Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
Hurrying from my dressing room, I bumped into Cherilyn again. Papers flew from her hands. A timid “excuse me” escaped her lips. Either her clumsy innocence was an act or she really was as blonde as her hair.
I peeked at my watch and bent to help pick up the papers scattered on the floor. A familiar tickle tap-danced around my nasal passages. I pulled a wadded Kleenex from my bag, catching three sneezes, which erupted in rapid succession. My eyes watered, threatening to smear my mascara again. As soon as I got to my office I needed to type a memo concerning our fragrance-free policy.
Cherilyn gathered the papers, her limbs shaking as if it took every bit of strength in her petite body. She stood, shoulders slumped and hair in disarray, looking wilted. I handed her the papers I had collected. “Are you all right? This is such a shock to everyone.”
She nodded, her eyelids drooping. I found a clean tissue in my bag and gave it to her. “Did you know Professor Henderson well?”
“Yes, um … no.” Tears crowded her shifting eyes. “I spoke with him a few times about switching my major.” She sucked in rapid breaths like my seven year old son after a nightmare. “I’ve never seen a dead person before. Lying there … with his pills all over the floor. Maybe if I had gotten there sooner he’d still be alive.”
I touched her shoulder, knowing her pain. “There was nothing you could’ve done.” My words cut me like a rusty razor. Cherilyn must’ve felt their sting because she turned abruptly, and hurried away.
Trying to shake off Cherilyn’s grief, I approached the green room. Professor Henderson’s imminent funeral fogged my thoughts. Would I be able to make it through without Jack? He’d been the strong tower I leaned on at my mother’s funeral. The one I needed here now, to support and hold me up when everything around me was crumbling.
The knot in my stomach tightened as I stalled outside the door. I dug in my bag, found the Altoids tin, and popped the last chocolate-covered mint in my mouth. Maybe no one would notice if I didn’t show up to the funeral. Hundreds of people would attend. No one would miss me. Would Fletcher attend? Peter Kipling? Would he blame himself for Henderson’s death?
Backing away, I heard soft
. I halted. “Basti?” The studio’s Egyptian Mau mouse trap. I reached for the knob, hesitating like a tomb raider contemplating the curse. Basti clawed the door, her cries desperate as if her ninth life was about to end.
“Okay, girl. I’m coming.” I eased the door open. When I flipped on the light, Basti leapt, and I caught her. The breed’s classic, worried expression was etched on her face, but in her shimmering emerald eyes, I saw real distress. As I stroked her black spotted coat, her
settled into labored
. I’d never seen her so upset. Maybe like me, she sensed death lingering.
Traces of dirt freckled her paws. “What have you gotten into?” I surveyed the room expecting to see Professor Henderson’s soil samples, but instead I spied his latest book resting on the end table.
Silt and Soil: The Making of the Nile.
The culmination of his life’s work. As boring as the book sounded, at least his life would be remembered.
An unexpected heaviness shrouded me, growing more burdensome, second by second, as I trudged toward the thick book. Something crunched under my boots. I halted and set Basti down. She stalked back and forth in front of the tan granules, resembling a mini cheetah on the prowl. Then without warning, she scurried past me out the door.
A glance around the room didn’t turn up other piles or metal trays filled with dirt. Henderson treated his soil samples better than his family. He wouldn’t have carelessly left his precious dirt on the floor. I squatted to inspect the soil, but refused to touch it. Someone else must have made the mess. I shook my head. Only one person came to mind. “Fletcher.”
The Spanish accent sparked my memory. Either Antonio Banderas stood behind me or my past had returned to torment me. Surely fate wouldn’t pour acid on my open wounds.
I slowly looked up into the startled eyes of an overweight, middle-aged Latino who appeared well beyond his forty years, a shard of the younger man I had known. My insides ignited. When we first met over twenty years ago, I believed he was Zorro coming to my rescue. To save me from the hell also known as my life. But I was wrong. He didn’t come to bring solace. He came to cut out my heart and feed it to the devil.
