Read Mesozoic Murder Online

Authors: Christine Gentry

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

Mesozoic Murder (6 page)

BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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Karen entered the room, oblivious to the exchange. She handed Ansel a piece of paper and a key. “The address. You can start right away.”

Ansel took the items, then rose. “Let me know where the funeral is going to be.”

“Sure,” Karen agreed. “I think they have to wait until the autopsy is finished.”

Ansel choked back her disgust and double-stepped it to the front door without a backward glance.

But Karen had already lost interest. “Alex, I don't have anything fashionable to wear to a burial service. We'd better go shopping.”

“Sure, babe.”

Closing the door firmly, Ansel pushed on her sunglasses and inhaled fresh air in great lungfuls as if she could purge her soul of a black spot. Now she could search Nick's apartment for clues. A spasm of anxiety rocked her stomach.

Alex was right about Dorbandt. The detective wouldn't like her snooping into his case, pawing through potential evidence, and withholding clues under the mantle of performing a good deed for Nick's widow.

And what about the repercussions to the Pangaea Society if she got in trouble with the law? If her behavior brought down the wrath of the museum association, the Opel funds would be history, too. Last but not least, there was the issue of her father's stand-off with the sheriff's department. Did she want to run the risk of causing problems for him with the county cops?

Ansel felt Nick's gold key sandwiched inside her hip pocket. Her eyes glistened with tears. For better or worse, she couldn't turn back now.

Chapter 7

“Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand.”

Black Elk, Oglala Sioux

Ansel's emotions churned her abused stomach as she drove east toward Nick's apartment. She didn't know the true Nicholas Capos; the man who quit his job, deserted his wife, and got murdered. How could she be so naive?

Visceral hurt speared through her. A niggling inner voice suggested that Nick must have viewed her as less than human. Usable. Perhaps disposable. This demon of doubt had ridden on her shoulders since the day she'd been pushed into that icy pond.

It had been Thanksgiving day. Her father and mother had given a small party for her parent's closest friends and relatives, and there were a lot of children at the ranch. She'd been delighted to have other kids around. As a five-year-old only child, this was a special treat which made the festive holiday that much more exciting.

After everyone had finished a meal of turkey with all the fixings and the adults were clearing the table, she and five other children had run off to play. It was Rusty, the eight-year-old son of her father's best friend, who convinced all of them to put on their jackets and sneak out of the house with a fishing rod he'd taken from her father's study.

At first she hadn't wanted to go. The ground was covered with a light dusting of snow, and she knew it was a bad move following a boy who had taken the fishing tackle without asking permission to use it. Still this was an adventure. She didn't want to be left behind while they headed for the stock pond in the pasture behind the house.

They went through a cattle gate and onto the creaking, iced-over pond, slipping and sliding. Rusty had pulled out a linen napkin with some turkey to use as bait. Then he'd chipped a hole in the ice with his pocket knife while everyone watched. She'd known for sure that this was very, very bad and when she'd said so, Rusty had turned on her in a flash.

He'd pushed her hard, and she'd fallen on her stomach. Then Rusty had grabbed her by her parka hood and called her a red wiggler. Indian bait. He had laughed as he'd jabbed the hook through her coat hood and tossed her into the hole. Everyone had laughed as she slid through the tiny opening like a pebble down a tube. When her weight had snapped the hook from the taunt fishing line, they weren't laughing anymore. She had sunk like a stone, her waterlogged parka a deadly cocoon squeezing her body.

That's when she'd realized for the first time that she was somehow different from other children. Why exactly had mystified her, even as she flailed to reach them for help. She hadn't understood Rusty's violent hate of her, his snarling, ugly face. What had she done to make him so mad? Why had he hurt her?

Only weeks later, after her mother had explained in calm and soothing tones about her heritage and how some people would react to her, did she get an answer to her questions. People saw only her skin, not her soul. Had Nick done the same thing?

No, Ansel decided vehemently. Nick might have been many things, but he wasn't a bigot.

Pushing the thoughts of her near drowning away, Ansel rationalized why digging into Nick's personal life was the right thing to do. First, Dorbandt didn't know anything about paleobotany. He wouldn't know a Philodendron from a phylogenetic tree. She would. If there was anything out of the ordinary with Nick's fossil dealings, she'd sense it right away.

Second, she wanted to know if a society member was involved. It would be disastrous for the organization, and she wanted to be the first to know about it. Nick kept indexed collection acquisition notes and detailed field logs. Cataloging the collection would reveal if anything was missing or off kilter. His records might point toward the killer.

