Name Witheld jpb-13, страница 1часть #13 серии J P Beaumont
( J P Beaumont - 13 )
J. A. Jance
J. A. Jance
With Seattle's New Year's fireworks display due to begin soon, the Peters girls-nine-year-old Heather and ten-year-old Tracy-and I shut down our Uno game at twenty minutes before midnight. While Tracy put away the cards, Heather and I retreated to my penthouse condo's kitchen to prepare our celebratory New Year's drink-Thomas Kemper root beer floats.
This was a first for me. Back in my boozing days, if I had still been standing by the time New Year's toasts rolled around, you can bet I wouldn't have been swilling down root beer or champagne, either. MacNaughton's and water would have been far more like it. Even sober, root beer wasn't my first choice, but the girls had overruled me on that score.
Their dad, Ron Peters, is an ex-partner of mine, although we've been friends now for far longer than we were ever partners on the homicide squad down at Seattle P.D. He and Amy, his second wife and the girls' stepmother, had splurged on one of those hotel sleep-over New Year's dinner/dance affairs. With Ron in his wheelchair and Amy six and a half months pregnant, I'm sure the romance end was far more important than either the drinking or the dancing. I suppose they saw their New Year's night on the town as one last prebaby fling.
For my part, I was glad to step in and play uncle for the evening, letting the girls spend the night in the spare bedroom of my condo in downtown Seattle. We had ordered pizza, watched a couple of videos (why someone doesn't strangle that little brat in Home Alone I and II I'll never know!) and played several hands of killer Uno, all of which Tracy won without even trying.
Out in the kitchen, I ladled scoops of ice cream into partially filled glasses while Heather, frowning in concentration, carefully added enough root beer to fill the three glasses with foam without ever overflowing any of them.
"Did you know my mom's coming back from Nicaragua?" she asked pensively.
Actually, I did. Women are forever complaining about how men never talk about anything important. Loosely translated, that means anything personal. Generally, they're right. We don't-not to women and usually not to each other, either.
There is, however, one major exception to that rule. In the not so exclusive fraternity of divorced-wounded men, when it comes to comparing notes on the unreasonableness or capriciousness of ex-wives, man-to-man discussions can and do take place. They tend to turn into impromptu contests-sort of "My ex-wife did this and can you top it" kinds of competitions.
With what was going on down in California, where my ex-wife, Karen, was battling cancer, I wasn't really playing that game anymore. That fact hadn't kept Ron from crying on my shoulder when his ex-wife, Roslyn, had resurfaced after a two-year hitch with some far-out "Holy Roller" commune down in Central America.
Earlier that week, minutes after opening a letter from his ex-wife, an agitated, grim-faced Ron Peters had wheeled his chair into my office on the fifth floor of the Public Safety Building.
"Damn it!" he had grumbled, waving the paper in the air. "Roz is coming back."
"So?" I had returned. It's easy to be unconcerned when the ex-wife in question bears no relation to you whatsoever.
Actually, that isn't true. I did have a remote connection to Roslyn Peters-as a benefactor. Years earlier, I had stepped in to provide a large chunk of the initial seed money that had shipped her and some of her New Dawn associates off on a mission. They had left Broken Springs, Oregon, and headed down to Nicaragua to establish an outpost for their particular brand of religion among the urban poor in the city of Managua. I provided fully deductible mission "grant money." At least that's what my tax return said.
Realistically, my "grant" was nothing more or less than a bribe. In return for a sizable check to the charity of her choice, Roz Peters had relinquished custody of the girls to Ron, their father. Ralph Ames, my Mr. Fix-It attorney, had brokered the deal with the attorney from New Dawn. On the face of it, that sounds pretty heartless-as though the kids went up for grabs, as though they were wrested from a caring, loving mother and auctioned off to the highest bidder. The reality was a little different from that.
New Dawn isn't the worst cult there's ever been. As far as I know, nobody's died in it, or because of it, so far. And when I came up with the idea of getting the girls back and asked Ralph to see what he could do, he set off for Broken Springs, muttering a string of weasel words and saying the whole scheme didn't stand a chance in hell. But once he got there and saw how things were-the primitive housing and sleeping arrangements as well as what passed for hygiene, food, and medical care-he turned into a regular legal tiger. He raised so much hell that the New Dawn attorney couldn't get him out of town fast enough. When Ralph came back to Seattle from Oregon, the girls came with him.
"Well," I had said to Peters the previous week, "I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. You didn't expect her to stay down there forever, did you?"
"I had hoped," Ron said, his black look telling me that he had much preferred having the better part of a continent between himself and his ex-wife.
"According to her, New Dawn is planning to start a mission down in Tacoma," he continued. "They're taking over a derelict old church down in Hilltop."
In recent years, Hilltop has turned into a volatile multiracial neighborhood, the kind every American city seems to have these days. Similar in racial and socioeconomic makeup to Seattle's Rainier Valley, Hilltop has been plagued with more than its fair share of violence and gang warfare. It shows up in newspaper articles and on television news broadcasts, usually in conjunction with stories recounting the sad aftermath of yet another drive-by shooting or drug deal gone bad. It's the kind of place where armed kids insist on using other kids-preferably unarmed ones-for target practice.
