Leahy

Crime Scene Construction

(Previous sections submitted as “Untitled”)

 

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 afternoon, 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 the shirt pocket of his starched, blue uniform.

            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 noted the thin, blond-haired woman he had seen through the window as he approached the house.  She still stood in front of the window, staring blankly out.  Fischer made a note of her detached demeanor as he 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.  Mrs. Gilchrist, the mother-in-law, died—heart attack—about a week ago.  Mr. Richter, 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.

            “Mr. Richter,” Terman said as Fischer entered the living room, “this is Detective Fischer.   This is the husband, Rodney Richter.”

            The old detective nodded at the young police officer before surveying the two people sitting on the couch on the opposite side of the room.

            Mrs. Richter was sitting on the couch in the living room.  Her 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.  The young man wore jeans and a sweatshirt, tennis shoes.

            “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 had fallen onto 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 the young man 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.  “Hell 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.  Captain wanted to know if you wanted someone to stay here tonight?” Terman added quickly.

            “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.

            “Peter?”

            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.”

            “Fifty-two.”

            “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.  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.

            Fischer turned.

            “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 elevator 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 having to get back up on it after sitting kept him going.  In and out of the car, twice.  Up from my desk.  Three more times.  Pain’s always the worst when I put weight back on it for the first time.  Hope this attack doesn’t last for twenty-three more days.  He sighed.  The thought of that Epsom salt bath less than an hour away seemed to dull the pain. 

            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 slowly shook his head.  Although he did not know the exact topic the voice on the radio meant, 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.  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, lit only by the light above the sink and the first strands of daylight.  “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 brought the cup up to her nose, inhaling deeply before taking a sip 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.  He turned on his flashlight and looked for a switch for the basement light.  He found a string running through eyehooks to the right of the stairs.  He pulled on the string, and a single, bare bulb, attached to one of the exposed joists, illuminated the large basement. As was typical in these old homes, the steps were on a straight riser that fell into the middle of the large, unfinished room.  A steel pipe served as a handrail on the left-hand side of the steps.  He edged his way down the steps, holding on to the steel pipe, expecting his toe to hurt, expecting the stairs to be shaky.  But, to his surprise, he was able to put weight on his toe without being shot with pain.  And the steps neither wobbled nor creaked as he made his way down to the concrete floor. 

Fischer aimed his flashlight up along the joists toward the front of the house.  He found the hose with little difficulty.  It snaked through the floorboards about eight feet from the wall and crossed over to the support post that braced the stairs as well as the floor joist.  The detective edged around the steps and saw that the hose was clamped to the post and directed down to the floor where it ran under the stairs.  He moved to the other side of the post and shone his flashlight underneath the steps.  The hose went into a rusting drain grate in the concrete floor.

            Fischer made his way to the other end of the hose.  He would get someone down here to take pictures and examine the hole more carefully.  He suspected that 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.  But he could not be sure of what was there in the feeble flashlight.

            The detective wondered if the old woman who had lived in the house—What was her name…Gil…Gil, he scratched his head, trying to remember—had the drill that was used to make the hole.  He started to take inventory of the basement.  The right side of the room was lined with shelves, solidly made.  At one end, canned goods: peaches, apricots, beans and peas, as well as tomato sauce and several kinds of jam.  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. 

            Behind the stairs, along the back wall, were a washer and dryer and a rack made of the same steel as the handrail on the stairs.  Another bare bulb with a chain was attached to a joist above the washing machine.  Fischer pulled the light on.  A long, black raincoat and a tan car coat hung from two of the many hangers on the rack.  On the left side of the room, a folding table and a stack of plastic patio chairs were in the corner.  An old, oil-burning furnace took up the center of the wall on that side of the room. There was no workbench nor tool collection down here. He pulled the ceiling light off, and realized his flashlight was still on.  He turned off it off, too, before making his way back to the stairs.

His first step was tentative, and he sighed when he was able to take the first tread without a sharp pang radiating from his toe.  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 started to leave the room, Fischer tripped on the carpeting.  He grabbed a hold of the jamb to keep from falling, and felt the weather stripping along the inside lip of the doorframe.  He stepped into the hallway and pulled the door to the room shut.  He had to give it a good tug to get the door to catch in the latch.  And then he found he had to pull the knob toward him and hold it tightly in order to turn it open the door.  He closed the door again, and noticed that the carpeting, edged with rubber, fit snugly along the base of the door.  He took out his notebook and made a few more notes.  Then, just as he turned to go out to the garage in search of tools, he remembered his flashlight.  One more time, he opened the bedroom door, pulling the knob toward him and turning it, feeling and hearing the metal scrape along the edge of the lock plate.

