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Authors: Christine Gentry

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BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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“How did he get along with her?”

“Not well. Nick left Karen about six months ago. He moved to Wolf Point.”

“Capos' license says his home is in Glasgow. Is that where Karen still lives?”

Ansel suddenly felt a million miles away from the tiny kitchen. Talking about Nick made the reality of what happened begin to sink in. She wouldn't see him again. She'd never see his boyish, lopsided smile or hear him say her name. They would never again discuss the latest fossil finds or go hiking together. Damn it. Some monster worse than any prehistoric nightmare she could imagine had killed Nick. Ansel felt a deep, dark rage building inside her. Whoever killed Nick deserved to pay.

“Miss Phoenix?”

Ansel jerked to attention. “Yes?”

“Does his wife live in Glasgow?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know Capos' Wolf Point address?”

“No. I've never been there.”

Dorbandt pursed his lips before speaking again. “All right. I need you to give me a list with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the society members as soon as possible.”

“Sure. Give me your email address.”

“My card.” Dorbandt pulled a white rectangle from his notebook and pushed it across the table. “If you think of anything important regarding Capos, call me.”

“I will.” Her head was coming off at the shoulders. She really needed to eat something.

“I'll write up your statement and have you sign it. Then we'll get your fingerprints.”

Ansel swallowed the lump in her throat. “Why?”

“Because you picked up those glasses. I want you to understand that this is an active homicide investigation. You are not to discuss anything you've seen or heard. Is that clear?” He fixed her with a stern gaze.

“Yes,” Ansel replied, feeling swept helplessly along in a procedural eddy.

Dorbandt shut his notebook and pulled a white paper from a file folder on the table. He took several minutes quietly writing before looking up. “Please read this and make sure everything is correct. If you agree with it, sign at the bottom.” He slid the paper toward her.

Ansel took the form and looked it over. It was riddled with police jargon. She signed anyway and pushed the sheet back.

The detective scribbled his name below hers. “Thank you.” He got up and walked to the kitchen doorway. “Odie, I need you to get some prints from Miss Phoenix.”

As Dorbandt withdrew into the kitchen, a huge, suited detective appeared. “Come this way, please.”

He led Ansel through the living room. She passed Feltus Pitt and nodded a quick farewell in his direction. Feltus didn't look happy as he sat on a swayback sofa drinking a can of orange soda, his eyes as wide as a swine in a slaughterhouse. She felt awful for the pig farmer. What a horrible thing to happen on his property. There went the society's fossil hunting privileges.

After her fingerprints were taken, Ansel departed through the front door. She walked across the rickety farmhouse porch and down the wooden steps feeling shell-shocked. Only the smell and sound of thousands of keening pigs pierced her dazed senses. The odor didn't seem to affect anyone else.

Crime scene personnel used the house as their headquarters and milled around on the porch or ate lunch in the shade cast by larger vehicles. Drinks and deli sandwiches flowed like manna from heaven among the lethargic county employees.

Despite the stink swirling around her, Ansel's mouth watered. She watched with unabated lust as a short, balding fireman in tan overalls passed her taking large bites of a salami and cheese sub. Her stomach growled.

Ansel finally hopped into the scalding truck cab and surveyed the trampled yard. If her Iniskim had fallen off here, the chances of finding it in one piece looked hopeless. The blue stone had been mounted on a silver backing with a four-pronged clasp arrangement. Most likely it had been destroyed under the boot of some Lacrosse County drone. She whispered a foul curse beneath her breath.

Just as she started the Ford's engine, Lydia tapped on her driver's window, motioning wildly for her to roll it down. “Lydia, I thought you'd left. Are you all right?”

“Ms. Phoenix, I've got to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“About this dead guy.”

“Nick Capos? What about him?”

“I can't talk here.”

“My email address is on the seminar outline.” Ansel's head pounded. She felt gray cells dying with every passing second.

“I know. I need to talk to you by phone. What's your number?”

“Just a second.” Ansel scrabbled through the junk thrown on the dash with black-smudged fingertips. Damn that ink. At last she found a beat-up business card and passed the sun-faded paper to Lydia.

“Thanks. Bye.”

“Lydia,” she called, but the student had spun away, disappearing within a mire of vehicles. What was that all about?

