It seemed like an open and shut case. Simple, really. Elderly woman with Alzheimer’s wanders off, falls in the lake. Not even any reason to call me. But, (there always seems to be a but) her son is the chief of police in the little town where it happened, she was out of the nursing home for the weekend with him, and they called me.
I’m a State Trooper. Major crimes unit. Most small towns in this state don’t have enough manpower to handle things like murder, so they call us. In this particular case, nobody was talking about murder. At least not at first.
A little background information. Susan Greenleaf is, was, a life-long resident of Ashby, New Hampshire. Ashby sits on the northeast side of one of our nicest lakes, and we have a lot of lakes. This is the lake they used in that big movie a few years back. Anyway, Susan owned the general store that sits right next to the lake, she even has a dock and a gas pump for boats. Had. Susan herself appeared in the movie, just briefly, pumping gas for the older gentleman in the fancy wooden boat. Said it broke her heart when they wrecked that boat in that scene with the rocks. But all that was a long time ago, and Susan wasn’t young even then.
Her son Tom has been the police chief in Ashby for years. Like his mother before him, he’s lived in town his whole life. I know him better than I know most of the local police chiefs, because I lived in Ashby myself, growing up. I probably should have recused myself, just like Tom did, but as I said at the beginning, I didn’t go into this thinking there even was a crime. I got the first call in the middle of the night.
“Hey Fran, we got a missing person up to Ashby. You want in on the search?”
I rolled over and looked at the clock. “Three in the morning and you’re calling me about a missing person?”
“It’s Tom Greenleaf’s mother.”
I sat up. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
By the time I got there, they’d followed her tracks from the house through the snow down to the lake. They’d seen the hole in the ice. They’d called the local dive team.
I nodded at Tom. “Sorry to be here under these circumstances.”
He turned to me. It looked as if he’d been crying, which wasn’t unexpected. His whole face was blotchy, red and white, with icicles on his beard. “Thanks for coming out, Fran.” He pulled off a knitted mitten and reached for my hand, and I shook his.
While we stood there, awkward, a diver popped up through the hole in the ice. “Found her.”
They backed the ambulance down as close as they could get, then a couple of burly firefighters carried the stretcher the rest of the way down to the water’s edge. Tom turned away as they lifted her body out of the water. I didn’t blame him, but it was part of my job, so I stepped closer, wanting to get that important first impression. At one time, Susan had been almost burly herself. She’d run with the rescue squad for a bit, she had some bulk to her, but she wasn’t ever fat.
It was hard to recognize this body as the same woman. She was thin, almost skeletal, wearing a flannel night shirt and pair of Bean boots. No coat, no gloves. It was well below freezing, this weekend after Thanksgiving. Not a night to go for a walk in your nightgown, flannel or not. Her face looked peaceful, I know that’s a cliché, and really, most of the bodies I see do not look peaceful. A lot of them look angry. But Susan Greenleaf looked like she’d just gone to sleep in the lake.
I’d already been taking in other first impressions, from the minute I got there, and I was pretty confident that this was just what it appeared to be. An elderly woman, in the grip of dementia, lets herself out of the house she’s lived in all her life and walks down to the lake. No telling what she was thinking.
I looked back up to the house, one of the bigger houses here in town. It perched on a hill overlooking the lake. There was a narrow path, which I knew to be paved with old flat stones. I’d followed that path many times as a kid, running down to the water with Tom and his little sister Mary. At the water’s edge was a boat house, same vintage as the house itself, probably mid to late 1800s. The sun was just starting to come up, and I could see dark shapes in the boat house. I remembered an old wooden Chris-Craft and an aluminum canoe from my years here. The investigator in me was disappointed in the number of footprints going up and down the path. There’d been a lot of people trampling the scene. I couldn’t call it a crime scene, not at that point.
I tried to put an arm around Tom’s shoulders as he turned to follow the ambulance, and he shrugged it off. I didn’t blame him. I stood back and watched as he climbed in and the truck pulled away, no lights, no siren, no need for them.
