The investigation begins
| “A body?” I missed the car seat, and sat down hard on the pavement. “Joshie, what do you mean you found a body in my back yard? Who is it? Did you check for a pulse? Did you call 911?”
“No need for a pulse, Ells. Whoever it is has been dead for a long time.”
“Oh my god. I’m on my way home now. Call Chief Collins as soon as you hang up, ok?” I disconnected, and peeled my sore bottom off of the Cranes’ driveway.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I got home, but I definitely wasn’t prepared to see my house surrounded by police cars with flashing lights. I couldn’t get into my driveway, so I had to park in front of the Millers’ house. Mrs. Miller had her nose pressed to the window, as usual. I waved to her as I crossed the street.
Chief Collins was waiting for me at the edge of my property, squinting into the sun despite the huge hand shading his eyes. “Hi, Ella. Hell of a thing. I’m assuming Josh told you what he found?”
“More or less. Less, actually.” Harvey Collins had been friends with my parents since high school. He was practically an uncle to me, and despite the strangeness of the situation, I was quite relieved to see him. He put his burly arm around my shoulder.
“State crime lab’s just arrived and your brother is having a fit.” We walked down the curving driveway to the side of the house. Josh was pacing like a caged lion, just outside of the cordoned off area. His neatly placed roping had been hastily covered with bright yellow crime scene tape. A small group stood off to one side. From my vantage point I could see that there was one State Trooper, large and intimidating in his gray uniform and hat. With him were a man with a very slight build, and a woman who seemed to tower over him.
As soon as I saw this scene, I understood why my brother was beside himself. He had done all of the prep work for this dig, he’d made the gruesome discovery, and now not only was his excavation being taken away from him, he wasn’t even permitted to be in the area. I’d spent countless hours listening to Josh talking about his work. I had to admit that his enthusiasm was contagious, and despite my dislike for dirt and the insects that lived in it, I’d watched him work many times. His pride in his work was evident, and this case was no different. He wanted to get in there and help.
The Chief Collins caught the trooper’s eye, and the man came over to join us in the shade of the driveway. “Captain March, this is Ella Waxman. The property belongs to her.”
“Ms. Waxman.” He tipped his hat, making me blink with surprise. Did people really do that? I thought that was just something they did on TV. “I have some questions I need to ask you.”
“Sure thing. Why don’t we go inside? I have iced tea.” Where did that come from? I mentally rolled my eyes at myself. Well, it was hot outside. If no one else needed a drink, I certainly did!
Chief Collins volunteered to bring iced tea down to Josh and the crime lab people, leaving me sitting alone at the kitchen table with Captain March. I sipped the sweet tea, nervously playing with the edge of my yellow linen placemat. The sun shone through the large windows, brightening my cheery kitchen. The air conditioning was a welcome change, and I sagged slightly in my chair. Captain March sat as straight and stiffly as he had stood outside. His severe countenance clashed with the bright cheerfulness of the room. He had removed his hat when he entered the house, and it sat perched alertly on the table next to him. His sandy hair was too short to be messed up, but it was clear that he’d been sweating under that hat. His face had that chiseled look of someone who takes their exercise quite seriously, and as he sat there I was reminded of the GI Joe doll Josh had played with as a child. I suppressed a giggle, taking another sip of tea to mask the smile that had slid onto my face.
“Who found the body?” This guy got right down to business. Not even a thank you for the tea.
“My brother, Josh Waxman. Didn’t you talk to him yet?”
“How was the body found?” I guess not.
“Josh was doing an excavation. I don’t really know any more than that.”
“Why was your brother digging on your property?”
“That’s what he does. He’s an archaeologist, and he just loves to dig.” I shrugged. “So he practices, when he’s not working.”
“Why was your brother digging in that area of your property?” Didn’t I already answer that question?
“I have no idea. He just picks a spot that looks interesting, and sets up.”
“How long have you owned this property?”
“It will be three years in October.”
I’d stood up and stretched, having just finished my interview with Captain March. Chief Collins, Josh, and one of the crime scene guys had come trooping in a few minutes earlier, radiating heat and eau de human. Although the sun was still fairly high in the sky, the shadows were starting to lengthen, and a loud growl from my stomach announced to the world that it was dinnertime. Yes, even with the scent of sweat in the air, my body knew it was chow time. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since that chocolate chip cookie this morning.
“Ella? Josh?” A musical voice lilted from the front hallway.
“We’re back here, mom,” I called, instinctively reaching up to smooth my eyebrows. It was a defense mechanism, one of several borne from many years of dealing with my mother’s slight neuroses.
My parents came bustling into the kitchen. Mom was carrying a shopping bag in each hand, and Dad’s oven-mitted hands were holding a large casserole dish. How’s that for timing? “We brought tapas,” Dad chirped. Only my dad would bring food to a police investigation.
