Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (5 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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Hallie left the hospital on Tuesday afternoon. At home she ate a platter of scrambled eggs and four slices of toast and slept for twelve hours.

The next day at about four
she knocked and waited on the front porch of Kurt Ely’s house in Gaithersburg. She had gotten his address from the phone book. It had led her to a peeling, weedy neighborhood with rusting For Sale signs leaning in many of the front yards.

“Can I help you?” In the doorway stood a fortyish woman, short and stout, wearing jeans, a man’s white shirt with the tail out, and black clogs. Hallie had expected someone younger, prettier.

“Robin Ely?” she asked.

The woman frowned. “Who are you?”

“My name is Hallie Leland. I was on the expedition with your husband. I just got out of the hospital and—”

“He wasn’t my husband.”

“Excuse me?”

“What exactly was it you wanted?”

“I came by to see Kurt’s wife—Robin. Kurt mentioned her. I thought she might like to know more about the expedition than what was in the newspapers.”

The woman’s frown faded. “That was nice of you. I’m Madeleine Taylor. Robin was my sister, married to Kurt. Would you like to come in?”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve been packing, and I’m ready for a break. Coffee?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Taylor.”

“Call me Maddy.” They sat on stools at the breakfast bar. Hallie could see cardboard boxes and a pile of women’s clothing on the dining room table.

“It looks like you’re helping your sister move. She must be taking Kurt’s death hard.”

Taylor set her cup down. “My sister is dead.”

“What? I had no idea,” Hallie said. “I am
sorry. Kurt never mentioned that. I have brothers and …” She was still tired and raw inside, and just the thought of losing a brother made her eyes fill; Taylor’s did, too, and then they were both laughing self-consciously and wiping tears off their cheeks.

“Is that why you’re here? Retrieving her things?” Hallie asked.

“Yes. Let me ask you something. How well did you know Kurt?”

“I met him for the first time on the expedition,” Hallie said, thinking,
How much to tell this woman?
“He was a competent caver. I don’t think he liked taking direction from a woman.”

“You were the boss?”

“The expedition leader. I had more experience in caves than either of the others. He was nice to the third member of our team, though. Devan Halsted was younger and less experienced.”

“He wanted something.”

“Excuse me?”

“Forget it.” Taylor moved the conversation back to Hallie, who talked about her brothers, and her job at CDC, and how she had ended up exploring supercaves. Taylor offered more coffee.

Hallie said, “This must be very difficult for you. First losing Robin, and now Kurt.”

“Not really.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hallie, I’m not from Washington. Baltimore born and raised. We don’t mince words. I saw through Kurt from the get-go. I told Robby, I said, this man is ten miles of trouble and slick as goose shit. Do
marry him.”

“Don’t misunderstand this, but how did you know that?”

Taylor chuckled sourly. “Like sister, like sister. I spent some years with the same kind of shit heel. A broken nose and arm finally helped me see the light.”

“But your sister went with him anyway?”

“Oh, he could be utterly charming. I’ll give him that. A skill sociopaths share, apparently. Ted Bundy and all. The bastard started playing around six months after the wedding. Waitresses, stews, pole dancers, whatever fresh meat he could get his hands on.”

“How long were they married?”

“Four years. Six months ago, Robby finally told me the whole story.” Taylor closed her eyes, breathed deeply. “Some of it was shocking.”

“How do you mean?”

“He wasn’t just playing around. Kurt was sick. He made Robin do things.” Taylor described a couple that turned Hallie’s stomach. “Sometimes he
her.” Taylor looked away, and Hallie knew that she was debating whether to say more. She looked back. “Robin was not a strong person. Easily influenced. I think that’s why he married her.”

“That’s terrible, Maddy. It must have been awful for you, too.”

“My little sister. I said, ‘Robby, you should talk to the police. Those things he does.’ ”

“Did she?”

“No. I think she was afraid.”

“You said that he must have wanted something from Devan.”

“Sex, probably.”

“Excuse me?”

“He played around with men, too. Can you imagine?”

“Oh.” So Ely had told the truth in his note. Or some of it, anyway.

Taylor finished the coffee, looked at her watch. “The reason I’m here: after Robin died, I wanted to pick up some stuff. Things from our family, pictures, old jewelry, you know.”

Hallie nodded.

“The bastard wouldn’t let me have anything. Wouldn’t even let me in.”

you get in, then?”

“Robby kept a spare key under a flowerpot out back.”

The conversation ebbed. Hallie thought it was time to leave, but remembered something. “You said Kurt was, well, weird. Did it go beyond his marriage?”

Taylor sighed. “He had a thing about the government.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Like a Timothy McVeigh kind of thing.”

