TITLE: The Road to Nowhere - chapter 1
By Christine Long
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Detective Curtis Ralston unsnapped his holster, hand resting on the smooth metal. He rapped on the wooden screen door. Ears alert for sounds from inside the house, he glanced at his partner who was also prepared for whatever was behind that door. This could be routine. Or this could be a nightmare. He knocked a second time. The weather beaten door opened with a squeaking protest. The aroma of coffee, bacon, and something gritty flew in his face. Feet planted shoulder-width apart, Curtis rocked back on his heel to give the door a wide enough berth.
"Whatever you're selling, I’m not interested," growled a man’s voice.
“Mr. Praiger?" Curtis spoke as the two detectives produced their identification and badges. "I'm Detective Ralston and this is Detective Ainsworth. We're with the NYPD. We have a few questions."
The man folded his arms and leaned against the door jam. "Aren’t you guys out of your jurisdiction? Pembrooke Hills ain’t exactly a suburb of New York City."
So it was going to go badly. Curtis tensed at the antagonism that oozed from Praiger. Pupils tight, eyelids lowered, Praiger’s lips twitched as he worked to relax. It didn’t work. Curtis focused on the man’s eyes. Something wasn't right.
Maddox offered the man a black and white picture. "Do you recognize this woman?”
The man hardly glanced at the picture. "She looks like my wife. What's this all about?" Surly was the only word that described his attitude.
"Is your wife at home? We’d like to speak with her." Curtis shifted his hand from his holster to his pocket. This guy thrived on confrontation. Perhaps a less threatening stance would get them the answers they needed.
"Naw, she isn't home. I'll tell her you stopped by." Praiger started to close the door.
"One moment, please," Curtis put his hand on the screen door handle. The door stopped on its hinges. "When was the last time you saw your wife?"
The door reopened. "Now what kind of question is that to ask a man?”
Curtis smiled. "It is a straightforward question, and I’d like a straight answer. We need to ask your wife some questions. Is this car here?”
Curtis referenced the picture again, pointing to the vehicle. Praiger leaned against the door frame.
“Nope. The car ain’t here either. My wife took it to go visit some relatives.”
“When was that? Do you remember the exact date?” Maddox took over the questioning. Curtis hoped his partner’s easy-going manner might relax Praiger. It didn’t work.
Praiger puffed out his cheeks, his volume increasing. “Now what kind of man would I be if I didn’t know when my own wife went on vacation? Of course I know when she left. I sent her to visit her family a couple weeks ago.”
“When do you expect her home?” Maddox scribbled some notes in a small black notebook. Praiger’s eyes followed every movement.
He licked his lips. “She didn’t say. She’s traveling from one relative to another. What’s this all about anyway?”
“A woman who matches your wife’s description was identified leaving the scene of a crime in the city.”
Praiger burst through the screen door causing both men to step back. Curtis’s hand returned to his holster, tensed for attack.
"What? A crime? What kind? Where?" The man's face burned red. The vein in his neck stood out purple against his skin.
This guy was a fuse waiting for a match. Not relaxing enough to release his hold on the gun in its holster, Curtis tried again to keep his voice soothing. "I understand how upsetting this must be to you, Mr. Praiger. That's why we need to ask a few questions. Obviously you are surprised to hear about this incident which is why we need to speak with your wife."
Praiger's eyes darted away from the men to the wooden slats of the porch floor. "Like I said she ain't here."
"Is there a number where we could reach her?" Curtis knew the answer. Instinct told him there was something wrong with the whole scenario. It didn’t feel right and when it didn’t feel right, something always went wrong. He hated being wrong. It came at a cost he wasn’t willing to pay. He boxed up those thoughts for a later time.
"Naw. But I can make some phone calls to see where she is.” Praiger’s eyes moved to Curtis then shifted to the street.“ What crime do ya think she was involved in?"
