(C)2002 Robert M. Leahy
Detective Peter Fischer winced as he climbed out of his rusting, gray Impala. The big toe on his right foot throbbed as he put his weight on it. He slammed the car door with a little more force than usual as he inched around the car, trying to resist limping up the concrete walkway to the two-story, white clapboard bungalow. Twenty-three more days, he thought, as he leaned on the metal rail to pull himself up the three steps. Twenty-three more days as a member of Dubuque’s finest.
It was a cool, cloudy April morning, but his face flushed and sweat beaded across his brow by the time he reached the porch. He stopped and caught his breath. As he mopped up the moisture, the balding veteran looked through the sheer-curtained front window. A woman was silhouetted there. Behind her, other shadows moved in the room.
The door opened before Fischer could reach and ring the bell. “Detective,” a young patrol officer said with a curt nod.
“Terman,” Fischer replied, noting the officer’s name on the tag on his starched, blue uniform’s breast pocket.
Another officer, older and heavier than Terman, stood in the hallway. “This way,” he said. Fischer recognized the dark haired officer; he had worked with Kestler before.
The detective followed the older policeman without a word. At the doorway to the front bedroom, Kestler called over his shoulder, “Get ready. It isn’t pretty.”
“Never is,” Fischer replied. Twenty-three days, he thought again with a sigh.
As he entered, the old detective heard the sound of two small motors running. An odd mingling of scents overwhelmed him as he made his way into the room. Moth repellent, nearly evaporated, was set out in a number of bowls on top of boxes stacked to create an aisle along one side of the room. Several car deodorizers hung from the ceiling fixture.
Fischer’s eyes watered as he moved by the moth repellent. He felt a sneeze coming on, but pinched his nose until the sensation went away.
Kestler stopped just inside the smaller room created by the row of boxes and simply stared toward the wall draped with plastic. There was little space. A bed frame, a mattress and a box spring leaned against the wall. Two hinged, bifold doors, taken off the now plastic-fronted closet, were propped up against the disassembled bed.
Fischer stared at the police officer for a moment, absently noting his colleague’s shirt buttons strained just above his belt. He stepped around him and moved to the curtained area of the room. The detective noted that two heavy extension cords from different outlets were strung across the floor and under the plastic. He followed the cords to the right side of the plastic. He stepped behind the curtain and noted that one cord connected to the dehumidifier and the other to the air purifier. The dehumidifier was fixed with a hose that went through a hole cut in the flooring.
Fischer studied the machinery for several minutes avoiding a white-clad figure he could see out of the corner of his eye. He planned on taking a closer look at the hose at the back of the dehumidifier. He took a step forward and began to crouch, but the pain from his big toe forced him back to his feet. He dug his fingernails into his palms as he balled his fists. He clenched his teeth so hard that he feared his dentures might crack. But he was able to suppressed the gasp of pain that climbed up his throat as quickly as the pain shot through his body.
Fischer could feel the heat rise in his cheeks. Trickles of sweat ran down his back. He shut his eyes. He fought to control his breathing. Composed, he finally turned to the opposite side of the closet. He stared for a moment, trying to make sense of the scene. The entire closet was encased in plastic. The dehumidifier and the air purifier took up half of the small space. On the other side, sitting in a rocker, were two mummified bodies: the larger one, wearing a wedding gown, cradled the smaller one, wrapped in a blanket, in her arms.
Fischer did not know how long he stood staring at the scene.
“Detective?” The voice sounded far off. “Detective?” he heard again, and sensed movement behind him as Kestler moved closer to the plastic draping the front of the closet.
Fischer inched backward to the edge of the closet where the electric cords ran under the curtain. He stepped back into the bedroom and turned to see Kestler inching back toward the end of the row of boxes.
“What can you tell me?” Fischer asked, taking out his notebook and pen.
Kestler filled him in: “Woman out in the living room is Karen Richter—Mrs. She says she and her husband were coming over today to start packing up her mother-in-law’s belongings. Mother-in-law died—heart attack—about a week ago. Her husband should be here soon. Mrs. Richter told 911 she got here about three.”
Fischer glanced at his watch: 5:30.
Kestler continued his report: “We showed up and found her just kind of staring out the window in the front room. Had to knock several times before she came to the door. She nodded to a couple of questions we asked her, but she hasn’t said much. She seems less focused now than she was about a half hour ago.”
Fischer tried to force himself to listen, but he could think about only two things: the twenty-three days he had left before retiring from the force and how much he wanted to sit down and take the weight off his throbbing foot.
