How many times did you want to raise your hand in class as a kid and ask Mrs. McMath if there was ever going to be a practical application for the tripe she was teaching? Especially if math didn’t come easy for you. Then, like me, you probably became one of those students who wasted valuable learning time dreaming up scenarios where they would never use math. See? I saved the lives of every kid in that orphanage and never used a fraction of math. They gave me a key to the city. I got a gazillion dollar reward and now it don’t matter what milk costs.
In the P.I. game, the tastiest slice of math pie hands down is the common denominator. That’s when the bottom numbers, or the denominators of multiple fractions are the same. Once that happens, they are a hell of a lot easier to add up, and that’s my job, that’s what they pay me for, to add things up. Mrs. McMath would be proud of the fact that the irony was not lost on me.
The manager at the sporting goods store in the mall couldn’t have been more helpful. Turns out, he wasn’t a member of the John Buries fan club. He told me that John always creeped him out. He felt like John did his job well enough but was happier to see him go than come.
As a company rep John set up new displays, brought in new products, mostly hunting related and helped out in the department. He’d move from store to store around the country. Sometimes they’d be stuck with him for a few weeks and then not see him again for months.
The local store had no access to his records although the manager did put in a request for me with the home office. Initially they refused to divulge any personal information, but upon searching for it, seemingly just to make sure we couldn’t get it, deemed the records did not exist anyways. This may or may not have been true as the person responsible will no longer have to bother putting any energy into denying access.
Tempest meanwhile was going to require a little more legwork. She had a loft apartment in the warehouse district, an area where the hip and trendy crowd love to gather in drafty bars and spend way too much money on drinks for the pleasure of looking at old bricks. Thanks in large part to locks that predated WWII, I was able to determine that she had not been home in days. There were however other clues as to where she might be.
After a long day of breaking and entering, it was a few ticks after seven and I was looking forward to a glass or two of wine and a decent meal. I had less than an hour before I had to meet John. The restaurant, like the health club, was another satellite building in orbit around the mall. For John, everything revolved around the mall.
I arrived early, mostly to get a head start on some quality alcohol consumption, but I didn’t even know what kind of car he drove. I mean, was he a truck guy? A sports car guy? Or was he Mr. Practical, or maybe a gas sipper? A man’s choice of vehicle will tell me a lot about him. Even if he had no choice, and had to buy whatever rusty piece of shit he could afford, something to get him from A to B. That would say plenty about him as well.
The Apple Core was a chain restaurant known for its fake friendly wait staff, cheap stiff drinks, and glorified, over-hyped bar food. It was in essence, my kind of place. A person could pass out in an Apple Core in Chicago, wake up in an Apple Core in Atlanta, and not even realize it until they tried to find their car in the parking lot.
John was dropped off at the front door in an everyday sedan driven by an everyday man. A non-descript driver of a cookie-cutter car was just his style. I caught the plate for kicks and giggles even though I knew it wasn’t his car. This was no organized cab service. It looked instead like an “I drank too much” ride service usually posted on a mimeographed flyer behind the bar. Thanks to a trick I just learned from the waitress, I put on my very best fake smile.
“Right on time,” I said.
“Being late would be an insult,” John said.
“So, the mall huh? Craziness. What did you hear?” I asked.
“I heard some poor woman slipped and fell to her death, tragic,” he said.
“I suppose they were talking about it at the store no doubt,” I said.
“Of course, you know how news spreads,” John said.
“So they said she slipped? Because I wonder how would they know that? Seems, I don’t know, quietly specific,” I said.
“Maybe they just presumed. How else would an old woman fall?” he said.
“Well, she could have been pushed, or even pulled I guess,” I said.
“Talk about specific. I wasn’t aware you were on the case,” he said.
“I’m not, well, not directly anyways. So they didn’t say anything else in your store? Nothing about a mannequin perhaps?” I asked.
“Now that you mention it, a couple of the younger guys were going on about it, sounded like a prank or something. I really didn’t give it much thought,” John said.
We ordered a fresh round of drinks and fought the glare coming off the plastic-coated menus to satisfy our collective urge for subpar food. The waitress returned in short order.
“It wasn’t,” I said.
“What wasn’t?” John asked.
“A prank, it wasn’t a prank. I saw it with my own eyes. Hell, I chased it into a department store. It got away from me, somehow, like it could think John, like it could think,” I said.
“Look Philippine, a person sees another person dead, especially in a situation like that and their mind, you know, does things, it compensates, as a sort of, defense. What you likely saw was nothing more than a poorly timed publicity stunt, or at worst a prank that due to unforeseen circumstances, simply fell flat,” John said.
Even I was surprised at how quickly I became angry.
“Don’t patronize me Buries, I was with you that first night when you were carrying that thing downstairs. You said it jumped out of your arms, I dismissed it as you being folksy about your clumsiness, but that wasn’t the case at all, was it John? And we both heard it after we left the storage room didn’t we? What the hell is that thing John, and where exactly were you when that old woman fell?” I asked directly.
“Watching, of course,” he said immediately.
