Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Smell of Death by Marilyn Meredith
Smell of Death by Marilyn Meredith
WHEN RESPONDING TO a suspicious circumstance call, Officer Stacey Wilbur was met on the sidewalk by the reporting party, an elderly woman identified as Mrs. Lindhall. Stacey slid from the seat of her police unit and, as she stood, tucked a wisp of honey blonde hair into the barrette that held the remainder of her locks in a neat loop at the nape of her neck.
Mrs. Lindhall towered above Stacey’s five-foot-four inches as she joined the policewoman on the small square of Bermuda grass in front of a tiny stucco cottage.
“You’re the one who called?” Stacey tried not to notice the critical glance the woman gave her over the steel-framed spectacles perched halfway down a patrician nose. It was an all-too-familiar expression to Stacey. Her slight, slim figure and fine features gave her a deceptively delicate appearance, not matching most of the small, southern California beach community’s citizens’ ideas of how a law enforcement officer should look.
Despite the glance and an almost imperceptible sniff, Mrs. Lindhall had the good manners to keep her opinion to herself. “Yes…ah…Officer, I am. You see, I’m most concerned about my neighbor, Darlene Brantley. She has two small children, you see. She’s usually off to work by now. I always see her pass when she takes the children down the street to the sitter. She might be ill, of course, but I tried to reach her by phone. I’ve knocked, but I can’t seem to raise anyone.”
Thank God for all the old people in the country who had nothing more demanding to do than keep track of the comings and goings of their neighbors. “Okay, Mrs. Lindhall, I’ll see what I can find out.”
With a surprisingly agile step, the woman led Stacey to the front door. A pale beige, it had been stained by numerous dirty handprints, big and little. First, Stacey rang the bell then, with her knuckles, rapped sharply against the peeling paint. A strange sound came from inside, a kind of mewing – a kitten perhaps, or a small child. “Good Lord, that’s a baby!”
Stacey grabbed the knob, preparing to use force, but it turned easily. Warily, she pushed the door open and squinted into the dim interior. No matter how often she came upon the scene of a murder, she knew she would never get used to it – not the sight of a corpse, nor the terrible smell of death and blood. This time was no different.
“What is that dreadful odor?” Mrs. Lindhall coughed, crowding through the door behind Stacey.
“Don’t come any further, Mrs. Lindhall,” Stacey ordered. But the woman didn’t listen. Before Stacey could prevent it, the elderly woman had switched on the light.
A ceramic table lamp came on and illuminated the morbid scene. An infant in a bassinet was responsible for the mewing. A boy of around three crouched on the floor, dark eyes big with fear as he stared at the intruders. Tears began when he recognized his neighbor. Scrambling to his feet, he hurled himself at the woman’s knees.
The body of a young woman, clothed only in a man’s tee shirt bunched around her chest, was on the floor, crowded into the space between the couch and coffee table. That she’d either slid or fallen from the couch was evidenced by the bloody slipcover pulled from the furniture and caught under her body.
“I was afraid of something like this. Is she dead?” Mrs. Lindhall asked.
“Yes.” There was no need for Stacey to feel for a pulse. The body had expelled its wastes and blood was clotted around the wounds on the chest, shoulders, and arms.
The baby’s crying grew louder, and Stacey stepped beside the bassinet. By rights, she shouldn’t touch anything, but she couldn’t leave the baby inside the house with its dead mother. She lifted the infant, along with its blanket, into her arms. “There, there little one,” she cooed, patting its back. The baby shivered and settled its head against Stacey’s neck. She could feel its downy hair against her cheek and smell its sweet breath.
Mrs. Lindhall, carrying the boy, scurried out of the house ahead of her. After settling the infant on the front seat of her police unit, Stacey radioed in her gruesome discovery. When the detectives arrived, they would ask her questions, perhaps even send her out to interview the neighbors, but after she wrote her report about the initial discovery of the body, the murder investigation would be out of her hands.
