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A Great Day for the Deadly
A Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mystery
By Jane Haddam
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Orania Papazoglou
All rights reserved.
When Gregor Demarkian first heard about the death of Brigit Ann Reilly, he was standing in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in New York City, wondering what he was going to do about his shoes. It was one o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday, February 28, a cold, gray, bitter day with too much wind, and Gregor had just come from four solid hours of listening to a lecture on VICAP. VICAP was the Violent Criminals Apprehension Something, Gregor couldn't remember what. It was also a computer program, devised and implemented to help the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Department help state and local police forces find wandering serial killers. Before his retirement, Gregor had been head of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Department. In fact, he had been the man who set it up. He had also been the man who had argued, time and time again, for a computer system like VICAP. Standing by the long wall of plate glass windows that looked out on a curving drive that connected to a street whose name he couldn't remember, Gregor tried counting all the bureaucratic reasons he had been given for why he couldn't have one. It was amazing, really, what bureaucrats would tell you when they knew you wanted something from them. It went beyond lying and got tangled in a form of occupational pathology. It got worse when there was true and undeniable need for whatever you were asking for. Those were the last days of the career of Theodore Robert Bundy, with the papers full of stories about college girls killed in their sorority-house beds. Congress and the American people had been all primed to spend money—to do anything—to protect the country from repeat performances. Gregor had gone to the attorney generals office and got—what? He couldn't really remember. Something silly. Something along the lines of "we-can't-ask-Congress-for-that-this-year-because-we-asked-them-for-brass-spittoons-last-year." Something like that, when Bundy had left a dozen dead that anyone knew about and the not-quite-formed Behavioral Sciences Department had files on half a dozen cases from Texas to Maine that looked like they were working themselves up into the same damn thing.
Of course, Gregor thought now, the political climate had changed since then. He wasn't sure exactly how—he wasn't very good at politics—but he thought it had something to do with who was spending money for what where. That was a safe guess, because it almost always had something to do with who was spending money for what where. Maybe Ronald Reagan had been a law-and-order president and he hadn't noticed it. George Bush had gone to war in the Persian Gulf and he would never have noticed that, either, except that Donna Moradanyan had put a yellow ribbon on his apartment door. He looked down at his shoes again and sighed. Almost everyone who was attending the conference on VICAP—ex-Bureau agents, crime writers, newspaper reporters, local police officers—was staying at the Hilton, but the conference itself was being held across town at a small hotel the Bureau had favored since early in the reign of J. Edgar Hoover. Unfortunately, the hotel hadn't done any maintenance since early in the reign of J. Edgar Hoover. The place was falling apart, and the pack of them had to troop over there every day anyway, getting their shoes full of grit and slush. The present director had probably gone to the attorney general's office to ask for the Hilton and been told it couldn't be done. The Department of Redundancy Department had got themselves into the Hilton just last year.
Gregor heard heavy footsteps on carpet and turned, to find Dave Herder bounding up from the direction of one of the bars. That wasn't where Dave was supposed to have gone, but Dave was Dave. Gregor didn't put a lot of effort into making him make sense. He did think it was a good thing the lobby was so empty. He didn't like Dave sneaking up on him.
"Where's Schatzy?" Dave said. "I told him where you were. Had to be half an hour ago. Said he was coming right out."
"You haven't been gone for half an hour," Gregor told him.
"I've been gone long enough. I ran into Schatzy. I told you that. God, but I'm hungry. You think that thing they've got is going to work?"
"It depends on what you mean by work."
"Catch psychos." Dave shrugged. He was a small man with very little hair. He had once been the best agent the Bureau had for kidnapping detail. Like all the best agents the Bureau had for anything, he had burned out early, dropping into retirement five years younger than the mandatory age of fifty-five and taking a position at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Gregor had dropped into retirement before the mandatory age himself—well before the extended mandatory age, which he would have been allowed because he was by then in administration. He had blamed his leaving on the painful and protracted death of his wife, but he knew that that was only half true. He wondered what Dave blamed his leaving on.
"Come back to earth," Dave said. "God, that was a disgusting demonstration. Did they get those pictures from your old department?"
"Those were computer graphics. They probably got the pictures they copied them from from my old department."
Dave shook his head. "I don't think I could have stood it. Getting up every morning to one more set of blood stains on the wall. I heard from Jim Fitzroy that you'd gone private, too, and done a whole stack of murder cases—"
"I haven't gone private," Gregor said, "and I've hardly done a whole stack of anything—"
"Jim said he saw a story about you in The Philadelphia Inquirer that called you the 'Armenian-American Hercule Poirot.' I didn't know you were Armenian-American."
