He was Walking Alone

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chapter 1

drop-cap-zachary was standing staring out his window at the businesses across the street from his apartment building, where an old man with a ladder was stringing up Christmas lights when his phone rang. He was startled out of his trance and nearly did a face-plant into the window before he regained his balance.

He put his hand on the glass to steady himself and pulled his phone out of his pocket with the other. A glance at the screen showed him that it was Mario Bowman, and he didn’t hesitate to answer it. Since moving out of Bowman’s apartment, the two of them had usually gotten together every couple of weeks for a drink. A year ago, they had been acquaintances, just friendly after the various times they had met while Zachary had worked cases the police were involved in, but after the fire that had destroyed everything Zachary had owned for the second time in his life, that had changed. Bowman had graciously allowed Zachary to stay with him until he got back on his feet, which had turned into months rather than the ‘few days’ they had initially talked about. Bowman had never complained about Zachary being underfoot, and even after Zachary had moved into his own place again, they had continued to get together, cementing the friendship.

Years before, Zachary had accepted the fact that he would never have any real friends. Moving constantly from one foster family or institution to another, battling with learning disabilities and childhood trauma, he had not found it easy to break into the circles of already-established friendships and had remained on the outside. Not having developed those skills as a child, he had remained a loner as an adult. He’d never expected to have a ‘best friend’ like Bowman.

“Mario!”

“Hey, Zach. I didn’t get you up, did I?”

Zachary pulled the phone away from his ear to look at the time to better compose his answer. After ten o’clock in the morning, a time even night owls were normally up by. “It’s halfway through the day. You know I don’t sleep that late.”

“I know you don’t usually sleep,” Bowman admitted. “You’re like a vampire. Except, I guess they sleep during the day, and you don’t do that either. You could have been asleep though, if you had some kind of surveillance job last night.”

“Well, I didn’t. I’ve been up for hours. I thought you had night shift this week; aren’t you heading to bed?”

“Yeah, I’d better knock off before long. But I have a possible case for you.”

“Oh! What kind of case?”

Zachary worked everything from skip tracing and insurance fraud to money laundering and, in a few cases, death investigations. While he was trying to avoid the cheating spouse cases, he always seemed to have a couple of them on his plate.

“Why don’t we get together later to discuss it? I’ll introduce you to the potential client and you can see what you think.”

“Uh, sure.” It sounded like a much bigger case than just a background check. “When and where?”

“Old Joe’s before I go back on shift? Say, seven?”

Zachary didn’t know how Bowman could eat a steak dinner for what was essentially his breakfast. Zachary had a hard time with heavy meals at the best of times. His meds tended to suppress his appetite, and the most recent mood stabilizer added to his cocktail left him nauseated most of the day. But he knew that dinner at the steakhouse wasn’t about the food. Bowman would enjoy being treated, as Zachary would pick up the tab for a client dinner. Hopefully, his client would feel at ease at the town’s iconic steakhouse. And Zachary was going for the case, not the food.

“Yeah, that sounds good.” He didn’t need to check his calendar. He knew he wouldn’t have anything that couldn’t be moved. “I’ll see you there.”

“Perfect. See you tonight, then.”

Zachary thought about it after he hung up. It was late for Bowman to still be up when he would have to be up again at six. He would not get a full eight hours in, and when he was working shift he was very careful to get the sleep he needed so that he wouldn’t get worn out and sick. Despite asking Zachary if he’d been asleep, he knew that Zachary was normally up before dawn and he could have safely called hours before. That suggested that he’d worked past the end of his shift, which meant a big case. If that was what they were having dinner to discuss, Zachary might be looking at quite a profitable file. Something he could really dig his teeth into to help him to forget about the holiday season.

The man across the street was working diligently at getting his Christmas lights on. They would make a festive display for Zachary in the coming weeks. He drew the curtains to shut out the sight.

The client who accompanied Bowman was a woman. That was the first surprise. And not just a woman, but an attractive one. At first glance, he would have put her as college age, but on closer inspection, the dim lighting at Old Joe’s had softened the lines of her face. She was probably in her forties, like he was. Taller than Zachary. A dark blonde, rather than the almost-black hair that Zachary kept cropped close to his head. She wore no makeup as far as he could tell, and grief was plain on her face. It was no corporate case. Whatever Bowman had brought him, it was personal.