Ansel rolled up the window, set the air conditioning to arctic freeze, and began the spine-jarring trek down the wash-board drive toward the main highway. A minute later she saw a ribbon of asphalt. She also spied a squad car, two deputies, and a white WBTV news van with a satellite dish on the roof. Her wildly thumping heart leaped into her stomach.

The press. Radio. Newspapers. Television.

What would happen to the Pangaea Society's plans to construct the Preston Opel Paleohistory Center when the media bombshell about Nick's murder hit the airwaves? The Pangaea Society was supposed to receive three hundred thousand dollars next week that would make the construction of the public visitor center possible. Three years of planning, community support, and financial finagling could be obliterated in an instant.

Ansel punched the accelerator, and the truck skimmed past the police and reporters. Once on the main road, she headed at warp speed toward Big Toe. She also reached for her trusty cell phone stashed in a cup holder on the center console. Her plans to eat lunch, take a quick shower, and grab a nap dissolved.

She had to call an emergency meeting of the society officers right away. Before the cow chip hit the fan.

Chapter 3

“Anger is something we can share, like food.”

Lame Deer, Sioux

“Who would kill Nick?” asked Evelyn Benchley.

A moment of silence followed as every society officer in the art studio considered Nick Capos' untimely passing. Normally Ansel looked forward to these hangar meetings. This Sunday morning made an exception.

Ansel stared at the pit sofa partially hidden beneath an assortment of splayed newspapers bearing black and white photos of a fallen comrade. The images didn't do justice to Nick's patrician face. It was his ruddy Greek features that had attracted her from the moment she saw him.

“I don't know,” Ansel replied, her voice echoing off the twenty-foot-high ceiling struts, “but no one deserves to die like that.”

Leaning wearily against the microwave counter, she sipped a second cup of black coffee. She had yet to rebound from a horrible, sleepless night, spent swinging between sentimental reminiscences about Nick's life and shedding angry tears over his death.

Finally Ansel tore her gaze from the couch, bloodshot eyes glancing at the colorful, framed magazine covers, oil paintings, and limited edition prints which covered the walls. They represented her artistic milestones but provided no pleasure to her now. No comfort.

Dr. Cameron Bieselmore's surly voice fractured the uneasy silence. “Well, we can rule out the possibility that Nick read Leslie's new book and decided to end it all. Guilt by association.”

Dr. Leslie Maze, editor of the monthly
Pangaean Times
, bolted upright from a recliner, his face twisted with indignation. The sudden forward movement from the scarecrow-like figure almost sent his horn-rimmed glasses flying.

“That's not funny. It's petty and vulgar. You've always been jealous of my success in the literary field. For your information, fifteen thousand copies of my new book have been sold, it's received rave reviews, and it's also being considered for a Newbery Award Medal nomination this year.”

Ansel exhaled a long breath. Maze and Bieselmore sparred at every meeting, but the skirmishes had escalated along with Leslie's rising fame as author in residence. Leslie held a geology doctorate from Yale and an honorary doctorate in literature from Harvard. He was spending his retirement years writing children's books.

In an appropriately reptilian fashion, his latest hardcover,
Walk Your Dinosaur
, had leapfrogged up the young adult bookseller lists. The story about a lonely boy who photographed imaginary dinosaurs appealed to adults and kids alike. The factual prose about dinosaurs, computer-doctored photos of the boy's gigantic pets, and Leslie's witty humor had parlayed the book into a mega-winning jackpot.

“A Newbery? Why that's wonderful news,” Evelyn said. “Congratulations, Leslie.”

Leslie smiled. “Thank you, Evelyn. At least not everybody in this room is lacking civility.”

“That was a nasty thing to say,” Ansel agreed. “Show some respect, Cam.”

Annoyed, Evelyn pushed a strand of platinum hair from her face, which made her flushed, blotchy-red complexion more evident as she stared sharply at Bieselmore.

“Ansel didn't call this meeting so you could hone your acerbic barbs on us. What happened is dreadful. Nick was held in high esteem by this society. He deserves our unconditional respect.”

Ansel stared as well. She admired Evelyn for her distinguished work as a fossil preparator and for her ravishing good looks at the age of fifty-two. Time, geological or temporal, rarely affected Evelyn's appearance, and she could easily pass for a woman in her thirties. Except today.

The disheveled secretary slumped against the deep sofa cushions looking as if a Precambrian rock slab had fallen on her. Her aquamarine silk dress was wrinkled and her matching low-heel pumps badly scuffed. Ansel watched, fascinated, as Evelyn systematically chewed at her professionally manicured nails.

