Third Degree

A Murder 101 Mystery (Volume 5)

Maggie Barbieri

Minotaur Books

One
 
 
Meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time shouldn’t involve wearing bathing suits.
Is it just me or should that be a hard and fast rule?
My best friend, Max, didn’t agree. Anytime she gets to wear a bikini is a good day. But she’s a size two with six-pack abs. Me? I like to think that at five ten I resemble one of those hard-bodied beach volleyball players, but in actuality, I’m less gazelle and more stork. With a potbelly.
I was headed to meet my boyfriend’s clan, the Crawfords. And frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable, at my age, with the “boyfriend” designation; sounds a little juvenile to me but I hadn’t come up with anything better. This soiree was being hosted by Bobby’s brother, Jimmy, whom I had met under less than ideal circumstances—let’s just say that it was an “unfortunate incarceration” and he’s a really good lawyer—and his wife, Mary Pat, and I had been told that it would take place around the swimming pool. And that Mary Pat had a “banging body,” according to her husband, who was completely in her thrall. Hence, my dilemma.
Max said that I needed to get a sarong.
I spoke slowly. “But that would mean that I would have to go to Bali and I don’t have time for that. We need to be there by two.”
“They sell sarongs in America,” she reminded me.
“Yes, but that would mean I would have to go to a mall, and in case you didn’t hear me, we need to be there by two.” Anyway, I was still in bed, talking to Max on the phone.
“I wish you had told me sooner. I would have lent you one of mine.” I didn’t ask why she had a sarong—or more than one, for that matter—nor did I remind her that I outweighed her by fifty pounds and would look stupid with her sarong tied around one leg. “As fascinating as this problem is, I have to go. The Hooters waitresses are threatening to strike if I don’t give them a real case to work on.”
Max is the head of a cable network called Crime TV and is working on a reality show that combines Hooters waitresses and private investigation. (Don’t say it. I already know.) I had no idea how that was considered “entertainment” but Max had the golden touch and every reality show she produced was a ratings blockbuster. She was considered something akin to lightning in a bottle in the world of reality television combined with crime, so who was I to judge? I’m a college professor who teaches creative writing to disaffected college freshmen, along with a few upper-level courses to juniors and seniors, and Max thinks that it’s a miracle I can stay awake while giving lectures to my classes, which I take as more of an insult to my teaching ability than to the attention span of my students. I like my job, even if when I use a three-syllable word, the students look at me with the same quizzical look my dog gives me when I say anything besides her name and the word “cocktails.”
I had described the show to Crawford, and his eyebrows rose. “You’ve got to admit,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly red at the thought, “there’s something to be said for women with big boobs in bikini tops following philandering husbands around.” And then, because he’d spent his formative years as an altar boy and knew that he was going to hell for saying “boobs” in mixed company, he wisely shut up. And probably did a silent Act of Contrition.
My eyes lighted on the cherry Ring Pop sitting on my nightstand that was, ostensibly, my engagement ring. It had all happened so fast; we had just left City Hall after Max and her husband, Fred, had gotten married—and Crawford had sprung a proposal on me, shocking me with his spontaneity. Crawford’s not a spontaneous guy; everything he does is thought out and measured, wood burning in that gorgeous head of his. But this was completely out of the blue and I hadn’t really given him an answer. The pool party and the meeting of the entire family, though? That made me think that he assumed that I had said “yes.” I probably would at some point, but for right now, I was on the fence. Everything was great between us. But having been married to a serial philanderer, who was now six feet under, I was a little gun-shy. It was going to take me a while to sort this whole thing out.
After staring at the Ring Pop for an inordinately long period of time, I went back to staring at my old bathing suit. I chided myself for not having done what most normal people would do in this situation: gone to the mall and tried on every bathing suit in the store. However, since it was August, I was sure that fall clothes were already on the racks, and I would be destined to take one of the last suits in the store, either a string bikini or a flowered muumuu with matching leggings.
