My nostrils were overwhelmed by the smell. It's that, "Oh my gawd, I know exactly what that is, but don't want to confirm it," smell. My down comforter was wrapped around my body. I was toasty warm and didn't want to move. It was dark, and I fumbled for the flashlight I kept on the table near my bed. I don't own a lamp. I did once. I lay their contemplating my options. The stench wasn't getting any better. I kicked off my blanket. and got out of bed. My robe was in a pile on the floor. I picked it up and covered my now shivering body. Godfrey, my Rottie, barely stirred when I stepped over him to go to the main floor.
Here's the challenge with living in an old house -- when things fail, they completely fail. I turned off the flashlight, set it on the kitchen counter, and opened the basement door. A mixture of rotten eggs and what I can only describe as dung, wafted up the stairwell. I turned on the light. A layer of dark water covered the basement floor. There was no point in going any further. I shut the door and secured it with the eye hook. Like that was going to stop the rising tide of sewage and funk.
The kitchen lit up as the sun began its journey through the morning sky. I looked at the wall clock. It was six o'clock a.m., and too early for this kind of shit. Pun intended. I grabbed my phone book from a kitchen drawer. Yeah, I still have a phone book. I'm not ready to give up every piece of paper in favor of googling for information. Who do you call when you have a pond in your basement? I found a plumber who promised to be over before noon. I went back upstairs.
By eight-thirty a.m. I was showered and dressed in my usual jeans, black leather motorcycle boots, and a V-neck, long-sleeved T-shirt. My long, slightly kinky curls were almost dry. I grabbed a hair scrunchy and gathered my curls into a pony-tail. The phone in my office rang. I ran downstairs to answer it.
"Dezeray Jackson Investigations, how may I help you?"
The caller was named Tamara Steele. She was a criminal justice student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I'd met her earlier in the week while presenting a lecture at Criss library on the North campus. She requested a meeting. I'd wrapped up a few cases and didn't have anything pressing to deal with, so I agreed to meet her at Zio's Pizzeria on Dodge Street at two-thirty.
The plumber arrived as promised. He resolved the problem, billed me five hundred bucks, and left. I was feeling like I was in the wrong occupation.
I had plenty of time before the meeting, so I grabbed my workout gear, and headed to the gym for a swim. It took twenty minutes to get from my place to the "Y" on Maple Street. Omaha traffic isn't all that tough to navigate.
One of the many great things about being a private investigator are the hours. When everyone else is in an office, I can have the pool almost to myself on a weekday. Especially, when business is slow. I know it'll pick up. Since venturing out on my own a year ago, I've had a few good cases. By good, I mean they paid enough for me to eat, and pay some bills, which is all I really need right now. When things get a little too tight, I hit up my former employer, Tracer International, for work. My good friend, Haithem Nazari, usually has a case or two waiting for an investigator.
The truth is, I'm never hurting for money. I'm a tightwad who hates dipping into my emergency fund. Over the years, I've made a few smart investments. And, when I was working for Tracer in Miami, I was able to pocket most of my check. They paid for my housing.
"Hey, Dez!" Sam greeted me from behind the check-in counter.
"Hey, Sam, how's the pool lookin' this morning?" I handed him my ID card.
"Not a soul in there, except the lifeguards, of course." Sam was short at about 5'6" and built like a bull. His ebony skin was flawless. I'd seen young ladies drool over his dimples, perfect smile, and locks. White, black, purple -- it didn't matter -- he wasn't lonely. He buzzed me into the gym.
"Have a good workout." He smiled.
I'm a sucker for dimples, too.
I went into the fitness room to stretch before my swim. That proved to be a bad idea.
"Dez!" Scott James jogged over to greet me with a kiss on the cheek.
"Scott, I didn't realize you were working today. I thought it was your day off," I said, as I kept moving toward the mat area. He followed.
"A client really needed to switch days, so here I am. It's great to see you. It seems like our schedules just aren't connecting this past month." He plopped down next to me on the mats. "You swimming today?"
"Uh huh." I started stretching.
"When you're finished, maybe we could get some lunch."
He was like a lost little puppy. "Oh, I'd like that, but I'm meeting a UNO student. She asked for some help for a class. I couldn't say 'no'." I stood up, ready to escape.
"Oh, okay. How about dinner?"
Normally, I would appreciate someone with such tenacity and willingness to buy me food. This time was different. Scott knew we were taking a break.
"Scott, look, I'm still not ready to move forward. We agreed we'd give things a little time."
"I know, it's just -- I miss you, Dez."
It was strange, looking at a man the size of Scott, appear so deflated. "Let me think about it."
I made my way to the women's locker room. He couldn't follow me in there.