            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—including the basement. And have pictures of the bedroom door taken, too.  It’s got weather stripping on it.  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 Chevy 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.”

            “Ma’am?”

            “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, reaching for his notebook, “Who are you?”

            “My name’s Hartwell—Leona Hartwell.  And, of course, I knew Mildred—Mrs. Gilchrist—well. We were 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 Mildred 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.

            Fischer followed.

            “Just made some coffee,” she said, waiting just inside her kitchen door as Fischer came up the few steps of the large, wooden deck and entered the kitchen.  “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.

            As Mrs. Hartwell pulled a mug out of glass-fronted cupboard, she began to tell Fischer what she knew.

            “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 were 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.” 

            The tiny woman set a spoon and the mug of coffee in front of the detective and nudged the sugar bowl closer to him.  She retrieved a plate of cinnamon rolls from the counter before she slipped into a chair on the other side of the table and took a sip of 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 Mildred 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, “not long after Herman disappeared, Rodney joined the army, and Liz ran away.  Far as anyone knew, the girl was never heard from again.”

            Mrs. Hartwell gave them refills on coffee.  “It was hard for Mildred.  She worked hard, taking in laundry and ironing.  But she had the house and yard to take care of.  And, of course, Liz, at least for a while.  I made my boy, Tom, help with the lawn.  I know Mildred depended on my boy almost as much as I did.  He ran errands and did odd jobs.  He was a good boy.  He’s a fine young man.  Has his own business.  Has three little girls, Britney, Carinne and Renee.  Cute little wife.  Don’t see him nearly enough these days.”  All the while she talked, Mrs. Hartwell managed to keep his cup full of warm coffee, and a cinnamon roll on his plate.

            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 the DNA 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 to 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.

            Valliant met him outside the door.  “Go slowly,” the elderly physician warned his friend.  “I’ll be right here if you need me.  If she gets anxious….” His voice trailed off.

Fischer entered and stood just inside the shadowy room, lit only by the dim fluorescent light over the bed.  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 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.  “And how is your husband?”

            “He’s fine.  He was here this morning and wanted to stay.  But I told him I was all right and that I thought he should go to work.  If Dr. Valliant hadn’t agreed, he probably would be sitting here right now.”  Fischer noted the forced smile on Karen Richter’s face. 

            “I can understand that,” the elderly detective replied.  “Are you ready to go back home?” he asked.

            “I think I need to,” Mrs. Richter replied.  “But I don’t know if I have the energy to deal with our cats.  They won’t understand if I need to take a nap.  They won’t let me.”  She sighed.  “And if Rodney left dishes in the sink and clothes lying around the bedroom, I will feel I have to get those things cleaned up before I try and rest.  And Dr. Valliant says I shouldn’t be doing any of those things.”

Fischer studied the young woman as she spoke. 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. 

“Dubuque’s fine.  I would rather we were closer to my family in Peoria.  But we’re not that far away, and I understood Rodney’s needing to be near his mother.  She was so frail this last year or so.”

The detective had taken his pen and pad out of his pocket and had them in his lap,  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 asked, “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.  When she fixed her eyes on him, Fischer noted a slight twitching.  “That might be Rodney’s sister—I know there was a step-sister.  Liz might have been her name.  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.”

            Karen Richter’s gaze fell to her hands, and she remained quiet for several moments. 

“Are you getting tired?” Fished asked.

“No,” she replied.  “I’m fine.  What else do you want to know?”

Fischer studied her.  Her eyes were bright, and she looked directly he at him, so he asked his next question. “Do you recognize the name Libby?”

Mrs. Richter shook her head.  “No.  Well, unless Libby was the sister.  Then I don’t guess I know who Liz was.” She rubbed her whitened fingers across her forehead.  “You really will have to ask Rodney.  There’s just so much I don’t know.  So much he doesn’t want to tell me.” 

Mrs. Richter rubbed her right thumb into the palm of her left hand.  “It’s funny, you know.  I was in the kitchen, emptying stuff out of the refrigerator.  And, after I tied up a garbage bag I just filled, I got curious.  I—we—never spent much time at my mother-in-law’s house.  We would step inside the door long enough for her to grab her coat and bag, and then we would be out the door and on our way to dinner or whatever.  I don’t think I had been anywhere but the kitchen, and I was there only once, long enough to set down a bag of groceries.  We showed up, kind of a surprise, to take her out for dinner, and she had just returned from the grocery store.”

She stopped, and Fischer nodded for her to continue.