Hallie’s gut clenched. “What?”

“That’s probably exaggerating. But he
the government.”

“Do you know why?”

“I know what Robby told me. Supposedly, his father got wounded in Vietnam but couldn’t get disability from the army.”


Maddy thought about that. “My guess? He was faking, if he was like Kurt. But then, since when did the government need a reason to fuck over somebody?”

“What happened to him?”

“He had a ratty apartment in Philly. Didn’t call for a while, so Kurt went up there. The old man had been dead on the floor for a week. Starved to death, apparently.”


“Kurt was never a model of mental health, but that put him into a real bad space.”

“What did he do?”

“The usual stuff. Letters to bigwigs, newspapers,
60 Minutes
. Tried seeing people, too.”

“Nothing happened?”

“He got arrested for refusing to leave a senator’s office. After that he got worse. Robby said he started collecting diagrams of subway stations, sewer system maps, power plants.”

“Was he planning some kind of attack?”

“I wouldn’t have put it past him.”

“But somebody would have picked up on a government scientist acting like that.”

“You think? It took them, what, three years to get that anthrax scientist guy in D.C. And they
got the wrong man. Which they only figured out after he killed himself. You think they were having meetings about the fact that Kurt had some blueprints on his wall?”


The two women walked to the door and stepped into blue evening. Only a few windows on the street glowed yellow. The streetlight in front of Ely’s house was out. A cat was whining, and Hallie caught a whiff of some rotting thing. She started to leave, then stopped and turned.

“Maddy, if you don’t mind my asking, how did Robin die?”

“I don’t mind. You’re a nice person, Hallie. She killed herself.”


“That bastard drove her to it. Robin hung herself right here in the basement.”


Returning from her meeting with Maddy Taylor, Hallie stepped into her house and stopped. It took her one second to identify the stink—excrement—and one more to spot its source. Somebody had defecated in the middle of her small living room.

In the kitchen, drawers had been pulled out, their contents dumped. Her bedroom had been ransacked, too—dresser emptied, mattress turned over, jewelry box smashed, its contents scattered on the floor. Most of it was costume stuff, but two pieces were precious to her. One was her great-grandfather’s gold watch chain and fob. The other was the Distinguished Service Cross her father had won in Vietnam. The medal itself was bronze and of little value, but to her its worth was immeasurable.

Rage hit. Shaking with it, she felt beneath her bedside table for the SIG Sauer 9mm pistol held in place there by spring clips. The magazine was full, and she kept a round chambered. Growing up on a farm, with a soldier father and two brothers, she had learned to shoot all kinds of guns, and to shoot them well.

She searched all the other upstairs rooms but found only more disarray. She went through the kitchen and down into the basement. For a few moments she stood still, pistol hanging at her side, staring. From her father, Hallie had inherited a love of order, so pegboard covered the walls, and each wall was devoted to a single activity: climbing, diving, caving, paragliding. On one hung ice axes and crampons, ropes and harnesses. A twenty-five-pound box of climbers’ chalk, used to get better purchase on rock, sat in a corner. Another wall was festooned with technical diving gear, the third with specialized caving equipment, and the fourth with her paragliding wings and accessories. All told, there was $50,000 worth of sophisticated equipment here, but nothing appeared disturbed or missing. She looked over the small workbench where she
refurbished gear, but the tools and paint and spare parts were undisturbed. Her orange Petzl caving pack sat where she had left it, unopened and leaning against the workbench, after returning from the hospital.

Cell phones didn’t work in her place, an old farmhouse in second-growth woods at the end of a dirt road twenty-five miles north of Washington. She used the landline kitchen phone to call 911. The dispatcher told her units were on the way and urged her to get out of the house immediately. She sat in the kitchen with her SIG until the sirens were close, then clipped it back in place and went to greet the officers. They found the point of entry quickly—a forced rear window—and helped make a list of stolen items: the watch fob and medal, an old desktop computer and printer she rarely used, her television set and audio system, and a pair of silver candlesticks.

Wrapping up, one said to her, “I’m surprised by the mess in your living room. Burglars used to do it all the time, but DNA typing stopped that.”

“So the fact that this guy shat here tells us something,” the other officer said.

“What?” Hallie asked.

“Either he has no record or he doesn’t give a—sorry—or he doesn’t care.
would make him an addict or crazy.”

They were less surprised than she had been by the undisturbed basement. “Either he heard you coming and booked or he didn’t think that stuff was worth stealing,” one said. “Though it is strange that he left a hundred bucks in that teapot in your kitchen. Most burglars can smell cash. But again, you probably scared him off.”

Day Three: Thursday


BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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