Crazy Little Thing Called Dead, Chapter One
I haven’t had a lot of experience with diapers, but I do know that you don’t usually find them taped to dead men’s chests. I’m Bella Bree MacGowan, and while I’m happy to report strange happenings like this in the Royalton Star Weekly, I would have passed on the early morning haircut if I knew I was going to be present at the discovery of the diapered dead dude. But there he was on the floor of my favorite hair salon, Planet Hair.
“What in the world?” Claire, Planet Hair’s owner and stylist extraordinaire, froze mid-stride in the doorway. I gently pushed past her and realized I should have stayed outside. A middle-aged man in a mismatched suit was face up on the floor. I don’t suppose there are many places dead men look at home, but surrounded by marigold walls and purple trim, it was like finding a corpse on a merry-go-round.
I knelt down and put my fingers to his neck, searching for a pulse. I’d felt skin like this before, cold and kind of… well, dead… and this guy’s heart hadn’t been pumping for a while. His dress shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way up and as much as I didn’t want to look at this guy I couldn’t help but see there was something unusual on his chest. There was a line of grey silver duct tape and under that, a row of line-art duckies. I’d seen ducks like that before—on my cousin’s infant. It was a diaper. I got an instant case of the creeps running up my spine.
I looked up at Claire and shook my head.
“There’s a dead guy in my salon? Shit.” Claire is a tough chick, but finding a body can shake a person up.
“We need to get out of here.” I shooed her out the door and dragged my cell phone from my pocket.
I didn’t dial 911. My best friend’s husband, Tom Maverick, was the Commander of the Vermont State Police Barracks in Bethel, Vermont. I called him directly and let him sort it out. After Tom I called Randy, the photographer we used for the Royalton Star.
“Dead body at Planet Hair. Get over here now.”
God help me, a little shiver of excitement ran through me. If I had anything to do with it, the paper would come out tomorrow morning with a shot of the dead guy on the front page. A scoop for the paper would be excellent. On the other hand, my stomach was starting to clench. Dead bodies had a way of wrecking my life.
Claire and I waited out on the covered sidewalk in the humidity. My leg was jiggling with nervous energy as I willed Randy to get here before the police. I was sweating even though it was only eight-thirty and we were standing in the shade. Claire looked at her watch, glanced back into the salon and then gazed at me with her eyebrows raised.
“You’d better call your clients, this is going to take all day,” I said.
“My appointment book is in there with the dead guy.” Claire frowned.
It was fifteen minutes before two state police cruisers pulled up alongside the building. There were no lights or sirens. This was what I liked about Tom; he kept the fanfare at a minimum. Tom tended to be a low-key kind of guy, for a cop. He extracted himself from the first car and came over to me, while Officer Steve Leftsky and his partner hopped up onto the boardwalk and disappeared into the salon. Tom sat on the top step next to me.
“I should have known you’d be here. We’ve had two bodies in the past five years and you’ve found both of them.”
“Three. You forgot Lily Wallace in California.” Not that I wanted to remember the blood mingling with her hair in the river, but seeing a body fall from one of the tallest bridges in the United States isn’t something you forget in a hurry.
“That’s right. Body number three. You holding together?”
“I’m fine. At least there wasn’t any blood this time. Could have been a natural death for all I know.”
“Yeah. Not likely.”
At the bottom of the stairs Claire waylaid a blond woman in her mid-fifties and led her to the other side of the road, next to the railroad tracks. I guessed it must be her next hair appointment—a dye job, if the dark streak in her part was any indication. The blonde left and Claire walked over to us.
“Any chance I can have my appointment book, Tom? I need to call people.” Her voice was strong but her hands were shaking as she brushed a strand of dark-honey hair from her face. She attempted to slide it into her clip. It came loose immediately, surprising me. Claire’s fingers were usually magic with hair.
“Hang on for a minute. I’ll have Steve bring it out to you.”
The medical examiner pulled up in his pickup, followed by an ambulance. The EMTs waited in the ambulance while the ME headed our way. He nodded to Tom as he passed us and entered the salon.
“Going in?” I asked, still watching for Randy to show up.
“It can wait. That guy isn’t going anywhere.” Tom took off his hat and ran his hand across his head. He wore his hair old school military, so short he was practically bald. “What was our boy doing in Planet Hair? Stealing scissors? Any sign of a break in?”
“No. The door was locked, no broken windows, just the guy on the floor.”
“Captain?” One of the officers stood in the doorway behind us. “You might want to see this.”
Tom stood and I followed suit. Randy might not get here to take real photos but I could take a cell phone shot. Tom stood just inside the door and I peered around his shoulder. The medical examiner had the dead guy’s shirt open all the way, the duct tape on his chest clearly holding down a diaper. I’d been right. I pulled out my cell phone, keeping it low and out of Tom’s line of sight, but Randy arrived and pushed past me clicking pictures.
