The storm began at five minutes after four o’clock. The lush trident-like leaves on the stately maples that bordered the parking lot of the Collier Medical Plaza twitched, fluttered like little flags, then stopped moving altogether. A single iron gray cloud drifted and strayed like a lost child, eventually settling over the radio tower on top of the Fenton Fidelity Building.
At twenty minutes after four, the cloud was no longer lost or alone, but was now part of an army, a vast swirling mass of black, advancing out of the west, gaining strength and momentum as it marched unchallenged. The maple leaves now swayed and bounced like tiny green sheets, ghost-like marionettes whose strings were being erratically jerked and pulled by a powerful and compelling wind.
At four thirty-five, the relentless clouds had buried the late summer sun under a pile of thick ebony blankets. An uneasy darkness spread out over the landscape, causing the arc lights to illuminate at least two hours ahead of schedule. Other, smaller lights began to appear in the windows of most of the medical offices, popping out into the premature night like tiny pinholes.
And then the rain came, slowly and cautiously at first, a few drops probing the ground like skirmishers approaching a well-entrenched enemy. Moments later, the main force arrived and attacked without mercy, each successive wave announced by a jagged streak of lightning followed by an inglorious explosion of thunder. The sky seemed to drop like a heavy velvet curtain, crushing everything beneath it.
People gathered in the foyer of the building and gazed out at the watery wall of darkness that separated them from the parking lot. Some cursed, some prayed, some glanced anxiously at their watches. One by one, they found a courage born out of desperation or impatience or both and dashed, kamikaze-like, toward their cars, seeing nothing but the storm, hearing nothing but the storm.
By five-thirty, water was coursing in small rivers through the nearly deserted parking lot. And still the rain fell and the wind whipped the thick branches of the trees, sending showers of leaves into the air like confetti. For the next two hours, the storm raged unabated, pounding the area, reducing the town of Kramer to a vast dark ocean of muddy grass and flooded asphalt. Nothing moved outside that wasn’t storm; nothing was visible in any direction.
And then it passed, and an uneasy calm took its place. Water sank slowly into the ground. Tiny holes appeared between the clouds. Off to the east, an occasional growl of thunder would assert itself into the evening, ever weakening echoes of the tempest that people would talk about for years afterward.
At eight-fifteen, Jim Murphy put on his gray windbreaker and peered out into the parking lot. No one was left in the building – he was sure of that as many times as he had made rounds. But now that it was no longer raining, he needed to patrol the grounds to assess for damage, make sure the building had survived intact. Besides, in the shadows cast by one of the light poles he thought he could see a single car remaining in the lot. He would have to check that as well.
He zipped up the jacket and secured the nylon hood over his thinning gray hair. There were three hours left in his shift, and he was already very anxious to go home. He checked the ring of keys attached to his wide black belt and pulled the long metal flashlight from the security station. Carefully, he opened the front door and stuck his hand out, feeling for rain, listening for wind and thunder. A light mist was rising from the asphalt, the only visible reminder of the enormous ferocity of the storm that had ripped through the area like a giant claw.
After a few seconds of caution, Murphy ventured out into the late evening. The air felt cool and damp against his weathered face. Quickly, he scanned the grounds but saw nothing that looked terribly out of place. Except for the car sitting all alone at the edge of the lot. It appeared to be a late model forest green Dodge Caravan. He raised the flashlight to waist level and aimed it straight ahead. As he approached to within fifty feet of the Caravan, he thought he recognized it as the car normally driven by Elaine something – Dr. Kepler’s nurse, he thought. As he walked, attempting in vain to sidestep the ubiquitous puddles of cold fresh rainwater, he tried to remember if he had seen the nurse earlier, when everyone else made their mad dashes through the heart of the storm.
But he couldn’t remember. The building had emptied so fast once the storm hit – especially after the tornado watch was issued – that he wasn’t at all certain who he saw and who he didn’t see. All he was sure of was that he had personally checked every office and he thought the building was completely deserted by 5:45 – 6:00 at the latest. He certainly hadn’t stood in the doorway and watched everyone leave, counting heads like a schoolteacher on a field trip.
