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As dead people went, Bess Leander smelled pretty good: lavender, sage, and a hint of clove. There were seven Shaker chairs hung on pegs on the walls of the Leanders' dining room. The eighth was overturned under Bess, who hung from the peg by a calico cloth rope around her neck. Dried flowers, baskets of various shapes and sizes, and bundles of dried herbs hung from the open ceiling beams.
Theophilus Crowe knew he should be doing cop stuff, but he just stood there with two emergency medical technicians from the Pine Cove Fire Department, staring up at Bess as if they were inspecting the newly installed angel on a Christmas tree. Theo thought the pastel blue of Bess's skin went nicely with her cornflower-blue dress and the patterns of the English china displayed on simple wooden shelves at the end of the room. It was 7 A.M. and Theo, as usual was a little stoned.
Theo could hear sobs coming from upstairs, where Joseph Leander held his two daughters, who were still in their nightgowns. There was no evidence of a masculine presence anywhere in the house. It was Country Cute: bare pine floors and bent willow baskets, flowers and rag dolls and herb-flavored vinegars in blown-glass bottles; Shaker antiques, copper kettles, embroidery samplers, spinning wheels, lace doilies, and porcelain placards with prayers from the Dutch. Not a sports page or remote control in sight. Not a thing out of place or a speck of dust anywhere. Joseph Leander must have walked very light to live in this house without leaving tracks. A man less sensitive than Theo might have called him whipped.
"That guy's whipped," one of the EMTs said. His name was Vance McNally. He was fifty-one, short and muscular, and wore his hair slicked back with oil, just as he had in high school. Occasionally, in his capacity as an EMT, he saved lives, which was his rationalization for being a dolt the rest of the time.
"He just found his wife hanging in the dining room, Vance," Theo pronounced over the heads of the EMTs. He was six-foot-six, and even in his flannel shirt and sneakers he could loom large when he needed to assert some authority.
"She looks like Raggedy Ann," said Mike, the other EMT, who was in his early twenties and excited to be on his first suicide call.
"I heard she was Amish," Vance said.
"She's not Amish," Theo said.
"I didn't say she was Amish, I just said I heard that. I figured she wasn't Amish when I saw the blender in the kitchen. Amish don't believe in blenders, do they?"
"Mennonite," Mike said with as much authority as his junior status would afford.
"What's a Mennonite?" Vance asked.
"Amish with blenders."
"She wasn't Amish," Theo said.
"She looks Amish," Vance said.
"Well, her husband's not Amish," Mike said.
"How can you tell?" Vance said. "He has a beard."
"Zipper on his jacket," Mike said. "Amish don't have zippers."
Vance shook his head. "Mixed marriages. They never work."
"She wasn't Amish!" Theo shouted.
"Think what you want, Theo, there's a butter chum in the living room. I think that says it all."
Mike rubbed at a mark on the wall beneath Bess's feet where her black buckled shoes had scraped as she convulsed.
"Don't touch anything," Theo said.
"Why? She can't yell at us, she's dead. We wiped our feet on the way in," Vance said.
Mike stepped away from the wall. "Maybe she couldn't stand anything touching her floors. Hanging was the only way."
Not to be outdone by the detective work of his protégé, Vance said, "You know, the sphincters usually open up on a hanging victim--leave an awful mess. I'm wondering if she actually hanged herself."
"Shouldn't we call the police?" Mike said.
"I am the police," Theo said. He was Pine Cove's only constable, duly elected eight years ago and reelected every other year thereafter.
"No, I mean the real police," Mike said.
"I'll radio the sheriff," Theo said. "I don't think there's anything you can do here, guys. Would you mind calling Pastor Williams from the Presbyterian church to come over? I need to talk to Joseph and I need someone to stay with the girls."
"They were Presbyterians?" Vance seemed shocked. He had really put his heart into the Amish theory.
"Please call," Theo said. He left the EMTs and went out through the kitchen to his Volvo, where he switched the radio over to the frequency used by the San Junipero Sheriff's Department, then sat there staring at the mike. He was going to catch hell from Sheriff Burton for this.
