Authors: Jennifer L. Jennings
A Witness in Disguise
A Sarah Woods Mystery #10
Jennifer L. Jennings
All rights reserved.
Monday, July 7
July in Bridgeport, New Hampshire is a mixed blessing
. It’s a beautiful historic seaport town brimming with quaint coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques but, during the summer months, it becomes bombarded with tourists; and good luck finding a parking spot anywhere near the downtown square.
Born and raised in Bridgeport, I’m used to the crowds
. I plan ahead knowing that it might take an extra twenty minutes to get to the post office or the bank but, on this particular afternoon, I was running very late.
The Hometown Diner is just what it sounds like; a no frills restaurant that caters mostly to locals
and it’s where I conduct most of my initial consultations. As a private investigator, I prefer to meet with potential clients in a neutral location. Plus, it cuts out the cost of having to lease office space.
Thankfully my partner
, Carter, was already seated at our favorite booth. He was on his cell phone, head bent forward, oblivious to my arrival. For a guy in his fifties, he could still turn the heads of many thirty-year-old women. I’ve seen it happen quite often. With his thick grey hair and a rock hard body, he was the poster child for ruggedly handsome, a cross between Richard Gere and the Marlborough Man. Today he was wearing his usual attire of black t-shirt and worn jeans and my chest tightened at the sight of him. It was only five days ago that he’d revealed — in a heartfelt letter — that his feelings for me had progressed beyond the scope of friendship and business partner. The disclosure had been triggered by a decision I’d made to move to California with my boyfriend. A move I was no longer willing to make given the recent developments.
When I sat down next to him, I tried to play it cool
. “Where’s the client?” I asked.
Carter turned his head and smiled at me, causing my heart to beat a little faster
. He held up his cell phone. “Just called to say he’s running late,” he said. “He should be here in five.”
The waitress came over with my cup of coffee
. “Thanks, Rita.” I took a long sip and allowed myself a moment to relax. The smell of frying bacon and pancakes reminded me how hungry I was.
Carter gave me a hesitant sideways glance
. “So, are you nervous about tonight?”
He was referring to the big talk I had planned with my almost ex-boyfriend Max, to tell him I wouldn’t be moving with him
. “I’m not looking forward to it,” I said. “But it has to get done.”
Carter squeezed my hand for a brief moment but said nothing
. It was sweet, considering he wasn’t prone to gestures of affection. It had taken him over a year to open up to me.
I was about to ask him what his plans were for the evening but something caught my eye. When I looked up, an attractive kid in his mid twenties stood next to the booth. He must have been of Italian or Greek descent with his dark hair, brown eyes and thick eyebrows.
Carter stood up and held out his h
and. “You must be Mark.”
He nodded and pumped Carter’s hand
. “Sorry for the delay. The traffic was something else.”
. Please have a seat.” Carter motioned toward me. “This is Sarah Woods, my partner.”
gave me a smile, slid into the booth across from us and placed his laptop bag next to him. He wore a white polo shirt with the store name, Computer Whiz, embroidered on the sleeve.
I signaled the waitress and Mark ordered an English
Carter said to him, “When you’re ready, go ahead and tell us what’s on your mind.”
Mark folded his hands on the table in an effort to appear calm and collected. I got the feeling, however, he was overcompensating for his unease.
Meagan Hart was abducted from her home about three months ago,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “The police don’t have any leads and I feel like they’ve just given up. Finally, a friend of mine suggested I hire a private detective. So here I am.”
Carter’s brows furrowed in thoughtful consideration
. “I remember when this happened - last April, right?”
April third. Meagan was staying at her dad’s house after he’d moved into an assisted living home.” Mark pursed his lips while fidgeting with his napkin, a deep sadness in his eyes. “Anyway, nobody knows for sure what happened but someone broke into the house. Meagan’s gone.”
Any signs of a struggle?” I asked.
e nodded. “To tell you the truth, Meagan and I weren’t seeing each other last April. She had started dating some other guy. He was the one who went to the house that night and called 911 when he realized something was wrong.”
