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  Until Proven Guilty

  ( J P Beaumont - 1 )

  J. A. Jance

  The little girl was only five, much too young to die — a lost treasure who should have been cherished, not murdered.She could have been J.P. Beaumont's kid, and the determined Seattle homicide detective won't rest until her killer pays dearly. But the hunt is leading Beaumont into a murky world of religious fanaticism, and toward a beautiful, perilous obsession all his own. And suddenly Beau himself is a target — because faith can be dangerous…and love can kill.

  J.A. Jance.Until Proven Guilty

  Chapter 1

  She was probably a cute kid once, four maybe five years old. It was hard to tell that now. She was dead. The murder weapon was a pink Holly Hobbie gown. What little was left of it was still twisted around her neck. It wasn’t pretty, but murder never is.

  Her body had rolled thirty feet down a steep embankment from the roadway, tossed out like so much garbage. She was still tangled in a clump of blackberry bushes when we got there. As far as I could see, there was no sign of a struggle. It looked to me as though she had been dead several hours, but a final determination on that would have to wait for the experts.

  My name is Beaumont. I’ve been around homicide for fifteen years, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to puke. I was careful not to think about my own kids right then. You can’t afford to. If you do, you crack up.

  My partner, Ron Peters, was the new man on the squad. He had only been up from burglary a couple of months. He was still at the stage where he was long on homicide theory and short on homicide practice. This was his first dead kid, and he wasn’t taking it too well. He hadn’t come to terms with the idea of a dead child as evidence. That takes time and experience. His face was a pasty shade of gray. I sent him up to the road to talk to the truck driver who had called 911, while I prowled the crime scene along with a small army of arriving officers.

  After the pictures, after the measurements, it took the boys from the medical examiner’s office a good little while to drag her loose from the blackberry bushes. If you’ve ever tried picking blackberries, you know it’s easy enough to get in but hell on wheels to get back out. By the time they brought out the body bag, I was convinced we weren’t going to find anything. We slipped and slid on the steep hillside, without finding so much as a gum wrapper or an old beer can.

  I climbed back up and found to my relief that I had waited long enough. The swam of killer bees that calls itself Seattle’s press corps had disappeared with the coroner’s wagon. I like reporters almost as much as I like killers, and the less I have to do with them, the better off I am.

  Peters’ color was a little better than it had been. He was talking with a man named Otis Walker, who was built like an Alaskan grizzly. In the old days people would have said Walker drove a sewage truck. These are the days of sanitary engineers and environmentalists, so Walker told us he drove a sludge truck for the Westside Treatment Center. That may sound like a high-class detox joint, but it isn’t. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but if it looks like a sewage plant and smells like a sewage plant, that’s what I call it.

  However, Otis Walker had a heavy, square jaw and a nose that showed signs of more than one serious break. His biceps resembled half-grown trees. I chose not to debate his job title. Despite his fearsome appearance, he was having a tough time talking to Peters. The words stuck in his throat, threatening to choke him.

  “You gonna catch that SOB?” he asked me when I appeared over Peters’ shoulder. I nodded. “I got a kid of my own at home, you know,” he continued, “almost her age. Wears the same kind of gown. Shit!” He stopped and swiped at his face with the back of one meaty paw.

  “That’s our job,” I told him. I wondered what kind of murder this was. The easiest ones to solve are the hardest ones to understand, the husbands and lovers and wives and parents who murder people they ought to cherish instead of kill. The random killers, the ones who pick out a victim at a football game or a grocery store, are easier to comprehend and harder to catch. That’s the problem with homicide.

  I turned to Peters. “You about done here?”

  He nodded. “Pretty much.”

  Walker pulled himself together. “You guys through with me?”

  “For right now,” Peters told him, “but don’t go out of town without letting us know where to find you. With all this timely-trial crap from the Supreme Court, we may need to get ahold of you in a hurry.”