Terman came to the bedroom door. “Husband’s here.”
Fischer nodded and started toward the end of the row of boxes again. As he rounded the corner into the aisle leading out of the room, he sneezed. His weight came forward on his big toe. The sharp pain staggered him and he fell backward against the wall, almost falling to the ground. “Moth repellent,” he whispered hoarsely, still bent over, feeling the room begin to spin. He forced in several slow, deep breaths through his mouth, tasting the moth repellent, before he could stand up straight. He braced himself with a hand on the wall as he made his way out of the room.
Mrs. Richter was sitting on the couch in the living room. He husband was next to her. They held hands. Mrs. Richter did not seem to notice the officers as they came back into the room. Mr. Richter stared at them without blinking.
“Did you call the husband?” Fischer asked in a whisper.
Kestler shook his head.
“Did she?” the detective asked with a nod toward Mrs. Richter.
“Don’t know. Like I said, she hasn’t been able to answer questions,” the heavyset officer replied.
Fischer studied the woman for a moment. Her light brown hair lay limp across her shoulders. Her face was ashen, her brown eyes unfocused. She looked like she fell into the couch. Her white, cotton blouse seemed to pull across the left side of her neck. Although her husband held her hand, she seemed unaware of his attention.
Fischer eased around the other officers and took a seat opposite the pair on the couch. “Do you think your wife can answer a few questions?”
Mr. Richter looked from the detective to his wife. “Honey?” he said, shaking her gently. “Honey?”
She did not even turn to look at her husband.
Fischer jotted a few notes and then looked up at the young husband. “Do you know what’s happened to your wife?” the he asked, loosening his tie as he spoke.
Richter shook his head.
Turning to Kestler, Fischer asked, “Has the coroner been called?”
Kestler and Terman both nodded in reply.
“Mr. Richter,” Fischer said, turning back to the dark-eyed man sitting on the edge of the couch, “perhaps you should follow Officer Kestler back to the bedroom. Prepare yourself for a shock.”
Terman looked like he were about to protest, but he said nothing, stepping back from the edge of the hallway, which led down to the bedroom.
When Richter stood up, his wife’s hands fell from her lap to her side. She did not turn to watch him go.
Kestler led Richter down the hallway. It didn’t sound like Kestler entered the room with Richter. “Don’t touch anything,” Fischer heard Kestler say. A floorboard creaked as someone moved across the floor toward the closet. But no other sound was heard above the steady drone of the compressor on the dehumidifier for several minutes. Then Fischer heard the thump of the door as it banged into the wall and assumed Kestler had brushed against it as the older patrolman entered the bedroom to retrieve Richter. “Come on, Sir,” he heard Kestler coo as he tried to get Mr. Richter out of the room.
When the young man returned to the front room, Fischer noted that Richter’s eyes were focusing on the people around him, his face was white, and his hands, held stiff and balled tight, clearly shook as he walked back over toward the couch.
“Do we have the house keys?” Fischer asked Terman.
The young officer nodded.
“Give them to me,” he said. “And then help the Richters out to your patrol car and take them to the hospital. I think Mrs. Richter is suffering from shock.”
* * * * *
“The girl in the dress looks to have been in her late teens,” The coroner, Dr. Coombs, was saying. “Probably her baby in her arms. Tiny little thing. Doesn’t look like it ever had a chance. Will know more when I get them autopsied.”
Fischer was quiet for a moment before asking, “How long have they…have they been dead, do you think?”
“Hard to tell. Whoever set this up,” Coombs said, waving toward the dehumidifier, (“) did the right thing. Dry environment like this keeps things from rotting. Several years, I would guess off the top of my head. Eight to ten—if the purifier was bought new at the time this was all set up.” Coombs tugged at the plastic sheeting, which was now propped up off the floor with one of the bi-fold doors. “Heck of a case to end your career on,” Coombs said, as he started to pack up his camera.
* * * * *
Mrs. Richter was already admitted and in a room at Finley Hospital on Grandview Avenue when Fischer arrived. The two officers were standing in the hallway outside the closed door when the old detective came off the elevator on the sixth floor.
“Dr. Valliant’s just gone in to see her,” Terman said in a whisper as Fischer approached. Do you want someone to stay here tonight? —Captain asked,” Terman added quickly, “when we checked in.”
“You think it’s necessary?” Fischer asked, trying to keep his voice steady despite the severe pain radiating from his toe.
“No,” Terman said.
Kestler nodded in agreement. “We got Richter’s vitals. He didn’t say much more, though. He’s taking it almost as hard as his wife.”