Crawford said that “everyone swims” at Jimmy’s parties; that was a direct quote. Apparently, Jimmy had spent a boatload of money on a pool and hot tub and the family was a bunch of waterlogged Irish Americans who couldn’t be dragged out. And they loved to play Marco Polo, according to Crawford. I lay back on my bed, considering my options. I could tell Crawford’s family that I had just had liposuction on my abdomen and I couldn’t get my stitches wet. Nobody would believe that. Even in a prone position, my stomach was visible over the waistband of my pants. I could tell them that I almost drowned as a kid and was afraid of the water, which was true. Or, I could just tell them the truth, which is that I can’t swim and avoid water and all related sports. One thing I’ve found is that if you tell someone you can’t do math, they’re fine with it. Can’t read? No problem. We’ll teach you! Can’t swim? Admitting that is akin to admitting you’ve been in the pen. Nobody believes you and then, after they’ve stopped laughing, everybody eyes you suspiciously.
I have a lot of other admirable qualities but didn’t feel like I could share them with the Crawfords without sounding like a braggart. One of them is that I exaggerate everything to the point of paralysis at the thought of certain situations.
Like meeting your future in-laws. And revealing a character flaw like not being able to swim.
I got off the bed and looked at my bathing suit on the floor next to the bed. It was the same one I had had since my honeymoon with my late ex-husband. I had forgotten to pack a bathing suit for the trip (which gives you a little insight into my preoccupied, postwedding state—paging Dr. Freud … ) even though we were headed to Aruba, and had been forced to buy a two-hundred-dollar Speedo in the hotel gift shop that was now more than ten years old and missing some important expanses of elastic.
I threw the bathing suit on the bed and decided that I wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t want to do. But I also decided that I needed a big iced coffee to steel my resolve. I put Trixie, my golden retriever, on her leash and started into town, a short walk from my house.
I live in a little village in tony Westchester County, where, years before, with a small inheritance from my parents, I was smart enough to buy a tiny house perfectly situated due to its proximity to both my work and New York City. After my divorce from the aforementioned late ex-husband, it turned out the house was just the right size for me, my dog, and Crawford when he visited. Crawford lives in Manhattan and commutes to the Bronx to the detective squad at the Fiftieth Precinct. I wondered what would happen if we did marry. Would he move here? Would I move there? How would two people who had lived on their own for a while adjust to living with other people again? We had been dating for a little over a year and Crawford was clearly perfect, but he also had two teenage daughters, an ex-wife who was getting remarried in a few months, a really intense job, and his own way of doing things after living alone for a long time. We had a lot to finagle if we were going to make this work.
Most important, how would Trixie feel?
I grabbed my coffee cup from the dish drainer before I left; my village was going green and I was going right along for the ride. Before leaving, I took a quick look at the calendar that hung on the side of the refrigerator. Yep, still August. I find August to be a tough time for me, something that never changes from year to year. My mother’s birthday had been in August. She had also died in August. Every year, I expect it to get better, but here we were, a decade later, and I still feel like I can’t catch my breath. Was that ever going to change? Was I being unrealistic to expect that it would?
I didn’t feel the same way about my father’s death, even though at the time, it had been just as difficult. The difference was that he hadn’t suffered like my mother had. He had just gone to work one day and dropped dead, too young, at the UPS office where he picked up his truck and deliveries every day. His friends said he was dead before he hit the ground, and for some reason, that gave me some measure of comfort. I was only a teenager when that happened but still, I could deal with his absence in a way that I couldn’t when it came to my mother.
Maybe it was all those years we had together, just the two of us. Or maybe it was because of how much she had suffered. Every year, I tried to sort it out, and every year, I just marked the days down until August was over and it was no longer an issue.