  Walker looked dolefully at the blackberry clump halfway down the hill. He shook his head. “I wish I never saw her,” he said. “I wish I’da just driven past and never knew she was down there, know what I mean?” He climbed back into the huge blue tractor-trailer and started it, waving halfheartedly as he eased past where Peters and I were standing.

  “What now?” Peters asked.

  “Not much doing here as far as I can tell. Let’s go get something to eat and come back for another look later.” The call had come in about eleven in the morning. It was now well after three. I’m one of those guys who has to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or I begin to foam at the mouth. I was getting close.

  Peters gave me a reproachful look. “How can you think about food? Where are her parents? The medical examiner says she died sometime around nine or nine-thirty. Someone should have come looking for her by now.”

  “Somebody will come,” I assured him. “With any kind of luck it will be after we finish eating.” As it turned out, they found us before we even got out of the car in the parking lot at G.G.“s. A marked patrol car pulled up beside ours. The officer rolled down his window. His name was Sanders. I had seen him around the Public Safety Building on occasion.

  “What have you got?” I asked him.

  “Missing child,” he replied. “A girl. Five years old.”

  “Brown hair, in braids?” I asked him. “Holly Hobbie nightgown, pink?”

  He nodded. “The call came in a little over half an hour ago. I went to check it out before calling you guys in. It could have been someone who forgot to come home for lunch.”

  “She missed lunch, all right,” I told him. “And it looks as though we will too. What’s the address?”

  “Gay Avenue,” he answered. “Forty-five forty-three. I’ll lead you there.”

  Peters wheeled out of the parking lot behind the patrol car. “Why the hell didn’t someone call us right away?” he muttered. “We could have been there a long time ago.”

  Peters sometimes reminds me of an Irish Setter — tall, reddish hair, good-looking, loose-jointed, not too bright at times. “Calling us on the radio would have been as good as taking out a full-page ad in the Post-Intelligencer,” I told him. “We just got rid of that mob of reporters, remember?”

  Peters’ jawline hardened, but he said nothing. Our partnership was still new and relatively uneasy. We drove through Magnolia without the fanfare of lights and sirens.

  Magnolia is set apart from the rest of Seattle by a combination of waterways and railroad tracks. On this warm day in late April, flowers in well-manicured lawns were just coming into their own. Magnolia is mostly an older, settled, residential neighborhood. Some of the houses are stately mansions with white columns and vast expanses of red brick. I think I had a preconceived notion of the kind of house we were going to, but I was in for a rude awakening. Gay Avenue was anything but gay in every sense of the word.

  The patrol car led us to a hidden pocket of poverty just off Government Way a few blocks east of the entrance to Discovery Park. The house at 4543 Gay Avenue was a ramshackle two-story job that had formerly been someone’s pride and joy. It had fallen on hard times. Once-white shingles had deteriorated to a grubby gray. Here and there a missing on
e gaped like a jagged, broken tooth. Two giant stubs of trees gave mute testimony that there had once been a front yard. Yellowed newspapers and old tires littered the weedy grass. It was a perfect example of low-rent squalor plunked down in an otherwise acceptable neighborhood. If I had been one of the neighbors, I would have considered suing whoever owned that eyesore.

  At the sound of the cars a band of barefoot, ragtag kids came racing around the house. One pressed a runny nose against Peters’ window and stared in at us as though we were gorillas in a zoo. Peters turned to me. “Well?” he asked. “Are we getting out, or are we going to sit here all day?”

  I’d rather take a beating than knock on a door and tell some poor unsuspecting soul his kid is dead. I always think about how I’d feel if someone were telling me about Scott or Kelly. There’s no way to soften a blow like that. “Don’t rush me,” I growled. “It’s the worst part of this job.” I got out and slammed the door.

  Sanders came up just then. “What’s the name?” I asked him.

  “Barstogi. Mother’s name is Suzanne. Kid’s name is Angela, but they call her Angel.”

  “Father?”

