“She was probably petrified that he’d hit her again if she fought back.”
“Could be,” agreed the sheriff. “My intuition says it’s not related, but it’s all we’ve got so far. Two violent acts that close together warrant some speculation in a small town of that size.”
“Agreed,” said Ava, trying to make the pieces fit together. They didn’t.
“We also had an early-morning home break-in about two blocks away from where your father was found.”
“Nothing caught on camera. The rental house was empty, and the alarm system went off after a window was broken. When the local police got there, it was all quiet. It appeared the alarm scared them off. This one feels like teenagers to me . . . or possibly someone homeless looking for a place to sleep.”
Ava didn’t know what to make of the break-in. It was another incident that didn’t seem to be related to her father’s death. “Um . . . where is the shooting victim being examined?”
“We sent him to the medical examiner’s office in Portland.” His voice took on a tender tone. “I’m very sorry again, Agent McLane. Even if you didn’t know him that well, it’s a shock.”
“Thank you. It is.”
“I’ll call you immediately when I get updates. Say a word to Agent Wells for me.”
Ava promised and then ended the call. She sat in silence for a few minutes as Zander drove. “Sheriff Greer says hello,” she finally said.
“He’s a good man. What was that about someone being assaulted?”
She shared the sheriff’s stories about both incidents.
“The clerk didn’t see a gun on the man? Or the woman?” Zander asked.
“Not that he reported.”
“I agree the crimes being so close together is odd. It’s a sleepy little city.”
“Not this time of year,” Ava pointed out. “I’m sure Seaside is crawling with summer tourists.”
“But no one heard a gunshot.”
“No one that they’ve found yet.”
The two of them were quiet for a long minute. “Do you need to go to the coast?” Zander asked. “Have your thoughts changed?”
Ava inhaled deeply through her nose. “No. I’ll stay here. The sheriff will keep me informed.” She pictured Kacey’s friendly face and her two children. “I’ll keep in touch with Kacey several times each day.”
“And after our investigation is over?” Zander asked. “What will you do?”
“I’m sure they’ll be back in San Diego by then.”
“Won’t they be at the wedding?”
“Shit. You’re right. I totally forgot they were coming.” She rubbed her forehead. “Do I need to push off the wedding? It feels wrong—”
“No!” Zander said firmly. “You’ve waited long enough, and a wedding might be just what that family needs. Something joyful after this hell.” He turned into a 7-Eleven lot, parked, and looked sternly at Ava. “If you delay your wedding, I’ll shoot you. And that’s after Mason and Cheryl shoot you first.”
“Don’t know if shoot is the right word to use today,” she said softly.
“Dammit.” He tipped his head back against his headrest. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m feeling rather numb after everything that’s happened over the last two days.”
“I hear you.”
“A wedding is the furthest thing from my mind.”
“I understand that too.” He tilted his head and met her gaze. “Ready?”
Ava looked at the 7-Eleven. Three teenagers with skateboards loitered near the front, cans of caffeinated drinks in hand. The usual colorful promotional posters plastered to the glass blocked her view of most of the interior, but she could see a tall older man behind a cash register.
Moments later they had brought the tall clerk outside for a chat, leaving his coworker to cover the registers. He leaned against Zander’s vehicle and sized up the two of them.
“Mind if I smoke?” The clerk, whose name was Todd, had already shaken out a cigarette from a battered pack. It was in his mouth and being lit before Zander or Ava agreed. He had the longest fingers Ava had ever seen. They matched the thin legs sticking out of his shorts and his bony arms. She estimated he was in his late fifties.
He inhaled deeply and turned to glare at the three skateboarders. “Hey!” he yelled at them. “How many times do I have to tell you to beat it? Can’t you read?” He pointed to a NO LOITERING sign directly behind the teenagers.
The teens sneered. “Why is the carpet all wet, Todd?” said the dark-haired teen as his friends burst into laughter.
“I don’t know, Margo,” answered the one with a shaved head, setting the three of them into peals of laughter. They dropped their boards in the parking lot and pushed off. Two of them flipped off Todd with both hands as they sped away.
“As if I haven’t heard those lines a million times since the eighties,” muttered Todd as he inhaled more smoke.
“What?” Zander looked confused.
“It’s from Christmas Vacation,” said Ava. “The Chevy Chase movie.”
“Ahhh.” Light dawned in Zander’s eyes. “Never watched any of his vacation movies.”
“Seriously?” asked Todd, skepticism in the tilt of his head. “You grow up in a foreign country?”
“Don’t watch a lot of TV. Or movies.”
“Huh.” Todd examined Zander as if he were a new species of bug.
“You told your supervisor you saw something yesterday before the shootings that the police should know about.” Ava changed the topic. “What time did you get off work?”
“I was off at noon.”
“An hour or so before the shooting happened.”
“Yeah, I was home taking a nap when it happened. I went to work at three a.m. yesterday. Needed some sleep.”
“When did you find out about what happened at the courthouse?”
“Not until around dinnertime. Saw it on Twitter.”
“What did you do then?”
“Called Paula because I knew she had been working at that time, and everyone online had said the shooter took his shots not far from here.”
“Paula had spoken to the police?”
“She told me they’d just left when I called. Said they took copies of the day’s video coverage and questioned her, but she hadn’t seen anything. She heard sirens at one point, and some customers had come in all jacked up about the police activity, but no one knew what had happened for a good half hour.”
Ava nodded. So far Todd’s story matched the officer notes from Paula’s short interview.
“You don’t know who did it yet?” Todd asked, looking from Zander to Ava.
Realizing she could smell his body odor, Ava studied the older man. He didn’t seem nervous, just interested. The smell was understandable for the hot day, but he worked in an air-conditioned store.
Maybe he just didn’t wear deodorant.
“We’re following leads,” said Zander smoothly. “Lots of information pouring in.”
Todd nodded. “So you’ve got nothin’. That’s why you’re talking to me.”
“We’re talking to you because your supervisor said you had something to share.”
“Yeah. Another asshole. Comes with the job.” He didn’t sound annoyed, just resigned. “I bet you deal with them a lot too.”
“Absolutely,” answered Zander. “What happened?” he asked to steer the man back on track.
“It was when I got off. I left through the back door ’cause that’s where we park, and some dick had just parked in one of the employee spaces. It happens sometimes. The street parking here can get tight around lunchtime.”
“What did you do?” Ava asked.
“Told him to move his car.” He laughed. “Dude had already walked to the sidewalk, so I went after him, telling him I’d have his car towed if he didn’t move it.”
“Can you show us where this happened?” Zander asked.
Todd nodded and gave a jerk of his head for them to follow as he walked around the side of the store toward the back. At the rear of the store were four parking spots. The yellow lines separating the spots were nearly worn away, and Ava didn’t see a sign stating they were for employees only.
The clerk pointed at the spot closest to the side street. “Right there. Since I kept bitching at him to move, he finally turned around and came back.” Todd raised his eyebrows. “Dude was pissed. He didn’t say a single word, but the look he gave me had me backing up a few steps. He wore sunglasses, but I could tell how angry he was. Was in the way he held himself, you know?” He ran a hand through his hair. “After I heard about the shooting, I thought of this guy. He definitely had enough bottled-up anger to shoot someone.”
Ava silently sighed. An angry man wasn’t a great lead. Were they wasting their time?
“Cameras?” Zander was scanning the back of the building.
“Used to be one right there way above the door,” Todd said. “Got stolen last week. Probably to sell it for a quick buck. They must have had a ladder to get all the way up there and unscrew the bolts. Took the whole thing.”