“I remember picking up wedding picture sitting on the sideboard in the dining room. 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.  While I was looking at the picture, I became aware of the sound of a motor of some kind.  I thought it might have been the refrigerator.  I remember hearing that clunking. rattling sound a compressor makes at the end of a cycle.  But it didn’t come from the direction of the kitchen.  So I knew it wasn’t the fridge.  That’s what led me down the hall to the bedroom.  When I found the door was 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 remember I had trouble pushing the door open.  And then, when I did finally get it to move, I almost choked on the air.  I backed across the hall.  I remember pressing my hands up against the wall and staring through the opened door—just staring.  Mothballs.  My eyes were watering and the smell was so thick it was hard to get enough air to breathe.”  She was quiet for the moment, looking down at her clenched hands.  “The next thing I remember is waking up here.” Another pause.  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 not only move toward the curtain and reveal what lay behind them but also 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.  Allowing 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. 

            “All right, Peter,” the doctor said, putting his glasses back on.  “I think I get the picture.  I doubt you could have seen it 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.

 

* * * * Major Rewrite of Section and New Material Begins Here * * * *

 

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 it 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, as he put his hand on the detective’s shoulder, “I’ll be out of the office for a while.”  Then, with gentle pressure on Fischer’s shoulder, he turned the policeman toward the door.  “There’s no good place to talk here,” he said, waving at the cubicles with their half walls.  Only two other people were anywhere near by, both waiting at the bus stop, as the pair stepped out into the late morning sun. 

            “Dr. Valliant called,” Richter said.

            Fischer nodded. “Look, I’m sorry about your wife,” the detective 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.

            “Let’s not stand here,” Fischer said.  “Want to take a drive?”

            The younger, dark-haired man shrugged.

            While the two men walked to the detective’s car, the old policeman mulled over the myriad questions he wanted to ask trying to choose one that would ease his way.  “How long have you been married?” he asked Richter as he unlocked the car door.

            “What?” the young man stammered.  “Oh...um…well…two years—just over two years.”

As Richter climbed into the car and the detective walked around to the driver’s side of the vehicle, Fischer tried not to smile.  That’s better.  Now he’s the one back on his heels.  “Where’d you meet?” he asked after pulling on his seat belt and starting the car.

            “In college,” Richter replied.  “I was retaking an American history class to improve my GPA for grad school.  She was a freshman then.  We married after she graduated.  I had moved back to Dubuque by that time because Mom had had a heart attack.  Karen wanted us to move to Peoria, but I couldn’t be that far away—in case something happened.”

            Fischer pulled onto Rhomberg and headed toward the river.  “You like Eagle Point?” he asked.

            “Yeah.  Sure.”

            “I like to go there and watch the barge traffic on the river,” the detective said.  “Won’t be many people out there, so we can get out and stretch our legs while we talk.”

            “Fine.”

            Fischer waited until they were stopped at a traffic light before asking his next question: “When did your mother start locking that front bedroom?”

            Richter stiffened.  He leaned forward in the seat and rested his arms on his knees,  studying the floor between his shoes.  The detective could feel the young man staring at him out of the corner of his eye.

            The air brakes on the bus in the next lane broke the silence.  The smell of diesel fuel drifted into the car as the bus pulled through the intersection.  Fischer released the brake and his vehicle also glided down the road.

            “I don’t know, exactly,” Richter answered without looking up. “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.”

Fischer watched the young man in the rearview mirror.  Richter stared at his feet.  His voice was steady.  He 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.”

This time, Richter turned slightly as he answered, but he returned his gaze to his feet.  Again, the young man’s answer was believable.  But Fischer wondered.

            “After my stepdad left,” Richter continued, “My mom became pretty distrusting.  You can understand that, can’t you.  The rest of 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.  “How long did you live with your step-father?”

            “Not long,” Richter replied.  “It was weird, you know.  When he was dating Mom, he was…I don’t know how to describe it…oily, maybe?  Anyway, he made me feel uneasy.  But Mom liked the attention and the flattery.  I told Mom not to marry him, but she just thought I was jealous or something.  But I don’t think that was it—at least, that wasn’t all of it.  You know what I mean?”  Richter turned and stared at Fischer.

            “I think so,” the detective replied.

            “So they get married and go off for a weekend honeymoon.  He brings Mom home and then disappears for three days.  When he comes back, he has his fifteen-year-old daughter with him.  I got sent to my room, but I still heard that fight.  ‘Who was this?’ and ‘Why didn’t you tell me about the girl?’  I remember hearing the slap.  And a half a second later, the front door slammed.  I was just starting to edge my way out of my room to see what happened when I heard the car screech away from the curb.”

