“They found Mari on a bus headed for Gearhart, Oregon.”
“What? What the hell time is it?” Clement unwrapped the cord for the cell phone charger from his arm and sat up to look at his alarm clock.”
“It’s 7:30,” Buzz said. “Did I wake you? I figured you’d be getting ready for work.”
Clement unplugged the cell phone and tucked the end of the charger cord behind the bedside table. He got up and walked over to the closet. “Yeah, I should have been.”
“Did you set your alarm?”
“No. I forgot. I never do that but I got in late last night from riding the bus and-“
“You were on the bus again? You oughta get a new car.”
“Yeah, that’s what Kenny said last night.”
“Kenny?”
“I can’t believe I forgot to set the alarm.”
“I believe it. You’ve got a lot on your mind. You’ve got a friend in jail accused of murder and an unreliable car.”
“Forget the car. What were you saying about Mari?”
“I was still wondering about Kenny but okay. They found Mari on a bus headed for Gearhart, Oregon.”
“Did she have relatives there or something?”
“No. She was actually headed for Peachtree, Georgia but she figured while she was on the road why not stop and see the beautiful Pacific Ocean.”
“Yeah, why not?”
“The answer to that would be if anyone knew her and knew she loved the ocean they wouldn’t have had much trouble tracking her down. The area along the Oregon and Washington coast isn’t that big.”
“No kidding. You talk to her yet?”
“No. She’s smarter than Clement thought she was because as soon as she got back into town she got lawyered up.”
“You want me to try to talk to her?”
“You’re pretty smart too. Even if you don’t know how to operate an alarm clock.”
“I can’t talk to her first thing this morning because I need to take care of some things in the office. We’ve been getting some weird calls lately and I feel like I should see what’s going on. I wasn’t in yesterday and Jeff was gone yesterday and, obviously, won’t be in today either. Is Jeff coming in today?”
“Not unless Mari throws her lawyers out and starts singing.”
“Right. So, no Jeff.”
“That sounds right. How long will it take you to get everything sorted out at the office?”
“Everything? Longer than both of us have left on Earth. I can probably get a handle on these weird calls and put a couple of irons in the fire by noon. You want me to meet you there?”
“Yeah, at noon. When you say weird calls what do you mean?”
“Not creepy or harassing kind of weird. People have been calling and asking for products we don’t sell.”
“You sell chicken strips.”
“Yeah, just the plain frozen breaded kind.”
“Sounds awful.”
“No, just boring. We go to trade shows and sometimes the boss sends us out on good-will missions.”
“That’s where you were two days ago when you met the kid who explained what Mari was working on.”
“Right. I went back there yesterday afternoon and had a long talk with the principal.”
“About the kids?”
“About them and I wanted to get her impression of Jeff.”
“And?”
“She thinks he has a great capacity for mischief but would never do anything really bad.”
“Does she consider murder to be really bad?”
“I didn’t ask her but I got the feeling she would.”
“That was either brave or foolish of you.”
“What was?”
“Volunteering to go to the principal’s office.”
“Yeah, she’s good people.”
“That doesn’t sound like something you’d usually say.”
“You’re right. It’s probably from spending so much time on the buses.”
“Blame it on the working poor. I’ll see you at noon and you can explain about Kenny.”
“Deal.”

Clement drained the day-old coffee into a large pitcher and dumped it down the sink before dismantling and washing the coffee urn. He wrapped his index finger in a soapy paper towel and scrubbed inside each piece. “Why the hell are these people calling and asking for things we don’t sell?” He remembered how his mouth had watered when the woman described the sausages filled with chicken, green pepper and kalamata olives and Jeff saying, “I wish we did sell those.” He rinsed the pieces and set them on a three-layer stack of paper towels to air-dry. Opening the refrigerator, he found a can of Red Bull, which he took, and the last half of a tuna sandwich bearing impressions of the eater’s fingers , which he did not. Sitting down at his desk, he popped the top on the can, set it on the upper left corner of the blotter, and pulled his Rolodex closer.
“Yeah, Mike? This is Clement Powell. Yeah, like you know a lot of other Clements. You ever hear of sausages with chicken, green peppers and kalamata olives in them? Who’d know about them? Some woman called me and asked if I could track them down for her and she’ll pay me extra. I dunno. I think they sound good too. Yeah, I’ll let you know if I find them. Thanks.”
He flipped several cards forward. “Eco Meats. Who the hell is Eco Meats? Must have been from a trade show.” He continued to look through cards but kept coming back to Eco Meats. He dialed. “Yeah, you’re gonna think I’m crazy but I’m looking for some sausages made with chicken, green peppers and kalamata olives. Do you have anything like that? You do? Oh, this is Clement Powell from Rockin’ Rooster. Yeah, the plain breaded chicken strips. How many to a package do the sausages come? Really? What else do you have? With curry and apples? Well, it doesn’t grab me but I’m more of a Nathan’s Finest guy. Could you fax me over a price list? No, I’ve got somebody calling me wanting to know if I can order them and she’ll pay me extra. No, I’ve never thought about jumping ship. No no, just send me the price list. Yeah. 555-4166. Got it?” Clement hung up the phone and put a paper clip on the Rolodex card for Eco Meats. Then he called the woman from King Foods and told her he was waiting on a price list and he’d be in touch and yes she was very welcome and no he hadn’t thought of selling the sausages himself instead of the chicken strips which weren’t very good. She thanked him again, he hung up, he picked up the Red Bull, turned off the lights and went downtown to talk to Mari.

The room Mari, Clement, and Buzz now sat in was light green. It was otherwise indistinguishable from the blue one the two men had visited the day before. Even the coffee in the cups appeared to be the same.
“Mari, why were you headed for the Oregon coast?”
“Clement told me Jeff wasn’t acting right and I should get out of town.” She looked at Clement who nodded.
“Why the beach? Does that seem like a safe place for you to go?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mari, don’t most people who know you know how much you love the beach?”
“Yeah.”
“So why would you go there?”
