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Chapter 11

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Photo illustration by Samuel Hoffman, The Journal Gazette

Chapter 11

Stevie and Margie snagged a table in the front of the restaurant away from a group of women who were conducting some type of meeting in the back.

"OK, what's the scoop?" Margie said, crossing her arms in front of her and leaning close to the table.

Stevie began to tell her about cat lady. She told her about Crandall. And then she told her about Jason.

"Wow! If I knew this is what you had to tell me, I would've ordered something much stronger than an orange soda," Margie said, slurping the last bit of her drink. "Did you go and check it out?"

"Check out what?"

"The riverbank. What if cat lady's right. What if there is something there?"

"Margie, focus. Cat lady is crazy. What about Jason? The thing about it is, I think I'm falling for him." Stevie fiddled with her napkin. "I have a date with him on Thursday."

"What's the problem? He's nice. Cute. ..."

"He's also a source. Well, sort of."

Margie leaned back in her chair. "Listen. I was gonna wait to tell you this. I looked your guy up on the Internet. There is no Jason Mullen listed as a photographer in Chicago. Maybe he was real low-key and didn't do much before now. But if he did photography, it wasn't in Chicago. And by the way, why would the police department hire a photographer when they have their own crime scene guys?"

Margie's words hit a nerve. Jason wasn't too eager to share his life story with Stevie. That much she knew. What she didn't know was how much of his past she would need to know before she could think about the future.

Stevie parked her car and looked in front of her apartment building. No Crandall. Good. As she gathered her purse and keys, she thought about Margie's question of whether she had checked out the riverbank.

Stevie thought cat lady's talk about the riverbank was nonsense, but what if there was something to it? She locked her door and began to walk toward the river. This is crazy! Where would I even begin to look? This riverbank goes on forever.

She walked along the edge of the road. She didn't even know what she was looking for. After about 15 minutes of walking, she spotted a path that led down an embankment. She followed it and found herself standing in a sort of clearing. She could tell that other people had been there. There was a pile of burnt firewood and bits of fishing line and garbage strewn throughout.

Stevie walked around. This is ridiculous. What am I doing? There's nothing here.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted it. A purse. Its strap was tangled in a downed tree branch and the base was bobbing in the water.

Her body began to tingle with fear and anticipation. It couldn't be. She looked around for a long stick and then slowly crept toward the tree. Her feet sank in the mud as she neared where the purse floated in the water. She used the stick to untangle the strap and then pulled the purse to her.

It was small and black. Mud had dried on the outside and the smell of the river permeated from within. She opened the clasp and slowly poured the water out from inside. She held her breath as she looked in. Nothing. Someone probably took whatever was inside.

She started to toss the purse aside when she spotted a zipper. Stevie quickly unzipped the pocket on the side of the purse. Stuck to the back of the cloth was a hard piece of plastic. She pinched the plastic between her fingers and gently pulled it out. A driver's license. Stevie found herself unable to breathe when she read the name on the card. Celeste Wade.

Her legs felt like Jell-O as she struggled to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding wildly. She knew she needed to get help but she didn't want to leave the crime scene in case someone else came. Crime scene. Omigosh. I'm part of a crime scene. She didn't have any of her numbers for the detectives. So she reached into her purse, pulled out her phone and dialed 911.

"911. What's your emergency?"

"Yes, my name is Stevie Rae Von and I think I've found something that belongs to one of those murdered girls."

By Terri Richardson, assistant managing editor for features.

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