Read Speak for the Dead Online
Authors: Rex Burns
“Now that’s something I didn’t notice the first time,” said Haraway.
“What?” asked Wager.
“The hair. See? Somebody must have combed the hair after they set it there.”
He was right; the only disarray was where the earth had lifted the hairs as the head had sagged over. Wager could see the grooves of comb teeth still furrowing the sweeping bangs.
From the far end of the conservatory, Officer Bauman shouted above the splash of water, “Haraway? You and Detective Wager around here? The lab guy’s coming.”
Wager went down the short path to the juncture. A tired-looking man in a baggy corduroy coat leaned against the pull of a toolbox. Wager recognized Fred Baird; he had worked with him almost two years ago. “You all by yourself?”
“Hi, Gabe.” Baird fought back a yawn as he shook hands. “We only have one man on this shift.” The yawn won. “And I almost made it through without any crap tonight. Is the medical examiner here yet?”
“No. He’s been called.”
The lab technician nodded. “It’ll take him awhile; mornings are a bad time. Where’s the body?”
“There’s only the head so far.”
“It’s this way. Me, the two officers, and the chief utility worker have been the only ones around. As far as I know, everyone’s stayed on the paths.”
“Right. I’ll get things started before I go off duty. Ask Bauman to call for the day shift to cover me when they come on. I think this is going to be one long son of a bitch.” He sighed and toted the heavy box after Wager.
“I’d like you to go over all the doors for any sign of forced entry,” said Wager. “I didn’t see anything, but maybe you can pick up something. And there’s a lot of outside grounds.”
“Right, right—all doors and windows, all avenues of approach. And tell the guy who found her that we’ll need a set of his prints. But if you want the grounds searched, call the Uniformed Division. We don’t have enough people to do the legwork and the lab work. We’ll take a look at what they find.” He peered past the shiny green fan of a palm leaf. “God, it doesn’t look real, does it?”
Baird unslung a Speed Graflex and began popping blue flash bulbs, jotting a note after each shot, careful not to step in the soft earth off the packed grit of the path. His lips clamped tight as he aimed the camera. The man knew his business, and Wager was doing no good just standing around. He went in search of Mr. Solano and the two officers.
They were in a corner of the lobby lit by the glass doors of the main entry. Bauman, finishing a cigarette, was restless; Haraway—darker, shorter, and slightly younger—looked tired in the hard glare.
“Anything more you want of us, Detective Wager?”
“Just a copy of the offense report.” It was homicide’s problem now; the uniformed officers’ shift was at an end, and there was a lot of paperwork left.
“We’ll leave it with division this morning.”
As they pushed through the heavy doors, Solano clapped a hand to his forehead. “Holy cow! I forgot to check the water for the mosses!” He started for a corner of the conservatory.
“Hold it,” Wager said. “I wish you wouldn’t do anything until the lab people get finished.”
“Oh boy—Mr. Sumner’s not gonna go for that.”
Mr. Sumner wouldn’t have a damned thing to say about it—the area was a crime scene, and the police had full authority. “I’ll explain things to him,” said Wager.
“You think I better call him about this? He really won’t like cops stomping around in the specimens. Yeah,” Solano answered his own question, “he’ll be up by now; I better call him.” He went to the lobby telephone.
“Fine. Then I want to ask you a few more questions.”
Solano made his call and hung up the phone. “He said he’d be right down. He really sounded upset. He told me not to let anybody do anything until he gets here.” The man’s brown eyes looked toward the conservatory. “You think it’s O.K. to let that laboratory guy mess around in there?”
“He’ll be real careful, Solano. Have you showed me all the doors? There’s no other way to get into the conservatory?”
“There’s the balcony doors up there. But you have to come in through the lobby here. That’s the stairs.” He pointed to the sloping ceiling that roofed the janitor’s room. Over a ledge, Wager could see the glass of the upper doors. “There’s this balcony on the other side, and a ramp leads down to ground level in the conservatory.”
“Any other doors into the conservatory?”
“The west end has a set. But they’re emergency doors and only open from the inside. And they got an alarm—a bell goes off if anybody opens them. Kids are all the time setting it off.”
Wager would take a look at those later. “Are those more stairs to a third floor?”
