It was a pleasant Wednesday afternoon at the end of October. The trees in front of the Pomo Pharmacy had turned brilliant scarlet and orange, and the sky overhead was laced with soft white billows of cloud.
"She's dead! She's dead!" screamed a shrill female voice.
Detective Mark Stoddard, who had just finished lunch at The Chuckwagon, whirled around to look south along Main Street. A gray-haired woman was running along the sidewalk toward him, waving her arms wildly. He ran toward her, and caught her by one arm as she bumped into his shoulder and tried to push past.
"Hey there! Whoa, now. What's the problem?"
Her eyes were wide, showing a rim of white all the way around like a frightened horse, and she was breathing in great gulping gasps.
"She's dead!" she cried again, and clenched her teeth on a trembling lower lip.
"Okay," Stoddard said. "Who's dead?"
"Alix Montgomery. She's dead!"
The woman opened her mouth as if to scream again, and Stoddard held up his forefinger.
"Ah, ah, ah," he said gently. "You're in the protective custody of the long arm of the law, right? So, just simmer down. Now, where is this Alix Montgomery?"
"At the toll way!"
It took Stoddard's mind a moment to process this, but then he realized she must be talking about The Tole Way, the town's small decorative painting shop.
"Let's just walk back there and see," he said. "Maybe she's not really dead, and if she isn't, she wouldn't like you making all this fuss. All right?"
The woman nodded dumbly as he turned her around and, holding her gently by the upper arm, started walking back in the opposite direction. Several people were looking out of the store windows and doorways along the way, and Stoddard nodded pleasantly to them as he guided his companion down the sidewalk.
When they came to The Tole Way entrance his companion stopped short and pointed a trembling finger at the doorway. A sign hanging askew behind the glass of the door said "Closed" but the door itself was standing slightly open.
"In ... in there. In the back room."
"Okay, you just come in and wait here by the door while I have a look around."
He piloted her inside and shut the door behind her. Nothing seemed out of order in the shop, with its inventory of painting magazines, patterns, bottles, cans, and wood shapes arranged neatly on racks and shelves. The sales counter and its cash register were spic and span.
Stoddard strode toward the back of the shop, where a swinging door gave onto a second room. He pushed open the door and stopped abruptly. There were two figures in the room. One of them was a man standing in front of the open back door with a phone in his hand, staring down at the floor with a bemused expression on his face.
The other figure was a multicolored mess, sprawled on the concrete and surrounded with small plastic bottles.
Stoddard walked over to the sprawled figure, taking care to stay out of the puddles and avoid kicking the plastic bottles; stooped down; and laid his fingers on a bare wrist. There was no pulse. He straightened up.
The man on the phone tapped the receiver and mouthed, "Police."
"Police," Stoddard said aloud, tapping his own chest, and walked over to take the phone away from him. He had a couple of minutes' talk with the dispatcher, and then hung up the receiver.
The man, a dark, stocky, fellow with a nearly trimmed mustache and short beard, pursed his lips and then said, "I was pretty sure she was dead. I didn't touch her, but I mean, she's got Brambleberry Blue in her eyes, for gawd sakes!"
"What is that stuff all over her?" Stoddard asked.
The man pointed carefully at the various lines, squiggles, zigzags, splotches, and puddles of color that laced back and forth across the woman's body and oozed over the concrete floor.
"Lucky Lavender, Glorious Green, Mostly Mauve, Butterbrickle ... or maybe that's Yummy Yellow..."
"Paint," Stoddard said, and the man nodded.
"What's your name, and how long have you been here?"
"Me? Oh, I'm Rog Calthrop. I just got here. I walked in with Andie--she's the clerk--and when we saw this she took off screaming." His eyes narrowed cautiously. "You're someone official?"
"Detective Stoddard, Pomo Police," the detective said shortly. "You came in through the back door?"
Calthrop nodded and tugged nervously at his beard with one hand.
"Suppose you just go into the front room and wait there with the lady while we get this all sorted out."
Calthrop nodded again, walked carefully around the wet paint, past Stoddard, and into the next room, where he stopped and peered back around the edge of the swinging door.