As Stacey had expected, when Detective Milligan arrived, he sent her to knock on doors and question the neighbors. The children had been put in the care of Mrs. Lindhall until the murder victim’s relatives could be notified. Stacey didn’t have much luck finding people home in most of the tiny frame-and-stucco houses that had been built in the mid- and late-twenties.
At one house, a wizened, ancient man in a walker had answered her knock and, when asked about Darlene Brantley, he snarled, “I don’t know or care to know any of my neighbors.” He slammed the door in her face.
The corner house at the end of the block, which was much larger than the others, had a chain link fence around the yard. Several laughing preschoolers crawled upon, slid down, or swung on play equipment, pausing to stare at Stacey as she entered through the gate.
A woman on the porch, with a fat toddler astraddle a denim-clad, plump hip, greeted her with a friendly, “Hi.”
Stacey climbed the steps. “Hello, I’m Officer Wilbur, and I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Sure, go ahead.” A crease appeared between the wide set eyes of the young woman as she absently pulled a strand of her long, dark hair out of the baby’s fist.
“Are you acquainted with Darlene Brantley?”
The frown deepened. “Something has happened to Darlene, right? I knew it. It isn’t like her not to let me know when she isn’t bringing the kids. So, what is it? Did she have a wreck in that old clunker of hers? The babies – they’re not hurt, I hope.”
Stacey held up a hand for silence. “The children are fine. I hate to be the one to tell you, but Mrs. Brantley has been murdered.”
The woman gasped. “Oh, no! Who did it? A burglar, or some sex maniac? One of her boyfriends, maybe?”
“I’m afraid we don’t know yet, Mrs.…ah?” Stacey poised her pen over her notebook.
“Schneider, Mrs. Donald. Just call me Anne. Is there anything I can do? Take care of the kids, maybe?” Anne backed into a canvas chair and plopped down, settling the toddler onto the porch. The tot dropped on her diapered bottom beside a pile of toys.
“We have to contact her relatives. Do you know any of them?”
“Sure, her mom, Myrtle Bender. Oh, boy, she’ll be positively devastated. And what about Darlene’s ex, Charles. Has he been told?”
“Someone is calling him. How well do you know Mr. Brantley?”
Shrugging, Anne pulled her sweater around her. Though it was April, the ocean fog hung close to shore, keeping the weather cool and damp in the small beach community. “Charles? I know him pretty well. He’s okay. Sometimes he picks up the kids for the weekend.”
“You mentioned boyfriends. Anyone special?”
“Well, not really. Darlene liked to party and she’d bring guys home. Bet it was one of them who killed her. I warned her it wasn’t just AIDS she needed to worry about if she slept with guys she didn’t know.”
“Did you ever meet any of her dates?”
“No, she just liked to tell me about them. There was a Lance, and Brick, and Skip. They all sort of sounded alike, self-centered, irresponsible, good-looking hunks. You know the type.”
One of the children in the yard fell off the steps to the slide and cried out in pain. Anne jumped to her feet and bolted down the stairs. She paused briefly. “Sorry. Got to see what’s happened. Don’t really know anything else anyway.” Running to the child, she scooped him into her arms and soothed him.
“Thank you, Mrs. Schneider, you’ve been most helpful.”
When Stacey returned to the murder victim’s home, the coroner’s wagon was parked in the driveway. A red Toyota truck careened around the corner and screeched to a halt the wrong way on the opposite side of the street. A slim man in his late twenties or early thirties leapt from the cab and dashed toward the house. By the stricken expression on his face, Stacey guessed he might be the victim’s ex-husband. They reached the open front door at the same time.
He grabbed Stacey’s arm. Behind tinted glasses, his dark eyes searched her face. “I’m Charles Brantley. Someone called my office and said something happened to my ex-wife. Where is she? Where are my kids?”
“Your children are fine, Mr. Brantley. They’re with the neighbor, Mrs. Lindhall. But your Mrs. Brantley…I’m sorry.”
Brantley scowled. “I…I…don’t understand. She wasn’t sick. Was there an accident?”
Curious bystanders had begun to gather on the sidewalk. Stacey kept her voice low as she said, “You’ll have to talk to the detective in charge.”
