Read Animal Appetite Online

Authors: Susan Conant

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women dog owners, #Women Sleuths, #Winter; Holly (Fictitious character), #Dog trainers, #Dogs, #Maine, #Massachusetts, #Indian captivities, #Women journalists

Animal Appetite (4 page)

BOOK: Animal Appetite
The door to her office had been open when I arrived. When I tapped lightly and entered, Claudia looked up from her computer, removed her glasses, and gestured to a hard plastic chair by her desk. “My office hours,” she said. “We may be interrupted.” She wore a one-piece khaki safari outfit, a sort of boilersuit, and a necklace strung with such heavy-looking chunks of polished rock that the giant-size bottle of ibuprofen next to her keyboard made sense. Her long gray-streaked hair was held back by the same barrette I’d noticed at the bat mitzvah. The style is popular among women handlers: The clump of hair above the barrette provides a convenient place to stash the comb needed for last-minute touch-ups on the dog. I didn’t say so to Claudia. Just as my mother taught me, I made no personal remarks. I’ll tell you, though, that the bright overhead lights were unkind to Claudia’s face. The skin under her eyes was bluish, and deep lines cut her mouth and chin off from the rest of her face, as if her lower jaw were hinged in the manner of a marionette’s.
I sat. “Thank you for seeing me. I guess my request must have seemed a little strange.”
She shrugged. Her left hand opened and closed as if she were kneading a fat lump of putty.
The contrast with the driven volubility she’d shown at the bat mitzvah was so sharp that I felt ill at ease. I pulled a steno pad and pen out of my purse, settled into the chair as best I could, and smiled. “I wonder if you could tell me what happened.”
She cleared her throat. “Jack was a publisher. He ran a small press. In Cambridge. Damned. Yankee Press. They did travel guides. New England guides. Books on the Alcotts, Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere. Before personal computers were, uh, fashionable, before the computer revolution hit, when it was just beginning, Jack saw the potential, especially for small presses, not only for the actual publishing but for direct marketing, mail order, all that sort of thing.” Claudia looked not at me but at her keyboard. She cleared her throat. “So at that point, he got connected with this dreadful little moon-faced man, Shaun McGrath, who was billed as some kind of computer whiz.” She transferred her gaze to me. “But what Shaun McGrath was, was a mindless technocrat! A complete philistine. He’d gone to some little business college, and . . . Jack himself was an acquisitions editor, really. His grasp of the business side of things wasn’t what it could have been. So he ended up taking in this sleazy little person! And somehow or other, McGrath talked Jack into signing a life insurance policy with himself as the beneficiary!”
I nodded. “So that’s how you suspected—”
“We did not
Once we learned about the insurance policy, we put it together with the dog and the desk, and it was perfectly obvious. The police knew, too. Everyone did. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Everyone loved Jack. And it had to be someone who worked there.” I raised my eyebrows.
“They’d had rats in the building.”
When I was growing up, the local dump had rats. Remarkably enough, even after it became a sanitary landfill, it still had rats. Until a few months earlier, I’d never seen one anywhere else, unless you counted a few ailing white rats in cages in Steve’s waiting room. My own neighborhood, however, was now experiencing what
The Boston Globe
called a “rat invasion,” a sudden and occasionally visible proliferation apparently attributable to construction on Huron Avenue, where a new water main and gas line were being installed. In Owls Head, Maine, target-shooting rats was a socially acceptable, if gruesome, local sport. As a new Cambridge pastime, however, it had all the promise of pre-Columbian proto-soccer played with a human head. We’d been warned not to poison the rats, either. Cambridge being Cambridge, we were probably supposed to conduct an ethological study of rodent behavior in a natural urban environment.
“Rats,” I echoed.
Claudia nodded. “Jack foolishly decided to deal with the problem himself. He got hold of this horrible, very powerful poison. Everyone knew it was there—everyone at the press. And Shaun McGrath laced Jack’s coffee with it. He planted a couple of letters that purported to be suicide notes. But when we found the dog tied to the desk, well, that was the first hint we had. Once we saw that, we realized that Jack couldn’t possibly have been there alone.”
“He always took his dog to work?”
“This was a golden retriever.”
I wished she’d expand. I had the sense that without the audience she’d played to at Marsha’s bat mitzvah, she’d lost interest in dramatizing the murder.
