Read The Seventh Victim Online
Authors: Mary Burton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
Beck scribbled the woman’s name on a pad. “The victim’s prints have no hits in AFIS.”
“I doubt this gal would be in the system. Seems squeaky clean. What happened to your victim?”
“Strangled. Body found this morning on the side of I-35.”
Cass released a sigh. “Sorry to hear that.”
“What can you tell me about her?”
“I don’t have much else other than a DOB, height, and weight. But I can give you her boss’s name. Mack Rivers of the River Diner.”
“Can you send me her picture?”
“I’ll upload it now.”
“Thanks.” Beck hung up and checked his watch. Ten fifteen. Minutes later the picture arrived in his e-mail. A quick look and he knew he had his victim. The image featured a bright-eyed young girl who stared directly into the camera. Long, full, blond hair framed a face with skin as smooth as porcelain. His thoughts flashed to the crime scene and what the killer had done to this young woman. “Damn.”
A quick phone call to the River Diner told him he had two hours before closing. Standing, he stretched the knots from his back and crossed to his door where he retrieved his coat. He grabbed his hat and headed out.
The diner was less than a ten-minute drive from his office and within twenty minutes he sat in a booth scanning a menu. The place was nice enough. Fairly new, but built to resemble a classic fifties diner. The waitresses were young and wore matching pink T-shirts that said THE RIVER DINER.
Beck ordered a burger, fries, and a soda and asked for the owner. The waitress hesitated and eyed him carefully for a moment and then left.
Minutes later a man approached him. Early forties with dark black hair and olive skin, he wore the same T-shirt as the waitstaff, but grease and flour stains covered his. “I hear you wanted to see me.”
Beck rose. “Sergeant Jim Beck with the Texas Rangers.”
“Mack Rivers.” He wiped his hands on his kitchen apron. “Does this have to do with Gretchen?”
“It does.” Beck nodded toward the booth seat across from him and waited until Rivers sat.
“Did you find her?”
“I believe we have.”
Rivers shoved out a breath. “This isn’t good news.”
“No, sir. We found her body early this morning.”
Rivers sat back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. “What happened?”
“She was strangled.”
“What?” He shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“No, sir, news like this never does.” He pulled a pad from his breast pocket. “She have any boyfriends or family that you know of?”
Mack’s face paled as he fully absorbed Beck’s news. “No. Said she didn’t have time for a boyfriend. She was either working here or going to school.”
“What about patrons or any guy that might’ve been giving her a hard time?”
“Everybody liked Gretchen. Sweet kid.” Mack rubbed the back of his neck as if trying to distract himself from strong emotions.
“Where’d she go to school?”
“UT here in Austin.”
“She have close friends?”
Rivers pinched the bridge of his nose as if fighting tears. “Everybody liked Gretchen. She was a good, hardworking kid. Are you sure it’s her?”
“The picture you sent to Austin Missing Persons matches the victim we have at the morgue. We’ll match fingerprints and dental records to seal the deal, but I don’t anticipate surprises.”
He dug his fingers through his hair. “Good Lord.”
“Did she have family?”
“Came from back East. Family in Maryland, I think. Living in Texas on her own and paying her own way.”
Beck glanced around the diner, which even at this late hour maintained a lively pace. “There been anyone hanging around here that might have shown a special interest in Gretchen?”
He cleared his throat, drawing Beck’s attention to a large snake tattoo that coiled around the guy’s neck. “Like I said, not that I know.”
“Would you have known? The place is busy and there’s a lot to keep up with.”
His gaze sharpened. “I look after my girls. If there is a problem, I hear about it.” He shook his head. “Shit.”
“Can you give me her home address?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ve got to look it up.” Rivers rose and walked away, his shoulders hunched.
The waitress appeared again. “Your order is almost up.”
“Can you make it to-go?”
“Sure.” Small, pale hands clenched at her sides. Her name badge read DANNI. “This is about Gretchen, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Heavy eyeliner couldn’t hide the blond waitress’s youth. She couldn’t be more than seventeen.
“I’m the one that went by her place and got the manager. She’s not the type to blow off work.”