Fischer nodded. “I would say it’s time for your dinner break, wouldn’t you?”
Kestler nodded again.
“After dinner, you can return to your patrol. I’ll fill the captain in after I talk to the doctor.”
“You sure?” Kestler asked.
Fischer nodded again. After the officers had stepped onto the elevator, he staggered toward the wall and fell into a chair. He eased his right leg out in front of him, wincing as he did so. The old detective buried his head in his hand, closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He was no longer sure he wanted to wait another twenty-three days to retire.
Fischer looked up.
Dr. Valliant was standing over him, a look of concern on his face. “Are you all right?”
Fischer’s eyes reflexively looked down at his outstretched toe.
“What did you eat that you shouldn’t have,” Valliant asked, pulling a chair over and sitting down next to the detective.
“All of Maggie’s favorites,” Fischer replied with a shrug. “Our anniversary. Shell fish, cream sauce, butter, cake.”
“I’m surprised you can move at all,” he said with a laugh. Then he removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“I know better. But—“ Fischer’s voice trailed off.
“But you’re stupid like most men married for—what? —fifty-one years.”
“Congratulations. Maybelle and I will mark 47 in three weeks.”
“Well,” Fischer said, with a weak smile, “congratulations to you, too.”
The two sat in silence for a moment. “Do you have to question her tonight?” Valliant finally asked, brushing back stray strands of his thinning, white hair.
“No,” Fischer sighed. “I can wait.”
“That would be best for you and for her,” Valliant said, laying a hand on the detective’s forearm. “I already sent the husband home. Kestler got an ‘okay’ from Captain Stephenson. And I’m going to recommend the same to you: Go home and get some rest. Take some B-complex if you got any. And see me if the pain doesn’t go away in a few days. I’ll tell Mrs. Richter you will be in to see her tomorrow.”
Fischer gave the doctor a wordless nod of thanks before he got to his feet and started to inch his way back down the hallway to the elevator. He was already imagining a long soak in an Epsom salt bath when the elevator doors opened.
“Oh, Peter” Valliant called.
“Get that old brown suit laundered. It reeks of mothballs,” the doctor said.
The detective looked at his rumpled herringbone and sighed as he stepped onto the elevators and was jostled sideways by one of the doors. Fischer put the idea of the bath out of his mind for the moment. He had to stop at the station and get the preliminary paperwork in and report to the captain about the current condition of the Richters. He allowed himself one grunt of pain just before the door of the elevator opened and he headed back to his car. Each time he put weight on his right foot, he wanted to stop and sit down. But the thought of getting back up on his foot after sitting kept him going. The thought of an Epsom salt bath less than an hour away seemed to dull the pain. But he couldn’t help wishing that his retirement were only twenty-three hours away instead of twenty-three days.
As he drove out of the hospital parking tower, Fischer switched on the radio.
“I can’t believe something like that happened here. Not in Dubuque.”
Fischer sighed. He didn’t know what the voice on the radio was talking about, but he hazarded a guess that whatever the occurrence, it was something that was only supposed to happen in big cities rather than places like Dubuque. But he was of a mind that very little that happened in big cities did not also happen in this corner of Iowa. Last year, there was the child pornography ring that centered at St. Columbkilles Catholic School. The year before that, the co-ed murders at Emmaus Bible College. He chuckled and shook his head. Every time there was a drug problem, it seemed to have something to do with Meadows Golf Course.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hartwell. This is Jason Khan for the Eagle, K X G E, live east of Cathedral Square in the heart of Dubuque.”
Fischer sighed again, recognizing the locale as the site of today’s gruesome discovery. That was all he needed: a crowd of curious onlookers snooping for a look around his crime scene. He would have the captain increase the patrols. And he would have to get up and get to work early, too.
* * * * *
Margaret Fischer was 71, a short, round woman who died her white hair cinnamon. She was an energetic senior citizen who was out of the house almost as much as her husband. This morning, she would do some volunteer work at the library before delivering her share of the Meals on Wheels.
She grabbed the tea kettle as it began to whistle and poured the steaming water into a large, blue mug. A homemade teabag swirled in the water, and filaments of dark green began to trail after the bag. She moved over to a smaller, white coffee cup and poured water into it, too, before setting the kettle down on a trivet in the middle of the four-burner range.
“What’re you doing, Maggie?” the detective asked his wife as he entered the small kitchen. “I told you I had to be off early this morning.”
