The Officer's Wife
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Here are the first two chapters of this humorous and compelling whodunit. Buy the complete novel now in your favorite format from your preferred retailer: Amazon ppk, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble ppk, Barnes & Noble Nook.
...In A Military Manner.
Woods Barracks, Nürnberg, West Germany, Friday, 27 June 198-, 0730 hrs.
“Guard-force! UH-tin-shun!” Our dozen and a half heels snapped together in unison. Sergeant Carson pulled back the toe of his right boot, dug it into the cobblestones, and made a sharp about-face by spinning on his left heel and snapping his right heel loudly against it. The lieutenant, a West Point graduate, boyish and disciplined, took carefully measured paces from the side to the front of the formation, executed a facing movement, and stood with his nose only six inches away from, and two inches higher than, Sergeant Carson’s. When the latter jerked his right hand up to salute I had a ridiculous notion he was going to throw a punch and knock the lieutenant sprawling. Of course he didn’t. It was just a salute.
“Guard-force formed for inspection, sir!”
I hate inspections, and I loathe guard-mount inspections. My fault for being in a military intelligence battalion, I suppose, but I had a particular grudge that morning: until late the night before I’d expected to have the day off. While the lieutenant strutted and turned his way down the line of stiffly standing soldiers I cursed myself again for being idiot enough to answer the phone. It was what we called a “hey you!” event—a man scheduled for the 24-hour guard detail was sick, or something, and I was the first person in his platoon to be reached. My wife had planted herself in front of the television with pursed lips after I hung up, and was jabbing the needle fiercely into her cross stitch when I went to bed.
The lieutenant was neither imaginative, nor subtle. To the man next to me he said, after a cursory glance at his uniform and boots, “What’s your first General Order?” An obvious question. There are only three General Orders (laid down by Eisenhower, or some such demigod) and soldiers memorize them in boot camp under the threat of increased “physical training”—torturous exercises performed to the accompaniment of staccato taunts from the drill instructor—until they can recite their General Orders in their sleep, and sometimes do.
Satisfied with his answer, the lieutenant performed a left face, took a thirty-inch step, performed a right face, and stared hard at my name-tag.
“Good morning, Pfc Smith,” he said.
“Good morning, sir,” I said seriously.
A pause while he studied my boots.
“What’s your second General Order?”
“Sir,” I said, my eyes fixed on a point behind his head. Then that unaccountable hesitation which strikes me at such moments set in, and it was an awkward three seconds before I finally blurted, in a single breath, “I will obey my special orders, and perform all my duties in a military manner, sir!”
He turned smartly to address the next soldier, but it was an interview to which I didn’t listen; my awareness freakishly focused on the sensation of a bead of sweat which had formed in the hollow of my upper lip. After a few moments focused in this way, my body a plank and my gaze unwaveringly fixed in the air a few feet from my face, I began to wonder if I was onto the secret of yoga—if there wasn’t after all some connection between unnatural, rigidly sustained body positions and some kind of altered consciousness.
My trance was broken by the sound of Sergeant Carson calling my name. He had rejoined the formation, conferred with the lieutenant, and saluted him on his way, back to whatever it is lieutenants do. I was so surprised at his call that I looked over my shoulder to check the name of the soldier behind me.
“Pfc Smith?” he called again.
I stepped forward.
“Pfc Smith, you are chosen for Colonel’s Orderly. Report to the Staff Duty desk at oh-eight-hundred.”
“Yes sergeant,” I said, and stepped hesitantly aside. Me? He had chosen me? I never get picked for Colonel’s Orderly!
But that was great, I figured, suddenly sensible, because after my “interview” with the Battalion Commander I’d be released, almost certainly, and could spend the day with my family after all. I could fix the TV antenna for my wife. She would be pleased. I might even take her to dinner. She’d really be pleased. Always press your victories home, I remembered reading somewhere.
This will all make more sense if I explain that I enlisted late in life—in my mid-twenties—and then I met and married Maggie, a deal which included a half-grown daughter at no extra charge. My wife tolerated but never pretended to understand my being in the Army, and truthfully I find it increasingly hard to explain even to myself. My official job title is “Intelligence Analyst,” which is an impressive sounding occupation—it sounded downright thrilling when the recruiter broached it to me after reviewing my scores on the Army’s entrance exam—and I had signed my enlistment contract in a fever of anticipation. The reality was obviously less appealing. As a private in the Army I was, regardless of job title, basically a warm body, which, kept fed and in uniform, could be placed wherever a warm body was needed. In my section, when they weren’t buffing floors, pulling guard duty, or running mindless errands, warm bodies were needed primarily to baby-sit equipment in the motor pool. My greatest achievement as an intelligence analyst had been learning to break track on our armored personnel-carrier cum tactical intelligence vehicle, and maintain its suspension. To my deathbed I will carry an abhorrence of the cloying scent of GAA (Grease, Automotive and Artillery).
Hence my pleasure at the turn this day had taken. I doubt I was much more disappointed with Army life than the average run of young soldiers, but unlike many I had a real home to go to when released from duty, and a real wife and family who, coarse jokes aside, bore no resemblance to the NCO’s who dictated life’s realities on base.
When I not-quite-bounced into Battalion Headquarters and announced the reason for my presence, the bleary-eyed NCO whose 24-hour tour of duty was coming to an end stared at me distantly, then nodded at a chair in the hall.
“Have a seat.”
“Got a book?” he said after seeming to forget my presence for a few minutes and then to remember it again.
“Uh, no,” I said. “Sergeant,” I added.
“Where’s the Commander?” I asked.