“That’s not funny John, I’m serious. What about the damn mannequin? You’re not that nice John, some are, but you’re not the type. Why did you set up that window display for the boutique? No more bullshit,” I demanded.
“I believe the wine has gone to your head Ms. Maximine. What a shame, but I expected this from you, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you tonight,” he said.
“Oh really? So then you already have answers for my questions, like where were you last night? I’d be very interested to find out, and I will, because you see I have witnesses and I’ll damn well find out if they’ve ever seen you before,” I said.
“What will you know Philippine? What will you have learned?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer him, and it infuriated me. I knew nothing, could prove nothing. What would proof even look like?
“What did you come here for tonight John?” I asked.
“I wanted to show you something, something spectacular. Something you’re never going to believe,” he said.
“So show me,” I said.
“It’s not here, it’s back at my place,” he said.
“Well that’s not happening John so why don’t you just tell me about this spectacular thing instead?” I asked.
“I couldn’t possibly. It’s just something you have to see to believe,” he said.
The waitress brought our food and the conversation degenerated into hateful eye contact.
“I’ll think about it,” I told him.
I thought about it all I was going to but the longer I could keep him there, the better chance I had at getting something out of him. Had I trusted him, had I not heard about the health club, I might have gone with him.
The deep fried, breaded heart bomb was hot enough inside to make school kids gather in the cafeteria and crouch for a pointless nuclear war preparedness drill. I grappled for a cup of fallout water to cool the burn. John slid one within my grasp and I regrettably chugged it down.
I held on for maybe another ten or fifteen minutes after that, it was hard to tell. Everything just sort of slowed down, my eating, drinking, even my accusations. I heard John call for the check as if I were in another room napping.
For a minute, it looked as if regardless of my decision, I was going with him anyways. Management was apparently fine to let him carry me out after his convincing diatribe regarding my inability to hold my alcohol. His cute anecdote detailing my ruination of family Thanksgiving had them rolling in the aisles.
Enter naked man. He wasn’t naked in the restaurant, but he sure as hell was when he saw John at the health club, at least that’s what he told the cops.
All the man really wanted was anonymity, but accidentally coming face to face with John in the restaurant tripped his trigger. He hadn’t yet heard what happened in the pool when he saw John in the locker room. He laid awake at night berating his cowardice, unable to sleep with the thought that had he stepped-up, so many questions could have been answered.
He pointed at John with the sort of look on his face that is usually reserved for survivors of great tragedy.
“You!” You’re the guy!” he said.
“Excuse me sir, I have to get…” John started to say.
“You! It was you! Call the cops, call the cops! This is the, the, the guy, the guy from the health club! Call the cops!” he yelled.
A random woman with a curly gray wig and huge glasses chained around her neck chimed-in from the booth section.
“Oh my God, what did he do to her! Call an ambulance!” she screamed.
Nearly everybody in the restaurant was now standing, trying to see over each other’s shoulders to gain a premier view of the unfolding saga. John dropped me into a chair and pushed his way into the crowd.
“Somebody stop him, hey, he’s leaving, stop him!” the man pleaded.
John grabbed an entrée’ off of a table, something with either excessive sauce, broth, or possibly both, and flung it onto his fellow diners. Between the screaming, ducking, and general chaos he made for the door. A couple of suddenly crowd courageous diners ran outside to see if they could tell what direction he fled but could not locate him.
What would a peaceful morning in the hospital be like without a cop knocking at the door? I wouldn’t know.
“Morning Maximine. You might as well get your own room,” Tom said.
“I’d laugh if you were wrong,” I said.
“Rohypnol the doc said, knockout drug. Apparently he didn’t suppose you’d go willingly. Maybe you should be a little more careful about the men you date,” Tom said.
“Not a date jackass, he’s my number one suspect, especially now. And as much as I hate to say it, I could use your help. I need to find this guy. I doubt he’s going back to the store,” I said.
“The store? He’s connected to the mall?” he asked.
“I think he’s more than connected, I think he’s the cause of it,” I said.
“Of what?” he asked.
“Of everything,” I said.
According to the records obtained by Czerneski, John Buries did not check into the health club that night, or ever. Furthermore, Buries had no known address, drivers license, or social security number. John Buries had never filed taxes, been married, or paid a utility bill. On paper, the man did not exist.
Four men checked in to the club to work out that night. One of the names I recognized as being in the CPR class, two were elderly and the last was Alex Tenant, a guy with an out of state address and dead phone number. John buries may not have had a phone, but he sure as hell called me.
Once again, detective Tom came to the rescue. I really should be nicer to the man. I staked out the phone booth John called me from. I prepared for a marathon wait, including the means to relieve myself if necessary. There are however things a woman will not do in a car.
Two blocks away, at the gas station I saw John Buries hanging up the public phone and inconspicuously followed him home. It was no wonder the mall was his epicenter. He only lived a few blocks away.
After going home myself, I returned later that evening. Thanks in large part to locks that predated the Korean Conflict, I was able to let myself inside. Looking back, I wish he’d have been gone longer.