Mom’s eyes grazed over my forehead as she dropped her bags onto the round oak kitchen table. She straightened the vase of daisies her bags had pushed to the side. “Harvey called your father right in the middle of a particularly steamy sex scene.” I suppose I should mention that my parents are writers. Separately, they are Nate and Hannah Waxman. Together they are bestselling romance author Anastasia Candlewick. I have a really hard time reading their stuff. I mean, they’re excellent writers, they really are. It’s just that I’d prefer not to think about them in that way.
Dad started unloading the bags, peering under lids and allowing the enticing scents of saffron and garlic to waft through the room. Chip came prancing into the room, nose and tail in the air. I decided there must be seafood in one of those containers.
A rapid knock on the kitchen door preceded Jeremy’s frantic face peering into the room. “Ella? Oh my god. What’s going on? What’s with the police cars?” He walked into the kitchen, bearing an aromatic takeout bag from Opa. I stood corrected. Only my dad would knowingly bring food to a police investigation. I’d completely forgotten about Jeremy’s promise to come over that evening. Great, now we had Spanish and Greek. We just needed someone to show up with a pizza and we could call it a Mediterranean investigation party.
The thought had no sooner gone through my mind when the doorbell rang.
Josh jumped up to answer, and came back a minute later wearing a sheepish grin and carrying three large boxes from Gino’s. “I needed some comfort food.”
With the arrival of two more police officers, we were now eleven. With enough food to feed about 25, my small kitchen was not going to work. Josh ran outside to open up his folding table, and we all trooped into the backyard bearing armfuls of food.
The crime lab guys were still hard at work, the first having rejoined his partner. Chief Collins brought them down plates of food, and then rejoined the group. Captain March had pulled Josh aside to talk to him, and was warily eyeing my canvas chair before attempting to sit down. I felt a tiny surge of pleasure at his discomfort.
As night fell, even Josh’s tiki torches were not keeping the mosquitoes at bay, so one officer was left to guard the scene – and presumably to keep my brother out of it. The rest of the state law officials left for the evening, with a promise to return the next morning. Chief Collins remained for a while, sitting in the kitchen with my parents, Jeremy, Josh and me. I made some iced coffee, and pulled some cookies from the freezer. They were an experiment that I hadn’t yet perfected well enough to sell at the bakery, but they were tasty nonetheless.
My father was the first to bring up the subject of the body in the backyard. “So, Harvey, any idea how old this body is?”
Chief Collins took another bite of his cinnamon chocolate chunk cookie before answering. “Well, Nate, officially I shouldn’t even be talking with you about this. But I can say for certain that whoever he is, he’s been there far longer than Ella has owned this property.”
“How can you tell that?” my mom asked.
“A couple of simple things, really. First, the body is completely decomposed. Nothing remaining on the bones, no odor beyond the smell of soil. Also, the soil around our guy would still be dark from decomposition, if he’d only been there for a couple of years.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, and pondered the sad fate of the body Josh had uncovered.
Sunday morning didn’t so much dawn as come in with a bang. I stood at the kitchen window yet again, looking out at the crime scene tape that sprawled across my backyard. I’d been awoken earlier by a loud crash of thunder, and the accompanying downpour was making a muddy mess of the already torn up yard. My brother and the cop who had remained to safeguard the crime scene were wrestling with a tarp, trying to get the area covered without touching anything within the yellow tape.
The hum of the microwave was interrupted by a loud pop. What the hell? Opening the microwave door, I discovered that my oatmeal had exploded. Did I mention I’m not a morning person? Sighing, I took the banana I’d been peeling, and used it to scrape my breakfast off the insides of the appliance. Not too bad. I decided I needed to experiment with some banana oatmeal muffins, for the bakery.
The bakery was only open until one on Sundays, and Daniel and I took turns going in. I thanked whoever was watching over me that today was not my day.
I was just settling down with my chai and the Sunday paper when the phone rang. Dropping the funnies, I jumped up to grab the receiver. “Hello?”
It was my friend Rachel. “What’s this I hear about Josh finding a graveyard on your property?” Wow, that was quick. The Eden Lake grapevine had twisted quite nicely overnight. I definitely needed to set her straight, and quickly! I adored Rachel, but she was the biggest gossip in town. And since she worked at the local salon, she had a lot of time to spend chatting with customers.
“Josh found a body, Rach. It’s been there for quite a while. We don’t know how long, yet, but Chief Collins is pretty certain there’s no chance it was put there after I bought the place. The state crime lab guys were working pretty late into the evening, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen today.” I peered back out the window at the torrential downpour. Josh and the cop had finished with the tarp, but there was no way the investigators would be able to get in there this morning to continue their work.
