Riptide — Chapter 7

Sam McRae Mystery #3

CHAPTER SEVEN

I continued my search for the program coordinator. Jamila was scheduled to make her presentation Saturday afternoon. Mulrooney should be able to arrange her release well before then. Even so, I wondered if anyone associated with the conference had read the local papers. Or how they would react to news reports that night.

For a frozen moment, I worried about word getting out through the new social media. Facebook, and now something called Twitter. But who used that stuff? Kids. Ha!

Traditional media and the rumor mill were my bigger concerns. How would it look for Jamila to give a lecture on ethics after being arrested as a murder suspect? Would the program planner want to cancel her session?

In a far corner, I spied Betsy Larkin, the program coordinator, deep in consultation with a red-faced man in a tight-fitting suit. He didn’t look happy. I approached with caution, not wanting to interrupt.

“I asked for bottled water,” Betsy said. “You know, the cute little bottles? Everyone loves them.”

As Betsy made her pitch for cute little bottles of water, I wondered if this was the right time to bring up another possible glitch in the program.

“Also,” Betsy said, “I was hoping for a wider variety of fruit juices with the morning pastries and coffee.”

While Betsy rambled through her culinary demands, I pondered the notion that it might be unwise to broach the subject of Jamila’s problems. After all, I had four days. She might be eliminated as a suspect in that time.

“Have you got that?” Betsy concluded to the flustered-looking man. As he bustled off, Betsy aimed her formidable figure my way.

Standing roughly six feet in low heels with a gray helmet of hair, Betsy gave the distinct aura of one not to be trifled with. She looked down at me, a skulking 5-foot, 8-inch midget, and said, “What can I do for you?”

Don’t hit me. I’m ashamed to admit they were the first words that came to mind. “I … uh, I just wanted to say you’ve put together a great program. I can’t wait for the sessions to start.”

Betsy looked thunderstruck. “Why … why thank you. That’s very nice. What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t, but it’s Sam McRae.”

“Well, Sam, it’s really good to meet you.” Betsy pumped my hand and nearly wrenched my arm from its socket.

I opted for the time being to keep mum about Jamila.

ϕϕϕ

As I left the convention center, I ran into Kaitlyn Farrell from the State’s Attorney’s Office.

“What are you doing here so early?” I asked.

“I’m a presenter, remember?” I recalled then that Kait was giving a tutorial on recent criminal law developments. “I had the leave and I needed a break from the grind, so I’m here early to get a little R&R before my big presentation.” She said the last two words, using finger quotes. “I figured I’d stop by and check out what’s going on.” She peered into the nearly empty building, shook her head and turned toward me. “Not much, from the looks of it.”

“The place will be more lively later this week,” I assured her. “Can’t wait to hear you.” I tried to recollect when she was scheduled.

“I guess Ray will be basking in it this weekend,” Kait said, rolling her eyes. Ray Mardovich was a state’s attorney with whom I’d had an adulterous fling almost a year ago. Things had ended on a sour note — especially when I discovered he’d been seeing yet another woman. Now, the once-divorced, soon-to-be-twice-married Ray was to be installed on Saturday as the new bar association president. This amazed me on more levels than I cared to ponder.

It took all my restraint not to spout expletives. “I’m sure he’ll do a great job.”

“He is the kind of guy who can get things done.”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s a real politician. Always trying to please everyone.”

For good or ill, the irony of that statement was lost.

ϕϕϕ

As I slid behind the wheel of my car, my cell phone jangled. To my surprise, it was Jinx.

“Sam, I wonder if we could reschedule our meeting. Would tomorrow afternoon be okay? Say, around 1:30?”

“Sure. That’s fine.”

“Oh, good. I can’t wait.”

As we hung up, I breathed a sigh. Well, I can.

I then punched in the number for our crack investigator, Conroy. Four rings later, he picked up.

“Hi. This is Sam McRae.”

“Mulrooney told me you’d be calling.” The voice was low and brusque and the line came out so fast, it sounded practiced.

“Would you have a moment to meet now?”

“Sure. C’mon by, if you like.”

If I like? Yes, I think I would. I got directions to his place before ending the call.

From the convention center, I took a left and headed north on Coastal Highway, the town’s Main Street, past iterations of strip shopping centers and miniature golf courses adorned with faux palm trees and waterfalls. Toward the north end of town, tall condo buildings stood sentry-like, their facades glowing in the setting sun.

Conroy worked from his home office on the bay side: 2555 Pine Shore Lane. I made a left at Pine Shore and looked for 2555. It was a small cottage. White with light blue trim. A dark blue Toyota parked out front. The street dead-ended a few hundred feet from the house. Nice and quiet, with no through traffic. The kind of house a retiree might prefer. I wondered how old Conroy might be.