“Because I never have time to go to the beach. I’m always working or I have to drag someone like Jeff along who hates being there and gripes the whole time. I figured that this time I had an excuse to be out of town and while I was going on a trip anyway I might as well stop at the beach.”
“You were going to Alabama by way of the Oregon coast?”
“Yes.” She stuck out her bottom lip.
“Mari, did you kill Aaron Whittaker?”
The bottom lip shot in like a spring-loaded cash register drawer. “You can’t just ask me like that.”
Buzz looked confused. “I can’t ask you like what?”
“You can’t just come right out and ask me if I killed Aaron yet. You asked me about the beach and now you have to ask me if I knew Aaron and if we were still seeing each other and if we’d had an argument and if there was any reason for me to want to kill him.”
“I know you were seeing each other and I know you knew each other so why would I ask you that?”
“That’s just how it’s done.”
“How it’s done where?”
“Anywhere. Everywhere. CSI or Matlock or Columbo. You can’t go right to ‘Did you kill him’. You have to ease into it. You know, lead up to it a little more.”
Buzz put his coffee cup on the table and stood up. He was just a little taller than Mari when everyone was on their feet but now he was the only one standing. “We’re not going to do it that way, Mari. Because this is my room and I’m asking the questions so I get to decide how things are done but also because I don’t know just that you and Aaron were still seeing each other. You’re not the first person I’ve talked to so I know a lot of things. I know about the Millennium Prize and that you had your eye on winning it.” Mari looked daggers at Clement but Buzz continued, “I know you’re smart enough to be working on one of the problems and to possibly solve it. Jeff knows too.” Mari put her hands on top of her head. “He doesn’t know you’re seeing Aaron but he does know you’re a lot smarter than you’ve been pretending to be. That’s one scam you won’t be running any more.”
“It wasn’t a scam. Yeah, I’m smart and yeah I hid it but you don’t get it. When people know you’re smart they expect you to act smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes I just didn’t have it. Everybody does stupid things sometimes but once people know you’re smart they don’t let you get away with that.”
“They don’t let you get away with murder either. Even setting people up for murder takes more intelligence than most people have. Agatha Christie couldn’t pull it off so what makes you think you can?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mari was squeezing her Styrofoam cup and nibbling the edge.
“I think you do. You’re looking at Clement and I think that’s a good thing. It’s only right that you finally pay attention to the dumb goat you intended to hang everything on.”
“What?” Mari stood up and she was nearly eye to eye with Buzz.
“Sit down. I’m asking the questions in this room.” Clement, started to intervene but Buzz gave him a hard look and he sank back into his chair. After a moment, Mari sat down as well. “You’re the one who told Jeff that Aaron had nude photos of you. You knew that Jeff would want them back and you knew he was too much of a coward to either confront Aaron or to go in and get them himself. What he would do is pass the job along to his good friend, the supreme gentleman, Clement. But Clement wouldn’t just barge right into the office and toss things around looking for the photos. Clement would be seen in the area a lot while he was researching Aaron’s schedule and determining the best time and the best way to go in. He might even talk with the man himself to get a better feel for how best to do this job for you. You knew all that because you did research yourself and you knew that not only is Clement a good friend but he’s a sucker for anyone in trouble.”
“No. You’re wrong about all of that. Your wife should be the one getting out of town because you’re the one who’s completely irrational.”
“I don’t think so. Why did you call Clement from the party at your friend Allison’s house?”
“I didn’t mean to. I’d been drinking and I guess I got kind of lonely so I called him.”
“If you were lonely, why didn’t you call your boyfriend?”
“Because he didn’t care about me the way Clement did. Clement wanted to know how I was going to get home and whether I had a safe place to be and Jeff asked me none of those things. I wanted to talk to someone who really gave a damn about me.”
“No. That’s a pretty story but I don’t buy it and I hope Clement doesn’t buy it either. You called to thank him for going after the pictures because you knew that, if he hadn’t retrieved them yet, your call would be just the spur to get him moving. You called him to help alleviate any doubts he might be having about the whole thing.”
“No. I was lonely.”
“You weren’t lonely; You set him up right from the beginning. He knows that now. He also knows there never were any pictures.”
Mari stuck her bottom lip out again and looked at Clement. “You must think I’m awfully silly to be asking you to get pictures when there weren’t even any pictures to get.”
“No, I think I was silly. Silly and stupid and pathetic. Only somebody who was all of those things would have been an attractive target for you. Jeff was in love with you and you didn’t pick him. He wasn’t desperate enough for your attention, I guess.”
Mari stood and walked to the wastebasket. She dropped the half-full cup into the can and a little of the coffee splashed up onto the wall. “You’re not so innocent in all this. You were always hanging around us waiting to see what would happen. Maybe you were hoping Jeff and I would split up and you’d get a chance with me or maybe you just got your jollies imagining what went on after Jeff and I left you in the living room at the end of the night. You’re not just pathetic; You’re also a voyeur.”
“This is entertaining as well as educational,” Buzz broke in, “but you still didn’t answer the original question of whether or not you killed Aaron Whittaker. You might as well have after all the work you went to covering your butt. You set Clement up and then he gave you an excellent alibi by telling you to get out of town. So, did you do it?”
Mari sat down at the table again. She leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. She looked at the two men. Low, muffled voices came through the wall from the room on their right. A phone rang five times before it was answered. “Did I kill Aaron Whittaker?” She smiled and shrugged. “The honest answer? Not really.”
“All right, now I’m the one feeling blonde,” Buzz said. “How does one not really kill someone?”
“It’s easy. Aaron was decapitated with a shovel, right?”
“That’s been established.”
“I didn’t do that.”
“You didn’t cut off his head with a shovel?”
“No, I didn’t. So if that was the cause of death then I didn’t kill him and whatever I may or may not have done before that is irrelevant. Right?” She uncrossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and smiled again.
“Technically, that’s true. I’d still like to know what you did before that. Just for my own peace of mind.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. I probably shouldn’t have told you I might have done anything except I was trying to be clear.”
