Ice Blonde - Chapter 1

Ice Blonde: An Angela Richman, Death Investigator novella

Elaine Viets

Chapter 1

Tuesday, December 27, 6:30 a.m.

Midge LaRouche was the last person I expected to find on my doorstep this morning, two days after Christmas. Especially at the insane hour of six-thirty. Even odder, Midge's confident upper-crust bray was muted to a tentative peep. Her husband, Prentice, stood behind her as if he feared she'd run away.

Forty, fit, and ski-tanned, the LaRouches were supposed to be in Telluride, Colorado, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Everyone who was anyone fled Chouteau County, Missouri, to bake on a beach or swoosh down the slopes during the holidays.

"Is something wrong?" I asked. What a stupid question. Of course something was wrong. The LaRouches have never been to my house. The mere mention of my job scared the hell out of them. I'm Angela Richman, Chouteau County death investigator. I work for the medical examiner, and I'm called to the scene of all the country's homicides and unexplained deaths. That's why Midge's next words were so ominous.

"Our daughter didn't come home last night." Midge's eyes filled with tears. Her nose was red, but I didn't know if that was the extreme cold, or if she'd been crying. "Juliet's only sixteen. She promised she'd be home from the party by midnight." She brushed her blond bangs out of the way, and dabbed at her eyes with her ski mittens.

"Juliet's very reliable," Prentice said, as if he was recommending the girl for a job. "We've never had a problem. When we give her a time, she's home. The party was at Arabella Du Pres's house – her cousin. Bella's parents were the chaperones. That's why we don't understand what went wrong.

"When Juliet wasn't home by one o'clock, Mrs. Ellis, our housekeeper, called the Du Pres home and discovered our daughter had left more than an hour ago," he said. "Juliet should have been home in ten minutes – fifteen at the most. Mrs. Ellis called the police and the hospitals, but Juliet hadn't been in an accident. That's when she called us, and we came straight home.

"Thank gawd we didn't have to fly commercial,” Prentice drawled. "Our little plane had us home by five this morning."

Good lord, I thought. His daughter's missing on the coldest day of the year and he's bragging that he flew on his private jet.

The blond couple was definitely dressed for the slopes in ski togs and sun goggles, and they needed them. I could see Midge's breath. I shivered and pulled my old brown robe tighter. "We'll freeze to death out here on the porch. Come inside."

Midge burst into tears and I realized my words were tactless. "That's why we're so worried," she said. I was astonished Midge remembered to wipe her feet on the mat. "I'm so afraid it's too late for my little girl. Juliet isn't dressed for this."

Midge and her husband followed me to my warm kitchen, bringing their own sub-zero zone with them like a prisoner in custody.

The LaRouches sat at the table, pulling off their mittens and unzipping their jackets. As I fussed with the coffee maker, my sleep-stunned brain struggled to picture Juliet. The girl was probably blonde and pretty, like most of the local rich kids. She'd have the meticulous good grooming that passed for beauty: straight teeth, steam-cleaned skin, shiny hair. But I couldn't remember what she looked like.

"What was Juliet wearing?" I asked.

"Mrs. Ellis said she left the house in a blue velvet strapless dress, high heels and a light-blue velveteen jacket," Midge said. "She had her cell phone in a little silver purse."

"That's all?" The coffee maker erupted in burbles and belches, giving my kitchen the comforting aroma of fresh coffee.

"She refused to wear her boots, heavy coat, or even gloves," Midge said. "She said it would spoil her look."

"I remember being like that at her age." I smiled.

"I do, too," Midge said. "But now her vanity could . . . could . . ." I mentally finished the sentence Midge couldn't say: could kill her. Juliet's mother was fighting hard not to cry again, but tears spilled down her cheeks. Prentice handed her a snowy pocket handkerchief, and she dabbed her eyes. "There, there, old girl." He patted her shoulder. "I'm sure she's staying at a friend's house and this is all a misunderstanding."

"I assume you've called her friends," I said.

"Of course," Prentice said. "No one's seen Juliet since she left the party."

"And the police?"

"They responded immediately. They've already launched their own search and they're organizing the volunteer search parties: the scouts, school groups, churches. The search is countywide."

Chouteau County is ten square miles of white privilege about thirty miles west of Saint Louis. Our police exist to protect and serve this enchanted enclave. Chouteau Forest is the main town, surrounded by forested estates. Toonerville, the blue collar section, is where most of the Forest workers live.