"Roz is a grown-up," I had counseled. "If she wants to be an urban missionary, let her do her thing. Besides, some of those shooters and drug addicts down there might actually benefit from a close encounter with a missionary."
"By the way, you're not allowed to call her Roz anymore," Peters said. "Her name is Constance now-Sister Constance. And being a good and loving Christian, she's coming home to take me to court. She's going to sue for joint custody."
"Don't tell me she's planning to take the girls along with her to Hilltop!" I echoed, my own dismay now mirroring Ron's.
"That's the general idea," Peters said. "When is Ralph Ames due back in town?"
"On the third. He and Mary are off on a Caribbean cruise. As soon as I hear from him, I'll clue him in on what's happening."
Now, though, standing in my midnight kitchen and faced with Heather's calm pronouncement, I searched for a way to sound relatively noncommittal. "Really," I said.
Heather nodded. "And she wants Tracy and me to come live with her."
"Down in Tacoma? Is that something you want to do?" I asked.
"Well," Heather replied pointedly. "She is our mother, you know."
Her answer didn't leave me much of a comeback. "Hurry up, you guys," Tracy called from the living room balcony. "It's almost time for the fireworks to start."
I carried the tray of foaming drinks outdoors and set it on the table on the chilly lanai. Without having to be told, the girls both bundled themselves into coats. After my recent bout with pneumonia, I did the same. I stepped outside just as the radio countdown ended and the first pyrotechnic blasts boomed off the top of the Space Needle, sending bursts of red and blue sparks cascading over the city. With the barrage of fireworks lighting the sky overhead, the girls and I clinked glasses and wished one another a Happy New Year.
Heather and Tracy turned back to the display, their eyes alive with excitement. Watching my little charges, I felt a su
Much as that would hurt, I could still see that it was really none of my affair.
Stop being such a meddlesome, selfish dolt, I told myself firmly. Knock it off, and stay out of other people's business.
Then, as yet another huge bouquet of fiery orange and yellow mums rose in the air and filled the nighttime sky with light and smoke, I realized that my focus on losing Heather and Tracy's sunny day-to-day presence was a way of avoiding what else was going on in my life right then-another countdown in far-off Rancho Cucamonga, California, where Karen, my first wife, was suffering through the final stages of cancer. That painful realization hurt so much that, for the first time in weeks, I wanted a drink. A real drink. Fortunately, I didn't have any booze in the house, and taking care of the girls precluded my setting off in search of some.
With the fireworks' mortars still booming through the night, I took my glass, went back inside, and sank down into my recliner. The girls bounded into the room a few minutes later, their eyes alight with glee, their cheeks glowing pink from the frosty outside air.
"What's the matter, Uncle Beau?" Heather asked. "Didn't you like the fireworks?"
"They were fine," I said. "I came inside because I got cold."
I didn't try to explain that the chill I was feeling was one that came from the inside out, rather than the other way around.
I was showered, dressed, and had rousted the girls out of bed for breakfast when the telephone rang at eight-ten the next morning. We had planned a New Year's Day outing to the Woodland Park Zoo, but a call from Seattle P.D. immediately put that plan in jeopardy.
"Happy New Year," Sergeant Chuck Grayson said jovially. "Hope I didn't wake you."
Murder doesn't necessarily observe holidays, so even on New Year's Day, Homicide Squad shifts had to be covered. As a single man with no local family obligations and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward football, I had volunteered to be on call the first of January. That was long before I had accepted an overnight baby-sitting assignment with Heather and Tracy.
"Happy New Year to you, too," I answered. "I may be up, but I'm not necessarily at 'em. What's going on?"
"We've got a floater right there in your neighborhood. Just off Pier Seventy," Grayson answered. "Since it's just down the hill from Belltown Terrace, I thought it might save time if you went there directly, rather than coming down here first."
"Sure thing," I said. "No problem."
I put down the phone and turned back to the girls, who were happily shoveling their way through bowls of Frosted Flakes. Under Amy's diplomatic influence, Ron Peters has somewhat modified his stringent health food stance, but from the ecstatic greeting the girls had given my box of sugar-coated cereal, I had to assume that for them, Frosted Flakes were a rare and welcome treat.
"You have to go to work, right?" Tracy asked, sighing in disappointment.
"Yes." I drained the last slurp of coffee out of the bottom of my cup.
"Does that mean we won't be going to the zoo?"
"At least not this morning," I said. "We'll have to see about this afternoon. In the meantime, you can watch the Rose Bowl Parade on television. That should be fun."
Heather made a face. "Parades on TV are boring. They're lots more fun in person."
Influenced by the two recently viewed Home Alone nightmare videos, visions of my pristine condo destroyed by child-produced mayhem danced through my head.
"I'm sorry to leave you by yourselves like this. Your folks have a late checkout, so they probably won't be home before four or five. You won't get in any trouble, now, will you?"