“Yeah. The rooftop garden. It’s for showing patio plants and such. You know, like people grow on their apartment balconies. But it’s a dead end; that’s the only stairs up to it.”
“What’s in there?” Wager pointed to the east wall of the lobby where large wooden doors with a little-used look hung shut.
“That’s the education wing. The auditorium’s through there, and over there’s the library and herbarium,” Solano said.
“Does it connect with the conservatory?”
“Only through here.”
As Bauman had told him, the victim sure as hell hadn’t walked here. “Windows? Any windows in the conservatory?”
“Sure, plenty. But they’re all up on top.”
“Could somebody open one from the outside?”
Solano’s head wagged. “No way. They work off hydraulic pistons. I’ll show you.”
Wager followed Solano back into the humid greenness of the domed space. The shorter man pointed up to the roof where triangles of glass sat at the peak of the structure. Even if someone had climbed up from the outside, there was no way to descend. “That’s a long way up,” said Wager.
“Fifty feet. Even the sparrows have trouble getting in.”
Wager studied the pages of the small notebook. “Was it crowded when the place closed yesterday?”
“I don’t know. I get off at two-thirty or so. That’s one of the nice things about this job—every afternoon’s mine. And, heck, I never could sleep late anyway. Bad kidneys.”
“Who locks up?”
“Depends on who goes home last. Usually it’s Mauro. But Mr. Sumner can tell you. He’s got a chart that says. Are you sure it’s O.K. to let that guy mess around down there?”
“It’s O.K.” Wager strolled to the middle of the conservatory, heels crunching in the gravel, and looked at the variety of growing things surging up through the moist air. Why. And how. It wasn’t likely that someone brought the head in just before the conservatory closed. It wasn’t likely that entry had been through the emergency doors with their alarm system. It was likely that somebody used a key. Unless Baird came up with something that showed a lock pick, it was damned likely that someone used a key. “You live only a couple of miles away?” he asked Solano.
“Yeah. It’s a short drive.”
“Did you recognize the victim?”
“Have you ever seen her before?”
“Good gosh, Officer, how could anybody tell? I didn’t even think she was real, you know?”
“Well, do you know any women who fit the description: maybe twenty-five, short blond hair, regular features?”
“No. And I better not. The wife would be all over me.”
“Thanks for your help.” He watched Solano walk in his quick, nervous way toward the lobby doors. Then he searched for Fred Baird. The technician was dusting the smoothest tree trunks and larger branches around the area where the head rested.
“Have you got anything?” Wager asked.
“Not yet. Whoever put it here had to come this way—they couldn’t reach across the stream.” This way was down a steep bank past a cluster of banana trees, giant ferns, and a tall eruption of leaves. “Great God, look at the name of this plant.” Baird giggled and pointed to the plastic tag beside the shooting green stalks. It said “Self-Heading Philodendron.”
Wager didn’t see anything to laugh at. He jotted the fact in his little book. “Any idea how long it’s been there?”
“Hard to say. The M.E. can make a guess if he ever gets here.”
Solano had arrived around 6:30; it was now a little past eight. “Two hours? Maybe less?” The utility worker could have brought it in with him and then “found” it.
“I’d say more—there’s a lot of drainage under it. But you’d better ask the M.E.” Baird stepped back and looked for other likely places a hand would rest. “I’ll bet you’re going to want us to survey this whole goddamned conservatory, aren’t you?”
“I would like to know how it got here.”
“Right. And why some son of a bitch would screw up such a pretty place by bringing it here.” He bent to dust another smooth tree trunk. “You want to call an ambulance? When the M.E.’s finished, it should go to the morgue for the pathologist. I sure as hell don’t care to take it back in my car.”
Besides, Doyle’s procedure manual required corpses to be transported by suitable conveyance, and Wager supposed that meant bits and pieces as well. He keyed the G.E. radio pack holstered on his belt and sent the code for an ambulance, no siren necessary. “The deputy director’s coming down,” he told Baird. “He’s worried about his bushes and stuff.”
“Right. And I’m worried about knocking off. Is that day shift on its way?”
“Bauman said he called.” The conservatory’s shadows had faded to reveal, here and there among the towering palm trees, pink and white flowering vines and pulpy clusters of purple banana sprouts. This was the upper end of the area; the lobby was down at the east end where the stream fed a dark still pool whose bottom glinted with pennies and dimes. He half wondered if one of the coins had been tossed by whoever brought the head.