“Gone to Division.”
“Oh.” Division. That was in Katterbach, fifty-five kilometers away. An hour there and an hour back, given German traffic, plus whatever time he spent there….
“Did he say when he’d be back?” I asked.
“What time did he leave?” I was being almost insubordinately inquisitive, and added, “Sergeant,” by way of compensation and also as a prompt; his eyes and the slackness of his face suggested he might lapse into a coma forthwith. He frowned deeply, though whether in displeasure with me or in the effort to recall I’ll never know, because just then the phone rang.
While he answered it Sergeant Carson strode in, having briefed his guards and posted the first relief. He plopped his gear on the desk and lit up a Marlboro.
“Afraid you’re gonna have a wait,” he said with cheerful brusqueness, “the CO and sergeant major just left for Division.”
“Oh hell,” I said inwardly. And then I said worse things. I looked bleakly ahead at a morning with nothing to occupy my time and attention but the self-absorbed comings and goings of the MP’s on duty, and the crackle of the radio when the gate guards checked in from their posts. As had been pointed out, I didn’t even have anything to read, unless one included under the heading “reading material” a copy of Soldier Magazine from the stack that was maintained on the staff duty desk, but I considered it propaganda, and the thought that I might be driven to peruse its colorful accolades for high-tech, well-heeled violence out of sheer boredom was depressing beyond words.
So I sat. The minute hand chased the hour, caught it, chased it again.
I began to nod.
“Hey, Smitty,” Sergeant Carson broke in, snapping me out of a shallow dream. “I can’t let you sleep. How ‘bout goin’ down to the snack bar and gettin’ us each a soda? It oughta be open,” he consulted his watch, “b’now.”
Good idea, I thought, and I can pick up a Stars & Stripes newspaper. Though not exactly the New York Times, it would be an infinite improvement over nothing at all.
I took the change that he dug from his pocket and stepped out into the startling brightness of a Bavarian summer’s day. Clover and dandelions sprouted among the cobblestones at the edge of the road, and the high sun cast into stark relief the ancient buildings that housed our modern army, as they had housed the armies of Hitler and the Kaiser before us. Traffic sounds drifted across the wall that separated our camp from the bustle of Nürnberg outside. It was named Woods Barracks, after a noted World War II general (American), but people mostly just called it the kaserne, using the German word for any military compound.
I bought two large Cokes, the newspaper, and, in a sequence of perverse impulses, a burrito, an egg-roll, and a cherry turnover.
When I reentered our headquarters I was arrested in my movements by a heated conversation coming from my immediate left, through the door of the MP’s duty office.
“Look, young man, if you think I’ve got time to listen to excuses—”
“I am a lieutenant in the United States Army, Mister.”
“All right, Lieutenant—”
“That’s sir to you.”
“Look, Lieutenant, sir, I don’t want one of your damned vans with some teenaged traffic cop behind the wheel, and I don’t want to stand here arguing with a butter-bar fresh outa Corn State U! I just want the keys to my vehicle, and a driver, a good driver, a mature driver, preferably, with something better on his mind than scaring an old man to death by trying to keep ahead of Hermann on the autobahn!”
The voice was deep and rich with anger, and I wondered that any young lieutenant could stand fast in the face of it. Yet, I also couldn’t help feeling that the anger was too convincing—too practiced—to be very serious, and I guessed that beneath it lay a great deal of humor. These thoughts came all in an instant as I stepped quietly through the hall, straining to hear that remarkable voice again. It was the lieutenant who spoke next, however.
“Here,” he said, “here’s your damned keys. Find your own driver.”
“Oh, but sir … .” The voice had become deeper, if possible, and almost broken, as if by stones churning together in the throat, but now it was the voice of a pitiable old man. “Surely you have someone you can spare for an hour or two?”
“I won’t have anyone,” the lieutenant said peevishly, “till this afternoon.”
The other voice broke into a chuckle at that, a chuckle that made me smile. “Right,” it said.
Then its owner came into the hallway, a large, husky man in tattered jeans, a grungy blue t-shirt, and sneakers. He had dark, bushy hair that was streaked with gray, and an enormous salt-and-pepper mustache. The only thing about him that didn’t look unkempt was his heavy pair of tinted eyeglasses. These were two slabs of curved glass stretching from eyebrow to cheekbone, held together and to the face by slender gold fittings. They flashed in reflection of the sunlight that was streaming through the door as his gaze wandered up and down the hall—he looked as though he expected to see someone with “driver” stamped on the forehead and standing ready by the door. He had his hands on his hips, tanned, fleshy, work-worn hands, and he rocked agitatedly up and back on the balls of his feet.
Intent on studying him, I paid too little attention to setting our refreshments on the table, and one of the drinks toppled sideways. Fizzy brown soda burst from the paper cup and splashed across the desk. The man’s head snapped toward the sound, then he raised a finger and pointed it forcefully at me.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, striding up to the desk.
“He’s spillin’ my Coke’s what he’s doin’, God dammit!” Sergeant Carson rushed to push papers away from the spreading liquid.
But the stranger’s attention was fixed on me and he didn’t wait for an answer, which was just as well.
“Do you have a military driver’s license?”
“Sergeant, you don’t need this man here, do you?” His hands were back on his hips. “All he does is make a mess, anyway.”
Sergeant Carson looked at the stranger, then at me. “Go on,” he said. “I don’t know what Chief’s up to, but it’ll keep you outa my hair till the CO gets back.”
The stranger turned abruptly and strode back down the hall.
“I’ll tell him where you’ve gone,” Sergeant Carson said, mopping up the mess with Kleenex. I hesitated. “Well, go on soldier—Chief don’t wait for privates!”