The waitress returned with a mug of steaming water and a tea bag
. After she left, I cleared my throat, placed my cell phone on the table next to my notebook and asked Mark, “Do you mind if I record this conversation?”
. “Sure, I guess that’s okay.”
Let’s start at the beginning just so we can get the big picture. Tell us more about Meagan and your relationship with her.”
,” he said, retrieving a photo from his satchel. He slid it across the table. The young woman was a blonde beauty with big blue eyes and dimples. Probably the same age as Mark, mid twenties. “Meagan and I met the summer of 2011 at a party. She was the kind of girl who intimidated guys with her looks but, once you got to know her, she was so down to earth. We started dating and, after a few months, she moved in with me. Things were going great. I bought an engagement ring but I didn’t want to propose too soon and scare her away.” He paused to dunk his tea bag in and out of the mug. “Anyway, it all went to shit. I lost my job and became depressed. When I couldn’t afford the rent, Meagan had to step in and bail me out several times. I felt like a loser. Then, last March, Meagan’s father had an accident. He was on his roof trying to replace some shingles and he fell. He was in a coma for a week and suffered some serious brain damage. Meagan moved out of my apartment and went to live at her dad’s house to take care of his stuff. We were both in a really bad place in our lives so we decided to take a break. I figured we’d eventually get back together but, then …” Mark stared at her photo lying on the table with longing in his eyes.
“So you mentioned before that s
he’d started dating someone else,” Carter asked. “The one who went to her house and discovered a crime scene?”
Yes.” Mark nodded. “He told the police that Meagan had invited him over to watch a movie. His name is Cliff Collins and he’s some kind of hot-shot lawyer, not at all Meagan’s type.”
I sensed a jealous twinge to his voice
. “No ransom calls or anything like that?”
Mark shook his head
. “No. I mean, Meagan didn’t have a lot of money and neither did her father. In fact, Meagan doesn’t have any living relatives, other than her dad, I mean.”
“Was Meagan having problems with anyone?
” I asked. “Had she mentioned anything to you about a possible stalker?”
“No,” he said
. “Nothing like that.”
Carter said, “Tell us about her family
. Where is she from?”
“Born and raised in Portland, Maine
; moved to Bridgeport after high school. Her mom died when she was young so her dad raised her. They’re very close.”
“Have you been in touch with her dad?” I asked.
ighed despondently. “Mr. Hart has been living at the Holbrook Facility with full time nurses to take care of him. He can’t even talk.”
What about her extended family?” I asked. “Step brothers or sisters - aunts or uncles?”
her best friend, Lizzy, is like a sister to her. They’ve been friends since high school.”
“What’s her full name?” I asked.
“Elizabeth Walker. Everyone calls her Lizzy. She married a guy about ten years older. Neal Walker is a plastic surgeon.”
“What about Meagan’s job?”
was a dental hygienist for a pediatric dentist named Dr. Amos. She worked there a few years and seemed to get along well with everyone.”
I scribbled down the dentist’s name in my notebook
. “Do you know of any other guys beside this Cliff Collins that she might have been dating at the time?”
“I don’t know
. Maybe. Meagan never mentioned that she wanted to see other guys. I really thought we’d get back together.”
“Did she have old boyfriends that were still pining for her?” I asked
. “Maybe one of them was obsessed with her?”
He shook his hea
d. “I can’t think of anyone. The guy she dated before me got married and moved away. I don’t think she kept in touch with him after that.”
Carter picked up th
e photo of Meagan and examined it again. I could almost hear the wheels turning in his brain.
“Did Meagan ever file
a restraining order against you?” Carter asked. “Were
“What?” Mark gave him a wounded look
. “No way. Why are you asking me that?”
Carter remained deadpan
. “Were you ever a suspect in her disappearance?”
Mark seemed bewildered by
the accusation. “Jesus, no.”