Stoddard studied the corpse carefully. In life, it had been a well-built woman with a fair complexion and pale blonde hair. She was dressed in light gray slacks and a dark sweater, and was lying half on her back and half on her left side on the concrete floor, with arms thrown out to the sides, hands closed, and legs bent. It was hard to tell what she really looked like, because of the multicolored bands of paint streaked and dribbled across her face, but Stoddard guessed that she was somewhere in her mid-thirties and had probably been attractive.
Apparently some number of people were taking a class in decorative painting in the room. There were four long tables set up, two on each side of the corpse, as if showcasing it, and there were eight identical little partially-painted wooden birdhouses sitting in front of the chairs at each table, along with a conglomeration of brushes, bottles, wadded up paper towels, and tubs of water.
Long counters on both sides of the room supported a variety of painted objects, presumably samples for forthcoming classes. One of the counters was fitted with a stainless steel sink, and there were cupboards both above and below. Doors at either side, toward the rear, presumably led to a toilet and a storage room.
At the far end of the room, behind the dead woman's head and in front of the door that led out to The Tole Way's tiny parking lot, there was another table that was apparently being used by the teacher, since there was a finished birdhouse-painted with cheerful lavender morning glories-sitting prominently in front of the paints, brushes, and a fanned out stack of decorative painting magazines. A smock, painted with yellow roses, was neatly folded across the back of the chair, and the paint bottles were arranged in rainbow order next to a partially painted sample. Apparently none of those paints had been involved in the mess on the concrete.
A takeout bag from The Spotted Owl cafe was lying on the floor near one end of the teacher's table, spilling French fries, a wrapped sandwich, and what looked like an entire chocolate milkshake, from a carton that had come uncapped, across the concrete. Someone's take-out lunch, apparently.
Stoddard went back to the front of the shop and addressed himself to the clerk, who was shivering in a chair behind the counter.
"I'm Detective Stoddard, and I've been talking to the police dispatcher. We'll have some people here in just a few minutes." He took his notebook out and flipped it open. "You work here, is that right?"
She ran the tip of her tongue over dry lips. "Yes, that's right."
"And what's your name?"
"Andie. That's is, Andrea. Andrea Beachamp, Mrs."
"Two-forty-one Della, over by the school," she said, staring at this moving pencil.
"Did Alix Montgomery have any family? Relatives?"
"She has a husband. but they're separated."
"She lived alone?"
"In a little house that she rented by herself," Mrs. Beachamp said, her gray curls bouncing as she nodding. "I told her and told her that it's dangerous for a woman to live alone, but she never paid any attention to me and now look what's happened!"
Stoddard nodded too, thinking that was about as twisted a piece of logic as he'd ever heard. "Do you have her address?"
"No, but I know how to get there," Mrs. Beachamp said, sniffing sadly. "You just go up Primrose to Goose and then turn left at the house with the green shutters, and left again at the place with the picnic table in the front yard, and it's two houses further down, on the right; the white one with the wind chimes."
"Uh-huh," Stoddard said, deciding to look up the address in the directory. "No other relatives?"
"She has two children, but they live with him, and that ... that woman who's living with him." She sniffed again, loudly, pulled a Kleenex out of a box on the counter, and daubed her eyes with it. "Oh, her poor children!"
"What's her husband's name?"
"Do you know his address or phone number."
Mrs. Beachamp shook her head, snuffling into her Kleenex. "He's a painter. He has a decorating business called Wonderful Walls. She could have done so much better for herself!"
Stoddard jotted Montgomery's business name down in his notebook and then asked, "Is the shop usually closed from twelve to one?"
"Oh, no! It's one of our busiest times. People drop in during their lunch hour. One of us is always here during lunch."
Stoddard rubbed his nose. "I just happened to notice that the door sign was turned to 'Closed'."
"Oh, well ... that was a mistake," she said, knotting the Kleenex in her hands. "I suppose Alix forgot to turn it over when she came in this morning. I didn't notice."
"There's a class going on in the back?"