Clement placed his hand beside Mari’s but didn’t take it. “Mari, I’m sorry for what I said before but I was really hurt when I found out you were just using me as a cover for Aaron’s murder. Don’t you want to help us find out who killed him?”
Mari slipped her hand into Clement’s. She squeezed it and looked at him with soft eyes. Clement squeezed back. She increased the pressure and her gentle smile became a sneer. She dropped Clement’s hand. “Why no, Clement, I don’t particularly want to help you find out who killed my ex-boyfriend. Why the hell should I care who killed him? He was my ex-boyfriend, emphasis on the word ‘ex’. Yeah, we still saw each other now and then and he was okay to talk to about math or science or gadgets but I didn’t love him, I didn’t like him and I don’t give a rat’s hindquarters who killed him as long as everyone is clear on the fact that it wasn’t me.”
“But we’re not clear on that. A million dollars is a lot of money and you’ve already told us you were in his office last night.”
“No, I didn’t.” She stood and walked to the wall and back. “All right, maybe I did tell you that in a roundabout way but I didn’t have any reason to kill him. All right, maybe that’s not entirely true either but I didn’t kill him. Look at me! Do I look big enough to be able to sever someone’s spinal cord with a shovel? Especially somebody who was fighting with me?”
“You can do anything if you get enough leverage. Buzz, isn’t that what you told me when we were in Aaron’s office?” Buzz nodded. “And I don’t believe Aaron was fighting with you when he was killed. They found his body in almost the same spot he’d been in when I left him earlier that night.”
“Yeah? So maybe you killed him and it wasn’t a set-up at all.” She was smiling.
“Absolutely out of character and no motive. No, Mari, you are suspect number one right now.”
“Well, I didn’t do it. I didn’t cut off anybody’s head with a shovel whether you think I could or not. Maybe I did something else and maybe I didn’t but you’re not gonna find out either way unless I get some promises.”
“You’ve gotten a lot smarter since you came in and sat down.”
“Maybe I had to. Maybe a girl has to get smart when you’re talking about swinging at the end of rope.”
“We don’t have hanging in this state.”
“Well, being lit up like a Christmas tree then.”
“Or the electric chair.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got no intention of dying for something I didn’t do and I don’t want to talk any more about it until I talk to my lawyer and he talks to somebody with the clout to keep me out of this.”
“Where is your lawyer? I can’t imagine what he was thinking letting you come in here and shoot your mouth off.”
“I told him I didn’t need him to come with me. He wanted to but I told him he didn’t need to because I was just going to be having a talk with my old friend Clement.”
“Then as soon as you saw I was gonna be here too you should have called him and had him come in.”
“Yeah, I should have. ‘Woulda shoulda coulda’ as my mother always says. But I didn’t. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t say anything I can’t deny later. I didn’t say anything you can hold me to. The only thing I said for sure is that I did not kill Aaron Whittaker. I don’t like the way this conversation is going and since I’m not under arrest and I have other things I’d like to do today, I would like to get the hell out of here.”
Buzz knocked on the wall beside the door and Mari was let out. Clement saw a gray-haired man come forward and take her arm. “She’ll probably get everything she wants,” Buzz said, when the door was closed.
“Why? How can you promise to keep her out of it when she might be the one who killed Aaron?”
“Because she’s right that the ultimate cause of death was determined to be decapitation.”
“But let’s say she really did do something before the other person came in and cut his head off. What if she did something that made it easier for them to decapitate him?”
“She’s an accessory.”
“What if she thought she killed him or thought she’d left him to die then someone else came along?”
“And finished the job.”
“Yeah, and she didn’t know anything about that until somebody told her. What if as far as she was concerned Aaron was dead or nearly dead?”
“That’s an interesting idea. If there’s any truth to what you’re saying then she must have been awfully surprised when they hauled her off the bus and brought her back and it wasn’t in cuffs.”
“How could she have done it? What’s a way she could kill him without really killing him?”
“Now, you’re confusing me. I gotta ask Sylvia something. You wanna wait out here in a nicer chair in a room that actually has windows?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
The two men went into the larger room and Clement selected a chair and a magazine. Buzz walked over to Sylvia’s desk. “Do we have the toxicology report on Aaron Whittaker? Also stomach contents?”
“It’s right here.” Sylvia shifted some papers on her desk and pulled a brown folder from the pile.
“Thanks.” Buzz walked back to where Clement was sitting. He opened the folder and scanned the reports. “She didn’t poison him.”
“The report says that?”
“In so many words. The tox screen was negative on all known drugs and poisons.”
“Damn.”
“Stomach contents consisted of some walnuts, some cranberries, some cream cheese, and bits of a chocolate covered espresso bean.”
“That’s it?”
“Yep.”
“You know, in a way that makes sense.”
“How?”
“Aaron told me he had a migraine. It’s a little weird that he was in his office instead of home or somewhere more comfortable but maybe this was the place he felt the most at home. Or maybe it came on pretty quickly and he didn’t feel able to drive anywhere else.”
“My aunt had migraines that would lay her out. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t walk. The only thing that helped her feel better was puking.”
“Hey! You said your aunt couldn’t eat.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So, Aaron Whittaker was diabetic. What do you suppose would happen to someone who was diabetic and who was unable to eat regularly?”
“Obviously their blood sugar would drop.”
“If it gets low enough you go into a coma, right?”
“Yeah. Are you wondering where the walnuts come in?”
“Aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I’m also wondering how someone who couldn’t drive ended up with cranberries and cream cheese in his stomach.”
“And a chocolate covered espresso bean.”
“That too.”
“There’s another thing I’ve been wondering about.”
“Can we talk about it over some coffee and a BLT?”
“Sure. I’m picking the place this time.”
“Any place but Anna’s.”
“What?”
“Hey, I’m all for cleanliness but I like a little flavor in my food even if it does mean swatting a few flies.”
“You’re a cretin.”
“Yeah, it’s healthier that way.”