  “I didn’t see one. There’s some kind of meeting going on in there. Probably ten or twelve people.”

  Peters ambled up. He glanced at his watch. “What time did you say the call came in?”

  “About two forty-five,” Sanders answered.

  “Five hours after she’s dead, somebody finally notices she’s missing.” Peters’ voice was grim.

  I pushed open a gate that dangled precariously on one rusty hinge. Gingerly I threaded my way through the debris and climbed some rickety wooden steps. The bottom one was gone altogether. Most of the others were on borrowed time. We stood on a tiny porch with those kids silently staring up at us. None of them said a word. It struck me as odd. I would have expected a barrage of questions from a group like that.

  “Don’t these kids talk?” I asked Sanders.

  He stopped with his hand poised, ready to knock. “Not to me and probably not to you either. I meant to tell you. It seems to be some kind of religious cult. The kids aren’t allowed to talk to anyone without permission. Same thing goes for the adults.”

  He knocked then. Through a broken windowpane in the door we could hear the low murmur of voices inside, but it was a long time before anyone answered.

  The woman who opened the door was in her mid to late twenties. She was about five-six or so, solidly built. She had long dishwater-blonde hair that was parted in the middle and pulled back into a long, thick braid that hung halfway to her hips. With a little makeup, a haircut, and some decent clothes she might have been reasonably attractive. As it was, she was a very plain Jane. She looked very worried.

  “Did you find her?” she asked.

  Sanders didn’t answer. Instead he motioned to me. “This is Detective Beaumont, ma’am, and Detective Peters. They’ll be the ones helping you now.” He backed away from the door as though from the entrance of a cave full of rattlers. He didn’t want to be the one to tell her. Peters hovered in the background as well, leaving the ball in my court.

  “May we come in, Mrs. Barstogi?” I asked.

  She glanced uneasily over her shoulder. She looked as happy to have us on her doorstep as we were to be there. “Well, I don’t know…,” she began hesitantly, stopping abruptly as someone came up behind the partially opened door.

  “I thought I told you to get rid of them, Sister Suzanne.” The unseen speaker was a man. His words and tone held the promise of threat.

  “I did,” she said meekly. “I sent the first one away like you said. There are two more.” Before she had looked worried. Now she seemed genuinely frightened.

  “Your faith is being tested,” he continued severely. “You are failing. Jesus is watching over Angel. You have no need to call on anyone else. Jesus wants you to trust in Him completely. Haven’t you learned that yet? Are you still leaning on your own understanding?”

  She shrank from the door at his words. I think she would have slammed it in our faces if I hadn’t used my old Fuller Brush training and stuck my foot in the way. “We need to talk to you, Mrs. Barstogi. Is there someplace where we can be alone?”

  I moved inside and Peters followed. The man who had been standing just out of our line of vision was a heavy-faced, once-muscular man in his late forties who was well on his way to going to seed. He was a little shorter than I am, maybe six-one or so. He was wearing one of those Kmart special leisure suits that went out of style years ago. On his chest hung a gold chain with a heavy gold cross dangling from it. The suit was electric blue. So were his eyes, glinting with the dangerous glitter of someone just barely under control.

  He placed himself belligerently between Suzanne and me.

  “We’re all family here,” he said. “No one has anything to hide from anyone else. Privacy and pride are Satan’s own tools.”

  “Are you Angela’s father?” I asked him.

  “Of course not!” he blustered.

  “Then I have nothing to say to you.” I looked around. The living room was furnished with several period pieces in the Goodwill-reject style. There was an assortment of degenerate chairs and worn couches. The gray carpet was mottled with stains and soil. Seated around the room was a group of women. They could have been sardines from the same can for all you could tell them apart. None of them spoke. All eyes were riveted on the man who stood between Suzanne Barstogi and me.

  “Is your husband here. Mrs. Barstogi? Where can we reach him?”