Mrs. Beachamp looked at him blankly for a moment, and then nodded. "Totsy Landers is teaching Morning Glories on a Birdhouse."
"How many people are in the class?"
"Eight. Just eight. We don't have room for any more." She shivered.
"I understand," Stoddard said soothingly. "Where are they all?"
"They went to lunch. I left too, but I had to run some errands so I didn't go with them. Alix asked me to bring her back something." Her lip started to tremble again. "I dropped the bag. Back ... back there. The chocolate malt spilled and went all over the floor."
Stoddard smiled reassuringly. At least, he hoped it was reassuring. "Don't worry about that now. When the class broke for lunch, did they go out through the back door, or did they come out through here?"
"Some of each," she said, staring down at her trembling hands. "Totsy came up to the counter to tell Alix that she needed to order some more spray fix, and I remember that she went out through the front door. Some of them went out the back, because they parked in back, but I think some of them were going to walk over to La Cantina, so they didn't need a car. I didn't really notice, because I had a customer."
Stoddard swore softly to himself, since people generally expected to come back in through the door they'd used to leave, and he obviously couldn't be in two places at once.
"When are they supposed to get back?"
"Oh, any time now. They were going to take an hour." She looked up at him, her fingers clutching nervously at the fabric of her skirt. "Noon to one o'clock, you know."
Calthrop, who had followed Stoddard to the front counter, asked, "Do you think it was a burglar?"
"It will be a while before we know that," Stoddard said smoothly, and then added, "You're sure taking all of this casually."
Calthrop tugged at his beard and shrugged. "I can't say that I like it, but I was an ambulance driver for four years, working my way through college, and then I got drafted and sent to Iraq. A dead body with paint dribbled over it is nothing special, all things considered."
"Were you in the painting class?"
"Oh no, bird houses are not my thing at all. I just stopped in to pick up a couple of tubes of paint."
"Where were you before you got here?"
"I went to lunch with a friend."
"Can you prove that?"
"Prove it?" Calthrop said incredulously, his voice soaring to falsetto.
"Yeah!" the detective barked at him. "Where were you, and who were you with?"
"Whitney Bolsten, and we went to Shanahan's! Ma knows me. There were dozens of people there. They'll tell you!"
"Fine," Stoddard said, flipping the door sign over to OPEN. "Guard this door. Let anybody in who wants in, and don't let them out again."
Stoddard heard the sound of cars in the parking lot, and strode to the back door, leaving Calthrop to goggle after him.
The crime scene crew and a patrol car with a pair of uniformed patrol officers had just pulled into the lot and parked next to a late model gray Buick--at the same time that the first members of the painting class started to straggle back.
Stoddard called out to the officers. "CeeJay! Get up to the front of the store, will you? The clerk is up there, and a guy called Calthrop. The clerk is the hysterical type, so try to keep her calmed down. If anyone comes in, keep him or her there in front. Get everyone's name and address. Jimmy, you stay here in the parking lot, and handle anyone who wants to go in the back way. Okay?"
The officers both nodded. CeeJay headed through the back door with a determined look on his face, and Jimmy, taking a notebook out of his pocket, cordially invited a quartet of middle aged ladies to have a chat.
One of the women, a well-built, efficient-looking, redhead dressed in gray slacks and a blue sweatshirt painted with playing mice, outflanked Jimmy and marched up to Stoddard.
"Just what is going on here? I'm teaching a class, and I have to get back inside." She shifted the paper bag, under her arm, which held a cardboard shoe box, and looked at her wrist watch. "I'm nearly five minutes late as it is."
"Just the lady I want to see," Stoddard said amiably. "You're Totsy Landers, right?"
"I am!" She tossed back her head of red-gold hair and put her hands on her rounded hips. "And I insist that you let me back into the classroom!"
"Okay," Stoddard said, feeling just a little malicious. "Suppose you come inside with me for a moment then."
Stoddard ushered her in through the back door.
"I really don't understand..." she began, and then stopped short as she saw the figure of Alix Montgomery sprawled on the concrete floor. "Ohmigod!"
"Yeah, that's what I wanted to ask you about."