I went up the walk and knocked on a front door flanked by rose bushes, their salmon pink and orange flowers perfuming the air. The walk bisected the yard into two small scrubby green squares. Apart from the low white noise of distant traffic, the occasional shrieks of gulls were the only sound. I stood and watched a pelican dive for the bay. As it swooped in, I heard a voice rumble behind me.

“Can I help you?”

I snapped around. A man about my height stood in the doorway. Late fifties, thinning hair. Face brown and wrinkled with the squint of a fisherman, a skeptic, or both. He grinned at my discomfiture.

“Or did you just come to admire the scenery?” he asked.

ϕϕϕ

After we’d exchanged introductions, Conroy led me to his office in a converted garage. The desk was weighed down by piles of paper. He picked a stack of folders off a chair and nodded toward it. I sat. I’m not the most organized person, but Conroy’s office made me look fastidious.

“Coffee? Tea? Water?” he asked.

“Coffee would be nice.”

“Sugar? Milk?”

“Just black.”

“Good. Cause that’s all I’ve got. I don’t even have fucking milk.” He laughed. “Pardon my French.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Good. I won’t fucking worry about it then.” He guffawed. I smiled in return. He poured a Styrofoam cup of brew from a carafe on a side table.

He landed in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. “So, how can I help you?”

“I was hoping I could help you.”

He frowned and squinted harder. “Exactly how?”

“I think my friend’s been framed for murder. I want to help find out who really did this.”

His face scrunched so hard, it seemed near to imploding. “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You know you don’t have to prove her innocence then.”

“But if we can find evidence that someone else did this and eliminate Jamila as a suspect, the matter could get dismissed. She could expunge the arrest from her record — like it never happened.”

He sighed and swung his feet off the desk. Leaning toward me, he said, “Well, sure. But what’s this ‘we’ stuff? I work alone, understand?”

“I’m just trying to help.”

He shook his head. “Look here, girlie. I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years. I’ve lived here all my life. If I can’t get the job done, I doubt anyone can.”

Um, excuse me?

“Well, first of all, my name is Sam — ”

“Now, you’re not going to get your undies in a twist over a little expression, are you?”

“And second,” I continued. “I can’t sit back and simply do nothing.”

“Well, fine. Knock yourself out. But, I don’t want or need your help. And, believe me, you won’t get far around here on your own.”

There was a distinct challenge in his words that put me on edge.

“This is a very close-knit community,” he droned. “I know the ins and outs. And I have the contacts. With all due respect, you don’t.”

“Fair enough,” I said, holding back a plethora of acidic responses. “But if there’s anything I can do — ”

He coughed up a laugh. “Look, I know you wanna help your friend, okay? But I’m the professional. I’ll get right on this and be reporting to Mulrooney on a regular basis. Okay?”

“And I’m telling you as his co-counsel that I intend to be involved in some way.” You patronizing bastard.

“You want to help?” He coughed out another laugh, then jabbed a finger at me. “The best way to help me is to just stay out of my fucking way. You got that, girlie?” He came down heavy on the last word.

I rose. “Thanks for the fucking coffee.” I turned and left.

ϕϕϕ

As I started my car, my phone rang. It was Mulrooney. Jamila’s parents had come through on the bail bond. I aimed my car toward Coastal Highway and headed directly for the jail.

As I left Conroy’s, I was steaming. That sexist son of a bitch! Good thing I had several blocks to bring my full-boil anger down to a low simmer before reaching my destination. When I got there, Mulrooney was awaiting Jamila’s release. This was the good news. Unfortunately, the bad news had hit the local radio stations. No doubt Jamila’s arrest would be on everyone’s lips tomorrow. Thank God most of the convention’s attendees probably wouldn’t roll in until the day after or Friday. Would this still be news by then?

Jamila emerged and collected her things, looking dazed. Mulrooney placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Go home. Get some rest,” he said. “Let’s meet at my office tomorrow. Say around nine?”

We both nodded.

I led Jamila out to the car, got behind the wheel and headed back to the motel. I made sure to keep the radio off.

She sat silent, arms crossed, staring straight ahead.

“Are you all right?” My words sounded feeble and idiotic.

Jamila just nodded. I didn’t press.

As we drove, the only sounds were roller coasters clattering, motorcycles roaring, kids laughing. The farther north we went, the more traffic noises took over. Buses wheezing, horns honking.

Once we’d arrived at the motel, its seediness didn’t seem to register on Jamila’s radar. Eyes glazed, moving like a robot, she exited the car and trailed me to the room. I opened the door, and she took zombielike steps inside. She dropped her shoulder bag on the floor without looking, walked to the closest bed and abruptly sat on it.

Planting her elbows on her thighs, she buried her face in her hands.

“I don’t believe this,” she said.

When she lifted her face, I saw it was streaked with tears. I rushed to sit beside her and hugged her.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re innocent, goddamn it. We’re going to get you out of this. Free and clear.”

I was still dying to ask about the unspoken exchange between her and Mulrooney, but this hardly seemed like the right time. So I ignored the doubt nibbling at my gut.

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