Read Circle of Influence (A Zoe Chambers Mystery) Online

Authors: Annette Dashofy

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Circle of Influence (A Zoe Chambers Mystery) (4 page)

BOOK: Circle of Influence (A Zoe Chambers Mystery)
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He pointed to the snow-covered vehicle in front of the police cruiser. “I don’t see the chief.”

The driver’s side door was open on the victim’s car, and Zoe could make out the glow of the dome light through the iced windows. As she and Earl approached, a strobe briefly lit the night.

Something wasn’t right. Pete was photographing the car. So the victim hadn’t gotten out and frozen to death trying to find help as she’d assumed.

Then, Zoe spotted the license plate.

“Hey,” Earl said. “Isn’t that Jerry McBirney’s car?”

Oh, God, no. Jerry knew this area better than anyone. He would never have attempted the game lands road on a night like this. It would have been suicidal. And Jerry wasn’t the suicidal type.

Ted’s words rang in her ears. Someone ought to just kill that guy and put him out of my misery.

Ted, what the hell did you do?

She broke into a jog toward the car, her heart pounding in her ears. Before she got to the open driver’s door, someone grabbed her. She looked up into Pete’s grave face.

“Ted did not do this.” Her voice created a veil of mist between them. “He couldn’t kill anyone.”

“He didn’t.” Pete slipped a supportive arm around her waist and walked the last few steps with her. “Are you going to be able to do this?”

She barely heard him. The white mist of her breath enveloped her. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. She blinked to clear the fog. But the body behind the wheel remained the same.

The body in the front seat of the Buick wasn’t Jerry McBirney.

It was Ted.

Pete feared Zoe might do something uncharacteristic, like faint, when she saw the victim. Instead, she renewed his admiration for her by taking a deep breath of cold air and shaking it off. Literally. Through layers of parkas and winter gear, he felt her tremor, but then she drew herself up even taller than usual.

“I’m fine.” Her teeth chattered as she pushed away from him.

“Good. Marshall’s at a fatality in Buffalo Township. The county detectives are delayed because of road conditions. It looks like it’s up to us on this one.”

Behind them, Seth’s car, emergency lights flashing, eased around the ramp from the highway.

“I’m ready.” Zoe exchanged her winter gloves for Latex ones.

Pete wasn’t sure he believed her. “I’ve taken photographs and processed the scene as much as I can here. The snow has pretty much obliterated any evidence we might have found outside the car. I called for a tow—get this car out of the weather—but I suspect it may take a while.”

Earl stood behind the car, hugging himself against the bitter wind and bouncing from one foot to the other. “Is there anything I can do?”

Seth had parked his cruiser and was doing his best attempt to jog toward them in the deep snow. Pete motioned to him and said to Earl, “You two get the tarps out of the back of my vehicle. I want as much of the area around McBirney’s car covered as possible. The county crime scene guys will want to go over it once they get here.” 

The pair headed off, and Pete turned to Zoe. “Let’s do it.”

He held the flashlight while she leaned into the driver’s side of the Buick. She slid her fingers into the crease at Ted’s throat. After several moments, she pulled her stethoscope from one of her jacket pockets and listened to his chest. Pete knew as well as she did that she wasn’t going to hear anything.

She slid a penlight from her shirt pocket, only to have it slip from her fingers and drop into Ted’s lap.

Pete couldn’t make out the words she muttered, but had a good idea they weren’t suitable for polite company. He caught her hand, giving it a squeeze. “It’s okay. I’ve got it.” He retrieved the penlight from between Ted’s dead legs and passed it to her.

What a night for the coroner to be stuck elsewhere.

Zoe reached for Ted’s eyeglasses, but paused. “Did you already photograph his face?”

“Of course.”

She pointed at Ted’s eyes. “Did you notice that?”

Pete moved in closer. Ted’s eyeglass frames were bent. Yeah, he’d noticed. But he’d missed what Zoe was pointing at. One of the lenses was missing. He turned his flashlight downward and leaned further into the car, searching Ted’s lap, the car seat, and the floor. Nothing.