Totsy swallowed hard and dropped her bag. "Oh, lord. Is she dead?"
"As near as we can tell," Stoddard said dryly.
"Just ... just what did you want to know? Lordy, she's got Blue Heaven dribbled all over her face!"
"Oh really?" Stoddard said with an air of innocence. "Rog Calthrop said it was Brambleberry Blue."
"Well, he's wrong!" she snapped, bending over to pick up the paper bag. "I ought to know, I wrote up the supply list! And what does he know about decorative painting anyway? He paints three-inch portraits and calls himself an artist!" She snorted.
"Hmm, well that's sort of beside the point," Stoddard conceded. "What I want to know is what time it was when you left the shop. I understand that you were talking to the deceased in the front."
Totsy nodded, wide blue eyes fixed on the body of the shop owner. "Yes. I went up front to tell her that she'd need to order some more cans of exterior spray finish."
"What time was that, do you remember?"
"A couple of minutes after twelve." She added, almost automatically, "I'm teaching a house number sign with daffodils next, and it has to be sprayed against the weather or it simply won't last."
"So she was at the counter in front when you left?"
"Yes. Yes, she was. She wrote a note about the spray, and then I remember that she opened her purse and gave Andie some money, to bring her back something for lunch."
"You saw Mrs. Beachamp leave?"
"Andie? No. She followed me out here to the classroom, and a bunch of us went out into the parking lot together, that's all."
"Then you didn't all go to lunch together?"
Totsy shook her head. "Four of us walked down to the little Mexican cafe, but some people had to run errands so it was mostly grab and run. We just split up, and I told them to be back by ten after one, because we were a little late leaving."
"Where did you go after lunch?"
"Me? I walked down to the shopping center. I don't get as much exercise as I should, and besides, I needed a new pair of shoes." She flourished her paper bag.
"Okay," Stoddard said. "If you'll just give me your address, you're free to go."
"I'll have to phone my husband," she said unsteadily, running her tongue over dry lips. "I don't have a car. Mine's in the shop and he dropped me off this morning. He isn't expecting to pick me up until four o'clock. What about..." she waved her hand in a sweeping gesture over the back table with the smock and birdhouse sample.
"The site crew has to check everything. Someone will let you know when you can pick up your things."
She nodded, reeled off her address and phone number, and walked stiffly back out the door to the parking lot, pulling a cell phone out of the handbag slung over her shoulder and busily punching numbers while juggling the phone and her shoe box.
The crime scene crew had taped off the back room with quiet efficiency. They were dusting for prints and taking pictures of the victim and the classroom when the coroner's van drove into the parking lot, followed closely by Dr. Viber, the County Coroner, in his small sedan.
Viber, dressed neatly in a gray suit and striped tie, walked across the asphalt toward Stoddard, swinging a small black valise.
"Well, what is it this time?" he asked amiably.
"A dead shopkeeper," Stoddard said, gesturing toward the door into the classroom, and following Viber inside.
Viber looked at the paint-splattered corpse sprawled on the floor, cocked his head to one side, and pursed his lips in a soft whistle.
"You really do come up with the damnest things," he said.
"I just call 'em in," Stoddard said. "I'm not responsible for their condition."
"What's that junk all over her?"
"Paint, according to a guy who was on the scene when I got here. My guess it that it came from the student set-ups on those tables."
Viber glanced around at the half-painted bird houses and the litter of little plastic bottles tumbled all over the floor, and grimaced. "Damned messy."
He hitched up his neat gray gabardine trousers, squatted down next to the body and flexed the fingers of the paint-free hand. He lifted the eyelids, and shrugged. "She hasn't been dead more than a couple of hours. When did you find her?"
"About forty-five minutes ago."
Viber looked at his wrist watch. "Sometime between twelve and one, then."
Stoddard nodded. "The woman who actually found the body said she was alive at noon."
"Well, that's about it," Viber said, getting to his feet. "The autopsy results aren't going to come any closer than that." He pulled some forms out of his valise and started filling them out with a ballpoint pen.
"Any idea about the cause of death?"