When Ansel reached Wolf Point, she purposely sped past the street on Karen's note and drove another half block before parking at a strip mall. She rearranged her hair into a bun on top of her head and donned her Stetson. She also buttoned up her leather jacket. With this getup and her sunglasses, anyone watching her enter the apartment would think she was a short man wearing cowboy attire.

As Ansel left the cab, she grabbed her Olympus digital camera. The memory disc stored over a hundred photos. She approached the Fourth Street apartment, a boxy, two-story building sticking out among residential homes. A detached two-car garage sat beside it. Though recently painted, the aged dwelling was a big step down from Nick's house in Glasgow.

A chain link fence surrounded the rental and a small house east of it. The A-frame probably belonged to the landlord, she reasoned. There were no cars out front. This was a weekday morning in a working-class neighborhood. She stopped only a second to snap off a picture.

Ansel crossed the street. Stomach in her throat, she opened the gate and stepped up the sidewalk to the front door. The key went into the lock, and the knob twisted open. She hustled inside and shut the door, relocking it.

Her sunglasses went into her fanny pack. While she inhaled the smell of stale air, standing water, and accumulated dust, the realization of what she was doing hit her full force. Sleuthing for fossils was a world away from sleuthing for homicidal killers. She dealt with dead animals, not living people. She should appraise the collection. No more and no less.

“Bullshit,” she said, standing in the dim foyer.

A puzzle was a puzzle. She possessed finely tuned talents of critical questioning, perception, and imagination. She could analyze anything with the proper balance between observation and interpretation. Her knowledge of scientific methodology was a gigantic plus, not a minus.
Get on with it.

A tiny, clean kitchen opened to her right: used appliances, overhead cabinets, narrow counter with fruit going moldy in a cheap glass bowl. She took a picture, lighting the claustrophobic space with a flash nova.

She moved quickly into a small dining area with a window. Jaundiced light filtered through a pair of cheap yellow curtains. The room was sparsely furnished with a Formica table and four padded chrome chairs centered upon a gold, industrial-grade carpet. A six-foot-high, cherry curio cabinet dominated the room. Nick's glass collection.

Vases, huge globes, and paperweights filled the case, each imbedded with colorful ribbon swirls, bubbles, artistic figural shapes, or mosaic beads. Several contained floral inserts of real blossoms, leaves, and berries captured within the ageless grip of transformed, molten sand. Ansel took dozens of pictures, mostly for nostalgia. How long would the collection remain intact if Karen got her hands on it?

But where was Nick's fossil collection?

Ansel continued down the hall. Nick's master bedroom was on the right. As she stuck her head through the open doorway, she was conscious of the barren feel of the place. Generic landscape prints on the white walls. A double bed and a single end table with a lamp. Walk-in closet. Bathroom.

Ansel trekked toward a large living room. Closed curtains again made the area gloomy. The disarray looked common to a place where a man lived alone. Papers, empty fast food containers, and dirty clothes peppered the flat surfaces. The rented furniture looked well worn except for an elaborate entertainment unit. Wrinkling her nose, Ansel sidestepped an open gym bag disgorging sour tennis shoes and dirty sweats. She went toward the second bedroom.

Nick had set up this room like the fossil bays found in a museum. Three eight-foot-long tables with collapsible legs lined separate walls. The fourth wall had a curtained window. A desk and a gun-metal gray file cabinet stood beneath it. Only one fossil tray rested on a table next to the desk, which was conspicuously void of anything except a cordless telephone. There were no magazines, dealer catalogs, or books. Not even a bookcase.

This wasn't the guy she'd known. Nick's Aberdeen office had been stuffed with specimen trays, towering periodical stacks, and hundreds of reference books. A warehouse full of fossil-hunting supplies, paleobotany memorabilia, potted plants, and plain junk congested that room from floor to ceiling. Where had everything gone?

Ansel peered inside the three-foot tray, hoping to understand what Nick had cared about enough to keep. To her surprise, it contained small chunks of amber. Nodules in assorted yellow hues and clarity lay in separate slots, carefully labeled with tiny stickers.

Ansel lifted the glass cover. The two-inch-long amber nugget she picked up felt extremely light and had a warm plastic feel. A dark millipede was entombed inside. The label identified it as Baltic amber from a conifer called
Pinus succinifera
.

She examined other ambers under the weak window light. Every nodule contained inclusions. Some held trapped insects. Others swirled with plant debris. One lump, which Ansel found extremely interesting, encapsulated a miniature oyster shell attached to a strand of seaweed. Little alarms went off in her head. There were many types of amber. They were excavated from places like the Dominican Republic, Burma, Romania, Sicily, Mexico, Canada, and even the United States.