Wager walked back around to the side path across the stream from the head. The face showed no bruises, no contortions, none of the knotted, frozen cords and sinews that came with agony. Instead, it seemed to have eased its life away in one long, gentle breath as if sighing at the glossiness of leaves, the richness of shoots and tendrils and moist protruding roots, the sudden flame of birds of paradise. There was a reason for it. He had been a cop long enough to know there was always a reason, even when no sane mind could understand it. This was not an easy place to get into, and most killers would dump a whole body. The person or persons unknown had gone out of their way to put just the head here, Wager figured, knowing it would be found within hours. And they’d done it because it was important to them. It was something worth taking such a chance for, something that had a reason for them.
Wager no longer saw the gray skin or the heavy leaves glinting in the pale light. In his mind, he held side by side the living green of plants and the dead flesh of the head. The two things together meant something.
A clatter at the lobby doors pulled him back; the day shift of lab technicians came in followed by a tall Anglo whose white hair still sprouted sleep in ruffled thrusts. Behind him, very quiet, Solano chewed his lip. The white-haired man, who must have been Sumner, talked loudly over the echo of the stream: “These are very delicate specimens—they shouldn’t be disturbed at all, and I’m quite upset that your people pursued their activities without first checking with me!”
The lead technician from the day shift, new to Wager, bent to gaze at the head, then grunted to Baird, “Morning. Why don’t you go get some breakfast?”
Fred snorted something like a laugh and began packing his kit. “Right. Breakfast. I’ll just go, thanks. The M.E.’s been called, my samples are over there, I’ve dusted the immediate area. Good-bye.”
“What’s this powder on my bignoniacea?” Sumner pointed to a tree trunk.
“It’s fingerprint powder—like talcum powder,” answered Baird. “Nothing toxic: will not harm, will not stain. It’ll rinse right off.”
“But it will get into the soil!”
“It’s magnesium silicate and aluminum—hardly enough for a trace.”
“How much more do you intend to throw around?”
Baird snapped the hasp on his kit. “Maybe some on the doors, but that should be it. These gentlemen would like to search the area systematically and look for footprints, cigarette butts, that sort of thing. Most of the search will be along the paths.”
“But that’s where we place our choice growth! We have over six hundred specimens, and many are extremely delicate!”
Wager stepped forward. “They’ll be real careful, Mr. Sumner.”
The second of the two lab men nodded. “We’ll take good care, sir. I’m a plant freak myself. Ferns. Love ‘em.”
“Well, yes, the asplenia are very nice, but …”
“And,” added Wager, “we wouldn’t want to leave any hands or feet lying around, now, would we?”
“Oh. Oh my. I didn’t think of that.” Sumner’s round eyes of anger turned into round eyes of horror. He peered this way and that among his plants.
“Let’s go back to the lobby, Mr. Sumner. Maybe you can answer a few questions for me,” said Wager.
“About the routine of locking up the place and such.”
“Ah, well, that’s usually Mauro’s job. Dominick Mauro. He’s the senior assistant utility worker.”
“Was he the one to lock up last night?”
“I believe so; I’ll have to look at the charts to be certain. He should be here at ten.”
That would be unauthorized overtime—without pay. It would piss off the police union, but there wasn’t anything in the bulldog’s procedure manual against pissing off the police union. Which Wager sort of enjoyed doing anyway. “Solano is the one who comes early?”
“Yes.” Sumner relaxed for the first time, and it made his white hair look incongruous against the sudden youthfulness of his lean face. Wager guessed he was a little past fifty, but his hands moved like those of a younger man. “We’re very fortunate with those two: Salvador doesn’t like to sleep late, and Nick doesn’t like to get up early.” The tension came back. “They’re both very trusted and long-time employees, Inspector. State employees.”
“Yes, sir. Do any other employees have keys to the outside doors?”
“Keys? I was just looking at the key chart the other day… . We have very few keys that unlock the outer doors. I have one. The conservatory superintendent, Mr. Weimer, has one. And the chairman of our board of trustees. Though I don’t think he’s ever used it. Oh, yes, there’s the emergency key that’s kept in Greenhouse One. That makes six.”