Lott and Sybil Newborne are unique private investigators. They are not brilliant, or even particularly perceptive. Lott Newborne, a retired Chief of Homicide and current member of a Twelve Step group, is no Nick Charles: he often misses or misinterprets evidence that the reader recognizes to be a clue. Meanwhile, his wife Sybil is an ardent fan of such classic detectives as Holmes, Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan but, when she applies their methods to real life murder cases, those tactics continually fail.
MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES
AUTOPSY OF A MARRIAGE
[280 pages; 96,500 words; c 2002]
The best amateur sleuth here is the reader. Each major suspect claims to know the identity of the killer, and each of them is wrong. Only the reader witnesses the whereabouts of key suspects on the Monday of the first murder; only the reader senses the significance of a missing corpse’s keys, or of a car being towed from a parking lot; and ultimately only the reader is privy to whodunit and why.
[Key Suspects in this Chapter]
Kay Beck: She held the key to a deadly mystery.
Grub Camford: With a titanium stud for each skeleton in his closet,
he had more piercings than Saint Sebastian.
Fern Butler: Grub's sister wanted a baby … in the worst way.
Gordon Passage: He vowed he would no longer be treated like a
Dr. Svitzer: Nothing about him was genuine, except his
Todd Hill: His Art Deco knife was versatile, but he who
lives by the sword….
Leah Caffrey: She acted as if she were invisible, and then she
Apartment 5-A: This husband slept alone in the guestroom, with a
Big Ben & Noah: Members of a Twelve Step Program.
Kay Beck answered the phones in Repairs at Henley Motors, and settled bills with the customers before returning their car keys. Her thick brown hair was shapelessly held in place by glass-studded plastic barrettes. No other accessories adorned her small ears or fleshy neck. She wore her usual jeans and a black sweatshirt. But also an oversized navy cardigan, to combat the freezing air from the open garage.
Her desk phone rang. It was Grub Camford, for the third time today. A hydraulic drill whined behind her, loosening lugs. “What is it this time?” she said to him.
“Just let me stop by for a while,” he answered. “I won’t bother you, I promise.”
“You can’t,” Kay stalled, almost drowned out by the drill. “I’m working.”
“You know I won’t stay. Tonight’s my twelve-step meeting. It’s a long, cold walk to Holderlin Hall.”
“I don’t drive a car either, Grub. I can’t give you a ride.”
“I just want to be with you. See you. To think about you while I walk.”
“Grub, you shouldn’t talk that way.”
“Because of my sister?”
“Grub, stop it.”
Big Ben Henley stood next to Kay Beck. The owner of Henley Motors was fifty-seven the hard way. He shaved his head bald, though dark roots formed shadows around the sides. And his body hair was white, except in a patch at his lower back that was visible whenever he bent over. Henley moved closer to Kay’s desk, protectively, but she brushed him aside.
“Then can I stop by your apartment, maybe later?” Grub Camford persisted.
“I don’t think so, Grub. Thanks anyway.”
“Well. I guess that’s the end of it, then.”
“We can’t end what never started,” she told him flatly. As she hung up the phone, Kay knew that was not the end of it. Grub would show up at her doorstep again tonight.
“It’s Camford again, right?” Big Ben Henley said. He clamped an unlit cigar in his thick fingers, as he flexed his heavy frame. “If you want, I can … talk with him.”
“Grub’s all right,” Kay said nervously. “His sister Fern screwed us both over, and … well, you know all that already. Right now, I’m more bummed about Fern than I am about him. I … I guess I just need some time to myself.”
“Take all the time you want.” Big Ben checked the wall clock. Its smudged face read twenty past three. “Starting now. Go home.”
“I say you should.”
“Thanks then, Benny, I will,” said Kay. “I’ll be better by tomorrow. I promise.”
Kay Beck’s bus left her off at the Versailles Super Food. It was directly across the street from her apartment building, the Lasley Plaza. Before crossing the street to the Lasley, she decided to buy some groceries. The Versailles parking lot was vast and crowded. The air was invisible ice.
Inside, she passed a bubbling tank of languid lobsters. A heavyset man with a comb-over studied the tank, as if it were a computer screen.
Beyond him, Kay Beck recognized one of her Henley Motors customers. Who was it—Spritzer? Schnitzel? Anyway, doctor something.