“He might be sitting on it,” Zoe offered.

“We’ll find out.” Pete dug his digital camera from inside his coat and snapped several additional close-ups.

Zoe gingerly removed the glasses and deposited them into an evidence bag. She scrawled her initials and the date on it before handing it to Pete.

Then she went back to work, flicking the penlight in both of Ted’s eyes. “Fixed and dilated.” She checked her watch then dug a notepad from her hip pocket and a pen from inside her coat. Pete shone the light on the paper as she scribbled her findings.

She handed the pad and pen to him. “You write. I’ll examine.”

He tugged off his gloves and tucked the flashlight under one arm. “Got it.”

One at a time, she picked up Ted’s hands and examined them. Then she secured each in two more paper bags. She took several minutes to study his face. Pete knew why.

“Multiple contusions and abrasions on his face.” She scowled. “Note possible broken nose, too.”

He wrote it all down.

She worked her way through Ted’s hair and her frown deepened. “I can’t tell for sure, but it feels like there may be a compressed skull fracture. Help me lean him forward.”

Zoe supported Ted’s head and neck while Pete grasped the shoulders and tipped the body toward the steering wheel. He considered reminding her that Ted’s cervical spine was in no danger of injury at this point, but decided to keep quiet instead. 

She finished her exam with a quick once-over of the body, back and then front. Marshall and his forensic pathologist would do a more thorough external examination and x-rays once Ted was in the morgue.

Easing out of the car, Zoe turned to Pete. “Rigor mortis is already setting into his extremities and his face.”

“Can you guestimate his time of death?” Pete was fairly certain of what her answer would be.

“I wouldn’t want to venture a guess based on anything here. But we know he died sometime after seven-thirty p.m. That’s when we saw him—” Her voice cracked.

That’s when they saw him outside the supervisors’ meeting, threatening Jerry McBirney.

Pete pulled her into his arms. She clung to him, shivering and sniffing back sobs. Zoe liked to play tough, but he knew she cared deeply about those close to her. And she and Ted had been friends since before he’d married Rose. Pete suspected they’d possibly been more than
just friends
way back when, but he’d never asked, and she’d never told.

“What the hell happened to him, Pete?” she said with a shuddering breath.

“I don’t know yet. But I will find out.”

She pushed free from him. “We,” she said. “
We
will find out.” Zoe blew her warm breath onto her fingers and then reclaimed her notepad and pen. “Did you notice the ice crystals in his hair?”

“I did.”

“His clothes are frozen, too. It’s as though he went swimming fully dressed.”

Pete touched the coating of snow melting in her blonde hair. “Or he was out in a snow storm.”

Zoe met his gaze. “I think it’s more than that. Look at his face. And there’s a tear in the front of his jacket, but the back is fine. I think he was dragged face down.”

Pete pondered her theory. “Dragged? Maybe. But I’d think his clothes would be a little more ripped than they are.”

Chewing her lip, she studied Ted’s body.

Flashing amber lights swept over the expanse of snow. A large flatbed truck advanced toward them from the exit ramp.

“Are you done here?” Pete asked.

“I guess so.”

“Good. Here comes the tow truck.”

He studied the gray, icy face of what had once been Ted Bassi. How had he come to be way out here on this bitter night in Jerry McBirney’s Buick? Had he and Jerry gotten into a fight and Ted escaped, mortally wounded, in Jerry’s car? And if he hadn’t driven himself, who left him here and why?

So many questions burned in his mind. Not the least of which was where had McBirney been in the hours after the supervisor’s meeting?

First things first. He wanted the Buick secured inside the township garage before the weather further ruined any evidence he might find.

Zoe doubted she’d ever be warm again. Earl blasted the heater inside the ambulance’s cab during the long, treacherous drive from the game lands to the morgue in Brunswick. While the heat managed to penetrate her parka, it failed to chase the chill from her bones. She clamped her gloved hands under her armpits, but her fingers still ached from the cold.

They wasted no time delivering their charge to the attendant and filling out the paperwork. As soon as Ted’s body was wheeled into the cooler, Zoe bolted for the door.