I snatched up my hat, forgot my Coke and snacks, and trotted out the door. “Chief” was halfway down the street and walking fast. I maintained my trot to catch up with him, a little impressed at his absolute confidence that I would be hurrying along behind. A hundred yards from the motor pool gate he stopped and tossed me a set of keys.
“Olive-green VW hatchback, license plate NB1058,” he said, pointing at the motor pool. “I’ll be right here.” He turned and unlocked the door of a powder blue Toyota and began to rummage in the back seat.
I found the car. In contrast to the Toyota it looked chaste and well cared for, with its flat green paint and black vinyl interior. At the motor pool gate a guard signaled me to stop and sauntered over to the driver’s side window.
“I gotta see yer dispatch.”
“Uh,” I said, looking under the seat and opening the glove box, “doesn’t look like I’ve got one.”
“Can’t let you go without a dispatch.”
“Call Sergeant Carson on your radio,” I said. “He knows what I’m doing.”
The guard hesitated, then walked back to his shack. For reasons I can’t well explain—except to say that the stranger, in the force of his personality, had taken my will and made it his own—I stomped on the gas, left two short rubber streaks on the pavement, and swung out onto the road.
“Hey!” the guard yelled, but I didn’t look back. “Chief” was waiting by his car and flung open the passenger door before I had fully stopped. He threw what was unmistakably a revolver under the seat, got in, and slammed the door.
“Let’s go,” he said.
At the gate to post the guard didn’t check our papers, fortunately, seeing as we had none, and my passenger directed me to head straight for the north-south autobahn.
At last I said, “Are you in the Army?”
He smiled. “I’m sorry, haven’t introduced myself. Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Tobias. And you are … ?
“Pfc Smith,” I said. “I work in intelligence.”
“Ah! That’s hopeful. Maybe you’ll have some.”
I stole a glance at his shaggy hair and mustache. “Have you been on leave?”
“Supposed to be,” he said.
That explains it, I thought.
“Since yesterday,” he added.
No, it didn’t. He’d have to have been on leave for quite a while to grow a mustache like that one. The regulations governing mustaches were pretty strict.
“You’re thinking I don’t look much like a warrant officer in Uncle Sam’s army.”
“Um … yes, sir.”
“Don’t call me ‘sir’, it confuses me. ‘Chief’ is okay.”
He stretched and put his hands behind his head. “I’ve probably got the only job in the Army,” he said, “where grooming to military standards can get you into trouble.” He grinned at me, then frowned a little. “No, I guess the counterintelligence goons have it much the same, only more so.”
“What do you do?” I asked, somewhat tense.
“I’m a detective with CID,” he said.
I tightened my grip on the wheel, keeping my eyes fixed on the center-line of the road. Criminal Investigation Division. The real cops. I thought of the revolver under the seat with sudden alarm, and a keener excitement.
“Are we going after criminals now, Chief?”
He caught the tone in my voice and laughed. “We’ll have to get you a gun of your own, just in case.”
I know when I’m blushing, because my cheeks get hot.
“Actually,” he said, “today we get a treat. A real treat. Are you squeamish?” he asked, giving me a sudden glance.
“Not especially,” I said cautiously.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.” After a moment he said, “Do you know anyone named Merrick?”
I shook my head.
“Good. The body will be that of a stranger to you then.”
I didn’t notice the drift of the car until it was too late to correct it except by a violent lurch to the left. The body?
“You mean there’s been a murder?”
“I have no idea,” he said with a shrug, but then added brightly, “We can certainly hope so!”
Woods Barracks, Nürnberg, West Germany, Friday, 27 June 198-, 1220 hrs.
He directed me to leave the highway at a sign that indicated Erlangen, a university town of about 50,000, plus the students. Beneath the sign was a white plaque with an American flag, an arrow, and the words “U.S. Military Facility: Matson Barracks.” This was the home of an armored brigade, and the post was alternately abuzz with activity or abandoned to wives and children, depending on the training schedule that took the units to their maneuver areas close to the Czechoslovakian border.
This was one of the quiet, abandoned periods, I would come to find out, but such things were far from my mind as I struggled through swarms of bicycling students in the heart of town.
I wanted to know what was going on.
“Shouldn’t we have some MP’s with us?” I wondered aloud.
“Already there,” he said, “although I’m sure more will be coming when word gets back to Battalion that a body’s been found.”
I didn’t understand, and my face showed it.
“We’re not quite official yet,” he explained. “I did a favor once for the brigade commander and his wife, a little matter regarding their eldest daughter that we needn’t go into.” He paused. “Anyway, she was there, or nearby, or something, the wife that is, when the body was found, and she called the colonel and had him call me. Got me out of bed, in fact.” He looked thoughtful as we turned into the housing area. “I guess I’m flattered.”
The U.S. government housing area on Matson kaserne was a loosely ordered block of three-story, stuccoed apartments interspersed with playgrounds, lawns, asphalt parking areas, and young trees. In front of one of the buildings was a knot of people, mostly women in light summer dress, plus two or three men in uniform. They stared at us as we pulled in and parked in front of the door.
Chief looked at them and winced. “I told the Colonel to keep everybody the hell out, but you know how it is. The fundamental human instinct,” he proclaimed, “is nosiness.” He sighed and took off his glasses to wipe them with his shirt. “I just hope they haven’t mucked it all about.”