"North Coast is yours, Theo. All yours," the sheriff had said. My deputies will pick up suspects, answer robbery calls, and let the Highway Patrol investigate traffic accidents on Highway 1, that's it. Otherwise, you keep them out of Pine Cove and your little secret stays secret." Theo was forty-one years old and he still felt as if he was hiding from the junior high vice principal, laying low. Things like this weren't supposed to happen in Pine Cove. Nothing happened in Pine Cove.
He took a quick hit from his Sneaky Pete smokeless pot pipe before keying the mike and calling in the deputies.
Joseph Leander sat on the edge of the bed. He'd changed out of his pajamas into a blue business suit, but his thinning hair was still sticking out in sleep horns on the side. He was thirty-five, sandy-haired, thin but working on a paunch that strained the buttons of his vest. Theo sat across from him on a chair, holding a notepad. They could hear the sheriff's deputies moving around downstairs.
"I can't believe she'd do this," Joseph said.
Theo reached over and squeezed the grieving husband's bicep. "I'm really sorry, Joe. She didn't say anything that would indicate she was thinking about doing something like this?"
Joseph shook his head without looking up. "She was getting better. Val had given her some pills and she seemed to be getting better."
"She was seeing Valerie Riordan?" Theo asked. Valerie was Pine Cove's only clinical psychiatrist. "Do you know what kind of pills?"
"Zoloft," Joseph said. "I think it's an antidepressant."
Theo wrote down the name of the drug on his notepad. "Then Bess was depressed?"
"No, she just had this cleaning thing. Everything had to be cleaned every day. She'd clean something, then go back five minutes later and clean it again. She was making life miserable for the girls and me. She'd make us take our shoes and socks off, then wash our feet in a basin before we came into the house. But she wasn't depressed."
Theo wrote down "crazy" on his notepad. "When was the last time Bess went to see Val?"
"Maybe six weeks ago. When she first got the pills. She really seemed to be doing better. She even left the dishes in the sink overnight once. I was proud of her."
"Where are her pills, Joseph?"
"Medicine cabinet." Joseph gestured to the bathroom.
Theo excused himself and went to the bathroom. The brown prescription bottle was the only thing in the medicine cabinet other than disinfectants and some Q-Tips. The bottle was about half-full. "I'm going to take these with me," Theo said, pocketing the pills. "The sheriff's deputies are going to ask you some of these same questions, Joseph. You just tell them what you told me, okay?
Joseph nodded. "I think I should be with the girls."
"Just a bit longer, okay? I'll send up the deputy in charge."
Theo heard a car start outside and went to the window to see an ambulance pulling away, the lights and siren off. Bess Leander's body riding off to the morgue. He turned back to Joseph. "Call me if you need anything. I'm going to go talk to Val Riordan."
Joseph stood up. "Theo, don't tell anyone that Bess was on antidepressants. She didn't want anyone to know. She was ashamed."
"I won't. Call me if you need me." Theo left the room. A sharply dressed plainclothes deputy met him at the bottom of the steps. Theo saw by the badge on his belt that he was a detective sergeant.
"You're Crowe. John Voss." He extended his hand and Theo shook it. "We're supposed to take it from here," Voss said. "What have you got?"
Theo was at once relieved and offended. Sheriff Burton was going to push him off the case without even talking to him. "No note," Theo said. "I called you guys ten minutes after I got the call. Joseph said she wasn't depressed, but she was on medication. He came downstairs to have breakfast and found her."
"Did you look around?" Voss asked. "This place has been scoured. There isn't a smudge or a spot anywhere. It's like someone cleaned up the scene."
"She did that," Theo said. "She was a clean freak."
Voss scoffed. "She cleaned the house, then hung herself? Please."
Theo shrugged. He really didn't like this cop stuff. "I'm going to go talk to her psychiatrist. I'll let you know what she says."
"Don't talk to anybody, Crowe. This is my investigation."
Theo smiled. "Okay. But she hung herself and that's all there is. Don't make it into anything it's not. The family is in pretty bad shape."
"I'm a professional," Voss said, throwing it like an insult, implying that Theo was just dicking around in law enforcement, which, in a way, he was.
"Did you check out the Amish cult angle?" Theo asked, trying to keep a straight face. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten-high today.
"Right, you're the pro," Theo said. "I forgot." And he walked out of the house.
In the Volvo, Theo pulled the thin Pine Cove phone directory out of the glove compartment and was looking up Dr. Valerie Riordan's number when a call came in on the radio. Fight at the Head of the Slug Saloon. It was 8:30 A.M.