I was afraid the search was hopeless. People like the LaRouches were barricaded behind wrought-iron gates in their late nineteenth-century mansions. Their estates were sprinkled with horse barns, guest houses, pool houses, topiary mazes, sheds, and storage buildings. I lived on old Reggie Du Pres's estate, in a former guest house that was my parents' home. It would take a whole day to search that vast complex. Toonerville was a patchwork of modest houses with small backyards, garages and tool sheds – each one a potential hiding place.

Midge said, "We also called the Hobarts, the Du Presses, the DeMuns – no one's seen her, but they're organizing search parties, too."

"I'll get dressed and join them," I said.

"That's not why we're here," Midge said. "We wouldn't expect you to search. Not with your health issues." I saw her avid eyes. I hated talking about the six strokes, coma and brain surgery.

"How old were you when you had the strokes?" she asked.

"I'm forty-one. That was almost two years ago. I'm fully recovered." I was glad the coffee maker gave a final blurp, and a satisfied sigh. I poured three mugs of coffee, then set creamer, sugar and spoons on the table. Prentice sipped his coffee black and Midge sugared hers and then warmed her hands with the mug.

"Where are the searchers starting?" I asked.

"With our area first," Prentice said. "That's the logical way. The people Juliet knows. Most of us have security, so we know who goes in and out and what time. That's how we knew exactly when Juliet left the Du Pres house."

"At 11:42," Midge said.

"So how can I help you?"

"Well, you're a Chouteau County . . ." Midge stopped. "You investigate . . . uh, you look into . . . you work for . . ."

Midge couldn't bring herself to say the two terrible words of my title, and Prentice didn't try.

"I'm a death investigator. I handle –"

Prentice cut me off before I could say "homicides."

"Yes, yes, we understand. But right now we need your contacts. You work with the Chouteau Forest detectives. The two best are Ray Foster Greiman and Butch Chetkin."

"They're certainly the most experienced." I thought Butch was the best and Greiman couldn't find sand in the Sahara, but I kept those opinions to myself.

"We need one of them to lead the search for Juliet," Prentice said. "The chief has called in the entire force, but he says Chetkin and Greiman are not available."

"Can't you talk to them?" Midge asked. "This is important." Her teary brown eyes were pleading. I was afraid she'd start crying again.

"Ray's out of town," I said, "and he doesn't answer his phone for anyone – not even the chief – when he's on vacation. Poor Butch has the flu. I doubt if he can stand up, much less lead an investigation."

"That means we're stuck with the new hire." Midge was not happy.

"What's wrong with Detective Jason Budewitz?" I asked. "I haven't worked with him yet, but he comes highly recommended. He worked as a detective in Chicago."

"That's the problem," Midge said. "He's used to dealing with those people, not with our kind."

"Our kind?" I knew my kind definitely wasn't Midge's.

"She means Budewitz is used to dealing with a rougher element than we have here in the Forest," Prentice said. "Toonerville has some scruffy types, but not like the people he's encountered in Chicago, the nation's murder capital."

"Dope dealers, prostitutes, killers and worse," Midge said.

"Then Detective Budewitz will appreciate working with nice, polite people even more," I said.

"That detective asked if Juliet had her tongue pierced! That's disgusting. What will people think if they find out he's asking questions like that?" I saw real fear in Midge's eyes, but I wasn't sure if it was for her lost daughter or her possibly lost reputation.

"They'll think you're doing everything to find your daughter.''

The LaRouches looked doubtful. I tried to reassure them. "Mr. and Mrs. LaRouche, the detectives don't work for me. I work with them. We don't have the same bosses. I answer to the medical examiner, and their boss is the police chief. I don't have the power to influence the police or their schedules in any way. Is there anything else I can do?"

"Yes," Midge said. "We want to know if you remembered any teenagers tearing around on the roads here around midnight."

"No," I said. "I went to bed about ten and didn't hear anything. Did you check with the guard at the entrance to the estate?"

"He wasn't on duty last night," Prentice said, "but he said there were no reports of drag racing."

"Old Reggie has cracked down on that since his granddaughter was killed in a drag race on the estate," I said. "I promise I'll keep an eye out for Juliet. But I'm not sure what she looks like. Girls grow up so fast."