Dr. Something stood stiff, between stacks of apples and oranges. He looked soberly over his shoulder toward his left, and appeared to be mumbling. Next to him stood a second man, who stared into space toward his right and appeared to nod. This second fellow held Kay Beck’s attention. That snazzy open topcoat and expensive red shirt—they wouldn’t last twenty minutes at Henley’s garage. And no guy in blue pin-stripe suspenders would survive Big Ben Henley’s macho jibes.
The large man with the comb-over bumped his cart against her leg. He apologized, with a mix of sincerity and irony. But Kay Beck didn’t look at his face. She had finally remembered her customer’s name, and now chose to say hello to him.
“Doctor?” said Kay Beck with a smile. “Dr. Svitzer? It is you, isn’t it!”
B. Ogden Svitzer blocked Kay’s view of the man who wore fancy clothes. Todd Hill hurried off toward the front of the store, but paused briefly to look back.
“I’m Kay. Kay Beck. You bring your car in, to Henley Motors.”
“Of course!” Svitzer said. He pocketed an envelope, and wiped perspiration from his hands. “Fancy running into you here!”
“I live just across the street!” Kay said loudly—or perhaps she sounded loud only to Svitzer. “From the top floor I have a great view … of the Versailles parking lot!”
Todd Hill took one last look at the woman who’d interfered. Then he made a wide path around the big shopper with the comb-over.
“How nice for you. Yes,” Svitzer said nervously. His smile for Kay Beck was both blank and somewhat stony. “Quite a … cold spell we’re having,” he ventured.
“Good for business, Doctor? I know it’s good for ours down at the body shop.”
“Yes,” stammered Svitzer. At last Todd Hill was nowhere in sight. “Yes, it is.”
Todd Hill still glanced over his shoulder, as he walked ahead.
Near the oversized windows at the front of the store, he bumped into a woman. She grabbed at the carpal brace on her arm. Hill mumbled something rude, then sped on through the Versailles’ electronic doors.
Leah Caffrey gazed out through the window again. She thought she saw someone out there, looking back inside. Maybe the man who’d just now bumped into her?
Before she could see for certain, the man was gone.
The man with the comb-over headed to the checkout aisles. Still seething from this noon’s fracas with Leah Caffrey, he fought an urge to aim his shopping car cart at her.
* * *
At twenty-eight minutes past four, Kay Beck crossed the street to the Lasley Plaza. The building’s Super, Noah Chandler, was sweeping up pieces of blue glass from the doorway. He stepped aside so Kay could pass.
“Someone break into the building?” she asked, near the mailboxes.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Chandler replied. He pointed to the shards at their feet. “The broken glass is on the outside, on the pavement.”
“That’s odd. Somebody broke the little windows from inside the lobby?” Kay frowned. “And look. So much blood!”
“Door was kicked, too. Broke the lock. Some mess.”
“Yes, I guess so!” said Kay with hollow interest.
The elevator at the far end of the lobby was closing. She cursed as she heard its slow ascent. Either she’d have to lug her plastic grocery bags up five flights, or wait for the elevator to make its slow return. She buzzed, to speed it back to her.
First floor. The elevator button buzzed. Someone down in the lobby. But no, that couldn’t interrupt what now was happening. The difficulty breathing. The pain that inflamed both arms. Pressure that tensed the upper chest. The obstinacy of slow suffocation was too intimate to ignore.
Second floor. Time passed impersonally in the vibrating elevator. Dulling senses registered that it elapsed. The struggle to catch air in the lungs required full attention. At last! The victory of a deep inward gasp! But the hint of new air stuck, sharp as a fish bone, in the ribs.
“Blood and broken glass is easy to fix,” the Super informed Kay Beck. “But this door lock here, well that’s another story. I can’t replace it till … I dunno … maybe tomorrow afternoon.”
“Relax, Mr. Chandler. The Lasley is the safest building in town!” Kay shrugged, adjusting her plastic grocery sacks. “Even with a busy supermarket across the street.”
Less patiently, she buzzed again for the elevator
Third floor. That buzzing noise. It was from somewhere else, outside the body. But inside, came a gurgle and then a rush.
A welcome swoon at last surged from beneath: soon it all would be over. A reflux spasm of bile collected at, then coated, the taut open throat. Eyes teared of their own accord. A flush of urine did not bloat into embarrassment. Toes felt cold, or merely went numb. Teeth clicked with a velocity that ached for the sake of aching.