“First, I don't think a child's book is the meter by which I'd want to measure my life accomplishments,” Cameron said. “Second, we all know that Nick didn't fit in with this society.”

“What do you mean?” Ansel asked.

Cameron gave a wave of dismissal. “Come now. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we have devoted our lives to the study of ancient life forms because we want to increase our knowledge. We also hope to contribute something to the general pool of geohistorical data. Nick was a fair to middling botanist who wanted fame, fortune, and a free ride.”

Leslie jumped to his feet. “You pompous ass. I bet you won't be so cocky when the police come knocking on your door. You hated Nick ever since you two fought over that museum diorama.”

Cameron's face contorted. “Piss off, Leslie. My objection was valid. That diorama was a scientific re-creation of extinction scenarios. Nick wanted to incorporate ridiculous, pseudo-scientific theories that reduced the display into a sideshow exhibition. I had every right to fire him.”

“Well, I think it's suspicious that you admit to being such the expert on how to make things extinct,” Leslie parried.

Evelyn gasped. Cameron's mouth drooped. Ansel swallowed coffee and nearly choked.

“Are you suggesting I had something to do with Nick's murder?”

Leslie's smirk was wicked. “The police should know the details of your dispute.”

“And maybe the authorities would like to know that you loaned Nick money. Maybe you got tired of waiting for your cold, hard cash, Leslie.”

“Shut up, Cameron,” Leslie said ominously. “For once in your life just shut up.”

Ansel's eyebrows rose. She'd never heard that Nick borrowed money from Leslie. She set her coffee cup down next to the microwave. This had to stop.

“Enough arguing. Leslie, sit down. Cam, cool it. We're all upset, but that's no reason to take it out on each other.”

Cameron capitulated first. He leaned back and set his lips into a grimace as rigid as plaster. When ashen-faced Leslie tottered to his seat, Ansel prayed he wouldn't have a stroke right on the spot.

“Let's get down to business,” Ansel ordered. “We've got a major problem. The final funding for the paleohistory center is about to come through any day. It's essential that we forestall any negative publicity. We've gone through a lot in the last few years. First, purchasing the property near Elk Ridge. Second, having a former society member bequeath us the money so we could build on it.”

The group was silent again. The National Park Service had sold them five acres of distressed land on the edge of a reserve which had once been used as a work/storage area for rangers. The twelve-by-sixty-foot metal Quonset had been abandoned for years and was badly deteriorated. Selling the land and the structure to the Pangaea Society as the building site for a proposed educational and visitor's center had been a relief to them.

When avid geologist and fossil hunter Preston Opel had died the year before, he had left a memorial gift of three hundred thousand dollars to the Pangaea Society for the building of a eight-thousand-square-foot building on the parcel. As president of the Lacrosse County Historical Society as well, Opel's concerns were for the proper storage of geohistorical archives and records, library collections, and curatorial work.

The only stipulations in his will were that the building be called the Preston Opel Paleohistory Center and that its initial organizational structure would be a partnership between the society and the Montana Museums Association. After its construction, the center would become an independent institution solely operated and managed by the Pangaea Society.

“My Lord,” sputtered Bieselmore. “You don't think that the MMA board could get a retraction of the POP Center funds, do you?”

Ansel blew breath through her mouth. “No, I don't think they can do that, but they could refuse to fulfill Preston's requirements to be our endowment partners. If they back out on us because of bad publicity, it could take months or years sorting through the legal ramifications. We've got to decide what to tell the media. Since last night I've been plagued with calls from reporters trying to get a statement. Nick's death could create negative feedback for the society.”

“I don't think that we should make any statements to the press,” Evelyn insisted. “It doesn't matter what you say, Ansel. They blow your words out of proportion and, if they're not juicy enough, they dig around until they find something really rotten hidden away.”

Ansel shook her head. “I don't think the ostrich technique will work. I think we should express our shock and grief over Nick's death and remain neutral on all other subjects. Stonewalling will cause the press to chase us even harder.”

“Ansel's right,” Cameron agreed.”If the press can't reach you by phone, they'll show up on your doorstep. Before I drove over, Mary Kilpatrick from Channel Three was at the museum entrance, minicam crew in tow.”

“You didn't tell her anything, did you?” Evelyn's anxiety made her snap.

