Archive for April 2nd, 2009


Fate Pays The Rent (Fourteenth Installment)

Chapter 5

When Clement arrived at his office twelve hours later, he half-expected to see Jeff still reading the newspaper and sitting with his feet propped on the bottom drawer. Instead the office was empty and it was nearly as dark as Aaron’s had been. Switching on the lights, Clement took out a filter, measured ground coffee, and began the lengthy process of brewing enough to fill the large canister. He sat down at his desk while he waited for the first batch to drip through and pushed the button on the answering machine.
“I know you told me you don’t sell those sausages with the peppers and the olives but I called all over town and nobody else does either. I had them before somewhere. Is there any way you could track them down and order me some? I’d be happy to pay you extra for your trouble. Call me back at 555-0127.”
“This message is for Mr. Powell. This is Mrs. Lamb. Thanks again for your visit to our school and for taking such an interest in the children. I received your voice-mail and I would very much like to meet with you to discuss your perspective on the challenges sensitive children face in our classrooms. It’s always nice to get input from members of our community. I’m free most weekdays after 3:30 p.m.”
“Clement, I’m really sorry about yesterday. I guess I’ve been kind of a jerk for a while. I haven’t been a very good friend, have I? I probably haven’t been very nice to Mari either. I called her and tried to apologize but she didn’t answer. Anyway, if you could call a lawyer when you get this message I’d really appreciate it. You know, like Perry Mason? The thing is somebody killed Aaron Whittaker last night. They killed him with a shovel. All the guns in this town and somebody uses a shovel. How weird is that? But it gets even weirder. The cops think I did it. Is that nuts? I wouldn’t kill anybody. Yeah, I was jealous about him and Mari and I told you I went to see him last night but I wouldn’t kill him. I mean, you’re the one who was talking about beating people to death. Right? Hey, I gotta go. Okay? Call somebody good, huh?”
The number “two” flashed on the answering machine. Clement dumped eight sugars and some milk into his travel mug before filling it from the freshly brewed pot. The lights flickered as he pushed the switch down then changed his mind and pushed it back up.

