Atoner
 

 

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Atoner

A Bo Fexler Short Story

by Clair Dickson

  

            The police didn't want me there.  The three officers clustered by the basement steps gave me dirty looks.  But there wasn't much they could do about me being there since my client was the bereaved husband, Jim Collins.  He met me at the door and shook my hand, holding my elbow with his other hand as he did.  I'd met him twice before, once on a case his brother had hired me for and then again when I did a short investigation that included his wife's sister.  It hardly seemed enough of a rapport for Jim to call me, of all people, after his wife was found dead in the basement that morning.

            "Bo Fexler, thank you for coming," Jim said.

            "Yeah."  I'm a female private eye with two whole years behind me.  In spite of my people skills, I've managed to start building a reputation as a PI.  Behind the blond hair and tall, thin body, I've got brains that I can use. 

            "Jessica found her," Jim explained, breathless like he'd just finished a 5K run.  While his house was massive, I didn't think it spanned five kilometers.  "She came home to do some laundry.  She doesn't have any classes on Mondays."

            "How old is Jessica?" I asked, stalling and studying Jim. 

            "She's twenty-two.  She's attending classes at the University of Findlay."

            "Where is she now?"

            "Living room.  She's pretty upset by it.  That's why I hired you."

            "To make sure no one thinks you're behind it."

            "What?  No!  That never even crossed my mind!" he protested.

            I shrugged.  "Where's your wife?"

            "In the basement.  The police already looked it over.  They won't let me down there anymore."

            The front door opened again as Jim and I stopped at the wall of blue bodies at the top of the basement stairs.  I looked to see who had arrived and realized that I had beaten the ambulance. 

            "Are they doing an autopsy?"

            Jim nodded.  He glanced at the officers.  "Can I show her?" he requested.  He was still breathless.  A valid response in the stress of the moment.

            Except that when it comes to death, the first person I—and any seasoned cop—suspect is the partner: husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend.  They're the ones with most motive and most opportunity.  Which meant that even though Jim was my client, I didn't trust him anymore than I'd trust Jell-o to support even my weight.

            "I'll take her," Officer Verland said to Jim, hiking his Batman-belt.  "You stay here."

            "Thanks.  I might get grossed out," I commented with a nod at Verland.  I knew him slightly from my days on cold case at the Findlay PD.  He'd always been indifferent towards me, which was better than the ones who hated me. 

            "Somehow I doubt that, Fexler," Verland countered.  "I've heard stories."

            "With s'mores around a little campfire," I quipped, not particularly playful.

            Verland led the way down the stairs.  The basement was partially finished.  To the left of the stairs was walled-off, probably an unfinished storage and utility area.  To the right was a family room with what would have once been considered a big screen TV.  There was probably a larger one upstairs. 

            Cara Collins was covered with black plastic, but she still sat up at the desk tucked in the nook under the basement stairs.  Verland waited for me to nod, then he pulled the plastic back. 

            "Gunshot wound to the head.  Powder burns on her            scalp here.  We're checking the gun for prints."

            I stared, fixated, for a moment on the dead woman's face.  Then I turned to the computer screen.  "Suicide note?"

            "Yeah.  It's upstairs."

            "Can I check the computer?"

            "Yeah—here."  Verland handed me one of his gloves.  I put it on and took the mouse.  I opened MSWord and checked the last documents.  There was nothing there.  No evidence of a suicide note.  But there was something else to try, and I moused around the computer until I pulled up the temporary file for the suicide note, the last thing written on the computer. 

            "Nice job.  We were gonna have one of the tech guys do that," Verland added.

            "Doesn't prove anything, though.  It was written last night."

            "We don't even know if she wrote it."

            "Yeah." I sighed. 

            "Don't like it, huh?"

            I shook my head.

            "Between us, Fexler, neither do we.  And didn't like you being called in."

            "Look.  Whatever I find, whether it supports him or not, I'll let you know."

            "Don't care which side your bread's buttered on.  No wonder some people don't like you."  Verland covered Cara again.

            "Where's the printer?" I asked.

            "Under the desk here."

            I bent to take a look at it.  It was an older model laser printer, not unlike the one I used to have.  I touched my hand to it.  It was cold.  "Anyone touch this?"

            "Nope.  It was turned off when we got here.  Don't look so surprised, Fexler.  We do know how to run an investigation."

            I wasn't surprised; furthermore, I was certain I didn't look it.  "I wanna read the suicide note."

            Verland called for one of the officers to bring it down for us.  It had been placed into a large evidence bag and sealed.  There were smudges of black on the edges of the page, fingerprints, but they were too smeared to be of any use. 

            I scanned the page.  It told how, after finding out that Jim had had an affair with the cute little blond sex-etary at his office, on top of everything else, Cara didn't have the will to live any more.  Her whole world had fallen apart in the course of a few short months.  The discovery of Jim's affair, her diagnoses of breast cancer, and the loss of their beloved pug dog Corny, were just too much for her to handle.

            "There's toner on the edge," I noted slowly.  

            "We noticed that."

            I reached under the desk and popped the lid on the printer.  Reaching in, I withdrew the toner cartridge.  There was an after-market refill plug on the top.  And toner dust.  Someone had recently refilled it.  Closing the lid, I turned on the machine and sent a printer test page through.  That page lacked the toner smudges. 

            Verland rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  "You're on to something, aren't you?  Jim?"

            "Would you mind letting me ask the questions?  He probably thinks I'm on his side."

            Verland nodded slowly.  We plodded back up the stairs and found Jim standing in the corner of the kitchen having a glass of water. 

            "Hey, Jim.  Did you help your wife fill the toner before she printed this note?"

            "No," Jim answered, shaking his head. His brow furrowed. 

            "No?"

            "No.  I didn't talk much to her at all since yesterday morning.  That was when we buried the dog.  She said she didn't want to talk.  She was pretty upset."

            "And you didn't help her with the toner?"

            "No.  I didn't."

            "No?"

            "I didn't even know it was out," he maintained.

            "What's on your hands?"

            "What?"  Jim pulled his hands up to study them, nearly spilling his glass in his haste.  Verland came to stand beside me, hands hooked on his belt.  He was intimidating. 

            "The first page printed after the toner was filled was the suicide note.  There are smudges on the paper, common when a laser jet is used right after being filled.  And there's also toner fingerprints on the paper, none of them clear enough to be used.  You probably thought you were in the clear.  Except, you couldn't get all the toner off your hands.  Out from under your nails.  And there's nothing on her hands."

            Verland approached Jim.  He put a large hand on Jim's arm.  "I think you should come with us.  You're under arrest for the murder of Cara Collins."

            Jim glared at me.  "You were supposed to be on my side!"  Then, Verland led him outside, telling him the rest of his rights on the way.

            "Great.  How am I supposed to get paid now?" I wanted to know.