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Authors: Christine Gentry

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BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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“That's really sweet of you, Tim. No pun intended. I'll have some fresh orange juice for breakfast. Unfortunately, we'll have to make this quick. I've got to leave in a few minutes. Another appointment I can't miss.” She sat on the rocker.

Tim took a seat on the sofa and brushed a hand through his blond curls. “No problem. Guess nobody's found the person who killed your friend yet, huh?”

“Not yet, but they will. I have a feeling that Detective Dorbandt won't give up until the killer is found.”

“Lydia told me that she'd come by to see you, too.”

Surprised that Lydia had mentioned the visit to Tim and unsure how much the girl had told him about Nick's phone conversation, if anything, Ansel said, “It's nice to have such supportive students. Now what can I help you with?”

“Oh, I want to get a doctorate in paleozoology. I'll have to leave Bowie College and go to Montana State, but I'm really excited about it. Since you graduated there, I wondered if you'd write me a letter of recommendation to submit with my admission application?”

“I'd be glad to. It's a tough paleontology program, but it's one of the best in the country. When will you need the letter?”

Tim's grin widened even more. “As soon as possible. I want to start the fall session, and I need to have all the academic paperwork sent out within the next few days.”

“I'll write the letter when I get back tonight. Since I have your address on your seminar sign-up sheet, I'll mail it to you tomorrow.”

“That's really nice of you, Miss Phoenix.” Tim stood. “I won't hold you up. Thanks so much. This is really fantastic.” He moved toward the door with long strides.

Ansel followed as he opened the metal portal and retreated, cowboy boots pounding down the concrete steps. “Bye, Tim.” He half-turned and waved before hopping into his battered station wagon. A thought flitted through Ansel's mind, and she rushed through the door. “Wait, Tim,” she called, but it was too late. The brown oil-spewing behemoth pulled away.

“Dammit,” she hissed.

She'd wanted to ask him what ever happened to the crime scene film inside his camera. Did he still have it or did Dorbandt confiscate it? If Tim developed the roll, she wanted to see the pictures, as disturbing as they might be. Maybe there was a clue hidden somewhere in the topography around Nick's body. She was willing to try any lead, any farfetched idea that might point a finger to the killer.

Chapter 8

“The brave man yields to neither fear nor anger, desire nor agony. He is at all times master of himself.”

Ohiyesa, Santee Sioux

“I can't take this.” Dorbandt threw down the paper. It fluttered to his desk and settled on a large pile of documents awaiting his attention.

He was tired. Yesterday afternoon he'd gone to Glasgow to interview Karen Capos and Alexander King again. Then he'd worked late finishing up reports on Capos' apartment and car. Afterward he'd spent the night tossing and turning, his mind replaying the day.

Back at his desk this morning, he'd reviewed the meager forensic reports trickling in from the state crime lab before poring over confiscated bundles of Capos' personal records and finances.

So far the forensic results were discouraging. Capos's old, partially degraded fingerprints were found on his clothes and personal effects. The fresh fingerprints appearing on his glasses only confirmed Anselette Phoenix's story. No other prints were present.

Toxicology had sent the liquid chromatography results. Testing on Capos' brain, lungs, spinal cord, and liver corroborated Howdun's conclusions that strychnine was the cause of death. No other drugs or alcohol were found in Capos' system.

Since Capos' faxed employment records were brief, Dorbandt had made a follow-up call to his ex-supervisor. He had learned from Dr. Barclay Stoopsen that the Cooperative was an agricultural lab conducting studies on range land degradation caused by grazing livestock. Capos had been well liked by fellow employees. His work had been exemplary until a few months before he quit. Something had happened, and Dorbandt knew he had to dig deeper.

So far, he'd plowed through several years of Capos' financial records: pay stubs, canceled checks, and bill statements. After Capos left the Cooperative, he'd closed his bank accounts and made a point of paying off outstanding debts, including bank loans, credit card bills, and insurance policies.

Capos had received no unemployment benefits, disability payments, retirement pensions, or welfare aid. It was doubtful that Capos had acquired a long-lost inheritance, or hit it big on the Powerball, Dorbandt mused. How did he pay the bills off so quickly, or survive without income for the last year and a half?

Dorbandt's gut told him Capos had been up to something before he died. Pretty Boy smelled dirty. Without a paper trail, it would be harder to learn what the botanist had been up to, but not impossible.

His second interview with Karen and her boyfriend had been interesting. King didn't hide the fact that he had hated Capos because of the way he treated Karen. King was wound tighter than a tick in dog hair. Would he pop if his anger became too much? Did he have access to strychnine?

