By Richard Ciciarelli

Sharon Baker had been a friend of mine for over ten years. Her husband, Bill, was one of my most reliable contacts on the police department until he quit to become a private investigator like me.

Now Sharon sat in my office, dabbing her red eyes and blowing her chafed nose.

"I don't know who else to turn to, Drake," she said between sobs. "I know the department will look into it, but I thought maybe you..." Her voice trailed off.

I nodded.

"Tell me everything you know, Sharon."

"It's not much. A man named Howard came to Bill a week or so ago and asked him to find his daughter. She had disappeared."

"Run away?" I asked. "Kidnapped?"

"He didn't know. Bill took the case and dove into it full speed — the way he always did. hen, three days ago, he came home all excited. He told me he was on the brink of solving it, and the solution was big. Real big."

"Did he tell you where the girl was?"

"No, but he said all he had to do was pay one visit the next day and he could solve a whole lot of problems all at once."


"And the next day he went out to pay that visit," she paused, "and he never came back."

"Where did he go?"

"I don't know. He wouldn't tell me."

"Bill must have known his visit would be dangerous," I said. "It doesn't sound like him to do anything as foolish as go on a dangerous job without some kind of back-up or help."

Sharon nodded in agreement.

"His body was found in a ditch outside of town."

"Who found him?"

"His former partner. An anonymous caller phoned the police station and told him where he could find Bill."

"Maybe I could start there. Did Bill keep any notes or daily log of his work?"

"Yes." She reached into a cloth shopping bag and pulled out a leather-covered notebook.

I took it and flipped pages. Bill had recorded the progress of all his cases chronologically. I came to a heading "Philip Howard" near the middle of the notebook. It took up four pages. The rest of the notebook was blank.

"Did the police see this?" I asked.

"Yes. They made copies and gave me that back."

"Let me study this," I said. "I'll see if I can pick up where Bill left off. You go home and try to get some rest."

"Drake," Sharon said as she rose to leave, "be careful."

* * *

"Philip Howard," I said to Police chief Jim Barclay the next day. "Bill Baker was looking for his missing daughter. Know anything about it?"

"A little," Barclay said. "I put two men on it, but they haven't turned up much. I've been busy with three other cases, so I haven't been able to keep up on that one."

"I understand Mike Carlisle found Bill's body."

"Yeh," Barclay nodded. "Got a phone call. He couldn't be sure the caller was serious or just pulling a prank. When he went out there, he saw it was no prank."

"Mind if I talk to him?"

"If he's not busy, go ahead."

I found Carlisle at his desk, waist deep in paperwork.

"I'd like to help you, but I just don't have the time," he said, pointing to the forms he had to fill out.

"Just one quick question," I said. "Maybe two."

"Make it fast."

"The person who called you about Bill. What was the voice like?"

"Male, Caucasian sounding, whispery. Obviously trying to disguise himself."

"What time did the call come in?"

Carlisle flipped the pages of a notebook on his desk.

"I log all calls here," he explained.

He spun the notebook around so I could read it and pointed to one entry.

"Nine seventeen," I read. "And he just told you you'd find Bill's body in that ditch?"

"Yep. One or two sentences and he hung up. Whole thing didn't take more than fifteen, twenty seconds,"

I thanked Carlisle and headed back to my office where I took Bill's notebook out and read it again.

Under the name "Rose Howard" was a brief description: twenty-three, five foot one, one hundred two pounds, shoulder length blonde hair. Hobbies: bass guitar player for the group The Belligerents.

The next couple of pages were descriptions of people he spoke to — Rose Howard's band members, her co-workers at her day job, former classmates — the usual.

Then there was a phone number. No name, just a number.

Now, some PIs would hop on line and trace that number, but I'm one of those computer illiterate people, so I called a friend of mine at the phone company and had him do me a little favor. The number belonged to a Bernice Cluma. It was a new number, having been given out less than two weeks ago.

Bernice Cluma lived in a small apartment building on the east side of town. I paid her a visit, but she wasn't home, so I sat in the lobby of her building until she came in. I knew it was her because she checked Bernice Cluma's mailbox as soon as she came in.

I introduced myself to the young blonde and explained why I was there.

"If you don't mind," the young woman said, "we'll talk down here. I don't invite strangers into my home, detectives or not."