He took him back to Brad and Vicky and the A&W. Except it wasn’t Brad today; it was a red-headed kid named Tanner who was even less ept than Brad. Vicky, who was in charge for the moment, supervised the making of three BLTs before one passed her muster. Both men ordered root beer floats and Clement rocked Buzz by asking for a large Coney Island.
“I can’t believe you frequent a place like this. I can’t believe you’d eat something like that especially when it was made by him.”
“I’m sure, it’s okay; Vicky kept a close eye on him.”
“Oh ho, so you’re a regular.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I came out here the other day after I had lunch at the school. I was hoping some real food would help me recover from the sloppy Joe I’d had at lunch but then I didn’t have the nerve to put any fast food on top of it.”
“Which explains how you knew the employees’ names but not why you’re sitting there with a giant Coney.”
“Let’s say I was feeling nostalgic.”
“Yeah?”
“We used to go to A&W on road trips when I was a kid.”
“You still see your family?”
“No. We aren’t what you might call close.”
“What happened? Are you the black sheep of the family?”
“You know what? I think it’s a little early in our relationship for you to be psychoanalyzing me. Usually that kind of thing doesn’t happen until two people have slept together which you and I aren’t gonna. I wouldn’t say I was the black sheep, I would say people were disappointed. They thought I was smart and they thought I was probably gonna do great things with my life and make the world a better place for all living things and it didn’t happen. I haven’t made the world a better place and what I do is sell chicken strips that are generally acknowledged to be nasty.”
“How do you feel about selling nasty chicken strips?” Buzz was smiling. “You said you had another question about Aaron Whittaker. You’ve done your part; I’m sitting here with a BLT. Fire away.”
“How did he get there? I didn’t see a car in the lot when I drove up around eight.”
“He could have walked over. He didn’t live far from the office. That’s probably one of the reasons he chose the new complex when he moved the office from downtown.”
“It used to be downtown?”
“Yes, when Whittaker’s father started the business it was right near the center of town. That was partly so customers could find him and partly because at that time that’s all the town there was. A few years ago the powers that be determined the old building could be more useful as condos and everybody had to go. Aaron decided to take advantage of the situation by moving into the new complex which was a medium walk from his home.”
“He couldn’t have walked there after the migraine started, right?”
“It depends on how they are for him. Judging from everything you’ve told me, I’d say he wouldn’t have done much walking if he could avoid it.”
“That means he went to the office before the migraine got really bad. Why? I mean, yeah it was dark there and quiet but why go to the office.”
“Not a place I would choose or many other people would for that matter. But, like you said, it was dark and quiet. It had familiar and comforting things in it, stuff that had belonged to his dad. Mostly, I’m guessing, it was the idea that it was a controlled environment. Nobody knew he was there or expected to see him there so he could be left to recover without anyone bothering him.”
“Right. Just me and Mari and whoever cut off his head with a shovel. Did you guys find out what those rocks were?”
“Some ochre, some malachite, and we’re still working on the blue one. Nothing worth killing anyone over.”
“Isn’t it funny how we say that?”
“What?”
“’Nothing worth killing anyone over’. Like if he’d had different rocks in his office there would be justification for his being dead now. Like there’s a good reason for killing someone, for cutting their head off with a shovel.” Brad and Vicky had competed an order for a family of five and they slid the trays across the counter towards them. Each parent picked up a tray and the mother gathered the children around her and urged them, duck-like, to a table on the far side of the restaurant.
“I thought you didn’t know this guy. I thought you only talked to him once.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s the senselessness of the whole thing. One day you’re talking to a man about good and evil and Saul and David and the next day you find out someone cut his head off. The fathers go out to get food for their chicks and they come back to discover a bird ate them and it was a waste of time.” One of the little boys looked at their table and giggled. His mother, following his eyes, tapped his cheeseburger sternly.
“Okay, you’re scaring mothers and children and you’re starting to sound like Jeff. I’m not saying it isn’t hard to find out someone you knew has been murdered and I’m not saying you’re wrong to be angry or even scared about all this. But let’s figure out who did it so you can feel at least a little satisfaction on that count.” They chewed and swallowed in silence. KC declared that was the way, presumably answering an unheard question regarding his preference, he liked it. The little girl tussled with her older brother over a French fry. Their father said something low and decisive. The girl slumped back against the booth. “I can see why your family was disappointed because even when you’re not paying any attention to what you’re saying you still come up with something that makes sense.”
“I’m not sure if I’ve been complimented or insulted. What are you talking about?”
“Justification for killing someone.”
“Yeah?”
“In our society we usually accept that there are certain situations that excuse killing someone.”
“If they break into your house?”
“Yeah, in some places. There’s also self-defense.”
“Aaron Whittaker had a migraine and he was lying on the floor. I heard him sit up and if you’d heard the agony he was in you couldn’t be convinced he was capable of hurting anyone.”
“Or protecting someone,” Buzz continued.
“There again, I don’t see how Aaron could have been a danger to anybody. The man was in extreme pain. He couldn’t even reach up to the desk to get his own thermos of coffee.”
“And you’re sure it was sincere?”
“I don’t know. Can you fake a migraine? Women have been accused of faking things but I’ve always heard there was a purpose to what they did. What would be the benefit of holing up in a dark room and lying on the floor if you weren’t actually sick? I guess we could check with people who knew him and find out whether he actually suffered from migraines. Maybe Mari would tell you something if you promise her enough.”
“She’s someone else’s problem right now and I’m willing to keep it that way. Besides, everything we’ve seen so far has been consistent with the reality that he was suffering a migraine. He was in the dark, he was lying down, he was drinking coffee, he made disturbing noises when he tried to sit up, and he hadn’t eaten much all day.”
“Wait a minute, how do you know that?”
“Stomach contents report.”
“Could the migraine have been brought on by low blood sugar?”
“I’d have to check into it but my gut instinct says that even if it could be this one wasn’t.”
“Why?”
“He’d been diabetic for years, I’m guessing here, and he knew how important it was to keep his blood sugar stable.”
