All that remains, p.6
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       All That Remains, p.6

           Patricia Cornwell
 

  I asked the critical question.

  "If I knew that, maybe I could do something about it."

  She finally got around to eating. "This is wonderful."

  Despite the compliment, she didn't appear the least bit hungry.

  "Any possibility," I suggested bluntly, "that your encounter with these FBI agents, the episode at Camp Peary, might have made you paranoid?"

  "Obviously it's made me paranoid. But look, Kay. It's not like I'm writing another Veil or working on a Watergate. Washington is one shoot-out after another, the same old shit. The only big thing brewing is what's going on here. These murders, or possible murders, of these couples. I start poking around and run into trouble. What do you think?"

  "I'm not sure."

  1 uncomfortably recalled Benton Wesley's demeanor, his warnings from the night before.

  "I know the business about the missing shoes," Abby said.

  I did not respond or show my surprise. It was a detail that, so far, had been kept from reporters.

  "It's not exactly normal for eight people to end up dead in the woods without shoes and socks turning up either at the scenes or inside the abandoned cars."

  She looked expectantly at me.

  "Abby," I said quietly, refilling our wineglasses, "you know I can't go into detail about these cases. Not even with you."

  "You're not aware of anything that might clue me in as to what I'm up against?"

  "To tell you the truth, I probably know less than you do."

  "That tells me something. The cases have been going on for two and a half years, and you may know less than I do."

  I remembered what Marino said about somebody "covering his ass."

  I thought of Pat Harvey and the congressional hearing. My fear was kicking in.

  Abby said, "Pat Harvey is a bright star in Washington."

  "I'm aware of her importance."

  "There's more to it than what you read in the papers, Kay. In Washington, what parties you get invited to mean as much as votes. Maybe more. When it comes to prominent people included on the elite guest lists, Pat Harvey is right up there with the First Lady. It's been rumored that come the next presidential election, Pat Harvey may successfully conclude what Geraldine Ferraro started."

  "A vice-presidential hopeful?"

  I asked dubiously.

  "That's the gossip. I'm skeptical, but if we have another Republican President, I personally think she's at least got a shot at a Cabinet appointment or maybe even becoming the next Attorney General. Providing she holds together."

  "She's going to have to work very hard at holding herself together through all this."

  "Personal problems can definitely ruin your career, " Abby agreed.

  "They can, if you let them. But if you survive them, they can make you stronger, more effective."

  "I know," she muttered, staring at her wineglass. "I'm pretty sure I never would have left Richmond if it hadn't been for what happened to Henna."

  Not long after I had taken office in Richmond, Abby's sister, Henna, was murdered. The tragedy had brought Abby and me together professionally. We had become friends. Months later she had accepted the job at the Post.

  "It still isn't easy for me to come back here," Abby said. "In fact, this is my first time since I moved. I even drove past my old house this morning and was halfway tempted to knock on the door, see if the current owners would let me in. I don't know why. But I wanted to walk through it again, see if I could handle going upstairs to Henna's room, replace that horrible last image of her with something harmless. It didn't appear that anyone was home. And it probably was just as well. I don't think I could have brought myself to do it."

  "When you're truly ready, you'll do it," I said, and I wanted to tell her about my using the patio this evening, about how I had not been able to before now. But it sounded like such a small accomplishment, and Abby did not know about Mark.

  "I talked to Fred Cheney's father late this morning," Abby said. "Then I went to see the Harvey's."

  "When will your story run?"

  "Probably not until the weekend edition. I've still got a lot of reporting to do. The paper wants a profile of Fred and Deborah and anything else I can come up with about the investigation-especially any connection to the other four couples."

  "How did the Harvey's seem to you when you talked to them earlier today?"

  "Well, I really didn't talk to him, to Bob. As soon as I arrived, he left with his sons. Reporters are not his favorite people, and I have a feeling being 'Pat Harvey's husband' gets to him. He never gives interviews."

  She pushed her half-eaten steak away and reached for her cigarettes. Her smoking was a lot worse than I remembered it. "I'm worried about Pat. She looks as if she's aged ten years in the last week. And it was strange. I couldn't shake the sensation she knows something, has already formulated her own theory about what's happened to her daughter. I guess that's what made me most curious. I'm wondering if she's gotten a threat, a note, some sort of communication from whomever's involved. And she's refusing to tell anyone, including the police."

  "I can't imagine she would be that unwise."

  "I can," Abby said. "I think if she thought there was any chance Deborah might return home unharmed, Pat Harvey wouldn't tell God what was going on."

  I got up to clear the table.

  "I think you'd better make some coffee," Abby said. "I don't want to fall asleep at the wheel."

  "When do you need to head out?"

