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A Sonora Blair Mystery
By Lynn Hightower
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Lynn Hightower
All rights reserved.
Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater
Had a wife and couldn't keep her
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well
— Children's nursery rhyme
It was one of those moments when Sonora hated police work.
Butch Winchell sat across from her in the interview room, laying the family snapshots out on the table. There was brown-eyed Terry, three years old, Power Rangers sweatshirt barely covering a pouchy tummy. And baby sister Chrissie, struggling sideways in her lap, fine hair a wisp at the top of her head, sister's hand clutched in a tight and tiny grip.
Their mommy was missing.
Sonora liked it that the Winchell kids had normal names. None of the soap opera specials — Jasmine, Ridge, Taylor, or Noelle. She ran a finger along the edge of the table. Outside it was ninety degrees and sunny, but it was cold in the interview room. Everywhere in the city people were going boating, swimming, out to movies.
Homicide detectives never had any fun.
Sonora looked across the table at her partner, Sam Delarosa. If the baby pictures were bothering her, he'd be worse off. Softer hearted.
He smiled at her, gave her his "come hither" look. He was a big guy, big shoulders, dark brown hair side-parted and falling in his eyes. He looked young for his age, boyish — though Sonora, who knew him well, noted the careworn signs of worry around his mouth, and at the corners of his eyes. He had the kind of small-town, country-boy, Southern charm that made women want to confide in him, and men automatically include him as one of the boys. There was no doubt that he was the kind of guy who opened doors for women, watched football, and didn't like to shop. His normality was one of the things that attracted Sonora. They'd worked homicide together for five years.
And it was the second come hither look Sonora had gotten out of him this week. She was sure they had put all that stuff way behind them. He must be messing with her mind.
She smiled back, heavy on the eye contact, and he gave her a second glance before his eyes went back to Winchell.
"Her name is Julia, Detective Blair." Winchell laid one more photo beside the rest. He looked up at Sonora.
Just like her kids, Sonora thought. Quick to pick up on a moment of inattention. She pushed hair out of her eyes. Too long, too curly. She wondered if cutting it would tame it down or pouf it up.
She picked the picture up off the desk.
It was a quickie Polaroid with the sticky glaze of constant handling. She gave it a long look, passed it across the table to Sam.
There was something breathtaking about Julia Winchell.
The hair was magnificent — red-lit brunette, thick and curly, rising from a widow's peak, pulled back from a heart-shaped face. She had a high forehead, a touch of severity about the mouth. The lips were lush, heavy at the bottom, the eyes almond-shaped, deep brown, with well-defined eyebrows. She had narrow shoulders, long slim fingers, delicate porcelain wrists.
She was the kind of woman you would expect to find vacationing in Paris, or exploring the countryside of southern Italy. She would order clothes from J. Peterman, shop at Abercrombie & Fitch.
Hard to believe the woman in the picture could be the wife of this ordinary man who looked petulant, uncertain, and afraid.
Married young, Sonora thought.
Winchell picked up the Styrofoam cup of coffee Sam had brought him and raised it to his lips, but didn't drink.
Bad coffee? Sonora wondered. Nerves?
"Mr. Winchell, would you like a soda or something?" she asked.
He shook his head. He'd be a medium to small, if attractiveness was measured like T-shirts, black hair wet with gel, heavy black rims on the glasses, a round sort of face. Sloping shoulders, paunchy stomach. The kind of extra weight nobody noticed on a man. The kind of extra weight that sent women screaming to the salad bar.
Somebody's brother, somebody's cousin, somebody's killer.
Sonora figured on a high probability that the man sitting across from her had killed his wife, provided she turned up dead. She might just have run away from home. Back when Sonora had been a wife, she'd wanted to run away from home.
But not enough to leave two little children behind, both babies still.
Winchell hunched forward in his chair, shoulders tense. He had hollows of darkness beneath his eyes. "You can't see it in the picture, but she's also got a tattoo on her ankle." He pushed the glasses back on his nose. "It's not cheap-looking, okay? She did it graduation night when she was a senior in high school, and her mama like to kill her. It was just kids cutting up. She and her friends had been out to a Chinese restaurant to eat, and decided that they should get their birth year symbol tattooed on them somewhere. Hers is the year of the dragon — she was born in '64. None of the others went through with it. Can't blame them, if they were born in the year of the rat or the monkey or the pig or something. It's really kind of neat-looking, blue and green with red eyes and a long red tongue."
Sonora leaned forward, memory stirring, cop instinct on edge. "Did you say left ankle?"
He hadn't said. Sam looked at her.
"I think ... yeah, it was her left ankle, definitely."
Both men looked at her expectantly.