It was rumored among the regulars at the Head of the Slug that under Mavis Sand's slack, wrinkled, liver-spotted skin lay the gleaming metal skeleton of a Terminator. Mavis first began augmenting her parts in the fifties, first out of vanity: breasts, eyelashes, hair. Later, as she aged and the concept of maintenance eluded her, she began having parts replaced as they failed, until almost half of her body weight was composed of stainless steel (hips, elbows, shoulders, finger joints, rods fused to vertebrae five through twelve), silicon wafers (hearing aids, pacemaker, insulin pump), advanced polymer resins (cataract replacement lenses, dentures), Kevlar fabric (abdominal wall reinforcement), titanium (knees, ankles), and pork (ventricular heart valve). In fact, if not for the pig valve, Mavis would have jumped classes directly from animal to mineral, without the traditional stop at vegetable taken by most. The more inventive drunks at the Slug (little more than vegetables themselves) swore that sometimes, between songs on the jukebox, one could hear tiny but powerful servomotors whirring Mavis around behind the bar. Mavis was careful never to crush a beer can or move a full keg in plain sight of the customers lest she feed the rumors and ruin her image of girlish vulnerability.
When Theo entered the Head of the Slug, he saw ex-scream-queen Molly Michon on the floor with her teeth locked into the calf of a gray-haired man who was screeching like a mashed cat. Mavis stood over them both, brandishing her Louisville Slugger, ready to belt one of them out of the park.
"Theo," Mavis shrilled, "you got ten seconds to get this wacko out of my bar before I brain her."
"No, Mavis." Theo raced forward and knocked Mavis's bat aside while reaching into his back pocket for his handcuffs. He pried Molly's hands from around the man's ankle and shackled them behind her back. The gray-haired man's screams hit a higher pitch.
Theo got down on the floor and spoke into Molly's ear. "Let go, Molly. You've got to let go of the man's leg."
An animal sound emanated from Molly's throat and bubbled out through blood and saliva.
Theo stroked her hair out of her face. "I can't fix the problem if you don't tell me what it is, Molly. I can't understand you with that guy's leg in your mouth."
"Stand back, Theo," Mavis said. "I'm going to brain her."
Theo waved Mavis away. The gray-haired man screamed even louder.
"Hey!" Theo shouted. "Pipe down. I'm trying to have a conversation here."
The gray-haired man lowered his volume.
"Molly, look at me."
Theo saw a blue eye look away from the leg and the bloodlust faded from it. He had her back. "That's right, Molly. It's me, Theo. Now what's the problem?"
She spit out the man's leg and turned to look at Theo. Mavis helped the man to a bar stool. "Get her out of here," Mavis said. "She's eighty-sixed. This time forever."
Theo kept his eyes locked on Molly's. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. Bloody drool was running down her chin. Theo grabbed a bar napkin and wiped it away, careful to keep his fingers away from her mouth.
"I'm going to help you up now and we're going to go outside and talk about this, okay?"
Molly nodded and Theo picked her up by the shoulders, set her on her feet, and steered her toward the door. He looked over his shoulder at the bitten man. "You okay? You need a doctor?"
"I didn't do anything to her. I've never seen that woman before in my life. I just stopped in for a drink."
Theo looked at Mavis for confirmation. "He hit on her," Mavis said. "But that's no excuse. A girl should appreciate the attention." She turned and batted her spiderlike false eyelashes at the bitten man. "I could show you some appreciation, sweetie."
The bitten man looked around in a panic. "No, I'm fine. No doctor. I'm just fine. My wife's waiting for me."
"As long as you're okay," Theo said. "And you don't want to press charges or anything?"
"No, just a misunderstanding. Soon as you get her out of here, I'll be heading out of town."
There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the regulars who had been placing side bets on who Mavis would hit with her bat.
"Thanks," Theo said. He shot Mavis a surreptitious wink and led Molly out to the street, excusing himself and his prisoner as they passed an old Black man who was coming through the door carrying a guitar case.
"I 'spose a man run outta sweet talk and liquor, he gots to go to mo' di-rect measures," the old Black man said to the bar with a dazzling grin. "Someone here lookin fo' a Bluesman?"