“Zach, this is Ashley Morton. Ms. Morton, Zachary Goldman.”

Zachary shook hands. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Morton.”

“It’s Ashley,” she informed him. “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice. You must have a busy schedule.”

Zachary glanced over at Bowman to gauge his reply. “I’ve always got cases on the go, but I can make room when something important comes up.”

She nodded, looking relieved. “Good. Mr. Bowman said you’d be able to fit me in, but…”

Bowman motioned to an empty booth. “That’s our table, shall we sit down? Did you want a drink, Zach?”

“No.” Bowman knew he wouldn’t have alcohol for a case meeting. Even when they got together to watch a game, Zachary was mindful of his alcohol consumption.

They made their way away from the bar to the quiet corner. Bowman and Ashley slid in with their drinks. Zachary sat across from Ashley.

Bowman took a sip of his beer and talked to Ashley about Zachary’s qualifications. He touched on the cases Zachary had worked in the last year or so that had made it to the media. The drowning of Declan Bond, the only son of local TV celebrity The Happy Artist, the institutional abuses at Summit Learning Center, and the death of Robin Salter. While Robin’s death had not been particularly newsworthy, the subsequent kidnapping of Zachary’s ex-wife, socialite Bridget Downy, had been.

Ashley nodded solemnly throughout Bowman’s recounting of the cases, her wide eyes going from Bowman to Zachary and back again. She didn’t seem inclined to jump in immediately with her story. They ordered their dinners and discussed the menu for a few minutes. Zachary looked at Bowman, waiting for the signal that it was time to talk about Ashley’s case. Bowman took a long draught of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You want to tell Zachary about Richard’s case?”

Ashley chewed on her lip.

“Do you want me to give him the broad strokes?” Bowman prompted.

She nodded. “That would be good,” she said in a weak, watery voice.

Zachary hoped she wasn’t going to cry. He was never sure what to do about tears. A lot of the women who engaged him to catch their cheating husbands cried. He had come to realize that the best thing to do in those cases was just to nod and push through for the details. Trying to comfort them didn’t help. It seemed that those tears came from anger rather than sadness, and trying to be sympathetic just caused increased anger and outrage, putting him in the crosshairs in place of their husbands.

But he didn’t think Ashley’s case was for infidelity. She seemed too brittle, stretched too thin. Grief, not anger.

“Ashley’s partner, Richard, was the victim of a fatal hit and run,” Bowman said, confirming his suspicion. “It’s a little more difficult to investigate than your usual MVC, since there were no witnesses, no cameras, and the body wasn’t even discovered immediately. That has all made it very difficult for Miss Morton—Ashley—to deal with.”

Zachary nodded. The waitress had brought him a glass of water. He took a sip, waiting for the rest of the story. Bowman sounded confident of the facts, so Zachary suspected he wasn’t looking for Zachary to do an accident scene reconstruction. The police had probably already done their own, or had plans to, depending on how long they’d had to work the case.

“They’re calling it an accident,” Ashley said. “They said the driver isn’t at fault.” She shook her head, sputtering for words. “There’s no way it was accidental.”

Zachary considered. “What were the conditions? Was there alcohol involved?”

“All they have is the driver’s word for it what time it was. There aren’t any witnesses. No proof. The police couldn’t do a breathalyzer three days later.”

“No,” Zachary agreed. He pulled a notepad out of his pocket. “Do you mind if I make some notes?”

She nodded her permission.

“Your boyfriend’s name was Richard…?”

“Harding. Just how it sounds.”

“And the date of the accident?”

“Well, we don’t know, do we? All we have is his word for it. And it wasn’t an accident.”

“Sorry. Incident. When did this allegedly happen?”

She was mollified and gave him more details. It had been a week since she had seen her boyfriend last and the police suggested that it had been that night he had been killed on the side of a rural highway.

“But you don’t believe that’s when it happened?”

“Well… I guess I do. I mean, Richard just dropped off the face of the earth, and that’s not the kind of thing that he did. He was very reliable.”

“So it probably was that night.”

She nodded. Zachary wrote down the location and the date. He could look up weather conditions, sunset and sunrise, and any surveillance camera locations later on. The police might have missed something. They were usually pretty thorough, but every now and then, Zachary managed to tease out new information from a suspect or the available evidence.