Adding to his problems, McKenzie had given him another pep-talk. McKenzie wanted leads. McKenzie wanted a suspect. McKenzie wanted his lead butt to shine like Fort Knox gold on television sets across the county. McKenzie's message boiled down to one nugget of advice: produce or vamoose.

Dorbandt eyed his desk with distaste. It looked like a dust devil had passed through it. Papers were strewn in matted clumps. His computer system had disappeared beneath a tower of pulp. Stacked cartons surrounded his desk, box tops pimpled with Styrofoam coffee cups, soda cans, and candy wrappers. Somewhere lay a clue.

He pawed through the paper avalanche and picked up the Pangaea Society roster. Something else to work on. The personal info he'd gleaned about Anselette Phoenix was anemic, and uneventful. He did learn about the new Opel Center that the society was involved with and briefly wondered if that might play a role in the murder.

The background checks on the seminar kids were the same. Lydia Hodges and Tim Shanks lived in Mission. Shane Roco lived in Big Toe. They attended Bowie College and were excellent students. None had a criminal record. Even Feltus Pitt had lived a life that looked as straight as an arrow.

The phone rang. Dorbandt dropped the email sheets on a Montana Electric and Gas bill. The device shrieked again, but he couldn't see it. He grabbed a pile of papers, dumped them on the floor, and scrambled for the receiver.

“Detective Division. Dorbandt.”

“Hey, Reid. Dave Jackson.”

Dorbandt smiled. He liked Jackson, a diamond in the rough when it came to employees at the Missoula toxicology lab.

“Thanks for returning my call. I have some questions about the Capos case.”

“Fire away.”

“Where does strychnine come from?”

“The strychnine used on Capos was made from seeds of a tree called Strychnos nux vomica,” Jackson replied. “It's processed by the heating and powdering of seeds, then distilled into a concentrated form. Commercially prepared strychnine is the only kind imported into the states. It comes from India.”

“What's the poison look like?”

“A potent, transparent crystal or a white, crystalline powder. Both have a very bitter taste.”

Dorbandt leaned back in his chair. “How potent?”

“Strychnine is ninety to one hundred percent pure poison in composition. Two raw, ground-up nux vomica seeds are equal to sixty grains that will kill you if ingested. By comparison, only two-thirds of one grain of concentrated strychnine can.”

“And strychnine can be eaten or injected?”

“It's more versatile than that. Strychnine can be eaten, injected, absorbed through the skin or eyes, and inhaled. All with varying effects, depending on dosage and mode of introduction into the central nervous system.”

Dorbandt saw a light at the end of the tunnel. “Because of the health issues, the EPA must have international regulations regarding its importation. Plus state and federal guidelines, right?”

“You bet,” Jackson agreed. “Strychnine products have to conform to proper warning labels and regulatory constraints. According to EPA registration laws, any end-product user of imported strychnine has to keep detailed records of its purchases, sales, and disposal methods.”

“That makes it traceable from overseas to here. Connect the dots.”

“Yes, we could conceivably match Capos' poison with the manufacturer that formulated it. Strychnine is often mixed with signature compounds that identify the lab. You could trace possession with shipping receipts and sample testing. You might even hit pay dirt and find your killer. It's just going to take time.”

Dorbandt rubbed his chest. He didn't have a lot of time. Not with a perp at large and McKenzie hounding him. However, if he found a suspect with access to strychnine, he could match poison samples, creating a link between the lab, the perp, and the victim. It would be nice to have the documentation to link with forensic evidence.

“Dave, can you get me a list of the Indian manufacturers exporting strychnine and their U.S. distributors?”

“I should be able to. There won't be that many.”

“Great. Captain McKenzie is hemorrhaging over this case. I owe you one.”

Jackson chuckled. “I'll remember that.”

“Can you transfer me to Serology?”

“Sure. Just a second.”

An ominous series of clicks assailed Dorbandt's ear. Eventually the phone rang. “Serology. This is Dr. Floyd.”

Dorbandt hated dealing with Floyd. The scientist was great at his job, but he wasn't a “people” person. “Hello, Arlen. Detective Reid Dorbandt. Lacrosse County. Do you have anything on the Capos strychnine homicide?”

“I'm not a mind reader. What's the number?”

Dorbandt swept papers across his desk in a panic, looking for Howdun's autopsy sheets. “Case 01-06-23-H-0007.”

“Hold on.”

Dead air encased half of Dorbandt's head. He passed the time waiting on hold by flipping through the autopsy report.

“I've got it,” Floyd barked. “The report's not complete.”

“Anything interesting?”