As he approached the Caravan, he thought about why he remembered Elaine at all. When his wife was sick a few months ago, the nurse had answered some of his questions for him. Just last week, she had asked him how Nancy was doing. Elaine was the only one in the building who had taken the time to listen, to converse, to care. Everyone else – but especially the doctors – didn’t seem to notice him at all, let alone talk to him. It was lonely sometimes being a security guard.
Under the yellow light cast by the overhanging lamp, the Caravan appeared as lonely and desolate as he felt. The windows were dark; the engine was silent. Water methodically dripped from the wide body. Once again, he scanned the parking lot and the grounds. There was nothing visible, nothing moving in any direction. He could have been the only human left in the world, for all he knew. Methodically, he moved around the car, occasionally looking back toward the building to confirm that there were no lights in any of the office windows. If Elaine was still inside, she was working in the dark.
At last, he reached the driver’s side door. He pressed his face to the glass. The interior of the car was bathed in an eerie glow from the scattered rays of light filtering in from above. Then, as his eyes adjusted, he saw her. The nurse was slumped in the seat. Her eyes were open and staring straight ahead. She wasn’t moving. He tapped on the window gently with the flashlight, but she didn’t respond. He called out her name several times, but she didn’t respond. He switched on the flashlight and directed the powerful beam toward her, shifting it slowly from her lap to her face.
It took him nearly a minute, but eventually, gazing intently through his own reflection, he saw the blood running in a small narrow trickle down what he could see of the right side of her face. Jim Murphy, retired truck driver and now part time security guard, had never before in his life seen a dead person outside of a funeral home. However, he knew instinctively that the nurse slumped in the seat behind the steering wheel was definitely dead.
For a moment, all he could do was stand by the door and peer inside, as if he really didn’t believe what he was looking at or that the combination of his stare and the bright beam from the flashlight would suddenly wake her up. She would flush with embarrassment, thank him for his concern, start the car with a flourish, and drive off into the night.
But she didn’t wake up; she would never wake up. Once this was firmly registered in his brain, Murphy tried to focus on what he should do about it. He had just found a dead body slumped in a car in his parking lot. He couldn’t ignore it or walk away and pretend he never saw it, as much as he might want to.
He glanced up at the dark sky, still filled with several layers of clouds. There would be no more rain tonight, but probably no stars either. He shifted his eyes back to the body and shook his head. There would be questions, lots of questions, an investigation. Why was a nurse apparently murdered in his parking lot and could he have done anything to prevent it?
Finally, when he had convinced himself that the situation was not going to resolve itself, that he would have to face it, to deal with it, he turned away from the Caravan and walked as briskly as his sixty-four -year-old legs would let him back to the building. Once he was inside, he picked up the nearest telephone and called 911. He described what he had seen in the parking lot, hung up the phone, and ventured back out into the night to wait.
The sudden ring of the cell phone clipped to his belt startled him. Reflexively, he glanced at the small clock on the corner of the little desk in the corner of the master suite. It was 9:05. The phone rang again; he yanked it out of its holder and looked over at his wife. She was sitting in the middle of the bed leaning up against a large white pillow. There was a stack of papers in her lap and an unopened textbook beside her, Principles of Educational Measurement. She was scowling in his direction.
He swiped the call and held the phone up to the side of his head. “Rossiter,” he bellowed. He listened for a several seconds, his eyes narrowing. “All right…I’m on my way.” He ended the call and returned the phone to its holder.
His wife glared at him. “What happened? Another liquor store break in? Did they catch some vandal and you’re the only one who can interrogate him?”
Rossiter stood up and stretched wearily. He regarded his wife for an instant. “Somebody found a nurse apparently shot to death in the parking lot of the Collier Medical Complex,” he said.
Karen Rossiter’s face softened a little. “Murder?”