  I asked, loading the dishwasher.

  "Soon. I've got a couple of places to go before I drive back to Washington."

  I glanced over at her as I filled the coffee-pot with water.

  She explained, "A Seven-Eleven where Deborah and Fred stopped after they left Richmond - "

  "How did you know about that?" I interrupted her.

  "I managed to pry it out of the tow truck operator who hung around the rest stop, waiting to haul away the Jeep. He overheard the police discussing a receipt they found in a wadded-up paper bag. It required one hell of a lot of trouble, but I managed to figure out which Seven-Eleven and what clerk would have been working around the time Deborah and Fred would have stopped in. Someone named Ellen Jordan works the four-to-midnight shift Monday through Friday."

  I was so fond of Abby, it was easy for me to forget that she had won more than her share of investigative reporting awards for a very good reason.

  "What do you expect to find out from this clerk?"

  "Ventures like this, Kay, are like looking for the prize inside a box of Crackerjacks. I don't know the answers in fact, I don't even know the questions - until I start digging."

  "I really don't think you should wander around out there alone late at night, Abby."

  "If you'd like to ride shotgun," she replied, amused, "I'd love the company."

  "I don't think that's a very good idea."

  "I suppose you're right," she said. I decided to do it anyway.

  4

  The illuminated sign was visible half a mile before we reached the exit, a "7-Eleven" glowing in the dark. Its cryptic red-and-green message no longer meant what it said, for every 7-Eleven I knew of was open twenty-four hours a day. I could almost hear what my father would say.

  "Your grandfather left Verona for this?"

  That was his favorite remark when he would read the morning paper, shaking his head in disapproval. It was what he said when someone with a Georgia accent treated us as if we weren't "real Americans."

  It was what my father would mumble when he heard tales of dishonesty, "dope," and divorce. When I was a child in Miami, he owned a small neighborhood grocery and was at the dinner table every night talking about his day and asking about ours. His presence in my life was not long. He died when I was twelve. But I was certain that were he still here, he would not appreciate convenience stores. Nights, Sundays, and holidays were not to be spent working behind a counter or eating a burrito on the road. Those hours were for family.
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  Abby checked her mirrors again as she turned off on the exit. In less than a hundred feet, she was pulling into the 7-Eleven's parking lot, and I could tell she was relieved. Other than a Volkswagen near the double glass front doors, it seemed we were the only customers.

  "Coast is clear so far," she observed, switching off the ignition. "Haven't passed a single patrol car, unmarked or otherwise, in the last twenty miles."

  "At least not that you know of," I said.

  The night was hazy, not a star in sight, the air warm but damp. A young man carrying a twelve-pack of beer passed by us as we went inside the air-conditioned coolness of America's favorite fixes, where video games flashed bright lights in a corner and a young woman was restocking a cigarette rack behind the counter. She didn't look a day over eighteen, her bleached blond hair billowing out in a frizzy aura around her head, her slight figure clad in an orange-and-white-checked tunic and a pair of tight black jeans. Her fingernails were long and painted bright red, and when she turned around to see what we wanted, I was struck by the hardness of her face. It was as if she had skipped training wheels and gone straight to a Harley-Davidson.

  "Ellen Jordan?"

  Abby inquired.

  The clerk looked surprised, then wary. "Yeah? So who wants to know?"

  "Abby Turnbull."

  Abby presented her hand in a very businesslike fashion. Ellen Jordan shook it limply. "From Washington," Abby added. "The Post."

  "What Post?"

  "The Washington Post," Abby said.

  "Oh."

  Instantly, she was bored. "We already carry it. Right over there."

  She pointed to a depleted stack near the door.

  There was an awkward pause.

  "I'm a reporter for the Post," Abby explained.

  Ellen's eyes lit up. "No kidding?"

  "No kidding. I'd like to ask you a few questions."

  "You mean for a story?"

  "Yes. I'm doing a story, Ellen. And I really need your help."

  "What do you want to know?"

  She leaned against the counter, her serious expression reflecting her sudden importance.

  "It's about the couple that came in here Friday night a week ago. A young man and woman. About your age. They came in shortly after nine P.M., bought a six-pack of Pepsi, several other items."

  "Oh. The ones missing," she said, animated now. "You know, I shoulda never told 'em to go to that rest stop. But one of the first things they tell us when we're hired is nobody gets to use the bathroom. Personally, I wouldn't mind, especially not when the girl and boy came in. I felt so sorry for her. I mean, I sure understood."

  "I'm sure you did," Abby said sympathetically.

  "It was sort of embarrassing," Ellen went on. "When she bought the Tampax and asked if she could please use the bathroom, her boyfriend standing right there. Wow, I sure do wish I'd let her now."