“And you didn’t know that anything had happened to him, just that he had disappeared.”

“I knew something was wrong. I reported him missing in the morning when I woke up, but they said I would have to go to the police station and make a proper missing persons report once he had been missing for twenty-four hours. I know they can start an investigation sooner than that.” She flashed a glare at Bowman.

Bowman shrugged. “In the case of a missing child, or someone we have evidence was kidnapped or in danger. But just a routine missing person… no. They tend to show up on their own and we don’t want to waste precious police resources on someone who just went out on a drunk.”

“He didn’t go out drinking! He was hit on the road!”

“Yes.” He had a sip of his beer, which was almost empty. “We know that now, but we didn’t know it then. To start with, it was just a routine missing person with no evidence of violence. No ransom. No sign that there had been a fight. No witnesses that he’d been taken by force. He just disappeared off of his property.”

“His car was still there. Did you think he just walked away? Off of a property twenty miles from the nearest town?” Her voice rose accusingly.

“It’s just policy, Ms. Morton,” Bowman reassured her. “You were not wrong to suspect that something had happened to him. Your instincts were right on.”

She nodded, seeming appeased by his words. She fiddled with her drink for a minute, making tracks in the condensation on the side with her finger.

“So, they started an investigation after he had been missing for twenty-four hours,” Ashley said. “They got people out searching the property, even though I had already looked everywhere for him. And they got scent dogs out to see if they could track him.”

Zachary nodded. “And that’s when they found him?”

“He was in the ditch beside the road, but you couldn’t see him because it was overgrown with weeds and grass and bush. They just covered him up.” Her voice was cracking like an adolescent’s.

Zachary gave her a sympathetic smile. He didn’t reach out to take her hand, too awkward when he had only just met her. “I’m sorry. Do you need a minute?”

At that point, the waitress came with their meals, a welcome distraction. The plates were delivered and they each took a few bites of their dinners before attempting to continue the conversation.

“Why don’t you tell him the police findings?” Ashley suggested.

Bowman nodded. He took a big bite of steak and chewed it vigorously for a few minutes before offering any comment.

“Date of death was the night he disappeared. Exact time unknown. Gross examination suggests he was hit from behind and to the left, which is consistent with him being found in the right-hand ditch if he was walking away from the farm, toward the highway. As Ms. Morton said, the body was hidden by the overgrowth. Both she and the police had driven by the location several times without seeing him from the road.”

“Any tire tracks?”

“It’s a rural road, but it is paved and gets a fair bit of traffic because it joins two highways. If you know it goes through, you can use it as a shortcut. But there was no fresh rubber along the stretch of the highway before the collision to indicate an attempt to stop. There was a minor skid mark and tire tracks where a truck had pulled over after the point of collision. Since it’s just a rural road, there’s really no shoulder to pull onto and it isn’t a safe place to stop in the dark.”

“So someone might have stopped after hitting him.”

Bowman agreed. He glanced at Ashley and continued. “The driver says he got out of the truck, looked at the damage on the truck, and looked for any sign of an animal he had hit along the side of the road.”

“But he didn’t see the body because it was hidden in the ditch.” Zachary pushed the food around on his plate. “Is this the driver who hit him, or someone who just happened to be along? I thought you said it was a hit and run.”

“As it turns out, it was more of a ‘hit and stop and have a look around and then leave’,” Bowman said with gallows humor. “As he didn’t know he had hit a person, he didn’t call it in. He got back in his truck and drove away.”

“He really didn’t know what he had hit?”

“Apparently.”

“He knew very well!” Ashley insisted. “It was no accident!”

“You asked me to talk about the police findings. That is the police finding.”

Ashley closed her mouth, pressing her lips into a thin, straight line. Bowman gave her a moment in case she wanted to say something else, then went on.

“The driver self-reported. Not for a couple of days, but later when he got suspicious that maybe it wasn’t just an animal he had hit out there.”

That seemed a little suspicious to Zachary, but he nodded and made a note of it. “You don’t think that he was just waiting until he would be clean of any drugs or alcohol before reporting it?”

“We followed up with his insurance company. He had filed an insurance report the morning after the accident—er, MVC—saying that he had hit an animal and giving the pertinent details.”

“That could have just been a complete cover-up,” Ashley broke in.