When I got outside, I was not surprised by the weather: hot and steamy, a typical August day in New York. The humidity would have me looking like Gene Wilder in no time. I reconsidered the jeans and T-shirt that I had put on before I left and decided that an ensemble a little less sweat-producing would be appropriate for the pool party. At which I decided I would definitely not be swimming. Trixie tugged at the leash, delighted that we were heading into town, even though she would be sitting outside the coffee shop while I had my iced coffee in the air-conditioned comfort of Beans, Beans. (I know—my mind goes there, too, but who am I to tell the hippie owner, Greg, that “beans, beans” is the start of a not-so-nice childhood rhyme of a scatological nature?) Greg is a lovely guy with a messy, gray Afro who loves coffee and calls everyone “dude” regardless of their sex. He often has on a T-shirt that says JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY and thinks that Beans, Beans is the most clever name for a coffee shop. Who was I to disabuse him of that notion? The store is decorated with thrift-store finds and has a funky, neighborhood vibe that I love. So what if the coffee isn’t great? Greg is a nice guy, he needs the business, and I need the coffee. It worked for me. Crawford, on the other hand, thinks it is overpriced and a little precious. He likes his coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid and Greek-looking decorations on the side. And he likes his muffins like he likes his women—hard on the outside, soft on the inside, and without any adornment. I only fit that bill about sixty percent of the time, but he’s accepted that. That’s the way he’s been drinking his coffee and eating his muffins for years and nothing is going to change him. And he really doesn’t like being called “dude.”
I wrapped Trixie’s leash around a parking meter and gave her a kiss, thinking about my soon-to-be-consumed iced coffee and what I would wear once I peeled these jeans off. The bathing suit with the missing elastic was looking better and better.
The village was hopping on this Saturday morning and I took in the building traffic in the center of town. Almost every parking space was filled and people milled about, waiting until ten o’clock when the boutiques and other stores opened. I was glad that I had walked.
I thought about the impending party. I was friends with Crawford’s Aunt Bea and she had made a few comments about his mother being a “piece of work.” I had heard the expression before and knew that it connoted a lot of different things in different people’s minds. Was she an eccentric? A little bit loony? That I could handle. I came from a long line of French-Canadian whackos. Or was she mean and nasty? I never could get Bea to commit, and what was I going to do? Ask Crawford? “Hey, what’s the deal with your mother? Is she a bitch on wheels or just a little crazy?” That wasn’t going to work. I had myself kind of worked up about the whole thing. Meeting the parents was stressful enough, but when you had a wild card in the mix—one Kathleen Crawford—it was enough to induce a seizure.
I was lost in thought as I approached Beans, Beans and put my hand on the handle to the outer door, not really paying attention, lost in the reverie of thinking about what items resided in my closet. I thought about a pink shirt that made me look thinner than I actually was but then remembered that it had a huge chocolate ice-cream stain on the right breast area. Trixie made a sound and I turned to tell her that I would be right out and that I would probably bring her a treat. While my head was turned, the door to the coffee shop swung open, my hand still gripping the handle, the edge of the door catching the side of my nose and the right side of my face as I was pushed backward onto the sidewalk. Two men spilled past me, locked in some kind of pugilistic fox trot. They tumbled onto the sidewalk a few feet away from me, punching and kicking each other. As I hit the ground, I saw that one of them had a bloody nose, and that the other one was missing a shoe. I focused on the fact that his tan stopped at his ankle and I thought that was really weird. All I could think was “socks and boat shoes?” This floated through my mind in the seconds before the pain in my face flooded like a tsunami into my consciousness.
My head landed next to Trixie’s front paws. She immediately set up a howl, barking as though she were rabid. In between barking, she licked my face. I must have looked pretty bad if she was that concerned. She started circling the parking meter and uttered a few low moans. I heard strains of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” coming from inside Beans, Beans, a lot of cursing, and finally, a loud and booming “Dudes!”
I’m going to have much bigger problems than wearing a bathing suit to a pool party, I thought, as I touched the welt growing under my eye. I struggled to my feet with a little help from Greg, who was wearing a T-shirt that said DON’T NEED A PERMIT FOR THESE GUNS with arrows pointing to either arm. Greg is big, but he’s not fit, and despite the pain I was in, I was feeling a little punchy. I burst out laughing, which turned to crying in mere seconds.
“Dude,” he said, taking my elbow. “Come inside. I’ve already called the police.” He took in the two men and shook his head sadly. Jesus, Greg’s homeboy, would not be pleased. The two men were still rolling around on the sidewalk, and nobody was trying to intervene now that they were out of Greg’s shop; the crowd obviously ascribed to the “don’t get involved” line of reasoning or else they just enjoyed watching a good donnybrook. I heard sirens as the police raced down Main Street and pulled to a stop in front of the store. The two men separated and I recognized one of the fighters: George Miller, the head of the Department of Public Works, who stood against the plate-glass window of Beans, Beans, panting heavily and pointing at the other man. The only reason I knew George was that I handed him a fat envelope of cash every year for his crew because, God knows, they had taken many a garbage collection from outside my house that wasn’t really on the Monday “approved” garbage list. Like a sleeper sofa. And a few paint cans that weren’t exactly clean. And more dog waste disguised as regular garbage than I could tally. I loved those guys and felt compelled to show my love once a year. I didn’t recognize the other guy and couldn’t imagine what had brought him to blows with the head of the DPW.
