The Carbon Murder

A Periodic Table Mystery

Periodic Table Mysteries (Volume 6)

Camille Minichino

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Carbon Murder, The
Isn't this perfect?" my best friend, Rose Galigani, said. Her newly applied auburn highlights caught the light from the faux Tiffany lamp as she swung her head from me to her daughter, and back.
Girls' Night Out at Tomasso's Restaurant and Coffee Annex on Squire Road in North Revere. A fall evening, a few months after I'd moved out of my apartment in the Galigani Mortuary building and into the house owned by police detective Matt Gennaro, my second boyfriend since the Kennedy Administration.
Rose smiled broadly. "First you come back from California, Gloria, and then MC comes home from Texas. Our own little city is like Capistrano. The sparrows always come back to it."
"Swallows, Mom. It's the swallows that come back to Capistrano." MC orchestrated the melody with her hands. "When the swallows come back to Capistrano, da da da da da dee," she sang. Softly, but still, Rose or I would never have done such a thing in a public place, even at MC's age. Generation Thirty-Something-Years-Old was a more self-confident lot.
My godchild Mary Catherine Galigani, MC to her friends, had returned to the nest after several years in Houston, first as a field chemical engineer for an oil company, and then making a career change to their carbon research facility. I went from huge hydrocarbons of petroleum to tiny diamondoids, she'd said in a letter to me. Imagine roasting petroleum at almost a thousand degrees and getting miniature diamonds for your trouble. I was eager to have MC to myself to hear more of the research--and why she'd left it to come back home.
She, her mother, and I sat in a red vinyl booth that smelled of oregano from meals past, sharing our thoughts and our innermost secrets. The one I wanted both of them to reveal was how the mother (size six) and the daughter (size four) managed to eat pizza regularly and still look the way they did. They even each had a beer, while I (size undisclosed) nursed a calorie-free espresso.
"I meant swallows," Rose said. "And how many times do I have to tell you about the Mom part?"
MC laughed. Her short, dark hair fell artfully in front of her face. "Oh, right. Maaaaaa."
Rose gave her daughter a playful nudge. "Don't make fun of your old ma."
MC was a much quicker little swallow than I was. It had taken me thirty years to return to my hometown. I'd fled across the country to Berkeley, California, after my fiancé died in a car crash a few months before our wedding. Not until three decades later had I been ready to move on with my life. Or, to come back and face it, was Rose's diagnosis.
Her playful demeanor aside, MC seemed distracted this evening, as if there were more on her mind than our light conversation. While Rose and I covered topics that took in her whole family, MC's gaze wandered to Tomasso's old, cracked, wooden door, then to the tiny dark-glass windows, then to the long weathered bar along the side wall as if she were expecting another guest. I wondered if she missed Texas. Or maybe a particular Texan.
Rose didn't seem to notice MC's preoccupation, and engaged me in a long agenda--how her husband, Frank, would respond to the new mortuary chain that was moving into the North Shore, threatening to buy up all the independents (in unprintable language, Rose predicted); whether MC's older brother John, a journalist, would ever settle down (maybe not until his fifties, like me, I suggested); whether the Galiganis' only grandchild should go to Revere High School or to the new Catholic school (RHS had been good enough for us, Rose and I agreed).
My issues were slight, having to do with redecorating Matt Gennaro'shouse, and keeping up with my volunteer work in science education. I was on a deadline to come up with a hot technology topic for the second half of the term for the Revere High Science Club. Call Daniel Endicott, the new science teacher, I reminded myself silently.
"Did you say redecorate?" I heard Rose ask with great enthusiasm when I tuned back in to her. This was her field. She knew I preferred computer stores to any other, the latest software to a new couch or lamp. "You know I'll be happy to go furniture shopping with you."
"How about choosing the furniture instead of me?"
MC picked at her pizza crust, nibbling at a burnt piece. Rose played with her slice, pushing mushrooms around with her fork--the Tomasso waitresses all knew that they should bring Rose a full set of silverware, even if she ordered finger-food. Maybe I was witnessing the Galigani women's secret. Small bites, with long waits in between. I was more inclined to immediately bite off a sector with a two-inch radius.
"Any plans yet, MC?" I asked.