For the first time I had a chance to study his eyes. They lay in fleshy nests of astonishingly fine wrinkles, and wore a frank, sad expression. In contrast to the earthy tones of his skin, the irises were blue. I would come to see those eyes express every human emotion, from hilarity to surprise to withering anger, but the longer I knew him the more convinced I became that this was the foundation of his face, and therefore of his personality: A large-eyed and mellow sadness, complemented, enhanced even, by a rose-hued bunching of the cheeks and upturned set of the mouth that betrayed an aptitude for joy.
The next moment the glasses were back on and he was bounding out of the car. Ignoring our small audience, he snatched the keys from me and opened the hatch-back, and lifted the black carpeted lid of the storage space. Beneath it were several small aluminum cases with handles, like suitcases, each neatly stenciled with a black number on the top and “CW2 Tobias, CID,” neatly lettered beneath. He opened “No. 7” and drew out a green, spiral notepad and a black, felt-tip pen. He handed me the pad, then hesitated.
“You got a pen?” he said.
I fumbled in my pocket and showed him my U.S. Government ballpoint with a hint of pride—it was an inspectable item.
“Yeech! Use this.” He handed me his. “Now then,” he said. “Open to the first page and write what I tell you—neatly mind. Uh, ‘Call received Colonel Crick 1045 hours. Message: Wife of Captain Merrick discovered dead in quarters, cause of death unknown. Husband in field with unit. Arrived Erlangen’—say, what time is it?”
I told him.
“‘Arrived Erlangen 1220 hours.’ Oh, put the date at the top of the page, my name, and then yours.”
He watched me studiously while I did this.
“Now, listen carefully.” His voice dropped to a near-whisper. “This is, until proven otherwise, a murder investigation. Your job as the assistant detective—don’t blush!—is to do exactly what I tell you and to use your brains. The main job of any detective is to notice things. It can be any kind of thing, so long as it might have a bearing on the crime or the people involved in it. When you notice things, write them down in that book. When I notice things, I’ll tell you to write them down. Alles klar?”
I nodded, then grinned. “Ja!”
“Good. You can begin by noting the composition of our welcoming committee.” He nodded at the group by the door. “Then grab numbers one and two, lockup, and follow me.” He pulled cases 3 and 5 out of the car, tucked No. 7 under his arm, and marched past the staring crowd without a word. He paused for a moment to study the mailboxes, then stomped up the stairwell. I, scribbling furiously, counted spectators and fumbled for concise descriptions. Then I grabbed the cases and ran.
When I reached Chief he was just being let into an apartment on the second floor. On the door was a small, cross stitch plaque such as are sold at the innumerable bazaars organized by officer’s wive’s clubs at each kaserne, and which are serviced by local craftspeople who live by churning out knickknacks sodden with local color. “Cpt Merrick & Family” it said, and was set about with a tracery of small, pastel flowers. I wondered if they had children, and how many.
Inside the apartment a small group rose from chairs and a sofa as we entered and, as the MP who had opened the door shut it behind us and resumed his post, a large, ugly man in BDU’s (camoflage fatigues) stepped forward to shake Chief’s hand. It was Colonel Crick, the brigade commander.
“Chief Tobias,” he said, something like a smile breaking his heavily seamed face, “good of you to come.”
“How are you, sir?” Chief said deferentialy.
The colonel ignored the question. “Mrs. Crick and I,” he said, glancing at an obese, nervous-looking woman who hesitated behind his elbow, “seem to be always putting ourselves in your, ah, in your debt.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“This time, though,” the colonel continued, “we may have been, ah, a little hasty. Natural causes, didn’t you say, Doctor?” He turned and cued with his other arm a major, also in fatigues, who wore the insignia of the Medical Corps on his collar.
“Looks it,” the latter chimed in.
“Chief,” the Colonel said, finally releasing his grasp on Chief’s hand, “let me introduce Major Suarez, our brigade surgeon.”
“Pleasure,” Chief said shaking hands, this time very briefly.
“Anyway,” said Colonel Crick, “I’m sorry to have called you back from leave, ah,” and here his eyes scanned Chief’s bushy hair and tattered clothes, “unnecessarily.” Immediately I classed the colonel as the kind of leader who commands, not by simple and direct instruction to his subordinates, but by the unstated pressure of his will and official power. He was the kind of man I would have loathed to work for, and I assumed Chief would just nod his head, pick up his cases, and head for the door. Instead he took off his glasses and began slowly to wipe them with the hem of his t-shirt. Then he fixed the colonel with a bright, humorous gaze.
“I’ll just have a look then, shall I?”
“Of course, of course,” the colonel said, smiling broadly, “you can confirm our conclusions!”
“Who found the body, by the way?” Chief asked.
“The housekeeper,” Mrs. Crick broke in, “one of our enlisted wives—Mercy Blickwell. She’s upstairs at the Worms’s quarters, poor woman. Nancy Worms is giving her tea.” She glanced at her husband out of what I took to be habit. “And a little brandy,” she added.
“Well, this shouldn’t take long,” Chief said, as though making light of some small but unpleasant chore. “Shall I call you, sir, a little later? At your office?”
Like a skillful sailor tacking against the wind, Chief persuaded Colonel Crick to leave, and Mrs. Crick to go upstairs and keep Mercy Blickwell company until he could come up and speak with her. That left Major Suarez and the MP. The latter was posted outside the door with orders that no one was to be admitted.
“No one,” Chief intoned seriously. “I don’t care if he outranks the President, the Pope, and your mother put together.” Then he turned to me. “What are you doing?” he demanded, for the second time that day. I had been standing discreetly out of the way, properly intimidated and respectful, I thought, in the presence of a full-bird colonel. But Chief, again, gave me no time to answer. “You should be taking notes like mad—what the hell’s the matter with you?”
