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Alan Cook

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Books by Alan Cook
Hot Days, Cold Nights
By Alan Cook
Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2010
Last edited: Thursday, May 13, 2010
This short story is rated "PG13" by the Author.
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Originally published in the Jeffery Deaver anthology, "A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime."
A sliver of moon rose just inches in front of the still-hidden sun as Connie O’Connor came down her driveway and started along the sidewalk with the easy stride of an experienced runner. It was already too warm for the T-shirt she usually wore over her athletic bra and the day would be a scorcher before long. Her ponytail tickled her back as it pendulumed from side to side with each step. 
As she turned the corner onto Main Street the only car on the road was some distance in front of her, a bright red SUV. It caught her attention because of its color and because it was moving very slowly. Then it stopped. Two objects came flying out of the passenger-side window before it sped off.
"Damn litterbug!" Connie sputtered. As she approached the scene of the crime she saw two white trash bags, which had come to rest among the weeds in a vacant lot.
Ordinarily she would have picked them up, but trash collection wasn't until the next day so there wouldn't be any cans sitting along the street to dump them in. I'll get them tomorrow, she thought as she ran by.
She took an unusually long run. She had to exorcise some demons connected with her live-in boyfriend, who had taken off to “find himself,” leaving her with a lease on the house they shared and not much money. Her route took her in a circle; she returned almost two hours later from the opposite direction along Main Street. A river of sweat poured down her hot body. However, as she turned into her block a chill went through her. A paramedic truck, an ambulance and several other vehicles were parked near her house.
She had seen ambulances often enough in her job as a nurse, but to see one in her own neighborhood made it personal. They were centered in front of the home of old Mr. Wilson, who lived just two doors from the house she rented. He had recently suffered a stroke.
"What happened?" she asked a paramedic, who was returning to his truck.
"You a neighbor?"
Connie nodded.
"Poor guy. He died in his bathtub."
She didn't wait to hear any more, but ran up the driveway to the open front door and into the house. She knew the layout and ran directly to the bathroom. The doorway to the bathroom was inhabited by a large man in a white shirt and a loose tie, with beads of sweat on his upper lip, talking on a cell phone.
Connie tried to squeeze past him, but he abruptly blocked her way. To the phone he said, “Call you back,” and to Connie, “Where do you think you’re going?”
She didn't like his attitude and the way he stared at her chest, especially since it occurred to her that her sweat-soaked bra was a poor excuse for a cover-up. "He was a friend of mine," she said, icicles coating her words.
"Well, little lady, this is no sight for you. He's naked and his skin has turned blue, just like he was frozen in a meat locker.” 
Strange. The temperature had stayed above 70 last night. "Well, little man, I'm an emergency-room nurse and I've seen my share of dead bodies." This time she made it by him, then gave an involuntary gasp. She'd never seen a body quite so blue before.
"Gets to you, doesn't it?" the man said. 
Connie wasn’t about to admit it. She took a deep breath and turned toward him. “What did he die of?”
The man shrugged as he mopped his forehead with a large white handkerchief. “Old guy. Natural causes.”
On a hunch Connie asked, “Are you a detective?”
The man nodded. "Detective Fixx." He flashed an official-looking badge at her.
She ignored it and was also careful not to look at Mr. Wilson. "If it was natural causes, what are you doing here?"
"I’ll ask the questions. You said you’re a nurse and you knew him. Tell me about the state of his health.”
He sounded like a detective. “He had a stroke about two months ago. Since then he’s used a walker. His left side is weak—was weak. He talks in a whisper.”
Detective Fixx referred to a tan spiral notebook. “Housekeeper said about the same thing.”
Then why did he ask her. "She took care of him, not the house."
"Caregiver then—whatever. Did you see him recently?" 
“I…” Connie had an urge not to tell this jerk anything—to stay out of it. But Shirley would tell him if she didn’t—may have already told him. “I take…I took care of him on Shirley’s day off.” Sacrificing one of her own precious days off to earn extra money. To repay her college loans.
He wrote in his notebook. When he looked at her again she noticed that he had green eyes. She’d never seen a man with green eyes before.
“Were you in this house at all, yesterday or last night?”
Connie hesitated. Should she say any more? Shouldn’t she demand to speak to a lawyer or something? But that was ridiculous. Mr. Wilson’s death had to be from natural causes. Whether or not she liked Detective Fixx, his questions were routine. “Yesterday was Shirley’s day off so I was here yesterday.”
Detective Fixx raised his eyebrows. “But Shirley slept here last night.”
“She always sleeps here.”