Sonora didn't care to elaborate, not with Butch Winchell and those baby pictures staring her in the face. It wasn't the kind of theory you shared early — not if it involved a severed leg found alongside the interstate highway. It was a long shot anyway. The leg had turned up a whole state away. Julia Winchell had disappeared in Cincinnati, Ohio, not where-some-ever Kentucky. What gave Sonora pause was the way the leg had been taken off.
It was sweaty work, cutting up bodies. Most killers took the hard road, sawing the leg straight off at the thigh, with the usual combination of brute force and ignorance. Working from the joint was a lot easier, same as boning chicken. In the instance Sonora was thinking about, the top of the leg had been severed at the ever so practical hip, but the foot had been taken off over the ankle, well above the joint. Inconsistent, she had thought, when she'd heard the story. It had bothered her at the time.
A dragon tattooed over the anklebone might explain it. A killer intelligent and cool-headed enough to consider the practicalities of dismemberment was not likely to leave a tattoo for easy identification.
Sonora sat back in her chair. "I'm confused, Mr. Winchell. Do you and your wife live in Cincinnati?" From his accent, they'd have to be Southern transplants. Unhappy in Ohio, like other Southern transplants. It would be interesting if they were from Kentucky, home of bourbon, racehorses, her partner Sam, and various and sundry body parts.
"We run a diner in Clinton."
"Clinton is where?" Sonora asked.
Sam scratched his head. "Tennessee, isn't it?" His area of the country.
"Yes sir, right outside of Knoxville. That's where I grew up, Knoxville. I ... we bought the diner four years ago. It's just a little place in downtown Clinton. But it's a beginning, and for us ... for me, anyway, it's a dream come true."
Sonora noticed that Winchell was clenching his fists. She figured the diner was a point of contention in the marriage. Dream fading in the day-to-day grind of reality.
"Julie up and decided a while back she wanted to go to this conference here. In Cincinnati."
Sonora knew where here was.
"A restaurant conference?" Sam asked.
Winchell looked at his feet. "Nope. This was one on running a small business — tax advice and everything geared for people whose business is small-scale." He shrugged. "Pretty much a waste of time if you ask me."
"Did she?" Sonora said.
"Did she what?"
He grimaced. "Julie is a independent female, which I admire, usually."
Lip service, Sonora thought.
"I didn't really think we could afford it. Especially not the airfare. Julie said she'd drive and keep expenses down and we could take this off on our income tax."
Sonora nodded. "So it was already a sore subject when she left."
He opened his hands wide. "It was settled. But then the transmission went out on the Mazda. My opinion was, she ought to call it off. Car repair bill coming in ..." He took a breath. "Her point was we'd already made the deposit to the people running the conference and we weren't going to get that back. The airfare on short notice was ridiculous. So she did a car rental — got a weekly deal. That way she wouldn't leave me without a car, and she'd have wheels while she was up there. Here, I mean."
"Pretty determined to get away," Sam said mildly.
Winchell's hands hung heavily between his knees. "She said she needed some time to herself."
"How far is it?" Sonora asked. "You say the conference was here, in town. How far from Clinton?"
"It's about a four-hour drive, give or take."
"Okay," Sonora said. "So then what happened?"
"She, umm, she didn't come home."
Sonora nodded, kept her voice gentle. "That much we figured. It would help if you could go into a little more detail. When was the last time you talked to her?"
"Well see, what happened was kind of odd. I was supposed to pick her up at the car rental place, she was going to be driving down late that Sunday afternoon, after the conference. But she didn't call and she didn't call. I couldn't get her at the hotel. We'd sort of fixed the time around six, that I would pick her up at the car rental place around six o'clock. And since I didn't hear from her, I just went on out there, see if she'd show up. And she didn't."
"How long did you wait?" Sam asked.
"About forty-five minutes. I had both the kids with me. All excited because Mommy was coming home. But Mommy didn't come home." His voice broke and he rubbed his chin hard. He was getting a five o'clock shadow and the stubble of beard rasped against his fingers. "Nobody at the rental place had heard anything from her. If it had been just me, I'd have waited longer, but the baby was getting tired and Terry was fussy. So I went on home." He took a breath. "The minute I get the car in the garage I hear the phone ringing. So I run for it, leave the kids strapped in their car seats. But whoever it is hangs up. Fifteen minutes, and it rings again and it's her. Julie."
Sam nodded. Winchell bit his lip.
"She was upset, I tell you that from the get-go. I could tell she'd been crying." He closed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair.
Sonora wondered if the gel made his fingers sticky. It had dried, so maybe not.
Winchell opened his eyes. "She told me that something had happened. She said she couldn't come home for a while, she had to take care of it."
"What was it?" Sonora asked.
Sam gave her a look. He thought she interrupted too much.
"I don't know," Winchell said.
Sonora frowned. "How come you don't know?"