“I never saw her. The landscaper told me she was there, and I stayed out of sight until she left. Luckily the area is fenced so she couldn't ambush me before opening hours. Like it or not, Nick's murder has made a sensational splash. We could all get cornered by Kilpatrick or somebody like her. Better to downplay the society's role in Nick's shenanigans than duck speculative potshots about our involvement with him.”

“What shenanigans?” Leslie demanded.

All heads turned toward Bieselmore. Cameron calmly picked lint off his black, long-sleeved shirt. Ansel wondered if anybody had ever told the treasurer that his standard Stygian apparel made his bald head glow pinker and did nothing to hide his middle-aged paunch.

He sneered, “I'm not going to be called a pack-hauling equine with delusions of grandeur again, am I?”

“If you know something we don't, spit it out,” Leslie challenged.

“All right. We all know Nick had trouble with his wife. I heard Karen is living with another man. Who knows what bad blood brewed there.”

Leslie snorted. “That's gossip.”

“On the contrary. It's a fact.”

“Did Nick tell you this?”

“In a roundabout way. Obviously someone went to a lot of trouble to kill him and dump him in a pig field. Nick ticked somebody off. Don't you agree, Ansel?”

Caught off guard, Ansel stared into Cameron's squinty brown eyes, thinking it was no wonder people called him “Biesel the Weasel” behind his back. The first time she met Cameron, she'd pegged him as a Pachycephalosaurus: a dinosaur with a skinless and bony dome-like head studded with knobs and spines. The Latin translated into “thick-headed reptile.”

“I don't know what to think.”

Cameron frowned. “How can you not have an opinion? You found him. Which reminds me. You still haven't told us what happened at Pitt's farm.”

“There's a police investigation so I can't talk about it. I can tell you that I emailed a membership roster to a detective yesterday afternoon.”

Evelyn sat forward. “You're not serious?”

“Unfortunately I am. Detective Dorbandt requested the list. Now what about the press?”

“We must keep the society's reputation buffered from any association with Nick's personal life,” Cameron implored.

Evelyn nodded in resignation. “I guess you're right, Ansel. We've got to tell the media something and, as president, you should do it. Make it short.”

Ansel's blood pressure spiked. Evelyn had just pulled a slick transfer-of-responsibility maneuver. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I'd like a more equitable team effort.”

“Nonsense,” announced Leslie. “I concur with Evelyn. You have the most experience with the public and lay media.”

How in the world did he figure that? Ansel looked at Cameron.

“I second that,” the treasurer said heartily.

Ansel got the message. The fact that she had been elected by the membership for the two-year term as president automatically made her the fall guy when the ground gave way beneath the organization's feet. Another year and they couldn't look to her for instant answers or instant guilt.

“There's another matter,” she added. “I think we should contact Karen and express the society's condolences. We should send a flower spray as soon as the funeral arrangements are announced, too. Everyone agree?” There were grunts of approval. “All right. I'll be in touch. Thanks for coming.”

Evelyn slapped on a pair of sunglasses, said her farewells, and left in a flash. Leslie followed on her heels without saying another word. Only Cameron remained. Ansel moaned silently and walked to the coffee machine for a refill. She stalled as much as possible, quietly filling the cup and adding cream and sugar before speaking.

“What's up, Cam?”

“Do you know if Nick had a will?”

The unexpected topic caused her to gulp coffee and burn her tongue. So much for trying to evade his interrogation. “I have no idea. Why would you ask me?”

“You two spent a lot of time together. I wondered if he ever mentioned it.”

She ignored his reference about being with Nick. “We never discussed inheritances. Where are you going with this?”

“I'd simply hate to see Nick's fossil collection go to that harpy Karen.”

Ansel tried not to smile. According to Nick, Karen had never approved of his hobby and considered paleobotany an expensive, boring preoccupation with dirty, dead things. On the flip side, Nick's expertise about ancient plants and trees was legendary. She wondered if someone might have killed Nick for a fossil artifact in his possession. Then she had another thought.

“You're hoping Nick willed his collection to the society, aren't you?”

A dreamy look enveloped Cameron's face. “One can only wish. Even if Nick didn't have a will, maybe the society could purchase his collection inventory from Karen. I'd be more than willing to display it at the Big Toe Museum until the POP Center is built. We could use it to promote the Pangaea Society, too.”

BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
13.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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