Fourth floor. Need eased, relaxed tendons at the joints. Organs quickly took their turns … to shut down … and to cease.
No guilty conscience arose within these final moments.
No final epithet, nor construed vague revelation.
Death seeped naturally. It solidified, without compromise.
Noah Chandler packed his tools and headed for his apartment, down in the basement. “Heck of a cold spell,” he shared, to acknowledge his departure.
“Sure is,” Kay Beck said. She made a shivering sound for his benefit, and held her smile until Noah turned his back.
The prospect of climbing five flights of stairs was getting to her. She took out her frustration on the buzzer button.
Fifth floor. More buzzing as the elevator jiggled to a stop.
The body was no longer propped against the cage. It tumbled to the floor, as the inner door automatically slid open.
The outer door stayed closed.
The inner door slid back again, was blocked by a dead arm. The door retreated, thrust again, retreated, thrust again … against the bruise and blood it caused.
Kay Beck waited below, but the elevator did not return. She saw the overhead dial. The elevator had stopped at her floor (the top one, natch), but there it remained.
Resting her grocery packages at her feet, she buzzed the Up button, then heatedly buzzed it again.
A nasal buzz filled the elevator cage with urgency. Out in the hall a distant echo yelled, for the passenger to send the elevator back down.
But the sliding door, impeded, would not comply.
At length the corpse’s fingers clinked. They released a heavy ring of keys.
At last, the elevator started its decline back to the lobby. But it didn’t come straight down directly. It stopped first at four, slid open and closed its inner door; stopped next at three, slid open and closed its inner door; slid open and closed at two. Kay Beck couldn’t hear anyone getting on or off.
Finally the elevator approached the ground floor. Kay peered in through the small oblong window. As the cab descended, the white polished walls shifted perspective.
The inner door slid open, and Kay and her groceries were ready for it. Kay elbowed open the outer door, and wedged her way in with one foot.
The elevator car was empty.
The inner door closed automatically. Blood and flecks of scraped flesh on the inner door weren’t visible. Especially as Kay gazed blankly, straight ahead. Shiny whitish walls distorted her reflection. Kay Beck yawned.
The flooring of black rubber tile smelled of ammonia, and was still damp. The Super must have recently mopped. Probably cleaning up after whoever punched those vestibule windows. But Noah Chandler had missed some blood near the back of the cab. Kay Beck rested her plastic packages on them, without noticing.
The elevator jiggled upward with a jolt. Kay silently counted the floors as the cab ascended, to blunt the ammonia’s sting. Slow, slow, slowly the cabin arrived at the top floor with a smooth little bump. The inner door slid back to let Kay Beck leave. She lifted her blood-smudged groceries with one hand. The side of her shoe scuffed against the inner door. Flecks of flesh attached themselves, although Kay didn’t see.
Beyond the elevator’s outer door, the fifth floor hallway was painted a mocha cream. The doors to the six apartments were a darker brown. Lighting fixtures hung suspended from the ceiling like white salad bowls. Music blasted from the apartment to the right of the elevator. 5-A’s muffled baritone scaled the high notes of a Beatles tune. She recognized the song: “You Won’t See Me.”
The apartment door muted the lyrics, but Kay thought of Grub Camford anyway. With the front entrance broken downstairs, Grub could pop up at Kay’s place any time of the day or night. Had Kay bothered to lock her apartment this morning? She couldn’t remember. Often she left her door not fully shut. Half her neighbors did the same thing, when they went downstairs to get mail or to do laundry. Kay made a mental note: no more leaving her apartment not-quite-locked. For the next day or two, at least.
At the elevator’s left was a door with a wire-mesh window. It led to the roof. An icy draft shot down the empty stairs. Up on the roof—was that door broken, too? Yet another unchecked entry to her building?
Kay stepped toward her apartment at the far end of the hall. She heard something clink by her foot. She looked down to see. It was a heavy set of keys on a metal ring.
She recognized one key among the rest—Day-Glo blue. The initials “KB” were etched in a white plastic casing at the wide end.
It was the key to her own apartment.
Kay Beck scanned up and down the familiar hallway. The mesh-glass window still showed nothing on the stairs to the roof. And the baritone voice in 5-A wailed on, oblivious. Her apartment now looked a mile away.
Kay scooped up the ring of keys, and hurried down the echoing, empty hall.