A Conspiracy of Strangers [Deb Ralston Series Book 2]
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by Lee Martin
Description: Detective Deb Ralston's chance discovery of a dead woman, nine months pregnant, in a ditch leads her into a morass of kidnapping and murder in which she has to fight for her own life and for her son's life as well.
eBook Publisher: Live Oak House, 1985
eBookwise Release Date: February 2005
23 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [254 KB]
Reading time: 178-250 min.
"...Involves a struggle between life and death in an elemental sense."--Drood Review
"Deb tenaciously follows every lead--while the body count mounts with the murders of gentle abortionist Dr. Frank Kirk and midwife Rachel Strada."--Kirkus
"...Starts out good and gets even better."--San Antonio Light
"...In the genre of Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct novels."--Fairborn, OH Herald
"...frightening, almost-too-believable thriller centered on abortion, murder, and blackmarket babies."--Chicago Booklist.
"...Just about flawless ... a bold book, filled with its own wryness, and boy is it tricky. Very good stuff."--Ed Gorman, Cedar Rapids Gazette
* * * *
I wasn't thinking about murder, that late September afternoon. I was watching my dog and wondering why I'd never noticed before that he ran sideways. His left front paw and his right rear paw line up, so that he always seems about to veer into something.
Somebody I mentioned that to later told me all dogs run like that. I don't know. I never paid much attention to dogs until the big brown mutt wandered in last Saint Patrick's Day, dirty and thin, wearing an old flea collar and an expired Louisiana rabies tag. We fed him. We washed him. We fed him again. We put an ad in the paper--FOUND DOG--for all the good that didn't do. We even called Louisiana, but the info associated with that tag number had expired.
Then we took him to the vet. There's a rabies epidemic going on among the skunks in this northeast corner of Fort Worth, Texas, and as far out in the country as we live, it would be very easy for a dog--especially a not-too-bright and overfriendly dog--to tangle with a skunk. Clearly he'd have to have shots.
It was on the way home with me driving that my husband Harry commented, "Looks like we've got ourselves a dog." Looking at the sixty pounds of fur shivering in his lap--the dog clearly did not like shots--he added, "Hi, Pat."
"Pat?" I asked.
Harry looked at me pityingly. "Deb," he said, "when did we find him?"
That was when I began to learn about dogs.
Tired of wondering about Pat's gait, I began instead to wonder what had possessed a respectable grandmother like me to acquire a habit of running up and down the side of the road, wearing jogging shoes, a yellow sweatband, a Bell Helicopter sweatshirt, dark blue terry cloth trousers, and a dark blue terry cloth shirt-jacket, unzipped to allow easy access to the pistol I'm required to have on me all the time.
But I knew why I'd started jogging. At my age I was getting more and more sedentary, and I had started to put on weight. A fat-and-lazy cop can become a dead cop--real fast.
Even if she is a grandmother.
I did not want to become dead right now; I'd only recently become a grandmother. Also I was still a mother, a wife, and a human being. In, I suppose, inverse order of importance.
Pat shot past me and across the road, barking loudly and wagging from the shoulders back to make up for his almost total lack of a tail. I shouted at him, but he ignored me and dashed into a field, where he marked a dead tree as his property and then resumed barking. He never tries to bite anybody, and he rarely actually barks at people, but he loves to bark for no reason at all. Harry says he has the soul of a teddy bear with an overturned bark box, despite the fact that the vet, who calls him a "good ol' dog," thinks he's probably half Doberman and half pit bull.
He's a lousy guard dog. The only reason I take him jogging with me is because he cries when he's left at home. As well as when he's taken to the vet, and when he's given medicine, and when he doesn't get fed exactly on time--but then to prove he's not a sissy, he fights every other dog he meets except Daisy, a terrier half his size who lives next door, who would eat Pat if he messed with her.
I was still feeding him penicillin capsules for the infected leg resulting from last week's fight with the squirrel dog up the street. I had to wrap them in slices of cheese to get them down his throat. When I tried to hide one in a spoonful of Alpo, he carefully ate the Alpo from all around, leaving a naked blue capsule tidily in the middle of an otherwise bare beige plastic bowl.
Pat started barking again, suddenly and loudly. Hoping he hadn't found another dog to fight, I shouted at him again and then caught a glimpse of brown as he charged out of the field, across the road, through a yellow and brown mass of wild sunflowers, and down the ditch on this side, into a concrete culvert. Belatedly deciding to hear me this time, he ran back up the bank, joyously planting two slimy front paws on my jacket and bringing with him a charnel stench from the mud at the bottom. I staggered back--I outweigh him by thirty-five pounds, but he's far stronger than I am--and he danced happily after me, offering another good whiff of whatever he'd had his paws in.