He swallowed a sob and his eyes filled with tears. “Oh, God, she’s dead, isn’t she? I warned her something terrible might happen if she continued hanging out in bars.”
“Please, step inside, Mr. Brantley. Detective Milligan will speak with you.” She motioned for him to go ahead of her. Brantley, obviously shaken, stumbled past.
“Detective Milligan,” Stacey announced, “this is the deceased’s husband, Charles Brantley.”
“Ex-husband,” he said quickly, “we’ve been divorced for over six months, and separated even longer.”
Photographs had been taken of the crime scene. Officers bustled in and out of rooms, while two men from the county coroner’s office from Ventura were bent over the body.
Detective Milligan faced the new arrivals. Though Stacey had a self-imposed rule to never date fellow police officers, she might make an exception for Doug Milligan if he ever asked her out. Tall, with broad shoulders, dark brown hair closely cropped, and sporting a mustache like almost all of his male co-workers, he had a sincerity and gentleness about him that appealed to her. He smiled often and easily and, when he did, deep dimples appeared in his tanned cheeks.
Milligan wasn’t smiling at the moment, though sympathy showed in his expression as he shook hands with Brantley. “It’s rough, I know. Would you mind identifying her for us?” Without waiting for an answer, the detective stepped aside so the man could see his former wife’s body.
Stacey took a long look, for the first time noticing the victim had been attractive with lots of curly blonde hair, probably no taller than she was, with far more bosom and wider hips. Charles Brantley stared at the corpse, moaned, sniffed, and smacked his fist against the palm of his hand. “Damn, I’d like to get my hands on the monster who did this to her.”
Milligan placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t have any idea who might have been with her last night, would you?”
“No. I don’t think she had a steady boyfriend, only a series of one-night stands. I didn’t meet any of them.” Charles stared away from the body. “I told her it was no way to be bringing up our children.”
“What about them? Have you any plans for their immediate care, Mr. Brantley?” Milligan asked. “I’m sure Officer Wilbur could give you some leads if there is a…”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary. My mother will be happy to care for them. Would it be possible for me to pack some of their clothes?” Brantley took a tentative step toward the back of the house.
Before Milligan could answer, Stacey asked, “What about the victim’s mother?” She glanced inside her notebook to refresh her memory. “Myrtle Bender.”
“She needs to be told, of course, but my mother is far better suited to care for my children. I’m afraid Mrs. Bender is almost as wild as Darlene. She wouldn’t have time for them,” Brantley said.
The thought crossed Stacey’s mind that Mrs. Bender would be a strange sort of grandmother if she chose her social life over the needs of her grandchildren, though she realized not all women were as thrilled with being grandparents as her own mother. Caring for Stacey’s four-year-old son, Davey, seemed to be one of her greatest pleasures.
Detective Milligan broke into her thoughts. “That’s a good assignment for you, Wilbur. Locate the victim’s mother. Break the news about her daughter. Maybe she’ll have some thoughts about who did it.”
Terrific. What a ghastly chore. Stacey groaned inwardly. She obtained Mrs. Bender’s home and work address from Brantley. As she was about to leave, Detective Milligan called after her, “Bring me your report when you’re done, okay? And, by the way, Lieutenant Strickland mentioned he wanted to see you some time today.”
She nodded and headed toward her car. Lieutenant Strickland was in charge of community relations. He often called upon Stacey to make speeches to the less prestigious civic organizations and women’s groups, meet with the neighborhood watch programs, and do most of the school visits. If the event was scheduled during her regular shift, Stacey didn’t mind, but often she was required to speak on her day off or in the evening. Besides receiving no extra pay for the duty, it sometimes took her away from what little time she had with her son.
But it wouldn’t look good on her record if she turned the lieutenant down. Hoping the assignment wasn’t for later in the evening because she’d promised Davey she’d take him to the latest Disney movie, she drove off to seek the address given to her by Mr. Brantley for his ex-mother-in-law.
Thursday, 7:30 A.M.
