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WHAT we've got here this morning, Dr. Howard Baker announced somewhat pompously to the crowd of reporters assembled in the small dental office's waiting room, what we've got here is one dead dentist.
Doc Baker, King County's medical examiner, is a political type who likes to be quotable, no matter what. And Seattle's eager newshounds, packed like so many note taking sardines in the impeccably decorated reception area, were only too happy to oblige. They responded with an enthusiastic clicking and whirring of various audio and video recording devices.
As I pushed my way into the room, the news-gathering sounds annoyed me. I can't help it. My name is J. P Beaumont. As a detective with the Seattle Police Department Homicide Squad, I resent it when reporters manage to beat detectives to a crime scene.
Doc Baker was holding forth and waxing eloquent. He's an irascible old bear of a man with a full head of white hair who enjoys seizing the limelight. He towered over the rowdy group of reporters milling around him. Eventually, though, he caught sight of me standing on the edge of the crowd along with my partner. Detective Allen Lindstrom Big Al, as he's known around homicide on the fifth floor of Seattle's Public Safety Building.
The homicide detectives are here now, Baker informed the reporters. You'll have to excuse us. With that, he turned on his heel and disappeared through a door that led to a short hallway. imperiously motioning for us to follow. Doc Baker can be somewhat overbearing on occasion.
There was a short silence after Baker left the room, a silence punctuated by the sound of a woman crying. The muffled noise originated from behind a closed doorjust to the right of the receptionist's desk. There was no time to check it out, however. Doc Baker didn't give us that much slack.
Hey, Beaumont, Lindstrom, he bellowed back down that hall. Are you coming or not?
Big Al started moving, his physical bulk mowing a path way through the crush of reporters. I hurried along in his wake before the narrow opening closed behind him.
The moment we entered the hallway, I knew it was going to be bad. I recognized the faint, telltale stench of decaying flesh only too well.
The waiting room had smelled distinctly of fresh paint and new carpet overlaid with the suffocating scent of some female reporter's exotic, pungent perfume. But the hall way held a different odor, one that became stronger as we neared one of two swinging doors at the end of it. When Al pushed it open, a blast of gagging odor hit us full in the face.
My years on the force have taught me to prefer my murder victims fresh--the fresher the better. This one wasn't. The body had been left unattended for far too long in the muggy summer heat of an unusually warm July.
I stepped through the swinging door only to be blinded by a sudden flash of light. When I could see again, I saw Nancy Gresham, a fairly new police photographer, snap ping pictures of someone seated in a laid back, futuristic looking dental examination chair.
Big Al Lindstrom got far enough around the chair to see what was in it. He stopped short. Jesus! he muttered.
I was right behind him. I guess I've seen worse, but I don't remember when.
It was every kid's worst nightmare of what might happen once you wind up in a dentist's chair. The man's eyes were open and his mouth agape. He looked like a terrified patient waiting for some crazed dentist to start drilling and blasting. But below the open mouth, below the slack chin, was a second opening, a small, round, ugly wound through which the man's lifeblood had drained away.
And there was a surprisingly large amount of it. Blood had soaked down through his clothing and dripped off both sides of the chair, where a dark brown stain etched the outline of the chair's contours into plush, snowy white carpet. Blurred, bloody footprints led back and forth across the rug.
Why the hell would anyone bother to put a white car pet in a dentist's office? Big Al demanded. Seems pretty stupid to me.
Stupid or not, he never had a chance to enjoy it, Doc Baker said. Looks like he croaked before whoever was installing the carpet managed to finish the job.
Excuse me, Detective Beaumont, Nancy Gresham said, coming up behind me and moving a little to one side. I need a little more room.
She knelt on one shapely knee directly where I had been standing and aimed her camera up at the dead man's sagging face. Once more the camera flashed. I noted with some dismay that Nancy Gresham no longer turned green at the prospect of taking grisly pictures. It was too bad. I had liked her better before she toughened up.
I glanced around the room. A plastic garbage can was tipped on its side. A stainless steel tray with an assortment of dental tools beneath and around it lay on the floor. A large plant in a blue and white crock had been knocked off a counter. The crock had broken into three large pieces, and muddy dirt lay scattered on the floor. My professional assessment was that a hell of a fight had taken place in that room. Mentally I took in all the visual information, but I returned to Doc Baker's comment.
What makes you say the carpeting job wasn't finished? I asked.
He raised one bushy eyebrow. Look, he answered, pointing toward a corner of the room. The molding's still loose.
I followed his pointing finger. Sure enough, there in the corner several long pieces of oak molding leaned upright against the wall.
Knee-kicker's there too, Baker added.
Carefully avoiding the bloody footprints, I stepped over to the corner. On the floor beside the molding lay a carpet kicker--a wickedly toothed, five-pound metal tool with a leather cushion on one end. I had seen one like it a few months earlier when carpet installers had laid the carpet in my new condominium. I had watched them shove the sharp metal teeth deep into the carpet's pile; then they pounded their knees against the leather cushion to stretch the rug taut and attach it to the tack strips that lined the room. One of the installers told me that in his business the knees are the first to go.
Without touching it, I bent down to examine the kicker. A dozen or more inch-and-a-half-long metal teeth stuck out of the business end of the kicker. Three of them--the ones on the upper left-hand corner--were covered with something brown, something that looked suspiciously like blood.
Hey, Al, I said, straightening up. Come look at this.
It was then I noticed several long curving parallel gouges in the freshly painted finish on the wallboard, scratches that ended only inches from the sharp teeth of the kicker.
Big Al and Doc Baker both came to see what I had found.
Murder weapon maybe? Al asked.
No way, Baker answered. The hole in his throat is from a single sharp implement. That thing would have turned his throat into a goddamned computer punch card.
I'm finished, Nancy Gresham announced.
Baker turned to her and nodded. Good. Wait outside just in case I need anything else.
I heard you telling the reporters this guy was a dentist. How do you know that? I asked.
His receptionist identified him. She found him about nine this morning when she came in to work.
That's who's crying in the office down the hall? The receptionist? I asked. We heard her as we came past.
Again Baker nodded. I told her to go in there and wait, that you'd need to talk to her when you got here.
What's the dentist's name? Al had taken out a note book and stood waiting with his pencil poised to write.
Nielsen, the medical examiner replied. Dr. Frederick Nielsen. He's been dead a day or two, from the looks of things.
And the smell, Al added. What about this receptionist? Who's she?
Rush. Said her name is Debi Rush. Doc Baker spelled out the receptionist's first name. Al and I both wrote it down.
Just then a pair of crime-scene investigators bustled into the room. Bill Foster tackled Baker. Hey, Doc, are you guys just about done so we can get started?
You bet. Give us a couple of minutes to get him packed up and out of here. Then the place is all yours.
Baker summoned two of his waiting technicians to re move the body. I didn't envy them their odious task. I motioned to Al. What say we get out of here and go talk to the receptionist?
Big Al Lindstrom leaped at my suggestion. He was just as anxious as I was to get away from the gagging stench. Grateful to breathe fresh air again, we retreated through the swinging door and hurried back down the hallway.Improbable Cause. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.