“I don’t know.” He reached under the desk, opened a small safe, and extracted a black revolver – a .38 Detective Special - in a brown leather holster. He stood up and secured the holster to his belt. “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to find out.” For a long moment, husband and wife gazed at each other. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders and moved toward the door. “Karen, I’m sorry,” he said softly when he reached the door.
“So am I,” she returned. Then, just as he was about to disappear into the hallway outside their bedroom, she added, “Stuart…please be careful.”
He gave her a weak smile. “I will,” he said. “Say good night to Jenna for me, okay. I’ll do my best not to miss her game tomorrow afternoon.”
Once inside his Chevrolet Impala, heading toward Carter Avenue and the center of the town of Kramer, Detective Stuart Rossiter tried to put his family completely out of his mind and concentrate on what he should do once he arrived at the scene. In spite of his sixteen years on the police force and his eight years experience as a detective, he had only worked three homicides. People just didn’t get murdered in Kramer – Scottville, maybe, or some of the bad neighborhoods in Lankton - but not Kramer. That was one of the reasons so many families had moved here, potentially stretching the city’s resources.
Even though the storm that had ravaged the area for more than two hours had pushed further east and was now little more than a memory, the streets were unusually deserted for a Thursday night in early September. Perhaps it was the deep puddles along the roadway, perhaps it was simply the unbridled ferocity of the storm itself. Rossiter didn’t know. Nor did he much care why there were fewer people out than normal. Whatever it was, it would make his job a lot easier.
When he turned onto Maitlin Boulevard, he could see the lights beaming out from the windows of the gleaming cube that was Collier Hospital. Directly across from the hospital on Adams Street was the Collier Medical Office Complex. He grimaced. He didn’t want anyone murdered in his jurisdiction. But for it to happen right across the street from the hospital, Kramer’s largest employer, made it particularly disturbing.
As he neared the four story medical building, he could see the blue and red flashes bouncing off the charcoal gray sky. There were two black-and-whites on the scene plus an ambulance. The rest of the parking lot was completely deserted. He knew that if he had been a detective on a big city police force, a crime investigation team would already be on site, each member with a specific job to do. He occasionally watched the CSI shows on television and had marveled at the resources they always seemed to have at their disposal at all hours of the day or night.
But Detective Rossiter wasn’t in a big city. He had avoided it his entire career in law enforcement, had never wanted the accompanying stress, the danger, the frustration. Plus, he and Karen had wanted to raise their daughter in a relatively safe and boring community. So there was the sacrifice. He was one of only three full-time detectives on the Kramer police force and the only one who had been trained in homicide investigation. In the evenings, there were seldom more than six black-and-whites patrolling the streets. And tonight, two of them were committed to one crime scene.
He pulled into the lot and parked about a hundred feet away from the Dodge Caravan, the only non-emergency vehicle in the lot. Two uniformed officers were standing nearby. Two paramedics sat in the ambulance. All were staring directly at Rossiter. He scanned the parking lot quickly, noting all the obvious landmarks. Then he moved around to the trunk of the Impala, opened it, and extracted a large black leather bag. He gripped it in his left hand and walked slowly toward the group. “What’ve you got for me?” he asked wearily.
One of the officers stepped forward into the light. He pointed to the Caravan. “Female…shot in the head,” he replied.
Rossiter shifted his gaze to the car. “Any ID yet?”
The officer consulted a small notebook. “Elaine Timbrook. Age forty-nine. Lives on Crystal Lane.”
“How did you ID her?” the detective asked.
“I ran the plate,” the officer replied. “Plus, the security guard who found her thought her name was Elaine.”
“Where’s the guard?”
“Inside. He said he had to notify his supervisor.”
Rossiter nodded as he continued to study the scene. “Okay. Keep him inside for now. I’ll take his statement later. Did anyone touch anything?”
The paramedic behind the steering wheel stuck his head out the open window. “I opened the door of the car,” he exclaimed. “I had to. We had to make sure she was dead. I felt for a pulse and then backed off.”
Rossiter started to scowl, then stopped himself. “Okay. Good work, guys. Stand by.”