“Yes, you told me,” she agreed. “But that doesn’t mean you’re leaving here without a good, healthy breakfast. What with your toe acting up, you don’t need to find your way to the doughnut shop. Now, I’ve made you some oatmeal and tea. Both of them should help you get around better this morning.”
Fischer did not even try to argue with his wife. Aside from the fact that she was right, the woman was impossible to argue with when she got an idea in her head. He reluctantly took his seat on a stool near the range.
His wife handed him the blue mug. “You’ll need to dip the bag a bit. I just put the water in. Get it dark enough or it won’t do you any good.
Fischer wrinkled his nose as he peered into the cup. The kelp tea smelled awful, although it never tasted as bad as he expected it to. “Any honey?” he asked, unable to resist.
Margaret turned toward him and put her hands on her hips. “You know better than that,” she said, then, noticing the smile on his face, dropped her hands to her side. “You…!” She shook her head. She returned to her cup of hot water. She placed a scant teaspoonful of dry coffee crystals into the cup and stirred. She inhaled deeply as she brought the cup up to her nose and then drank in a swallow of the brown liquid. “Remember to drink water instead of coffee today,” she told her husband.
“I will…try,” he said, still dipping his teabag in and out of the water.
His wife sighed. She turned to the range and dished up two bowls of oatmeal. She tried to hand her husband one of the bowls and a spoon and had to wait while he put down his mug. Then she picked up the other and began to eat. “Do you really want to wear that blue tie with a brown suit?”
Fischer shrugged. “Do I really want to wear a tie or this suit? Twenty-two more days, Maggie, and I won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
* * * * *
Crossing Dubuque at seven in the morning was difficult enough under the best of conditions. With the eternal construction on University, most east-west traffic was forced up to US 20, which carried through traffic between Rockford, Illinois, and Waterloo, Iowa and points beyond. With a water main break the night before, US 20 was cut to two lanes in the middle of the city, causing a huge bottleneck, and the worst of the traffic was yet to come. Fischer took an indirect northern route to Grandview and then turned south to Third. The traffic signals at University were out, and Fischer stopped and started, car length by car length, for the better part of three blocks before he crossed the butchered road. How many years have they been working on this thing? He wondered as he bumped across the gravel causeway over two of the eastbound lanes. Rebuilding a roadbed was slow work since the street could not be completely shut down, and the three months out of the year when practically no work could be done.
The detective pulled up in front of the white bungalow twenty-three minutes after getting into the car. He saw that there was something on the porch, beyond the yellow no trespassing tape. He grabbed his large flashlight and got out of the car and slammed the door, making his way quickly to the covered porch. Distracted by a momentary flash of anger over the media reporting the location of the crime scene, Fischer hardly noticed how little his toe hurt this morning. He surveyed the litter of flowers and teddy bears strewn across the slate gray decking. Gotta admire the way people show their sympathy, he thought, as he tried to step over and around the sad tribute to the two unidentified women found within.
Opening the storm door displaced a handful of bears and bouquets. Once inside, Fischer closed and locked the door behind him. He only turned on the hallway light, not wanting to call undue attention to his presence there. Then he moved in the shadows to the kitchen and the basement stairs. As was typical in these old homes, the steps were on a straight riser that fell into the middle of a large room. A steel pipe served as a handrail on the left-hand side of the steps. A bare bulb hung from the exposed joist in the middle of the room, blinding him as his head came even with it. As expected, about eight feet from the front wall of the house, a hose snaked through from the bedroom above. The hose fell straight to the floor where it was duct-taped to the concrete. From there, the line swung toward the middle of the room and under the steps. Duct tape held it securely in place.
Fischer made his way down and walked around them so that he could flash his light under the stairway. There was a rusting floor drain directly beneath the end of the hose. The detective made his way to the other end of the hose. His flashlight showed the hole through which the hose passed was made with a power drill, a neat and precise job producing a snug fit for the hose.
The detective wondered if the old woman who had lived in the house had the drill used to make the hole. He took inventory of the basement. The right side of the room was lined with shelves. Canned goods occupied one section. Then boxes, neatly stacked, clearly marked took up the rest of the space. Several boxes were marked Christmas. Several more standard packing boxes had names written on them: Albert, Herman, Rodney, and Liz. There was one tiny shoebox marked with the name Libby.
Along the back wall were a washer and dryer and a rack made of the same steel as the handrail on the stairs. A long, black raincoat and a tan car coat hung from two of the many hangers on the rack. There was no workbench or tool collection down here. As he turned off the flashlight, Fischer made a note to check the garage for tools before he left.
