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The Last Place You Look
By Kristen Lepionka
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Kristen Lepionka
All rights reserved.
"Matt said you find things. For a living," the woman said on the phone.
I was lying on the carpet underneath my desk. I'd only answered the call to make the shrill ringing stop. The inside of my mouth tasted like whipped cream and whiskey, and the sound of my breathing was like a roaring thunderstorm in my head, but at least I was alone and in my own apartment. "That's right," I said.
"What kind of things?" Her tone was suspicious, like her main objective was to debunk whatever my oldest brother told her.
"Objects. People. Answers. Whatever needs to be found."
"You good at it?"
I hadn't worked much in the last nine months and didn't want to start now. But my bank balance had other ideas. "I am. Matt doesn't like me much, so it's a vote of confidence he gave you my number in the first place."
That was the best sales pitch I could manage. Illusions didn't serve anybody in the detective business — not the client, and not me.
The woman chuckled. "He said you'd say that. Can you help?"
I thought it over. People give the worst advice about lost things. Retrace your steps. Pray to Saint Anthony. Think about where you last saw it. But that doesn't apply to the things that matter. Those are right in front of you, except they can't be found by looking for them. Only by looking at everything else. "What do you need to find?" I said, finally.
"The girl who can get my brother off death row."
Ninety minutes later, we were sitting in the front room of my apartment, which served as an office of sorts. Three cups of green tea with mint had fortified me enough to turn on a single lamp. I still chose to sit in the armchair farthest away from it. Midday Monday light streamed in from the west-facing window near the ceiling but I kept the miniblinds firmly closed on the others. If my new client noticed the cave-like atmosphere of the place, she didn't let on.
"Until that night," Danielle Stockton was saying, "I hadn't seen her in fifteen years. Nobody had."
She was about thirty or so, pretty and put-together in a royal-blue cardigan and jeans. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ballerina bun and she had a leopard-print scarf looped artfully around her slim neck. She wore no makeup except for a dark red lipstick. She worked at American Electric Power, she had told me, and was here on her lunch break. "Sarah Cook," Danielle added. "That's her name. White girl. She and my brother were going out — that's what they claimed this was over, her nice white family not liking him."
They were the prosecutors in her older brother's case, which Danielle had just finished briefing me on. Bradford Stockton was almost twenty when he had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend's mother and father fifteen years ago. Of stabbing them to death in their living room with a Kershaw folding knife that the police found in the trunk of his Toyota hatchback, wrapped in one of Sarah's shirts. The seventeen-year-old Sarah, meanwhile, disappeared that night. The prosecution alleged that Brad had killed her, too, and had concealed her body somewhere.
The defense hadn't put up much of a fight, ignoring the built-in alternate theory of the crime, that the absent Sarah had committed the murders and then run. Brad had just finished his shift at a Subway at the time Elaine and Garrett Cook were killed, and he claimed he was waiting for Sarah in his car in the parking lot. She'd been in the restaurant earlier that evening — confirmed by Brad's coworkers — and the pair had plans to see a movie when he got off work. But Sarah never came back, and by the time Brad went to the Cook house to see if she was at home, the police were already there and his life was already over. He was convicted on two counts of aggravated murder and had been on death row ever since.
"She still looks the same," Danielle said.
She'd brought me a binder of newspaper clippings and photos, a grim scrapbook of her older brother's troubles. A yearbook picture of Sarah smiled up at me from the coffee table. She looked like a Girl Scout, honey-blond hair cut into blunt bangs, a faint spray of freckles across her nose.
"I mean, she didn't look seventeen anymore," Danielle continued between sips of tea. "And she's put on weight. But it was absolutely her. Not a doubt in my mind. Kenny saw her too — Kenny Brayfield, he's one of Brad's friends from school."
I raised my eyebrows. I'd heard crazier stories, but not recently. "And when was this?"
"Ten days ago. November second. Maybe seven thirty. Kenny and I were meeting for dinner at Taverna Athena and we both just got there when I happened to look across the street and saw her at the gas station, walking out of the little store. I ran over there but the traffic was blocking my view. By the time I made it across the street, she was gone. She must have driven away."
"Any idea what she might have been driving?"
Danielle's mouth twitched. "It's a pretty busy intersection. There were a lot of cars around."
I drew a bullet point in my notebook but didn't write anything else. Other than the blue dot, the page so far was blank. "Can you remember any of them?"
"Well," Danielle said, "I saw a red four-door leaving when I got over there. And like a green pickup, one of those big new ones. And someone on a motorcycle, too. But it was already dark, and I was looking for her, not at the cars. So I can't say for sure about that."
"What was she wearing?"
"A coat, a long wool one. I think."
It was a lot of uncertainty, in an encounter not strong on the details to begin with. I wrote down red sedan, big green pickup, long wool coat. "But you're sure it was her."
"I'm positive," Danielle said.