Why had Nick forsaken his old interests and focused upon Baltic amber? European fossil resins were the oldest in the world, originating from Early Tertiary Period pine trees forty to sixty million years old. Before closing the tray, she snapped pictures.

Ansel walked over to the scarred, cherry desk. Dust outlines indicated where Nick's computer system and fax machine had been. Dorbandt would have taken any electronic machinery, computer disks, and files. He could glean useful information from memory drives, computer bytes, and carbon copy cartridges.

Ansel opened every drawer in the desk and found only office supplies. The larger bottom drawers designed for file folders were empty. She checked the four-drawer file cabinet. Nothing. Dorbandt had been thorough.

Nick's fossil records were gone. Without them she couldn't determine what he'd done with his collection or what he might have been field excavating. She would have to tell Karen there were no fossils to appraise, just a batch of amber with common fauna and flora inclusions.

Ansel spied some boxes pushed beneath a table and bent to examine them. One carton contained year-old newspapers. Another was packed with unopened bags of sawdust, white sand, and plaster of Paris. A third box held two gallons of distilled water. The last carton stored casting supplies: Sil-Mold, Por-A-Kast, and Wonder Putty.

As she returned a box, a metallic clatter echoed through the room. A cylindrical, stainless steel container rested against the baseboard. The seven-inch can had a domed top with a long funnel spout. A small, leather bellows protruded from the opposite side.

Ansel opened the hinged lid. A smoky, burnt wood smell assailed her nose. Soot coated the inside, and a charred mass rolled around the bottom. She took a picture of the can, then tossed it on the newspapers.

A sound outside the room caused her to freeze, blood throbbing in her ears. She listened, hardly breathing. Then she knew. A door lock was opening.

Ansel jumped to her feet and grabbed her camera. The front door closed with a thud. The fear of discovery gave her the presence of mind to swing the workroom door quietly closed. She left a crack between the edge and the doorjamb so she could hear.

Her mind raced to form plausible excuses why she was hiding in the office like a thief should she be found by the landlord. Or Dorbandt. It could also be somebody dangerous, Ansel realized. Nick's killer was at large.

As she concentrated on listening, sweat coursed down her rib cage beneath the leather jacket. She heard footsteps traversing the foyer. Several gut-wrenching seconds of silence passed, followed by squeaking hinges. The curio door.

Ansel listened as objects clinked against the tempered glass shelving. The magnetic door closures snapped loudly. Silence. Then the front door slammed. She bolted out the door and down the hallway into the living room. Breathing hard, she grabbed a drapery panel across the picture window and pulled it back a few inches.

Ansel recognized the plum-colored Eclipse with a rear wing spoiler. It was parked in front of the garage. Slack-jawed, she watched as the driver disappeared inside the car. In seconds the vehicle backed down the carport and sped away.

She went straight to the dining room and re-shot pictures of every curio shelf. Comparing the before-and-after photos at home would be a cinch.

Then she'd pay Evelyn Benchley a visit and ask her why she had a key to Nick's apartment.

***

The knock on her trailer door surprised her. She was just gathering her fanny pack and sunglasses before heading to the Roosevelt Museum where Evelyn worked as a preparator. For the last hour, she'd been comparing the digital photos downloaded to her computer. Ansel rushed to the door and opened it to a thick vapor of heat. Tim Shanks' lithe form took up most of the doorway, and she stared at him blankly.

“Hello, Miss Phoenix,” he said with a winsome smile even warmer than the simmering air around them. In his hands he held a bulky, brown grocery bag crimped at the top.

“Hi, Tim,” she managed to say. Why was he here? If she didn't get on the road, she'd never reach Fort Peck before the museum closed.

Tim's grin melted. “You forgot, didn't you?”

“Forgot what?”

“That I had an appointment to come and talk to you about my major.” He watched her with his beautiful hazel eyes, irises exactly matching the color of his tee shirt. “Can I come in?”

“You're right, I did forget, Tim. I'm sorry. Have a seat.”

Tim stepped into the trailer and waited until she closed the door before handing her the bag. “I brought you some Valencia oranges from California. Sort of a thank you present. My uncle sent them. Taking Vitamin C is a really good stress prevention, too. I figured you'd need it after what happened this weekend. It was pretty wild.”

Ansel took the bag and peeked inside. The tangy sweet smell of citrus filled the air. Vibrant orange balls were nestled inside the sack. Since Montana had no citrus groves, this was a rare treat. She set the package on the kitchen pass-through.

BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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