Slowly, he made his way up the steps, only realizing as he neared the top that his tight grip of the handrail, used to help him keep the weight off his toe, didn’t seem to be necessary. Well, at least that’s something, he thought. That’s about the shortest attack of gout I’ve ever had.
As he made his way through the kitchen, he picked up the mingled scents of vanilla and mothballs that had knocked him over the day before. Although the smell now seemed to permeate the house, having had the night to seep through the open bedroom door, it still overwhelmed Fischer when he walked into the bedroom. With the exception of the missing bodies and the plastic sheeting still propped up across one of the bi-fold closet doors, the room looked much like it did when he entered in yesterday. The humidifier and the air cleaner were now turned off, but it wasn’t until he entered the bedroom that the detective realized the absence of their humming motors.
Fischer removed the bi-fold door and let the sheeting drop. It had been sized and weighted to hang straight. A second strip of plastic had been secured along the bottom of the sheeting like a door sweep. It, too, was weighted, but less heavily. Fischer set his flashlight down on the wall of boxes, next to one of the bowls still holding a small residue of the mothballs that scented the room. He pulled out a notebook and jotted a few notes. He looked at the sheeting one last time, shaking his head while absently rubbing his temple. Remarkable piece of work.
When he reached the living room where he felt free to breathe more deeply, the detective stopped and inhaled slowly. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his cell phone and called the Captain to check in.
“Yes, sir,” he replied to the Captain’s query. “I came first thing this morning. I should be finished with my first go through in about 15 minutes. I need to get to the hospital and talk to Mrs. Richter.” The routine conversation continued until Fischer was about to hang up. “Oh, a couple of other things, Captain,” the detective said. “Be sure one of our guys takes some shots of the sheeting over the closet and of the hose set up on the dehumidifier. And you should know there’s a shrine growing out on the front porch.”
As if on cue, something landed on the porch with a light thud.
Fischer made his way out the back door to the detached garage. There were a few garden tools and a lawn mower at the far end of the garage, bags of barbeque briquettes and cans of lighter fluid among the cobwebs of the shelves along one wall. A large, battered ice chest and a four-year-old Olds were the only other items in the one-car garage. The detective jotted another note.
As Fischer began to back out of the building, he was surprised to find an elderly woman standing in the doorway. “Excuse me,” he said, too surprised to know what else to say.
“I saw you poking around,” she said.
“I’m a police detective,” he said, reaching for his badge.
“I know,” she replied. “I saw you here yesterday.”
Fischer made an attempt to get around her, but the tiny woman did not back up enough to allow him out of the garage. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“No,” she replied. “But I want you to know I don’t like this at all.”
“I don’t like what people are saying about Mrs. Gilchrist.”
“I understand,” Fischer said, not having a clue what she meant.
“I’ve been living next door since before she even moved here. And I knew her like a sister. I know she didn’t kill anybody. But that’s what everyone around here thinks.”
“You knew Mrs. Gilchrist well?” the detective asked.
“Why, of course. We was two widow women trying to raise our boys all by ourselves when she moved in here. She remarried, though. But her second didn’t live here long.” The wrinkles on Mrs. Hartwell’s thin face furrowed more starkly as she continued, “Just long enough to abandon his daughter here. Poor Gladys stuck with the young girl, retarded she was, and that rambunctious boy.”
Fischer interrupted. “Ma’am, I would like to talk to you. But I don’t want to do it out here in the garage. Perhaps I could get you to come down to the station and you could make a full statement about what you knew about Mrs. Gilchrist and her family.”
“I don’t drive,” she said.
“I could have a car come around for you.”
“Maybe you could just come back here and talk to me when you have a mind to,” she said. “I live right there. And I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“Do you have time for a few questions now?”
“Yes,” she replied. And with that she turned on her heel and headed to her house on the other side of the garage.
“Just made some coffee,” she said, waiting just inside her kitchen door as Fischer came up the few steps and entered. “Want some?”
“Yes, thanks,” he replied without thinking. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee seemed to clear his head after his exposure to the musty garage and the mothball and vanilla of the Gilchrist house.
“You take sugar and milk?”
“A little sugar,” he answered.
Three cups of coffee later, Fischer had learned a great deal about Mrs. Gilchrist. Fischer asked about the names on the boxes.
“Well, Rodney’s her son, of course. He was a handful when they first moved here. Bad egg if you ask me. Why, he nearly got my boy, Tom, killed when they was in high school. Hate to admit I still don’t like him, even though he’s all grown up and has that pretty little wife. Army straightened him out some. But you can’t take that kind of mischief out of a body.”