I said nothing, just paged silently through the binder. It seemed unlikely that Sarah would have been so easily recognizable — fifteen years was a big time jump, and Danielle had only seen her for a split second. In the dark, at that. Besides, where had she been all along?
I studied Danielle in the chair across from me. Although we'd just met, she struck me as levelheaded and smart. Maybe it wasn't impossible.
"So suppose I can find her," I said.
"What do you think will happen? How can she help? What makes you think she'd want to?"
My new client was quiet for a minute. Then she said, "Do you believe in God, Roxane?"
I smiled. "No comment."
Danielle smiled too. "Well," she said. "Brad is innocent, okay? I believe him one hundred percent when he says he didn't do it. He'd never hurt anybody. He's a good person — not perfect, but who is? My brother didn't do this."
I could tell she believed that. But her question about God made me think that faith came easy to her. "What does that have to do with God?"
"I don't know what really went down or where she's been," Danielle said. "Believe me, the police tried to find her, the investigator for Brad's lawyer tried to find her — she was gone. But then, all this time later, two days after they scheduled Brad's execution I see her? It had to be for a reason."
I raised my eyebrows. She'd buried the lede a little bit on that one. "What's the date?" I said.
"January twentieth." She wrapped both hands around her mug.
Just over two months away. It was hard to imagine facing that down. I shifted in my chair. "Could she have done it?" I said. "Killed her parents?"
Danielle pressed her lips together. "I've thought so much about that. Brad acted like there was no way — he wouldn't even let the lawyer bring it up at the trial."
"That's love for you."
"What about you, though, what do you think?"
Danielle said, "I wasn't close friends with her, but she was in my grade so I knew her. She seemed like a nice, exuberant person. Her family was religious, pretty straitlaced, and she was one of those girls who, you know, developed early. Boy-crazy. In high school, she was really into writing. Slam poetry — that's how she and Brad got to know each other, he's a writer too. And I didn't see how she was with her family, only how she was with ours. But I got the feeling they weren't thrilled about her seeing Brad."
I thought about what Danielle had said at the beginning of our conversation. Nice white family. "Weren't thrilled because Brad was older, or because he was black?" Then I added, "Or because he was a poet?"
Danielle gave me a slight smile. "All of the above? I don't know. I overheard them in our basement talking, a week or so before it happened. Brad and Sarah. There was some kind of regional poetry slam in Michigan that they both wanted to go to. Sarah was saying that her parents wouldn't let her go with him, but maybe if she went with someone else, they could meet up — that's the extent of it, as far as I know, it's not like her parents ever forbade her to see him. But then at the trial, Mrs. Cook's sister testified that the Cooks had a very contentious relationship with Brad, that they were afraid of him. She's in there, in the back."
I flipped to the last page in the binder. "Stockton: Guilty in Belmont Murders." A grainy photo of an attractive woman in a tweed jacket crying in a courtroom, a tissue clutched halfway to her face. The caption read "Justice for my big sister: Elizabeth Troyan celebrates the verdict." If Sarah was seventeen when all of this had happened, then that meant Danielle had been too. I tried to picture a younger version of her calmly cutting out these newspaper articles and slipping them into plastic sheet protectors and carrying them around for her entire adult life.
"She never even met Brad," Danielle said, shaking her head. "They painted a picture of my brother that just wasn't true."
"And you think Sarah could help with that. Set the record straight, in the eleventh hour."
I flipped the scrapbook closed. "You have to be prepared for the possibility that she won't want to."
"That she might have her reasons, whatever they may be, for not sticking around."
"That you might not like what you find out." I didn't bother to say that what she might find out was that she was wrong. That Sarah was dead, that her brother was guilty anyway. Or that we might find nothing at all.
"That's what Brad's new lawyer said. That I should just move on with my life because nothing good comes of diving back into this stuff." Danielle shrugged. "He inherited the case from his uncle. He doesn't care."
I felt my eyebrows go up. Everybody, innocent or not, at least deserves a lawyer who won't tell family to move on. "Sounds like what you really need is a new lawyer, not a detective," I said. "I can give you some names if you want."
Danielle shook her head. "What I want is to find Sarah. Matt said you'd try to talk me out of it." She grinned. "That it's how you get people to trust you."
I did do that. I almost laughed. "What else did he tell you?"
"That you're very determined. And smart." She stopped then, like she wasn't sure if she should tell me the whole truth. But I nodded at her and she continued. "And that you're kind of a mess, since your dad died. But nothing gets past you."
I finished my tea and set my mug down on the coffee table. It was true, what I'd told her about my brother not liking me much. But he sure as hell knew me. "So you want to do this?"
"I do," Danielle said. She reached into her handbag and pulled out her checkbook. My bank account was going to be thrilled.CHAPTER 2
It was after one o'clock when Danielle left. I sat for a while in the armchair and flipped through her scrapbook again, pausing on a description of the murder weapon. Three-and-a-quarter-inch blade, available in any hunting-supply store. I didn't need to see crime-scene photos to know that these murders were brutal, that Garrett and Elaine Cook had not died quickly. I tried to imagine their seventeen-year-old daughter doing it, but my head still hurt too much from last night to imagine much of anything. Besides, the bloody knife had been found in Brad's trunk, wrapped in Sarah's shirt.
