I stood over the body, feeling Pete’s eyes on me.
“I can confirm it’s Mrs. MacTier, and that she’s dead,” I said firmly.
“Did the fall kill her?” Pete asked. He was all ‘policeman’ today.
This is where I hesitated. It was an obvious question. We were standing over the body of a very old woman, at the bottom of the cellar stairs. She looked like a little rag doll that had been thrown across the room, to land in a heap.
“It might have,” I said cautiously. “The Coroner can tell you more, when he gets here. Remember, I’m only a family doc.”
“Come on, Christie,” Pete growled. He’d been growling at me ever since grade school, over two decades ago. That’s the problem with living and working in the same small town you grew up in. The past follows you everywhere.
“It’s not my place to say, Pete. You know how they are about protocol. I wouldn’t even be here now if you hadn’t spotted me across the street. I can tell you she’s dead and has been for some time. You can probably gather that from the flies.” I didn’t want to go into the entomology details.
Pete sighed, and ran his hand through wavy brown hair. “Can’t you give me anything else?” he said.
I started up the rickety stairs, then stopped, turning to face him. “Check the back of the head,” I said quietly. “I’ll be at the house if you need me.”
Three hours later, Pete sat at my old kitchen table, like so many times before, drinking espresso.
“Nice coffee maker, “ Pete said. “Did Graham the Shark buy it for you?”
I sighed. “That didn’t work out. We’re not seeing each other anymore.”
Pete visibly brightened. “Hate lawyers,” he said cheerfully. “Bottom-feeders in BMWs.”
Right now, I kind of agreed. But I couldn’t resist a jab.
“Actually, we broke up for the same reason you and I broke up,” I said wickedly.
“I always knew he was a rat.” Pete looked smug.
I raised an eyebrow.
“That was high school, Christie! Have a heart. Barbie was hot stuff, and you wouldn’t give out.” He grinned.
“Your loss,” I tossed back. Pete knew I wasn’t really upset. Barb was now happily married in the city with four kids.
The silence spread. “Seeing anyone right now?” I asked casually. He wasn’t according to the village tom-toms, but it didn’t hurt to check. Pete had a history of serial monogamy; don’t ask me why I took such an interest.
“Nah,” he said finally. “Lost my heart years ago to a local girl who wouldn’t take me back. So what can you tell me about the MacTier’s?” he said, changing the subject.
My heart was beating absurdly. “I can tell you they aren’t patients of mine,”
Pete cupped his mug with both hands. “I need more, Chris. I don’t know the family. They lived on your side of the tracks, not in my dirgey section of town.”
Good, I thought. He hasn’t interviewed all the neighbors yet. I sipped espresso and kept my face straight. “I haven’t lived on that street for fifteen years. But okay - after I left you, I went across the street to talk to Mom. Mr. MacTier died before I was born. According to Mom, the old lady was not well-liked. She never participated in any of the women’s groups and kept to herself.”
This was all true. I wouldn’t lie to Pete unless I had to.
The clock in my old parlor bonged six. “Rumor has it she inherited a bundle from England and then collected Veteran’s Pension for years after the death of her husband. Mom swears she hadn’t spent a cent of either.” I paused to take a sip of coffee. “ From all accounts, she was a skinflint. Put $5 in an envelope every Christmas and birthday, and that’s the most anyone could get from her.”
I pushed honey-blond hair back from my face. “The house is large but pretty run-down. Most of the furniture is that dark Victorian heavy stuff, and those uncomfortable needlepoint chairs. You know the ones.”
Pete nodded. He had a unique quality of actually listening without interrupting.
“She has two kids – have you interviewed them yet?”
Pete nodded again. “Briefly. I want your impression of them.”
I frowned. “They’re older than us. A son near fifty, I would guess, and a daughter, Jennifer, about 10 years younger. I know Jennifer a bit, but not well. She babysat me a few times. She’s rather plain, with mouse brown hair – a kindergarten teacher. Not much personality. Mom says years ago she wanted to get married, but the mother wasn’t having any of it. Didn’t approve of the man in question – called him a ‘dirty hippie’. He drifted away to California. I don’t think she’s dated much since. She’s very involved with the Humane Society, I know.”
“Seems a pretty harmless type,” Pete stated.
I looked up sharply. For all his police experience and years of dating, Pete didn’t know much about women. Nor about the violent emotions that can spring from deep loneliness.
“The son is trickier,” I continued. “I don’t know him well, but Mom says he’s a cold fish – never married. He always struck me as one of those – you know – repressed mammas-boys.”
“God knows what goes through their minds,” said Pete, who left home early for police college. “Do they actually want to escape? Who knows?”
“Anyway,” I continued, “he works for a bank downtown and still lives at home. They both do, actually. Why are you asking this, Pete? Is it a murder investigation now?”
Pete leaned back in the wooden chair and crossed his arms on his chest. I remembered how those strong arms used to feel wrapped around me, and shivered.
“At first we figured it was just a fall she took. Simple to do; the old lady was unsteady on her feet and the steps were wonky. But you mentioned the back of the head…so did the Coroner. Seems the injuries are more consistent with a bash on the head, than a fall alone.”
“Then I’d better tell you more,” I said carefully. “The kids aren’t the only suspects you should look at. She’s pissed off nearly everyone on the street. There were disputes over property lines; you know the Armitages who live across from my parents – she took them to court. And rumors about a cat poisoning; everyone thought it was her. The cat family moved out last year, but they’re still in town.” I gave him their name.