"I've always thought of myself as just American. Here comes Schatzy."
"If I'd just spent ten years of my life chasing guys who chopped up their girlfriends for spare parts, I wouldn't go private and do murder cases. I wouldn't go private and do anything. I'd get a job with IBM."
"Here comes Schatzy," Gregor said again, a little desperately. Dave got like this—he always got like this—it was some kind of reaction to all those years sitting alone in cars on stakeouts. What was worse, it was always on the mark. That was the other half of the truth of Gregor's leaving. He had been unable to face one more set of blood stains on the wall, especially with Elizabeth gone. He didn't want to think about it. It brought it all back much too vividly.
Unlike Dave, Schatzy was a big man, not as big as Gregor himself, but recognizably outsize. He was chugging along toward them from the dark center interior of the hotel lobby, carrying a magazine under his arm and looking both pleased and distracted. His full name was Bernard Isaac Schatz, and for the first ten years of his career, he'd been the only Jewish agent the Bureau had. Gregor hadn't seen him for a decade before this conference. He hadn't heard that Schatzy had been assigned to bank robbery and hated it. He hadn't heard that Schatzy had quit the Bureau and gone into business manufacturing gourmet pizzas. He had no idea what Schatzy was doing at this conference or why he had been invited. In the reunion atmosphere of the conference room, it hadn't seemed to matter.
Schatzy had taken the magazine out from under his arm and begun to wave it at them. Gregor caught a full-color cover picture of a cobra with its tongue in the air, with a small black-and-white inset beside it of a teenager with slightly buck teeth. Schatzy waved the magazine again and it all became a blur.
"Got it," Schatzy said. "You can always count on People to give you what you want. It only happened last Thursday, too."
"What only happened last Thursday?" Gregor asked.
"The murder," Schatzy said.
"Oh, God," Dave said, staring at the ceiling. "Let's get off this and find a restaurant, can't we? I've spent all morning talking about murder."
"This is a good one." Schatzy unrolled the magazine and shook his head. "That's a cobra they've got here and it wasn't a cobra at all. It was a water moccasin, or ten water moccasins to be precise, and that was weird enough because it was Upstate New York and water moccasins aren't native to Upstate New York. Copperheads are native to Upstate New York. You in Boy Scouts, Gregor? You learn all that stuff about snakes when you went to camp?"
"I learned all that stuff about snakes at Quantico," Gregor said. "I took both the poisons courses. And I have never been to camp."
"I was the first Jewish Eagle Scout in the history of scouting in Dade County, Florida. Can you imagine growing up Jewish in Dade County, Florida, when I grew up in Dade County, Florida? It must have been terrible. I can hardly remember any of it."
"I grew up WASP in Marblehead, Massachusetts," Dave said. "I can hardly remember any of it, either. Adolescence is terrible."
"How is it murder if the girl was bitten by snakes?" Gregor asked. "Did someone deliberately plant them in her bed?"
Schatzy grinned. "She wasn't in her bed. She was in a storeroom at the public library, nobody knows why. And nobody knows where the snakes came from, either. That's the best part. Pack of water moccasins all over the body, water moccasins not native to the state, hissing and snapping and the first thing that hits the Medical Examiner when they get them off her is that, of course, she hasn't died of snake venom—"
"Wait," Gregor said. "Hibernating. Why weren't the snakes hibernating?"
"There'd been a thaw," Schatzy said. "This was in Upstate New York last week, I told you. Haven't you been listening to the news? They had a thaw up there went to sixty degrees on Valentine's Day and didn't cool off for eight or nine days, all the way up near the Seaway, melted everything and caused a lot of flooding—"
"I see," Gregor said. He did see. He was just glad that Schatzy wanted to talk instead of to listen, because he was a little embarrassed by the fact that he had not seen before. The flooding near the Seaway had been major news, major enough so that Gregor had heard about it. The problem was, he didn't much like news. He, therefore, rarely read or listened to it. The depth of his ignorance of current events was astonishing.
Schatzy was not in the mood to pursue it. "Right," he was saying, "well. It was up there. In this town called Maryville. Body discovered with snakes crawling all over it, weirdest thing you ever saw, but like I said, she's not dead from snake venom. They puff up—"
"Oh, for God's sake," Dave said.
"Well, they do, Dave, they do. And she didn't. So as soon as they could see her face, they knew that wasn't what she died from. But there she was, dead. And there were the snakes, they couldn't let them just slither away and terrorize the local populace—"
"They wouldn't have terrorized the local populace for long," Gregor pointed out. "The weather had to have gotten back to normal eventually. They'd have frozen to death."