            “I found Mom at the kitchen table.  She tried to cover her cheek, but I could see it was red.  She was crying.  And Lizzie was sitting on the other side of the table from Mom, staring at the ceiling fan, holding a little, stuffed cat.”

            Richter remained quiet until the detective pulled the car into a spot at Eagle Point Park.  The front of the car faced the river.  They had a good view of the lock and dam below.

            “I talked with Mrs. Hartwell earlier today,” Fischer said as he opened his door.  “She said Lizzie left, too.”  The detective nodded to Richter to get out of the car.

The pair headed over to the railing at the edge of the overlook.  “Yeah, she did,” the young man agreed.  “But that was after I joined the army.  I was just starting my first assignment out of boot camp when Mom told me she was gone.  Mom wanted me to come home.  But I couldn’t.”  Richter stopped in mid-thought.  “That’s…that’s not exactly true.  I never even tried to see if I could go home.  I had just gotten out to California the week before.  And I just didn’t want to go back home.”  Richter shook his head.  “Not a very thoughtful son, was I?  Not that I could have done anything.  Not really.  Except be there, I guess...” his voice trailed off.  He stared out across the water, leaning over the railing, resting on his outstretched arms.

“Yesterday, when I saw that girl and baby in the bedroom, I knew it had to be Lizzie.  She was wearing Mom’s wedding dress.  But Mom never told me Lizzie came back home.  And that little baby….”

The two of them watched as a barge entered the lock and the gates clunked closed behind it.

Richter turned around and stared back toward the car.  “I never asked about Lizzie.  Not once.  And Mom never said a word.  Can you believe it?  No wonder she had heart problems.  Think of the stress of keeping all of that a secret all these years.”

Fischer shrugged and looked back down at the river.  He waited a moment before asking, “You like working with tools?”

“What?  Me?” the young man said, “No way.  I am not a handyman.  Karen doesn’t even let me paint—not after the one and only time I tried to help her.” He laughed.  “The only thing I am good at is punching numbers into a computer.”

“Me, I like to work on furniture,” Fischer said.  “I’ve got a garage full of tools I don’t get to use nearly as much as I would like to.  I expect, after I retire, I’ll make or refinish more furniture than we have room for.”

“You really like that stuff?” Richter asked, shaking his head.

Fischer nodded.  “I really do.  It’s relaxing.”  He waited a moment before continuing, “So, what if your mother needed something done around the house, who would she call?”

“She wouldn’t have called me.  She was pretty independent when it came to keeping up the house,” the young man replied.  “I offered to do the lawn for her.  I did that when I was a kid.  But she said no.  She had someone who did it like she liked it, and she didn’t want to have to break me in again.  I asked her, ‘Are you saying I didn’t do the lawn the right way before?’ and she said, ‘I like the way the boy down the street does it now.’”

“What about the grass at your house?” Fischer asked.

“We live in a Condo,” Richter said.  “So, I don’t have to cut it there, either.  Which suits me just fine.  I am happy to sit in a chair and read the newspaper.  I don’t feel any great need to be out there shaping nature.”

The front gates on the lock were starting to swing open.

“I guess I should be getting you back to work,” Fischer said.

Richter looked at his watch.  “Yeah, I guess.  By the time we get back down to the bank, I’ll have used up my lunch hour.”

 

* * * * *

 

Maggie Fischer was just pulling roasted chicken out of the oven when her husband came in the house from the garage.  His brown sports coat was folded over his arm and his tie was loose.

            “Do I smell rosemary?” he asked, putting the coat over the back of a chair.

            “Yes,” she replied, setting the pan on top of the stove, “and other herbs.  We’re just having green beans, the chicken, and a little salad tonight.  I hope that’s okay.

            “It’s fine,” Fischer replied, stepping over to the sink and washing his hands and splashing some water on his face.

            “Long day?” she asked, looking at the clock.

            The elderly police officer nodded before drying his hands and face on several squares of paper toweling.  “Hard case.”  He smiled at his wife.  “Anything I can do?”

“You can set the table and fix the salad,” she told him.

As Fischer pulled out plates and bowls for the table, he asked, “And how was your day?”

“You know Helen Brandt, don’t you?”

“She the heavy-set woman I always accuse of singing too loudly at church?”

“Yes,” Maggie smiled.  “She’s the one.  She told me she’s a great grandmother for the sixteenth time.”

Fischer considered his reply to the comment carefully, trying to gauge his wife’s mood.  With no grandchildren of her own, Maggie could be unpredictable in her reactions to other’s blessings.  He disguised his unease by sorting through the silverware.  “Which of the grandkids had another child?” he asked.