Carter shook his head apologetically
. “Sorry if I insulted you, but I had to ask. Did the police find any fingerprints or DNA at the crime scene?”
Mark gave Carter a long glare before he finally calmed down
. “I don’t think so. Detective James is the guy in charge of the investigation. He won’t tell me much of anything which means they don’t have a clue what happened to her.”
Carter and I exchanged a glance
. We had worked with Detective James in the past and we respected him. It was a lucky break because I was fairly certain Detective James might be willing to share his thoughts with us about the case.
Mark handed Carter an envelope
. Inside were a stack of bills. “I was able to save up a thousand bucks. That’s all I can afford. Will you take the job?”
looked at me and I nodded. “Okay,” I said to Mark. “We’ll do our best to find out what happened to Meagan but you need to prepare yourself for the worst. Chances are not very good in a scenario like this.”
nodded. “Understood, whatever you can do.”
After our meeting with Mark Gillespie, Carter and I drove straight to the Bridgeport Police department and spoke with Detective James. It had been months since I’d seen him but he greeted me with a friendly smile. I noticed his thinning brown hair had streaks of gray at the temples. I’d never asked him his age but, if I had to guess, I would say he was probably my age, mid forties.
“Sarah and Carter, been a while since our paths have crossed
. Let me guess, you guys aren’t here to donate to my retirement party fund, are you?”
“Retirement?” I said with no lack of sarcasm
. “You’re way too young to retire, sir.”
“Nice try,” he said, inviting us into his small, windowless office
. “Have a seat. What can I do for you?”
This is about Meagan Hart. Three months ago you responded to a 911 call at her house.”
, I remember. That case is still open. Who hired you?”
espie, Meagan’s former boyfriend.”
Detective James gave a low chuckle
. “Yeah, I know him. He calls me about once a week to see if we’ve found any new leads. Seems like a nice guy.”
“Any chance you could give us a copy of the police report?” I asked.
The detective nodded and began typing into the keyboard of his computer on the desk. A few seconds later, the printer was spitting out pages. “Whoever took Meagan that night left no fingerprints, DNA, or even tire tracks at the scene. No witnesses, either. I’ve personally spoken to all of Meagan’s friends, coworkers and acquaintances. They all have solid alibis and none of them knew of any stalkers or controlling ex-boyfriends.”
I opened my notebook and scanned
through my barely legible penmanship. “What about the guy who called 911, his name is Cliff Collins? Apparently, he showed up at the house to watch a movie and saw that something was wrong. What exactly did he find?”
Detective James gathered the printout and referred to a section
. “He claims the door was wide open when he arrived so he went in, thinking that Meagan had left it open for him. He walked into the kitchen, called out her name and there was no reply. He walked into the den and noticed a lamp had been knocked over. Thinking it was nothing, he picked it up and returned it to the table. He continued on to the bedroom and noticed the room was in shambles. There was some blood on the bed and on the rug next to the bed; later both spots were confirmed to be Meagan’s. Mr. Collins called 911 at that point, the time approximately 8:55pm. He was told to stay at the house until the police showed up, which he did. Mr. Collins gave us a full statement and even offered to provide his fingerprints and DNA. He was pretty shaken up about the scene but he did his best to help us. He and Meagan hadn’t been dating very long, apparently. He’s a lawyer, so he knew not to touch anything inside the house well, except for that lamp and a few doorknobs.”
“Was there a lot of blood?” I asked
He shook his head
. “No more than a minor nose bleed.”
Do you think she was raped?” I asked.
Detective James made a face
. “No. At least not at the house. Whoever did this planned the attack on Meagan and did it without leaving a single print or DNA. He obviously surprised her or she knew the person. Otherwise, I think she would have tried calling the police if she thought she was in danger.”
“What about footprints or tire tracks?” Carter asked.
“Well, the weather wasn’t working in our favor that day. As a matter of fact, it had been raining that whole week and, whatever tire tracks there might have been, were washed away. As for shoe marks inside the house, the kidnapper was very careful about that, too. Like I said, I believe this was planned.”