I flipped open my notebook and began taking notes like mad.
He turned slowly on his heels, scanning the room. It was a very large room, serving as both living room and dining room, and separated from the kitchen only by a low counter. Like other family quarters I had been in, this one had a depressing effect on the senses, being a forced hodgepodge of private belongings and government issue furnishings. Unlike families in the real world who could gradually accumulate belongings to fit their home, circumstances, and individual tastes, Army families had to fit what they had into wherever they were sent as best they could, and make up any shortcomings from the local warehouse. This explained the multi-colored, ragweed rug keeping company with lacy white curtains, and the presence of an impressive, black leather divan side by side with rust-colored, tweedy chairs. There were fashionable prints on the walls and a modest collection of porcelain figures and bric-a-brac.
“I wonder if she did her cleaning before she found the body?” Chief muttered. “Looks like it. Damn.” He turned to Major Suarez. “Body’s in the bedroom, I guess?”
“Yep,” Major Suarez said. He led the way and I followed behind Chief, feeling a little giddy. The door to the bedroom was shut, and we gathered around it. There was an exchange of glances, then the doctor opened the door and we all went in.
The heat in the room was tangible, the more so that it was accompanied by a sweetish, sticky smell that I felt I had experienced before but couldn’t place. The room was also very dark, with heavy curtains drawn across the only window. Major Suarez reached for the light switch, but Chief grabbed his hand. Smiling apologetically, he levered up the switch with his thumbnail.
The body was on the bed, covered by a white sheet. Chief drew the back of his hand across his forehead.
“My lord!” he said. “Was the heat on when you—?”
“Everything’s exactly as we found it.” Major Suarez said. “Except for the sheet. I thought it best to … you know.”
“Yes,” said Chief, “Nothing less decent than a corpse.” He walked around the bed and lifted a corner of the sheet. “Oh,” he said, his face curiously blank. He laid the sheet back down, then frowned. Reaching across, he gently lifted the top of the sheet and folded it back about 10 inches, then folded it back again, and so on down the length of the bed. When he had gotten it past the feet he lifted the sheet clear and folded it into a neat bundle.
I had expected to be nervous in the presence of a corpse, nauseous, repelled, even frightened. Instead I was very, very embarrassed. Mrs. Merrick had dressed for her death in a garter belt, black silk stockings, a lacy, bra-like affair that lifted her breasts without covering them, a black felt “dog collar” choker clasped with mother-of-pearl, and nothing else. Nothing, that is, unless you counted the fur coat, but it was open and she lay on it more than in it—it covered only her arms. Her mouth and her eyes were limply, expressionlessly open, and her essentially naked body lay spread-eagled on its back, like a brutal parody of the lingerie section in a soft porn magazine. An open and nearly empty 2-liter bottle of vodka was propped at her left side, in the hollow of her waist above the hip.
Being dead had not entirely robbed her of considerable beauty. Her body was lean but generous in form. Long, reddish hair permed to a Botticelli wave cascaded onto the bed, framing a delicately featured face. The eyes were large and seemed greenish, but it was difficult to be sure because they were dry and cloudy. The pupils, too, looked odd, as though they had somehow lost their shape. She had just the right sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose and on her shoulders to the slope of her breasts, but these were subdued by a deep, even tan. Apart from the lifeless chaos of her eyes, her appearance was marred only by a slight pastiness of the skin and a drool on her cheek that had dried to crustiness.
And she was dead. My throat constricted and I must have made some sort of noise, because Chief glanced at me sharply. He shoved the sheet into my arms.
“Go get a drink of water,” he said, “and leave this on the couch, or something.”
I left the room, grateful to be out of the heat and the strange smell, yet vaguely anxious to get back lest I miss something or fail in my job. But for a moment I just stood in the hall and stared at nothing in particular. Then Chief called out to me.
“Bring back number two!” he yelled.
* * * * *
Case number 2 turned out to contain an elaborate camera kit, and it was only after Chief had taken at least a dozen photographs of the body that he broached the subject of the examination with Major Suarez. The brigade surgeon, for his part, had begun with detached interest in the proceedings, but with the photo session this had degenerated quickly into consternation, and by the time Chief asked, “What’s this about ‘natural causes’?” he was visibly annoyed.
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” he said shortly.
“What’s obvious?” Chief asked mildly. He took the notebook from my hands and handed me the camera.
“Well, look at her!”
We looked. Then Chief returned to studying my notes while I put the camera back in its case.
“Perhaps you didn’t know,” the doctor continued, “that alcohol is a poison? That people die from alcohol toxicity—an overdose of booze—every day?”
“Not bad, Smitty,” Chief said to me. “But you didn’t note the brand of the vodka.” He handed the notebook back and I hurriedly entered the data in. Then he turned to Major Suarez and took off his glasses. “Yes, sir, I’m aware of it. Lost a friend that way years ago.” He paused. “Are you a forensic expert, doctor?”
“I’m authorized to give a certificate, if that’s what you mean.”
Chief didn’t answer, but neither did he release the Major’s gaze.
“No, I’m not,” Major Suarez admitted, “and you won’t find one this side of Frankfurt. Call it accidental death, if you prefer, but the woman died of drink, and I’m ready to sign my name to it.” The medical officer thrust his hands in his pockets and glared at the corpse. “What the hell’s all the hocus-pocus?”
“All right sir, if you can just help me out with a couple of details.” Chief motioned for the doctor to join him at the bedside. “Tell me about the rigor.”