“Steven and Laurie.  And they named the little girl Mary Helen—the first Helen in all the sixteen.”  Maggie took the beans out of the microwave and brought them to the table.  She returned to the stove for the chicken.

“Aren’t most of those grandkids boys?” he asked, putting the silverware on the table.

“Yes.”

“Well, you could hardly expect them to be named Helen.”

“Yes, you’re right about that,” she admitted, as she slipped into her chair at the table.  “I forgot the bread and butter,” she added.

“I don’t need any bread,” Fischer told her.  “Did you want some?”

“No, I guess not,” she replied.

Fischer sat down in his chair and took Maggie’s hand.  He smiled at her before beginning grace, “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this food….”

 

* * * * *

 

A late winter blast of cold and light snow greeted Fischer as he stepped outside the following morning.  He returned to the house to grab his overcoat.  “Looks like we got a little snow,” he called to Maggie.  “You be careful out there if you get out before it warms up.”

            “I will,” she promised.

            As he pulled into the street, Fischer heard the familiar squeal of wheels that accompanied impatient drivers’ attempts to back up slight hills from their garages to the streets.  Snow less that two weeks ago, and these people act like it’s new every time we get a little ice.  He shook his head and sighed.  Since it was Saturday, traffic was lighter than normal.  And since he was going to the police station, he didn’t have to cross the highway this morning.  The detective saw only one truck slide along a curb as it tried to stop on the slick roads.  There were no cars parked on the street where the skid occurred, so there was no damage.

            The old detective pulled his rusting Impala into his space at behind the station and walked the hundred yards to the back entrance of the newer part of the building.  The addition was four years old.  The city had decided to save money by not trying to match the granite and glass found on the original building, citing the fact that the red brick would not be visible from the street.  Fischer thought the addition looked like a scar on the back of the station.

            The detective stopped at the captain’s office to see if Stephenson had time to talk to him about the case.  As he approached the glass-fronted office, the captain, a short man with a military style hair cut, waved him in.

            “Peter,” he said, “just the man I wanted to see.”

            Fischer took a seat in front of the desk.

            “I was just looking at the photos that Johnson took at the Gilchrist house.  Have you seen them?”

            “Yes,” the older man replied.  “I picked them up yesterday before I went home.  Tell Johnson I appreciate his taking pictures of those windows, too.  I must be getting old.  I never even thought about their being sealed, too.”

            “You mean sealed that completely.  Because, if you’re like me, you use that plastic stuff on your windows every winter.”

            Fischer nodded.  “Yeah, that thin stuff you seal with a blow dryer.  But the windows at the Gilchrist place are sealed with that heavy-duty plastic.  And there was extra weather-stripping around the sash and between the top and bottom halves.”

            “Did you see the pictures of the hose?”

            “Yes,” the detective replied.  “I couldn’t see very well with just my flashlight when I was down in the basement yesterday.  But I figured the hole was going to be snug around the hose.  I just wasn’t expecting that rubber gasket to be used, too.”

            “Any ideas on who did the work?”

            “No,” Fischer said with a sigh.  “I thought it was going to be her son.  But I think the story I heard yesterday’s the truth.  I’ll need to ask his wife about his prowess with tools, but I am almost positive she’s going to confirm what he told me.”

            “So where does that leave us?”

            “I plan on talking to Mrs. Hartwell again next week.  She should be able to tell me who did odd jobs for her neighbor.  And I need to get the coroner’s final report about the causes of death for our mother and daughter.  But Coombs probably won’t have that until Monday afternoon.”

            “What about the woman—Mrs. Richter?” Captain Stephenson asked.

            “I talked to Valliant last night,” the old detective replied.  “He said she seems to be okay.  But he wants to keep her in the hospital until at least Monday, and he doesn’t want me talking to her until Monday morning.”

            “Anything I should be doing?”

            "Have we started looking for Herman Gilchrist?” Fischer asked.

            “We’ve put out the usual requests.  We know he hasn’t had his Iowa driver’s license renewed in the last ten years.  We’ve pulled his picture from his last license.  That’s been sent out.”

            “I really don’t think he’s part of all of it,” Fischer said.  “But I sure would like to talk to him, just the same.”

            “I can understand that,” the captain agreed.  “Keep me posted.”

            “Will do,” Fischer promised.  Then he left the office and headed across the crowded work area to a desk in the corner.  As he sat down to sort through his notes and compile yet another to-do list, the clicking of countless keyboards, the ringing of a dozen phones, and the voices of a score of people all talking at once blended together creating an auditory cocoon, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

 

* * * * *

 

 



Last UpDate: 06/05/2002 @ 1:59 PM CDT