“I'm working on other cases, Detective. Let me read for a minute.” Five seconds passed. “Doesn't look like much. Blood, saliva, and hair samples belonged to the victim. Only odd thing is the feather.”

Dorbandt sat up. “What feather?”

“A feather found on the body. Don't you read your trace evidence inventory sheets?”

“I don't have any sheets. Tell me about it.”

Floyd exhaled. “A thirty-five millimeter, white and brown feather was pulled from the right sock band. It was stuck in the cotton weave. I don't know what type of bird it is. DNA testing hasn't been done.”

“Capos could have picked up the feather from the ground, or the wind could have blown it onto his body,” Dorbandt considered.

“I don't think so. If that were the case, I'd expect to see the feather on the shoe or on a place exposed to the air. Not caught under the pants cuff between cotton and skin. It was protected from the elements and dirt debris. I think it was picked up somewhere else,” Floyd stated. “Probably a transfer contact with the killer. Maybe pushed into the sock top by the killer's hand during the dragging of the body.”

Dorbandt thought of Alexander King's bird shop. If he could tie King to the Capos crime scene, he'd really have something. “How long will the testing take?”

“Around six weeks.”

Acid pummeled Dorbandt's throat. “Six weeks? Can't you push it up?”

“I'm backlogged. I'll try,” Floyd said, his tone promising nothing. “Try later.”

Dorbandt dropped the receiver into the cradle just as McKenzie's bulky form stormed his way. McKenzie looked upset. His beet-red face was deformed into a goulish mask. In his beefy hand he clutched a folded newspaper.

McKenzie stomped up and glared. “Reid, I just went out to lunch and saw this.” Every person in homicide stared as the lieutenant unfolded the semiweekly edition of the
Sky Sentinel
with edge-ripping fury. He tossed it, front page up, on the disheveled desk.

strychnine killer in big toe!

Dorbandt's burning throat dropped into his stomach. Somebody had leaked the Capos autopsy findings to the media. He glanced up at McKenzie, whose bug-eyes bulged from rage.

“You've fucked up,” McKenzie bellowed. “Well, say something.”

“Something?” Dorbandt replied, a plaintive, hang-dog look plastered across his face. If he could wag his tail, he would do it.

Chapter 9

“You have to be God and the devil, both of them.”

Lame Deer, Sioux

For over a minute Ansel stood silently in the fossil bay doorway and watched Evelyn Benchley. Her eighty-mile ride to the Roosevelt Museum had been no small feat. After Tim left the trailer, she had hightailed it to Fort Peck in a frenzy, dreading the coming confrontation but determined to learn the truth.

Evelyn sat before a large slab of carbonaceous shale. The tablet was boxed into a three-by-six-foot wooden frame supported on an easel. In her right hand Evelyn held a sharpened crochet hook. With her left she fingered the barrel of a free-swinging, binocular microscope lens. She alternated scraping the hook against ancient stone with minute adjustments of the microscope to offset glare on the rock's surface.

Suddenly Evelyn pulled away from the slab, set down her hook, and rolled her chair around to face the door. She started visibly when she noticed someone there.

“Ansel. Why didn't you say something?”

“I was admiring your work. That's quite a project.” As Ansel walked into the room, the overpowering scent of Evelyn's Giorgio perfume enveloped her.

“It certainly is.” Evelyn half-turned and picked up a large photo from a work table. “
Astreptoscolex anasillosus
,” she announced, passing the print to Ansel. “Paleozoic, segmented worms known from Mississippian era sediments of Montana. They lived in lagoonal regions over three hundred and sixty million years ago. Like modern worms, they had a proboscis to dig mud burrows and two conical-shaped jaws to catch live prey. Neat, huh?”

Ansel studied the black and white picture. It was the photographic copy of an X-ray taken by an electronic dodging machine. The image revealed a dozen fossil worms, invisible to the naked eye, trapped between rock layers. The worms looked like leeches with gills, bristled appendages, and short antennae. Using only this photo as her guide, Evelyn slowly chipped off sediment to reveal the invertebrates.

Ansel passed the photo back. “Sorry. I prefer vertebrates. Show me some
Allenypterus montanus
fish in Bear Gulch limestone from the same era, and I'm in heaven.”

Evelyn smiled. “To each his own.” Her expression turned pensive. “What are you doing here?”

“I have a few questions. About Nick.”

Evelyn blinked, though her eyes never wavered. “Nick? Has something happened with the society?”

“No. This is about Nick and you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You have a key to Nick's apartment.”

“No, I don't. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“I saw you there, Evelyn.”

Evelyn laughed. “Ansel, you're mistaken.”

“I was in the apartment this morning. So were you.”

