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Up the Lazy River
By Lea Braden
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Lea Braden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNo Hope, No Dreams, and No Al Roth
People thought of me as an insignificant middle-school science teacher, but I'm the one who discovered the truth about Al Roth's death. It started out innocently. The day after Labor Day break, I scheduled a meeting with Al Roth at his office. The meeting was to go over the plans for my new life. Well, actually, the plans were for the renovation of my recently inherited house, Pops's old place. It was to be the first day of the rest of my new life. I had finally taken charge! Excited to get started, I grabbed my to-do list, exited the school building, and sprinted to my car.
Steam from the hot asphalt hovered as I searched for my car. Where was my BMW? Oh, yeah—in my ex-husband's garage. I spied my sweet old Teresa, an aqua Ford sedan that had been my grandmother's. The one great thing about my car was that it didn't absorb the heat like my black BMW. I smiled as I pictured Victoria, my former dog sitter, now my ex's young, pregnant trophy wife, sitting in the burning-hot BMW. Ah, burn, Victoria. I'm sorry. I shouldn't think that way.
Gingerly, I placed tissues on the steering wheel, turned on my car, whispered encouraging words into the air-conditioning vent, and prayed, Please work. The first blast melted my mascara to my cheeks. Great! Then little puffs of cool air dribbled through the air ducts. The air conditioner worked, oh, yes! It was a sign; my life had changed for the better. With this sign, I dashed down to the old warehouse district of River Bend. River Bend was located on what we locals fondly called Old Lazy River, a deep river nestled between bluffs. It had been built close to the river's edge for easier access. They used the river as a highway for trade, exporting and importing goods in every direction during the late 1800s. This started the city off as a bustling metropolis.
The brick factories produced the millions of red bricks used to build the warehouse district that lines our streets along the river. Now, most of the bricks are worn and dull except for the buildings restored by Al Roth.
As I drove down the street, checking numbers on the buildings, a striking edifice stood out from the rest of the buildings. It was Roth's office building. Wow, what a perfect example of Al Roth's skill in the beautification of old structures. He saw their past beauty and made them come alive. He had taken two buildings and blended them into one, reconditioning the brick and restoring the windows with all the elaborate details. His building was a grand old lady standing tall and proud among a group of old bag-lady buildings.
I attempted to get out of my car, but sweat had glued me to the still-in-mint-condition fabric seats. I un-suctioned myself from the car, picked the stuck clothes from my body, and tried to smooth them out before I entered the building. Inspecting myself in the window of the car, I found notes on the floor that looked cleaner and neater than I did. Oh, well. I put my shoulders back, plastered a smile on my face, and told myself to quit delaying my life. I walked into Al Roth Restoration Inc.
Claire Roth, Al Roth's wife, greeted me the moment I stepped inside the building. "Samantha, it's so nice to see you, again." Then, she hesitated and stammered, "Al—ah—Al is out of the office right now, but I would be more than happy to go over everything with you. I have your plans and the estimate right here." She motioned for me to join her as she started pulling papers out of a file. She handed me the artist's drawings of the house plans; I could see they were beyond my wildest dreams. She held the estimate and waited until I finished examining the visual information. Now, for the moment of truth—immediately, my eyes went to the bottom line. Swallowing nervously, I began the process of figuring out if I had enough money from my grandfather to pay for my dream home. Tears filled my eyes as I realized that Pops had left me more than enough money in his trust.
Mrs. Roth reached over and gently patted my arm. "If it's not what you wanted, Al can change it for you."
"No, it's just what I wanted; it's like Mr. Roth read my mind." With a red face and hands shaking, I asked her to show me what exactly was covered in the total cost so I could see if I could really afford it. We covered her desk with plans and sheets of estimate paper. Together we reviewed each line of the estimate. I asked Mrs. Roth which options would be the best. I wanted everything but was raised never to spend unless it was necessary. Still, I wanted my old farmhouse to look just like the artist's rendering, including the landscape.
I asked about the cost of the landscape. Mrs. Roth looked at me with soft brown eyes. "Samantha, it would be wise to include landscape.
I imagine your grandfather wasn't able to work in the yard much in the last few years. Plus, with all the outside remodeling being done, it will destroy anything that's there now. New landscape would increase the value of your home and make it easier for you to maintain. We work with a company in the area. Al can get you a discount since he's known the owner of Nine Gents Nursery since his army days."
Chapter TwoDream Turned Nightmare
Engrossed in the plans, we didn't hear the front door open. We felt the heat from outside rush in as if to cool itself. I turned and faced the heat. In its wake walked a stunning man wearing a tightly fitted gray shirt with Roth Restoration written above his name, Steve Kovacev. What an exotic name for an exotic man. He took my breath away. He bent close to Claire Roth's ear and in a low voice asked if he could speak to Al.