The paramedic driver rolled his eyes. “How long before you release the body?”
“I don’t know,” Rossiter said. “Just as soon as I have concluded my investigation of the scene. If you get a call, go ahead and respond. Otherwise, hang out here for a while – and thank god I didn’t call the medical examiner in Scottville.” He looked at the paramedic for a moment as if to give him time to voice another objection. When none was forthcoming, he set the bag down on the hood of the nearest black-and-white and pulled out a pair of rubber gloves and a flashlight. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got,” he said as he approached the Caravan.
He snapped on the gloves, which were always either too large or too small, and swept the area with his flashlight. Everything around him was eerily silent and practically motionless, as if nature itself was watching him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Water dripped in large drops from the overhead light. The leaves on the maple trees rustled ever so slightly. He suddenly felt very nervous, almost as nervous as a trapped animal. He shook it off and approached the door.
Without touching it, he peered through the window, focusing the flashlight beam on the sole occupant of the minivan. In the light, he could that she was a middle-age woman slumped in the seat with her head cocked slightly toward the door. She was wearing a white uniform overlaid with a warm-up jacket with some kind of animal print on it. Her brown eyes were open and staring up at the ceiling. She had short brown hair that was damp and disheveled. And on the right side of her face, away from the door, he could see several trickles of blood extending from just above her ear to her neck.
He pulled out a leather notebook and a pen and made a few notes. The he glanced back over his shoulder. “Hey, could one of you get the camera out of my bag?”
The two officers looked at each other for a few seconds. Finally, the one who had spoken earlier fished through the bag and extracted a small Canon. Cautiously, he advanced toward the detective. “What do you think, Stuart?” he asked as he handed Rossiter the camera.
Rossiter scowled. “I think…I need to take some pictures before I open the door, Tony,” he answered. Then he winked at the officer and managed a tight smile. “Look, one of you guys can take off if you want to…as long as the area is secure.”
“Gentry can go back on the street,” Tony said. “I’d kinda like to stick around and watch – if you don’t mind.”
Rossiter smiled again. Officer Tony Catano reminded Rossiter of how he himself had been ten years ago. “All right,” he said. “But keep back, don’t touch anything, and make sure the area stays secure.”
Tony Catano took a few steps back toward the police cruisers. “Hey, Gentry,” he called to his companion. “Detective Rossiter says you’re relieved here, you can go back out on patrol.”
Gentry nodded. A moment later, he was back in his cruiser and out in the street. He was quickly swallowed up by the bright lights that lined Maitlin Boulevard.
Rossiter aimed the camera and took several pictures of the car and the deceased woman inside. The sharp flash ricocheted off the window. When he was satisfied, he put his hand under the door handle and opened the door slowly. He half expected the body to suddenly jump up or fall into his arms. It didn’t do either. It remained where it was, motionless, lifeless, the cold eyes still staring at nothing. He took several more pictures, concentrating on the head and shoulders of the dead woman and on the inside of the car.
At last, he felt he was ready to actually touch the body. He didn’t really want to. His very limited experience with homicide and death in general made him rather ill-prepared to deal with what some had termed the ‘final reality.’ At this moment, he would have preferred to leave the body exactly as it was and have it towed in the Caravan to the medical examiner – let the ME take care of it. Or even trade places with Tony Catano – the kid wants to be a detective, he thought; this would be a good place to start.
He gathered himself together, took a deep breath, and laid the fingers of his right hand on the victim’s cheek. The skin felt cool; the muscles were beginning to tighten – she had probably been dead for at least two hours, possibly more. Then he carefully turned her head toward him and examined the wound – single entry, probably small caliber, death came quickly. He felt her hair; it was still slightly damp, as were her clothes. She had moved through the rain to get to her car. He stepped back and scanned the interior of the Caravan once again – no sign of a struggle of any kind, no apparent forced entry, no weapon visible. A chocolate brown Coach purse and tan canvas bag rested on the passenger seat. They appeared to be undisturbed, although the purse was unzipped.