“No….” Major Suarez gripped Mrs. Merrick’s chin and pushed it firmly back and forth, a movement which rocked her upper body gently. “Neck and face rigid, arms stiff down to the wrist”—his hands moved methodically down—”torso rigid, abdomen getting hard, the hips and knees will flex slightly, ankles still malleable.” He sighed. “Rigor still setting in,” he concluded. “Probably last a day or two.”
“Time of death?”
“Impossible to say with any precision, as I’m sure you know. With the heat in this room it might have come on more slowly than usual—say not less than six or seven hours ago, and not more than fourteen.”
“Take a stab at it,” Chief urged him.
“I’d guess eight or nine hours, with the heat. That’s only a guess—”
“All right, now,” Chief said, “anything out of place? Has she been moved since death?”
“Definitely not. Here—” and he lifted her onto her side. “Look at this, and this.” He pointed to places where the skin was blotchy and purplish. “Lividity quite pronounced in the buttocks, the backs of the calves, the shoulders, and down the spine. She died right here; the blood settled precisely where the mattress is most depressed.”
“Excellent! You’re all right, Doc. Anything else catch your eye?”
Major Suarez laid the body down and straightened. “She died of drink, Mister Tobias.”
“Oh, sir,” Chief said, “we haven’t finished—”
“Look. A young woman, ignorant, decides for whatever reason to tie one on. Not knowing any better, she chugs a bottle of 100 proof spirits. It doesn’t take long, you know. Coma. Death.”
“Why didn’t she throw up?”
“They don’t, always. On an empty stomach … .” Major Suarez shrugged his shoulders.
Chief dropped his chin to his chest, and frowned. “You’re probably right, of course,” he said. Major Suarez picked up his bag as though the matter were settled. I felt relieved; the argument made me feel awkward, and I couldn’t fathom why Chief was being contentious. Not only was there the vodka bottle, but I had begun to decipher the smell and realized that it was mostly a smell of alcohol, together with the odors of urine and stale perspiration.
“Tell me sir,” he said quietly, “Is it normal for habitual drug abusers to be ignorant of the effects of alcohol?”
“No. Why? Do you see needle marks on her arms? I don’t, and I looked.”
“I wouldn’t expect to,” Chief countered. He unhooked a stocking from the garter and began to roll it down her left leg. “You’ve been out of school too long, Major. All the uptown users make their injections right … here!” Gently he spread apart the toes of her left foot.
Major Suarez, reluctantly it seemed, stooped to examine the exposed skin between the toes. His eyebrows shot up. “How did you know?” he asked.
Chief smiled and put his hand on the other’s shoulder. “Little hints.”
“I guess I—”
“Listen, Doc. You’ll be registering the body at Nürnberg Army Hospital, right? When you get to the morgue, tell them to set her aside where she’ll keep for a couple of days. Get a little blood and aspirate the stomach. Nobody could object to that—it’s routine, and it will tell us how drunk she was. While you’re at it, aspirate the bladder. We may as well learn what we’re dealing with.”
“I guess, under the circumstances….” Major Suarez began. He looked worried. “They don’t like scandal here. Not among officers. The colonel—”
“You’re a doctor,” Chief cut in. “Just between you and me and the lab tech, okay?” He steered him to the door. “Tell the ambulance drivers they can have her in a few minutes, will you? Thanks for your help, sir. We’ll have this wrapped up in no time.”
He shut the door and grabbed me by the elbow.
“Quick!” he said. “I’ll dictate. Come over here by the body, so we won’t be overheard.”
He pulled off her other stocking and started with the toes again, spreading them one by one.
“I make it not less than twenty punctures. Hard to say—the marks overlap. Nothing on the ankles. The dorsal pedis veins were spared, then. Wait a minute. Well, that could be anything. Call it ‘single unidentified mark on left ankle.’ Okay. Fingers of both hands curled. Palms slightly livid. Red, even. I hate to say it, Smitty, but the lady was puttin’ away some juice. Yeah, capillary blemishes on the neck … she’s been dippin’ pretty heavy. A good six-month binge, anyway.” He stood and put his hands on his head.
“Tell me something,” he said. “What do you make of that tan?”
“Um,” I said, looking hard, “it seems … pretty thorough.”
“Too thorough. No lines is one thing, but Smitty, there are some places it’s just too awkward to get a tan. It may be trivial, but why get your tan from a bottle in the middle of June?”
I shrugged. Fear of cancer?
“Okay,” Chief said. “This lingerie didn’t come from the post exchange … .”
We found the labels. They were from a German manufacturer and looked expensive. I jotted down the information. Next he produced a large magnifying glass from No. 3 and examined her face, then the rest of her body meticulously. Then he took a handful of small, numbered vials and a pair of tweezers from the case, and proceeded to take samples while I documented them from his dictation: “Bottle number one, hair from scalp; bottle number two, fibers from bra; number three, fibers from garter; number four, scrapings from fingernails, right hand; number five, left hand ditto; number six, hair from pubic region—uh-oh!”
I looked away hurriedly.
“Remind me to have the lab type the contents of samples six and seven. It might be our best clue to who she was last with, before she died.”
Finally, after twenty-two bottles, he stopped and wiped his brow.
“That reminds me—” He opened a small box which contained several different types of thermometers. He put one, a digital thermometer in a little stand, on the mantle, and then took a second, an ordinary rectal thermometer, over to the body.
“How you holding up, Smitty?”
“Oh … .” I was saved from answering by a knock at the door. It was the ambulance drivers. Chief met them in the hall and convinced them to wait outside. When he returned he stood over the body, his arms crossed, staring at the late Mrs. Merrick almost as if he expected her to sit up and tell us in her own words why she was dead.
