Authors: P. T. Deutermann
But not anymore, I realized. I looked out the window at the streetlights coming on in the business park we’d moved to from our Washington Street hovel. I wondered now if I should call some of the original six—five now, wasn’t it—and give them the bad news. I decided not to: no point in spoiling everyone’s evening. I’d call a meeting tomorrow morning before leaving for Wilmington.
Allie Gardner was dead? Maybe it
been a heart attack, or one of those artery-bombing embolisms I’d been reading about. She’d been an unrepentant smoker, as were about half the people working at H&S. So maybe the cancer sticks had done their evil work. But surely not a homicide. I couldn’t think of a single soul who would want her dead, except maybe one of her two ex-husbands. The truth was that we’d never had any indications of an ex coming back at the PI. They were usually too embarrassed at having been caught in the first place. If they were mad at anybody, it was the ex-spouse for hiring a snoop in the first place.
I’d have to get into her personnel records to find out what family she had left. I vaguely knew about the sister, but Allie
had been closemouthed about the rest of her family. I’d gotten the impression that they hadn’t approved of her forgoing college to become a cop in the first place, and that she was estranged from them.
“C’mon, mutts,” I said to my shepherds, Frick and Frack. “I need a drink. Let’s go home.”
I met with Sergeant Price the next day right at lunchtime. We went down the street to get a sandwich, and then Price drove us east to New Hanover Regional Hospital, where the Wilmington city morgue was collocated. We checked in at the security desk and then began the inevitable wait.
“Face up or TV?” Price asked.
“Has there been an autopsy?”
“No. If there’s gonna be an autopsy they go to Jacksonville or Chapel Hill. This here is just stage one. Our ME takes a look and signs a toe tag. If cause of death is obvious, say, an MVA injury, or a gunshot to the head, then that’s usually it. Otherwise, off they go to the state pathology guys.”
“Okay, face-to-face, then.” I’ve seen a cop’s share of dead people, but since it was Allie, I felt obligated to do this in person, so to speak. Price seemed to understand. He went back to the desk and asked for the viewing room, and then we waited some more until the morgue attendant came to get us.
I made the identification, trying to ignore the stark fact that one of my colleagues was gone. Allie Gardner had never been a beautiful woman, but hers was a familiar and trusted face, and I was grateful not to have to look at the butchery of a pathology examination. She had died with a surprised look on her face, which wasn’t that unusual in my experience, although her mouth looked redder than it should have. I verbalized the ID, and Price nodded to the stone-faced attendant, who rolled the gurney back to the cold storage area.
We went back out to the administrative offices to meet with one of the hospital’s pathologists, who had performed a brief preliminary exam. He was a large black man, late fifties, wearing spotted scrubs and drying his hands on a huge wad of paper towels. His scrubs smelled of preservative fluids and other things best left unmentioned. He introduced himself to Bernie and acknowledged me with a brief nod.
“Based on what I saw of her throat, I think she was poisoned,” he announced. “We’re definitely going to want an autopsy on this one.”
I stared at him in disbelief, and even Price seemed to be surprised.
The doctor pitched the sodden wad of paper towels into a biohazard trash can. “Only thing I’ve seen like it was a case where a really angry woman poured a can of drain cleaner down her boyfriend’s throat while he was sleeping. Sodium hydroxide. I didn’t scope her, but they won’t have to. I’m guessing there’s severe esophageal burning as well as damage to the stomach lining. I’m talking chemical burns here, not fire.”
“You mean, like acid?” Price asked.
“I don’t have a clue right now as to what it was. I didn’t smell what I smelled with the Drano case, for what that’s worth.”
“Any signs that she was
to drink poison?” I asked.
“And you are, again?” the doctor said, looking for some kind of ID badge on my shirt besides the visitor’s tag.
“He’s with me,” Price said, leaving it at that.