“Even on her day off?”
Her day off is part of always. Connie didn’t say that. Instead, she nodded.
“What time did you leave here yesterday?”
“When Shirley arrived. About six.”
As Detective Fixx wrote more notes Connie became conscious of Mr. Wilson’s body beside her, even though she wasn’t looking at it. It wasn’t just any body but the body of a friend. She and the detective and the walker standing beside the bathtub filled up the available space in the small bathroom. And it was so hot. In addition, she needed to sit or move around after a hard run or she would feel wobbly. She had to get out of the bathroom. But Detective Fixx blocked the door from the inside, just as he had previously blocked it from the outside. 
She said in what she hoped was an offhand manner, “Can we go out in the hall?”
Detective Fixx gave her a little smile—a superior smile?—and let her pass. She walked out into the hallway and took a drink from the water bottle she carried. She immediately felt better. 
He followed her and said, “One more question.” 
Now what?
“What’s your name?”
Feeling one-up because she had managed to avoid giving it before now, she said, “Connie O’Connor.”
“Well, Connie O’Connor, I think that’s all I need from you at the moment. It’s lucky you came along.”
So you could grill me. Her turn. Connie asked, “How did Mr. Wilson get in the bathtub? He usually doesn’t get up until eight. And he doesn’t take baths. He takes showers. He has a stool he sits on in the shower for support.” The shower was in the other bathroom.
Detective Fixx was writing again and ignored her. Connie turned to leave in a huff. As she took the first step he said to her back, “Shirley pretty much explained that. He must have gotten up in the night to go to the bathroom. Sleeps in the nude, she says. Must be a thrill for you caregivers to take care of an old guy who won’t wear clothes. His walker was beside the toilet. When he tried to turn it around he must have fallen into the tub and couldn't get out. He couldn't yell because of the stroke. Couldn't reach his call button—it’s attached to the walker. Shirley says she's a sound sleeper and didn't hear anything. Found him this morning. Probably been dead several hours. In short, the trauma plus his existing condition did him in."
"Did he hit his head when he fell?" Connie asked.
"We couldn't find any sign of an injury."
"Are you going to do an autopsy?"
            Detective Stoner contemplated her chest. “Does that story square with what you know about him?”
            “Yeah, I guess.” She wasn’t about to call Shirley a liar, if that’s what he wanted. 
"Coroner’s sending somebody out. Should be here soon." He gave her a card. "If that pretty red head comes up with any ideas, give me a call."
#          #          #          #
After her shift at the hospital, Connie drove home in the heat. She didn’t turn on her air conditioner because she had been having chills all day—possibly the aftermath of seeing the blue body of Mr. Wilson. She hadn’t been able to get his image out of her mind. As she drove along Main Street, approaching her neighborhood, she remembered the car she had seen that morning whose occupant had thrown the trash bags out the window. 
She stopped at the field containing the bags and walked across the street. Might as well do her good deed for the day. At first she thought the bags were gone. For once somebody had picked up litter. No, they were there—but they were lying flat and empty. Why would somebody take the contents and leave the bags? She picked one up; it was still sealed at the top with a twist-tie, but there was a small hole in the bottom. A few drops of clear liquid dripped out. She sniffed—no odor. She put a finger on a drop and touched her tongue with it. No taste—it must be water.
Connie took the bags with her, wondering why anybody would throw out bags of water. The world teemed with peculiar people. As she drove by Mr. Wilson's house she saw the yellow police tape blocking the front door. Detective Fixx was taking Mr. Wilson’s death seriously. And Shirley must have left. She was probably staying with her sister.
#          #          #          #
            It was at dinnertime when Connie missed her boyfriend’s presence most. He was a good conversationalist and they had had some stimulating discussions on many and varied topics. Varied enough so that she had thought of him as an open-minded individual. Her mistake. 
            She ate and washed the few dishes she had dirtied and wondered what to do next. She was restless—because she was alone, because of the heat, because of Mr. Wilson. She couldn’t stand it in the house.
            She walked outside. The sun was low in the west, casting a giant shadow of her body. It wasn’t going to cool off much tonight. Prickles of sweat tickled her skin, even though she wore only a tank top and shorts. She glanced at the police tape in front of Mr. Wilson’s house and strolled in that direction.
            When she arrived at the house Connie remembered something. Something she should have remembered before. She had to get inside the house. Now. She looked around. Nobody was about on the residential street. The neighbors were sealed up in their houses with the air conditioning on. Escaping the elements. She ran around to the back of Mr. Wilson’s house. No police tape here. Fortunately, the key Mr. Wilson had given her opened the back door. She let herself in.
