I heard an intake of breath. “What surprises? How can you have any doubt?”
“To ask for information is not to doubt.”
“This is my son, Gloria. Don’t give me a lesson in logic.” My heart sank. A lifelong friendship was at stake. What made me think I was capable of an objective investigation under these conditions? “I’d better go now,” she told me.
My friend’s cracking voice and the click of the telephone sent a wave of anguish through me. First Matt, now Rose. I leaned back on my pillow and stared at the ceiling, the painted off-white swirls matching my emotional state.
I COULDN’T REMEMBER the last time Rose and I had a serious disagreement, unless you counted the controversy over whether to eat inside or out when we were in Venice twenty years ago.
I tried the Galigani number several times in the next hour, but hung up each time I heard the outgoing message on their answering machine. I wished they had E-mail at home. Probably just as well, I realized. It was even easier to be misunderstood electronically.
The phone rang while I was dressing. I picked up on the first ring, hoping it was Rose. Instead, the call was from Erin Wong, the twenty-something general science teacher I’d contacted at Revere High School. To meet one of my retirement goals—contributing to science education—I’d promised to mentor students who showed a special interest in science and technology. Although I didn’t remember writing “murder investigations” on my to-do list for old age, I’d spent more time at that than at any of the hobbies I’d envisioned.
“Have you given any more thought to a project for my seniors?” Erin asked me.
“How about building a model nuclear reactor?”
IT WAS ONLY ten o’clock and I wasn’t due to meet Andrea at Russo’s until noon. I considered driving first to the Galigani home across town, but in the end, I decided the best thing was to wait until I had something tangible to show them. Because that would be more efficient, I told myself—and because I couldn’t risk face-to-face rejection.
My computer provided the distraction I needed to fill the time until lunch. I clicked on a search engine and downloaded the first ten matches to “boric acid + reactor.”
In spite of my careful choice of key words, I got three leads to boron as a nutrient in the human diet and its use in winemaking. I read ads for boron fertilizer and a dietary supplement—boron the “Calcium Helper,” assisting calcium absorption in the body. I also noted in passing that the market value of boron was three hundred fifty dollars per ton for raw material, and the U.S. and Turkey accounted for 90 percent of world production. News of a multipatient clinical trial of an experimental treatment for brain tumors, called boron neutron capture therapy, caught my attention until I remembered my mission.
Here was one problem with the Internet I knew too well—it was so easy to become sidetracked by useless information.
The good thing about it—there’s no one to offend on the other end of the line.
I PARKED IN THE BACK lot of Russo’s Cafe, an upscale coffee shop around the corner from the police station on Broadway. I’d signed my first Revere Police Department contract at one of the tables in the back of this restaurant. Matt had been waiting for me, his long nose deep into crime-scene photos from the murder of a hydrogen researcher. I’d met him only briefly before that day, when I appeared as an expert witness for him.
Almost a year to the day, when I didn’t know what he ate for breakfast. It seemed long ago.
On Sunday morning the weather had turned even warmer. I stepped from my air-conditioned Cadillac into the low nineties, with humidity to match. I wore an olive-green linen dress, sleeveless, but layered with a short-sleeved blouse in a sheer fabric. My upper arms hadn’t seen the light of day since I was a teenager, no matter what the temperature.
Andrea was waiting in the small entryway, dressed in a purple and black print outfit I’d seen before—wide pants and a matching short-sleeved tunic. She stood and gave me a sweaty hug.
“I always love your pins,” she said, studying the one-inch bronze computer on my lapel. I showed her how it opened, just like a real laptop, its tiny keyboard hanging from the collar of my shirt.
Russo’s fine reputation was for food, not decor. I’d gotten used to the fake columns and broken sculptures, a shabby recreation of ancient Rome. But today the headless torsos reminded me of Frank’s decapitated client and the bodies buried
in the cemetery behind the library. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy my roasted peppers with thoughts of a hand-fashioned neck stitched to a dead chest, so I focused instead on a faux marble cherub with a faucet for a mouth.
When we were seated I gave Andrea the souvenir I’d brought from California. A plastic sports bottle with the logo of Berkeley University Laboratory, my place of employment for thirty years. It was the kind of water container active people might attach to their bikes, or Andrea and I would keep on our desks, filled with pens and pencils.