Felix Zachary held his service revolver with both hands and aimed it between the eyes of the advancing mad man. There was no doubt that Felix’s target was a notorious cop killer. The suspect brandished a sawed-off shotgun, the same weapon He’d used to kill Felix’s buddies. There was no time for Felix to do anything but squeeze the trigger. But when he did, the gun didn’t fire. His opponent’s gun exploded in Felix’s face and he screamed in terror.
“Darling, wake up! You’re having that nightmare again.” Felix’s wife, Wendy, leaned over him, a shimmer of golden hair falling against his mahogany shoulder as she shook him awake.
“Damn!” Felix sat up. His heart hammered in his chest. He felt damp from sweating.
Wendy kissed him. He could smell her spicy perfume and peppermint toothpaste. “Are you going to be okay? I don’t like leaving you like this, but I can’t be late. I hate having so little time to spend together.” She was a second grade teacher at Pinion Street School. Felix had been recently assigned to the four-to-midnight shift, which left little time to be with his wife.
“Yeah, sure, I’m fine.” He reached over the side of the waterbed and rummaged in his pants’ pocket for a pack of cigarettes. Finding it, he stuck a filter tip into his mouth and lit it with the throwaway lighter from the same pocket.
“Felix, must you?” Wendy moaned, hurt in her pale blue eyes. “I was so proud when you quit smoking last year.”
“What the hell does it matter? The chances of me reaching old age are slim anyway.” He regretted his harshness immediately, though not quite enough to apologize.
“Goodness, what a terrible thing to say. That’s not true and you know it.” She didn’t continue her argument. Instead, she gave him one last pleading look intended to make him put out the cigarette, kissed him on the forehead, turned on her sensible two-inch heels, and disappeared down the hall of their new condominium.
Though the carpeting muffled her footsteps, Felix knew she was hurrying down the stairs, would retrieve her purse and briefcase from the dining room table where she always placed them the night before, and step through the kitchen to the door into the garage where her five-year-old Honda sat next to his much older but in nearly perfect condition Jaguar.
Felix plumped the pillow behind him and tried to relax against it as he blew out a thick stream of smoke. He wondered if any of his fellow officers ever had bad dreams. If they did, they’d never mentioned them. Hell, it wasn’t the kind of thing you discussed with your buddies. He thought about his friend, Abel Navarro, who’d gotten the promotion Felix had been in line for until the shooting.
Nothing seemed to bother Navarro, or Stacey Wilbur. Despite being the only female officer on the Rocky Bluff Police Department, Stacey always managed to keep her cool.
Damn it. Why the hell couldn’t he rid himself of the guilt? No one blamed him for killing that kid. After all, he thought the suspect was reaching for a weapon when Felix shot him. It had only taken Internal Affairs three days to clear him. Why did he keep feeling so bad about it? Worse still, it was affecting his sex life.
It was just as well he didn’t see much of Wendy. He didn’t have any urges at all. He’d get over it, like anything else. It couldn’t last forever. Felix took one last drag on the cigarette before mashing it out in the brass ashtray on the night stand.
He punched the pillow and flopped over on his belly, causing the water in the mattress to slosh. Closing his eyes, he prayed the gentle movement would put him back to sleep, and there would be no more dreams.
Abel Navarro had no difficulty figuring out who the reporting party had been. As soon as he turned down the street, he saw a woman in her early fifties standing at the open gate leading to a modest frame house, peering anxiously up and down the street. A blue-and-white police unit was parked at the curb. Abel could see a uniformed officer farther down the street, peeking under a bush as he made his search of the neighborhood. Because of the man’s dark red hair, Abel knew it was Officer Gordon Butler.
Having heard the missing child call when it came in, Abel decided to check on the progress of the search for himself. He never could get used to a crime where a child was involved. He hoped this would turn out to be a simple “lost child quickly found” incident. After parking his car behind the other one, Abel climbed out. Perhaps because his was an ordinary sedan, and he wore a light tan sport jacket over a beige shirt and dark brown slacks, the woman frowned at his approach.
