Corpse in the Abstract [A Lt. Mark Stoddard Mystery]
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by J. D. Crayne
Description: Detective Mark Stoddard's Toughest Challenge. When the decayed corpse of an unknown man is found slouched in an outhouse in a rural California town, Pomo City Police Detective Mark Stoddard finds himself investigating a bizarre mixture of suspects, including Civil War buffs, several eccentric artists, and a pedantic antique dealer. Digging out clues to murder from gravel-voiced Ma Shanahan's Irish pub to the beer and sin-stained bar of The Sweat Lodge, Stoddard finds that small towns can have big secrets, and even bigger motives for murder. The crucial answer to the mystery seems to hinge on the meaning of a strange tattoo, but when a second man is reported missing, it suddenly looks like an open and shut case; a case of sick jealousy that brought one man to his grave and turned his killer into a fugitive. But Stoddard soon realizes that obvious solutions can be misleading and that hidden motives may be the most powerful ones of all. What about the beautiful Japanese girl that both men loved, and that one of them may have loved a little too much? Who owned the murder weapon--and who used it? Did the antique dealer have more than a casual interest in his beautiful young assistant? As he delves deeper into the secret motives behind this bizarre killing, Stoddard discovers that this sleepy little Western town hides more than one mystery, and finds himself unraveling a tangled knot of love, ambition, and envy as he stalks a calculating killer in a determined search for the answers.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2003-01-01
eBookwise Release Date: July 2004
18 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [182 KB]
Reading time: 171-240 min.
Detective Mark Stoddard, feeling clammy and uncomfortable in his wet weather gear, drove his truck out past the library, museum, and the Little League field, and up over the low hills on the east side of town. The rain was pattering down gently, as it usually did in January, turning the hard clay into slimy muck where it wasn't covered by the tough native bunch grass, and refilling the aquifers against the coming summer. He headed up over Red Hill--named for its pinkish iron-laden clay Hill--and down the other side, finally pulling into the driveway of a tidy little two story house with a shingled roof. The parcels out here were mostly grazing land, or slopes covered with second growth Douglas fir, so that the houses were fairly far apart. The nearest one that he could see, as he got out of his car and pulled on his rain hat, was a good quarter of a mile away.
There was a man sitting in a wicker chair on the porch, who got up as Stoddard sloshed up the graveled path, trying to avoid the larger puddles. He waved and came to the front steps to meet the detective.
"I'm Stoddard," the detective said, displaying his ID. "Are you Mr. Warren Legacy?"
"Yes, that's right."
"You called with a problem?"
"Yes," the other man said again. "There is a dead man in my outhouse." He grimaced. "A very dead man."
Legacy was slightly plump, with neatly combed gray hair, and was dressed in dark gray slacks, a blue shirt, gray wool vest, and a tweed sports jacket. He was around 5'10", fiftyish, and his small feet were neatly shod in black loafers and black silk socks.
Stoddard tried to keep from smiling. Most of the men out in this area wore jeans, plaid shirts, denim jackets, and boots.
"Okay, Stoddard said easily. "Suppose you show me."
Legacy picked up a black umbrella that was hanging by its curved handle from the porch rail; opened it; and walked down the porch steps and along a path that led off to the east. "This way," he said. "Just across the creek."
He led the way down a narrow rock-edged terrace and some stone steps to a narrow foot bridge that crossed a rushing creek. On the side there was a small dark wooden shed, its door hanging slightly open.
Stoddard looked at the bridge, which was only two 2" x 8" planks that stretched from bank to bank, and tested it gingerly with one foot.
"It's okay," Legacy said. "I use it all the time."
Stoddard walked on across the creek, noticing a patter of footprints in a patch of soggy ground where the planks ended. "Your prints?" he asked Legacy.
"Yes, I would have kept to the grass if I'd known what was in there, but I didn't. One doesn't expect things like that, you know."
"You didn't happen to see any other prints when you walked over here, did you?"
"No, but I might not have noticed them."
Stoddard pulled open the shed door, noticing that it had a proper crescent moon cut into the center, near the top. He stuck his head inside, and was aware of the sweetly sickening scent of decay, which would have been a lot worse if the weather had been warmer. Once his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he saw a slouched figure sitting on the bench on the far side. From what he could see of him, the man was very dead indeed. What was left of the corpse was dressed in a dark suit, but the light from the open doorway caught incongruous jabs of bright color from a shirt and tie. The corpse's feet were bare bones, and what looked like a pair of maroon bedroom slippers were askew beside them on the floor. There had apparently been some animal activity. More bones gleamed out of the cuff of one sleeve, which was hanging down across the knees. The head was bent forward onto the chest, as if the corpse was lost in thought.
Stoddard leaned a little closer; slipped the flashlight out of his belt, and threw a beam onto the shape, to be sure that it wasn't just some scarecrow that a practical joker had shoved in the privy. No, not a scarecrow. The ragged flesh above the wrist bones and the white planes of the skull looked very real indeed. The black holes of the nose and eyes opened on mystery.
Stoddard backed out of the outhouse and walked back across the footbridge. "Do you know him?" he asked Legacy.
"I don't think so, but it would be rather hard to tell. I didn't feel like touching him."
"Understandable. I'll just call for the morgue crew, and then you can give me some particulars, if you will."
Legacy nodded and they walked back toward the house, where Legacy went back up on the porch and Stoddard called the police dispatcher on his car radio.
"Shall we go inside?" Legacy asked, opening the door once Stoddard had finished. "It's rather chilly out here."
Stoddard followed him into a warm living room, decorated with Victorian furniture and an assortment of turn of the century antiques. He slipped off his raincoat and hung it on a hall tree, where Legacy tidily collapsed and stowed his umbrella. A fire flickered low on the hearth, and Legacy paused to put another chunk of oak on it before sitting down on the couch and gesturing for the detective to take a large leather armchair.
