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Jim sat across from the dead man, an unfired gun in his hand.
"Who the hell are you, Waldo?" he said in the angry tone that helped keep the fear bottled up.
"How did you get in here? What are you doing at my desk?" Sitting in the chair opposite the body, he stretched out one leg in deference to the dress sword at his side. The weapon's scarlet tassel clashed with the burgundy fabric of the chair, as did the red plume in his hat.
"What the hell happened to you, man?"
The corpse didn't answer, its arms stretched out wide on either side, staring at the ceiling.
Jim shook his head. "Son of a bitch." He rubbed a hand over his sweating face. A gurgling in his stomach broke the silence. Dropping the pistol on his desk, he leaned forward, elbows on knees, and kneaded his eyes and temples with both hands. His hat fell off.
"Who did this to you?"
After picking up the hat, he set it on top of the green-lined computer printouts he'd abandoned earlier and looked at the mystery corpse. The blood-soaked shirt drew his gaze, like a matador's cape in front of a bull. The gurgling came back.
The look on the corpse's face branded Jim's memory cells, but the secret to its interpretation eluded him. Wonder? Fear? Astonishment? Surprise? Disappointment? Shock? Relief? All likely flashed threw the man's last thoughts, but which one froze into his death's mask?
A fly landed on the corner of the corpse's eye.
His stomach lurched, and his chest heaved with vile liquids. Hand over mouth, Jim fled his office and headed for the toilet. Dropping to his knees, he pushed up the seat and retched. He tuggedat the lever and flushed, the swirl spinning away the vomit. Soon the heaves became dry and the contractions diminished.
He flushed again, then again and again, leaving no trace of the foul stomach contents, but doing nothing to drain away the dreadful facts in his office. He dragged himself up, hands on the sink, and turned on the faucet. Sloshing water into his mouth, he rinsed and spat, then gargled. The putrid tang of the bile wouldn't go away. Exhausted, he leaned on the sink and peered into the mirror.
A red blister of a face squinted back at him. Water dripped from its pug nose, eyebrows and chin. A damp mat of dirty blonde hair covered a pumpkin skull. Red lightening bolts streaked the whites of his watery blue eyes. Jim groaned.
Unclasping the brass buckle, Jim let his holster drop to the linoleum floor, followed by the clatter of his sword and scabbard. He pulled at the pewter buttons on his gray tunic, then tugged the shirt off, leaving him in gray pants, muddy cavalry boots, and a black t-shirt decorated with a sentimental rendering of the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag and the words "You wear your 'X' and I'll wear mine."
Leaving the costume in a heap, Jim tramped back into the reception area. He averted his eyes from the door to his office, trying to deal with the situation by pacing until a clever course of action dawned on him. His eyes struck the picture of Judy Spike's Golden Lab Retriever between stacks of filing. He thought of his own loved one, and what he could say to her.
He needed to talk, but not with Kathy in her delicate condition. He couldn't think of what to say that would one hundred percent guarantee he wouldn't throw her into another miscarriage. As he pondered, Jim wandered back into his office and sat back down. He dragged the phone over and punched in seven numbers.
On the fourth ring, Ed answered. "Hello," said the baritone voice with mid-afternoon cheer.
"There's a dead man in my chair."
"Well let him out," said Ed in the same tone of voice practical jokers delivered that punch line to tobacconists who admitted they had Prince Albert in a can.
"Ed, this is a big problem."
"You think you got problems? I've been trying all night to get the motherboard to recognize the SCSI card in the computer I'm building--"
"Listen, Ed. I walked in here about a half hour ago and found Waldo Lydecker dead at my desk."
"Yeah, right." Ed chuckled. "It's tax season. You work late every night, dead bodies aren't all you're gonna see."
Jim always fought skepticism with facts, so he piled them on. "There's a dead man in my chair. My chair at the office. He's sitting down, but he looks about average height. Blue eyes, pudgy cheeks; a stubby nose. Light blonde, wispy hair, cut short; not over his ears. He's wearing a gray suit coat. His white shirt has button-down collars and there's blood all over it, from four, maybe five shots. Hard to say, one stain is bigger than the others, it might be two close shots or the one that burst the heart. Oh, yeah and his tie is red with white dots."
"Only they're not dancing anymore."