In all her years as a paramedic, and more recently as deputy coroner, the worst thing was arriving on scene to discover she knew the patient. Or victim. But she’d never before dealt with the death of a close friend.

Poor Rose. And the kids.

“You okay?” Earl asked as he steered out of the parking lot.

“What do you think?” Zoe snapped.

“Sorry. Stupid question.”

She stared out the front window at the fat snowflakes, like a swarm of insects flying into their headlights.

Had Pete talked to Rose yet? When they’d parted company at the game lands, he had left Seth and Nate Williamson, one of his part-time officers who’d arrived with the tow truck, to secure the crime scene until County arrived. Pete had been on his way to talk to Joe Mendez. But after that, he’d have to notify Ted’s family. His next of kin.

Zoe’s cell phone rang, and she tugged off her gloves to answer it.

“Where are you?” Pete’s voice asked.

“On our way back from the morgue. Have you seen Rose?”

“I’m heading there next.”

There was a moment of silence on the line, and Zoe feared they’d been disconnected.

But then he continued. “I thought you’d like to be there when I talked to her.”

The word “Yes” came off her tongue before she had a chance to think. “But—I’m still on duty for another five hours or so.”

Earl never took his eyes off the snow-covered road. “Do what you need to do,” he said. “All things considered, no one’ll say anything about you taking the rest of the night off.”

If her partner wasn’t married with three kids, she’d have kissed him right then and there. “We’re a good ten, maybe twelve miles from Dillard,” she told Pete, “and we’re making lousy time on these roads.”

“I’ll meet you next to the old Convenient Mart. Take your time.”

Forty-five minutes later, Earl eased into the unplowed parking lot of what had been Dillard’s only grocery store. Snow clung to the Real Estate For Sale sign concealing the details of the available retail space. Pete’s SUV sat next to the building.

Zoe thanked her partner as she stepped out of the ambulance. He waved and pulled out, the tire chains biting into the snow and ice.

“How about we stop at the house first,” Pete said as Zoe settled into the passenger seat. “Then you can stay with Rose and the kids while I go break the news to Sylvia. I’ll bring her over afterwards.”

“Sylvia doesn’t know yet?”

“That’s one reason I kept all communications off the air. She’s manning the radio back at the station.”

“Oh.” Learning your son was dead over a police radio transmission would be horrific. Not that there was any good way of receiving news like that.

Pete wheeled the SUV out of the parking lot and coasted down the snow-covered hill, easing around the sharp bend at the bottom. Ted and Rose Bassi’s house sat at the end of a narrow side street.  The porch light was on, but otherwise the house was dark.

“I’m surprised,” Zoe said. “You’d think Rose would be waiting up.” She pictured her friend wearing a hole in the kitchen floor, pacing, wondering where her husband was. A deeper chill ran up her spine. “Something isn’t right.”

“She probably just fell asleep waiting for Ted to come home.”

Zoe studied Pete’s face, searching for a sign that he really believed what he said and wasn’t just trying to keep her calm. But he’d been a cop too long to give away his true thoughts.

Fierce winds drove a swirl of snow into the car as soon as they opened the doors. Zoe pulled her collar closer around her neck and flipped the oversized hood over her head until they stepped onto the porch.

Pete held out an arm, directing her behind him. With his right hand resting on his sidearm, he pounded on the door with his left.

She listened for movement—footsteps indicating someone was home. All the time she’d been examining Ted’s body, it had never occurred to her that he might not be the only victim. Had someone killed the entire Bassi family? Had Ted been trying to get help?

Pete banged on the door again. “Rose,” he called. “It’s Pete Adams. Open up. I need to talk to you.”

This time a light flicked on behind the closed curtains followed by the thump-thump of feet on the floor. Zoe’s knees went weak with relief.

The blinds on the door’s window parted and an eyeball appeared between them. Then the deadbolt creaked and clicked and the door was yanked open.

Instead of Rose, a bleary-eyed Logan stood before them in flannel pajama bottoms that threatened to drop off his narrow hips.