On television, the rooms in which people wait to be taken to talk with friends or loved ones who’ve been arrested are filled with seedy-looking couches and seedier-looking hookers. The magazines, if there are any, are old and dog-eared. The coffee was made last week and although it’s strong that strength is gained by dissolving and absorbing stirring spoons. The room in which Clement now sat was nothing like this; it reminded him of the business traveler’s lounge at a large metropolitan airport. Carefully arranged coffee-table books had been selected to compliment the deep-red leather sectional sofas, the birds-eye maple furnishings, and the café au lait carpet and valances. The woman who came toward him, hand extended in greeting, was also fashionably if conservatively dressed. Her hand was cool and soft and when she spoke her voice was too.
“Are you Mr. Powell?” Clement nodded. “I’m so glad you could come. Mr. Matthews is very upset. His attorney isn’t here yet and he hasn’t been able to reach his girlfriend.”
“The attorney I got and he’s on his way. The girlfriend is gonna be a little tougher to pull.”
“Mr. Matthews is under the impression she may have left town, that she may have left him.”
“Can I tell you something and you’ll keep it just between the two of us?”
“Of course. I don’t work for Mr. Matthews; I work for everyone.”
“Let’s just say then that Mr. Matthews hasn’t been acting in an exactly rational manner lately. Let’s also say that his impressions about his girlfriend aren’t off-base.”
“Do you know where she is? Can you contact her for him?”
“The answers are ‘no’ and ‘I wouldn’t if I could’.”
“I see. It’s like that?”
“It’s exactly like that.”
“Not quite the kind who’d do anything to help a friend, Mr. Powell?” A short man in a dark gray chalk-striped suit had come through a door while Clement and the woman were talking.
“I happen to believe that preventing someone who isn’t thinking clearly from doing something they’ll regret later is helping a friend.”
The man in the gray suit grunted. “You say you got him a lawyer?”
“That’s right.”
“Who is it?”
“Malcolm Case.”
“He’s no Ben Matlock but he’s better than somebody you could have found by sticking the Yellow Pages with a pin.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Did you know the victim?”
“I knew of him. I heard about him a lot and I met him once.”
“When was that?”
“Last night about eight.”
“How was he when you saw him?”
“In pain. He had a migraine. He drank some coffee and it seemed to be getting better.”
“If that’s true it got a lot worse after you left. You have anything pressing you wanted to say to Mr. Matthews?”
“Not really.”
“Then let’s go.” He turned to the woman who had been following their conversation as one might a ping pong match. “Tell Matthews his attorney is on the way and I’ll be back. I want to take Mr. Powell over to the scene to get some initial impressions and thoughts before the place gets any more tracked up.” He started toward the door Clement had come through what seemed like moments before.
“Why are you taking me? How do you know I didn’t do it?” Clement took several quick steps to catch up.
“The person who did this was passionate, crazy or both. You’ll understand more when you see the place but I could tell as soon I heard you talking with Sylvia that this was not something you could have done.”
“To put it bluntly: you think too much, you analyze things. The person who killed Mr. Whittaker went in there on a mission; they were fired up and intended to have satisfaction. You’d never kill like that. It would have to be a spur of the moment thing. Maybe somebody would push you too far and you’d wrench off their Doc Marten and beat them to death with it.” He chuckled and Clement turned to look at him. “Yes, Mr. Matthews told me about the little trick he played on you yesterday. He had motive, he had opportunity, he had the means, and he’s just close enough to the edge to have slipped over it last night then caught hold and dragged himself back up this morning.”
“The tinted windows you have on your cars- do they keep you from seeing out or only keep other people from seeing in?”
“They couldn’t keep us from seeing out. It wouldn’t be safe for one thing plus we wouldn’t be aware of what’s going on around us. Why?”
“I was just hoping they did. I’ve seen enough of the neighborhood around that office to last me a lifetime.”
“You’re not the one at work; you don’t have to keep your eyes open. Sit back, close your eyes, and pretend you’re going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. Of course, when you get there you’ll find out someone decapitated Grandma last night while you were asleep.”
“Is that what happened? Someone decapitated him with a shovel?”
“I’m not saying any more about it until you’re there. Be a good boy. Close your eyes. Enjoy the ride.”
Clement closed his eyes and rested his head against the cushioned seat. The words “elephants”, “paint”, and “multi-vitamins” began chasing each other around in his brain. “Hibachi” joined them. Then they were all replaced by “re-agent” and “reducing sugar”.
“What did you say about a hibachi?” Clement sat up and realized he had made a small puddle of drool on the car window.
“You were really out. The hibachi was awhile ago.”
“Sorry.” Clement looked at the puddle then at his sleeve. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dried the window.
“Look, you’ve made a clean place.”
“I was asking if you’d ever heard of Benedict’s Solution?”
“No. I don’t play chess.”
“It sounds like chess, doesn’t it? It’s a chemical though. They use it to test for sugar in a solution. My grandma used it in the old days to see how much candy she could eat.”
“Yeah. This was before the blood-testing machines.”
“Wow. Decapitation and urine all in the same morning.”
“Perk of the job.”
“So, why were you asking?”
“They found some in Whittaker’s desk.”
“Don’t know.”
“Any idea what he did in there? I don’t remember seeing any signs and there was nothing on the door. He had an old coal mining shovel. The only reason I know that is he told me not to knock over his dad’s shovel and as I was leaving I kicked it.”
“Weird heirloom.”
“Assay office?”
“You mean filing mining claims and like that?”
“Not many new mines starting. Even if he inherited the business he’d have to be doing something on the side.”
“Maybe he inherited the money that went along with it. Maybe he got a couple of old mines that were still producing from his dad along with the shovel.”
“Maybe. More likely he’s been using the office for something else.”
“What? Smuggling?”
“Possible. This would be a tough time to be doing any smuggling. The TSA has really clamped down on what people can ship. It would have to be something that’d make you a lot of money and that would be so sought after people would be willing to take the risk.”
Clement smacked the arm-rest. “I’ve got it!”
“Blow-up dolls to the Middle East.”
“You serious?”
“Not a bad idea for a racket though. I like the way you think.” He pulled into the same parking spot Clement and Jeff had used on their trip to the offices. “You ever see a guy without his head?”
“Not the Hollywood smoke and mirrors guy loses his head to a chainsaw. I mean have you ever seen a real guy or a real anything without its head?”
“A roasted chicken. The Thanksgiving turkey.”
“That’s what I thought. We can take it slow.” He opened the door and stepped out of the car.
A man by the door of the building spotted him and started walking over. “Hey, Buzz. I figured we’d see you around here sooner or later. How’s it going?”
“It’s going, Jim. This is Clement. He knows the guy we got in the room and he met and talked with the victim not long before he probably got it.”
“That’s rough.”
Clement eased himself from the car and smoothed his jacket down. “Is there any coffee around?”
Jim came forward and clapped him on the back. “Sure thing, Columbo. Right this way.”
Clement stood beside a window on the third floor holding his cup with both hands. The window was not the one in Aaron’s office which faced the street and the traffic; this window looked the opposite way toward the area that was still fields. In one of the fields, he could see a small gray shape beside a patch of dandelions. The creature tore some of the yellow flowers from their stems and chewed them thoughtfully before returning for another mouthful. Chew, swallow, repeat. Chew, swallow, repeat.
“Sometimes I think I’m in an endless loop just like that goat. Work, sleep, repeat. Work, sleep, repeat.”
“His life doesn’t look so bad. He doesn’t pay taxes. He comes and goes as he pleases. Butting his head into things that bother him actually makes a difference.”
“I wonder what it’s like being a goat in a field and seeing all the places you used to eat dandelions being paved over or having offices dropped onto them.”
“That’s a domesticated goat,” Buzz said. “He doesn’t get around much anyway, probably doesn’t care.”
“I bet he does care. I bet he doesn’t like looking at these things any more than we do.”
“Come on, it’s not like he was a mountain goat and he was used to scaling the Alps or roaming around the Rocky Mountains. For all we know, he thinks this thing is a mountain and he’s mad because he can’t get loose and come over here and climb the side of it.”
“It’s not good for us. Not for goats and not for people.”
“What isn’t?”
“Being penned up, having to look at so many other people or other goats or big piles of stone you can’t climb up and you can’t jump over.”
“You seemed like the real civilized type to me. The kind that likes his indoor plumbing and his dry cleaners and his refrigeration.”
“But too much civilization makes people act uncivilized. They do crazy things: shooting people, mugging people, assaulting them with containers of grape jelly.”
“Yeah, I bet you see all kinds in the chicken strip sales business.” Clement laughed and finished his coffee.
“Sorry. Probably preaching to the choir, huh?”
“A little.”
“What was it like in there?” Clement jerked his head towards the office.
“I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you it’s pretty but it’s also not the worst thing I’ve seen. I’m not gonna tell you what that was so don’t even ask.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“You only met the guy once, right?”
“Then maybe it won’t be too bad. If it really starts getting to you, you can come back out here and keep an eye on your new friend.”