“What’s he doing in here?” Tom blocked the camera with his arm but Randy dodged and snapped a couple more.
“Out!” Tom’s face was turning purple. “Bree, you should know better.”
Randy turned to go. “I got it. Check your email in thirty.” A grin snaked across his face. “And don’t let Tom give you a hard time.”
“I said out!” The back of Tom’s neck was bright red.
“I’m going. Don’t get your boxers in a bunch.” Randy winked at me and went outside. I could see him through the window snapping pictures of the ambulance. He’d be ready when they wheeled the body out.
“What the hell is that?” Tom asked. “Silver duct tape on a man makes me think of explosives.”
“Not explosives, Tom, you can relax. It’s a diaper.” The ME poked the soggy red diaper. “Full of blood.”
I turned away. I knew from experience that blood has an adverse effect on my stomach. I heard someone retch and looked to see Claire behind me.
“Bree, get her out of here.” Tom barked at me.
“No. I need to see this.”
“I’m fine,” Claire said, and then gagged again.
“Tom! It’s my job.”
“My God. Be a human being for five minutes, Claire needs help.”
“Shit. All right, I’m going, but only because blood makes me barf.”
I found Claire standing on the stairs and led her away from the shop.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to mess up your story.”
“I’ll hunt down Tom later.”
We walked around the corner away from the scene of the crime, even though I was dying to be there. Claire was looking a little less green away from the salon but I thought it would be a good idea to stay out of there until the body had been hauled away. I had more experience with dead bodies than she did. Hell, I had more experience with dead bodies than anyone I knew, besides Tom. A distinction I could do without, by the way.
Claire and I walked around the corner to the café situated under the Royalton Star’s upstairs offices halfway down the block. We sat at the table in the front window where we could watch the comings and goings of the town. I wrangled the seat facing the street; I wanted to be able to see when the ambulance went by, and I didn’t want Claire reminded of what she’d seen in her salon.
The Muffin Man, Dave, was waiting tables. Here was a man guaranteed to raise anyone’s spirits. He squatted down next to Claire and fixed her with his hazel peepers and the color returned to her face.
“Looking good today, ladies. What can I get you?” He flashed his smile. I smiled back, feeling like I was back in high school.
We ordered coffee and the café’s famous pumpkin and chocolate chip muffins and watched The Muffin Man walking back to the kitchen. I caught Claire’s eye and we both giggled.
“Love the view in here,” she said.
“Never fails to inspire. We are so high school.”
“Thank God. If that didn’t take me back to high school I’d start thinking I was getting old.”
We got another smile from Dave when he brought our food. Claire had the good grace to blush and I figured I’d done my superhero duty for the day. But the story was niggling at my brain and I wanted to ask her about the guy, which was guaranteed to ruin the mood.
The door to the café slammed and I looked over to see Meg, my best friend/boss and Tom’s wife, heading toward us. She squeezed behind me and banged the chair against the wall as she sat.
“Shouldn’t you be upstairs writing this up?” she asked. “Or didn’t you know there was a dead body in Planet Hair? Wait. Don’t tell me. You found the body in Planet Hair.”
I nodded. “Claire and I walked in and there he was.”
“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to have a reporter who finds things like bodies. But why aren’t you upstairs getting this ready for tomorrow’s paper?”
“I’m about to grill Claire, but I was trying to be tactful about it,” I said, widening my eyes hoping she’d get my telepathic don’t spook my source. “Let her get used to the idea of a dead body in her salon before starting in with the questions. Randy’s got pictures.”
“No point in grilling me anyway, I don’t know who he was or what he’s doing in my shop.” Claire shrugged.
“See?” Meg said. “Get your butt upstairs.”
“Don’t you ever release news early? You could break this on the web,” Claire said.
“We’re the last paper on earth not to have an online edition,” I said, looking pointedly at Meg.
“I’m not adding an online version until I figure out how it will benefit us,” Meg said. “It’s a whole… different level of advertising. I’d have to hire somebody to oversee the thing. It would cost us money.”
“Wouldn’t need to,” Claire said, “You should talk to the editor of the Braintree paper. I do his hair. He’s got a handle on the dual edition thing.”
“I’ll add it to my list.” What she really meant was, when pigs fly. Meg hated the internet. About the time e-book sales and online news had started pushing out print editions she’d decided it was a zombie plot.
I pushed my chair back. “I’ve got to go to work.” I turned to Claire. “What are you going to do about your clients?”