Viber shook his head. "Wait until we get her cleaned up. Damned funny, all that paint. I guess she could have dropped dead of a stroke or heart attack, and then someone came in and squirted that stuff all over her. It would have to be someone pretty weird, though.
"Oh, we've got plenty of weird people around Pomo," Stoddard said wryly. "You don't think she could have done it herself?"
Viber shook his head. "She was already lying down on the floor when she was squirted. None of it is smeared, so she wasn't moving around, picking up bottles here and there."
He bent over to peer at the label on one of the nearest bottles and wrinkled his nose.
"Acrylic!" he exclaimed with distaste. "My daughter took a kid's class in acrylic painting one time. Wore her good clothes and managed to spill an entire bottle of magenta in her lap. My wife never did get the stuff out of her pants. It's like some kind of plastic when it sets up."
He shook his head ruefully, nodded to the crew standing by with the gurney and body bag, and stood aside as they came in to get the remains.
"You want to come to the autopsy?"
"Not particularly," Stoddard admitted, watching the coroner's crew as they tried to get the body into the bag without smearing themselves with multicolored streaks of paint.
"Okay, then I'll just send you the results. It won't be for a couple of days anyway. I've already got two suspected ODs and a presumed-natural waiting in the cooler. Well, we'd better get going then. I want to get this one washed up before that damned paint sets up any more and we have to sandblast it off of her skin."
Viber waved genially and headed back to his car.
A sound of raised voices came from the front of the shop, and Stoddard walked in to see what was going on. Apparently someone-several someones from the sound of it--was demanding to know why the classroom was sealed off.
He went through the doorway and found Officer CeeJay in an animated conversation with three middle-aged women dressed in eye-jarring combinations of purple and red. One was wearing a fuzzy purple jumpsuit, the second was dressed in eggplant colored pants with a red print blouse, and the third, a tall, heavy-set woman, was wearing some kind of flowing purple caftan.
The woman in the purple pants had a flat red straw with pink roses perched on her gray curls, and the lady in the jumpsuit was sporting a red plush toque. The caftan-clad women had a pair of fuzzy red earmuffs draped around her neck, evidently in some spirit of solidarity with her friends.
Calthrop was leaning against the front counter watching the action with a slight smile on his face, and Mrs. Beachamp, seated in a chair behind the counter, was snuffling into a pink Kleenex.
Stoddard cleared his throat loudly, and they all turned to look at him.
"Okay," he said. "What's going on here?"
"These ladies are taking the class in the back room," CeeJay said. "I've been trying to explain to them that they can't go in there just now."
"And why not!" the woman in the pants demanded, putting up a hand to push back her red straw hat, which had a tendency to slide forward over her eyes. "We're late as it is, and Totsy is going to have conniptions!"
"It's a crime scene," Stoddard said. "We can't let any of you back there until the experts are through with it."
"A crime scene!" The tall, stout, woman in the caftan took off the earmuffs that were hanging around her neck and waved them under Stoddard's nose. "That's ridiculous! The only thing back there that's criminal is the way that Marty highlighted those morning glory leaves!"
"You're just jealous because I'm the one with the 'Hot Sex'," Marty said.
"Oooo, what they'll say at the school!" the caftan-swathed lady said.
"I'm on vacation," Marty said grandly, and the three of them broke up into giggles.
It was obvious to Stoddard that the ladies were just a little bit tipsy. Not precisely boozy, but definitely happy.
He leaned back against the counter and took out his notebook. "I'll tell you what, if you'll give me your names and addresses, I'll escort you into the classroom, so you can pack up your things. Then you can go out through the parking lot door. Do you have cars out there?"
"One car," Marty said. "We drove here together."
"I may have to come by and talk to each of you about the class in a day or two, but you won't have to stand around here. Okay?"
Marty straightened her red straw hat again and asked, "Are you going to tell us what's going on?"
"And what about the class!" the woman in the jumpsuit wailed. "I haven't even got my morning glories undercoated!"
"I'm sorry, the class has been canceled," Stoddard said. "The shop owner had an accident."
"If Alix had an accident," Marty said, eying him shrewdly, "why are you calling it a crime scene?"