Mrs. Hartwell stopped to sip on her still steaming coffee. Her gaze went up to the far corner of her cheery kitchen. With windows on two sides, the light green walls reflected sunlight onto the white countertops and appliances. Fischer felt comfortable sitting here, lost in the smell of the coffee, enjoying a homemade cinnamon roll.
“You asked about Albert?” Mrs. Hartwell asked, pulling Fischer out of his reverie. “Pretty sure that was her first husband. She didn’t talk about him much. I think she still hurt from his loss. He was a good man. Nothing like that Herman Gilchrist.” Again, she scowled, her piercing eyes fixed with loathing. “He married Gladys a couple of years after she moved in next door. Then he just up and abandoned her, leaving his retarded daughter—that’s Liz—behind. What kind of a man would do a woman that way?”
Fischer sipped his coffee and nodded.
“Anyway,” Mrs. Hartwell continued, “sometime after Rodney joined the army, Liz ran away. Far as anyone knew, the girl was never heard from again.”
Mrs. Hartwell talked about how hard it was for her and Mrs. Gilchrist to make it through those years. She talked about her son, Tom, her voice softening as she related stories about her son, his wife and her three grandchildren. All the while, she managed to keep his cup full of warm coffee, and his plate filled with cinnamon rolls.
Nearly an hour slipped by before Fischer rose from the table and thanked Mrs. Hartwell for her time. He asked if he might come back if he had any more questions.
“I’ll be here,” she said.
“Fine,” he replied, as he turned and headed down the steps. He winced in surprise when his big toe hit the concrete. The intense pain that shot from his foot nearly crumpled him. The only thing he could think as he tried to catch his breath was, Maggie is going to kill me.
* * * * *
After he found a space on the third level of the Finley Hospital parking tower, Fischer checked in with Captain Stephenson: Background on the Richters and preliminary results of tests run on the two bodies, which showed them to be mother and daughter. That came as little surprise. And it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Fischer to assign the names of Liz and Libby to the pair. But was he ready to blame Libby on Rodney? He wasn’t sure. Best to keep an open mind, he reminded himself.
It was nearly eleven when the detective finally made his way into Karen Richter’s room. He’d been on the clock for nearly four hours and was making just his second stop on his lengthy to-do list.
Standing just inside the shadowy room, lit only by the light over the sink, he opened his interrogation, probing for a feel of Karen Richter’s fragility. “Good morning, Mrs. Richter. I don’t know if you recognize me. I’m Detective Peter Fischer.”
The blond-haired woman who sat on the bed across from him took a moment to look the detective over before she fixed her eyes on him. Fischer noted she had bathed and her hair was combed. She wore a non-descript hospital gown. The colors of the room were muted shades of gray, except directly under the light of the sink where the wall color was a soft blue.
“No,” she finally answered. “I really don’t remember much about yesterday afternoon,” she replied. Her voice was strong, her eyes intense.
“How do you feel this morning?” he asked.
“Confused, more than anything.” She kept her eyes on the detective.
Fischer nodded. “I think I understand. Right now, we are confused, too.” Fischer asked how her husband was handling everything. He followed up with questions about where they lived, their kids, and pets—all questions he had answers for. He studied her carefully. She remain composed. Her hands remained folded in her lap. Her voice was steady and her eyes were clear. By the time he asked about how well she liked living in Dubuque, Fischer had pulled up a chair and sat facing Mrs. Richter. He had his pen and pad ready as he shifted to more serious questions. “I found some boxes in the basement,” he told her. “A couple of them had your husband’s name on them. And there were several others with labels. I was wondering if you knew who these people were.”
Mrs. Richter shrugged.
Fischer started with Mrs. Gilchrist’s first husband. “Does the name Albert mean anything to you?”
“Albert was my husband’s father. He died in an automobile accident when Rodney was eleven. That’s about all I know about him. My husband doesn’t talk much about his childhood.”
The detective nodded. “And Herman?”
“My mother-in-law’s second husband. I’m surprised she would have saved anything of his. She hated him. And who can blame her. I don’t know much about my husband’s childhood, but I do know that Herman Gilchrist was a mean and selfish man. My husband says the only favor Gilchrist ever did his family was to leave them.” She paused for a moment. “You really should ask my husband about these people.”
“I plan to,” Fischer replied. “There were a couple of other names. Liz?”