“Doesn’t seem likely, but I’ll check it all out, ” Pete said. “Thing is, she left a whole wad of money. A nice little motive of over two mil. I’m betting on the kids.”
I tried not to show my relief. “Did they need the money, Pete?”
He snorted. “Who doesn’t need money? Those kids get a mil apiece. Have you ever wondered what you would do with an extra mil?”
I looked around my dated kitchen and felt the tug of greed.
“I could get that boat I’ve always wanted,” Pete said wistfully.
“I could pay off my mortgage and student loans….”
We sat quietly dreaming for a moment, until Pete muttered: “I don’t have a fancy education to pay off.”
I jerked from a pleasant reverie. In his eyes, those seven years of schooling would always stand between us.
A tinny version of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ ended the awkward silence. Pete reached for his cell phone.
“Yeah,” he said. “With the Doc. Yeah – no shit. Yup, on my way.”
Pete snapped the cell shut and rose to his full height of six-one. “Gotta go,” he said quickly. At the doorway, he hesitated, and turned back. “SOCO found a sheet with bloodstains in the back of the linen closet. Looks like someone tried to wash them out and didn’t get it all. I’m betting it was an inside job. Our perp whacked mom on the head and used the sheet to move her to the stairwell before throwing her down.”
He shouldn’t be telling me this, I knew. It was a breathtaking sign of trust.
“Pete,” I yelled after him. “Pete-“
He turned in the walkway.
“Come back later, why don’t you,” I said.
A slow smile spread across his face. “I will,” he said.
Back in the kitchen, I picked up the phone. When Mom answered, I said quietly, “Don’t tell anyone about the fight last month.”
Later didn’t happen. At eleven, Pete phoned to say they were still at it. I went to bed wondering what it would be like to be married to a cop.
Around five in the morning, I awoke in a sweat. This was too close to home. An older woman might have the strength to push another woman down the stairs. That’s the trouble - it was possible. I knew my mother; she might holler and rage at someone, but she would never do violence, particularly a month after the fact. But would Pete believe that?
I had to think this through. The sheet bothered me. Why leave evidence behind? Why not just destroy it?
I went downstairs to make coffee and think. Maybe there hadn’t been a chance to get rid of the sheet. It could be tricky. Garbage pickup wasn’t until Monday. You could hardly set a fire in July without arousing suspicion. You might sneak a sheet out of the house in a gym bag and dump it in one of those charity bins, but eventually it would be found. Not so easy.
That wasn’t it, though. I was still bothered about that sheet, but couldn’t put my finger on why.
It was Saturday, and small town docs get called out for everything. By noon, I was presiding over a tricky, pre-term delivery. It was hot and sticky in the rural farmhouse, and I had a battle just keeping my wits in focus. Happily, both mother and baby girl survived the ordeal in good health, if somewhat loudly. No matter though – I had an epiphany. It happened while we were cleaning up the mess that accompanies birth.
I grabbed my cell-phone and speed-dialed Pete. He wasn’t picking up so I left a message:
“Pete! It’s about the sheet. The son did it – I’m sure of it. Call me when you get this.”
I got home around two, exhausted, but elated. There is no greater ‘high’ than assisting at the birth of a baby. And I knew – for sure – that Mom was in the clear. I was just reaching for something cold in the fridge, when the back doorbell rang.
Pete stood leaning against the kitchen doorframe. He smiled wearily and said: “We got him.”
I gestured to the kitchen chair. “Tell me.”
Pete sat down with a thud. “I’m beat. We were at it all night. Finally - would you believe it – he broke down and cried when we showed him the bloodstained sheet. Said he never meant to kill her. Got mad and hit her with the frying pan when she bitched about him taking two eggs for breakfast instead of one.” Pete shook his head in disbelief. “An egg, for Chrissake. Talk about cheap.”
“What did he say about the sheet?” I poured water in the coffee maker and pressed the on button.
Pete leaned forward across the table and put his head down on his arm. “Said he was saving the sheet to piece it together with another one, just like his mother used to do. Apparently she would cut out the worn parts and sew two sheets together to make one. Christ, and I thought we were poor growing up.”
“That’s an old Depression Era trick,” I remembered suddenly. “My grandmother used to do it. You can still see sheets like that hanging on clotheslines… sheets with center seams.”
“Well, damned if I’ve ever heard of it.” Pete yawned. “So. You were right. But how did you know it was the son and not the daughter?”
I hesitated. “Simple, really. It has to do with the bloodstain on the sheet…the fact that there was still a stain.” I waited.
Pete’s eyes looked hazy. “Go on,” he said.
I thought back to the old farmhouse, the messy miracle of birth, and the ritual of cleaning…a woman’s ritual. “The sheet was obviously washed in hot water. That’s why the stain set. The way you get blood out of fabric is by rinsing repeatedly with cold water. Every woman knows that.” I continued. “Only a man could have made that mistake.”
“Damn and blast,” said Pete. “I always knew you were brainy.” He yawned again and tried to grin. It came out lopsided. “You look real cute, with your hair in a ponytail like that. I want to make love to you, but I can’t keep my head up.”
“You’ve waited since high school; you can wait another day,” I said softly.
But he was already asleep.