11
Jan
09

The Creampuff

Johnny had never seen a body in that condition before. Neither had I but I’d learned enough to cover my disgust. I took a hard gulp of air and pulled back the sheet.

“What could’ve happened to make her swell up like that?” Johnny moaned. He and his bacon and eggs were fighting for the same air.

“I don’t know, but my guess is she’s been in that tub a while,” I said.

We’d received a call from the next-door neighbor about the Pekingese scratching to get in. That’s a sound that would go unnoticed in most neighborhoods. But this wasn’t most neighborhoods. The cost of living was a lot higher and everybody paid one way or another.

When we got to the house, the dog was still scraping at the door. She became frantic at the sight of us, growling and launching herself into the air. We opened the door and she flew into the kitchen. Concern for her mistress hadn’t diminished her appetite, but what we found in the bathroom was enough to put us off our food for a long time.

I covered the sodden mass that had once been a very attractive woman. I sent Johnny out front to breathe and sat on the edge of the coffee table to start my report. She’d been a real looker. No doubt about that. About twenty-seven. Brown hair and big green eyes. A slight cleft in her chin. Not a bold Kirk Douglas cleft. More of an afterthought. Five feet six. I’d have guessed her weight at a hundred, maybe a hundred and a quarter, but it was hard to tell. Now she was bloated to one and a half times her usual size. We’d found her floating in the tub and, feeling bad for the woman she’d been, Johnny pulled a sheet off the bed and spread it across the top of the tub.

“Coroner’s on his way,” Johnny said, coming back into the house. “Sorry I made such a fool of myself in the bathroom.”

“I don’t remember anything like that,” I said.

“You just get used to thinking about women a certain way and it catches you off guard to find them floating in a tub all puffed up like that.”

“Forget it. The coroner’ll be here soon and we can get down to business. To tell you the truth, I haven’t seen anyone in the condition who hadn’t been under water quite a while. In this neighborhood they’d have noticed something like that.”

Fred Johnson had been the coroner since I was a kid. It seemed to be his life’s work and he brought a little style to it. No matter what we threw at him, Fred was the old stone face. The bloodier the scene, the more stoic Fred became. At first there was challenge to see if anything would put Fred off his stride, but now we just pointed to the body and got out of the way.

“She’s in the tub, Fred. Under a sheet. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Fred opened the bathroom door and pulled back the sheet. I thought I saw one of his eyelids twitch then the usual Fred was back.

“What d’ya think?” I asked from the hall.

“I’m not sure what to think,” he said.

“Ever seen anything like that before?”

“Not in a bathtub. Only in rivers and lakes and such.”

“That’s what I thought, too. So what’s your first guess on the case?”

“I’ll have to check further into it but right off I’d say she drowned.”

“Drowned? In a bathtub?” Johnny had joined me in the hall.

“It’s possible,” Fred said. “It’s not common or likely, but it’s possible.”

“Do you think someone held her under?” Johnny asked.

“I didn’t see any signs of struggle. Did you?”

“We didn’t find anything out of place at all. It looks like she let the dog out for a run, turned on the radio, laid out fresh clothes, and settled into the tub for a nice soak,” I said.

“Well, I’ll have to take a good look at her but I’d say she drowned. Maybe she fell asleep. That happens sometimes. The sooner I get her out her, the sooner we’ll know something.” The attendants moved in to take her away and Johnny and I went back to our car.

Johnny was real quiet on the way downtown and I could tell he was thinking about the girl.

“She sure was pretty,” he said at last.

“I’m sure she was,” I said.

“Why would somebody kill a girl like that?”

“Maybe she fell asleep. Maybe it was suicide.”

“A beautiful girl like that would have everything to live for. She wouldn’t want to kill herself. Somebody hated her. Probably some other girl. She waited until this girl was alone and naked and vulnerable and then she sneaked in and held her under the water until the bubbles stopped.”

“You know that for sure?”

“What?”

“Do you know for sure that another girl killed her?”

“Well, that’s how it looks.”

“If you know for sure then you should be out there looking for her instead of in this car chewing on my ear. If you’re not sure then maybe we’d better wait for the coroner’s report.”

The next few days were routine dog bites man-man bites dog reports. About ten o’clock on Thursday morning, Jim Marshall stopped by my desk.

“Miller and Ives just had a call you might be interested in.”

“I might be. What is it?”

“A redhead was found floating in a bathtub over on 47th. She was a living doll from the sound of it. That is when she was living.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“The big news is that it wasn’t her bathtub. It belonged to Ed Schumley.”

“The plumbing king?”

“The same.”

“Hey! Ed Schumley’s married,” Johnny said from behind a stack if paperwork.

“Johnny was just about to get me a fresh cup of coffee,” I said. “Can he get one for you while he’s up?” Jim shook his head. Johnny strolled off in the direction of the coffeepot.

“Are you keeping him on a short leash?”

“Johnny’s a good kid. He just need some toughening up. He’s a kid. Now, what about the redhead?”