Theo put Molly into the passenger side of the Volvo. She sat with her head down, her great mane of gray-streaked blonde hair hanging in her face. She wore an oversized green sweater, tights, and high-top sneakers, one red, one blue. She could have been thirty or fifty--and she told Theo a different age every time he picked her up.
Theo went around the car and climbed in. He said, "You know, Molly, when you bite a guy on the leg, you're right on the edge of 'a danger to others or yourself,' you know that?"
She nodded and sniffled. A tear dropped out of the mass of hair and spotted her sweater.
"Before I start driving, I need to know that you're calmed down. Do I need to put you in the backseat?"
"It wasn't a fit," Molly said. "I was defending myself. He wanted a piece of me." She lifted her head and turned to Theo, but her hair still covered her face.
"Are you taking your drugs?"
"Meds, they call them meds."
"Sorry," Theo said. "Are you taking your meds?"
"Wipe your hair out of your face, Molly, I can barely understand you."
"Handcuffs, whiz kid."
Theo almost slapped his forehead: idiot! He really needed to stop getting stoned on the job. He reached up and carefully brushed her hair away from her face. The expression he found there was one of bemusement.
"You don't have to be so careful. I don't bite."
Theo smiled. "Well, actually ..."
"Oh fuck you. You going to take me to County?"
"I'll just be back in seventy-two and the milk in my refrigerator will be spoiled."
"Then I'd better take you home."
He started the car and circled the block to head back to the Fly Rod Trailer Court. He would have taken a back way if he could, to save Molly some embarrassment, but the Fly Rod was right off Cypress, Pine Cove's main street. As they passed the bank, people getting out of their cars turned to stare. Molly made faces at them out the window.
"That doesn't help, Molly."
"Fuck 'em. Fans just want a piece of me. I can give 'em that. I've got my soul."
"Mighty generous of you."
"If you weren't a fan, I wouldn't let you do this."
"Well, I am. Huge fan." Actually, he'd never heard of her until the first time he was called to take her away from H.P.'s Cafe, where she had attacked the espresso machine because it wouldn't quit staring at her.
"No one understands. Everyone takes a piece of you, then there's nothing left for you. Even the meds take a piece of you. Do you have any idea what I'm talking about here?"
Theo looked at her. "I have such a mind-numbing fear of the future that the only way I can function at all is with equal amounts of denial and drugs."
"Jeez, Theo, you're really fucked up."
"You can't go around saying crazy shit like that."
"I don't normally. It's been a tough day so far."
He turned into the Fly Rod Trailer Court: twenty run-down trailers perched on the bank of Santa Rosa Creek, which carried only a trickle of water after the long, dry summer. A grove of cypress trees hid the trailer park from the main street and the view of passing tourists. The chamber of commerce had made the owner of the park take down the sign at the entrance. The Fly Rod was a dirty little secret for Pine Cove, and they kept it well.
Theo stopped in front of Molly's trailer, a vintage fifties single-wide with small louvered windows and streaks of rust running from the roof. He got Molly out of the car and took off the handcuffs.
Theo said, "I'm going to see Val Riordan. You want me to have her call something in to the pharmacy for you?"
"No, I've got my meds. I don't like 'em, but I got 'em." She rubbed her wrists. "Why you going to see Val? You going nuts?"
"Probably, but this is business. You going to be okay now?"
"I have to study my lines."
"Right." Theo started to go, then turned. "Molly, what were you doing at the Slug at eight in the morning?"
"How should I know?"
"If the guy at the Slug had been a local, I'd be taking you to County right now, you know that?"
"I wasn't having a fit. He wanted a piece of me."
"Stay out of the Slug for a while. Stay home. Just groceries, okay?"
"You won't talk to the tabloids?"
He handed her a business card. "Next time someone tries to take a piece of you, call me. I always have the cell phone with me."
She pulled up her sweater and tucked the card into the waistband of her tights, then, still holding up her sweater, she turned and walked to her trailer with a slow sway. Thirty or fifty, under the sweater she still had a figure. Theo watched her walk, forgetting for a minute who she was. Without looking back, she said, "What if it's you, Theo? Who do I call then?"
Theo shook his head like a dog trying to clear water from its ears, then crawled into the Volvo and drove away. I've been alone too long, he thought.
Copyright © 1999 Christopher Moore. All rights reserved.