“Do they have any idea who it is? I mean, how creepy! To think you’ve been living there all this time with a body in your yard! I bet Josh is having a field day. This is right up his alley.”
I rolled my eyes. Honestly, Rachel was a very intelligent person, but you’d never know it from listening to her. “No, Rach. They haven’t even finished digging up the body, from what I can tell. Josh is about having a cow, right now. They won’t let him near his excavation, even to watch them work.”
Rachel sounded disappointed. “Well, you’ll call me as soon as you have any news, right?” I assured her that I would, and disconnected.
After finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle, I took my empty mug over to the sink, and peeked out the window again. A different cop stood forlornly in the rain, keeping watch over the tarp-covered area. He was trying to hold a large yellow umbrella and talk on his cell phone at the same time. I couldn’t imagine how he was even hearing the person on the other end, with the pounding of the rain on the tarp and the tin roofs.
The idea of staying cooped up alone in the house did not appeal, so I decided to head over to the community center for a swim. I grabbed my gym bag, making sure that my swimsuit and towel had been replaced after my last trip to the pool. I started to grab my umbrella when I realized it was futile. I was going to get soaked in the pool in about 10 minutes; what did it matter if I got a little rainwater on me? I regretted my decision during the 5 second dash to my car. Good thing I kept a spare in my glove box.
Sunday afternoon was a busy time at the community center. The board of trustees had worked hard to make the center a hub of activity for Eden Lake. In addition to having a workout facility and exercise classes for infants through seniors, there was an education center that always had an interesting variety of classes available, and a wonderful child care center. There was a counseling center as well as community rooms that were available to local groups for private use, parties, meetings, or study groups. I loved the open design of the building. The central atrium gave the center a spacious feel, and the greenery was lush even during the cold winter months. Of course, today it felt like I was in a tropical rainforest, but I enjoyed walking through the atrium in any case.
I was stopped by three or four different people on my way to the locker room. It seemed that Rachel wasn’t the only one who had heard a modified version of what happened. Frances from the Stop N’ Save wanted to know if they were going to let Josh out on bail. Burt Anderson asked me if they’d identified the bodies yet, as I passed the seniors aquacise class.
The swim was quite therapeutic. I released all sorts of tension I haddn’t even realized I was carrying. I was feeling refreshed and relaxed when I reached the locker room. That didn’t last very long.
“Ella!” It was the very last person I wanted to speak to, at the moment.
“Hi, Valerie.” Valerie Samuels and I had gone through school together, though no one would ever have said we were friends. Enemy is too strong of a word, but suffice it to say that I had good reason for disliking her. She’d always had a few scruples loose. After high school, we had thankfully gone our separate ways. She left Eden Lake to attend some hoity-toity private college, while I’d stayed in Eden Lake. I felt no need to leave. After all, I loved my town and we had a very well reputed college right in our backyards.
Sadly, Valerie decided to return to Eden Lake after college, with a shiny new journalism degree to flaunt. Probably so she could continue to haunt me.
Now she was working for the Eden Lake Journal, or ELJ as everyone in town called the weekly publication.
So, it was understandable that I would want to get away from Valerie as quickly as possible.
“I was hoping we could talk,” she called after me as I raced off to the showers without answering her.
The soothing sound of the shower, combined with the massage effect of the spray helped to relax me once more. I stepped out of the shower, and turned to my left to head for my locker. There she was, waiting calmly, sitting on the bench directly in front of the locker holding my belongings.
I sighed. “What do you want, Valerie?” As if I didn’t already know.
“I want the exclusive, Ella. And you’re just the person who can give it to me. Of course, I could go ask Josh, if you’re not interested in talking to me.”
My continual sighing was starting to stir up a breeze in the locker room. “There’s nothing to tell yet, Valerie. Honestly.” The last thing Josh needed was for Valerie to get her talons into him. 5’10”, her long brunette hair cascading down her graceful back, she was just the distraction Josh didn’t need right now. As much as I loved my little brother, I did know that he had a weakness for leggy beauties. This particular beauty wasn’t coming within a mile of Josh, if I could help it. One look and he’d start making up stories, just to keep her from leaving. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In high school Valerie was not known for doing her research. She was, on the other hand, well known for messing with the boys’ minds and destroying relationships. Perhaps she’d fall flat on her ass if my brother wove her some grandiose tale? Nah, it wasn’t worth the risk.
“I’ll tell you what, Valerie. How about if I call you when I’ve got information to share? How does that sound?”
She sniffed disapprovingly. “I know you, Ella. Better than you think I do. You don’t trust me, and I most certainly do not trust you.” She whipped out her iPhone. “Let’s schedule a meeting. Next Sunday; same time, same place.” And with that pronouncement, she sashayed out of the locker room, leaving me with my mouth hanging open.