  "How did you know he was her boyfriend?" Abby asked.

  For an instant, Ellen looked confused. "Well, I just assumed. They was looking around in here together, seemed to like each other a lot. You know how people act. You can tell if you're paying attention. And when I'm in here all hours by myself, I get pretty good at telling about people. Take married couples. Get'em all the time, on a trip, kids in the car. Most of 'em come in here and I can tell they're tired and not getting along good. But the two you're talking about, they was real sweet with each other."

  "Did they say anything else to you, other than needing to find a rest room?"

  "We talked while I was ringing them up," Ellen replied. "Nothing special. I said the usual. 'Nice night for driving; and 'Where ya headin'?' " "And did they tell you?"

  Abby asked, taking notes.

  "Huh?"

  Abby glanced up at her. "Did they tell you where they were heading?"

  "They said the beach. I remember that because I told 'em they was lucky. Seems whenever everybody else's heading off to fun places, I'm always stuck right here.

  "Plus, me and my boyfriend had just broke up. It was getting to me, you know?"

  "I understand."

  Abby smiled kindly. "Tell me more about how they were acting, Ellen. Anything jump out at you?"

  She thought about this, then said, "Uh-uh. They was real nice, but in a hurry. I guess because she wanted to find a bathroom pretty bad. Mostly I remember how polite they was. You know, people come in here all the time wanting to use the bathroom and get nasty when I tell 'em they can't."

  "You mentioned you directed them to the rest stop," Abby said. "Do you remember exactly what you told them?"

  "Sure. I told 'em there's one not too far from here. Just get back on Sixty-four East" - she pointed - "and they'd see it in about five, ten minutes, couldn't miss it."

  "Was anybody else in here when you told them this?"

  "People were in and out. Lot of folks on the road."

  She thought for a minute. "I know there was a kid in back playing PacMan. Same little creep always in here."

  "Anybody else who might have been near the counter when the couple was?" Abby asked.

  "There was this man. He came in right after the couple came in. Was looking through the magazines, ended up buying a cup of coffee."

  "Was this while you were talking to the couple?"

  Abby relentlessly pursued the details.

  "Yeah. I remember because he was real friendly and said something to the guy about the Jeep being a nice one. The couple drove up in a red Jeep. One of those fancy kinds. It was parked right in front of the doors."

  "Then what happened?"

  Ellen sat down on the stool in front of the cash register. "Well, that was pretty much it. Some other customers came in. The guy with the coffee left, and then maybe five minutes later, the couple left, too."

  "But the man with the coffee - he was still near the counter when you were directing the couple to the rest stop?"

  Abby wanted to know.

  She frowned. "It's hard to remember. But I think he was looking through the magazines when I was telling them that. Then it seems like the girl went off down one of the aisles to find what she needed, got back to the counter just as the man was paying for his coffee."

  "You said the couple left maybe five minutes after the man did," Abby went on. "What were they doing?"

  "Well, it took a couple minutes," she replied. "The girl set a six-pack of Coors on the counter, you know, and I had to card her, saw she was under twenty-one, so I couldn't sell her beer. She was real nice about it, sort of laughed. I mean, all of us were laughing about it. I don't take it personal. Hell, 1 used to try it, too. Anyway, she ended up buying a six-pack of sodas. Then they left."

  "Can you describe this man, the one who bought the coffee?"

  "Not real good."

  "White or black?"

  "White. Seems like he was dark. Black hair, maybe brown. Maybe in his late twenties, early thirties."

  "Tall, short, fat, thin?"

  Ellen stared off toward the back of the store. "Medium height, maybe. Sort of well built but not big, I think."

  "Beard or mustache?"

  "Don't think so . . . Wait a minute."

  Her face lit up. "His hair was short. Yeah! In fact, I remember it passed through my mind he looked military. You know, there's a lot of military types around here, come in all the time on their way to Tidewater."

  "What else made you think he might be military?"

  Abby asked.

  "I don't know. But maybe it was just his way. It's hard to explain, but when you've seen enough military guys, it gets to where you can pick 'em out. There's just something about 'em. Like tattoos, for example. A lot of 'em have tattoos."

  "Did this man have a tattoo?"

  Her frown turned to disappointment. "I didn't notice."

  "How about the way he was dressed?"

  "Uhhhh . . ."

  "A suit and tie?"

  Abby asked.

  "Well, he wasn't in a suit and tie. Nothing fancy. Maybe jeans
or dark pants. He might've been wearing a zip-up jacket . . .. Gee, I really can't be sure."

  "Do you, by chance, remember what he was driving?"

  "No," she said with certainty. "I never saw his car. He must've parked off to the side."

  "Did you tell the police all this when they came to talk to you, Ellen?"

 
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