I looked back at the lake again. The floating dock they had here at the house had been taken in for the winter. Susan had just walked right out onto the ice, which wasn’t all that thick, this time of year. I was surprised she’d gotten as far as she had, which was out a good fifteen feet from the shore. No footprints, there’d been a slight thaw the week before and the snow had melted into the ice and re-frozen. The rescue divers had broken up the ice on their way out to the hole, but even if they hadn’t, I knew there wouldn’t have been anything to see. I took a few photos with my cell phone, not much to look at, and got back in my Charger for the trip home.
It was three in the afternoon before I heard from Tom again. I was yawning in my office and picked the phone up to an angry voice.
“What’s all this about not releasing my mother’s body?”
“The hospital says there has to be an autopsy. They said you’re in charge of the investigation. What investigation? What the hell is going on?”
“Easy Tom. It’s just because it was an unattended death, that’s all. You know that. Because she wandered off, we just need to make a ruling on whether it was accidental or not.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Tom, you know the rules.”
“It’s a violation of her body. There’s no reason for an autopsy, none at all.”
I was almost wondering at this point what was going on with Tom, that he would be this belligerent. Even though I knew Tom, had known him all my life, something in the back of my head started to tell me there was something wrong. Ridiculous, I know. Or I thought I knew.
The autopsy didn’t have a lot of surprises. It was rushed through, out of respect for Tom. He wanted to have her cremated, wanted to get on with his life. Even so, it was the next day before I heard back from the coroner. The body had some bruises, but she’d drowned, her lungs were full of water. I had half expected her to have frozen to death, with the mammalian dive reflex and all. But the coroner explained that even if the dive reflex had kicked in, she wouldn’t have lasted long under water. She had to breathe eventually. When she did, she drowned.
“It was odd though,” the coroner said. “The water was very clean.”
“Well, it’s a spring-fed lake.”
“Yes, but it’s still a lake. We aren’t looking at this as a potential homicide, are we?”
I hesitated, thinking of Tom’s odd behavior on the phone. “Why?”
“I would have expected some silt, maybe plant material, in her lungs. There was sand on her clothing, mud, that sort of thing. But the water in the lungs was clean.”
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Is there any way to test for traces of chemicals in her lungs?”
“What kind of chemicals?”
“What would be in bath water? Shampoo?” I knew it was ridiculous. Even if she had died in the bathtub, maybe Tom had been worried about appearances and had hauled her down to the water. In her nightgown and boots. I needed to get into his house. Now.
“There’s actually more water in the stomach than in the lungs, people tend to swallow water before they inhale it. I’ll run some tests.”
“Let me know what you find, okay?”
I hung up the phone and picked it up again. Within the hour I was knocking on Tom’s door.
“Fran. What the hell do you want? Come to tell me I can have my mother’s body back?”
This wasn’t going to be easy. “Actually, Tom, I was hoping I might come in.” I saw the look cross his face. I knew then. He didn’t want to let me in. But if he didn’t let me in, he’d look guilty.
He took a couple of steps back, swung the door open. “Come ahead.”
I nodded and stepped across the threshold. I had to ask. “You mind if I look around?”
“I just want to get a feel for what happened.”
“You investigating this?”
“Tom, it was an unattended death. You know we have to look at it. That’s all.” I was lying. I had a feeling, just a tug in my gut that was telling me there was more to this. “Tell me about your mom. She’d been in a nursing home, right?”
“Yeah, she was down to Barstow, Deer Run.”
I nodded. Barstow was a couple of towns away, and Deer Run was a very nice place. Expensive. As I talked, I was looking around. “Mind if I use the bathroom? Too much coffee with lunch.”
“No, go ahead.” He pointed in the direction of the downstairs bath, even though I knew he knew I knew where it was.
I looked at the wood floor as I walked, studying the wide pine boards. They’d been varnished and worn and varnished and worn, but the last coat of varnish was wearing thin, and there were dark streaks on the wood. As though they’d gotten wet. I shut the door behind me, peed for effect, took my time washing my hands. Left the water running while I looked around. The tub was wet, but Tom could have taken a shower down here this morning, instead of upstairs in his master bedroom.