“Can I borrow your kitchen?” Claire asked Meg. Claire had worked out of her own kitchen for years before buying the salon, but since then she’d moved into the hills so her kitchen wasn’t really an option anymore.
“Sure. Why not? It’s not locked, but yell when you go in or Jeremy might come down in his underwear and embarrass himself.”
“Thanks Meg.” Claire leaned over and gave Meg a hug. “Thank God I’ve got my emergency make-over bag in the car.”
Claire waved as she went out the door, and I stood up, tossing a couple of dollars on the table.
“Go ahead up,” Meg said. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
I climbed up to our second floor office. I was balancing my take-out coffee and raspberry chocolate chip muffin—I never could eat just one muffin. It was obvious Meg had already been up, the door was unlocked and the radio was on. I opened the window, sat down and powered up my computer. I set aside the notes for the story I had been planning to run and started typing, a thrill of glee running through me.
Deirdre, our paste-up tech, came in and shut the door softly. “Hey Bree. I won’t chat; I know you’re trying to finish that article.”
“Actually, we’ve got a new front page. Large photo front and center as soon as Randy sends it over. I’m working on the article now.”
Good to her word, Deirdre powered up her computer and worked in silence. Deirdre looked meek, mild and slightly intimidated by life. She kept her strawberry hair clipped back and wore knee length skirts and twin sets. She also didn’t say much, but she had the publishing software beaten into submission and when she did talk you never knew what would come out of her mouth. She knew highly technical computer terminology. And she could, and did, cuss worse than any road crew guy I knew.
I’d gotten down everything I could remember when Meg came flying in the door.
“There’s a car in the lake! I heard it on the scanner.” She was gesturing at me with her hands. “Quick! Go now and you’ll be there when they pull it out.”
“A car in the lake?” I was confused. I had a murder to investigate and Meg was waving her hands in the air over a submerged car.
“Call Randy and go. No. I’ll call Randy, you go. Now!” She was practically jumping up and down.
“You call the shots,” I said, and got out of my chair, wondering if she’d had a blow to the head.
“Bree! It’s out-of-state plates! It could be the murderer’s car. Go, go, go!” Meg was practically vibrating with energy.
“You think the car is connected to the murder? That’s kind of a stretch don’t you think?” I would have plopped myself back in the chair, but it would have given her a coronary.
“There’s stuff floating above it. Diapers, ammunition!” Meg opened the door. “For the love of Pete, go!
I went, picking up my smallest dog, Annie the Beagle cross, on the way, even though I couldn’t see how ammunition and diapers could be floating above the car. At least those objects made sense to me in relation to the murder.
Twenty minutes later, I was in Barnard, standing with my dog in a small crowd of people gazing into the lake. Sure enough, there was a car, and floating along the bank were a couple of empty boxes of shells and an empty bag of Ducky Diapers. Hot damn. I walked along the spillway and looked at the other bits of detritus floating there. Fast food wrappers, and napkins mostly. Nothing that looked relevant.
Randy showed up and went to work taking pictures. I left him to it, and sat on a bench with Beagle Annie at my knee waiting for the tow truck to show up. State Troopers were keeping an eye on the onlookers and I was scratching Beagle Annie’s head, telling her that they should send the children home before the tow truck got there, because God knew what might be in the car. Sure enough, when the wrecker finally showed up the Troopers moved everyone across the street. They let Randy and I stay—it was the advantage of being with the press.
There was some argument about who was going into the water to hook up the car. The truck driver felt that there should be a dive crew there to take care of it, and the Troopers hadn’t called and didn’t want to wait for them to show up. In the end, one of the Troopers pulled off everything but his pants and walked the cable out as far as he could. He swam over the vehicle and dove down. I was antsy. The thought of having to hold your breath while trying to hook a cable to a submerged car gave me palpitations. I let out my breath when he surfaced and gave the winch operator the thumbs up. The winch pulled in the slack and the line went taut. The noise was deafening and I held my hands over Beagle Annie’s ears as a white Ford Taurus with New York plates was pulled up and sucked out of the water. When all four tires were on the bank and the car was unhooked those of us who could gathered close, while the civilians were kept on the other side of the road.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the worst as a Trooper opened the door and the lake rushed out. No bodies, thank God. Randy was moving around taking pictures through the windows, but there wasn’t much to see. There were some wrappers that hadn’t floated out, and a river rock on the gas pedal. Someone popped the trunk and we looked in at a couple of suitcases, correction, a suitcase and a rifle case – the Trooper had popped it open and it wasn’t even damp. I immediately thought of fingerprints. The rifle case was snapped shut and tagged, along with the suitcase. The car was pulled up onto the tow truck and the show was over.