Mrs. Richter’s gaze moved up to the far corner of the room for a moment. Then she fixed her eyes on the balding policeman. “That name doesn’t ring a bell. I know there was a step-sister. But Rodney barely acknowledges her. I think he went into the army about the time his stepfather and his daughter showed up. I can’t remember my mother-in-law talking about her. Not that we ever talked much. We seldom went over there. She never came to see us. Come to think of it, yesterday was the first time I was ever anywhere in the house,” her voice caught; she continued in a rush, “—except the living room and the kitchen. That’s odd, don’t you think. Rodney and I have been married for over two years, and I can probably recall each visit I made to the house because there were so few.”
Fischer’s expectations that she would not recognize the name Libby were confirmed. Mrs. Richter turned the conversation back to the Gilchrist house, saying her husband had told her to clean out the kitchen and that he would join her later in the afternoon. She remembered starting to empty out the refrigerator but, for some reason, she quit and wandered through the house. She remembered stopping to look at a wedding picture on a side table. The white silk dress billowed about the bride and groom; the woman held onto her veil to keep it from blowing away in the strong breeze. She remembered hearing the sound of the humidifier as its compressor shook to the end of a cycle. She went to investigate the sound, found the bedroom door locked.
“That was too much of a mystery for me,” she said. “So I retrieved my mother-in-law’s keys and tried three or four before I got the right one. I had second thoughts about going in after I opened the door, though. Those mothballs took my breath away. The next thing I remember is waking up here.” She paused. Her eyes darted up to the far corner of the room again. “No. No. That’s not true. I did go into the room. I remember I had to walk all the way down to the front windows because there was a row of boxes to the right of the door. I remember thinking that was a strange way to stack things in a room. When I got to the end of the row of boxes and turned back into the room, I saw the plastic draped across the opposite wall. The humidifier clunked back into action. I remember thinking that was odd, too. Why would anyone put a humidifier behind a plastic curtain? It was like the humidifier pulled me toward that side of the room. It was creepy. And part of me was saying to get out of the room and leave it alone. But I couldn’t. I had to see what was back there. I had to.”
When she stopped to catch her breath, Fischer felt her eyes bore into him. They pleaded with him for understanding, for reassurance. He looked away, feeling uncomfortable under the intense stare. The detective remembered how he felt when he saw the draped plastic. He, too, felt the dual pressures to move toward the curtain and reveal what lay behind them and the to turn around and run. He looked back toward Mrs. Richter as a fleeting thought of retirement came to him: Twenty-two days.
“The girl in the rocker was wearing the wedding dress I saw in the photo in the living room,” Mrs. Richter said in a voice devoid of emotion. “I recognized the beadwork and the cut of the gown. It was a lovely piece when it was new. Even yellowed with age, it’s hard not to admire that classic cut.”
Fischer noted that Mrs. Richter was no longer looking at him. In fact, she wasn’t seeing anything in the room. “So many tiny beads. They have to be sewn by hand. Delicate work. Five petal flowers…” Fischer reached over and pressed the call button. Putting Karen Richter back in that room had pushed her too far.
* * * * *
Dr. Valliant, using the glasses he held in his hand, tapped Fischer in the chest. “What did you say?” he asked in a tight whisper.
“I didn’t say anything,” the detective answered in a sigh. He stood, shoulders slumped against the wall, pinned there by the white-haired doctor. “She wasn’t really answering a question of mine. The last thing I asked was about a name, Libby, I found on one of the boxes in the basement. She said she didn’t recognize it. Then she started talking about why she went to the house and what happened there. She got as far as the closet. Then she stopped. She just sat there staring at me. I looked away. Her eyes were so intense. And the next thing I know, she’s giving me a critique of the dress the young woman was wearing in that strange voice you heard.” Fischer arched his back and straightened up. “I…” he started but stopped. “I…” he tried again but couldn’t continue.
“Alright, Peter,” the doctor said, putting his glasses back on. “I think I get the picture. I doubt you could have seen this relapse coming.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’ve given her something to help her rest. If we’re lucky, she’ll be fine when she awakes.”
“I hope so,” Fischer said. “I would hate to think…” his voice trailed off.
“Don’t start kicking yourself about it now,” Valliant warned him. The doctor noticed that Fischer was keeping the weight off his right foot. “How’s the toe?”
Fischer frowned. “It was feeling okay this morning, until I sat down to have coffee while I talked with one of the neighbors. It’s hurt like living hell since I left there about an hour ago.
“Sugar?” the doctor asked.
“Just a little in my coffee,” Fischer protested, unwilling to talk about the cinnamon rolls. He knew better.