He stood up straight and let the cool, damp night air embrace him. It felt good. He stretched and took several deep breaths. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tony Catano watching him from a few feet away and it made him suddenly self-conscious. He took one more deep breath and bent down. He rolled up the hem of each leg of the victim’s uniform pants and peeled down the thin anklets she wore on her feet.
“Why are you looking at her feet?” the young officer asked, now standing over Rossiter’s shoulder.
The detective didn’t look up, but continued to direct the beam of the flashlight toward the woman’s ankles. “I’m looking for postmortem lividity.”
“What’s that?” Catano had bent down to get a better view.
Rossiter sighed. He was a detective, not a teacher. However, in all honesty, at this moment, he wasn’t at all certain that he really knew what he was doing. “When a person dies, their blood stops flowing and begins to pool. Naturally, it will pool in the most gravity-dependent parts of the body, especially their lower extremities. When it does, the skin will appear purplish, almost like bruising.”
“Is that how you can tell how long the person has been dead?”
“Not really. It is a better indicator of whether or not the body’s been moved after death.”
“Does she have any postmortem lividity?”
Rossiter nodded. “It looks like it’s just beginning.” He stood up again. “Tell the paramedics they can have the body,” he said. “And call for the tow truck. The vehicle will have to be taken to the crime lab in Scottville. I doubt if they’ll get much evidence from the outside because of the storm; however, they might get some fingerprints or fibers from the inside.” He retrieved the camera and snapped three pictures of the side door. He examined the chrome handle; it reflected the flashlight beam back into his eyes. Carefully, he slid open the door and peered inside, directing his gaze primarily at the carpeted floor. He reached down and felt it – it was slightly damp. He stepped back out into the air once again.
The paramedics were approaching him; they were pushing a gurney. Tony Catano was standing nearby. “Tow truck is on its way,” he declared.
Rossiter nodded and looked around the parking lot. An occasional car or truck swept by on Maitlin Boulevard, the tires splashing though deep puddles. It was nearly ten-thirty. “Okay. I’m ready to talk to the security guard,” he said, scribbling notes at a torrid pace. “What’s his name?”
Once again, Catano consulted his little notebook. “Uh…Jim Murphy.”
Rossiter quietly absorbed the name. “Okay. Tony, you stay out here and keep the scene secure until the tow truck gets here, then accompany it to the crime lab unless you’re dispatched elsewhere – let me know if that happens.”
He watched the two paramedics carefully extract the victim from the seat and lay her in the body bag on the gurney. They zipped up the bag and hustled her into the ambulance. Less than a minute later, they were turning right onto Maitlin, heading for Scottville. He looked up at the sky; it was still overcast. The air was turning cold. The trees would be stripped down to the bare limbs in less than two months.
Quickly, he shook himself as he realized he was stalling for time. Interviewing witnesses was the part of the job of being a detective that he enjoyed the least. Witnesses were frequently unreliable and emotional, he thought. Seldom, in his experience, did he trust their statements completely; all too often their testimony didn’t quite match the evidence.
Of course, none of that really mattered now. The guard was the one who had found the body and called the police. Rossiter would have to at least talk to him for a few minutes, advise him that he would have to go to the police station and make a formal statement tomorrow.
The detective could see the guard through the glass door as he approached. Unconsciously, he shrugged his shoulders. The guy’s at least sixty, he thought, and he looks scared and tired – clearly, a bad combination. He gathered himself together, took a deep breath, and opened the door. “Mr. Murphy?” he called, once he was inside.
The security guard, sitting slumped behind the reception desk, his windbreaker still zipped up to his chin, looked up wearily; his dark eyes were like two limp pools of stagnant water.
Rossiter checked his watch against the clock in the lobby; he was a minute fast. “Mr. Murphy, I’m Detective Stuart Rossiter, KPD.” He paused for a few seconds to give the guard time to react; however, Jim Murphy just remained where he was, his gaze as lifeless as Elaine Timbrook’s body. “I understand you’re the one who found the body. Is that right?”
The older man nodded slowly, as if coming out of a deep sleep.