"Sure," I said. "Now, what was your connection to Rose Howard?"

"I never heard of her."

"Never? She played in a band called The Belligerents. Ever hear of them?"

"Yeh. I think so. They play at Johnny's Place a lot. This Rose person was in the band?"

"Bass guitarist. Ever notice her?"

"Now that you mention it, yeh. Little girl — like me. I always wondered how she could play that heavy guitar all night. But I never met her. Never talked to her or anything."

"Then why would your phone number be in my friend's casebook?"

"You got me," the girl shrugged. "Look, I got a date tonight I have to get ready for, so I'm going up to my apartment. If you ever find out why your friend connected this Rose person up to me, let me know, will you? I'm curious."

There wasn't much more to do there, so I started back to my office. Halfway there I changed my mind and went to Sharon Baker's house.

"Sharon, are you sure you've told me everything you know?"

"Everything, Drake. I've been trying to remember every little thing Bill told me. You know it all."

A stack of papers lay on a writing desk.

"Bills?" I asked.

"Yes. Bill used to take care of all the financial work. Now I'm stuck with it."

I picked up a phone bill.


Sharon nodded. "Bill did a lot of work right here. He had the phone bill itemized so he could take a tax deduction for his business expenses."

"I see he called one number several times. Do you know whose it is?"

Sharon looked at the phone bill and shook her head.

"Looks like my pal at the phone company is going to have to do me another favor."

* * *

I wasn't ready for the name my friend gave me. It was the unlisted private residence of Edward "Big Eddie" Riccune.

Word on the street was Riccune was tightly connected to the mob. My next stop was police headquarters again.

"Are you out of your mind?" Jim Barclay said. "You can't question Big Eddie."

"I have to. I just thought you might give me a few pointers. You've questioned him yourself more than once."

"Yes. And every time his lawyer was with him, and every time we had to release him after only an hour or so. The man is filthy; we know it, but we can't prove it."

"He must know something, though," I said.

"Listen, Drake, Riccune's daughter was about to turn state's evidence against her old man last week when she had a little accident. Her sports car slammed into a bridge and went up in a ball of flame. We think Riccune managed that accident. If he'd do that to his own daughter, he won't have any qualms about getting rid of a nosy PI."

"And you won't be able to prove he had anything to do with it, I know," I said. "But I have to give it a try anyhow."

* * *

Big Eddie Riccune wasn't very big. At least not physically. He was sitting at a desk covered with family pictures doing a crossword puzzle when I was shown into his den by a huge lug who called himself a secretary.

"Mr. Robbins," Riccune said as he rose and leaned across the desk to shake hands, "I've read about you in the newspapers. To what do I owe this honor?"

"A friend of mine, Bill Baker, was found murdered in a ditch a few days ago," I explained. "His telephone bill showed he had called you several times. I wondered why."

"You don't beat around the bush, do you? I like that." Riccune penciled two words in on his crossword puzzle. "Baker called me about some missing girl he was trying to find. I told him I never heard of her. He didn't believe me and called again. After that I instructed my secretary to hang up if Mr. Baker phoned any more."

"Which he did, I suppose?"

"My employees always follow instructions."

Riccune finished his crossword, put it aside, and opened a book of word searches.

"You like puzzles, Mr. Robbins?"

"Solving puzzles is my job," I said.

"I mean word puzzles. They're good for you, you know. Keep the mind active. Too many people have healthy bodies and weak minds. A person needs both to survive these days."

"And you're a survivor," I said.

"Sure am. Now let me tell you the same thing I told Mr. Baker: My daughter was taken from me in a tragic accident a little while ago. I miss her dearly. I could never take another man's daughter. I know nothing about this Rose Howard girl, and that's that."

"The police think you arranged your daughter's accident," I said.

"I know," the little man nodded. "Look around you." He waved at all the pictures on his desk. "Do you think I could ever do such a thing?"

Most of the pictures showed a petite, dark haired girl. She appeared to be in her early to mid twenties with dark, intelligent eyes. She looked very familiar to me; then I realized she was the spitting image of her father.

"Now I believe I've been a good host and answered all your questions, so if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone. My puzzles help me forget about my deceased daughter. Your reminding me of her has stirred up sad feelings."

Riccune pushed a button on his desk and the gorilla of a secretary came in and escorted me out of the house.