“O-o-kay,” the pathologist said with a shrug. “No, there was no bruising of the face or lips, and no evident indication of restraint. But an autopsy may contradict that. My job is to see if I can determine an obvious cause of death. If not, she goes upstate. We’ll transport tonight, get results back in a couple of days if they’re not overloaded up there.”
Price took me back downtown, where I retrieved my Suburban and went to check in at the riverside Hilton. Allie’s car had been towed away from the gas station, and I didn’t think it would be worth my while to go see a convenience store
bathroom. I decided to call an old friend who had moved to Wilmington, former park ranger and current college professor Mary Ellen Goode. First I had to find her number, so I called the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, known locally as the U, and tried to get her office number. I’d forgotten how much academics, for all their fervently professed individualism, love their bureaucracy. I think I could have driven out there and asked any passing student quicker than it took for a succession of politically correct office persons to finally, grudgingly, part with a phone number and an extension. Which got me voice mail, naturally, but it was Mary Ellen’s lovely voice and it was good to hear. She called back a half hour later.
“Cam,” she said. “What a nice surprise. Are we in danger?”
I chuckled at that. We had met in the Great Smokies National Park during the cat dancers case, and again when I’d helped her sort out an especially nasty assault on one of the park’s ranger probationers. We’d clicked, and pretty hard, but my penchant for attracting violent encounters with violent people had finally overwhelmed her natural sensitivity. Her question was not entirely frivolous.
“Not this time,” I said. “I’m in town on business, but there shouldn’t be any major explosions, leaping panthers, or gunfire for at least, oh, hell, a couple hours or so. How about a drink?”
“I’d love to,” she said. “I’ve got one more seminar. Where are you staying?”
I told her the Hilton, and she said she’d meet me at seven in the riverfront lounge.
Even closing in on the big four-oh, Mary Ellen Goode could still light up a room when she arrived. That’s how I’d remembered her—the lady who lit up the room. Big bright smile, softly pretty face, and an aura of vulnerable femininity that made every male in range want to protect her, or at least lay on hands. But then I took a second look as she crossed to my
table. Maybe it was the tight white skirt enclosing shimmering legs good enough to dent the low buzz of conversation in the lounge. Or that direct, lips-parted smile as she arrived at my table and gave me a second to take in the glorious package before I got a big hug. I tried hard not to grin like a schoolboy who’s just scored the head cheerleader’s prom ticket. I think I failed. I assumed she’d gone home to attend to powder and paintwork, because if this was how she looked in the classroom, none of the boys there were going to remember anything at all about environmental science.
Drinks ordered and appreciated, my biggest apprehension was that, once I told her what I was really doing in Wilmington, her enthusiasm at seeing me again would drain right out of those bright blue eyes and the evening would be a bust.
So I lied.
I told her I was in town meeting with the local authorities to make sure our company had all the proper licenses to work in this part of the state should we ever have to. Then I quickly asked her how she liked academia in comparison to being the chief environmental scientist up in the Great Smoky Mountains. She got a wistful look in her eye.
“I can’t deny that I miss it—the mountains, the park, I mean. And most of the rangers.”
“Most of the rangers. Ever hear from Ranger Bob?”
It was an inside joke, and she smiled shyly. “I do believe Ranger Bob got in over his head,” she said, and I laughed out loud. “But at least he made a run,” she continued. “Most of the men I’ve met in academia are—different.”
“Those who can, do . . .” I began—and then realized I was slinging that nasty little adage at her, too, now that she had gone back to the ivory tower. Except she’d already proved herself more than once on the “doing” side of that equation, and she knew that I knew that. Had she said “most” of the men?
“Well, sort of, at least for the men who went off to college and basically never left. One encounters the occasional ego who equates a big intellect with genuine manliness. You can tell because they talk too much.”
That’s my girl
, I thought. Of course, I had the advantage of never having been encumbered with an oversized intellect, myself.
“No hits at all?”