I shut off the water and dried my hands on a damp towel. There were several damp towels, a couple of which looked as if they’d been used to dry the floor. They had specks of dirt on them. The floor had a puddle still, in a corner by the bathtub. Maybe Tom was just messy when he showered. Maybe he showered with the curtain open. Every day.
I stepped back out into the living room, with a quick glance at what had been a sitting room, saw that there was a bed in there. Must have been where Susan had been sleeping. There was a cane leaning up against the wall. A cane. I thought again how thin she had been, how frail she looked coming out of the water. How did she get down there without her cane?
Tom was sitting close to the woodstove on one of the wooden chairs his mother loved. I sat on the other side, held my hands out to warm them.
“How was your mom doing? Before this.”
“She was pretty much gone, Fran, at least her mind.” He didn’t look at me, he was staring at the glass door on the woodstove, watching the orange flames. “Everything was a battle. She didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to change her clothes. It was like dealing with a toddler.” He sighed. “Deer Run was going to throw her out. They couldn’t handle her anymore. It’s not that kind of place.” He looked at me now. “She was covered in bruises, from fighting the staff.”
I nodded, starting to see where this might be going. My cellphone rang. The coroner. “I have to take this, excuse me.” I walked into the kitchen. “LeGrange.”
“Your instincts are good. She drowned in a bathtub, not the lake. I can’t be one hundred percent positive, but chances are good.”
“Thanks.” I snapped the phone shut and looked back through the doorway at Tom. He was bent over, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Thought about years of friendship. Thought about his mother, her mind gone.
He looked up.
I swallowed hard and thought about what it all meant. What it meant to kill somebody. “Was it an accident?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I just got off the phone with the coroner.”
“I think you know.”
He got to his feet. I watched him, aware that he was bigger than I was and probably armed. “She was already gone. She wasn’t even my mother anymore.” His fists were clenched.
I let my mind run. Even if Tom had done this, had drowned his own mother, or the shell of his own mother, what were the chances he would ever do something like that again? This had to be a one-off. He wasn’t going to become a serial killer, knocking off old ladies. Then again, maybe it was an accident. I made the decision. “She drowned taking a bath, didn’t she?”
He just stared at me for a minute, clenching and unclenching his massive fists. I remembered when we were teenagers, how I sat beside him, tracing the veins on the backs of those hands. I didn’t want him to have done this. “Was it an accident?”
He turned away. “Yeah. Right. She was taking a bath, she must have slipped or something.” He couldn’t look me in the eye.
I knew he was guilty. “Why take her out to the lake?”
He shrugged, looking out the window.
“I saw the water on the floor, Tom. I know you took her down there. Why did you mess with the scene? If it was an accident, if you found her dead, why would you do that?”
He spoke in such a quiet voice I could barely hear him. “I had no idea there would be an investigation. I mean come on, why did they call you?”
“It was a courtesy call. Everybody knows my history. Our history. I wasn’t here to look at a crime. Nobody thought there was a crime.”
“So why did you start investigating?”
“I don’t know.” I really didn’t. “I guess it was your reaction to the autopsy.”
He blew out a sigh. “So what do we do now?”
“I have to bring you in. But I want to know. Did you kill her or was it really accidental?”
He turned his head now. Looked at me, looked away. “She was fighting. She didn’t want a bath. She’d wet her pants, I…” He came back over by the stove and sat down again. “I was so angry. Just so tired. It really was an accident.” He covered his face with his hands.
I could see his shoulders shaking. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “You don’t understand.”
“We’ll talk to the D.A. I’m betting she can work something out.” I touched his arm. He put his hand on mine and got to his feet. We walked out together.
BIO: J.E. Seymour has been writing more than 20 years. Her first novel, “Lead Poisoning,” was released by Mainly Murder Press in November of 2010. Four of her short stories have appeared in anthologies of crime fiction: “Live Free or Die, Die, Die” (Plaidswede Press, 2011,) “Windchill,” (Level Best Books, 2005,) “Deadfall,” (Level Best Books, 2008,) and “Quarry” (Level Best Books, 2009.) Her short story “Blackbird” was voted one of the top twenty mainstream short stories of 2006, in a Preditors and Editors readers poll, and her story “Brotherly Love” was voted number twelve in the 2009 poll.