The detectives exchanged a glance. Maddox answered. "There was a robbery in the city two weeks ago on March 18. A traffic camera recorded this car -" he held up the picture again "- leaving the scene with three occupants. A witness described the driver. He picked her picture out of a photograph line up. Another witness wrote down the license plate number. It matches the car registered to your wife.”
Praiger ran his fingers through his thinning, straggly hair and paced away from the men. He turned and leaned against the porch railing, keeping his eyes on the floor. Curtis could almost see Praiger’s mind searching for the right lie.
Praiger shook his head. "I don't believe it. Aileen would never get involved in anything like that." He snorted his contempt. "Something like that takes nerve, and Aileen ain’t got any. There's no way she'd get involved in something like that."
As he spoke, his shoulders relaxed, but he folded his arms across his chest before looking directly at the detectives.
"Anything else?" His tone challenged a response, making it clear he had nothing more to say.
"We appreciate any help you can give us. When you contact your wife," Curtis removed a business card from his notebook, "have her call the precinct. We would like to clear this up as soon as possible. Thank you for your time."
Curtis followed Maddox down the steps to their car. Curtis took the driver’s seat and started the engine. Checking the side mirror, he noted Praiger watched them.
"Yep, he knows more than he's saying," Maddox shuffled papers in the file on his lap. He removed the enlarged DMV photograph of Aileen Praiger. It showed a woman in her late twenties, drab brown hair, lips in a thin smile. He held it out to Curtis. "She doesn't seem to fit into this puzzle. This picture's a few years old, but I look at her and don't see a thief. No priors. Not so much as a parking ticket. What do you think?"
Curtis eased the car into the street. He didn’t need to see the picture again. He’d stared at it enough over the past twenty-four hours he could pick her out of a crowd. "Mousy, suburban housewife becomes master jewel thief. No, it doesn’t seem to fit. But if we can find one of them, it might give us what we need to find all of them.”
Maddox replaced the picture and closed the file. "Do you think it's possible it was Praiger, his wife and a third person?"
"After meeting Praiger I wouldn’t put something like that past him. Our only connections to him are the car and Mrs. Praiger. It’s too flimsy. Can you see him as a mastermind?"
Maddox snorted. “He couldn’t plan his way out of a wet paper bag.” Maddox held up the traffic camera shot. “Where do you think this woman really is? She's definitely not visiting family. According to her file, she doesn’t have any. Not an aunt or uncle. Nobody." Maddox switched folders. “No employment record. No income listed for her social security number. Nothing.”
Curtis smoothly entered the flow of traffic on the highway. "It’s difficult to believe that someone could exist and yet leave such a thin trail as to her identity. She's practically a ghost."
Maddox flipped through the black and white photos again. “Sometimes in this job, I can look at a suspect and see the motivation. Sometimes finding pieces of the puzzle explains a lot. But this woman.” He paused. Curtis glanced at the picture, understanding Maddox’s thought pattern. “How did she get involved in this?”
“Desperation?” Something in the woman’s eyes caught at him. Even in the pixilated image, fear and something deeper played in her expression. “We’ve seen crazier things happen. It’s always the ‘normal’ people that hide something. But you’re right. My instinct says she’s nothing more than a pawn. I’m more interested in the man behind the mask.”
What had that idiot wife of his done? Ripping open the screen door he stormed into the housed grabbing the phone. Punching in numbers he waited for a response.
“What is going on? Two city detectives just showed up at my front door demanding to know where Aileen is. Wanted to know where she was two weeks ago.”
A pause on the other end. “There’s been a little snag in the operation, but I’ve got it under control.”
Tiny drops of sweat beaded on Phil’s forehead. “Whadda ya mean ‘snag’? Do you have it under control or not? I’m not going to prison over this!”
“Stop yelling! Do you want your neighbors to hear you? Just keep going with the plan. I’ll take care of the rest. Don’t call me until everything’s set.” The line went dead. Phil looked at the handset then slammed it on the base. If she costs me my freedom, I’ll find a way to beat her senseless even from jail!
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