Authors: Charles Atkins
Table of Contents
THE CADAVER'S BALL
ASHES, ASHES *
MOTHER'S MILK *
VULTURES AT TWILIGHT *
BEST PLACE TO DIE *
* available from Severn House
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First published in Great Britain and the USA 2012 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9â15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
This eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn Digital an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited
Copyright Â© 2012 by Charles Atkins.
The right of Charles Atkins to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Best place to die.
1. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-318-1 (epub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8208-0 (cased)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To Peggy Munro
n Saturday, April 2nd 2011, the last day of his life, Dr Norman Trask, a mostly retired Connecticut surgeon, felt true contentment. The reed-thin and straight-backed octogenarian, with freshly barbered silver hair and clear blue eyes after a double cataract procedure stared at the flat screen monitor and thought,
Norm, life is good.
He smiled at the small webcam eye at the top of the screen and then at his son, Dennis, on the screen. How he loved that kid â
not a kid at all now.
As they did their Saturday Skype check-in Norm took stock of his youngest, his red hair mostly gray, a shiny spot on top, hell of a gut from booze he'd supposedly sworn off thirty years ago â
but settled, thank God. And how did he get so old? But thank God. The kid had been a nightmare . . . and thank God.
âYou sure you don't want us to come over, and cart away some of that stuff? I mean, Dad . . .'
âDon't spoil it. The place is a little messy; it's not a problem,' Norm said, loving Dennis, but not wanting to put either of them, or Dennis's second wife, Britney, through the tired routine of them seeing his collections, insinuating he was a hoarder, and everyone getting upset. The problem was not that he was a hoarder, but that this two-bedroom top-of-the-line 1200 square foot unit in the Nillewaug Village Assisted Living Community was too damn small, even with his double-sized cage in the basement. He'd considered renting a storage unit, maybe two â something he would never tell Dennis.
âMessy?' Dennis shook his head. âDad, you can't see the floor for all of your clock magazines. Messy is not the word, and yes I realize your clocks are valuable and you've got a great collection, but how many do you really need? I worry that one of those stacks or those bookcases are going to fall over and you're going to get hurt or . . .'
âDennis.' Norm felt a twinge of anger. âStop it! I've cleaned out a lot of stuff. I will not have other people going through my things and throwing out important articles, or moving things around like Britney did the last time so I can't find what I need. She's a pretty girl, but she is not to do that again. As you can see â' indicating the area he'd carefully staged so that what Dennis saw through the screen was his father dressed in pressed jeans and a red-plaid shirt backed by a tidy wall of bookshelves in his favorite leather swivel chair, with the arms worn bare and the axel squeaking comfortably â âthings are just fine here.' However, if the camera had a wider focus the scene would have been quite different. In order to carve out this area Norm had to shift boxes of clock parts, and several cubic meters of magazines and journals with titles like
Clocks, Clock Enthusiast
The Connecticut Horological Society Newsletter
Clock Repair Quarterly, The American Journal of Orthopedics, Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
All his life people had been on Norm about his stuff, and it was none of anyone's damn business. It drove him crazy.
All anyone seems to want to do is throw away my stuff, perfectly good stuff.
Dennis, in particular, after all he'd done for that kid.
Just lay off!
âDad . . .' Dennis wasn't letting up. âI don't mean to get on your case, but you were at the flea market this morning, weren't you?'
âSo what? I go every week.' And if Dennis had been in a more understanding frame of mind, Norman would have shared how this morning had been a corker. He'd scored a huge find at the Brantsville flea market, which now sat just out of range of the webcam â an early nineteenth-century wood-movement pillar-and-scroll mantle clock that he was sure was either Eli or Samuel Terry. His heart raced at the memory of spotting it in the early dawn light, the reverse painted glass panel with its gold eagle clutching a quiver of arrows in perfect condition, not a scratch, not a chip, just covered in a thick layer of grime. His hands, still surgeon steady, had shaken as he'd peeled off crisp hundred-dollar bills. He glanced lovingly at this gem, now fully dismantled on his much-stained work table. The clock's finish crackled like alligator skin and was, to an untrained eye, burnt in appearance, each of the wood gears cut by hand and worn â literally â by years of ticking time. And the same dealer, a regular who cleaned out basements, attics and barns also had three boxes of clock parts at the can't-resist price of twenty bucks a pop. Just one of those sets of Welch Allyn hands or nineteenth-century German tall-clock weights alone was worth what he'd paid for the three boxes; it would have been foolish to pass them up. âSo what's new with you?' Norman asked, shifting the topic and breathing the heady aroma of his special mix of turpentine and high-grade machinist's oil that would bring this morning's beauty back to life. Not for the first time, he mused how his passion for finding and repairing rare clocks wasn't too different from his decades of replacing and fixing hips, shoulders and knees. Many of his precision German drills, chisels and bits, now flecked with wood shavings and oil, had started in the operating suites of Hartford General, where Norm had been attending and then Chair of the Department of Orthopedics for forty years.