“Did you recover Meagan’s cell phone or computer?” I asked.
“Yes. We went through everything. We found no angry calls, texts or emails from anyone. No indication whatsoever as to who might have taken her and there have been no ransom demands. My feeling is this was personal. It could be a stalker that graduated to kidnapping and possibly murder.”
“So,” Carter said
. “You don’t have one single lead?”
Detective James chuckled
. “We have a lead, but it’s weak at best. Cliff Collins told us during his statement, that he remembered passing a dark colored van on the road to her house that night. He didn’t get a good look at the driver or the license plate, since he had no idea at the time that it might have been Meagan’s abductor. We put out an APB on all the dark colored vans within a hundred mile radius, but nothing came of that. We even contacted all the car rental companies in the area to see if anyone had rented a dark-colored van in the days prior to the abduction but, again, no luck.”
I stared at Meagan’s photo again and tried to imag
ine what could have happened. “It’s been three months, what are the chances that she’s still alive?”
“Not very good,” he said
. “But the fact that we haven’t found her body yet means there’s still hope. Contrary to what Mark Gillespie believes, we are still working on this.”
Meagan is a dental hygienist,” Carter said. “Have you looked into all of her patients? Maybe one of them was obsessed with her.”
spoke with every single patient she’d seen in the weeks prior to her disappearance. They all checked out and none of them owned or had rented a dark colored van.”
“Was she working on the day of April third?” I asked.
Detective James thumbed through the printout of the police report and found what he was looking for. “Yes. Her boss confirmed that Meagan left work around 5:15 that night and, according to the last transaction on Meagan’s Visa card, she had stopped for gas at the Irving station on route one at 6:22; then, at 6:55, another purchase on her Visa at Hannaford groceries. That was the last transaction on her credit card. The last call Meagan made on her cell phone was to Elizabeth Walker.”
“What was the conversation about?” I asked.
Meagan left a message, saying she had something to tell her but didn’t give any details. Ms. Walker called her back later that evening but Meagan’s phone was dead.”
Carter interjected, “Did any of the neighbors remember seeing a dark-colored van in the area that night?”
“No.” Detective James sighed. “But the neighborhood only has a few houses. The closest neighbors are several hundred yards away and separated by dense trees. Even if Meagan was screaming for help inside the house, I doubt anyone would have heard her. To answer your question though, we spoke with all the neighbors and no one saw anyone lurking around Meagan’s house in the days or weeks leading up to April third.”
“Maybe this is some kind of serial kidnapper and he didn’t even know Meagan personally,” I said. “Have there been any other abductions similar to this case?”
Detective James gave it some thought
. “Not similar but there was another person reported missing the day after Meagan’s abduction. His name is Graham Taylor. He’s twenty-one years old and, according to his family, he’s had drug problems for years. We have no reason to believe his disappearance has anything to do with Meagan.”
“So I assume Graham Taylor hasn’t been found yet, either?”
. The only other missing person report we’ve had in the past six months was an elderly gentleman with dementia who took a bus to Chicago without letting his family know. He was recovered safe and sound the next day.”
“Don’t you find it a little coincidental that Graham and Meagan b
oth went missing within a day of each other?”
Yes, but Graham and Meagan had nothing in common. They ran in different crowds. He was a drug addict and, rumor has it, a male prostitute. Even his own sister thinks he probably got bombed, stumbled into the river and drowned.”
Could you give me his sister’s name?” I asked.
Detective James massaged his chin, apparently thinking it over
. Finally, he said, “Her name is Karen Taylor. She lives in the trailer park on the West side of town - Number 151. Keep me in the loop if you discover something new, okay? I’m not really supposed to be giving this information out but, quite honestly, we can use all the help we can get right now.”
Carter gave a little bow of acknowledgement
as he accepted the police reports. “Of course, detective, we will keep you informed.”