I prompted, “A male?”
Claudia nodded.
“And what was the dog’s name?”
She looked startled. When she ran a finger slowly back and forth over her lips, I saw that her nails were chewed to the quick. “Skip,” she finally said.
“And what happened to him?” It goes without saying, I hope, that I meant the dog.
“Oh, everyone knew he was guilty, but before the police could arrest him, he ran his car into a tree. He was killed instantly.”
Reluctantly shifting my mental gears back to Shaun McGrath, I asked, “Suicide?”
“No, there were dozens of witnesses. It was on Memorial Drive, actually, only a few blocks from here. He was driving a convertible. He was speeding, and he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. He swerved to avoid something and ran head on into one of those trees by the river.”
“And when did this happen?”
“Eighteen years ago. Almost to the day.”
“Do you remember the exact date when . . . ?”
“Jack died on November fourth. It was a Monday. Monday evening. He didn’t come home, and I ended up going over there. And that’s when we found him. Monday, November fourth.”
A tap sounded on the door. Claudia sighed. “Office hours. Come in!”
A young woman’s head appeared.
“Another two minutes, Cynthia!” Claudia told her. “I’ll be right with you.” Fishing around in a canvas tote bag crammed with books and file folders, Claudia produced a manila envelope. Thrusting it at me, she said, “The pictures I promised you. Is that everything?”
“Just one last thing. Skip?”
Claudia looked puzzled.
“The dog,” I reminded her. “I wondered whatever became of the dog.”
“Oh,” Claudia said blithely, “I found him a good home.” After thanking her for her help and accepting her assurance that I could call if I had any questions, I departed. I took the elevator to the first floor. Among the various notices taped to its walls was one that advertised a career panel for Ed School women about balancing career and family. One of the four speakers would be Associate Professor Claudia Andrews-Howe. I’d never even asked whether she and Jack had had children. She hadn’t mentioned any.
When I got outside, the wind tunnel around Larsen Hall was roaring, and a cold rain had started to fall. Instead of going home on foot, I walked to Garden Street and caught the bus, which was almost empty. Seated alone, I removed my gloves and opened the big manila envelope Claudia had given me. I was eager to see Skip. And Jack Winter Andrews, too, of course. The top photo in the pile was what I took to be a college graduation picture. It showed a handsome, affably smiling young man whose character was not written on his face. He bore no resemblance, I might mention, to me or to any of my paternal relatives. So far as I know, there’s not a single cleft chin in our lines, or if there is, it gets obscured by the Yankee lantern jaw that Jack Andrews had lacked. Also, mainly because of the thick eyebrows that predominate on my father’s side of the family, he and his kin appear far more ferocious than affable.
Next, a blurry Polaroid showed an older version of the same pleasant-looking man with his arm around a woman I recognized as Claudia. Then, in a family picture taken by an amateur, Jack, Claudia, and two children posed against a background of rhododendrons. The boy was ten, perhaps, the girl four or five years his junior. Jack’s hands rested on the little girl’s shoulders. Her head was tilted backward, Jack’s downward: Father and daughter exchanged grins? Jack and the little girl were on the left, Claudia in the middle, and the boy on the right, next to Claudia, but his shoulders were angled away from her and he wore a grimace. He looked ready to flee the family group.
The photograph on the bottom of the pile made me catch my breath. It was larger than the others, in sharp focus, and shot from close up. A man’s body lay awkwardly sprawled facedown on a wood floor. The legs were twisted. The right arm was extended, its fingers bent. Beyond the hand, a coffee mug lay in a puddle of liquid.
Claudia Andrews-Howe had given me a crime-scene shot of Jack Andrews’s dead body.
Ever heard ofi McLean Hospital? Well, ifi you happen to be a famous Cambridge poet, a rock star, a billionaire novelist, or a Harvard professor, and if you also happen to have cracked up, it’s probably where you went to get patched together. McLean is in the Boston suburb of Belmont, conveniently close to Cambridge, and in the days before managed health care, the hospital looked like a cross between an exclusive country club and a ritzy college: golf course, riding stables, the whole bit. Rita, who did her internship at McLean, went out there recently for a conference about a patient. She returned sighing about such sad signs of decline as peeling paint on the woodwork and weeds in the gravel paths. Hard physical work, I reminded her, was excellent therapy. If the stables and putting greens were no more, the patients need not languish in idle madness, but could be put to work scraping paint and pulling crabgrass, thus building sound minds in sound bodies.
