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When I arrive at a crime scene, the first thing I like to do is walk through the building. To make sure I remember not to touch anything until it's been photographed and, if necessary, fingerprinted, I always keep my hands clasped behind my back. Just about everybody who's really aware of the value of physical evidence does something like that.
From the front of the house, I moved on through to the dining room, which was completely clean, as seemingly untouched asthe front room. There was no tablecloth on the walnut table, and the long walnut buffet held a silver epergne of white chrysanthemums, gleaming red mirrored glass balls, and velvet ribbon. All the wood I saw was walnut. This was old money, I guessed; walnut furniture tends to be old money.
The breakfast room showed signs of a meal--plates, five of them, Royal Doulton china and Francis I silver, with a crystal sugar and cream dish and a cut-crystal bowl of what looked like strawberry jam. Crystal and silver in the breakfast room--I made a mental note of that. Dried eggs and grits on the plates, and toast crumbs. There was a faint smell of bacon in the air, and a strong smell of acrid, stale coffee, and I could see a tall, almost empty crystal shaker of what might have been plain tomato juice but probably wasn't.
Some people have a special breakfast at midnight on New Year's Eve. But in Fort Worth, Texas, as in most of the South, that usually includes black-eyed peas. There was no sign here of black-eyed peas.
That could present a little mystery. Why had they been eating breakfast--a perfectly ordinary breakfast--sometime before three o'clock in the morning?
I walked on toward thekitchen and then looked back. I had acquired a tail.
He was tall, maybe six-two. He had blue eyes and short wavy brown hair and even white teeth, which were immediately evident because he was smiling tentatively at me. He looked the complete preppy; you would expect to find him on a tennis court, wearing a good tan and white shirt and shorts, with two or three girls clinging to him. In fact, he had no tan at all; he was wearing faded blue jeans, an orange plaid shirt, and cowboy boots; and of course he was alone.
Unless you want to count the patrolman who was silently following him.
"Who're you?" he asked, in a rather pleasant baritone.
"Deb Ralston," I told him. "I'm a detective."
"You mean like Murder She Wrote?"
"Not exactly," I said. "I don't write. And I work for the police department."
"That's interesting," he said. "But it's funny, too. You don't look like a detective. You look like--like--like somebody's sweet little aunt. No offense," he added hastily.
I agreed there was no offense. I told him I was several people's aunt, and a few people's mother, but I was a detective, too. And then I asked him who he was, though I had a pretty good idea.
When we got the Olead sorted out, I asked if that was really his name.
He said it was his middle name, and he'd decided to start using it because he thought Jim was an ordinary kind of name. "There's such a lot of Jims," he pointed out, and asked me if I didn't think Olead was a better name.
"I don't know," I told him. "I never thought about it."
"Of course you didn't," he said gleefully, a child catching a grownup out. "You already told me you'd never heard of the name before. So you couldn't think about it." He snickered again.
For a moment I felt annoyed, and then, suddenly, I realized what he really was, inside the too-cool exterior. Without stopping to think the question might antagonize him, might shut off his stream of talk, I impulsively asked, "Olead, were you fifteen the first time you flipped out?"
"How'd you guess that?" he demanded, and then he said, "Oh, I know. Somebody told you, right?"
"No, nobody told me," I said. "It's because you act fifteen."
"How do I act fifteen?" he asked suspiciously.
"I'd rather not say."
"No, tell me," he urged. "I won't get mad."
"It's typical of a fifteen-year-old in a touchy situation," I said, "to make inappropriate jokes and laugh about them. I think it's some sort of attempt to defuse the situation."
"Inappropriate." His face darkened, momentarily became adult. "Yeah, my shrink says that. She says I've always got to learn to make my actions and reactions appropriate to the situation, whether I want to or not. But how do I know what's appropriate now? Do you know what's in there?" His voice was raw with suppressed violence, as well as with some emotion I couldn't read, as he glanced in the direction of the den.
"Generally, but not exactly," I said. "Would you like to show me?"
"Like to?" He stared at me. "I'd like to never go in that room again. I'd like to tear thishouse down and sow the ground with salt. But--yeah. I'll show you."
He led me into a clean kitchen, which had an electric drip coffeepot on the counter, half full of dark old acrid-smelling coffee. There were a few grease spatters not wiped off the almond enamel of the cooktop, and a sink full of water held a single frying pan, a spatula, a saucepan, and a blender jar.
A breakfast bar divided the kitchen from the den. Olead paused there, so that I was standing with the end of the breakfast bar beside my left hand. He was between my right side and the opposite wall, and both of us were looking into the next room.