“Apparently Schumley’s landlady saw her go into his place a couple times before. She knows he’s married and she knows the redhead isn’t his wife. They show up today. About a half hour later she sees Schumley leave and figures now’s her chance to talk to the girl alone. They don’t know if she meant to shake her down of warn her away from him. The girl isn’t in any condition to talk about it now. The landlady knocked on the door and didn’t get any answer so she decided to try the knob. It opened and she waltzed in. She looked around quite a bit. They found her fingerprints all over the living room and kitchen. Then she went into the bathroom. Some colored glass figures were knocked off a shelf and they figure the landlady did that when she found the girl. Her name was Rochelle Sanders and she was twenty-eight years old. Her license says twenty-four but it lies. Old Fred thinks she drowned.” He handed me some papers and I scanned them quickly.

“How bad off is she?”

“Like I said, she was a living doll before. She swelled up like a sponge for some reason. I just don’t get it. I never saw anything like that brought in from a bathtub before. Well, I see you’re coffee’s here so I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thanks, Jim.” He nodded to Johnny and left. Johnny passed me my cup and sat down opposite me.

“What did he say about Ed Schumley?”

“They found another girl floating in a tub. Ed Schumley’s tub. They think this one drowned too.”

“Was she beautiful?”

“So it seems. Red hair. Twenty-eight years old.”

“You said ‘this one drowned too’, did the other one drown?”

“That’s what the corner said.”

“Did someone hold her under?”

“It doesn’t look like it. It could still be suicide but that seems less likely now that this redhead turned up.”

“So what do we do now?”

“What we always do. Fill out paperwork. Take calls. Drink coffee. And wait. The last two are the hardest.”

The next two days brought two more bodies. Neither of the girls was linked to Ed Schumley.

We were still seeking the owner of the house the first girl had been found in. No one was coming forward. The neighbor who’d called about the Pekingese was the only who would talk and she didn’t know much. She didn’t know the owner’s name and the one on the property tax records led nowhere. She said the dog belonged to the girl in the tub, who turned out to be Lorelei Jenkins -probably not her original name- and who had no outstanding debts with any merchants although she had accounts all over town. The owner of the house was a tall man in his early forties. He had brown hair and two-tone sedan. She thought he was probably married. Not much to go on. I asked her to keep her eyes open and someone was assigned to watch the house.

On Saturday afternoon a week later, Johnny and I sat down to sort out what we knew from what we didn’t. All five women were beautiful. All were in their late twenties. Rochelle’s parents lived out of state and were on vacation. The other girls were between boyfriends although they’d accumulated quite a list. Their histories had the same pattern: several relationships lasting over a year but recently a series of short affairs with nothing over six months.

When Johnny came in Monday morning, he looked as ragged as I felt.

“Here’s your coffee.”

“I’m gonna talk to the lieutenant about moving you to something a little less gruesome,” I said.

“Why d’ya want to do that?”

“I think this investigation is really getting to you.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You don’t look like you’ve slept in days.”

“Neither do you.”

“No, but it’s my job to get you off on the right foot and running yourself into the ground isn’t the way to do that.”

“It’s not just the case. I didn’t want to say anything but I broke up with my girlfriend last week. She always wears this cream to keep her from wrinkling up around the eyes. I guess it works, but it smells something awful. I don’t know why she needs it. She’s only twenty-three.”

“You sure about that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Rochelle Sander’s license said she was twenty-four. Her birth certificate said she was twenty-eight. One of them was lying.”

“Let’s go through it again,” he said. “Rochelle Sanders drowned, right?”

“That’s what the coroner says.”

“And the other girls?”

“Drowned.”

“Well, maybe it was suicide.”

“How do you figure?”

“All these girls were almost thirty. They weren’t getting any younger. They didn’t have a man in their life and they decided life wasn’t worth living alone.”

“Rochelle Sanders had Ed Schumley.”

“But not all to herself. They’d never get married or have kids or go out in public.”

“Mayor Guiliani did.”

“Ed Schumley’s not Rudolf Guiliani. Maybe she and the other girls decided it just wasn’t worth going on.”

“You got awful wise over the weekend. So far I’ll bite, but why so many girls all at once? And why would they commit suicide by drowning themselves in the tub? Drowning is a hard way to die. It takes a long time. It wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice.”

“Didn’t the Romans die in the tub?”

“Some of the Senators killed themselves in the tub. But they got slit their wrists and bled to death. There wasn’t a mark on these girls. And, like I said, even if you took the Senators’s way out it wouldn’t be the first choice.”

When the phone rang an hour later, I answered it.

“All right. We’ll be right over.”

“What’s going on?”

“They found another woman in a tub. They want us to come over and take a look.”

She was a blue-eyed blonde. You could still see traces of the bones that had made her a stunner. Johnny shook his head as the attendants moved her out.

“She reminds me a lot of my girlfriend. Same color hair. Same figure as far as you can tell. And there’s something else. I don’t know what it is.”

Our first good break came during lunch. I was eating a liverwurst on rye and drinking mine black. Johnny had a BLT and a Coke.