She shook her head, seeming to return from some distant land, perhaps the Southwest. "I'm just glad to be out of Houston. I got tired of the weather, and ... other things."
MC told this to us, and, inadvertently, to our waitress, who wore a Tomasso's uniform shirt the color of old marinara sauce. She smiled down on MC, her blond/black beehive hairdo at a precarious angle. Her look said one of two things: You're home now and we'll take care of you, or If I could get out of Revere, I'd never come back. I couldn't decide which. Either way, she deserved a big tip.
Tomasso's had not adopted the practice, so common in California, of supplying name tags for employees, so I named our waitress myself. In my mind I called her Josephine, my mother's name. Josephine Lamerino had never left Revere, either.
Tomasso's was one of Revere's tourist attractions. Visitors who came for the beach and the famous Revere Beach Boulevard also heard about Billy Tomasso the Fourth, who made the best pizzaoutside of Boston's North End. Old-timers could remember when the restaurant was even better--years ago, when half the facility was devoted to baking Italian bread. Few could pass without succumbing to the fresh yeasty smell and picking up a crusty loaf for supper.
Now half of the building had been turned into a trendy coffee bar--Tomasso's Coffee Annex--serving breakfast pastries in the morning, and Italian desserts the rest of the day. Tiramisu, cannoli, pasticciotti, pignoli, rum cake. I would gladly call any of the selections dinner.
On this Tuesday evening, a group of four middle-aged women in various Hawaiian prints posed with a waitress in front of Tomasso's famous coffee vat while a busboy took their photograph. On weekend nights patrons lined up for this shot. The vat, at the far end of the coffee bar, was enormous. A large gold eagle perched at the top of the center section. Highly polished, coppery gold, in three sections, it looked at once like a medieval religious triptych and a futuristic rocket launcher.
Billy kept a bulletin board behind the vat and posted photos, some of famous visitors, like former Boston mayors Curley and Tobin and even a Kennedy or two. Mixed in were postcards from patrons who sent messages to Billy when they returned to their homes in Indiana or Kansas.
Although the vat hadn't been used in my lifetime, I could imagine rich, dark liquid dripping from its elaborate valves.
"An oil refinery," Rose said, as if she'd had the same image as me, except with oil instead of coffee pouring out of the shiny spouts. She wrinkled her nose, and I realized she was still trying to come to terms with an unlikely combination--her lovely, only daughter working as a chemical engineer, surrounded by hard hats and enormous drilling rigs.
A few years ago Rose had toured an oil refinery, humoring MC in her daughter's attempt to share her work world. In her more recent research career MC had been involved in very clean laboratory work, experimenting with the newly discovered diamond fragmentsthat lurked inside crude oil, and she'd also taught a chemistry class at Houston Poly. But Rose hadn't made the adjustment. Besides, to Rose, one science or engineering field was the same as another.
"You should have seen those steel pipes," Rose had said to me. "Miles of them."
"I have seen them," I said.
"Oh, yes. I forgot it's your fault MC is a scientist in the first place." Rose's happy grin always took the edge off comments like that.
I liked to think Rose was right, that MC had been influenced by me, her godmother, now-retired physicist Gloria Lamerino, who'd made MC a tiny white lab coat when she was four years old.
"How did you manage, Aunt G?" MC asked, bringing me to the present, where MC was no longer a toddler. "Working in that huge organization for so many years--there were eight thousand people at the Berkeley lab, right?"
"I only worked with six of them."
Rose and MC laughed, but I knew what MC meant. I had to admit that I'd liked getting lost in an army of coworkers, the better to keep my private thoughts and feelings to myself. I thought of other advantages also, however, ones I could share with Rose and MC, and I recited them. "There's a lot to be said for a big organization. You can move around, work on different projects, and still have the same employer, with all your benefits and a permanent office and phone number. And in my day, scientists at the big labs didn't have to worry about bringing in their own funding. We all wrote grant proposals, of course, but even if nothing came through, you knew you could keep working."
"Our tax dollars at work," Rose said.
MC nodded. "Good points. But I think I'm headed for 'small' next time."
Rose finally scooped a forkful of mushrooms from the top of her pizza and ate it. "MC thinks she might want to teach full-time, but those scientists at the Charger Street lab are after her already."