Dennis shook his head and then dutifully gave his dad an overview of the last week of life on Westwood Lane. Starting with his triumphs at his sprawling and hugely successful car dealership on Bedford Turnpike.
As Dennis reported the details of his week and the comings and goings of his two adult sons, Norm thought back to the day he'd purchased the small used-car lot for Dennis after he'd finished his year at Osborn Correctional. Sure, it had just been a Driving Under the Influence (DUI), but it had been Dennis's third, a mandatory sentence, and a felony in the state of Connecticut. Norm hated to dwell on that year of hell, and the realization that as a felon his brilliant and athletically gifted son's options for a future had been radically reduced. Dennis's tears in the holding cell, the fear that in his panic the nineteen year old might harm himself. And the gut-wrenching reality that nothing Norm could do, despite his influence and the best legal defense money could buy, could bail his youngest out. But now, looking through this cyber window of Dennis's stable life in a million-dollar home on three manicured acres . . .
What a handful he'd been and thank God.
So sad that his beloved Kate never got to see the full turn around; she'd died of a massive coronary a month before Dennis's release. He'd been their baby, a later-life and totally unexpected pregnancy. And Kate, always fragile with her porcelain skin and bouts of depression and paralysing anxiety that would leave her bed wrecked and too frightened to leave the house, was no match for their red-headed hellion. His year at Osborn just a stopping point for a teen who'd put them through hell.
, their tag phrase for all his near misses. The awful middle-of-the-night calls from the local cops. Parents demanding Norm do something about his son after he and his two hooligan friends had bullied some kid on the playground. Parent-teacher conferences, threats of expulsion after he'd brought the air rifle to school, getting suspended from the varsity football team after an ounce of pot was found in his locker, accusations of drug dealing, the slutty girl who'd accused him of rape; it had been relentless. They even had to see a shrink. Dr Greene â
what a quack
â Norm had hated those sessions. â
He's begging for your attention,
' the shrink once said. â
desperately wants you to notice him, and if he can't get it through all the positive things he does at school and on the field, he'll do whatever it takes.
' It was a lot of mush-mouthed bullshit. The kid was too smart, too good looking, star athlete, no sense of consequence and an ability to talk his way out of just about anything.
But look at him now, thank God.
And horrible as it was, maybe Osborn was necessary. When Dennis had gotten out, he swore to never drink again and to pull his life together.
At least he got one out of two.
âSo, we'll see you Tuesday,' Dennis said, the tone of his voice indicating their weekly Skype was near its end.
Norm nodded. âYup, old man dinner night,' he said, referring to the Tuesday night special at San Rosa's Restaurant, a town favorite with your choice of entrÃ©e, soup or salad, roll, pasta and beverage, all for $11.95. They rarely missed a week, not that they couldn't afford better, but Norm could never pass up a bargain. Even the cocktails were discounted, though he was careful to always stop after two Manhattans lest the proximity of booze have a negative effect on Dennis, who he was pleased to see only ordered cola. âLove you, son,' Norm said, knowing it was true and wondering if he'd said it more often when Dennis had been young it might have made a difference. As the screen went blank, Norm felt the dull edges of familiar guilt. Truth was, he'd been the big surgeon with a hugely successful practice, on-call for the hospital every fourth or fifth night, twelve-hour stretches in the surgical suites, and dog-dead tired when he'd finally make it home. Then wolf down dinner while throwing back a stiff Manhattan or just straight bourbon, maybe a few â never more â and then grab a journal and read it in bed until he'd passed out. He'd had little time for his youngest, not like his older sons. With them he'd been the father at Little League, had helped them carve their pinewood derby racers as Cub Scouts, and cheered them on when they'd placed their red and blue racers on the rickety track. But in the twelve years that separated Bob, his oldest â now a surgeon like dad â from Dennis, Norm's career had kicked into high gear. Kate had never complained. He glanced at a framed studio still, high on the wall, taken at their wedding and now thick with dust, and one corner seemingly affixed to the ceiling by layers of a spider's web. As his eyes connected with hers guilt stirred, like poking embers. The truth was not kind. Yes, he'd loved Kate and yes his career had consumed his days and many of his nights, but that wasn't the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help him God. Pushing up from his chair, he eased his conscience. âDone is done, old man.' And another truism picked up from one of the few Al-Anon meetings he and Kate had reluctantly attended at the recommendation of one of Dennis's many drug and alcohol counselors: âIt is what it is.'