Previously: One person murdered and one missing has the Detectives of Granite Mountain struggling to find a connection among a random series of events stretching back a decade. During a second interview, one of the murdered woman's neighbors remembers an important detail.
Skeets Epstein weighed the potential value of Frankie Durbin's information. The man's poor eyesight, made evident by his thick glasses, disqualified him as a reliable trial witness. The detail of the suspicious vehicle, however, merited serious consideration.
The detective was eager to dig into motor vehicle records looking for all registered owners of orange pickups. Nothing about the Padget case was falling into line easily. He hoped fate had shown up in the guise of an irksome, gun-nuzzling retiree.
Skeets was that rare detective who never resisted desk duty during a homicide investigation. He relished hunting the virtual paper trail aided by the taxpayer-funded, state-of-the-art computer system. Like a good bird dog, he lived for that moment when his prey hit the ground.
Supplementing his own talent for finding the buried track, he'd patiently nurtured official contacts throughout the country---cops, like himself, with a sixth sense for connecting obscure dots. Thanks to those contacts, he'd recently solved the cold case murder of six-year- old Lila Cooper. Providing closure for Lila's family reinforced his passion for police work.
When he'd moved from St. Paul to Granite Mountain in the 80's, to accept a position as a homicide detective, he'd already concluded he was destined was to be a team player but never its leader. He was neither whip-smart like his commander, Derek Oleson, or polished like his partner, Ron Jolly. Yet, he was confident of his unique skill-set and content to pass the ball to the youngsters.
Witnessing Jana Burke's slow burn of ambition, he sized her up as being the one most likely to hit the top. "It won't be due to gender parity, either," he thought. "She's good. Scary good."
Skeets checked his watch and figured a short break for lunch would do no harm. He angle-parked outside a butcher shop/deli owned by a Finn named Lolly. Skeets approached the counter, pulled a tab and took a seat to wait his turn. The soft-spoken owner was humping to satisfy a female customer who insisted on precise measurements.
"Not an ounce over, Lolly."
"Ya, I understand, Mrs. Gunter. I do my best."
The lady studied a list in her hand as Lolly scooped freshy ground beef and placed it on the scale. Skeets stepped behind the woman and surreptitiously peered over her shoulder. She was a long way from the bottom of her list.
Stepping to a refrigerated case along a side wall, Skeets studied the packaged sandwiches. Only two remained. Both were tuna on rye. He selected a sandwich and slice of cheesecake. He reasoned the tuna and cheesecake would cancel each other out, leaving him with a net zero weight gain. Grabbing a diet coke, he paid his bill and left.
Skeets adjusted his car seat for extra room and was placing a napkin over his lap when his cell phone rang. He shoved aside the food on the adjoining seat and grabbed his phone by the second ring.
"What's your current location, Skeets?" Detective Ron Jolly asked.
"Approximately a quarter mile from the Station. What's up?"
"A call came through 911 reporting a break-in at St. Matilde's Catholic Church. The caller identified himself as the janitor and claimed a burglar left behind a severed human ear."
"On my way."
"I'm pulling into the church parking lot right now, Skeets. There's been a new development in the case. A second parishioner of St. Matilde's is reported missing. The boss believes this break-in could be connected and wants two detectives on the call."
"Understood." Skeets clicked off, gave one last, longing look at his lunch, and engaged his siren as he sped away from the curb. Arriving minutes later at the church, he parked between Ron Jolly's patrol car and the CSI van.
Skeets recognized Father Brian as the person entering the church foyer ahead of him. He hoped the priest ignored him. He'd rather face the cold eyes of a psycho killer than the soul-probing look of a priest. Skeets considered himself a contentedly lapsed Catholic. But the stern stare of a priest could still nudge guilt to the surface.
Father Brian turned and Skeets registered his ashen face and trembling hand holding the door ajar.
There's nothing worse than a shepherd helplessly watching wolves devour his sheep, he thought.
Skeets offered a glimmer of hope to the stricken priest.
"The bolder these creeps get, Father, the more likely they are to slip up. Maybe today we'll catch a break."
His words had the hoped-for effect. Brian took a deep breath and released his shoulders.
"I pray you're right, Detective."
Together they passed through the church lobby to the Family Center at the rear of the building. Hank Gephart, the janitor, was sitting on a folding chair. His head rose. When he recognized Father Brian, he released the tears he'd been holding back. "Father, I swear I locked the church doors."
The priest knelt on the floor and patted Hank's shoulder. "I'm certain you did nothing wrong. Once the detectives have your statement, would you like me to drive you home?"
Skeets looked at Ron, who nodded.
"That won't be necessary, Father," Skeets said. "We'll see he gets home safely and keep a watch on his house until its clear what's happened here."
We need to get this guy out of here. He's a hair's width from full blown panic.
Skeets hurried to where Ron Jolly watched the processing of the human ear. As yet, the larger box had not been opened.
Ron spoke in soft tones, "Smell anything odd?"
Skeets sniffed in short bursts until recognition dawned.
Ron pointed to the CSI and continued, "Mark says the ear's been in formaldehyde a long time."
Skeets was momentarily elated. "Not from our missing person."
The CSI looked up from his squatting position. His hands were poised just above the banker's box. "Ready when you are."
Skeets signaled the go-ahead. Mark carefully removed the lid. Inside was a neatly folded pile of men's clothing. On top lay a sheet of paper. Since Ron was wearing gloves, Mark handed the paper to him.
Ron scanned it then tipped the page for Skeets to read.
"Please donate these to a worthy charity. Fritz Buell no longer requires their use."
Father Brian, who'd approached unnoticed, moaned, "Dear God in Heaven."
Skeets whirled to face the priest. "Don't jump to conclusions, Father. This could be a diversionary tactic." But even as he said the words, he knew they held a hollow wish.