A group of people who had been in the coffee shop had come out onto the street and were clustered a few feet away, mumbling quietly about what had happened. A couple of other patrons were still inside the store, their noses pressed up against the other side of the glass window. Miller said nothing because he couldn’t catch his breath. He bent over at the waist and put his hands on his knees.
The other man, the one without the shoe and the tan that stopped at his ankle, rested against a parking meter. “You’ll be sorry, Miller,” he said, much too calmly for someone who had just engaged in such strenuous fisticuffs. He was in his mid-forties, with a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses that sat askew on his face. Unlike Miller, who was a rough-hewn kind of guy with a ruddy complexion, he didn’t seem like the type who engaged in these kinds of shenanigans on any kind of regular basis. Having seen Miller around town, dealing with the townsfolk and his crew with a demeanor that could only be described as “impatient,” I was not entirely surprised to see him as one half of the brawling duo. The other guy, however, seemed like he would be more comfortable at the local country club—the one that cost a quarter of a million dollars just to apply to—than rolling around Main Street with the head of the DPW.
Two policemen approached the men. Greg knew both of them. “Hi, Larry. Joe,” he said, his meaty hand still gripping my elbow. “I’ll be inside. These two are up to their usual b.s., but this time, they’ve hurt someone else,” he said, pointing to me. I’m hurt? I thought. That wasn’t good news. I kind of suspected it but I didn’t like getting confirmation from an outside source.
Larry, I presumed, motioned to me. “Do we need an ambulance, Greg?”
“Oh, good God, no!” I said, more forcefully than I intended. Larry gave me a curious look. The last thing I needed was to be taken away by ambulance. I’m kind of famous around these parts, and not for anything good, so I just wanted to go home and put a package of frozen peas to my face and forget that I’d ever ventured into town that morning.
“You might want to get that looked at,” Larry said, hitching up his pants while studying my face. He turned to George Miller, who was fidgeting by the window and looking as if he were considering taking flight. “You’re not going anywhere, George, so stay put,” he said. Larry pointed at my face. “You know, you really might want to get that looked at,” he repeated.
I didn’t know what “that” was and I was afraid to find out. I put my fingers gingerly to the place next to my nose and felt a lump. However, when I pulled them away, there was no blood and I took that as a good sign.
Greg spoke up. “I’ll be inside when you want to talk to me.” He let go of my elbow and untied Trixie from the parking meter. “Under these circumstances, Trixie can come inside. It’s hot. She probably needs some water.” Joe made a grunt of protest at the dog being inside a food establishment but Greg shot him a look. “You take care of these morons, Joe, and I’ll take care of Alison.”
We made our way into the shop and the crowd of gawkers parted to let us pass. Greg asked anyone who was just rubbernecking to take it outside as he was going to close up shop to straighten what had been upended in the fight. I took in the usually tidy space: two tables were turned over, as were a few chairs. The fighters had also broken the glass that fronted the muffin case. I took Trixie’s leash from Greg and walked her around the damage and to the back of the coffee shop, where everything was just as it should be, tables and chairs completely upright with a few empty coffee cups left behind.
Greg tossed me a cold, wet rag from behind the counter. “Here. Put this on your eye.”
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You have a welt. I saw the whole thing. If you hadn’t turned around to talk to Trixie, you would’ve lost an eye.”
Jeez. Life with an eye patch. Or a glass eye. I had never considered that. “Thanks, Greg,” I said, holding up the wet rag. It wasn’t the cleanest first aid I had ever seen and it smelled like coffee, but beggars can’t be choosers. I put it on the welt and immediately felt better. “What’s going on with those two idiots?” I asked, hooking a thumb toward the sidewalk.