“Yeah, but cream cheese and cranberries and chocolate aren’t exactly low in sugar. Is that what you’d expect somebody to be eating if they wanted things to be stable?”
“No, but people who are diabetic do screwy things sometimes. I knew a girl who used to wash down Godiva chocolates with champagne.”
“Hold on. He said something about maybe having to excuse himself to throw up.”
“He was probably hoping he would. Migraine affects the nausea center of the brain. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to throw up.”
“So, we can assume he hadn’t already thrown up or he would have been feeling better?” The family was leaving now and as they were passing Clement’s table, the smaller of the boys mimed making himself vomit. His mother swatted him with the hand not holding the tray of garbage.
“You’re thinking that if he had been able to eat something earlier in the day and then he’d thrown it up the only thing left would be whatever he ate after he threw up.”
“Right. Which would be the cranberries and cream cheese.”
“I think it’s going to be pretty tough to figure out whether or not he threw up. ‘You can’t dust for vomit’ as they said in Spinal Tap.”
“How long does it take to digest cream cheese? Or cranberries?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’ve got another question you probably can answer.”
“Yeah?”
“Who called it in?”
“What?”
“Who called 911? Who called the police or whoever and said ‘Hey, I found a dead body in this office’? Was it one of the cleaning people?”
“Tanner’s looking a little anxious up there. You wanna see if they have anything that passes for coffee?”
“Sure.” He came back empty-handed to hear Buzz signing off a phone call. “Tanner says they do but since we seem like we’re okay he wouldn’t recommend it. Vicky suggested a frozen mocha dessert type thing.”
“God help me. You might be wondering who that was on the phone.”
“Not really but if you want to tell me.”
“The person who called it in was Dolores only she’s not calling herself Dolores anymore.”
“What?”
“Patience, my good man. All will be revealed. She didn’t show up for work for two days but she did call in on the second day and say she was very sorry but she was having some drug problems and she planned to go into rehab so please don’t fire her. When they did sit down and talk with her in person she had a very interesting story to tell indeed. Before we talk with her, however, we need to pay a visit to my old friend Dr. Phillips.”
“The coroner?”
“Yep. He has an interesting story too.”

Dr. Phillips filled three cups with coffee and gestured to the sugar. “I have milk too but maybe you’ll be a little hesitant to take things out of the refrigerator here.” Buzz helped himself to some milk and held the small carton to Clement who shook his head vigorously. “I have to say I take exception to all this I’m reading about this young man being decapitated with a shovel.”
“Why would that be?” Buzz stirred his coffee and leaned against a counter.
“Because it isn’t true.”
“How do you figure that, Doc? A man’s head is attached and then it’s detached. It didn’t happen by itself ergo he was decapitated.”
“But it wasn’t completely detached. It would be almost impossible to remove someone’s head with a shovel. There’s a very tough assembly of muscle and bone in the spine a person would have to cut through. They’d have to be incredibly strong.”
“What if they were just crazy?”
“Or on drugs?’ Clement added.
“It’s possible but that isn’t what happened to this man. His spine is severely damaged but it was not cut through.”
“So was he killed with a shovel?”
“I would say that having his head nearly removed from his body definitely contributed to his failure to continue living. Add to this the fact that he was in a comatose state which he was unlikely to emerge from without medical assistance.”
“A diabetic coma?”
“His blood sugar level was incredible.”
Clement took a step forward. “I’m pretty new to this whole diabetes thing so let me ask you- if someone had a migraine and was basically unable to eat all day or maybe he ate something earlier in the day and then he threw up-“
“A common situation in a migraine sufferer as it sometimes takes them more than one incident of vomiting to feel better.”
“And if into this essentially empty stomach they were to put a white chocolate mocha and some kind of goody made with cranberries and cream cheese?”
“Their blood sugar would skyrocket and they would go into a coma.”
“Making it very easy for someone to come along and almost cut off their head with a shovel,” Buzz put in.
“I would say so.”
“So, which was it? The coma or the shovel?”
“As I said, it would have been difficult for this person to emerge from the coma without medical assistance. The shovel did not remove his head but it did damage the autonomic nerves meaning even if he emerged from the coma with help he would be unable to breathe for himself.”
“Not to mention he’d have a hell of a scar where they had to reattach his neck all the way around like he was Frankenstein’s monster.”
“Yes, that too.”
Buzz patted the coroner on the back. “It’s been fun but we’ve gotta go talk with a little lady who used to call herself Dolores.”
“Ah, yes. The woman with the shovel.”
“Wait a minute,” Clement said, “How would you know that?”
“It’s very simple. My walls have ears.”

“Why do you keep calling me Dolores when I tell you my name is not Dolores?”
“Ma’am, we’re calling you by that name because that’s the name that’s on your ID.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what God told her it was.”
“Josh, could you please see if there’s some coffee around?”
“Yeah, sure.” Josh’s eyes widened when he saw Clement and Buzz. “Hey look! It’s The Napper.”
Buzz looked from one man to the other. “What? How’d you two meet?”
“Clement was taking a nap in his hash browns a few nights ago over at the Shari’s. He didn’t seem to be drunk or on drugs so we gave him a ride to the bus stop. What’re you doing here, Clement?”
“I knew him.”
“Who? The dead guy?”
“Yes.”
“Good friend of yours? Were you over here checking things out the night we found you?”
“No, I only met him once and I was kind of looking around over here. He’s the ex-boyfriend of the girlfriend of a friend of mine.”
Buzz stepped forward. “Have you started asking Dolores any questions yet?”
“Not so you’d notice. Which is to say we found out her name isn’t Dolores any more and we decided to give you a call.”
“Josh, how’s the coffee coming?” Josh made a rude gesture behind his hand and left the room.
Clement and Buzz walked over to where Josh’s partner sat with Dolores. Keeping one eye on Dolores, the man stood and extended his hand to Clement. “We met the other night but it looks like there’s been a serious change of circumstances. I’m Gary Roberts.” Clement shook his hand and nodded to Buzz. “Buzz and I know each other already. How’s it going?”