Anyway, the more I thought about Claudia, the more I was reminded of a prominent sign located only a block from McLean that shows an arrow pointing toward Cambridge and reads, in really big letters, HARVARD SQUARE. My idea was that the heavy traffic in both directions called for a corresponding sign in the middle of Harvard Square with an arrow pointing toward Betmont: McLEAN HOSPITAL. Really, it’s a two-way street. A crime-scene photo of her first husband’s dead body?
On Monday afternoon after I got back from seeing Claudia, I drove to the Brookline Public Library. The first thing I did when I got there was to go to a terminal and type “A = ANDREWS-HOWE, CLAUDIA.” She’d written a couple of books about child care policy, and when I found them on the shelves and skimmed through them, they appeared perfectly sane: She hadn’t slipped in any odd chapters about her first husband’s murder, and there weren’t any illustrations at all, never mind crime-scene photos that had nothing to do with her topic. The reference lists in both books contained numerous articles she’d published in scholarly journals. The bios on her dust jackets didn’t mention a psychiatric history, of course. What I learned from them was that after serving as the director of a Cambridge child care center, she’d gotten her doctorate at the Harvard Ed School. She’d been an assistant professor when the first book was published and was an associate professor by the time the second came out. My Cantabrigian reflexes reminded me that as a mere associate professor, Claudia didn’t have tenure. At Harvard, few women did. According to both dust jackets, Claudia was a nationally recognized authority in her field.
Then I turned to the task that had taken me to Brookline, namely, hunting through microfilm for Jack Winter Andrews’s obituary. I am a minor authority on local libraries. The best (maybe the best in the world) is Harvard’s library system, and my cousin Leah, who’s a freshman, will let me borrow her ID card, but I don’t exactly look like an undergraduate, so I’m always afraid of getting caught and landing Leah in trouble. Harvard takes crimes involving the printed word with the utmost seriousness. Defacing, stealing, or plagiarizing a book is on a par with murder. Cheating on exams is, by comparison, a misdemeanor. Remember Ted Kennedy’s Spanish exam? So I usually ask Leah to get books for me. The Observatory Branch of the Cambridge Public Library is on Concord Avenue directly across from my house. That’s where I go for fun reading. The Newton library has by far the best air-conditioning around; it’s my pick for hot weather. The Boston College Law School Library serves as an especially complete U.S. Government documents depository, as does the BPL—Boston Public Library—which has, in fact, only one big disadvantage: Because it’s located in Copley Square, there’s no place to park. Like the BPL, Brookline had
The Boston Globe
on microfilm as far back as the year of Jack Andrews’s death, and on a weekday afternoon, I had no trouble in finding a space in its underground garage.
I hate microfilm. I’m convinced that the technology was invented by someone who loathed reading and wanted to stop other people from doing it, the kind of vile person who’d probably been kicked out of Harvard for tearing up books. Every time I sit in front of one of those machines watching the pages whirl by, I get dizzy, and my head aches. After shoving the correct spool of microfilm into the machine and struggling to start the tape, I fast-forwarded through old comics, news stories about forgotten scandals, and promises of special deals on new cars now, eighteen years later, rusted and crushed to oblivion.
Jack had died on Monday, November 4. He hadn’t come home, Claudia had said. She’d gone to his office. She must have gone Monday evening. There was nothing about his death in Tuesday’s paper. In Wednesday’s, his name appeared in the list of death notices. Thursday’s
carried the obituary. JOHN W. ANDREWS, PUBLISHER, it was headed. Because we’d shared a name—Winter—and a breed—the golden retriever—I was curiously unsurprised to find that he’d been born in Haverhill. Indeed, when I read the information, I felt almost as if I’d been expecting it, or at least something similar. Hannah Duston, of course, was Haverhill’s local heroine. What solidified my sense of connection to Jack Andrews, however, was that Bradford, a section of Haverhill, just so happened to be the birthplace of my own Rowdy, whose breeder, Janet Switzer, still lived there. Janet was the reason I’d been driving through Haverhill at all and thus had ended up by the statue of Hannah Duston: Before running out of gas, I’d intended to pay Janet a short visit.
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