Greg grabbed a broom from behind the counter and began sweeping up the glass in front of the muffin case. “Miller has a real problem with Wilmott.”
“Wilmott?”
“The guy without the shoe.”
“Oh,” I said, and pulled Trixie closer to me as Greg bent down to pick up a few shards of glass from the floor. I now knew exactly who he was talking about. Carter Wilmott was from an old village family, independently wealthy, and considered himself something of a whistle-blower when it came to the village. I had never met him so hadn’t realized it was him. But my assessment of the ankle tan was correct; the Wilmotts kept a large sailboat in the marina next to the train station and were known for being avid sailors. Carter had a lot of time on his hands, what with the independently wealthy part, so he spent his days posting on a blog dedicated to the village and its goings-on. The blog was called “Our Village Matters” and he was merciless in his criticism of local politicians, national figures (particularly Republican ones), and apparently, the DPW. I had been living on campus during the last few weeks of the spring semester, and reading the blog—a guilty pleasure—was one of the ways I kept up on what was happening in the village. Apparently, I had missed the DPW screed. But knowing Wilmott’s MO, I am sure it was yellow journalism at best. I think I even remember a sarcastic post about Greg and his novelty T-shirts; it was a wonder Greg still let him come into Beans, Beans. Then again, Greg was a peace-loving man and I could see him forgiving Wilmott his rants.
Greg finished cleaning up the glass and brought Trixie a bowl of ice-cold water, just as he had promised. She dove in as if she had been in the desert and lapped up the water, spilling most of it over the sides with her enthusiastic slurping. He pulled up a chair. “Let me see,” he said, and held out his hand.
I handed him the towel. “I should go check this out in the bathroom,” I said and got up.
Greg gave me a look that indicated that might not be such a good idea. But what was I going to do? Walk around avoiding mirrors? No time like the present. I went back to the unisex bathroom and turned on the forty-watt bare bulb that hung over the toilet and took a good look at myself in the ancient mirror.
“That’ll leave a mark,” I said to myself and the red welt on my face. I washed up and dried my face on some scratchy paper towels and returned to the coffee shop, where Greg was continuing to clean up the debris that was littered around the front counter. I offered to give him a hand but he declined.
“The place will be fine once I get it cleaned up,” he said. The bell on the door jingled and we turned to find Carter Wilmott making his way back into the shop. Greg shook his head. “You know what, Wilmott? You’re not welcome here anymore. You are banned from Beans, Beans,” he said, albeit in the kindest way one could communicate another’s persona non grata status.
Wilmott swayed a bit on his feet, and grabbed his throat. He looked at me and I could see a thick sheen of sweat on his brow. “I just wanted to say …” he started, but began coughing violently. Even Greg, who was as mad as I had ever seen him, stopped what he was doing and leaned across the counter.
“Do you need some water, Carter?” Greg asked.
Before Wilmott could answer, George Miller burst through the door of the shop, his feet falling heavily on the broken glass, making a noise not unlike my cereal makes when I pour in the milk. Miller drew a fist back, and with a forceful roundhouse punch, landed a blow to Wilmott’s head. I cried out just as the police followed Miller inside.
Wilmott went to his knees. I got up from my seat, in that weird position of feeling as if I should do something yet not knowing what that might be. I took one step toward Wilmott as Greg made his way from around the counter, moving faster than I was.
Wilmott rocked from one side to the other, and caught my eye once more. “… to say that I am sorry,” he said, and fell facefirst into the pile of dirt and glass that Greg had swept into a tidy mound. I made a tiny sound while Trixie moved behind the counter, terrified of what had just transpired.
Greg knelt beside Wilmott, Larry the cop doing the same. The other cop grabbed Miller in a chokehold, using his free hand to handcuff him. Greg moved to the side, worriedly knitting his hands together in front of the counter, while Larry the cop expertly flipped Carter’s body over and began CPR. He pounded on the man’s chest, sweat beginning to roll down his cheeks. He continued for two or three minutes and then checked Wilmott’s neck for a pulse.
He rocked back on his heels, his face a mask of sadness and incomprehension. For some reason, he looked at me and said, “He’s dead.”
 
Copyright © 2010 by Maggie Barbieri