While displaying the badge and identification in his wallet, Abel quickly introduced himself. “I’m Sergeant Navarro, ma’am. Just stopped by to see how things are going here.”
“Oh, Sergeant, thank goodness you’re here. I’m Betty Earlimont. I’m so upset I just don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” Abel spoke in a soothing tone, and as he listened to her story, absently smoothed his neat black mustache with a forefinger.
“I only left her for a few minutes.” Mrs. Earlimont glanced back at the front porch of her house. “My little niece and I…she’s my grandniece really…were going shopping and the phone rang.”
“Your niece is how old?” Abel asked.
“Kelly is only two.”
One year younger than his own daughter, Lupita. “Tell me what happened.”
The woman stepped back inside the yard and headed for the steps. “I let go of her hand to go back inside, and Kelly ran right over to that mud.” She pointed to a rose bush growing alongside the three-foot tall, white picket fence with a small puddle beneath it.
“Of course I told her to stay away from the mud, and she nodded her head, but she squatted down beside it just as I went inside. The phone call was from Kelly’s mother, Rhonda. She just wanted to tell me she wasn’t feeling well and planned to come home early to pick up Kelly.” Mrs. Earlimont sighed, and turned toward Abel. He could see tears glistening in her eyes.
“When I came back outside, I couldn’t find Kelly anywhere. At first I thought she was just hiding. She loves to play hide ’n seek. But I looked everywhere. I even promised her a double decker ice cream cone if she’d come out.” Mrs. Earlimont’s voice cracked.
“Was the gate closed?” Abel asked, knowing his own daughter, given the opportunity, would certainly use any available opportunity to explore the neighborhood.
The woman hung her head. “No, but I don’t remember leaving it open. I’m very careful about keeping it fastened when I’m taking care of Kelly.”
“Perhaps she opened it herself.”
“No, my husband moved the latch up where she couldn’t reach it.” Mrs. Earlimont dug in the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a wrinkled tissue to wipe her nose.
Abel felt his first twinges of uneasiness. “Did you see any strangers around the neighborhood either before or after you realized Kelly was missing?”
“No, no one except the Carpenters’ gardener.” She pointed across the street where a tiny, Japanese man used wicked-looking shears to lop off unruly pieces of an evergreen bush. “I’ve already talked to him. He didn’t see her.”
“What about the neighbors?”
“Everyone is gone during the day except me. I used to work, had my own beauty shop, but my kids are all gone now, and we don’t really need the extra money. When my niece asked me if I’d take care of Kelly, I jumped at the chance. It was boring being home all day without much to do. I’ve been her babysitter since she was six weeks old.” She swallowed a sob. “Rhonda will probably find another babysitter now.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Have you told your niece what’s going on?” Abel asked. Since his mother babysat Lupita every day while he and his wife, Maria, worked, he knew he’d want to be informed immediately if something happened to his child.
Another guilty cast clouded Mrs. Earlimont’s eyes. “Not yet…I didn’t want to alarm her unnecessarily.”
“Maybe it would be a good idea if you called her now,” Abel suggested.
“Surely Kelly has just wandered into someone’s backyard.”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s likely what’s happened, but I think her parents need to know.” Unbidden, his mind began listing all the horrible crimes that are committed on children. He shook his head to rid himself of the dark thoughts.
Almost as though she’d read his mind, the woman’s eyes widened, tears threatening again. “Maybe someone…” She whirled around, hurrying up the stairs.
Abel followed her into the house. “When you’ve done that, perhaps you can give me a recent picture of Kelly.”
Mrs. Earlimont pointed to a framed 5 x 8 sitting in a place of honor on top of a large screen television. A plump and dimpled toddler with bright red curls smiled at Abel. As soon as Mrs. Earlimont got off the phone, Able planned to find out what the child had been wearing. He’d put in a call to the department for more help to search for her. He’d find Officer Butler and see if he’d found any clues as to the child’s whereabouts. Later he’d contact the media and have them display Kelly’s picture. It would be easy enough to cancel in the event the child was located soon. If Lupita was missing, Abel knew he’d want everything possible to be done to find her.