Our waitress, who'd come back to give me a fresh espresso from the coffee bar, heard that remark, too, I noticed. Her narrow, penciled-in eyebrows went up a few degrees of arc, generating tiny, fleshy waves across her forehead. If you have extra guys after you, send them to me, her look said.
"A woman named Lorna Frederick left a message for me this morning," MC said. "She's a project leader at Charger Street. Her name is familiar to me. I think she's an equestrian, like my boyfr ... uh, friend ... Jake Powers. Do you know her?"
I understood why MC didn't want to talk about an ex-boyfriend. No one in Revere had ever met him, but she'd hinted that it hadn't been a happy breakup.
I shook my head. "I don't think I've ever heard the name." The Charger Street lab, an R&D institution with government funding, was almost as large as the Berkeley University Laboratory in California, where I'd spent my career. Charger Street was technically a division of the Massachusetts University Department of Physics, with its main campus in Boston. I remembered a good laugh when my Berkeley friend, Elaine Cody, a tech editor at BUL, noted that I'd gone from BUL to MUD.
"So I guess you're deciding between research and teaching?" I asked MC.
She nodded. "I'm torn, Aunt G. I loved the one class I taught, but I don't know if I can give up research entirely. And Charger Street is working on very interesting projects, too, some really new carbon nanotechnology, which is like an extension of what I was doing, and what I'm most interested in."
"At least she's out of the oil business," Rose said. "I'd rather tell people my daughter is a teacher, or she's doing research, finding a cure for cancer. And look, she's so famous, they know about her clear across the country."
"Everyone knows everyone in the field, Mom," MC said, smiling at her slip of the tongue, and at her mother's pride in her. "It's all part of doing research, Ma. I met a lot of the Massachusetts people at conferences."
I nodded, knowing how it worked. When I was experimenting with titanium dioxide, I knew every person in the world who had a similar crystal, how powerful their laser was, and how far they'd progressed in characterizing the crystal coefficients.
MC turned to me. "You'll love this, Aunt G. I got involved a little in buckyballs, and that kind of fun stuff, and even had one of my students do a paper on it."
"Buckyballs! Pure carbon!"
While my eyes lit up, Rose rolled hers.
"You two and your science. But let's not forget that the Charger Street lab has been a den of crime lately."
I winced at Rose's reference to my new career as a consultant to the Revere Police Department. Retired from physics--good, clean work, as my father had called it--I'd fallen into police work, helping the RPD with science-related cases. And many of those cases had involved the staff at the Charger Street lab as either vics or perps, in cop talk.
"Speaking of teaching--" Rose said. She paused for our laughter at her creative segue, then went on. "Mrs. Cataldo, your old high school chemistry teacher, was asking for you, MC. I told her you were coming home, and she'd love to see you. She's at the senior care center on Pearce Street."
"We should both visit her," I said to MC. "Although I think she gave you better grades."
"That's because she was only ninety years old, and still sharp, when you had her. By the time my class came along, she was a hundred and fifty and only giving As."
MC had the same smile as her mother, the same high-pitched voice, and I was thrilled to be with them both. Magnificent fall leaves outside and my two favorite women inside.
What could go wrong?
Nothing. Until Rose excused herself to go to the rest room. Once she'd slipped gracefully out of the booth, I hoped MC and I could sneak in a few words about buckyballs.
I pictured the buckyball molecule, made up of sixty carbonatoms, folded over into a soccer-ball shape, one atom on each "corner" of the soccer ball. After reading articles on the new material, I'd spent some time trying to think up a non-sports metaphor for the configuration. Maybe MC had some ideas.
But I knew I had to address more personal matters first.
"Is something wrong, MC? You seem a little distracted." MC pulled her shoulders up, her neck almost disappearing into the ribbing of her gray TEXAS THE LONE STAR STATE sweatshirt. "Or are you just bored with the over-fifty crowd?" I asked, to give her a way out of talking if she needed one.
She leaned over and spoke softly, a catch in her voice. She pulled the sleeves of her sweatshirt down over her hands, further emphasizing her waif-like appearance.
"I guess I need to tell someone. This would be between us, right?"
A nervous wave went through me. "Of course."
"I'm being stalked."
THE CARBON MURDER. Copyright © 2004 by Camille Minichino. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.