Evelyn's airy facade turned to stone. “I would never do such a thing.”

“I even smelled your Giorgio perfume. Karen Capos wears it. I bet it was Nick's favorite.”

“Just a coincidence.” Evelyn dropped her gaze toward her lap.

“I also know you took a paperweight from Nick's curio, one with red hearts inside. A lover's memento? You had an affair with Nick.”

Evelyn glanced up and swallowed. “All right, what if I did have a key and took the paperweight? It doesn't mean I slept with Nick. By your reasoning, the fact that you have a key means that you and Nick were...” She hesitated, distressed by the implication.

“No. Karen gave me the key. She wants me to inventory Nick's fossil collection for resale.”

Evelyn's cheeks flared pink. “That bitch. She made Nick's life miserable, and now she's going to steal his fossils.” She pitched the photo onto the table.

“There's no use denying your involvement with Nick. It's written all over your face. Did Karen know you were sleeping with him?”

Evelyn's rage dissipated. Her shoulders sagged a mile as resignation settled over her. “No,” she murmured, “and she wouldn't have cared. She was seeing that creep from the pet shop.” A tear slid down her cheek. “I can't believe Nick's dead. It's like a nightmare.” She covered her beautiful face with her hands and sobbed openly.

The situation disconcerted Ansel. She was amazed that Evelyn considered Nick a potential suitor. Almost twice as old, Evelyn's tastes ran toward single lawyers and physicians with bulging financial portfolios. Nick had been handsome and charismatic, but nonetheless a married, middle-income technician with a state pension.

Not to mention that she'd never seen calm and controlled Evelyn exhibiting such mercurial displays of emotion. The no-nonsense preparator had always been the perennial Rock of Gibraltar. Ansel's discomfort gave way to disgust. Had Nick been bedding Evelyn while making a play for her?

“When did your affair start?”

“A year ago,” Evelyn whispered, swiping her puffy red eyes and smearing the backs of her hands with mascara. “We started talking after a society meeting, and things just progressed. I know you think I'm crazy, but Nick made me feel needed. He'd already left Karen so he wasn't really cheating.”

“That's six months after he quit his job.”

Evelyn's head snapped up. “Nick quit his job?”

“January of last year. Karen supported them until they separated last June. You didn't know?”

“No.” Evelyn stopped crying. A cold, steely look crept into her eyes. “We broke up last December. Six months together. Nick never told me he left his job.”

Ansel felt a tad better. Nick had slept with her long after he'd left Evelyn. “Why did you break up?”

“Nick ended it. He never said why, but...” She stopped.

“But what?”

“Sometimes I thought he loved the museum computers more than me.”

“Why?”

“Because he spent hours using them. The bastard told me he was doing research for the Cooperative. It's against Roosevelt policies to let non-museum employees use them unless they have permission from Director Irving. I'd pretend to work late, and Nick would sneak in. Why the hell would he lie to me about having a job? What if I got fired?”

Ansel couldn't answer, but it was obvious that Nick hadn't cared about the risks Evelyn took. “Where are the computers?”

Evelyn turned and pointed to a closed door on the right. Ansel walked over and opened it. The rectangular room was small and cold beneath the overhead flourescent. Three computer workstations sat along one long wall. Two eight-foot-long folding tables flanked another.

“I didn't know the museum had a morphometrics lab.”

“It's new. We're using it to study rare museum specimens. We can scan items up to three meters in length and digitally reconstruct them for study.”

Ansel inspected the hardware. One workstation comprised a computer with a twenty-inch-long laser scanning wand. Another desk contained a TDZ station utilizing reverse engineering software. The third station contained a Silicon Graphics Infinite Reality system. She had used similar systems in computational paleontology courses and when she studied digital graphics as a paleoartist.

The laser wand scanned fossil bones and exoskeletons and converted surface dimensions into mathematical points of reference. These dimensions were analyzed by the computer and reassembled as lifelike, 3D models, which could be rotated and viewed at any angle. In this way, ancient life forms and ecosystems could come alive. Even badly damaged or incomplete specimens could be digitally reconstructed.

“What was Nick scanning?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I don't know. I did my own projects.”

“You never asked?”

“No. Once I opened the door while Nick was online. He turned off the monitor, but I saw a page of his notebook before he could close it. It said ‘HMN-1880.' He told me never to barge in on him again, and I made it a point not to disturb him.”

Ansel searched her mind for a meaning behind the cryptic series of letters and numbers, drawing a blank. “Does HMN-1880 mean anything to you?”

“Nothing.” Evelyn's red eyes widened with apprehension. “You don't think it has to do with Nick's murder, do you?”

