This week in Serial Blogging – part four of Jeffery Deaver‘s “Copycat,” which was first published in A New Omnibus of Crime. Read from the beginning of the story by clicking here! VII Lake Muskegon was a large but shallow body of water bordered by willow, tall grass, and ugly pine. Altman didn’t know the place well. He’d brought his family here for a couple of picnics over the years and he and Bob Fletcher had come to the lake once on a half-hearted fishing expedition, of which Altman had only vague memories: gray, drizzly weather and a nearly empty creel at the end of the day. VIII IX
As he and Randall drove north through the increasingly deserted landscape he briefed the young man. "Now, I’m ninety-nine percent sure Desmond’s not here. But what we’re going to do first is clear the house—I mean closet by closet—and then I want you stationed in the front to keep an eye out while I look for evidence. Okay?"
They passed Desmond’s overgrown driveway and pulled off the road, then eased into a thick tangle of forsythia stalks.
Together, the men cautiously made their way down the weedy drive toward the "vacation house," a dignified term for the tiny, shabby cottage sitting in a three-foot-high sea of grass and brush. A path had been beaten through the foliage—somebody had been here recently—but it might not have been Desmond; Altman had been a teenager once himself and knew that nothing attracts adolescent attention like a deserted house.
They drew their weapons and Altman pounded on the door, calling, "Police. Open up."
He hesitated a moment, adjusted the grip on his gun and kicked the door in.
Filled with cheap, dust-covered furniture, buzzing with stuporous fall flies, the place appeared deserted. They checked the four small rooms carefully and found no sign of Desmond. Outside, they glanced in the window of the garage and saw that it was empty. Then Altman sent Randall to the front of the driveway to hide in the bushes and report anybody’s approach.
He then returned to the house and began to search, wondering just how hot the cold case was about to become.
Two hundred yards from the driveway that led to Howard Desmond’s cottage a battered, ten-year-old Toyota pulled onto the shoulder of Route 207 and then eased into the woods, out of sight of any drivers along the road.
A man got out and, satisfied that his car was well hidden, squinted into the forest, getting his bearings. He noticed the line of the brown lake to his left and figured the vacation house was in the ten-o’clock position ahead of him. Through dense underbrush like this it would take him about fifteen minutes to get to the place, he estimated.
That’d make the time pretty tight. He’d have to move as quickly as he could and still keep the noise to a minimum.
The man started forward but then stopped suddenly and patted his pocket. He’d been in such a hurry to get to the house he couldn’t remember if he’d taken what he wanted from the glove compartment. But, yes, he had it with him.
Hunched over and picking his way carefully to avoid stepping on noisy branches, Gordon Wallace continued on toward the cabin where, he hoped, Detective Altman was lost in police work and would be utterly oblivious to his furtive approach.
The search of the house revealed virtually nothing that would indicate that Desmond had been here recently—or where the man might now be. Quentin Altman found some bills and cancelled checks. But the address on them was Desmond’s apartment in Warwick.
He decided to check the garage, thinking he might come across something helpful the killer had tossed out of the car and forgotten about—maybe a sheet containing directions or a map or receipt.
Altman discovered something far more interesting than evidence, though; he found Howard Desmond himself.
That is to say, his corpse.
The moment Altman opened the old-fashioned double doors of the garage he detected the smell of decaying flesh. He knew where it had to be coming from: a large coal bin in the back. Steeling himself, he flipped up the lid.
The mostly skeletal remains of a man about six feet tall were inside, lying on his back, fully clothed. He’d been dead about six months—just around the time Desmond disappeared, Altman recalled.
DNA would tell for certain if this was the vet tech but Altman discovered the man’s wallet in his hip pocket and, sure enough, the driver’s license inside was Desmond’s. DNA or dental records would tell for certain.
The man’s skull was shattered; the cause of death was probably trauma to the head by a blunt object. There was no weapon in the bin itself but after a careful examination of the garage he found a heavy mallet wrapped in a rag and hidden in the bottom of a trash filled oil drum. There were some hairs adhering to the mallet that resembled Desmond’s. Altman set the tool on a workbench, wondering what the hell was going on.
Somebody had murdered the Strangler. Who? And why? Revenge?
But then Altman did one of the things he did best—let his mind run free. Too many detectives get an idea into their heads and can’t see past their initial conclusions. Altman, though, always fought against this tendency and he now asked himself: But what if Desmond wasn’t the Strangler?
They knew for certain that he was the one who’d underlined the passages in the library’s copy of Two Deaths in a Small Town. But what if he’d done so after the killings? The letter Desmond had written to Carter was undated. Maybe— just like the reporter Gordon Wallace himself had done—he’d read the book after the murders and been struck by the similarity. He’d started to investigate the crime himself and the Strangler had found out and murdered him.
But then who was the killer?
Just like Gordon Wallace had done….
Altman felt another little tap in his far-ranging mind as fragments of facts lined up for him to consider—facts that all had to do with the reporter. For instance, Wallace was physically imposing, abrasive, temperamental. At times he could be threatening, scary. He was obsessed with crime and he knew police and forensic procedures better than most cops, which also meant that he knew how to anticipate investigators’ moves (He’d sure blustered his way right into the middle of the reopened case just the other day, Altman reflected.) Wallace owned a Motorola police scanner and would’ve been able to listen in on calls about the victims. His apartment was a few blocks from the college where the first victim was killed.
The detective considered: Let’s say that Desmond had read the passages, become suspicious and circled them, then made a few phone calls to find out more about the case. He might’ve called Wallace, who, as the Tribune’s crime reporter, would be a logical source for more information.
Desmond had met with the reporter, who’d then killed him and hid the body here.
Impossible. …Why, for instance, would Gordon have brought the book to the police’s attention?
Maybe to preempt suspicion?
Altman returned to the disgusting, impromptu crypt once again to search it more carefully, trying to unearth some answers.
Lake Muskegon was a large but shallow body of water bordered by willow, tall grass, and ugly pine. Altman didn’t know the place well. He’d brought his family here for a couple of picnics over the years and he and Bob Fletcher had come to the lake once on a half-hearted fishing expedition, of which Altman had only vague memories: gray, drizzly weather and a nearly empty creel at the end of the day.
Gordon Wallace caught a glimpse of Altman in the garage.
The reporter had crept up to a spot only thirty feet away and was hiding behind a bush. The detective wasn’t paying any attention to who might be outside, apparently relying on Josh Randall to alert him to intruders. The young detective was at the head of the driveway, a good 200 feet away, his back to the garage.
Breathing heavily in the autumn heat, the reporter started through the grass in a crouch. He stopped beside the building and glanced into the side window fast, noting that Altman was standing over a coal bin in the rear of the garage, squinting at something in his hand.
Perfect, Wallace thought and, reaching into his pocket, eased to the open doorway, where his aim would be completely unobstructed.