“You know,” he said at last, “she probably died of alcohol poisoning, after all.” He sighed unhappily. “What do you think?”
“If that bottle was full when she started, Chief, and assuming she drank it, then I guess she must’ve.”
“Assuming.” he echoed. “Oh, room temperature eighty-three-point-two degrees fahrenheit, rectal temp eighty-six-point-eight. Note the current time, too.”
“You can tell from what’s in her stomach, right?” I asked while copying this data.
“Maybe,” he said, “but unfortunately, maybe not. Unless she had just eaten, her stomach is probably empty, with the alcohol having been absorbed into her tissues and the water, what there was of it, passed into the intestines. Her blood and tissues will give us a pretty clear idea of how drunk she was, but not how she got that way.”
“You mean there’s no way to tell?”
“Unless there’s some just lying in her esophagus we won’t be able to get a sample, and unfortunately vodka doesn’t have any distinctive smell. It’s practically pure ethanol.” He leaned over and smelled her mouth. “Wait a minute….” He sniffed again. “Smitty, come here!”
I went and stood opposite him by the bed.
“Smell her mouth.”
I braced myself and leaned over her. I couldn’t smell anything but the alcohol smell, and shook my head.
“Here, wait a minute.” He made a fist with one hand and wrapped his other hand around it, then thrust violently into Mrs. Merrick’s abdomen. There was a slight gurgling sound, and we both sniffed at her mouth again. It was a smell I was familiar with, although I don’t care for the stuff personally.
“Scotch,” I said.
While the ambulance drivers removed Mrs. Merrick’s body Chief went upstairs to the Worms’s quarters to make some calls and check on his witness. I stayed behind to arrange his various kits on the dining room table, which he had designated as our temporary headquarters.
When he returned he gathered up a tape measure, ruler, pencils, and a large tablet of graph paper, and led the way back into the bedroom. There we sketched and diagrammed the entire room, tediously noting the distance of everything to everything else, and from there to where different parts of Mrs. Merrick’s body had lain. All the while Chief admonished me not to disturb anything as I contorted to reach over and around the various pieces of furniture. Then he took another dozen photographs.
We returned to the dining room; this time to get the fingerprint kit from No. 5. There were actually two complete kits, and Chief took a few minutes to instruct me in their use. I was then set to dusting the bedroom door and walls—the large, flat surfaces—while he tackled the furniture and an assortment of toiletries atop the dresser and vanity desk. The door was covered with prints, but except for a palm-print and some fingertips, the walls were disappointing.
“Nice palm,” he said, looking over my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I said, wiping sweat from my upper lip. “Can we turn the heat off yet?”
“Soon as we get these prints. Come look at this.” He led me to the vanity table. “All these articles,” he said, indicating make-up kits, hair spray and perfume bottles, hair brushes, and mirrors, “show the same set of prints. Hers, no doubt. Except for this mirror.” He held up an oval mirror with a brass frame and handle. “This,” he said pointedly, “has no fingerprints at all. None.” He looked at me. “Doesn’t that just make you itch?”
“Um … .” I said.
“I challenge you to give me one good reason why this should appear untouched by human hands.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe it needed to be cleaned.”
“Humph. Would you wear gloves to wipe off a mirror? Now, come look at this.” We approached the bed. “This headboard is littered with prints; at least three sets in my opinion. That,” he said glancing at me sidelong, “you may properly consider suggestive. But it’s nothing to the foot board, which, like the mirror, has no prints at all!”
“Gosh,” I said.
“Gosh indeed. And the icing on our mystery cake is the thermostat control knob on the space heater, which—let me see if you can guess.”
“No prints?” I offered.
“You’re a detective,” he beamed. “I congratulate you!”
“Wait a minute,” I said excitedly, “why didn’t they wipe off the doorknob? It’s loaded with prints!”
“You mean the doorknob that you, and Major Suarez, and Mercy Blickwell, and God knows who else have been using all day?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, abashed at my ready stupidity.
“You’ve got a point, though. I’ll be very interested if there are any prints of Mrs. Merrick’s there, or of anyone else we can’t account for. Let’s lift them and let the lab boys tell us.”
Lifting the fingerprints was an exhausting process. It was done with clear tape, and every specimen had to be placed in a special notebook with all the information about where it was found neatly lettered next to it. Then yet another notebook was selected, and I was detailed to make a complete inventory of the room’s contents while Chief went meticulously through each drawer, the closet, across the floor, the window sills, the wall . . .
“Bored yet?” he said finally.
“No. My hand is a little crampy.”
“Mmm.” He stood in the center of the room and turned slowly around. “You should be, there’s nothing here.” He pulled up the bedding in a perfunctory way, and looked between the mattresses. “In fact, there’s simply not enough here.”
“How do you mean?”
“Did you notice the nicotine stains on her fingers? Yes, of course you did; I saw you write it down, and that she was right handed. That was good work, by the way.” He sat on the bare mattress and leaned back on his elbows. “Anyway, why does Mrs. Merrick dress—or undress—in X-rated lingerie, sit down to a bottle of vodka, and ostensibly drink herself to death without smoking any cigarettes? Not normal behavior for a heavy smoker.”
I looked at the large glass ashtray on the night stand and nodded my head. It was clean.
“Maybe she smoked in the living room, and came in here just before she died,” I conjectured.
“I suppose that’s possible. We’ll check with the housekeeper about the condition of the ashtrays. But there’s another problem: where’s her purse?”
“Hunh? Well, there’s lots of purses in the closet.”
“Yes, but they’re all empty. You married, Smitty? Ever look in your wife’s purse?”