It was that second breath that told me, and I slithered gingerly down the embankment with Pat cavorting around me. Mentally I began to shift gears, to put myself into my professional stance, but I wasn't altogether into cop mode yet, and the unexpected sight caught at the pit of my stomach.
She had long brown hair, tangled in driftwood and half buried in mud. She had good teeth; that fact was more obvious than I liked it to be, because rodents--maybe raccoons, or an opossum or two--had eaten her lips and other soft tissue around her mouth. I couldn't tell her eye color because the eyes too were gone, the sockets clogged with pale tan mud. She'd been white, and she'd been young. There was really no more I could tell, except for the obvious fact that the now-bloated body had been crammed almost entirely inside the culvert. There was something familiar about her that nagged at the back of my mind, but I couldn't figure out yet what it was.
I tried to tell myself this one might have been an accident. There'd been a lot of rain this week, the aftermath of a hurricane that had swept into Houston. The ditch had been running full. She could have fallen in, been caught in the culvert along with the brushwood. That visible dent in her skull could have resulted from washing against the rim of the culvert--and if she'd just washed another forty feet or so, she'd have been out of the city of Fort Worth, on into Watauga, and all I'd have had to do was sit and watch while Watauga--with its approximately fourteen-person police department--tried to work the case.
And then I asked myself who I was trying to kid. I knew whose case this was. She wasn't in Watauga and she wasn't accidentally dead. I've seen a lot of murders in more than sixteen years on the Fort Worth Police Department, especially these last two years since I was assigned to the major case squad, and I had no doubt I was looking at murder again.
I knew she hadn't gotten a fractured skull from washing against the culvert, not when her head was upstream of the culvert. And if she'd been washed down the ditch, she'd have floated with her head downstream, because the head is the heaviest extremity. No, she'd been put here deliberately, at least a week ago, I thought.
I was reasoning ahead of my data again. This is my worst flaw as a cop; I'm well aware of it, and usually I try to guard against it. But in all my years of policing, this was the first time I myself, off duty, not answering a call, had found a corpse, and, ridiculously, I felt a little uncertain as to how to proceed. I'd have to call in first, I told myself, and wondered whether to go to the pay phones beside Stop and Go on Beach Street, or just to go over to one of the houses in Summerfields.
I decided to head for Stop and Go. No need to excite the citizenry yet; they'd be plenty agitated quite soon enough.
Pat, meanwhile, was gamboling about me, alternately barking in hopes of getting my attention and growling deep in his throat as he caught the scent of mortality. That was a smell he didn't understand and wanted to investigate. I would have to get him out of the way before he started pawing at the body.
No leash, of course. Pat doesn't like leashes, and I don't like being dragged by an eighty-pound dog--he'd fattened up a lot since March.
I lured him over to the closest speed limit sign and tied him to it with the drawstring of my jacket. Of course he instantly broke the drawstring. I should have known he would; I've seen him straighten the hook of a tie-down chain.
I needed to leave someone with the body, but there was nobody to leave. Or I needed to stay with the body and send someone else to the phone, but there was no one to send. Cars were passing on Saginaw-Watauga Road--excuse me, Great Western Parkway, which is a ridiculous name for a tertiary road like this one--but none of them had stopped to check on a small woman and a large dog in the ditch. I'd just as soon they didn't stop, and I knew the body wasn't going anywhere, but still...
"Damn," I said, and clambered out of the ditch and took off down the road, grateful now for the summer of jogging as well as for the fact that Pat will follow me anywhere. In March I'd have been winded by the time I'd gone half a block.
I called the station. The dispatcher said they'd send somebody. Somebody, I knew, meant uniform cars and detectives and a deputy medical examiner.
Detectives? The first detective on the scene was me. But I wasn't even on duty. I was scheduled off for three days, to make up for the Labor Day weekend I'd had to work. Captain Millner couldn't...
Oh yes Captain Millner could. And very probably would. Well, I certainly couldn't investigate a murder with a dog dancing around me. I called home, figuring Harry could come and get Pat.
Harry didn't answer the phone. Olead Baker, who is probably going to be my son-in-law when he and Becky get around to the matter, did. He said Harry was doing something to a radio and Becky was doing something in the kitchen and Hal--my fifteen-year-old--was doing something to a bike tire. Olead, who had been helping Hal, said he would break away and come get the dog. He didn't sound very surprised I'd found a murder. But then we'd met over a murder last January; for all he knew, I might find them all the time.
I hoped Becky was cooking supper, as I rather suspected I wasn't going to have time to do it myself. I guessed Becky was probably making chocolate chip cookies for Olead's little brother. At least she usually claims they are for Olead's little brother.