She smiled again. “There’s one guy I’ve been seeing. He’s an oceanic engineer.” She saw my confusion. “That’s a mix of environmental science and undersea engineering,” she said. “He keeps construction companies from running afoul of the various EPAs. How about you—anyone?”
I shook my head. My last really enjoyable time with a woman had been with a seriously go-ahead lady SBI agent whom I’d hoped to entice out of the state womb and into our investigative crew. We’d ended up working the Spider Mountain case, in which Mary Ellen had also been involved. “You remember Carrie, of the SBI?”
She gave me an impudent grin. “Unh-hunh,” she said. She was leaning back in her chair now, squaring her shoulders, sipping some wine, and doing something with her legs that made a guy at the next table slop beer down his front.
“Stop that,” I said.
“You were telling me about Carrie of the SBI?” she said, ignoring me but allowing that sexy smile to stay on her face.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I offered her a job with H&S, but she got a better offer from the SBI. I think they were afraid that she’d sue them or something after that mess on Spider Mountain.”
“So she did the smart thing.”
“She did. And now I’m all alone, sad, depressed, picked on, and I don’t know what-all I’m ever gonna do.”
“And Frick and Frack?” she asked, still looking right at me. I began to feel a little bit like that proverbial deer in the headlights. They were lovely headlights, but she appeared to be a woman with some loving in mind. I was hugely flattered, while having a tiny little problem concentrating on the conversation.
“Fuzzy, smelly, barking too much, shedding, lazy. The usual. Frack’s getting older, slowing down a bit. Frick is Frick.”
“They’re not with you this trip?”
She knew I normally never went anywhere without my two shepherds. Keeping up the legend, I told her this wasn’t an operational outing, so I’d left them home this time.
“Now I feel much safer,” she said. “No shepherds, no bad guys.” More body language, with lots of independent movement. I realized I’d finished my wine. I don’t even much like wine.
“You need to refresh that?” She indicated my empty wineglass. Then she cocked her head. “Or is there somewhere more private? Where we could . . . talk?”
I caught my breath. She was doing what nice girls are never supposed to do: looking straight into my eyes and communicating on the limbic channel. I couldn’t really find my voice, so I just nodded, slowly, and pushed back my chair. She drained her glass, stood up, and smoothed out her skirt, looking away at nothing while she did it but once again creating a cone of bumbled male conversations in the immediate vicinity. The girl was on fire, and every hetero man within range was hoping I’d just fall over and die so he might come to her rescue. What little female talent there was in the lounge was shooting daggers.
I was so entranced I forgot to pay my tab, but, hell, they knew where I was staying.
I’d come down to Wilmington on short notice, so the only thing available had been one of the expensive top-floor suites. We sat out on the river balcony and enjoyed some more wine. It was actually a bit cold to be sitting out there, but neither of us had seemed to notice. What I had noticed was that Mary Ellen Goode was a genuine damsel in distress. Physical distress. Horns so long she was having to go through doors sideways. I was in pretty good shape for a man of my advancing years, with daily workouts at the Triboro police gym, ten-mile runs every other evening with the shepherds, and a diet that emphasized red meat for protein and Scotch for carbs.
She, on the other hand, led a semi-sedentary life as an
assistant professor of environmental science, whose only concession to physical exercise was a three-mile walk down city sidewalks to and from her apartment. And still she wore my delighted ass right out, coming at our lovemaking with an urgency and desperate need that damned near flattened me in the worst possible context of that expression. We’d approached intimacy in our previous connections, but we’d never actually gone to bed. I should have tried a whole lot harder and a whole lot sooner. I did have the sense not to talk.
Afterward I ordered up a room service dinner for two and we went back out onto the balcony. We were wearing those terrycloth bathrobes the Hilton puts in their suites, but she had neglected to close things up. I’d been relieved when our room service waiter turned out to be a sweet young thing who was either oblivious to the layer of lust-scented ozone in the suite or else a really good actor. He hadn’t even looked twice at Mary Ellen in that loose robe. Maybe it was because he was concerned about my respiration rate.