I walked over to the Trooper who had toweled off and redressed, he was tying his regulation black shoes and hadn’t left with the other cruisers. Beagle Annie stuck out her ears like flags, making her look like she knew something we didn’t, and focused her black rimmed eyes on the Trooper.
“Did you get a look at that rifle?” I asked him.
He looked up at me. “Yeah. Why?” He finished with his laces and stood, he was a good ten inches taller than me.
“There was something different about it, I wondered if you knew what it was?” I crossed my fingers that he’d talk to me; otherwise I’d be searching Google images all afternoon.
“It had a silencer on it.” He reached down to pat Beagle Annie and then straightened to put his hat on his head. She looked a little put out and I could tell she’d been just about to roll onto her back for a tummy rub.
“Isn’t that kind of unusual?” I had no idea if it was unusual or not, but I was hoping he’d tell me.
“Not much use for a silencer when you’re hunting in the woods. Take care.” He touched the brim of his hat and headed for his cruiser.
Where do you hunt if you aren’t hunting in the woods? The city? There’s only one kind of prey in the city. If you don’t count the rats.
I was at my desk with Beagle Annie under my feet, trying to figure out the connection between the murder and the car when Lucy Howe blew in the door. Beagle Annie growled low in her throat and my bitch-o-meter kicked on, but she wrote for the paper on occasion so I did my best to play nice.
“Lucy.” I smiled but my face felt like plastic.
“Bree.” Lucy didn’t look any more sincere than I felt. “I hear there was a murder in town. Care to share?”
“News travels fast.” Way faster than I anticipated. Beagle Annie growled again, I hushed her.
“It pays to have connections. Randy told me.” She smiled her superior I know how to get information out of people and you don’t smile.
“I didn’t know you and Randy were close.” And poor Randy if you are.
“I extended him a few favors, so he extends me some.”
“We already have a front page spread on the dead guy, sorry,” I said.
“It’s not for Meg. I’ve been engaged by the Valley News. They liked the idea of a local reporting on the story. And since The Star is a weekly and the News is a daily I’m going to be able to report more, sooner.” She left off the nyah, nyah, nyah nyah nyah, but it was implied.
“You’d better talk to Tom then. I’m sure you don’t want second hand news from me.” I turned back to my keyboard. Beagle Annie’s low growls were vibrating on my foot, but Lucy couldn’t hear her.
“You found the body. Nothing second hand about that. But if you won’t talk I can always go see Claire. I need a haircut.” She turned and left, the stink of her narcissistic superiority following after her.
I picked up the phone.
“Claire. Lucy Howe is headed your way. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t say much.” I was tapping my fingers on my desk top, wondering how to beat Lucy at her own game.
“She was here an hour ago. I didn’t tell her anything she wouldn’t have heard on the street.”
I should have known. I would have preferred that she not say anything at all, but I guess that was asking a little too much.
Next I called Randy to warn him that Lucy might show up, but I was too late there too, he’d given her a flash drive and I was willing to bet she wasn’t bringing that flash drive to me. I’d be surprised if they didn’t show up in tomorrow’s big daily paper.
“Then get it back! Those are my pictures.”
“But Lucy said…”
“Lucy didn’t hire you, I did!”
I slammed down the phone. “Fuck!” I put all the suppressed rage I could muster into the word.
Deirdre walked into the office while I was swearing.
“I take it things aren’t going well.”
“I’ve got it handled.” I hope.
I got back on the phone to the Barracks and started nagging Steve Leftsky for information on the Murder.
“Didn’t I just talk to you? I’ve got work to do.” I thought he was kidding around, but he could have been truly exasperated with me. I couldn’t tell over the phone.
“It’s been at least twenty-four hours. I’m working on the murder, now. Different article, different legal pad, different phone call. Even a different pen in my mouth. And I was giving you a break, so spill.” I was trying to train myself to keep my pen out of my mouth when I was on the phone, but it wasn’t working out for me.
“Bree, I just don’t know anything.”
“Was there ID?” I asked, wondering if Tom had asked the guys to keep their mouths closed.
“Look. There was nothing. We’ve got a dead John Doe dressed in mismatched clothes with a hole in his chest. That’s it. Nothing else.”
“But he wasn’t killed at the salon, was he?” That was pretty clear from the lack of blood but I wanted to hear him say it. I’d read Investigative Reporting for Dummies.
“You were there, what did you see?”
“No blood.” I thought of the soggy red diaper and shuddered.
“You can deduce something from that can’t you?
I hung up and wrote the piece, which didn’t take long because there wasn’t anything to say except Hey everybody, there was a dead guy at Planet Hair! I zapped it over to Deirdre for her to set and started thinking about next week’s article before coming to my senses. “We’d better get the paper put together.”
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