Olead arrived before the first police car, fortunately, because Pat, for his own particular doggy reasons, detests uniforms and people in them. I wasn't sure how easy it would be to lure him into Olead's Ford van, as he associates riding in cars with going to the vet, but with some persuasion we convinced him the van was a truck rather than a car--he associates trucks with going camping--and finally he hopped in.
With Pat safely stowed and whining loudly, Olead asked diffidently, "Is it okay if I have a look?"
I shrugged. There wouldn't be any crime scene to mess up. I'd seen the ditch running bank to bank three days ago; that meant any physical evidence was long gone.
Taking my shrug for assent, Olead went through the solid mass of flowers down the clay bank, careless of slippery mud on his blue and white Adidas. I followed, a little more carefully.
He didn't vomit.
Rookies often do, at a sight like this. Olead was no policeman, rookie or otherwise, and he'd seen corpses before. They were bad ones, and they included his mother and sister. But even they hadn't looked like this. Or smelled like this; I couldn't imagine why somebody from the closest part of Summerfields Addition hadn't found the body long ago, by smell alone.
Olead stood, both hands in the pockets of his jeans, and looked somberly at the body half hidden by driftwood. The culvert was small, only about four feet wide; it had been put in because the road was narrow here and there'd been a continual problem with cars sliding off into the ditch in rainy weather. I thought she'd probably been shoved in head first from the downstream side by someone who didn't stay around long enough to realize her head necessarily protruded from one side if her feet were all the way in the other. I wondered how it had been done. The limp dead weight of a body isn't all that easy to handle, and the diameter of the culvert wasn't large enough for anybody to have crawled in to manhandle the body from inside.
Rigor mortis, I guessed. The body must have been stiff, to have been jammed straight in. In that case, she'd have been dead about a day, maybe a day and a half, before she was brought here. That was the only explanation I could think of. But why here? Why not just bury her? Sooner or later, she was sure to be found; kids play in this ditch all the time.
"Deb," said Olead, who'd had his head much closer to the culvert than I wanted to get mine. "Deb, she was pregnant."
"Bodies swell a lot when they're left like this," I told him. Someday Olead will know a lot more about corpses than I do, but at that time he was in the first month of his first year in medical school.
"She was pregnant," Olead said positively. "Come and look."
I am not fond of the smell of long-dead humanity, but I'd been in the ditch long enough that my olfactory nerves had about gone numb. I'd be smelling it again when I got away from it, but right now it wasn't too bad. I took a closer look.
He was right. She was pregnant. That was what what had given her that haunting familiarity. I should have spotted the condition as soon as I saw her, but I hadn't, maybe because I hadn't gotten close enough or maybe because, as a new grandmother, I didn't want to see a pregnant woman dead in a ditch. But I was almost back into my cop stance now, and I was beginning to feel more normal until I looked closer and saw something that chilled even me. The fingers of her right hand were open, spread wide apart with sandy mud between the fingers, but the left hand was closed around the root of a sapling that grew from the bottom of the ditch. Closed in cadaveric spasm, not just rigor mortis. And cadaveric spasm means instant death. Usually instant violent death.
She hadn't been put here dead, as I had guessed. She'd died here, died not fighting but hiding, trying to protect herself and her baby from someone who'd found her.
There was a plain gold wedding band on her hand, too narrow to hold any engraving at all, the kind that's sold for $29.95 from umpteen catalogs and discount stores. She was wearing yellow maternity shorts that looked K Mart, and a yellow smock top that looked homemade. No shoes at all. If there'd been a purse, which right now I was inclined to doubt, it had washed down the ditch.
I looked around. Gary Hollister, the lieutenant in charge of both Homicide and the major case squad, hadn't been on duty either, but like me he lived nearby. He'd arrived in faded blue jeans, a belt buckle that spelled out his first name, and an embroidered blue chambray shirt. His hands were grimy.
Gary is nominally my boss, but in fact I take most of my orders from Captain Millner, head of the Criminal Investigation Division. "Hi," I said to Gary.
He looked pointedly at the civilian prowling around the opening of the culvert. "What's he doing there?"
"He's with me," I said. "He's Olead Baker."
"Oh," Gary said in a tone of voice Olead wouldn't have liked if he'd heard it. Gary had been home with the flu last January when Olead was arrested for murder, but of course he'd known about the case, and although another man was now securely on death row for those killings, Gary still regarded Olead with some wariness. "That doesn't tell me what he's doing there," he added.
"It's my fault," I said. "I told him he could--"
"Baker!" Gary shouted. "What the hell are you doing?"
Olead's head snapped around, his face startled. "Looking," he said.
"Well, get the hell out of there!"
His movements deliberately casual, Olead ambled away from the culvert, paused with his hands in his pockets. and stared directly in Gary's face. "Okay," he said, and turned to me. "I'll take the pooch home."