“Sure,” Zachary agreed. “I would have to look into it further to see how well his story held together. But he could be telling the truth. If you hit a person in a small car, you’re going to get a lot of damage and know for sure what you hit. But a bigger truck… it wouldn’t do as much damage to the vehicle.”

“It was a semi taking a shortcut,” Bowman informed them. Zachary nodded. A lot of inertia behind something like that. He would have to hit something pretty big to make a big impact on a truck of that size.

“And you’ve interviewed this driver and decided that you believe his story. It was just an accident.”

“I didn’t interview him personally. But interviews were conducted. The final autopsy results are not in yet. They’ll want to run a tox screen and see if there is anything else suspicious, but chances are, it’s going to be ruled an accident pretty quickly. There are, as yet, no indications of foul play.”

“Richard didn’t drink,” Ashley said.

Zachary smiled politely at her. “What?”

“They aren’t going to find anything on a tox screen. Richard didn’t drink. He didn’t take drugs. He didn’t take anything. He was very careful.”

“Did he have some kind of history of alcohol abuse?”

“No, of course not!” Her reply was vehement. She shook her head and put her fork down loudly on her plate. “He did not have anything to do with alcohol. Not ever.”

“Religious? Personal decision? No family history…?” In Zachary’s experience, people weren’t teetotalers for no reason. It was the society norm to have a drink now and then, particularly on social occasions, and people didn’t fall outside the norm without a conscious decision.

“He just didn’t think it was a good idea,” Ashley said primly. She took a sip of her own drink and picked up her fork again. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“No,” Zachary agreed, glancing down at his own glass of water. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“So would you take the case?” Ashley asked him tentatively. “Would you look into it, dig down deeper than the police did, and prove that it was really an intentional homicide, not an accident?”

“I can’t guarantee the results,” Zachary said. “I can’t tell you what my findings are going to be or whether you’re going to agree with them. Is there really a case to be made for intentional homicide? What are you reasons for thinking it wasn’t just an accident?”

Ashley took a bite of her salad and chewed it slowly. “The driver got out of the truck and went to have a look,” she said. “That tells me that he knew exactly what he had done. He got out to make sure Richard was really dead.”

“Or he got out to look for the animal he had hit, but not seeing one, decided to go on his way.”

“I know Richard. He would never be careless like that, walking with his back to traffic. He would have walked on the other side of the road so he was facing oncoming traffic. He would have gotten off of the road if there was a truck coming. He was very careful to avoid traffic accidents. He would never have let something like that happen.”

Zachary scratched down a couple of notes and closed his eyes, thinking about it. “Were you there that night? Did the two of you live together?”

“I have my own place, but I stayed over with him a lot. It just depended on what our schedules were like. That night… I went home.”

“Because you wanted to? He wanted you to? Whose idea was it?”

“I don’t know… I don’t think either one of us said specifically. It was just one of those things… mutual. I had things to do, he had things to do. So I went home.”

“And you realized he was missing when? The next morning.”

“Yes.” Without prompting, she went on to give him the details. “I called him every morning. We always chatted for a few minutes over coffee. Just touched base, talked about how our days were going to be. Couples stuff. It didn’t matter whether we were together or apart, we always had that talk.”

“So you called and he didn’t answer.”

“Right.”

“How often had that happened before?”

“It wasn’t unusual… he would be getting breakfast ready or shaving and he would call me back once he was free.”

“But he didn’t.”

“I waited a while, then called again. Over and over. He still didn’t answer. I texted him. I didn’t know what else to do. I went to work for the morning, but I couldn’t keep my mind on my work, I was so worried about why he wasn’t answering. So I took the afternoon off and went to see him. I thought… maybe he was sick in bed. I really couldn’t think of anything else. It never occurred to me that he might have left the house.”

“He didn’t normally go for a morning jog or walk?”

“No. We both thought that was a little silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with it if that’s how you choose to get your exercise! But we both had fitness equipment and club memberships. No need to brave the weather and the traffic if you could just take a spin on the stationary bike while watching the morning news. It just seemed a lot more… civilized.”

Zachary looked at Bowman. “How was he dressed?”

“Comfortable, casual. Not dressed for the office, but not dressed for bed or for a jog either. Jeans, t-shirt, warm jacket. Sneakers, not loafers.”