Rossiter sat down in a chair opposite the reception desk. “I realize this is probably very difficult for you,” he started, keeping his eyes firmly on the witness. “But I need to ask you a few questions tonight. Tomorrow you will need to come into the station and give us a formal statement. Can you do that?”
Murphy seemed to think for a few seconds. “My supervisor will want to come in with me. Will that be okay?”
Rossiter conjured a tight little smile of assent. “Certainly,” he said. Then he pulled out his notebook and pen. He glanced once again at his watch. It was now ten-forty. He wanted to wrap things up quickly here as he suddenly realized that no one had informed the next of kin. That would be another of his jobs. He clicked the ballpoint into position. “Mr. Murphy, you’re the security guard on duty?”
“Yes,” Murphy replied flatly.
“And you’re the only one here tonight?”
“What time did you find the body?”
“When I made rounds for the first time after the storm…a little before eight-thirty, I think.”
“And there were no other cars in the parking lot or people left in the building?”
“I think everyone pretty much had cleared out by five-thirty.”
“Did you see the victim leave?”
“No. I made rounds several times just before the main part of the storm hit – to make sure the building was safe and everyone got out okay.”
Rossiter made a few notes. “What can you tell me about Elaine Timbrook? Did she work in the building?”
Murphy’s fingers continuously traced the edges of a single sheet of paper attached to a clipboard in front of him. He followed his fingers with his eyes. “She was a nurse,” he said. “I used to see her in Dr. Kepler’s office. I’m pretty sure that’s where she worked.”
“Can you tell me anything else about here?” Rossiter persisted. “Did she seem to get along with everyone in the building? Did she seem to have any problems with anyone that you noticed?”
Murphy shifted his eyes. He appeared surprised by the question. “No,” he said quickly. “Elaine seemed like a nice person. I can’t understand why anyone would want to hurt her. Maybe…she was robbed.”
Rossiter suppressed a scowl; he had heard enough from this witness already. “I’ll be checking into that,” he said. He was already certain the victim wasn’t robbed. This case would be a lot more complicated than that. He extracted a business card from the inside of his notebook and handed it to the guard. “Mr. Murphy, as I said before, you will need to come into the station tomorrow and give us a statement. In the meantime, if you think of anything you might have seen or heard that might shed some light on this case, please call me.” He stood and extended his right hand toward the older man. “Thank you.”
Jim Murphy shook the hand limply and slumped down into the chair again. It was very clear that he was finished for the night. It was ten fifty-three.
Rossiter went to the door and took out his cell phone. He activated it and scrolled through his contacts. “Marilyn…this is Rossiter,” he said after a few seconds. “Victim’s name is Elaine Timbrook, lives on Crystal Lane. Dodge Caravan, license 427 alpha charley zulu. Can you tell me if she has any next of kin?” He paused and listened for a moment while his eyes scanned the parking lot. The police tow truck had the minivan on the back and was heading toward the street. Tony Catano was right behind in his squad car. Cars were beginning to emerge from the hospital lot across Adams – change of shift, he thought. “Okay…” he said in response to the voice at the other end of the phone. “Samuel Timbrook, husband…9280 Crystal Lane. Thanks, Marilyn. I’ve got things wrapped up here – I didn’t need the ME. I’ll go talk to the husband and then report…Yeah…ten-four.” He chuckled humorlessly and ended the call.
Now the parking lot was totally deserted. A few puddles reflected the light from the overhead poles. He collected his tools and put them in the trunk of his car. He stretched. Suddenly, he felt very tired. He had four cases pending already. The last thing he needed was a complicated homicide investigation.
He slipped into the driver seat and started the engine. He consulted his notebook. It didn’t really matter what he wanted. There was a dead nurse on her way to the morgue and he would be responsible for finding out what happened. For a brief instant, he thought of Karen and Jenna, remembering certain promises he had made to them.
Then he revved the engine and pulled onto Maitlin Boulevard. It was eleven o’clock and he still had to tell a man that his wife had been found shot to death in a parking lot.