  She glanced surreptitiously at the man’s face before answering, as if expecting him to tell her what to say or whether or not she should answer at all. “I don’t have a husband,” she said finally, looking at the floor.

  The four of us had been standing in a muddy vestibule, just inside the door. Now Peters moved swiftly around me. He took Suzanne Barstogi’s elbow. Before anyone could object, he led her out onto the porch. The man made as if to follow, but I barred his way.

  “We are going to talk to her alone,” I told him. “If you don’t want to end up in jail, you’ll stay right here while we do it.” I turned and left him there, closing the door behind me.

  The children, standing in an ominously quiet group, were still watching. Peters was attempting to shoo them away as I came out the door. He maintained a firm grip on Suzanne’s arm. I think he figured she might try to dash back into the house if he let her go.

  “Mrs. Barstogi,” I said. “When is the last time you saw your daughter?”

  “When I put her to bed.” Her eyes were wide with fear as she answered. I couldn’t tell if it was fear for her daughter or fear of the consequences that would greet her when she returned to the house.

  “What time was that?” This, unsurprisingly, was from Peters. I never met anyone so concerned about time.

  Suzanne paused uncertainly. “It must have been between three and four.”

  “In the morning?” Peters asked incredulously.

  She nodded. “She fell asleep at church. I carried her in from the car and put her to bed.” She spoke as though there were nothing out of the ordinary in the hour.

  “What was she wearing?”

  “I told the other man all this. Do we have to go over it again?”

  “Yes,” I answered. “I’m afraid we do.”

  “She was wearing a pink nightgown, one she got for Christmas last year.”

  “We’ll need you to come downtown,” Peters said.

  “Now?” she asked.

  “Yes, now,” I told her. Peters propelled her off the porch. He opened the door and helped her into the car, motioning for me to follow. “I’ll drive,” he said.

  It figured. If he drove, I would have to tell her. I’m not the kind to keep score or hold grudges, but about then I figured Peters owed me one.

  I followed her into the backseat. She scrambled as far as she could to the opposite side of the car. She looked like a cornered animal. “Who is that man in the house?
I asked as Peters turned on the ignition. “Is he a relative of yours?”

  She shook her head. “That’s Pastor Michael Brodie. He’s the pastor of our church, Faith Tabernacle. I called him when I couldn’t find Angel. He said the best thing for us to do would be to turn it over to the Lord. He brought the others over, and we’ve been praying ever since. Wherever two or more are gathered together—”

  “What time was that?” Peters interrupted. He was beginning to sound like a broken record.

  “I got up about eleven and they got here a little before noon,” she said. Peters made a sound under his breath. I couldn’t hear, but I don’t think it was too nice.

  “Angel does that,” Suzanne continued. “She wakes up before I do. She’ll have breakfast and watch TV.” She stopped suddenly as though something was just beginning to penetrate. “Why are we going downtown?” It was the moment I had been dreading. There was no way to postpone it further.

  “I believe we’ve found your daughter,” I said gently.

  “Where is she? Is something the matter?”

  “A little girl was found in Discovery Park earlier this morning. I’m afraid it may be Angel. We have to be certain. We need you to identify her.”

  “Is she dead?” she asked.

  I nodded. I deliberately didn’t tell her about the gown. I didn’t want to dash all hope at once. She needed some time for adjustment. I expected tears, screaming, or wailing. Instead, Suzanne Barstogi heard the words in stunned silence. She closed her eyes and bowed her head.

  “It’s my fault,” she whispered. “It’s because I called you. Pastor Michael is right. I’m being punished for my lack of faith.”

  We were at a stoplight. Peters turned and looked at her. “She was dead long before you called us,” he said bluntly. “Your lack of faith had nothing to do with it.” The light changed, and we went on.

  Suzanne gave no indication that she had heard what Peters said. “I disobeyed, too,” she continued. “I snuck upstairs to use the phone so no one would know.” She lapsed into silence. We left her to her own thoughts. It seemed the decent thing to do.

 
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