Ed exhaled his disbelief. Remembering Jim's youthful temper, he asked, "You didn't happen to have a perfectly justifiable reason for putting those holes in his chest did you?"
"Ed." Jim stretched the syllable out to convey his annoyance. "I wasn't here when it happened."
"I was out playing Stuart. When I got back to the office, I found Waldo sitting at my desk with a new ventilation system in his chest. Doesn't seem to be an improvement, though."
Ed tsk-tsk-ed. "Any sign of the killer?"
Jim picked up the LeMat pistol and waved it from side to side. "No. Scared them away, I guess."
The men remained silent for several beats until Ed said, "How you doing?"
"Fine." Jim used the same answer he had given to that question since he was five years old. "A lot better than Waldo, here. Less peak-ed."
"I mean how do you feel?"
"Feel?" Jim's voice grew loud and harsh. "What have feelings got to do with it? The fact is, I'm in a boat load of trouble right now. I've got a dead body in my office and no earthly excuse for its being here. Kathy thinks I went to a party for bankers in my Stuart costume and then came back to the office to finish up a bunch of returns. She's sound asleep and if I call her now and wake her up I'll probably set off another miscarriage."
"Calm down, Jim. Calm down, then call the police. Let them handle it." Ed spoke in a soft tone.
"Haven't you been listening? I can't explain why Waldo is in here."
"You don't need to, now. The cops will ask a lot of questions, waste a lot of your valuable CPA time. But they'll figure out you didn't do it right quick."
Jim grumbled. "That's fine for them, but I need to know how Waldo got in; why is he in my office? Who shot him?"
"No clues as to the murderer?"
"Not that I can see. But I'd bet on the same guy who shot my computer." The flickering light and the dark hole in the tan base told him the computer's brain was as dead as the corpse's.
"Shot the computer?" Ed said. "Why?"
Jim gauged the angles. "Maybe he missed Waldo once and got the computer."
"And you've never seen this Waldo Lydecker before in your life?"
"Not so's I remember."
"One of the guys who works upstairs? Those telephone marketing people, call you in the middle of dinner everyday? Lots of reasons to shoot those bastards."
"No, not any of them." Then Jim's voice brightened with an idea. "Maybe I can find his wallet or something." He didn't move.
"Jim, better not disturb the body, the police won't like that. Do you want me to call them for you?"
"No, I'll do it, I guess."
Ed broke the silence. "You calling the cops?"
"What do I say? I mean the guy is in my chair. Who is he? How did he get in? What is he doing here?" Jim's voice started to screech like brakes on wet pavement.
"Calm down, Jim," Ed modulated his voice, trying to soothe his friend. "You know you didn't kill him." The added chuckle did not conceal the suspension of belief.
"For Chrissake, Ed, see what I mean? That's precisely the attitude the cops will take. I don't even know who this guy is. He was shot, and I've got a LeMat. And a sword around here, somewhere. Cops tend to over look motive when you're well-armed." Jim squeezed the phone. "I didn't do this. Why is it happening?"
"Okay, okay, I believe you. Save it for later and calm down. But you've got to call the police now."
"You're right. Let them sort it all out. I'm not thinking straight. All I can think about is Kathy. My sweet Kathy. She's in such a delicate state right now. I've got to protect her sensibilities." He picked up the framed snapshot of Kathy standing on the lawn at Monticello, her face lit with the smile only she could make.
Ed thought about the first female shot put champ from Virginia Tech, and decided he'd never understand how people that powerful could have such sentimental natures. "I know you're worried how she'll react to this, but Kathy needs to hear from you right now. What if she's sitting up by the phone, fretting away?" he said.
"I don't think she's up," said Jim. "I called her at the store when I got the job. I didn't really have time to put on my Stuart gear and go over to Shirley plantation, but they offered five hundred dollars for two hours of picture taking. Kathy said I should take it, then go back to the office to catch up, work as late as I needed. She'd make up the guest room for me, so I wouldn't wake her when I got home late. I haven't spoken to her since--"
The banging on the door startled Jim into dropping the photo.
"Open up. This is the police."
"Jim?" Ed's voice rose from the floor.
The banging continued.
"This is the police, open up in there."
Copyright © 2003 by Richard W. Browne