The den was--or should have been--a slightly more relaxed place than the living room. It had a creamy ceramic tile floor instead of the gray carpet of the rest of the house. A brown couch effectively dividing the room in half sat with its back toward the kitchen and its face toward the big fireplace, where burned-out ashes and a faint mesquite smell told of recent use. There were a couple of brown leather recliner chairs, and on top of the big console television and stereo were a few newspapers and magazines. Empty cups and glasses sat on the end tables and coffee table; apparently the victims had come in here after leaving the breakfast room, before somebody--Olead?--had cut loose with a shotgun.
One body--a middle-aged man in a red plaid shirt, blue jeans, and worn cowboy boots--was sprawled back in one of the recliners, his face as relaxed as if he had been asleep when the blast hit his chest. "That's Jack," Olead said, seeing the direction of my gaze. "He's--he was--my--my mother's husband."
"Well, yeah," Olead agreed.
The other man was near the television, and his hand gripped a shotgun, an old double-barreled over-and-under shotgun and rifle combination. He'd been ready to fight back, I thought, but he, like the other man, had died instantly. I was sure of that because his grip was tight in that cadaveric spasm that happens only in absolutely instant death, that death grip that is so hard for laymen to distinguish from ordinary rigor mortis. It would take two or three people to pry from his hand the weapon he had been clutchinggripping when the blast hit his face. There wasn't much left to say what he'd looked like, but his belt buckle said "Jake." He was wearing a khaki shirt and khaki pants, and he was shod in combat boots, which I will say seemed odd footwear to select for a New Year's Eve gathering.
"I guess that's Jake," Olead confirmed. "I mean, I can't tell by looking, but nobody else would be wearing Jake's belt. He--he was Jack's brother. Twins. That's why they both had belt buckles with their names on them, they had this joke about telling each other apart, but I don't think they really looked much alike. I called him Uncle Jake, but he wasn't really any kin to me." His gaze shifted. "That's Aunt Edith. Jake's wife."
Edith had graying red hair, and unlike the men, she hadn't been asleep and she hadn't died instantly. She'd tried to reach the phone. Probably she had reached it; she may have had it off the hook, before some hand--Olead's hand?--jerked the modular plug out of the jack.
She had been wearing, was still wearing, a dark bluecalico duster over a blue nylon gown, and blue chenille bedroom scuffs. A wad of pink Kleenex was sticking out of the pocket of her duster, and even over the odor of death and terror in the room I could smell a faint hint of Vicks Vaporub.
Edith's cold wouldn't be troubling her now.
The last body was beside the patio door; she'd tried to run, I thought, but hadn't gotten the door open before the shot hit her in a wide pattern, which said it had beenfired from a good distance--ten feet or more, at least. She was dressed in charcoal gray tailored wool slacks and a silk shirt, a red silk shirt now, though it might have been white to start with. I couldn't tell. It would be red now anyway. Her neatly styled hair was blonde, light champagne blonde, the fashionable shade thethis year just past, and her true red fingernail polish was perfectly smooth and unchipped. Her face was lax as for sleep.
No, that wasn't quite the last body. There was one more, very small, just beside her feet. I turned to look at Olead.
"My mother," he said emotionlessly, a flat statement of fact. Then he too looked at the smallest body, which was now little more than a mass of bloody fur. "The cat was Brenda's."
"My sister. She's four. We haven't found her yet."
"You don't like cats, do you, Olead?" I asked casually.
"Not much," he said. "But I don't dislike them, at least not enough to go around killing them. Oh." He looked at me. "You're talking about when I was schizo. I was scared of them, but I'm not now."
"Not schizo, or not scared of cats?"
"Not schizo or scared of cats. Did you see that?"
I nodded. "Yes, I saw that." That was a shotgun, a twelve-gauge Remington, leaning against the wall opposite the end of the breakfast bar, very near Olead's right hand.
"Why do you think it's there?" he asked me.
I surveyed the scene again. "I'd say somebody left it there. What do you think?"
"I think it's a dumb place to leave a gun. Are you scared of me?"
"No. Should I be?"
He jerked his head contemptuously in the direction of the patrolman. "He is. He woke me up at three-fifteen this morning hammering on the door, and he and I together found the bodies. He's been following me around ever since, and I'll bet he hasn't had his hand off his gun five minutes. Look at him."
The patrolman was probably four years younger than Olead. His silver nameplate said, "Shea"; his face at the moment was brick red; and yes, his right hand was resting on his gun. Well, I could understand how he might be a little nervous of somebody who could create the carnage in that room, but he didn't have to let the suspect notice his nerves. "Shea," I said softly, "take a walk."
"Shea," I said a little less softly, "take a walk."