That was pretty persuasive.
I figured he was guilty.
But Danielle hadn't hired me for my opinion on the merits of the case. In fact, Danielle had written me a check for twenty-five hundred reasons to assume that Brad was innocent.
I swallowed two more aspirins and called Kenny Brayfield at the number Danielle had given me. He was too busy to see me, but he told me I could stop by the office of the event-promotion agency he ran later that afternoon. Then, I spoke with Brad's new lawyer, who didn't give me much besides the contact info for the private investigator who had assisted with the trial. I tried him next.
"Yeah," an old, gruff voice answered on the third ring.
"Peter Novotny?" I said.
"Maybe. Who's this?"
"My name is Roxane Weary. You worked a case a long time ago, Brad Stockton?"
"Oh, that," he said. "Look, I'm retired, I'm not going to chase a ghost all over Ohio anymore. Wait a second. Did you say Weary? Any relation to Frank Weary?"
It had been nine months since my father died. But it still felt, as it always did, like a punch to the stomach. "I'm his daughter."
"Well, shit!" Peter Novotny said. The growl was gone. "Great guy, what a goddamn shame. Sure I'll talk to you, honey. Are you a whiskey drinker like your old man?"
"Good, because I've been waiting all afternoon for a beautiful woman to walk into this bar and sit down beside me," Novotny said.
"Good luck with that," I said, "but I'd like to talk to you. Where can I meet you?"
"Well, even if you're a hag, I'll still buy Frank Weary's kid a drink."
I closed my eyes for a second, then decided to play along. "Just one?" I said, and the old man laughed.
"I like you already."
* * *
I drove to the east side and found Peter Novotny at the bar at Wing's. It was a Chinese restaurant that, improbably, had just about the best whiskey selection in all of Columbus. It was dim and warm, the bar flanked by deep booths upholstered in red vinyl. It was also empty, except for Novotny. He had to be close to eighty, the kind of old man with a full head of pure white hair and a good jaw, and I could tell he had been a heartbreaker at one time. I walked right up to him and sat down and said "Is this taken?" in my best Marilyn Monroe.
He spun around to look at me and broke into a huge grin. "Dreams do come true," he said. He stuck out his hand and I shook it as he took me in. I was nobody's dream, but I was no hag, either. "Real nice to meet you, Roxane." He slid a glass toward me; he was also the kind of old man who ordered for everybody. "I didn't roofie it, don't worry."
"That's not funny," I said, and he laughed.
"I'll bet you ten bucks you can't guess what it is."
I swirled the amber liquid around in the glass and took a sip. "Smooth. Scotch whisky, light, not too peaty but a little salty." I took another sip. "I have to go with something from the West Highlands. Oban fourteen-year?"
"Shit, sweetheart, you are Frank's kid." Novotny opened his wallet and slapped a ten on the shiny bar top.
"You were just trying to get me to say 'Petey,' you dirty old man," I said, then nodded at the bar. "Also, the bottle's right there." I threw back the rest of the drink as he almost fell off his chair laughing.
I ordered another and we got to talking. Peter Novotny had been a cop years ago, that was how he knew my father. He retired after his thirty, took the pension, went private. Now he was really retired, except for the occasional records check for the law firm that had represented Brad Stockton. "That case was shit, though. This girl, Sarah? Nowhere to be found. And whether she could have helped the Stockton kid or not, it was the obvious defense, right? Her absence makes for the very definition of reasonable doubt. But no, he didn't want to say one bad thing about his beloved. But you know, in my experience? It's the innocent ones who're the least helpful."
"Really," I said.
"I'm not a lawyer," he said, "nor a psychic. But yeah. I wouldn't have sent this case to the prosecutor without digging a little deeper. Sure, you got that knife, and it's wrapped in Sarah's jacket or shirt, something like that. But her blood's not on it. Her parents' is, but not hers. Not on the knife, and not on the shirt. How do you manage that? Plus, there's no blood anywhere else in Stockton's car or his house. A murder like that, things would have gotten messy."
"So he got rid of his clothes."
"Right," Novotny said, "but then why not get rid of the knife, too? It just felt weird as hell, is what I'm saying."
"You ever meet him?"
"Oh yeah," Novotny said. "Lots of times. Nice kid, he had these long eyelashes, like, shit, no wonder the Cook girl was crazy for him. He was polite, too, real soft-spoken. But I think he must have been stupid, because he didn't understand what he was facing. How often do you see a black kid thinking he could beat the system? He was shocked when the sentence came down, I remember. Tried to hang himself. But he was too tall."
Excerpted from The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka. Copyright © 2017 Kristen Lepionka. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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