"Steve, Al isn't here today. He ... ah ... is out of town. I can help you when I'm through here with Ms. Grant." Claire hardly looked at this magnificent man. Her lips snarled as if ready to bite. Why? He was a life-size Michelangelo's David—curly, dark hair; tanned; big, liquid eyes; and full lips. He was polite and soft-spoken. He was like a banana split with only chocolate ice cream, my favorite, and extra chocolate sauce.
Things turned ugly when they started bickering. I was stuck behind Claire's desk and couldn't leave. In my head, I climbed onto her desk and leaped over the counter. But in the real world, I stayed, listened, and drooled over Steve Kovacev. I figured and hoped he was a few years younger than me, but ...
"Claire, I need your help! There's a problem down at Building No. 4. Al told me to make sure that building was secured, weather tight. To check on it after we finished Ramsey's place. So the boys and me went there. It was airtight all right. Something was wrong. There was a terrible smell, about made me sick. One of my men said it smelled like someone had died. So I called 911. The police are on their way. They'll want Al there." Steve looked around, as if hoping for his boss to magically appear.
"Why did you call the police? On whose authority did you do that?" Claire stood up, shaking with anger, and pointed her finger at Steve. "Steve, you know Al doesn't like the police snooping around his buildings. He'll explode when he finds out."
"I know, but I'm his foreman. I did what Al would have done. Call the police. My men think that homeless guy must have died in the building. You better come with me and talk to the police." He squared himself up, making it clear he wasn't taking no for an answer.
"I suppose you're right. Do I need to come now?" She gave Steve another look of sheer hate. "Al will get an earful when he gets home. You should have waited for Al—that's his area of expertise. It's not my job to go smell his building for him. I do his office work, and that's enough."
She grabbed her keys, purse, and me. "Well, Ms. Grant, why don't you come along so we can discuss things while Steve drives us to Building No. 4." She grabbed my arm, and away we went.
I didn't get to say no, though I disengaged from her. "I'll just leave and come back another day. Can I take this stuff with me?" Hoping that she would say yes, I gripped my paperwork tightly in my hands.
"No." She grabbed the paperwork out of my hands and ran back to her desk. I could understand she was worried that Al wasn't around and the police were coming, but I wasn't involved with any of it and didn't want to go into a smelly building. Claire reattached herself to my arm and hurried us to the door. She started to lock it and then changed her mind. "We will be back in a few minutes. Everything will be fine."
I, personally, would have locked to door. Things got even stranger; she pushed me ahead of her and then guided me to Steve's gray company truck. She mumbled something about me being younger and it being easier for me to slide across the seat, and then she shoved me into the center. I was, for the most part, one happy woman, fantasy wise. Steve's soap mingled with his sweat filled the cab of the truck. Oh, my.
The sun was setting low in the sky, blinding drivers as they drove to the west side of town. The old brick building blocked the retinal- burning sun for ten-second periods, which created a strobe effect, hypnotizing like watching a zoetrope. The zoetrope-making project was a favorite of my students and a great way to study motion. I had become sleepy.
Claire was on my right, not talking, and Steve was on my left, not talking. But, then, what did people talk about on the way to sniff a smelly building? Thank goodness the ride was short; Building No. 4 was about two blocks away. We could have walked to it, but the outdoor oven felt like it was set at five hundred degrees. As we pulled up, the men slowly exited their air-conditioned vehicles and started walking toward the door. Steve jumped out and asked the group of Roth's men, "Did anyone go in or out of the building while I was gone?" They shook their heads no. He nodded. Talkative group.
Chapter ThreeThe Smell
Claire and I slid out of the truck and walked to the door of the building, which Steve coaxed open for us. Claire and I weren't prepared for the rush of heat. As we walked farther into the building, the air became thicker and more humid. I now knew how a potato felt when boiling it for mashed potatoes. My mascara slithered down my face. What was that smell? That sweet, sickening smell like cheap perfume in a hot elevator. Causally, I pulled my blouse out at the front, tucked my head in the opening, and inhaled—no not me. I raised my arm as if to wipe sweat from my face and inhaled not Irish Spring, but not the source of the smell either. Thank goodness. Someone must have dumped garbage in here. Strange though, Steve told us Al had his men board up the building airtight, so no one could mess around in it. Something was wrong here. It wasn't a food smell; this was a pungent, sweet smell. What was it? It was like an outhouse reunion, as my grandfather would say when something smelled atrocious. Pops had a way with words.