            It was stifling and eerily dark in the house. Trees blocked the remaining rays of the sun so they didn’t reach the windows. She decided not to turn on any lights. She knew her way around the single-story plan. She went to the bathroom first. Of course Mr. Wilson was gone, as was any evidence that his body had lain in the bathtub. Even his walker was gone. 
No surprises, but one had to make sure. A faint odor lingered, but Connie couldn’t place it. She stared at the bathtub. She had been in that bathtub, herself. Perhaps that’s why it had been such a shock to see Mr. Wilson’s body there.
            She walked into the room Mr. Wilson used as a study. An ancient wooden cabinet dominated one wall. It had two doors that opened out from the center and locked with the same key. Mr. Wilson wore the key on a chain around his neck. Connie tried to remember whether the key had still been around his neck in the bathtub. She couldn’t picture it. Of course Detective Fixx would have removed it.
           Her heart beat faster as she knelt down and felt underneath the cabinet for the spare key. Mr. Wilson kept it in a small hollow behind one of the legs. She had never been so thankful to feel anything metallic. She stood up and unlocked the left-hand door. She could just see the outlines of several boxes on the shelves, but not the box she was looking for. Somebody had taken it. Still, she picked up each box and frantically opened it. Only papers—documents of some sort.            
            In despair, Connie closed the door and locked it. Now what? She could try the other door, but she knew what she would find behind it. She unlocked it anyway. The box she expected to see was there, but she was surprised when she opened it and saw the neat piles of twenty-dollar bills. Why had the intruder not taken these? Something was wrong. She quickly replaced the box, shut and locked the door. She had to get out of here.
            “Is this what you’re looking for?”
            Connie jumped out of her skin. In mid-jump she recognized the voice. She whirled around as the door to the closet opened and the outline of Detective Fixx emerged.
            “Do you get a thrill out of giving people heart attacks?” Connie asked in what was meant to be an imperious voice, but the quaver in it gave her away. She shook all over.
            “Sorry,” Detective Fixx said, but he didn’t sound sorry. He groped along the wall and light flooded the room.
            The detective looked as if he had just come out of a steam bath. His shirt was soaked with perspiration. His tie was gone. Sweat rolled down his forehead and even glistened on his head beneath his short hair. In his hands Connie saw what he had been referring to—her box. She wanted to snatch it from him, but when she took a step toward him he pulled it away and smiled a wicked smile.
            “So Ms. Connie O’Connor—runner, nurse—now we find out about your secret life.” He opened the box and pulled out a photograph. “Here’s Connie in her underwear.” Another. “Here’s Connie out of her underwear.” A third. “Here’s Connie in the bathtub, dressed the same way Wilson was. I will say this—your body’s a helluva lot sexier than Wilson’s.”
            Connie was livid, more so because he was taunting her. She had an overwhelming desire to attack him, rip the photos out of his hands and scratch his eyes out. What stopped her was the feeling that perhaps that’s what he wanted her to do. Assaulting a police officer. Didn’t they lock you up and throw away the key for that?
            She mustered all the dignity she could and said, “May I please have those?”
            Still leafing through the photos Detective Fixx raised his eyebrows and said in an offended tone, “Evidence. My dear, I can’t let evidence get out of my hands.”   And then with a leer, “I assume your friend Wilson took these. So how does it feel to give an old man his jollies?”
            “At what age does a guy cease to be a normal libidinous male like yourself and become a dirty old man?”
            “Ouch!” He pulled an imaginary knife out of his chest. “The lady can hurt you.” And then in his police interrogation voice, “Did he pay you?”
            “Yes. He paid very well.” And helped me make payments on my college loans.
            “And you didn’t mind taking his money?”
            Remain calm. “It was his idea. And he was loaded—as you must know by now.”
            “You don’t give an inch, do you?” He finally put the photos back in the box and closed it. Reluctantly. 
            Her turn. “If you think Mr. Wilson’s death is in any way connected to those photos, you’re wrong. As you must have seen from your hiding place, I know where the spare key to the cabinet is. He told me that if anything happened to him I should take them. Since his stroke I’ve been meaning to do just that because I think he’s lost interest in them.”
            In an almost civil voice Detective Fixx said, “I had to make sure. And you didn’t take the money, either.”
            “How did you know I would come?”
            “Just a hunch. I knew you wouldn’t if you thought I was here so I parked my car in the garage. But I needed to get the feel of the place anyway. Without a lot of other people running around. When I heard you at the back door I had just time to lock the cabinet and hide in the closet.”