“Wow. Thanks, Gloria.” Andrea turned the mug around and laughed at the acronym BUL in blue and gold. “Everyone will want this.” This in exchange for entry into the Charger Street lab and the inside scoop on boron problems. It didn’t seem fair, and I thought of making it up to Andrea later. Silently I thanked Elaine Cody, my personal shopper. Andrea stuffed the souvenir into her tote bag, pulling a large notebook and folders out in the same motion.
I wasn’t surprised to see Andrea had done her homework.
“Yolanda Fiore’s supervisor was Anthony Taruffi. Tony. He heads the Public Affairs Office at the lab—one of those party-line guys. Nothing gets past him that might make the lab or any of our funding agencies look bad.”
“He couldn’t have been happy with her activism. I hear she was a troublemaker of sorts?”
Andrea nodded. “She started a newsletter for employees’ grievances and environmental complaints from the community. It’s called
” Andrea spelled the play on words. “Like ‘raid the lab,’ I guess. I’ve seen a few issues. She did a special one on boric acid solutions and how they can overflow from a waste tank onto the floor of the building and cause corrosion.”
Boron again. Used properly it prevents meltdown, but if not handled correctly, it becomes a safety problem itself. “I’d like to see a copy if you have one.”
Andrea made a note, and I knew from experience that she’d
follow through. “She got some volunteers to work with her. Supposedly it was all done on their own time.”
“So technically it wasn’t a reason to fire her.”
Andrea tilted her head from side to side, in an “iffy” motion. “You know how these things work.”
I did. It was always a contest between official procedures on the one hand and a supervisor’s desire to get rid of an employee on the other. Although legislation was in place to protect rights on both sides, there were ways around it.
Andrea handed me a lab-issue orange folder. “I pulled the last few articles Yolanda wrote for the lab’s official newspaper. They all have to do with boron and the state of the waste generated by nuclear power plants. Remember, the lab has a contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee the waste storage containers.”
I flipped through the pages, noting titles like “The Quest to Bury Nuclear Waste,” “Keeping Assemblies Subcritical,” and “Safety Injection Systems.”
“Thanks. I’ll read these later,” I said as a lovely young Asian woman—CYNDI, her name tag said—brought our pasta and beans. Russo’s had become a melting pot.
“I’ve looked through the articles. They’re pretty harmless. Taruffi would never let anything but happy talk get out to the public. Once in a while Yolanda slips in scenarios about breaks in the steam line and that kind of thing. And she talks about the quantity of boron that’s required for safety in the waste pools.”
“Maybe there’s more inflammatory material in her newsletter.”
Andrea nodded. “Maybe. And if Yolanda had found a controversial angle to nuclear safety, it could be another motive to fire her.”
Or kill her, I added to myself.
ANDREA ESCORTED ME through the building that housed the Public Affairs Office, the Visitor Center, and the Science Education
Center—all the functions that had to do with the world outside the lab. I wondered what percent of the total budget was designated for “outreach” as my Berkeley lab had called it. Not much, in my experience—just enough to keep the activists at bay.
Yolanda had been fired a week before her murder, but according to Andrea, the police had visited her former work site anyway and carried off a carton of material.
“Would you like to see her old desk, too? Maybe you’ll get a vibe or something.”
I gave her a teasing look of disapproval, evoking a giggle from her small round mouth.
“I know—this is logic, not magic. But the police might have left something behind.”
I didn’t hold out much hope for a cubicle that had been gone over by the police and, presumably, by Yolanda’s murderer, if he or she was a lab employee. It was as good a place as any to start, however, and I followed Andrea through the labyrinth of partitions that divided one large room into dozens of small work areas. The building was empty, but well lighted even on a Sunday. Its interior design was a relic of the seventies, when beams and pipes were painted bright colors and left exposed.
No one had claimed Yolanda’s work space, still stacked with office supplies, but containing no personal items I could see. Andrea walked around the area, ran her hand under the desk and chair, pulled out drawers, and inspected the computer ports.
“I’ve seen this on TV,” she said. “They find clues taped under the furniture.”
I smiled. “I think it only works on TV.”
As we toured the divided room, I felt I should be leaving a trail of crumbs. It was hard to tell one end of the windowless maze from the other. Name plates stuck to the fake walls with Velcro were a help—the third time I saw LORNA SANFORD on a brown felt partition, I knew we’d covered the area.
