The next morning, I agreed to meet Tamara at a little cafe in downtown Fremont. It was an eclectic coffee/wine/dessert/breakfast, lunch and dinner bistro, named Fables, that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. I entered off of Main Street. The place had mismatched chairs and tables. The walls were covered in makeshift art — all for sale. Behind a long counter, dressers were stacked on top of each other. The drawers were labeled with names like: coffee syrups, tongs, and straws. Frames devoid of pictures hung on the walls with beautiful thick ribbon. The menus were neatly written on the glass inside the frames.
As I approached the counter, I noticed a small price tag dangling from the corner of an old wood table. I gave the place six months. Fremont isn’t a large enough community to support something so eccentric. The median income is less than forty thousand dollars per year. Whoever owned this place either hadn’t done their homework, or had money to burn. I ordered a coke and found a seat at a round, wood table in a corner facing the front door. It was for sale, too.
By 9 o’clock, a handful of customers trickled in and out of the place. The young woman behind the counter busied herself cleaning and re-cleaning the counters, tables, and espresso machine. I’d arrived early, but Tamara was late. I pulled my phone from my satchel. No messages. Bells attached to the door jingled. I looked up. A man in his early twenties dressed in Khaki pants, a dark green polo shirt, a light gray jacket, and Vans walked past my table to the counter. The woman dropped a scoop she’d been cleaning. Her face flushed. I returned my attention to my phone, but eavesdropping is a job requirement.
“Good morning, Mr. Bryant.”
The man returned the greeting. He leaned across the counter and kissed the woman on her cheek.
“Shouldn’t you be at the high school?”
“Something came up, so I thought I’d stop by to see my favorite former student. I have a few minutes before they’re expecting me back at the school.”
I looked in her direction.
“I need to deal with a few things in back. If you need anything, just ring the bell.” She pointed to a silver bell on the counter. A small sign next to it read: ring for service. I smiled. She disappeared. The man followed her.
The bells on the door jingled. Tamara rushed in. A swirl of leaves kicked up as the door opened and closed behind her.
“I’m sorry I’m late. There was an accident on the Dodge Street Expressway near 168th street.”
She sat across from me.
“If you want anything, you’ll need to ring the bell on the counter. The young lady working the counter has company in the back.”
“She’s having a mid-morning snack.”
I could see that Tamara didn’t get my euphemism. This was going to be a long week. I thought twenty-somethings were up-to-speed on sex lingo, but then, again, maybe my lingo was a bit dated.
“Tamara, she’s in back having sex with a guy who just walked in here a few minutes ago. Give them another minute. I’m sure he won’t take long.”
I didn’t know it was possible for someone’s face to get as red as a radish. Tamara removed her jacket and set it on a chair between us.
“Were you able to reach Jessica Howard’s parents?”
“Um, yes. Her mother will be home all morning. She was really open to talking with us. I don’t know why. When I tried before, she’d just say the police already know everything. Apparently, she and Leo split up. She said he’s part of a road crew working south of town on the new bridge.”
“Maybe Leo Taylor had something to do with her not talking with you before, but now that he’s out of the picture, she’s got something on her mind.” I finished my coke.
“What about Sylvia Ribera?”
“I called every preschool in Fremont like you suggested. She’s working at Little Lambs Preschool. I called. She’s already at work.”
“Good. We can surprise her. But, Howard’s step father might be more difficult. Do you know when he gets off work?”
“Mrs. Howard said he’s finished by four o’clock and usually heads to The Corner Bar. It’s not far from here, actually.”
“Well, we can’t go there now, obviously, so we’ll head to Mrs. Howard’s place. Then, we’ll track down Sylvia. What about the drama teacher?”
The young woman returned to her post behind the counter. Her face and neck had red blotches. She was fighting to get her hair into a scrunchy. The man passed the counter and made his way to the exit. Tamara watched him as he approached our table on the way to the door.
“Kane? Kane Bryant?” Tamara stood to greet the man.
Small towns are great. You sit in one place long enough and the person you’re looking for walks right past you. This kind of luck never happens in a big city. Shit, it doesn’t even happen in a city the size of Omaha. I couldn’t wait to see how this played out. The young woman behind the counter was pretending to be engrossed in a sheet of paper in front of her, but her eyes kept betraying her.
“Yes, do I know you?” His stance was tense. He seemed uneasy for some reason.
“It’s me, Tamara. Tamara Steele. Wow, you look great.”
His shoulders settled back down and he smiled. She was pretty good at this.
“I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“Oh, right. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been really busy. The high school musical is coming up. Things are crazy right now, but I promise to get back in touch.”
“How about now? I’ll buy you a coffee.”
He checked his watch.
“I’d love that, but I need to get back to the school. When will you be in town next?”
I glanced at the young woman behind the counter. I was pretty sure it was getting hotter in the bistro. She shoved a pile of menus into a slot near the register. The phone rang. She ignored the first several rings, then turned away to answer.
“Ya know, I think I might be here a bit this week. How about Wednesday?”
Smart. Not too eager. Well played. There was hope for Tamara after all.
“Wednesday sounds good. Where should we meet?”
“Oh, I don’t care. You pick. I’m just looking forward to catching up. It’s been such a long time.”
“You up for some barbecue? That place we used to go to is still open.”
Upon hearing that, the young girl slammed a coffee dispenser onto the counter. Tamara looked around Bryant to see what had happened. He kept his gaze on Tamara. The waitress stared at his back. I have to admit that I love observing people in situations like this.
“Perfect. What time?” Tamara said.
“I’ll meet you around 12:30.”
Bryant left. Tamara turned back to me.
“And here I thought you had problems interrogating people.” I grabbed my satchel and stood to leave. “Let’s go visit Mrs. Howard.”
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