“I’m surprised your boss sent you.”
A dark brow arched. “Why? Because I’m young?”
She shrugged. “None of us figured we’d find real trouble.”
“But you did.”
“There were a couple of newspapers in front of her door and a notice from a delivery company. She’d been waiting on a new exercise video and wouldn’t have just left the sticker on the door and not gotten the package.”
“There anyone out there with reason to hurt her?”
“She is like the ultimate Goody Two-shoes. She never made anyone mad.”
“Danni, how long have you known her?”
“Not super long. A couple of months. She was nice.”
“No one gave her trouble?”
“No one. The customers loved her.”
“You get lots of regulars?”
“Eighty percent of the business is repeats. Our cook makes good food, and it’s cheap so people keep coming back.”
Rivers appeared with a notecard that he handed to Beck with a hand that slightly trembled. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” He glanced at the address. Apartments near the campus.
It was late, but Beck wanted to visit Hart’s apartment. “Thanks. If I’ve got more questions, I’ll give you a call.”
Danni and Rivers promised to answer whatever questions he had, and after leaving them both his card, he left. He called Santos. “It’s Beck. I spoke to the owner of the River Diner. He’s given me Hart’s address.” He repeated the address to Santos.
“I’ll meet you there.”
“How long will it take you to get up to Austin?”
“I’m halfway. A half hour.” Rangers worked until the job was done. Didn’t matter how long, they just kept working. “The diner people give you any idea who might have done this?”
“As far as they were concerned she was an angel.”
Monday, May 20, 11:15
Beck pulled up to the large apartment complex just after eleven. He’d called ahead to the manager, who now waited for Beck outside the three-floor apartment building. As he got out of his car, Santos rolled up in his Bronco.
Santos slid out of his car, a file in his hand. “I brought this for you. It’s the Lou Ellen Fisk case file.”
Beck accepted the thin file. “Have you had a chance to read it?”
“Yeah. When you read it, we’ll compare notes.”
“Right.” He locked the file in his car, and the two men went to the front desk, where the apartment manager met them. Beck and Santos showed her their badges.
Yawning, the manager, a heavyset woman in her late twenties, grabbed her master key and walked toward the steps. Over faded, low-riding jeans she wore a king-size, orange Austin Music Festival T-shirt.
The sounds of music and laughter rumbled through the building as they climbed to the third floor. A short walk down an industrial-carpeted hallway led them to apartment 306. As the manager opened the door, two girls, giggling and dressed for a party, burst out of the apartment next door. The girls took one look at Beck and Santos and their grins faded.
“Hey, what’s going on?” The question came from the taller of the two girls. She had dark hair that swept over her shoulders and the straps of a red halter. Short jean shorts and heels completed her look. “Is Gretchen okay?”
Beck glanced between the tall brunet and her friend, a tall, sturdy blond girl who wore dark blue eye shadow and a pink sundress. “Did you two know Gretchen?”
The brunet and blonde nodded. “Yeah,” the blonde said. “I mean we didn’t know her super well, but we saw her in the hallway and elevator, and last month she came to the mixer hosted by the apartment management.”
“And your names?” Beck said.
“I’m Janice Davis,” the brunet said. “And this is Lindsay Michaels.”
“When is the last time you saw Gretchen?” Santos said.
The girls glanced at each other as if stumped by the question before nodding. “At the mixer last Thursday,” Lindsay said. “She was drinking a margarita and talking to Sam.”
“Who’s Sam?” Santos said.
The manager answered. “Sam Perkins. He lives on the third floor. They often talked to each other at property-sponsored events.”
Beck wrote the name down. “They were dating?”
The girls shook their heads. “No,” Janice said. “They just kinda flirted a lot. Sam knows that after graduation Gretchen is going to move to New York.”
“She was planning to leave,” Beck said.
“Yeah,” Lindsay said. “She was going to work for some PR firm. She was super thrilled to be going and couldn’t wait. But don’t think Sam had a problem with that, ’cause he didn’t. They were just good friends. Fact, I don’t think they ever even hooked up.”
“She date anyone?” Beck said.