* * *

"So how did it go with Big Eddie?" Barclay asked.

"About the way I expected. He denied having anything to do with Rose Howard's disappearance."

"How about the death of his daughter, Melba?"

"Melba? Where'd he get a name like that?"

"Named after his wife's mother, I guess. Anyway, what did he say about her?"

"He was insulted that you could even consider him responsible for her death."

Barclay nodded.

"Funny thing is, I believed him," I went on. "A man doesn't surround his private space with pictures of his daughter and then have her killed."

"He might if his freedom depended upon it," Barclay grunted.

"I don't think so. Anyhow, I was wondering about the coroner's report on Bill Baker. Could I have a look at it?"

Barclay rifled through some files on his desk and handed me a copy marked Medical Report. I scanned it, looking for only a few items.

"Says Bill died between nine and ten a.m. One bullet to the head. Close range — less than three feet. Large caliber gun. The slug was pulled out of the car roof where it ended up after passing through Bill's head."

"Yep. He was shot in his own car and then dumped into the ditch. We found the car nearby. That's all in the full investigation report."

"Then he must have known whoever killed him," I said.

"That's what we figure, too," Barclay nodded. "But try coming up with a name. That's the puzzle."

Something in the way Barclay said that made a bell go off in my head.

"Can I have a piece of paper and a pencil?" I asked. "I want to fool around with something."

"What are you up to?" Barclay asked.

"A long shot, but if I'm right, I think I can point you to Bill's murderer and help you with another case at the same time."

* * *

"You were right," Barclay told me the next day. "How did you figure this one out?"

"It started falling into place when you used the word puzzle to describe Bill Baker's death. That reminded me of Big Eddie Riccune telling me he loved word puzzles."

"I don't get the connection," Barclay said.

"Big Eddie's puzzles made me think about his daughter and her sudden death. Interesting how a small girl like Rose Howard disappeared at the same time a small girl like Melba Riccune died in a flaming car crash, wasn't it?

"That's when a crazy idea occurred to me. What if Big Eddie didn't arrange for his daughter to die as you thought? What if some other girl about her size died in that crash? The burned body would appear to be Melba Riccune, and if a close friend or family member identified it, no one would bother to run any close checks like dental records or notice the corpse's fingers had calluses from guitar playing."

"So Big Eddie's daughter would just vanish and we'd assume she was dead," Barclay said.

I nodded.

"Riccune really did love his daughter, and she loved him, too. She was never going to turn state's evidence. That was all a con.

"That's why Bill Blake was so excited when he solved this case. He not only knew what had happened to Rose Howard, he was about to pin a murder on Big Eddie Riccune and expose Melba Riccune's supposed accident."

"But Bill got killed in the process," Barclay said.

"Yes. He made one mistake. He made a phone call to the wrong man. Right from the start I knew Bill would never take on anything dangerous without a backup. He called the one person he thought he could trust to help him — his old partner, Mike Carlisle."

"Who was in Riccune's back pocket," Barclay spat.

"Yep," I agreed. "When Mike heard that Bill had Big Eddie dead to rights, he did the only thing he could. He agreed to meet Bill and then shot him."

"With his police pistol," Barclay said. "Ballistics tests just proved that."

"It was Bill who called Carlisle that day," I said, "not some anonymous caller. Carlisle's mistake was to write down the time of the call before he checked on who it was. Then he had to cover by making up the anonymous caller."

"We should have realized his call came in at nine seventeen and the coroner placed Bill's death at between nine and ten," Barclay said. "The time of death is never exact. Bill was killed after the call came in, not before."

I nodded again.

"But I still don't see how you knew that Bernice Cluma girl was really Big Eddie's daughter," Barclay said.

"Two things. First, I spoke with Bernice. Then, at Big Eddie's house I looked at some photos of Melba. I knew she looked familiar, but I thought it was just a family resemblance to Big Eddie. Now I know it was a wig and some carefully applied make-up that transformed Melba into Bernice."

"You said two things," Barclay said. "What was the other thing?"

"Big Eddie's love of word puzzles. That's what triggered the whole thing in my mind to begin with. Big Eddie just couldn't resist a little personal joke. Take the name Melba Riccune, rearrange the letters, and you get Bernice Cluma, an anagram.

Richard Ciciarelli is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has seen over 60 short stories published in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites.

Copyright 2011 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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