            “And scare the hell out of me.”
“Listen, because of you I couldn’t even turn on the air conditioning. I should charge you to get these pants pressed.”
            Indeed, their creases had disappeared. Connie thought of what had nagged at her since Detective Fixx had shown himself. “You’re still treating this as a murder case, aren’t you?”
            The detective focused his green eyes on her for several moments before he spoke. Then he said, “There’s no reason not to tell you. Remember this morning, I said Wilson’s body was cold? In fact, the paramedics found it was colder than the room temperature. Now, as a nurse, doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
            “You mean he died of hypothermia?”
            “Strange thing to happen during a heat wave, isn’t it?”
            “What could have caused it?”
            “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
            “Do you think Shirley did it?”
            “Well, if it wasn’t you, or some combination of you and Shirley, Shirley working alone is the best bet.”
            “But why? She didn’t take the money. In fact, I don’t think she even knew it was there. And I know she didn’t know about the spare key. Although she could have used the key around his neck.”
            Detective Fixx grinned and said, “Now you’re thinking like a detective. I checked on some of the people she took care of before Wilson. The last several died suddenly.”
            “Old people sometimes do.”

            “I’m sure that’s what everybody thought. Probably why there were no investigations. But one died in a bathtub, like Wilson. What if she pictures herself as some sort of…angel or something?”
            “You mean an angel of mercy?”
            “Exactly. It’s happened before. In addition, she lied to me.”
            “Oh?” Connie didn’t know Shirley very well. She wasn’t talkative. Even when their paths crossed as they had last night they usually just said hello and exchanged information about Mr. Wilson’s condition. And Shirley had been even less verbose than usual—as if something was on her mind.
            “She told me she hadn’t been out of the house this morning. As part of my investigation I went into the garage where her car was parked—or rather, her sister’s car. Apparently, hers is in the shop. The engine was warm. It had been driven not long before I got there.”
           “What kind of a car does her sister have?” Shirley drove a beat-up old Nissan.
            “A fancy red SUV.”
            “One of those Lincolns? A Lincoln Terminator?”
            “A Lincoln Navigator.”
            “Right. I always think in terms of what would happen if one of them hit my little car. You say it was bright red?”
            Detective Fixx’s eyebrows went up. “Yes, ma’am. The kind you can’t miss.”
            Connie flashed back to that morning and the bright red SUV moving slowly along the street. The trash bags being thrown out the window. “I think I know how Mr. Wilson died.”
            “Tell me.”
Connie enjoyed being in the driver’s seat. “Shirley froze him with ice cubes. The refrigerator has an icemaker. That’s probably where she got them. Come with me.” She led the way to the kitchen, turning on lights as she went. She went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door. Ice cubes spilled out of the plastic tray. "The ice-making machine has been going all day. Looks like Shirley forgot to turn it off."
            “Interesting theory,” Detective Fixx said. “How do we prove it?”
            “This morning, when I started out on my run somebody driving a bright red SUV threw two white trash bags out the window into the vacant lot on Main Street not far from here. Trash bags just like these.” Connie lifted a box from the pantry shelf and pulled out a white trash bag. “Being a compulsive cleaner-upper, I stopped to pick them up this afternoon on my way home from work. By then they were empty—except for a few drops of…”
            “Water.” Detective Fixx looked at Connie with new respect. “She must have made so much ice she figured she’d better get rid of some before she called the paramedics. And she had to dry out the bathtub since her story was that he fell in.”
            “Of course, hot water in the sink might have worked just as well to melt the ice.”
            “But when you’re committing murder you don’t always think rationally. And the passenger seat of the SUV was damp this morning. It looked wet and the window was open so I poked my hand in and felt it.”
            He opened the box and started flipping through her photographs again. Connie didn’t know how long she could suppress the urge to grab them. He pulled out a bathtub shot, stuck it in his notebook, then closed the box and placed it on the counter. He asked, “Where are those trash bags now?”
            “At my place, two doors from here.” 
            “The lab should be able to test the bags and verify your ice/water theory. Tell you what. I’ll get my car out of the garage and meet you there in three minutes.”
            He headed for the door to the garage. As soon as he was out of sight Connie picked up the box of photos from the counter, went out the back door, closed and locked it, and ran around to the street. The sun had set and the temperature was slightly cooler outside than inside. But it was still sticky. Connie needed a cold beer and she had some bottles in her refrigerator. Detective Fixx could use a cold beer too. She wondered if he drank on duty. His decision—beer or lemonade. For herself, she would stick to beer.

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