Winchell leaned forward, close to Sonora. "See, used to be, her first question would have been the kids. Are they okay, you know, the whole worried Mommy bit." His shook his head. "She didn't even ask. Not at first."
"Did you ask what the problem was?" Sonora said.
Sam rolled his eyes.
Winchell looked at his hands. "I don't ... we didn't get to that."
"You mean you had a fight," Sonora said.
"It wasn't a fight."
"What was it then?"
"I just ... here she is going on about how she can't come home, and not word one about how I'm making out with the kids, who I've had on my own all this time, with precious little help."
Sonora exchanged looks with Sam. Shocking — married people having a fight. Next on Oprah. She wondered how often Julia Winchell had handled the kids on her own with precious little help. Knew better than to ask.
"She got mad and hung up."
"And you haven't heard from her since? Nothing at all?" Sam asked.
Winchell shook his head. "No, and it's not like Julie. She's no grudge-holder. She'd 've called me if she could. Now if it was her sister, that'd be something else. But Julie, she gets mad fast, then it blows over. And even if she was mad at me, she'd call just to see about the kids and talk to them. Only thing that's kept me going is I know she's got to be alive, I just don't know where or what's going on."
Sonora cocked her head to one side. "How do you know that?"
Butch Winchell smiled at Sonora — a social smile from a man who looked like he needed last rites of the heart. Sonora had seen other men look that way, killers some of them. She studied his sad eyes, the large white hands (the better to strangle you with, my dear). The fingers were artistic and delicate compared to the chunky heaviness of the rest of him.
He scratched his cheek. "Somebody's using our credit cards. The limits are all run up."CHAPTER 2
Winchell was not a stupid man. He should not have missed the endless possibilities — none good — of his credit cards maxing out. He just wasn't ready.
Sonora stacked the Polaroids, smiled at Winchell in a non-committal way. Pity would scare him, right about now. It would be better all around if he was thinking straight.
"Just a few more questions, Mr. Winchell. Details to clear. You said Julia had — has a sister. If you could give us a number, I'd like to give her a call. Also, what about her hotel? Did she check out, have you been over there?"
Winchell's lips went tight. "She's staying at that Orchard Suites place down by the river. According to them she hasn't checked out, but she won't answer any calls and the guy as much as told me nobody'd seen her. But he wouldn't let me into her room. She's using a credit card that's just got her name on it, or they might've let me in. They don't seem to care that I'll be footing that bill."
"Speaking of which, we'll need your credit card numbers, the last statements." Sonora cleared her throat. "Also, was your wife hospitalized any time recently? Her latest medical records might help us out."
Winchell pushed his glasses up on his nose. "With the babies, she was. I can get that for you."
Sonora smiled again. "Sooner the better." She checked her watch, waved a hand at Sam. "Detective Delarosa can get this going for you. Maybe get some of the basics faxed. Sam?"
He nodded, gave her a watchful look, turned a gentle smile on Winchell. "There's a phone we can use out here."
Not going back to his desk, which butted right up to hers. Good Sam, Sonora thought. He, at least, had picked up on the significance of the hospital records. He always hated asking that question, because sometimes people cried.
Sonora took the picture of Julia Winchell and her two babies and headed for her desk.
She settled into her chair, checked her watch. Two o'clock. Two hours till shift change. The peculiar Friday feel of restless energy and ennui was thick. Sunlight streamed through the windows like a beacon.
Sonora dialed a number she was beginning to know by heart. Listened to it ring. Conversations with Smallwood were getting more and more frequent.
She'd met him months ago, on his day off, when he'd left Caleb County, Kentucky, to tell her about a local murder that dovetailed with one of her own. She'd been going through a bad time then, and his voice on the other end of the line had gotten more and more welcome.
He fed her the interesting pieces of the bad and the ugly he came across in day-to-day work and gossip — a sort of cop-to-cop come-on.
"That you, Smallwood?" Sonora pictured him in his deputy uniform, one foot on the desk.
"Girl." The voice was country Southern, and deep.
"Answer me a question."
"Yes, I do accept your kind invitation to dinner. Or is that supper, in Cincinnati-speak?"
"Pay attention, Smallwood. You remember that severed leg you were telling me about?"
"Always business with you, isn't it? Yeah, I remember."
"Where exactly was that found?"
"Down I-75 south, between London and Corbin." His voice got sharper, more focused. "You got something?"
"I don't know. Hope not, actually." She spread the pictures of Julia Winchell's little girls across the desk. "You ever hear any details on the victim?"
"Nope, but it's not like I would. I know somebody down there, though, she's going with my cousin."
"Nice to know you fit the typical Southern stereotypes."
Excerpted from Eyeshot by Lynn Hightower. Copyright © 1996 Lynn Hightower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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