Midge pulled her cell phone out of her purse. "Here's her picture, the latest one, taken at the Holly Dance." The Holly Dance was the social event of the holiday season at the Chouteau Forest Academy.

Juliet was stunning, a rare ice blonde. Her straight, shoulder-length hair was so white it looked like moon glow. Her black velvet gown set off her pale skin and long, slender form. Her eyes were summer sky blue. Juliet stared at the camera with a hint of a smile. If Midge hadn't said her age, I would have guessed Juliet was a sophisticated twenty-one. I wondered how her hearty, ordinary-looking parents had created this delicate creature.

"Does Juliet have a boyfriend?" I asked.

"Absolutely not," her father said, as if that was a decree.

"Juliet told us that she's not really dating," Midge said. "She says dating is old school. She just hangs around with friends."

Friends. Right. One look at that picture and I knew Juliet was no wallflower. "Any of those friends boys?"

"I'm sure they are, but there's no one in particular," Prentice said. His wife nodded.

Her parents had bought Juliet's story. In my experience, teens didn't tell their parents everything, especially about their love lives.

"We wanted Detective Budewitz to put out an AMBER Alert, but he said Juliet didn't meet the criteria because there was no proof she'd been abducted."

"He's right," I said. "Missouri has strict rules for AMBER Alerts."

"Instead he signed her up for a Missouri Endangered Persons Alert. That's useless." Midge's voice was warped with pain. She was crying again. Through her tears, she said, "All an Endangered Persons Alert does is let the police and the media know Juliet's missing. An AMBER Alert has text messages that go to thousands of people, but an Endangered Persons Alert has nothing like that. What does it cost to put out a text alert for a missing girl who's not properly dressed for the freezing weather? You know what this Budewitz advised? Posters! Posters in this day and age! How backward is that? Look at this stupid poster they did."

Midge opened the screen again and there was a poster notice: "MISSING! SAVE ME! ENDANGERED PERSONS ALERT. Juliet LaRouche. Last seen December 26, 2017, 11:43 P.M."

Juliet, in her breathtaking black ball gown, smiled at the information about her last location: Chouteau Forest, Chouteau County, Missouri, her date of birth and other vital statistics, from her height to her hair color. "If you have any information on this child, call these numbers," the poster said, then listed numbers that could be contacted twenty-four hours a day.

I didn't know what to say. Midge was right. Posters were no match for a high-tech alert.

"We printed the posters at a twenty-four-hour copy shop," she said. "We're supposed to put these posters everywhere," she said. "The detective says they work."

"They do, Midge. They're your best chance."

Prentice squeezed his wife's shoulder. "She's right, old girl."

"Will you retweet the link to the poster and her photo?" Midge sounded lost.

"Of course." I gave the worried woman my contact information. Midge texted me the photo and poster, then glanced at the kitchen clock. "We should be going. It's almost seven. Thank you for your time, Angela."

"Would you like some coffee for the road?"

"No, no, we have a TV interview and a radio interview. Officer Budewitz thinks a personal plea from us will help, too." Midge zipped up her ski jacket, then slipped on her mittens. "I'll do everything I can to help find Juliet," I said.

The couple carefully picked their way down the snow-slick concrete stairs, then trudged through the snow to their Range Rover. They seemed to be holding each other up.

As I watched them drive away, I wondered about their information. I thought Prentice was hiding something. He knew more about his daughter's disappearance than he was saying. Juliet was dazzling. I couldn't believe the sixteen-year-old wasn't involved with a boy. Did she run away from her overly strict parents? Did her father know she was seeing someone unsuitable? Worse, was she suicidal? Teenagers had to deal with raging hormones. A disappointment in love at that age could be catastrophic.

I prayed the LaRouches' delicate snow princess was still alive. I had to find Juliet. I wasn't supposed to be investigating a missing person. That was Detective Budewitz's job. But he was new to the department, an outsider used to Chicago's mean streets, not the sly, subtle destructive ways of the wealthy Forest dwellers.

I couldn't imagine what it must be like to lose a child. I'd had the heart-crushing experience of losing my husband, Donegan, two years ago. If I could help find Juliet, her parents wouldn’t have to suffer that numbing, pointless grief. The last thing I wanted was to do my job – to examine Juliet's frozen body.

Published on  June 19th, 2019