"We'll be fine," Tracy said.
"You know how to run the TV. I want you both to stay right here in the apartment until I get back. There's microwave popcorn in the cupboard, bread, peanut butter and jelly…"
"And lots more root beer," Heather added.
I knew the girls to be relatively self-sufficient. For one thing, this is a secure building, and when both their parents are at work (Amy is a physical therapist at Harborview Hospital), the girls do spend some time alone. I knew, for instance, that in the event of an emergency, they had been told to notify the doorman. Even so, I felt that by leaving them on their own I was being somewhat derelict in my baby-sitting duty. "With any luck, maybe we'll still be able to go to the zoo later this afternoon."
The girls exchanged eye-rolling glances that said they didn't consider that a very likely possibility. Battling a certain amount of lingering guilt, I finished strapping on my semiautomatic and headed out the door.
From Belltown Terrace, my condo building at the corner of Second Avenue and Broad, to the murder scene at Pier 70 on Elliott Bay is a straight shot of only four blocks. Some people might scoff at the idea of my getting the 928 out of the underground garage and driving there, but in Seattle distances can be deceiving. Taking the glacial ridges into consideration, four downhill blocks going down are a whole lot shorter than the uphill ones coming back.
The few minutes in the car gave me a chance to shift gears, to go from a cozy holiday-type atmosphere into a work mind-set, where man's inhumanity to man is the order of the day.
I found the entrance to the pier itself was blocked by a phalanx of official vehicles. Some were from the department, some were emergency fire and Medic One vans, but a fairly large number were of the ever-present and ever-circling news media variety. Dodging through the crush as best I could, I met up with Audrey Cummings, the assistant medical examiner, on the far side of the yellow crime-scene tape. The two of us walked down the thick, creosote-impregnated wooden planks together.
The assistant M.E. was in a foul mood. "Dragging some drowned New Year's Eve reveler out of the drink isn't exactly how I had planned to spend my day," she groused.
Dr. Audrey Cummings is short, stout, somewhere above the half-century mark, and not to be trifled with. She usually shows up at crime scenes looking far more like a lady accountant than she does a medical examiner. This time, however, instead of her trademark crisp blouse, wrinkle-free blazer and skirt, and sensible heels, she wore a pair of plaid wool slacks, loafers, and a leather jacket. For her to appear at a crime scene dressed that casually, it was clear she really had intended to take the day off.
A little knot of officers was gathered along the edge of the pier. We made our way through them just in time to see a dripping, fully clothed corpse be lifted from the Harbor Patrol police boat and deposited faceup on the dock. The victim, clad in a sodden wool suit, appeared to me to be a late-thirties Caucasian male.
"What did I tell you?" Audrey said, in a supposedly private aside to me. "That's one drowned rat if I ever saw one."
One of the Harbor Patrol officers, Rich Carlson, clambered up on the pier. He nodded in my direction. "Wouldn't count on that if I were you, Doc," he said to Audrey. "Most drowning victims I've seen don't turn up with bullet holes in the backs of their heads."
"A bullet hole?" Audrey repeated.
Carlson nodded. "It's small enough that it can't have been a very high caliber weapon, but at close range, it doesn't take much."
Stepping up to the corpse, Audrey Cummings squatted beside the sodden body, gazing at the dead man respectfully but curiously, with the watchful, no-nonsense demeanor that, in the gruesome world of medical examiners, must pass for bedside manner.
"How long ago was he spotted?" Audrey asked.
"Not very long," Rich answered. "A female jogger noticed him in the water just after sunrise. Her name's Johnny something-or-other. You should be able to get her name and address from dispatch. We found him wedged against one of the pilings under the pier. It took a while for us to drag him back out into the open."
The other officers were still combing the area when Audrey finished with her preliminary examination. I hurried back over to where she stood, stripping off a pair of latex gloves. "Any I.D.?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Our Mr. John Doe has no I.D., no wallet, no money, and no rings on him, although he's worn two rings recently. One is missing from his left ring finger, and one from the right. His watch is gone, too."
"So we may be talking robbery here, or else that's what we're supposed to think. And chances are, our victim was a married man."
"Chances are," Audrey agreed.
"Rich was right about the bullet hole?"
Audrey shuddered and nodded. "Unfortunately, yes."
I looked at her warily. Crime scenes don't usually affect her that way. "What's the matter?" I asked.
"Remember back a few months ago when I took that leave of absence?"
"I worked for two weeks as a volunteer in Bosnia, trying to identify the bodies that were found outside a Muslim enclave that had been overrun by the Serbs. Those two weeks gave me a whole new understanding of the words execution-style slaying."
"And that's what this is?"
"Looks like it to me."
I could see that the murder had affected Audrey in a way she hadn't expected. "Any sign of a struggle?" I asked, hoping that answering routine questions might help Dr. Cummings regain her composure.
She shrugged. "The body's been in the water for some time-several hours, anyway. The abrasions we're seeing could be from a struggle of some kind, or they could be from being washed around on rocks and/or pilings."