“I try not to,” I admitted with a grin.
“Full of junk, right? So, I ask you again, where’s her purse?”
“Maybe in one of the other rooms.”
“Maybe so. Let’s not forget to look.” He leaned down and looked under the bed. “What a knot-head I am,” he said, and dragged out a large, flat, cardboard box. He cocked his brow at me and wagged his finger. “Always check under the bed!” he scolded, and lifted the lid. He whistled. The box was full of lingerie, of a kind with what she had been wearing. “Now, why is she keeping Frederick’s of Hollywood under the bed?”
We inventoried it. All of French, German, or Swedish manufacture.
“Next question. Why a fur coat? Some kind of fantasy? Had she gone out dressed like that? Or was she entertaining in? She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and none of the shoes in the closet were damp or soiled.”
“The weather’s been dry for a couple of weeks,” I offered.
“Maybe she took her shoes off.”
“And maybe she never went out,” he concluded. “It boggles my mind, at least, to imagine her out and about in that outfit.” He jumped to his feet and put his hands on his hips. “The great and final question,” he growled, and glared at me fiercely, “is why she had a bottle of vodka propped at her side when the last thing she had to drink was scotch?”
“Well,” I began, “maybe she was going to drink the vodka next, but died before—”
“Bullshit.” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “What do you really think?”
“I think somebody else was here.”
“Good man. I think so too. Let’s go do the other rooms.”
My heart sank. “Do we have to sketch them too? And inventory everything?”
“No. We’ll settle for a determined clue hunt.”
After dusting the phone, light-switches, doorknobs, furniture, and bathroom and kitchen fixtures (confirming that the housekeeper had managed to complete most of her job), Chief began going through cupboards.
“Here’s the liquor cabinet,” he said, “and here’s the scotch! Pricey stuff, too—I don’t think they sell this in the States. Hmm. Mercy’s duties don’t extend to dusting the booze, I see. If this bottle’s been handled in the last month, I’ll resign my commission. Take a look.”
The bottle had an undisturbed layer of dust; thick on the shoulder of the glass, thinner on the neck and sides.
“It’s never been opened,” I said. “Maybe she had another bottle.”
Chief looked at me with a good-natured frown.
“I like you, Smitty. You keep me honest. Well, what else have we got here? Bacardi (the clear variety—how chaste), peach brandy, cherry brandy, Kahlua, creme d’menthe, Tanqueray gin, Triple Sec, Irish cream … damned near all you could ask for in a home bar, if you aren’t too exotic a ‘tender, and all of it dusty and most of it never opened. Except the rum—it’s dusty but recently handled, and only half-full. Only one thing missing … .”
“That’s your cue, Smitty!”
“Oh!” I dithered. “Uh … .”
“Go fetch it here a minute.”
I went to the table and picked up the Zip-Lock plastic bag that held the vodka bottle. The vodka itself occupied a plastic jar, sealed and labeled.
“What do you notice?” he said.
“It’s clean,” I realized.
“Right, with only her prints, and damned few of those. Now tell me she washed the bottle before opening it! And something else—fetch the flashlight from number eleven. Now, see the dust on the shelf? See any places without dust?”
I nodded; there was one clean spot.
“What shape is it?” he asked.
“Hand me the bottle.” He carefully took it out of the bag and set it on the shelf. The base of the bottle was rectangular. It was a perfect fit. Then he handed the bottle back to me with a delicate smile.
“Mind you,” he said, “I don’t consider your ‘second bottle’ theory completely blown, but if there was another bottle we should be able to find it.”
He hopped up. I noted that as clues began to accumulate he became increasingly animated.
“Is the trash kept under the sink? Nope, next to the refrigerator. And it’s full! This will be fun.”
We dumped the plastic can on the kitchen floor and squatted down together to go through it.
“No scotch bottle,” Chief murmured, “but here’s the cap to the vodka bottle. I count three cigarette butts, all menthol.”
I got out my notebook and started listing contents.
“Pretty boring stuff,” he continued. “Lots of microwave dinners, a few eggshells, banana peel—you know what?”
“What?” I said.
“There’s something wrong with this garbage. Smell it.”
I smelled it, shook my head.
“Look at this banana peel. Black. And these eggshells. See what I mean?”
I chewed on my pen. “I get it!” I said. “It’s all dried up. Old.”
“You got potential, Smitty, you really do. We need to talk to Mercy, and also find out how long Captain Merrick’s been in the field. You ask me, Mrs. Merrick hasn’t been home much … whoops! What’s this? Somebody missed the basket.” He reached down between the refrigerator and the stove, into the small space where the trash had been kept. “Shame on Mercy for forgetting to sweep back here!”
He held up a paper towel. “It’s almost still damp, unlike the rest, and a little grimy. Ah! What do you make of this red stain?”
“I took the scrap of towel and stared at it. There was a thin red smear, about two inches long across one corner, and another smaller one near the middle. I shrugged my shoulders.
“If your eyes won’t tell you, try your nose,” he suggested.
I did, and immediately held it away. “GAA,” I said.
“Fascinating. Ever seen red grease before?”
“Unh-uh. The stuff we use in the motor pool is kind of tan-colored.”
“Hmm. I’ve seen blue, black, and brown, but red is new to me.” He cupped his hands over his mouth and nose, and creased his brow furiously. Then he dropped his hands and looked at me brightly. “You know, this is getting interesting.”
These were the first two chapters of The Officer's Wife. Buy the complete novel now in your favorite format from your preferred retailer: Amazon ppk, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble ppk, Barnes & Noble Nook.