promise this won't happen again? I'll give you my personal guarantee."

I don't know if it was my sincere request or the fact that he was late for hockey practice, but he agreed.

"Thank you," I said. "Just one more thing. Is Ellen's house still considered a crime scene? Is that part of the problem with Dan being there?"

"No. We've finished our investigation, but Mr. Fallacaro has no authorization to be in the house, and if he doesn't stay out, he's going to get shot. The landlord lives across the street, and the old guy watches his property like a hawk. He usually takes his shotgun when he goes over to check on the place."

"All right."

When I stood up, they did, too. Dan was out the door in a flash. Pohan paused to give me a business card.

"Detective, thanks so much for your help. I-we really"

When I turned to find Dan, he was already down the corridor getting himself buzzed out the door.

Pohan watched him go, shaking his head in a way that seemed almost mournful. "There's one thing you learn pretty quick in this line of work," he said. "Things aren't always as they seem. But then, sometimes they're exactly as they seem."


CHAPTER FIVE | Hard Landing | CHAPTER SEVEN