Nora knocked on the patio door and waited, tapping her toe, her gaze gliding over lush vegetation and thick plantings marking the property line. Evergreens intermingled with oaks and maples in full fall plumage. “Never. I’ll never leave my cell phone ashore again, no matter how short the sail.” She glanced at her watch. “”Ten-thirty. Surely he’s up,” she muttered. “Maybe he’s out already.” When her second knock went unanswered, she tried the sliding glass door. Unlocked. Opening it a crack, she called, “Ted? Hey. Anybody home?” She closed the door and waited.
Van said, “Damn. What about a public phone?”
“There isn’t one within miles.” Nora shaded her eyes against the glare of the morning sun and peered through the heavy glass. “There’s a phone on the desk” She glanced at Van. “What the hell. I’m going in.”
“You can’t just barge in.”
“I most certainly can! And I will. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I have to apologize to a colleague?”
Van retreated a step as Nora slid the door open. A feeling of invading someone else’s space propelled her quickly across the floor. As she reached the desk, the smell engulfed her—dead and fetid. She gagged, clapped one hand over her mouth and nose, and whirled back toward the door. A body lay near the gas long fire, on its left side, curled into the fetal position. Stains, shiny and black, spattered the slate, smeared the floor, and clotted the hair. The skin was surreal—green and black. The bloated face, eyes and tongue protruding, looked like a Halloween mask. But the smell was real. And the hair. The hair moved. She recognized flies and maggots. She clamped her hand tighter over her mouth, muffling her “Oh, my God!” and pushed past Van in the open doorway. She made it outside just in time to vomit in the shrubbery. Van supported her as she retched, one arm around her waist, one hand on her forehead. Nora spit a couple of times and wiped her tongue on her sleeve. She felt light-headed.
He said, “What is it?”
“A body. Van, there’s a body in there.” Until now, her total experience with dead bodies had been the open-casket funerals of elderly relatives, seen only after the mortician had combed and rouged and puffed to the point that the bodies looked more like mannequins than people. “We’ve got to call the police. But . . .” She twisted the ring on her left and, still queasy—and embarrassed for Van to see her acting such a ninny.
“I’ll call—if you like.”
His formal phrases and solicitous tone put steel in Nora’s spine. “No. I saw it. I’ll call.” She ran in, snatched the cordless phone from the desk, and rushed back outside without inhaling. Shaking, she closed the patio door. Fingers stiff, she had to dial 911 twice to get it right.
Less than ten minutes after the call, a petite blond with fluffy hair and freckles came around the corner of the house. ‘I’m Officer Barker. Are you the woman who called about a body?” Her piping, little girl voice struck Nora as comically inappropriate. Making people take her seriously would be an uphill climb, even wearing the gray-and-black uniform, the .40-caliber Beretta at her waist.
“Yes. I’m Nora Perry.” Nora’s five feet ten inches towered over the young officer.
“Are you sure this person is dead, not just injured?”
Nora swallowed hard and nodded. “Positive. The smell . . . And the bugs . . .”
“Did it look like an accident?”
Nora shook her head. “I couldn’t . . . I didn’t look that closely.”
“Was there anyone else around when you got here?”
The question didn’t register with Nora. Van stepped forward. “Not that we saw.”
Barker turned to him. “And who are you? Did you go in the house?”
“Hendrick van Pelt. I stepped in briefly—a second or two.”
“Did you touch anything? Move anything?” Her glance included both of them.
Van said, “No.”
Nora shook her head, then frowned. “I mean, just the phone.” She gestured in the direction of the instrument lying on the weathered picnic table. “It was on the desk.”
“Okay. You two wait here. Don’t go anywhere, don’t touch anything.” They nodded mutely in unison, and Nora thought they must look like a couple of bobble heads in yachting caps. Barker disappeared around the corner of the house. Van seemed to examine the vertical cedar siding and the Andersen sliding doors before he moved stiffly toward the chaise lounge. It was the first time Nora had seen him in pain. Thank goodness he wasn’t one of those big, strong me who turn into whiny children when hurt. She hoped for the hundredth time that it was no more than a bruised back and a slight muscle strain.
Barker reappeared through the patio door, bringing the fetid smell with her. Nora swallowed her rising gorge and turned her face into the breeze from the harbor. Barker called the dispatcher—talking fast, nearly shouting. “I have a dead body, pretty rotten, probably male, in the living room. Massive head injuries. Not self-inflicted. Accidental is pretty much out of the question, too. No sign of a struggle, no sign of a break-in. The woman who called it in is here. Also a guy who says he only stepped inside for a few seconds. There’s no one in the house. Send backup.” Nora wondered whether she and Van should be overhearing such a call.
Nora had sagged against the patio table during the phone call. Now Barker got in her face and snapped, “Tell me abut it.” Nora blinked at her, trying to dispel the memory of the distorted face, trying to figure out what the officer wanted. Barker sucked in air and exhaled long, then spoke more slowly. “Tell me why you are here. Did you know the victim? Why did you go in the house? Tell me everything.”
Nora’s difficulty focusing upped her anxiety, and she struggled to be coherent. “Van and I anchored here last night.” She waved toward Duet, swinging gently in the harbor. “We came up to the house this morning to use Ted’s phone.”
“Is the body him—Ted?”
“Yeah.” Nora stopped. “I mean, I guess so. I didn’t—We were colleagues—not really friends—I’m not sure who that is!”
“Back up a minute. Why did you need a phone?”
“A lightning strike fried my boat’s electronics last night—including the radio. And we’d left our phones ashore.” Nora gazed at her boat, thinking how much they’d expected to enjoy the sail, a day cut off from the outside world.
“What? Oh. He didn’t answer when I knocked and called out so I went in.”
“You said you weren’t friends, but you just walked in.” Barker vibrated with impatience.
“I had to! Duet’s completely—inoperable. Sails ruined. No engine. I’ve got to get her towed—get a taxi home.” Nora rubbed her forehead.
“You could have called from a neighbor’s house.”
“I didn’t think about neighbors. And I saw the phone on the desk.”
“Wasn’t the door locked?”
“No. It was just the way I left it.”
“So you charged in. Then what?”
“Nothing. I mean, I went in as far as the desk. And then I smelled it. And saw the hair move.” Nora swallowed spittle and willed herself not to gag. “I ran out and threw up n the bushes.” Heat surged into her face at the memory of Van holding her head, as if she were a sick child, “I made myself go back in for the phone.”
“Did you see anyone else?” Nora shook her head. “Did you touch anything else?” Nora shook her head again.
Barker turned on Van. “And where were you when all of this was going on?”
Nora heard a distant siren. Before Van could answer, a patrol car rolled down Old Wharf Lane and Barker broke off questioning.
Nora remained propped against the table, sweaty hands clenched in her pockets. Police kept coming, apparently from nowhere. She wondered whether Frank Pierce would be among them. Probably. She looked at Van stretched out on a chaise lounge, eyes closed, and felt an almost overwhelming urge to say something, anything, to take her mind off what was in the house behind her. She knew her companion well enough to recognize his quiet repose for the mask it was. But not well enough to let herself just fall apart right before his eyes. She muttered “Get a grip” under her breath, marched to the low stone patio wall, and tried to find something to think bout that would block out the sight and smell of the body.