“Where did he work? Did he have a stressful job?”

Ashley gave an uncomfortable shrug. “He was… a janitor. Well, somebody has to be! It was a good, steady job. It paid his expenses and he was putting a little away. I bring in good money from my job, so if we got married…” Ashley swallowed hard and didn’t finish the thought. She was still in the process of figuring out how to manage without him. She still thought of him as being there, present with her, and the thought that they didn’t actually have a future together anymore was startling and tragic.

“Nothing wrong with a good, honest job,” Bowman asserted. “We checked him out and there were no indicators that he was into anything illegal on the side. One hundred percent legit.”

Zachary was glad that the police investigation bore out what Ashley had to say about her deceased partner. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t find something more when he had a chance to really look for any issues. He smiled and nodded at Bowman.

“Good. It helps with an investigation when I’m told everything.”

He looked at Ashley. She didn’t jump in with more details. He had a feeling she was holding back, but he didn’t know what kind of information it was she was holding back. She claimed that Richard was clean, no drugs or alcohol, holding a custodial position. No problems with the law.

“What was Richard’s background?”

“What do you mean?”

“Custodial jobs are usually entry-level. People don’t stay there unless they don’t have a choice. Did he have any education? Did he grow up with his family or in the system? It doesn’t sound from his name like he was an immigrant whose qualifications were not accepted here.”

“No. He just… I don’t know. That’s what he could get, so he stayed there. He and his family grew up in Minnesota.”

“Are they still around?”

“No.”

“Hobbies?”

Ashley’s brows drew down. “I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

“I wonder how he spent his time. If he wasn’t doing something he enjoyed for work, then I assume he was getting satisfaction from something else he was doing at home.”

She gave a helpless shrug. “No… no hobbies. I guess he just… we did things together. Went out to eat or watched TV. Nothing… special.”

Zachary tried to think of what else to say. He still didn’t know what made her so sure that it hadn’t been an unfortunate accident. Was she in denial? He didn’t like to take a case just based on the fact that she was in shock over Richard’s death. She’d come around to it and then wouldn’t want to pay him.

“I’ll need a retainer,” he said. “If you really want to go ahead with this. But I don’t hear anything that leads me to believe it was an accident. I’ll need money up front, and you need to be prepared for the fact that I might not find anything that supports your feeling that it was accidental. The police are pretty thorough…”

“But you’ve solved cases before that they thought were accidental when they were really murder.”

“Yes. I have.”

“That’s why I need you. I need someone who is willing to suspend disbelief and not just follow what the police say. If you come back with it being an accident… I guess I’m going to have to live with that. But I’m not going to find out anything if I don’t pursue it. I really need to know. I need to know what happened to Richard. He wouldn’t have just gone out walking in the middle of the night and gotten in an accident like that.”

“Okay.” As Zachary’s dinner got cold, he outlined the financial terms and conditions for Ashley, and she nodded and ate her meal and didn’t blanch at the rates he gave her and the upfront retainer. Eventually, Zachary had given her all of the warnings he could think of. “Well, if that sounds okay to you, I’ll write it up. You sleep on it tonight and make sure it’s really what you want. If you wake up in the morning and have changed your mind, no harm done. Just let me know. If not… I’ll start in on what the police have gathered, and see what else needs to be done.” Zachary looked at Bowman. “Can I get access to the case files?”

“You know how it is. It’s an active investigation, so no. But talk to the right people and push the right buttons, and that could change. Your friend Joshua Campbell is on the case, so it probably won’t be too hard. He was happy with the work done on the Salter case.”

Zachary nodded, relieved. There were plenty of cops at the police station who didn’t like him or didn’t want anything to do with a private investigator, but Campbell was not one of them. He’d always been civil toward Zachary. Sometimes, like in the Salter case, he had even given Zachary a tip or given him leave to investigate in a direction he knew his own officers wouldn’t be able to pursue.

“That’s great. He won’t give me any trouble.”

“Good,” Ashley approved. “You always hear stories about how cops and private eyes can’t get along together, or cops and the FBI. I’m glad to know that’s just pulp fiction.”

Zachary exchanged looks with Bowman. “Oh, it’s not always fiction. But it shouldn’t be a problem on this file.”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

He was Walking Alone

By P.D. Workman

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