He rubbed his eyes like a child. “What’s going on?”

“May we come in?” Pete said.

“Yeah. Sure. I guess.” He unlatched the storm door and stepped back.

Zoe followed Pete into what she’d always thought of as a cheery kitchen. “Logan, where’s your mom?”

The boy sniffed as if he had a cold. “Mom? I guess she’s still over at grandma’s. Why?”

“Sylvia’s?” Pete asked. She lived two doors over, but spent most of her waking time right here.

“No. My other grandma. Mom’s mom. Grandma Bert. She’s got the flu, so Mom’s spending the night over there. Do you want me to get my dad?”

Zoe and Pete exchanged looks.

Logan sniffed again and glanced around the kitchen before grabbing a paper napkin from the table. “He must be sleeping. I waited for him to get the door when you knocked, but…”

“No,” Zoe said as the boy turned toward the hall. Then she winced. She’d heard the anguish in her own voice and knew from the look on Logan’s face that he’d heard it, too.

Pete caught her arm. “Go back out to my car and call Rose,” he said into Zoe’s ear. “Tell her she’s needed at home.” He drew away enough to meet her eye.

Zoe understood the intense gaze, the unspoken request. Try not to alarm. “Okay.”

“Good.” He turned to Logan, his tone professional. “Let’s make some coffee while we wait for your mom to get home.”

The kid was buying none of it. “What’s going on?”

As Zoe stepped outside, she heard Pete’s soothing voice calming the boy without using words like
everything’s all right
. It wasn’t.

She climbed back into the SUV and tugged off her gloves to fish her cell phone out of her pocket. It took a moment for her trembling fingers to locate Mrs. Bertolotti’s number in her cell’s address book.

On the fourth ring, Rose picked up with a sleep-fogged, “Hello?”

Words jammed in Zoe’s throat, leaving her choking for the right ones.

“Hello?” Rose said again. “Is anyone there?”

“It’s me,” Zoe said, her voice raspy.

The fog was gone. “What’s wrong?”

“I—I can’t say on the phone. You need to get home. Now.”

“Oh my God. Is it Logan?”

Zoe considered saying no, Logan’s fine. But in her mind she played out the rest of the conversation. Rose would ask about Allison. And then Ted. “Just come home.” Zoe hung up before her friend had a chance to ask anything else.
Try not to alarm
. Well, she’d seriously failed at that one.

Now what? Should she stay in Pete’s vehicle and wait for Rose? Or should she go inside and try to avoid a teenaged boy’s inquisition? She could see Pete through the kitchen window. Filling the coffee pot from the sink, she presumed. Calm. Professional. In control. A shadow swept behind him. Logan. Pete would be giving him tasks to do to keep him occupied.

If she joined them, the balance of composure Pete was establishing would crumble into panic, concern, and frantic questions. No, she should stay right where she was. 

Minutes passed. Zoe shoved her fists deeper into her pockets and slouched inside her coat, like a turtle in its shell hiding from the world. She closed her eyes, trying to block out reality, but Ted’s battered face floated behind her eyelids. Blinking away the vision, she caught the sweep of headlights approaching from the rear of the police SUV and twisted in her seat. The car pulled up behind her.

Rose.

Zoe bounded from Pete’s car and intercepted her friend as she staggered toward the sidewalk to her house.

“Zoe? What the hell’s going on? Why’s Pete here? What’s happened?” Rose’s voice faltered.

Maybe Zoe should have waited inside with Pete and Logan. She wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Let’s go in the house.”

Rose shook her off. “No. Tell me now. What’s happened to my kids?”

A lump wedged in Zoe’s throat. “The kids are fine. Pete’s in there with Logan now.”

“Then what?” Rose’s gaze bored into hers.

“It’s Ted.”

Tears filled Rose’s green eyes. “How bad is it? Is he…”

Zoe couldn’t speak the words.
He’s dead
refused to pass her lips.

It didn’t matter. Rose knew. Her wail pierced the snowy night’s silence.

BOOK: Circle of Influence (A Zoe Chambers Mystery)
10.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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