I Crack Myself Up

Byron offered to guide the agents to the homes of the four missing students, but Steyer understood that hours were precious to a local cop. He didn’t want to engage them further until they were on-duty and in-uniform, so he only allowed the officers to lead them to the coffee shop where it all began.

The officers went inside for coffee, leaving Steyer and Kondorf to study the police photos and get a feel for the scene. They stood in the air conditioning, sipping their coffees – free, as always – and watched the agents through the windows.

“I’ll tell you what,” Kondorf said, “this is exactly how it is going to go: Those two’ll walk around with their hands in their pockets, kicking stuff on the ground, maybe inspecting a – a cigarette butt or a piece of paper. Once they get familiar with the area, they’ll start pointing and gesturing, then re-enacting what they think might’ve happened. After a while, one will declare they’ll know more when they hear back from the lab, and they’ll come in for some coffee.”

“Just like that?” Byron asked.

“Just like that.” Kondorf nodded and sipped his coffee. They turned back to the FBI agents. They both had their hands in their pockets.

 

Despite the heat and humidity, the sky was overcast, and there was a fair breeze. Steyer, both hands in his pockets, perused the ground around the corner spot where Charles Witt had parked his truck (The truck itself had been transported to the crime lab the day before).

There was a variety of cigarette butts crushed into the mulch, all peeling and in various states of decomposition. He toed them, trying to determine the brand.

“What brand?” Remington asked, joining him on the curb.

“Looks like Camels… that one is definitely a Virginia Slim.”

“What did Phoenix smoke?”

Steyer took a deep breath. “American Spirits, but that was in ’97. There weren’t any cigarette butts in San Francisco.”

“He may have been policing his butts.”

“He may have quit.” Steyer searched the overcast sky. It had been very similar when he and Feingold had arrived in Detroit. “It would be a very interesting change for such a creature of habit.”

Remington did not reply. He knelt and nudged a soggy piece of paper with his pen. It had been a receipt, but the ink had washed away in the rain, rendering it useless.

Steyer stood in the middle of the parking space and studied the coffee shop. Byron, Steyer, and another man were all watching them and chatting.

“Let’s walk through this,” he said. He pointed to the door of the coffee shop. “Place closes at ten. Zachariah Vlasov begins his closing duties at half-past nine, when the girls leave. Charles Witt walked at about a quarter to ten, the last to leave, according to the manager.”

Remington craned his neck and searched the sky. “The sun would have been setting over there, so these windows would have been covered.”

“Correct, so neither the manager or Zachariah would have seen anything.” Steyer nudged Remington so he could take his place on the curb. “The back door of the truck was here,” he said, holding his hands up to indicate a door. “There was a jump kit on the floor of the back seat, so the Phoenix must have asked for a jump, and his vehicle must have been nearby – close enough that Witt did not have to move his truck.” He pointed to the next space over.

“Or Witt was getting the kit out and didn’t have a chance to move his truck,” Remington countered, pointing to the adjacent spaces on their left.

Steyer nodded. “Charles Witt is pretty short, the blood spray is high on the door, so he had stood back up. We know the Phoenix is right-handed, so he hits him with something–” He gestures a swing of his right arm. “–causing a moderate spray of blood. Barring a brain injury, he’s still alive.” Steyer steps off the curb and stands in front of the space, pointing to a neon circle painted into the asphalt. “The Phoenix drags him and leaves him here, where anyone could see him.”

“But no one else was around,” Remington picked up the narrative. “Except Zachariah Vlasov and the manager. The manager said she heard the back door open just after ten – she said it was loud. He made it to the dumpster and dumped the trash. Then he must have seen his friend, because he never went back in; The door only opened and closed once. He must have seen Charles Witt and gone to help him.”

“Then in comes our Good Samaritan.”

“Not so good at all. He calls 9-1-1 and reports two injured boys. The dispatcher’s recording has Zach’s voice in the background, so he was conscious at ten-twelve. He sounds alarmed, so the attack would have occurred immediately after hanging up. Charles Witt is here–” He points to the neon circle, then moves to another, a few feet farther away from the space. “–Zachariah ends up here.” Remington ground his teeth, looking at the two adjoining spaces. “I’d bet my paycheck the Phoenix parked here,” he said, pointing to the adjacent space. “He may have even already had it open. Otherwise he would have moved Charles Witt to the opposite side of the truck, more visible from the dumpster.”

They moved to the space. Part of a tire track had been dug out of some silt during the initial investigation. There had been no such accumulation in the parking spot next to the truck.

“How much would you be willing to bet,” Steyer asked, “that he’s driving a Jeep Cherokee?”

“Creature of habit,” Remington agreed.

 

“That’s a nice suit he’s wearing.”

Byron turned to find the speaker, a tall, rugged-looking man with a cup of coffee held against his bottom lip.

“Which one?” Kondorf scoffed.

“Remington,” Byron said. It was obvious. “It is a nice suit.”

“Could you tell whose it is?” the stranger asked. He looked askance at Byron with a raised eyebrow.

Byron took a deep breath, wanting to ask why the man assumed he would know anything about suits. He glanced the stranger over. A glint in his eye and a smirk playing on his lips implied interest in more than just Remington’s suits.

“Nah,” he replied instead. “Up close, it looks custom.”

“Custom!” He shook his head. “Naw, not on their salary.” He pointed with his coffee. “They don’t make much more than we do. Still…” he shrugged, “I bet it’s Dolce & Gabbana. They feature those colors often.”

Kondorf snorted. “I tell you what,” he said, “the only suits I own are from Sears.”

The stranger chuckled. “That suit is definitely not from Sears.”

Wiping their faces and the backs of their necks, Steyer and Remington turned and heading toward the door.

“Let me know what you find out,” the man said to Byron. “I’ll see y’all around.” He headed for the door, holding it open for the agents. Before he exited, he caught Byron looking. Byron’s face burned. He couldn’t be certain, but he was pretty sure the man winked at him.

“You know him?” Byron asked.

“Not a clue,” Kondorf replied. “Walks like a cop, though.”

“A gay cop,” Byron snorted. But his eyes followed the man as he crossed the parking lot to his Jeep.

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