"Ms. Jackson!" Tamara waved at me as I entered Zio's Pizzeria. I settled into the booth across from her. The aroma of fresh-baked pizza was intoxicating. My stomach rumbled.
"Call me Dez."
"Thanks, again, for meeting me."
A young waitress set two waters onto the table, took our order, and hurried away to help another guest.
"No problem. I'm happy to help any way I can. Tell me about the case."
"Like I mentioned on the phone, it's a 2005 cold case. When I was 10, some friends and I found the body of a 13-year-old girl named Jessica Howard."
"Was this in Omaha?"
"No. I grew up in Fremont, near Valley View Golf Course. That's near where the body, sorry, where Jessica was."
"Who was with you?"
"Kane Bryant, he's an assistant drama teacher at Fremont High School; There were Sylvia and Jose Ribera. I think Sylvia is a preschool teacher in Fremont, but I'm not sure what her brother is doing. And Micah Jones. He's a student at UNO. I see him every once in a while, but we're not close." She pulled a notebook from out of her backpack.
"So, what else can you tell me?"
She flipped open the notebook. "Let me see. Okay, here it is. The detectives interviewed all of us, plus a man named Jeff Teel, her stepfather, Leo Taylor, and her mother, Cari Howard-Taylor." She looked up at me.
"What did the detectives find out about each of those people?"
"Teel was a registered sex offender, so they really went after him. I remember that. According to the reports, Jessica was sexually assaulted, but it was after she died." She paused for a moment, then added, "Teel was a necrophiliac, but the police couldn't arrest him for assaulting Jessica after she died. They didn't have enough evidence." She took a long sip from her soda.
"Where is Teel now?"
Tamara shrugged. "I have no idea. After all the publicity, he disappeared."
No surprise there. He probably took a lot of heat, and being in a small town would have made it even more difficult for him. There aren't too many people willing to hire or work with a registered sex offender.
"What about the stepfather?" I asked.
"As far as I know, he and Jessica's mother are still together. He was kind of a scary guy."
Our food arrived. She took a bite of her slice. I waited, knowing it was too hot for my taste buds. She didn't seem bothered.
"Why do you say that?"
"Jessica's family moved to the neighborhood about six months before she was killed. We knew her, but not really well. Part of the reason was because of her stepfather. We all went to her house a few times, but he -- he had a really bad temper."
I noticed that her hands trembled as she reached for her water. He must have been a special kind of asshole to have that effect so many years later.
"Tell me about Jessica."
"She disappeared June 4, 2005. We found her two weeks later on June 18. She was at the bottom of a hill in a wooded area. We were all just out and about messing around when we found her. Micah tripped over her leg. That part of the neighborhood is hilly. There's lots of trees and bushes. We hung out there a lot. I don't know why we didn't see her sooner. I guess things really do happen for a reason." She fiddled with her straw as she explained.
"Were you the youngest?"
"Yes, Jose and I were both 10. Kane was 13, Sylvia was 12, and Micah was 11. We were all pretty messed up for a while after that, except Kane. He was the oldest, so he handled it better than we did, I think. For a while, we talked about it a lot. All the time, it seemed like." She took another drink. "Then, I don't know, it was like everyone just wanted to move on, ya know? But, it always bothered me."
"Have you tried talking to Jessica's parents?"
"I've called a few times, but Mrs. Taylor keeps saying she's told the police everything and can't remember anything else."
"What about Mr. Taylor?"
"He was never home when I called."
"What about your friends?"
"We aren't really friends anymore. I've left messages, but no one's called me back. I think they just want to forget about it."
She thought about that for a minute.
"It seems to me that you could have chosen any cold case. Why this one?" I asked.
"It just isn't right."
"What? Crimes go unsolved all the time. Nebraska has a pretty good size list. Why'd you choose such a difficult internship?"
"I feel like I owe it to Jessica. No one should die the way she did."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Criminal Justice is my major, but only because I plan to go to law school after graduation. I never planned to become an investigator. Honestly, I don't think I'm that good at it. But, I need to prove myself in this internship."
I finished my slices, and was already feeling that warm, happy feeling in my belly.
"I'm not very good at questioning witnesses," she said.
"What kind of law are you planning to study?"
"I know, but investigation is a skill I can get better at."
"That's true. Why not go to the detectives working the cases?"
"They said I could run with this one, and to bring them information if I found something, but otherwise, I'm pretty much on my own. The cold case unit only has two detectives."
I mulled this over. Nothing kept me from helping, except the pro bono nature of it. Pro bono doesn't add to my bank account, but I needed more karma points.
"All right, I'll give you a week of my time to see if we can come up with any new information."
"That's great! Thanks, Dez."
"You're welcome, but I haven't done anything, yet.
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