LOREN MUSE TOOK the Frontage Road exit off Route 78 and pulled into the Howard Johnson's lot. A car was double-parked by the front entrance.
She hit the brake.
That car, a Lexus, had been in the MVD lot less than an hour ago.
This could not be a coincidence.
She maneuvered her vehicle by the front door and snapped her gun onto her belt. The shield was already there. The handcuffs dangled off her back. She hurried toward the car. No one inside. The keys were still in the ignition. The door was unlocked.
Loren opened the Lexus's door.
Was this a legal search? She thought it might be. The keys were in plain view in the ignition. The car was unlocked. She was helping out here. That had to make it legit somehow, right?
She pulled her sleeves up over her hands, forming makeshift mittens so she wouldn't leave fingerprints. She dropped open the glove compartment and tried to paw through the paperwork. It didn't take long. It was a company car, belonging to MVD. But the paperwork from the Midas Muffler dealer showed that it had been brought in by someone named Cingle Shaker.
Loren knew the name. The guys in the county office discussed her with a tad too much zeal. Said she had a body that could knock a movie rating from PG to R.
So what was her connection to Hunter?
Loren took the car keys with her- no sense in giving Ms. Shaker a chance to run off without them having a little chat. She headed inside and approached the desk. The man behind it was breathing in uneven gulps.
"You guys are back?" he asked.
Not her best line of interrogation, but it was a start.
"The other cops left, what, an hour ago maybe. With the ambulance."
"What other cops?'
"You're not with them?"
She approached him. "What's your name?"
"Ernie, why don't you tell me what happened here?"
"It's like I told the other guys."
"Now tell me."
Ernie sighed dramatically. "Okay, fine, it's like this. First this guy comes dashing into the hotel."
"When?" Loren interrupted.
"What time was this?"
"I don't know. Two hours ago maybe. Don't you know all this?"
"So this guy, he goes into the elevator. He goes up. Couple minutes later, this big chick comes flying in and runs over to the elevator." He coughed into his fist. "So, you know, I call out to her. Ask her if everything is okay. You know, doing my job and all."
"Did you ask the guy if everything was okay?"
"But you asked the"- Loren made quote marks with her fingers-"big chick?"
"Hold up a sec. She wasn't big really. She was tall. I don't want you to think she was fat or anything. Give you the wrong idea. She wasn't. Not fat at all. Just the opposite. Like a chick in one of those Amazon movies, you know?"
"Yeah, Ernie, I think I got the picture." Sounded like Cingle Shaker. "So you asked Miss Amazon if everything was okay?"
"Right, yeah, like that. And this girl, this tall girl, she pulls a gun on me- a gun!- and tells me to call the cops."
He paused now, waiting for Loren's jaw to drop in shock.
"And that's what you did?"
"Hell, yeah. I mean, she pulled a gun on me. You believe that?"
"I'll try to, Ernie. So then what happened?"
"She's in the elevator, right? She holds the gun on me until the doors close. So then I called the cops. Like she said to do. Two Newark guys were eating next door. They were here in no time. I told them she'd gone up to the fifth floor. So they went up."
"You said something about an ambulance?"
"They must have called for one."
"They? You mean, the cops?"
"Nah. Well, I mean, maybe. But I think it was the women in the room who made the call."
"Look, I didn't go up there. I didn't see it or anything." Ernie's eyes narrowed into thin slits. "This is secondhand knowledge you're asking about now. Aren't you only supposed to ask me what I actually saw or have direct knowledge of?"
"This isn't a courtroom," she snapped. "What was going on upstairs?"
"I don't know. Someone got beaten up."
"I just said. I don't know."
"Man, woman, black, white?"
"Oh, I see what you mean. But I don't get it. Why are you asking me? Why can't you-?"
"Just tell me, Ernie. I don't have time to make a bunch of calls."
"Not a bunch of calls, but you could just radio the cops who were here before, the Newark guys-"
Her voice was steel. "Ernie."
"Okay, okay, relax. It was a man, all right? White. I'd say mid-thirties. They wheeled him out on a stretcher."
"What happened to him?"
"Someone beat him up, I guess."
"And this all happened on the fifth floor?"
"I guess so, yeah."
"And you said something about women in the room. That they might have called the ambulance."
"Yeah. Yeah, I did say that." He smiled like he was proud of himself. Loren wanted to draw her gun too.
"How many women, Ernie?"
"What? Oh, two."
"Was one of them the tall girl who pulled the gun on you?"
"And the other?"
Ernie looked left. He looked right. Then he leaned closer and whispered, "I think it might have been the guy's wife."
"The guy who got beaten up?"
"Why do you say that?"
His voice stayed soft. "Because she went with him. In the ambulance."
"So why are we whispering?"
"Well, I'm trying to be whatchya call discreet."
Loren matched the whisper. "Why, Ernie? Why are we being whatchya call discreet?"
"Because that other woman- the wife, I mean- she's been staying here for the past two nights. He, the husband, hasn't been." He leaned over the desk. Loren got a whiff of whatchya call chronic halitosis. "All of a sudden the husband rushes in, there's a fight of some kind…" He stopped, raised both eyebrows as though the implications were obvious.
"So what happened to the Amazon girl?"
"The one who pulled the gun on me?"
"Yes, Ernie," Loren said, fighting off her growing impatience. "The one who pulled the gun on you."
"The cops arrested her. Cuffed her and everything."
"The woman you think might be the wife, the one who stayed here the past two days. You have a name?"
He shook his head. "No, sorry, I never heard it."
"Didn't she register?"
Ernie's eyes lit up. "Sure. Sure, she did. And we take an imprint of a credit card and everything."
"Great." Loren rubbed the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb. "So- shot in the dark here, Ernie- why don't you look up the name for me?"
"Yeah, sure, I can do that. Let me see." He turned to the computer and started typing. "I think she was in Room 522… Wait, here it is."
He turned the monitor so Loren could see.
The occupant of Room 522 was named Olivia Hunter. Loren just stared at the screen for a moment.
Ernie pointed to the letters. "It says Olivia Hunter."
"I can see that. What hospital did they go to?"
"Beth Israel, I think they said."
Loren handed Ernie her card with her cell phone number on it. "Call me if you think of anything else."
"Oh, I will."
Loren rushed out for the hospital.