“It’s going.”
There was a wail from behind Gary. “Why are you all standing around and making new friends? Doesn’t anyone remember me? I’m the one you should be talking to.”
Josh came in with three cups of coffee. “Gentlemen, may I introduce the woman formerly known as Dolores Aceveda.” He handed a cup to Gary and set another just out of Dolores’s reach. He set the third on the desk in front of him and began adding sugar.
“God’s work is nothing to be joking about.”
“God’s work?” Clement asked.
“Yes,” said Josh, “Milagra here believes she tried to cut this guy’s head off on orders from God. It’s been ages since God told a woman to cut a guy’s head off and even then I don’t think she did it.”
“I don’t ‘believe’ I was on orders from God. I heard the voice of God and did what I was told to do.”
“Why didn’t you just stab him with some scissors? There’s scissors all over the place.” It was Dolores’s office. They were sitting in the outer room and Clement could read “Bliss In A Basket” on the door with the second line “Aceveda and Davidson, Props” just beneath the first. Spools of ribbon hung from rods along one wall, their tails waving brightly whenever there was sufficient breeze. Baskets, large and small, were piled along another wall. The fragrance of the handmade soaps and lotions nearly blotted out the smell of the not quite stale but definitely past fresh coffee in the cups Josh had carried in.
Buzz grabbed two chairs, put one behind Clement and sat on the other. “Can we start at the beginning? Were you angry with Aaron Whittaker for any reason?”
Dolores sighed. “Is that cup of coffee for me?”
“It was, but now I’m afraid you’d throw it,” Josh said.
“Preventing me from quenching my thirst is the beginning of the torments I must endure for carrying out God’s words?”
“It’s not worth all that. Just drink it. I suppose you want cream and sugar, too.”
“No, I will take my coffee as black as your heart seems to be.” Dolores sipped the coffee then set the cup beside her.
“So, you and Aaron Whittaker had an argument,” Gary prompted.
“No, there was no argument.”
“You just walked in and cut his head off for no reason? ‘Evening, Dolores.’ ‘Evening, Aaron.’ Slice!”
Dolores sighed again and took another sip of coffee. She gestured at Clement. “I see this man around this neighborhood several times. I know all the people who work here so I start to wonder why he is here. Then one day he comes into the building- a friend called me and I was at the elevator and ready to intercept him- and he is wearing coveralls and pretending he works for Mr. Gomez. I know Mr. Gomez would never hire someone like him and he is lying about why he is here. Mr. Gomez had to work very hard to get this building to clean and I know people were not happy when he did so I have been waiting for someone to come and try to take it away from him.”
“But I never talked to Aaron Whittaker so why would you think he had anything to do with it?”
“Because you and he would stick together and try to take away the building. You are like the people who did not want him to have the building in the first place.”
“You mean we’re white?”
“I tried to talk to Aaron about the building. I tried to ask him to put in a good word for Mr. Gomez but all the time he was busy with his own work.”
“I don’t understand,” Buzz said. “Why is it so important for you to have Mr. Gomez cleaning this building? Why do you care who does it as long as they do a good job?”
“Is it because he’s Mexican?”
“She’s got the hots for him.”
“Josh!” But Dolores’s bronze face was turning pink.
“And he doesn’t know about it. Ha!”
“Yes, it is as he says. I love Mr. Gomez.”
“That doesn’t really explain why him having this building is so important.”
“I told you. He doesn’t know and she can’t or won’t tell him.”
“Why couldn’t she? Um why couldn’t you?”
“Because I work in an office and Mr. Gomez cleans the building. I was in an elevator in a building downtown before it was torn down and I saw him there and suddenly I was in love with him. I tried to forget him and they tore down the building and I thought I would be fine because I would never see him again. Then I heard he was trying to get the contract for this building and I was so happy because I would see him when I came to work. He would say ‘Hello’ to me in the hallway or when he came to empty the wastebaskets. He hired more people and he only came by once in a while but it was enough. Then this man came and he and Aaron were trying to get the building taken away from my Mr. Gomez.”
Buzz eyed Gary’s coffee enviously. “Did you kill Aaron Whittaker to protect Mr. Gomez?”
“I killed him because God told me to.”
“How did we go from your toe-curling love of Mr. Gomez to commands from God?” Josh said.
“All the time I try to talk with Aaron about the building and how I want him to put in a good word for Mr. Gomez and all the time he is busy with his own work. Then one night I come here late at night and his door is a little bit open. The lights are off and he always locks the door so I know he must be in there alone.”
“Weren’t you worried about going into a dark office with a slightly open door?”
“Aren’t you listening, Powell? She was in love.”
“A little bit of light was coming through the blinds and I can see Aaron lying on the floor behind the desk. I think he must have been working and decided to rest here instead of going home.”
“Did you know he suffered from migraines?”
“What?”
“Never mind. Just go on with the story.”
“I walk over to him and say, ‘I need to talk with you about Mr. Gomez and the cleaning’.”
“What did he say?” Gary asked.
“He didn’t say anything. He was looking at me because I could see the light from the window shining on his eyes.”
“Was he moving?”
“No. He was just looking at me and he didn’t move and he didn’t say anything. So I told him again. ‘I need to talk with you about Mr. Gomez and the cleaning.’ And he still didn’t say anything but he turned his head toward the window.”
“That must have been a good trick.”
“Quiet!”
“Then I heard a voice but I knew it wasn’t his. I looked around and there was just me and him in the office and I knew it must be God.”
“Because she has regular conversations with him out loud.”
Clement frowned at Josh. “What did God say?”
“He said to me, ‘If you love me and you love Mr. Gomez and you love your people, you must kill this man.’ I said, ‘Aaron, God is telling me I have to kill you to save the building for Mr. Gomez. What should I do?’”
“Did he answer that time?”
“No, he still said nothing and God said, ‘He can’t hear me because he doesn’t believe. You pray to me and I answer your prayers but this man doesn’t answer you when you are physically in the same room with him. I talk with you because I care for you but this man cares so little about you that he turns his head away when you speak to him.”