“Maybe. Nick had some reason for using these machines. Did he ever mention Baltic amber?”

“No. Why?”

“He was collecting amber specimens. They were in his apartment office.”

“I never saw it.”

“Did you know about Nick borrowing money from Leslie before Cam told us on Sunday?”

Evelyn pursed her lips. “Afraid not, but it's funny you should mention Leslie and amber at the same time.”

“Why?”

“I just remembered something. Inside Nick's apartment last year I noticed a journal paper Leslie had written. It was published in the
Journal of Metamorphic Geology
while he was at Yale. The topic concerned mineral caustobioliths. Isn't amber a caustobiolith?”

Ansel felt her pulse quicken. Caustobioliths included minerals of biogenic origin, which resembled stone and combusted. “Yes. What was Leslie's paper about?”

“Something to do with developing methods for manufacturing caustobioliths by using heat. I wondered why Nick had the article.”

“Do you know a person named Griffin?”

“No. I don't like all these questions, Ansel.”

“I'm not the only one who's going to ask. Detective Dorbandt will.”

Evelyn's face blanched. “The police? You're not going to tell them about Nick and me?”

“Why would you want me to withhold information?”

“Because Karen might find out,” Evelyn sputtered.

“A moment ago you doubted Karen would care what Nick had done.”

“What about my career? How will it look, me sleeping with a married man who's been murdered?”

“Evelyn, this isn't about you. Nick is dead. Dorbandt should know he was working on some mysterious project before he died.”

“I don't see why I should be pulled into it,” Evelyn protested.

“You made the decision to have an affair with Nick. You helped him get unauthorized access to these computers. I don't see how you can stay out of it.”

Evelyn scowled. “I'd let you use the computers. Just ask.”

Evelyn's offer sounded like a bribe. “I'd never ask to do that. I have the Pangaea Society to worry about. We can't risk losing the Opel monies because executive members are committing adultery and conspiring to hide critical information during a homicide investigation. Our actions reflect on the society, too. I know you had your reasons, but you have to face the consequences. It's the right thing to do, and I'll help you in any way I can.”

“You have a pretty high opinion of yourself,” Evelyn spat. “I don't need some puffed-up drum beater in designer jeans to boss me around. It will still damage the society's precious image if you tell Dorbandt about Nick and me.”

The unexpected bigotry and the venom behind its delivery shocked Ansel. She took a step backward, staring at Evelyn's vicious face in stunned silence. Her Amerind blood began to boil.

Ansel forced herself to smile. “I'll come forward and make a public statement discrediting your affiliation with the organization before I go to Dorbandt.”

Evelyn frowned. “Involvement with the police could destroy me.”

“Scandal could destroy the society.”

“Screw the society,” Evelyn shrieked. “People will think I killed Nick. My reputation will be destroyed.”

Ansel surveyed the desperate woman closely. Now she knew why Evelyn had been so discomposed on Sunday. She'd been worried over what would happen if the police knew about her romance with Nick. Having slept with Nick, she could empathize with Evelyn's plight, but she couldn't forget the woman's nasty personal attack.

“Did you kill him because he left you?”

“Of course not. If you want to know who killed Nick ask Cameron. He threatened Nick. Said he'd kill him if he didn't finish the museum displays. I think he did it. Where will your precious society be if I'm right?”

Without answering, Ansel whirled and headed for the exit.

Evelyn followed her. “Where are you going? I want to know what you're going to do.” She grabbed Ansel's arm in a vise-like grip.

Ansel reached the doorway, turned swiftly, and yanked her arm free. Evelyn stopped in her tracks, paralyzed by the undisguised loathing in Ansel's obsidian eyes.

“I won't tell Dorbandt about you and Nick,” she said, thinking of her own entanglement with the botanist, “but I have two conditions.”

Evelyn gave a small gasp of relief, then nodded. “What are they?”

“I want you to return the paperweight to the apartment. You stole it. I'll make sure it's been returned, so don't disappoint me.”

“All right. What else?”

“I want your email letter of resignation as society secretary on my home computer by the time I reach Big Toe. I want all of the society records returned to me within the week, too. If you don't comply, I'll tell Cameron and Leslie what you said about us and the society. You'll be voted off the board.”

Evelyn's grin of relief faltered. She opened her mouth to protest, but said nothing.

“Good-bye, Evelyn.”

Ansel left the museum as fast as her legs would carry her. She made it to the truck before her hot temper cooled. Then the treachery of Evelyn's false friendship chilled her to the core. Salty teardrops streaked her face, more bitter medicine to swallow. All because she was Indian.

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