"They've got a point there," Calthrop remarked, leafing casually through an issue of Faux Fabulous.
The three ladies, now a good deal less happy, stared at Stoddard with owlish eyes. There was silence for a long moment, except for the snuffling of Mrs. Beachamp behind the counter.
"All right," Stoddard said, with a sigh. "There's no point trying to keep it a secret because I'm sure it will be in the Pomo News tomorrow. Alix Montgomery was found dead in your classroom just about an hour ago. We don't know how she died. She may have had a heart attack, or stroke, or something like that. Until we do know, we have to treat her death as a crime."
The three woman looked stunned.
"I can't believe it!" the one wearing the red plush toque blurted out. "She was just fine this morning."
The other two nodded gravely.
"Sometimes things like that happen," Stoddard said. "Let me just check to see how the lab people are doing, and then we'll let you go back and get your stuff."
"Say, can I just buy a few things and get out of here?" Rog Calthrop asked in a plaintive voice.
The three purple and red ladies looked shocked, and one of them murmured something about a "heartless lack of feeling."
Stoddard tapped his note pad with a pencil, considering. "I don't see why not," he said after a moment's thought. "That is, if Mrs. Beachamp feels up to handling the cash register. Just let me have your full name and address.
"Thanks! Roger Calthrop, two-oh-one North Street, right here in town."
Stoddard looked up from his page of notes. "That's Whitney Bolsten's address, isn't it?"
"Sure is! Whits and I are old friends. But how do you ... Oh! When his wife was killed." He looked suddenly grave, and pulled at his beard. "I guess you would know about that."
"I was the investigating officer," Stoddard said calmly. "We'll need a formal statement from you, but there's no reason you can't finish your shopping and get on about your business. Mrs. Beachamp! You have a customer."
He nodded to Ceejay, who was standing stolidly by the front door. "Let him out when he's done. Now then," he said, turning to the red-hatted trio, "just give me your names and addresses."
"Marty Ainwright, three-seventy-four Mill Rd." said the first one, straightening her red straw hat again.
"Leona Mensol," the lady in the jumpsuit said hurriedly, "One-twelve Spruce."
"And I'm Sylvia," the large woman in the caftan squeaked. "Sylvia Fennett. Five-thirty-one East Valley." She squinted at Stoddard. "Haven't we met somewhere?"
"Probably," he said. "It's a small town."
"I know! You're Felicity Marshall's friend. We met at that steam society picnic last year!" She nodded briskly to her two friends, who looked at Stoddard with approval now that there was someone to vouch for him.
He sighed, jotted down their information, and said mildly, "I see that you all live pretty close to here. Almost within walking distance."
"Oh yes," Sylvia chirped. "Of course, it would be a pretty long walk for Marty!"
"Only a couple of miles," Marty said, with the lofty indifference of the dedicated walker, "but when we've all got stuff to carry it's a lot easier with the car. I just swing down and pick up Leona, then go across Main for Sylvia, and we're practically here."
"I see. What time did you go to lunch? I gather you went together?"
"Oh yes!" Sylvia said, twirling her earmuffs. "We planned it when we signed up for the class."
"It was just a few minutes after twelve," Leona said. "Isn't that right, Marty?"
"I think so, yes. Right after Alix said it was time for lunch and we should all be back at ten after one. The whole class stopped, except for Petti, I think. She was still fiddling with something when we left."
"Tendrils, with her liner brush," Leona said glumly. "Someone ought to take that woman's green paint away from her."
"And there were just the three of you who went out to lunch together?" Stoddard went on doggedly.
Marty nodded. "We asked the others to come with us, but most of them were planning to have quick lunch at La Cantina, and then run off to run errands. I think Lilah said she had to go home and look in on a sick Pekingese"
"Petti was going home to feed her parakeet," Leona added helpfully.
"And where did you go for lunch?"
"Shanahan's!" they chorused gleefully.
Stoddard nodded and closed his notebook. Shanahan's Irish coffee, loaded with more than a little Irish, would account for the ladies' condition when they got back.
"I'll see if the lab crew is finished, and then you'll be able to get your things.