Claire turned and in a knowing voice explained, "It smells like that time I had to clean up one of our rentals. They had left puppies to die in the basement. Of course, it was during the summer in all that heat. That's the smell. I'll tell the police that when they come, which will make them go away."
I did a double take. "Claire, isn't that good reasons to have the police investigate?" I thought, Poor little puppies.
As I watched the comings and goings of Roth's men and listened to the ranting of Claire, I speculated about her problem with Steve. Nothing seemed to explain her utter dislike of such a pleasant hunk— ah, person. He was doing his job, very professionally. Also, what was her problem with the police coming to investigate? It was just our tax dollars at work, right?
Steve walked quickly past us, yelling for Joe to get another extension cord. "Hey, which one of you guys took that big yellow extension cord out of this building? You know Al told us to keep that one in here at all times. Go look in your trucks for extension cords. Don't forget the floodlights. Hurry up; I want it ready for the police."
I watched the men as they gladly seized the opportunity to leave the building. If I could have escaped Claire's grip, I would have been out the door, too. I decided I would try a different strategy; I lugged Claire along with me as I moved toward the protrusion where Steve had headed. The heat had turned into an unmovable force that made walking more like slow-motion swimming. I listened as Steve talked to one of his men and learned that the protrusion was called an airshaft. The airshaft was like a magnet that drew me to discover what was hidden in its depths.
Two of the crew with flashlights tried to see what was located on the ground below them. The lights casted distorted shadows on the men's faces, making them appear ghostlike, adding to the surreal scene. A light fog appeared to be floating out of the airshaft. Of course, I kept my eyes on Steve, since he was in command and drop-dead gorgeous even in this heat.
He turned to his men. "We're getting nowhere looking down. We're going to have to hop on down there. Joe, you stay here. Ray, you come with me." He took off toward the stairway.
I released Claire's grip from my arm and followed Steve. I whispered, "I need to find a restroom." I left her and Claire stared at the front door and mumbled, "I'll wait for Al to show up." I discovered on my way down the flight of steps that they were piecemeal, and some of the boards were missing. It took one step into thin air to make me get my flashlight out so I could see where to step. Thank goodness my grandfather, Pops, had insisted that I always carry a flashlight for emergency. Steve wouldn't be pleased if he found out I had followed him, especially if I fell down the steps and knocked him down. When I had descended the stairs, I turned off my flashlight so they wouldn't realize I was there. I followed Steve's light across the large cave-like room. The floor was moist dirt, which made it easy to follow undetected. The air was cooler than upstairs but more humid even through the stench. There was a soft, persistent hum of flies; of course there would be flies if there was food of any kind. I remembered from teaching the life cycle that moisture causes things to break down faster or to rot at a faster rate. Add heat and flies to the process, and whatever was down there would be badly decomposed—even if it was there only a short time. Yuk! But from a scientific point of view, very interesting.
I strained to hear what Steve and Ray said as they whispered between themselves. "Looks like a body. Could be Old Gus. He was always coming in here. Think he worked in this building in the old days." They walked closer to what appeared to be a body and stopped short. "Oh, s—— it's one of us! Look at the shirt."
They yelled up to Joe to get more lights. While they were looking at the body, so did I. I didn't fully realize that the human body took on its own existence after death. I moved closer for a better look; the bloated skin was greenish-gray, the pores where exorbitant, and the facial features were bloated and distorted. Little white maggots were feasting on the body. I whipped out my notebook and wrote down the size of the maggots. That was useful information; their size showed how long they had been there and more importantly how long the body had been dead. What facial cavities I could see were filled with fluid or something, and the areas where cartilage should have been appeared to have melted. This was so fascinating. I wanted to photograph it and show bits and pieces of it to my students. The skin's cells were so different since the metamorphosis. I remembered this wasn't a science project—this was someone's spouse, child, or parent. For now, with the flashlights darting lights, it appeared more like a science experiment.
I knew it was morbid, but since my sister and dad's death, I had been obsessed with trying to solve crimes. This was the perfect opportunity to look for clues. Maybe it had been murder. If so, I had been at the scene before the police. So no one had messed with the area where the body landed. I added more observations to my notebook, details like scratch marks on the airshaft wall by the body. I didn't know exactly what to look for, so I put down everything I saw and things that I thought should have been there. Without thinking, I took my phone out of my pants pocket, aimed at the body, and clicked; no one noticed the click or the small flash. I took more pictures from different angles and continued with note-taking: hair color, dark and balding; skin color, green; size, average; and weight. Even with the amount of bloating, the person had been burly. Tattoos? Nope.
Excerpted from Up the Lazy River by Lea Braden Copyright © 2012 by Lea Braden. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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