Today, seeing him in his cheap black suit and tie, wearing his overcoat like a trophy, I wanted to spew. Instead, I shot him my best
, the Italian evil eye that promised misfortune. A similar glare, though now more intense, as the one I gave him ten years ago. And from the look of his weather-battered face in desperate need of re-shingling, I’d say the years were stormy. Good. Life hadn’t been all sunshine for me either.
“Marianna Capolla?” He extended his hand, slow at first, then fully committed.
I let it hang. “It’s Mari Duggins,
Wiping his hands on his slacks, he avoided my eyes. “I made detective years ago and joined Lyndon Precinct.” He flashed his badge as if the worthless piece of tin added value to his words. “It’s good to see you looking so well.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m working a case …” He squirmed.
My eyes narrowed, tightening the chokehold.
“… and you’re standing in the middle of my crime scene. So please don’t touch anything.”
Lopez ushered me into the hall past a younger man with a crew cut who stood in the doorway snapping pictures.
“Theron Henderson’s daughter gave us sufficient evidence to suspect foul play.”
“You’re homicide? And I’m Cleopatra. Aren’t you a little late?”
Lopez peered over his shoulder at the crime scene analyst photographing the room from different angles. Avoiding my eyes, Lopez rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know what else to say that I haven’t said already. I’ve been over it a thousand times. There’s nothing I would have done differently.”
My gut exploded. “Nothing? Nothing you would have done differently?” Sweet vendetta floated to the surface, carrying images of dead fish and old flatfoot fitted with cement shoes. But my thoughts sunk in the undertow of my own guilt.
He pulled out his little pad and pen, averting my eyes. “I know you’re still angry, and I don’t have time to rehash the past. I did what I knew to do at the time. I followed procedure. Now if you can set aside your feelings for a while, I need to ask you a couple of questions.”
“Why? Am I a suspect in this
“Fine. Let’s get it over with.”
“Do you know who found the body?”
“Cherilyn St. Jean. She’s an intern at the studio. You should talk to her.”
“Do you know where I can find her?” Lopez scribbled in his notepad.
“Probably in class. Check the registrar.”
“Did you touch anything when you arrived?”
“How many people had access to this room before you got here?”
“I have no clue.” I crossed my arms. “I honestly don’t know how I can help. I was in the studio when they told me Henderson had a heart attack. Can I go now? I don’t want to be late for my class.”
“A few more questions.”
I shifted my weight.
“When I walked in, you mentioned someone named Fletcher.”
“He was a guest on the show today.”
“You think he brought in the soil?”
“I assume. He tracked dirt all over the studio. Not uncommon for an archaeologist.” Detective Bozo.
Lopez turned to the guy who was bagging the trash contents. “Benson, make sure you collect soil samples from the studio as well.” Lopez’s attention returned to me. “Does this Fletcher have a last name?”
Lopez’s jaw tightened and released. Tightened and released. “What is it?” Tightened and released.
“What can you tell me about him?”
Plenty, but I didn’t think Lopez wanted the unabridged history on me and Fletcher. “He’s a field archaeologist who recently returned from Egypt. He won’t stay in the states long. He never does.”
“Was he the last one to see Henderson?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were they both guests on today’s show?”
“So they were in the green room at the same time?”
“Possibly. I didn’t see him before the show.”
“Who? Murdock or Henderson?” Lopez tapped his pen on his pad.
“Fletch—Mr. Murdock. I saw Professor Henderson in the hall.”
Lopez raised his eyebrows. “Was he alone?”
“No. He was with a colleague.”
“Peter Kipling.” Should I mention the argument? Messing with Lopez’s head was one thing, but I’d watched enough crime TV to know withholding information could be serious. Yet, what information did I really have? If I mentioned the argument it would look bad for Peter.
I couldn’t trust Lopez. He’d most likely turn this investigation into a circus. I had to speak with Peter face to face. It was the least I could do for an innocent man.
“Here’s my business card.”
I jammed it in my bag.
“If you remember anything pertinent to this investigation, please give me a call. Before you leave, Officer Benson needs to fingerprint you and take photos of the bottom of your shoes.” He pointed to the guy on his hands and knees searching under the sofa.
I hesitated, glancing at my boots that probably cost more than his paycheck.