“Then what happened?”
“I said, ‘Aaron, why won’t you talk to me? I thought we knew each other but now you don’t even recognize me. Why are you looking out the window instead of at me?’”
“And?”
“And God said, ‘He doesn’t look at you because he feels you are not worth looking at. He has no respect for you or for your people. You must rise up and kill him so people like him will learn to respect you and your people and so Mr. Gomez will be safe. When you do this thing, I will give you a new name. Your name will no longer mean sadness but miracle.’ God told me he would give me the name ‘Milagra’ and I would not be Dolores anymore because I made a miracle happen for me and for Mr. Gomez and for the Mexican people.” Her eyes were shining with tears and Clement realized she wasn’t feeling any regret for what she had done.
“How did you decide on the shovel as a weapon?” Buzz asked.
Dolores looked up at the ceiling. “I knew that if God asks you to do something then you need to do it fast. I remembered how he told Abraham that a sacrifice would be provided and I knew if he wanted me to sacrifice Aaron then he would give me a weapon. I looked around and I saw the shovel shining by the door.”
“You never thought about walking out the door and just keeping going? Did you hear anyone outside?” Clement was thinking of Jeff saying he had almost gone into the building but got scared and left. If he’d actually come in, could he have saved Aaron’s life? Would Dolores have attacked him too or could he have fought her off and called the EMS to counteract the drink Mari had given him?
“God said he would give me a new name and I picked up the shovel and went over to Aaron. Maybe I ran because when he came back with the shovel he was closer to the door than I remembered. He was lying there and the shovel was shining and his face was shining and when I saw his face like that I felt the strength of God flowing through my body and through my arms and a smaller voice in my heart said, ‘Look how his face is shining. You’re going to be sending him home to God.’”
“And then you did it? After the little voice said that?”
Milagra’s face was shining too but it looked as if she was lit up by a spotlight from the inside rather than streetlights on the outside. “I saw his face shining and I felt the power of God in my body as I lifted the shovel and I brought it down with all the strength of God. Then I saw his head sitting on the blade of the shovel and he looked like John the Baptist and I knew he was with God.” She took another sip of coffee.
“That’s a good story, Milagra, but I wouldn’t count on God being too happy with you,” Josh said. “Forgiving sin is one thing but I’ve never heard of him looking kindly on failure.” Milagra’s eyes widened and Clement thought she looked upset for the first time since she’d begun relating what happened. “Yeah. You see, you didn’t do what God asked you to do. You didn’t cut off Aaron Whittaker’s head. We talked to the coroner and he told us the spine wasn’t severed. You have to slice all the way through the spine for it to count as decapitation.”
“I did what God commanded! He told me to kill Aaron and I did.”
“Whether you killed him or whether you didn’t is something a judge is going to have to decide. Aaron Whittaker wasn’t ignoring you; He was in a diabetic coma. If you’d called 911 and gotten some people in here to help him there’s a good chance we’d be celebrating you as some kind of a hero right now. You might even get a city holiday with your name on it.”
“No! I cut off his head with a shovel!”
“No. I’m not sure whether I should say ‘I’m sorry to tell you’ but the fact is you didn’t. In order to cut all the way through the spine you’d have to be a lot stronger or a lot crazier than you are and maybe both. You haven’t saved Mr. Gomez any trouble either.” Milagra threw the coffee at Josh and put her hands over her face. “We’ll be looking into whether or not he knew you planned to kill Aaron Whittaker and if he was involved in your unnecessary mission to save his job. He may not lose any contracts he already has but I’m guessing it will be hard for him to get any new ones.”
Milagra wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking on the chair. “Oh, Mr. Gomez. Mr. Gomez, I’m so sorry. Oh, Mr. Gomez.”

Clement was at his desk, making notes, and he looked up when Jeff walked in. “There’s coffee in the big pot. I thought you could use some. It’s been a hell of a week, hasn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen you in a week so I have no idea how your life has been.” Jeff pulled open the bottom right-hand drawer and dropped a paper bag into it. Clement went back to writing. Jeff got a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar and sat down across from him. “So, is that all you have to say then? Nothing about what’s happened?”
Clement laid the pencil down. “I’m not sure what you want me to say, Jeff.”
“So you’re going to just say nothing?”
“You know what, Jeff? Typically when people don’t what to say in a situation the experts either tell them to say nothing and wait until the other person brings it up and sets the tone or they tell them to act casually. I’m not sure how to treat what’s happened in a casual manner so I decided to wait and let you bring it up and set the tone.”
“Did you learn that watching Dr. Phil?”
“Did you want to talk about what happened? Do you want to go out and get a real cup of coffee and catch up? I tracked down those kalamata olive, chicken and green pepper sausages. I’m wondering if we should bail on the old Rockin’ Rooster and start selling those. Would you like to talk about that instead?”
“I would like to talk about anything that gives me the opportunity to eventually throw this situation in your face and say, ‘I told you so’.”
“You told me so?”
“Yes.”
“About what? You told me the chicken strips were nasty?”
“I told you that Aaron was going to win.”
“How the hell did he win? Jeff, he’s dead.”
“I know that. Believe me, I am very aware that he’s dead. That doesn’t change the fact that Mari chose him over me.”
“How are you figuring that?”
“If Mari hadn’t been so obsessed with him then she and I could be together right now.”
“Technically, right now the two of you wouldn’t be together because you’d both be at work. But even if this wasn’t work hours and you could be together, you’re completely wrong to think that she chose him over you and that’s why you’re not.”
“She didn’t choose him?”
“No.”
“She killed him.”
“There’s still some doubt about whether she killed him or whether Milagra did. She gave him the coffee drink and the goody that spiked his blood sugar and sent him into a coma and then she left him there to die so she definitely had the intent to kill him. Milagra cut his head most of the way off and sufficiently damaged his spinal cord so he would have been unable to breathe even if they brought him out of the coma and reattached the rest of his head. According to the story she told us, she definitely intended to kill him as a sacrifice to God and Mr. Gomez. So, we’ll see how the whole thing shakes out.”