“What’s that on your sandwich? Liver?” He asked. I nodded. “I knew it. I hate the smell of liver. Ever since I was a kid. My mom would cook it on baseball nights and I’d come home full of hotdogs and mustard and all I could smell would be that liver.” I snapped my fingers at him.

“The smell. That’s it.”

“What is?”

“You said you broke up with your girlfriend because she wore a cream that smelled bad. Every bathroom we’ve been in smelled the same.”

“Maybe they wore the same perfume.”

“Not as likely as the same cleansing cream. Women like their perfu,e to be distinctive like a signature. They try not to wear the same scent as another woman. But a face cream doesn’t matter since you’re going to wash it off.”

“Where do we go from here?”

“We get someone to check it out and see if all the girls did use the same brand. It’s an awfully thin link if it does pan out, but so far it’s all we’ve got.”

About two o’clock Jim Marshall came by. Johnny stood up to get more coffee but I waved him back down.

“There’s a woman here you might like to talk to.”

“I might. Who is she?”

“She came by Rochelle Sanders’s apartment this afternoon to collect money that Rochelle owed her. She left her some make up and such to try and now she’d like to get paid.”

“We’ll see her in the cafeteria. Johnny?”

“Right behind you.”

Olivia Maxwell was a handsome woman. She’d probably never been beautiful. A sickly mixture of gardenia and lemon preceded her as she stood to meet me.

“You’re Ms Maxwell?”

“Mrs.,” she said sharply then smiled. “Yes. As I told the other gentleman I sold some beauty aids to Miss Sanders and have yet to receive any payment.”

“You understand that Miss Sanders is dead?”

“Yes. They told me that and I’m very sorry but I need to get the money from someone.”

“She’s dead and you still want the money?” Johnny said.

“Well you must understand. If it was up to me I’d say ‘forget it’. But it’s not up to me. If I don’t get the money from Miss Sanders or someone else it has to come out of my own pocket. These beauty aids are very expensive and I can’t afford that.”

“You keep saying ‘beauty aids’. Do you mean make up?”

“Make up and products which improve the skin and hair.”

“Do you sell a wrinkle cream that smells really bad?” Johnny said.

“Many of our products have a scent. None of them have an unpleasant scent.”

“My girlfriend uses some kind of wrinkle cream and it smells horrible. I told her it’s a waste of money. She doesn’t need it. She’s only twenty-three.”

“I think you girlfriend is very wise. It’s never too soon to begin taking care of your skin. Moisture is very important. We pride ourselves on our fine line of moisturizers.”

“Exactly how do those work?” I said.

“Different products work different ways. Some trap moisture in the skin. Some draw moisture out of the air into the skin. Our newest product does both. It absorbs moisture and helps your skin retain it. Would you like a demonstration?” She opened her purse and pulled out a raisin and a small jar. Unscrewing the jar, she dropped the raisin into the cream and prodded it with her finger.

“This product can turn a raisin into a grape,” she said. The raisin began to swell and lose its wrinkles. When it was plump and shiny, she pulled it out of the jar and squeezed it. “See? No moisture is released. It would do the same thing even for your skin.”

“Ma’am, have you sold a lot of this cream?” I said ignoring her jab.

“I sold some to Miss Sanders for which I still need to be paid. And I sold some to a few other girls.”

“How old were these girls, Ma’am? Remember anything about them?”

“Oh, they were beautiful girls. In their mid to late twenties. You know. That time of life when the little lines start appearing.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Where would a woman put this cream?”

“Anywhere the little lines are appearing. Especially around the eyes.”

“And this cream pulls moisture out of the air?”

“Certainly.”

“Have you encouraged anyone to add extra moisture?”

“Well, one young lady had particularly stubborn lines so I told her to rub some ice on the affected areas and that would help.”

“And did it help?”

“Umm… She overdid it a little bit.”

“What happened?”

“The area around her eyes was very swollen and she went to the dermatologist to have it massaged. Then she exercised strenuously and quit drinking for a few days and the excess moisture passed from her body.” I stood up and motioned for Johnny to follow.

“Thanks for your help, Ma’am. Let’s go, Johnny.”

“But what about my money?”

“You can sue the estate of Rochelle Sanders. Have a good afternoon.”

Johnny sat at his desk fiddling with a pen. He’d called his girlfriend and told her to stop using the cream because her life depended on it. She called him a control freak and a creep and told him to stop calling. He didn’t know if she’d stop. Part of him no longer seemed to care and he’d started drinking coffee instead of Coke.

“They did drown, didn’t they?”

“That’s right.”

“I still don’t entirely understand how.”

“I guess you could say they got greedy.”

“How’s that?”

“You got part of it right when you said they were going nowhere and not getting any younger. They decided to do something about that. The figured if a little cream and a little water would help them look a little younger then a lot of cream and a lot of water would help them look a lot younger. As far as I can tell, they applied the cream and got in the bathtub. The cream encouraged their skin to absorb water and not release it. They swelled to an unnatural size and became too heavy to lift themselves from the tub. But I guess they got their wishes in one way.”

“How’s that?”

“They won’t be looking any older.”

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