“You can either remove them yourself, or I can do it for you.”
“Whatever you need. I wouldn’t want to
this investigation.” I reluctantly pulled off my Dolce & Gabbana’s. “But these weren’t the shoes I was wearing when Henderson died.”
“Then I’ll need those shoes.”
I sighed and crossed my arms. At this rate, there was no way I’d make it to class on time.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do I have to get a search warrant?”
“Of course not, I have nothing to hide. But I hope you don’t spend too much of the taxpayers’ money on this ghost hunt. The man had a heart condition. There wasn’t enough time for him to be murdered.”
Lopez straightened as if he grew a spine. “Mari, things aren’t always as they seem.” His coal eyes bored into my soul. “If Henderson was murdered, and I’m not saying he was, but if he was, I can promise you, someone is going down. Hard.”
I held back emotion, the ache in my head ballooning. As if that could make up for letting my mother’s killer go free.
Lyndon University Department of Archaeology
WHEN I WALKED INTO the Archaeology offices after class, I didn’t expect the tidal wave of emptiness to drag me under. The place usually surged with gossip and flirtatious interns. Not today. And I was glad. I was in no shape to paste on my condolences.
I surveyed the empty lounge. Tribal masks, ancient tools, and posters of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mayan ruins, and other exotic locations adorned the walls. In the corner of the room the white lights on the fake Christmas tree twinkled. Nothing out of place except the bouquet of flowers on the secretary’s desk. But I could feel death in the air, discreet and patient, trying to snare anyone that came close to its web.
Sneezing, I hurried into my office. The stress of the morning’s events clung to me, and I sank into my chair. My mind swirled with everything I had to do before Christmas break, but I couldn’t focus.
A loud bang drew me from my mental cyclone. I peeked out of my office, searching for the secretary’s day-of-the-week polyester dress. Every day Candy Finch wore the same style only in different colors, accented with a matching scrunchy around her salt-and- pepper up-do. Today was Monday. She’d be wearing mauve with mustard-colored flowers that brought out the yellow in her amber eyes. Though she’d never be a pageant winner, or runner up for that matter, she could charm a rat from the belly of a snake. And in Texas, that was worth more than a satin sash.
“Come on, git going.” Her ample figure jiggled as she gave the copy machine a whack. It whined to life. My middle warmed like I had a stomach full of Nonna’s
Over the years, I often wondered if I should tutor Candy for her fashion dyslexia and give her pointers in elocution. Yet if I did, I knew she’d lose her appeal. I didn’t know why, but without her around the office I’d feel lost.
Breathing deeply, I walked over and placed my hand on her soft shoulder. “Oh, Mari!” She turned and greeted me with puffy eyes and a mama-bear hug. Her Texas twang, soothing. “He was so young. Fifty-five years old! Land sakes, that’s only eight years older than me. It don’t make no sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.” I sneezed.
“Oh, my word. The flowers.” Candy snatched a Kleenex from the box next to the copier and handed it to me. “I’m so sorry, I’ve gone and left my head. I’ll get rid of them.”
“No, don’t.” I admired the red and yellow striped marigolds surrounded by crimson roses. White snapdragons accented the bouquet. “They’re beautiful. You didn’t mention you were dating again.”
“Oh, goodness, no. No one could ever take George’s place. They’re condolences for Professor Henderson.” She wiped her nose with the crumpled tissue in her hand.
“Who are they from?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t come with a card. It seemed odd they’d be sent here so quickly after his death, but word travels fast in a small school. Just in case there are more, I’ll tape a note to the door telling them to deliver any flowers to the faculty lounge.” Her eyes lingered on the bouquet, then she shook her head. “I’m so tore up. How’re we gonna get along without him? He was the cement that held this department together.” She blew her nose, and then collected the papers the copier spit out. “I can’t believe they’re saying he was murdered. Those detectives were in here earlier tearing up his office, whispering about blackmail and affairs.”
It didn’t surprise me Candy was already up to date on the investigation. She knew everything that happened in the Archaeology Department, even behind closed doors. I tried to steer clear of the rumor mill, but with Candy digging up dirt it was hard to keep my ears clean.