As supervisor, Tony Taruffi had a real office, closed in by glass on two sides.
“We call it the fishbowl,” Andrea said.
We peered in, palms on the glass as if we were waiting for the gelato shop to open. In spite of the bright lights, the lack of noise from people, printers, or telephones gave me a creepy feeling that seemed to be following me around since I’d heard of Yolanda’s murder.
What had I possibly hoped to find here? I wondered. A gun or a knife? The weapon was a coat rack. A blood-streaked carpet? The crime was committed in a building two miles away. The murderer lurking in the hallway?
“Can I help you?”
The voice echoed loudly in the cavernous building. Andrea and I jumped as high as our respective masses would allow.
“Hi, Tony,” Andrea said. I was impressed at the tone she’d managed—as if she’d shown up on time for a Sunday afternoon meeting and he was late. Tony Taruffi was a large man, taller than a coat rack, I guessed, with a wide neck. Andrea kept up her cheery front, though I detected a nervous pitch to her voice. “This is Dr. Gloria Lamerino. She’s a retired physicist from Berkeley, California.”
Taruffi grinned broadly and extended his hand. “Yes, I’ve heard about you. A police consultant now, aren’t you?” I looked up and down his long face, from his smile to his eyes. Both seemed cold.
“At times, yes.” I presented my most pleasant countenance.
Taruffi had moved his body so he was between us and his office door. His brown hair, graying at the temples, was carefully groomed and his clothes were casual, but crisp enough in case a TV van pulled up unexpectedly. I placed him at about fifty, but I was getting poorer at such estimates as my own age crept toward a new decade.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
“Oh, no,” Andrea said. “We’re just on our way to the Visitor Center.”
I nodded, happy to have Andrea directing the fiction. Taruffi looked dubious, but played along.
“Well, let me show you some of our latest publications,” Taruffi said, leading us away from his office to a metal rack
near the elevator. He pulled brochures and flyers from rows of vertical slots and held up a colorful pamphlet on the lab’s laser fusion program. “Andrea helped us with this one. Very bright, this little lady.”
I grimaced at the first-grade characterization of a competent adult woman in a highly technical field, but I’d heard it before. On the other hand, I’d never heard a professional man referred to as a bright little gentleman.
“Tony got us permission to do it in color,” Andrea said. She pointed to dramatic photos of enormous round lenses and imploding targets.
“The government guidelines specify black and white only. But I found a way around it,” Taruffi said, stopping short of beating his chest. He walked us through double doors, to the Visitor Center, an annex east of the Public Affairs Office, boasting the whole time. When the president of the United States visited the laboratory in ’91, Taruffi himself showed his entourage around the property. Taruffi’s latest plan for expanding the lab’s education program had received accolades from the Department of Energy. Taruffi’s portfolio of public information materials was nominated for a special award by the Society of Technical Communicators. Lucky for the lab, Taruffi had rejected many offers to head outreach programs for private institutions.
When I finally tired of his monologue, I tried a new direction.
“I suppose you heard about Yolanda Fiore’s murder?”
As if on cue, Taruffi nodded. He threw back his broad shoulders and drew his face into a serious expression. “Very sad.”
“I understand she used to work for you?”
Taruffi put his arm around my shoulder, and laughed. I felt a shiver up my back. “Dr. Lamerino, why didn’t you tell me you were here as a police representative?”
“I’m not. Not today anyway.” I made an attempt to match his frivolous manner, and came out with a small laugh of my own. “But I’ll be back.”
I heard Andrea’s nervous cough and hoped I wasn’t putting
her career—or her life—in jeopardy. It’s Taruffi who should be tense, I thought—at least, I would be if a woman I’d fired was found murdered a week later.
When he left us, I turned around and caught a glimpse of him standing, legs apart, arms folded, leaning against the doors, as if waiting to intercept us if we walked back into his side of the building.
I let out a big sigh.
“Whew,” I said, wiping my brow in an elaborate gesture, only half faking relief.
“Wow,” Andrea said, shaking her wrist, her eyes wide. “You sounded like you suspect Tony.”
“In my book everyone’s a suspect, Andrea. Except you, me, and John Galigani.”