“Whatever.”
“Even if Mari did kill him, she didn’t do it out of love for him.”
“Yeah?”
“She did it because she loved money and hated sharing.”
“If she hated sharing then why was she still seeing Aaron?”
“Okay, she did it because she loved money and she hated sharing unless it was on her terms.”
“I can’t believe she was working on solving one of those problems for the million dollars.”
“I think that was a surprise to everyone except her. And maybe Aaron.”
“She never really seemed that smart.”
“I guess she was and she wasn’t. I don’t think there was much chance she would have had to share the money with Aaron. He had plenty of money of his own and- in the short time I talked with him- I got the impression he mostly discussed those concepts with her because he enjoyed exchanging ideas and because he enjoyed torturing you. He did it because it made them both happy.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Nobody in the world gets happy like Mari.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people get happy but I’ll take your word for it that Mari’s happiness was a unique experience.”
“Nope, nothing like it. Her eyes would light up and she’d squeal or whoop and sometimes she’d dance around.” He took a big swallow of coffee and set the cup down with a thump. “No point thinking about it. It’s not something I’ll ever see again.”
“Of course you will. She’ll be very happy to see you on visiting day. Especially if you bring a cake with a file in it.”
“Couldn’t get it through the metal detector.”
“There is that.”
“Did you actually go see that Mrs. Lamb?”
“Yes.”
“Did you see her more than once?”
“Yes.”
“Are you guys dating?”
“What part of ‘Mrs.’ are you not getting? Mrs. Lamb is married.”
“Yeah?”
“I don’t do that. Remember me? The guy who spent almost no time in the principal’s office?”
“So what are you guys doing? What do you talk about?”
“Kids and how they could learn more. We discussed the challenges of where to place a difficult child in the classroom, for example.”
“My teachers didn’t have that problem. They knew exactly where to put me. They usually stuck me next to the biggest suck-up in the room. Nothing like spending six hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year listening to some kid tell you ‘Shut up! I’m trying to hear.’ Or ‘Stop bugging me! I’m trying to get my work done so I can go out for recess.’”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I was the one who had to say that all day of every school year.”
“I guess you and I wouldn’t have liked each other very much if we’d gone to the same school.”
“I guess we wouldn’t have.”
“So what’d you two come up with?”
“For one thing, we’ve decided that it does no good whatsoever to make the challenging children stay in from recess or have them sit against a wall most of the time outdoors.”
“I could have told you that. We gotta get out and run around or we’re gonna go stir crazy. What are you gonna do about it?”
“There’s been some talk among the teachers of having those children run laps or having a similar sort of punishment that has to be completed before the student is free to play.”
“Working it off but outside. Yeah. Maybe.”
“Do you have other ideas?”
“Well, yeah. If you tell Mrs. Lamb about this though you didn’t hear it from me. Okay? I don’t want word to get around that I was helping a principal.”
“You’d be helping kids.”
“Yeah, partly. You promise?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
Jeff swallowed some more coffee. “When I was starting the sixth grade, I was still getting in trouble. I had to sit in the hall a lot. I started to kind of like it because I could see the teachers walking around and the kids with messages would go down to the office and back and I saw the delivery guys bringing in the lunch stuff and it was interesting; There was always something happening. Plus I was out in the hall. I was different. Everybody else was sitting in the classroom doing division and I was seeing the world go by.”
“Not exactly what the taxpayers hoped they were spending their money on but-“
“You wanted to hear this.”
“Yeah.”
“One day I was just getting bored and wondering what was going on in the hall and what I’d have to do to get sent out there to see and the teacher came over and stood right behind me.”
“That must have put the fear of God into you.”
“Or something. She was this great big woman. She liked to wear a lot of bright colors and she had little curls that stuck out from her head like she wanted to have one of those old-fashioned waves but it didn’t take.”
“Marcel.”
“Whatever. She was standing behind me and I could feel her watching me. I put my pencil on the edge of my desk and I was pushing it off with the side of my hand when she scooped it up. She leaned over my chair and she said, real quietly, ‘You seem to have a lot of imagination and not much to do with it. I guess I’ll have to help you find something.’ I didn’t care. I heard that before. I figured she’s gonna say I have to discover a new way to clean erasers or something. She said, ‘Come with me.’”
“Did you go?”
“Yeah.”
“Were you going out to clean erasers?”
“No. Here’s the weird part: she walks me around behind this blackboard and I’m wondering what the hell she’s doing and she pulls out a cardboard box that’s got no flaps and no lid.”
“And?”
“And she says, ‘Whenever your work is done- and you want something to do that doesn’t involve bothering your neighbors so they can’t do their work- you can come over here and choose something from this box and write about it. I will expect it to be interesting and legible.’”
“What was in the box?”
“All kinds of pictures that somebody tore out of magazines. Like cities and somebody’s front porch and a purple hippopotamus in roller skates and a giraffe wearing a scarf; all kinds of things.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah. I wrote a whole bunch of stories about the hippo and how he couldn’t get shoes that fit so he had to wear roller skates and he got into trouble. She started sending me to the office too.”
“So you could see what was going on.”
“Yeah. I guess she got me.”
“Yeah.” Both men sipped their coffee. “You feel like making a trip now?”
“To the office?”
“No, we’ve got one stop to make and then we’re going to my house.”
“Your house? What for? And where are we going first?” Clement picked up both cups, carried them in to the sink and rinsed them out. “You gonna wash those now?”
“Nope.” Clement shook the excess water from the mugs and placed them facedown on a three layer stack of paper towels. “First we are going to Eco Meats. Then we are going to my house to grill a taste test.”
“No more nasty chicken strips.”
“We’ll see.”
“I love you, man.”
“Womb to tomb.”
“Sperm to worm.”
“Damon and Pythius.”
Jeff turned off the coffeepot and the lights. Clement closed and locked the door.

The End


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