“No. She was all about the job and getting to New York,” Janice said. “She even started wearing lots of black because she said everyone in New York wears black.”
“She’s not had any trouble? And I mean anything?” Beck said.
“No.” Janice fingered a dangling silver earring.
Lindsay chewed her bottom lip. “She got along with everyone.”
, Beck thought. “Thanks, ladies. We do appreciate your time.” He took down their contact information and gave them his card, instructing them to contact him if anything new came to mind.
Lindsay stared at Beck’s card. “Texas Rangers. What happened to Gretchen?”
“We’re just asking questions right now. Nothing to report.”
The girls frowned, clearly worried by his presence. But neither pressed the issue and they hurried down the hallway.
When the manager opened the door, she stood back, all traces of annoyance replaced with curiosity and worry. “So what is going on?”
Beck smiled. “Did she have a roommate?”
“Each room is rented individually. The other gal in the apartment gave up her room in February when she dropped out of school. It being mid-semester, she was still on the hook for rent so we’ve not bothered to re-rent it. I heard she was trying a sublease, but it never happened.”
“So Gretchen lived alone.”
“For the last ten weeks or so, yes.”
“I’m going to need all of Gretchen’s contact information. Parents, family, emergency contact.”
The manager didn’t like having her question dodged, but she nodded. “Sure. Stop by the desk on your way out.”
“Appreciate it,” Beck said.
When the manager started to the elevator each Ranger pulled on rubber gloves. Beck snapped on the front entry light.
The apartment was basic, but as college apartments went it was suitable. The foyer opened into a small kitchen, which led into a small living room furnished with a leather sofa and a chair. A collection of boxes were stacked high in the corner of the living room by an old television.
“Looks like she was getting ready to pack,” Santos said.
Beck glanced down at an open calendar on the counter. Notes were scribbled in the thirty-one blocks of May. He flipped to June and saw that the fourth was circled and in bold red ink Gretchen had scribbled
She’d been weeks away from starting a new chapter in her life.
Down a short hallway were two bedrooms on the left and a bathroom on the right. The first bedroom was stripped bare, and furnished only with the stock bed and desk supplied by the apartment building. The next bedroom was a riot of purple bedding, pillows, and sheer curtains. Neatly laundered and folded clothes were piled high in a laundry basket by a desk that was covered with books and papers. Above the desk hung a collage picture frame with an assortment of black-and-white photos. Some shots appeared to have been taken in Austin, others at the beach, and others in New York. Gretchen was smiling in them all.
Beck rubbed the back of his neck as he stared at the neatly made bed and the high-heeled shoes lined up beneath it. “She was organized.”
“Hell of a sight better than my college dorm room.”
Beck had lived at Henry’s when he’d gone to UT. It hadn’t been the fun ride lots of his friends had had, but he’d never been able to justify the extra rent. Plus, being at home, he’d been able to work in the garage during his spare hours. “I’ll have a check run on her financials. According to Missing Persons, she has no police record in Texas.”
Santos leaned into a picture of Gretchen hugging a woman who could have been her mother. “Kid seemed to be doing everything right. Played by the rules.”
Beck opened her closet. It was crammed full of clothes that came in every color but white. “She doesn’t seem partial to white.”
Santos glanced over his shoulder. “The whole room is color.”
Beck captured a red coat sleeve between his fingertips. “Nice material. The dress we found her in was homemade.”
“So the killer put her in it?”
“In Seattle, the killer did redress his victims.”
“You actually think we have the Seattle Strangler?”
“Shit, I don’t know.” Fatigue hung heavily on his shoulders. He’d had two hours of sleep last night, and the adrenaline from this morning had waned.
They spent the next hour searching the apartment, going through her mail, her notes, her schoolbooks, and even the kitchen drawers. No evidence suggested she’d been threatened, hassled, or stalked.
“How the hell did she catch his attention?” Beck muttered. They’d have to dig and peel away the layers of her life before they could hope to find that answer. Most folks who stayed on the straight and narrow didn’t find themselves murdered. Generally, it was the folks who strayed to the dark side—drugs, alcohol, or prostitution—who got tagged.