"Now then," Stoddard said, "when did you find the body?"
"Just before I phoned the police." Legacy checked his wristwatch. "That would be about forty-five minutes ago, I think."
Stoddard looked at his own watch. "Three fifteen?"
"Why did you go to the privy?" Stoddard asked. "You do have indoor plumbing?"
Legacy's lips twitched. "Yes, of course. I like period antiques, but not that much. I went out there to get a sack of gravel."
"Yes, for some bulbs. I keep my garden supplies in the outhouse."
"You were planting bulbs in the rain?" Stoddard tried to keep his voice neutral, but wasn't sure that he was doing a good job of it.
"No, I'm not quite that strange. A friend in Los Angeles gave me some forcing bulbs as I was leaving this morning. Paper white narcissus. You put them in a shallow bowl with gravel and water; set them in a sunny window; and they grow and bloom. Very Victorian, but as you can see, I have a very Victorian house."
"Ah." Stoddard nodded. He looked back at Legacy and said, "That's right! Now I remember you. You have the antique shop over on School Street, don't you? I was over there a couple of years ago, after you had a break in."
"That's right," Legacy said, nodding.
"So you've been out of town?"
"Yes, I was away for almost a month and just got back this afternoon. I can't say that I think much of my homecoming present," he added dryly.
"Was there anyone looking after the place while you were away?"
"No, I don't have any pets or livestock, and the garden certainly doesn't need watering this time of year."
"What about neighbors?" Stoddard asked.
"The closest ones are the Babcocks, across the pasture and up the hill. That's their driveway, just across the way, but the house and barn are a good quarter of a mile back from the road. Mrs. Helborne has the house on the east, but her driveway comes out past where the road curves."
"When did you leave town, exactly?"
"It was the morning of December 14th," Legacy said. "That was a Saturday. I picked up a friend and we drove down to the San Francisco airport together. She was flying to Carson City, and I was catching a flight to Los Angeles, so we decided to car pool."
"And you've been in Los Angeles all this time?"
"No," Legacy said. "I stayed with my partner and his wife--they're in Beverly Hills, actually--through December 20th, and then rented a car and drove down to Palm Springs, where I spent Christmas with my niece and her family. After that I drove up to Santa Ana to celebrate the New Year with some friends. I stayed with them until January 5th, and then drove back up to Los Angeles; spent the night with my partner; caught a morning flight back to San Francisco; picked up my car and drove home."
"That sounds pretty complete," Stoddard said. "I'd like the names and addresses of the people you stayed with, if you don't mind. And the friend who drove down to San Francisco with you."
"Of course," Legacy said. "I'll write them down for you." He went to a small desk by the door, where he took out a piece of paper and a pen.
Meanwhile, a police patrol car and two County vehicles had pulled up in the driveway, and Stoddard went outside to talk to the occupants. Before long a small procession was making its way to the outhouse: Two uniformed men with rolls of yellow tape, a man with a black case and a sack of small plastic bags, and two men with a gurney and a long zippered bag.
They hesitated at the foot bridge and Stoddard called out, "It's okay, and the footprints at the end are mine and the home owner's. Look out for anything else around there, though."
In a very few minutes there was a police line of yellow tape around the small weathered building, and everything that could be, was being measured, photographed, or fingerprinted.
Stoddard watched while the two men from the coroner's office maneuvered the corpse gently out of its small wooden vault. It was limp and the cool winter air did not carry away its odor.
"At least he didn't drop dead doing his business," one of the men said cheerfully. "He'd have his pants and shorts down around his ankles if he did.
"I guess that's something," Stoddard said. "Damned embarrassing way to die if he did."
"Probably just stepped in out of the rain or to take a rest, poor guy," the other attendant said. "Out hiking or something."
"In bedroom slippers and a suit?" Stoddard asked.
"Yeah, well it takes all kinds," the first man said, as they eased the corpse onto the gurney and straightened it gently.
The cold gray afternoon light was not kind to it. In the confines of the outhouse, with the shadows broken only by his flashlight, Stoddard had seen it as an impassive, almost mythic figure. Outside, stretched out on an chrome and leatherette carrier, it looked like some hackneyed prop from a horror film, and a bad horror film at that. The fleshless skull was set off by a screamingly bright Hawaiian shirt and a clashing tie, bordered by a sober black suit.
"There are bones missing from the hands," the first attendant said. "Some of them might be on the floor in there," he added, nodding toward the outhouse, "but chances are that an animal carried them off."
Stoddard nodded. "Okay. We'll see what we can find." He glanced over toward the house. Warren Legacy was standing on the porch, watching them.
A light rain had started to fall, and Stoddard went back to his truck for a raincoat and hat before walking up to the porch. Behind him, the corpse was neatly zippered into its bag on the gurney and wheeled over to the County van, where the two attendants slid it inside and closed it away from the world.
"We'll have to keep your privy sealed off until we're been over everything," he told Legacy.
"Whatever you need to do, Detective."
"When you went out there for the gravel, was the door open or shut?"
"Shut, of course. I never leave it open." Legacy paused, and then added mildly, "That sounds a bit incriminating, doesn't it?"
"I'll overlook it for the moment," Stoddard said.
"Thank you." He held out a sheet of paper. "Here are the names and addresses of the people I stayed with while I was away, and this," he pointed to the top name on the list, "is the lady who drove down to San Francisco with me."
"Thank you," Stoddard said, taking the paper and folding it into his notebook. "I'll probably be talking to you again."
"Always happy to assist the police, I assure you."
Stoddard almost expected him to bow.