"The weather did get back to normal eventually," Dave said. "It's back to normal now. They have pictures of it on the TV news. It looks like an ice cube up there."
Schatzy had paged through the magazine until he came to the story. Like all the major crime stories in People, it was spread across two pages and illustrated with photographs in black and white. The two thin columns of text crammed in on either side of the fold looked feeble and anemic under the black heaviness of the headlines. "MYSTERY," one of those headlines read, and then, "THE STRANGE STORY OF THE SNAKES AND THE NUN." Gregor stopped at that word, nun, and looked back at the picture of the girl who had died. Girl was the operative word. She looked barely old enough to vote. She certainly didn't look like a nun.
"They won't have anything I wouldn't be able to get from the papers," Schatzy said, "but they'll have interviews. I love the interviews. I love crime stories in People. They're like reading Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie."
"Gregor's been a crime story in People," Dave said. "Gregor's been more than one."
"Tell me about this business with the nun," Gregor said. "What do they mean when they say that she was a nun?"
"Oh, that. That's just an exaggeration." Schatzy flicked his fingers at the offending word. "She wasn't a nun, exactly. She was one of those girls who wants to be and goes to a convent to train to be one—"
"A novice?" Gregor tried. "A postulant?"
"A postulant, Gregor, that's it. This Maryville place has a local convent, one of the kind where girls go to learn to be nuns—"
"A Motherhouse," Gregor said politely. "Or a provincial house."
"Yeah. Like that. Anyway, that's where she was living. In this convent with the Sisters of Divine Grace. I don't know, Gregor. When I was growing up, nuns had sensible names, like Benedictines or Augustinians or Sisters of Charity. What's a name like that supposed to mean, Sisters of Divine Grace?"
"I don't know."
"Schatzy, look at what you've done," Dave said. "You've got him upset. For God's sake. Just because you spent your career reading financial statements doesn't mean the rest of us did. The rest of us are tired of this kind of thing, I mean."
"Are you?" Schatzy asked Gregor. "Tired of this kind of thing?"
"Not exactly," Gregor said. "Why don't you let me borrow your magazine for a minute. I want to go to the men's room. I'll meet you in the restaurant in a couple of minutes."
"Talk about something else," Dave said. "Talk about this girl he's seeing. Woman. I don't know what to call her. Young enough to be his daughter, from what I can tell."
Gregor tucked the magazine into the pocket of his coat. "She is young enough to be my daughter, and I'm not 'seeing' her, as you put it. I have a much too well developed sense of self-preservation. I'll see you two in a couple of minutes, all right?"
"All right," Schatzy said.
"She has a strange name," Dave persisted, too brightly. "Dennis or Hennis or Lennis or something."
"Bennis," Gregor told him. "Bennis Hannaford. They've got her books in the same newsstand where Schatzy probably bought this magazine. I'll see the two of you later."
Dave started to babble again, but Gregor had already turned his back and begun making his way toward the interior of the hotel. Behind him, he could hear wind whistle every time one of the glass doors were opened or shut. He passed the reception desk and noted in a distracted way that someone had put out a few forlorn decorations, a leprechaun sitting on a pot of gold and a stand-up cardboard shamrock for St. Patrick's Day. What was it about some people that they couldn't let a holiday pass without gearing themselves up to celebrate another one?
What was it about some people that they couldn't leave well enough alone? Dave Herder meant well—he always meant well—but he couldn't take a hint. Gregor didn't mind talking about murder. As long as the murder in question wasn't a serial one or in some other way the obvious work of a psychopath, it could even be interesting. He did mind talking about Bennis Hannaford, and about everyone else he knew back on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia. At least, he minded this weekend.
The men's room was near a bank of pay phones, in a wide empty space in the lobby paneled in blond wood and carpeted in green. Gregor pushed himself through the swinging door with the copy of People rolled up in his hand as if he were about to swat a fly with it. The problem with talking about Bennis—or Donna Moradanyan, or Father Tibor Kasparian, or George Tekamanian, or Lida Arkmajian, or any of the rest of them—wasn't that he missed them. He always missed them when he was away from them. The problem was that at the moment he felt that they'd abandoned him.
Excerpted from A Great Day for the Deadly by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1992 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Jane Haddam is the pen name of American author Orania Papazoglou. She has worked as a college teacher and magazine editor and is best known for her series of mystery books featuring former FBI Agent Gregor Demarkian. Her first book Death's Savage Passion was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1985. Her 1991 novel Not a Creature was Stirring was also nominated for an Edgar Award and an Anthony Award.
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