“No more coffee—no more sugar! No sugar in three weeks at your retirement party, either, if you manage to stay on active duty that long. Oh, and another thing, this suit smells as bad as the one you wore yesterday.” Valliant patted his friend on the back.
Fischer gave the doctor a weak smile as he said his goodbyes.
* * * * *
Fischer pulled off of JFK into the parking lot of Hawkeye Bank of Dubuque. It’s almost like being in Nebraska, he thought, remembering his two years in Lincoln, where practically every business has the word Cornhusker in it. Fischer was not a big college sports fan, although he did follow Illini basketball. His younger brother had been a member of the team over forty years ago.
The detective asked for Mr. Richter at the first desk he came to inside the bank.
“Do you have an appointment?” the young woman asked with a smile.
“No,” he replied, reaching inside his jacket for his badge. Showing her to the woman, he said, “I’m Detective Fischer. He should be expecting me.”
The young woman’s smile faded as she turned to her phone and picked it up. She punched in three digits. “Detective Fischer here to see you.”
“He’ll be right down,” Fischer was told. “Would you like to sit down? Would you like some coffee?”
He shook his head vigorously. He could hear both Maggie and Valliant screaming at him to stay away from the coffee, which would probably require three sugars here to make it potable.
Richter came through a door behind the line of tellers. He looked quite impressive in a charcoal gray suit, light blue shirt and red tie. Maggie would like that look, Fischer thought. Quite a different look from the night before when Richter was dressed in a sweatshirt and paint splattered jeans.
“Good morning, detective,” Richter said as he approached. “Did Lanai offer you coffee or anything?”
“She did,” Fischer replied.
“Great. Lanai,” Richter said, looking over the policeman’s shoulder, “I’ll be out of the office for a while.” Then he nodded to Fischer to follow him. “There’s no good place to talk here,” he said, waving at the cubicles with their half walls. The two walked out of the building and across the street to a small park. Only two other people were anywhere near by, both waiting at the bus stop. Richter led the detective to a bench warmed by the late morning sun.
“Dr. Valliant called,” Richter said.
The pair sat staring at the ground in front of them for several minutes.
“Look, I’m sorry about your wife,” Fischer said, hating to have to apologize. This is no way to start an interrogation. “She seemed fine. Then, all of a sudden…” his voice trailed off.
Richter just stared at him with his dark eyes.
The detective mulled over the myriad questions he wanted to ask trying to choose one that would ease his way. “How long have you been married?”
“What?” Richter said. “Oh...um…well…two years—just over two years.”
Fischer tried not to smile. That’s better. Now he’s the one back on his heels. “Where’d you meet?”
“In college,” Richter replied.
Fischer was told that the Richters had met in a history class he was retaking as a senior to improve his GPA for grad school. She was a freshman then. They married after she graduated. They ended up in Dubuque because his mother was ill. She had wanted to stay in Peoria.
Ten minutes into the questioning, the detective became more serious. “When did your mother start locking that front bedroom?”
Richter stiffened. He leaned over resting his arms on his knees and studied the ground between his shoes. The detective could feel the young man staring at him out of the corner of his eye.
The air brakes on an approaching bus broke the silence. The smell of diesel fuel drifted on the slight breeze.
“I don’t know, exactly,” Richter answered. “It was locked by the time I got out of the army. I know that. But I don’t really know when she started to lock it.”
It sounded honest. But Fischer suspected Richter knew more than he was saying. “Do you know why she locked that door?”
“She always said she had things she wanted to keep safe.”
Again, believable. But Fischer wondered.
“After my stepdad left,” Richter continued, “My mom became pretty distrusting. You can understand that, can’t you. My senior year in high school, she was always going through my stuff and giving me the third degree. But if I ever tried to question her about anything, she would slap me. That was a big reason why I joined the army. It was the only way I could think of to get away.”
Fischer noted that the young man’s hands were shaking and his voice was unsteady and rising in pitch. “I…” the detective began but stopped. “I think we will have to pick this up later. Perhaps you could drop by the police station and give them a statement about your mother and her house. That would probably be easier. Then, if I have any more questions, I can come back and talk to you about them.”
“Yeah…um…okay,” Richter said. “Thanks.”
Fischer watched as the young man got up and straightened his coat and tie. “You go ahead,” he told him. “I’ll just sit here a few minutes.”
Richter nodded, and headed toward the street. Once across it, he seemed to sigh in relief. Fischer scratched the crown of his bald head before pulling out his pad and writing a few notes. I pity the guy who works this case after me, he thought, as he jammed the pad back into his pocket. He looked at his watch. Twenty-two days.
* * * * *