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Skip had smelled the decay as soon as he stepped onto the front porch. Too bad Peri's not here, he thought, she could probably determine TOD from that super-sniffer of hers.
He still felt vaguely uncomfortable about their conversation this morning. Peri's reaction surprised him. Granted, her trip through menopause had resulted in some enormous burrs under her saddle, but he didn't expect her to be so combative, when he was trying to be complimentary.
Officer Ella Mason held the door for him. In her mid-thirties, Ella had been on the PPD for five years, beginning as the property room clerk. She had worked her way into the field, keeping her uniform sharp and her mind sharper. Skip noticed she held the back of her hand to her washed-out face. He smiled a little, remembering his first murder scene.
"First D.B., Ella?"
She nodded, and turned to face the rose garden before taking a deep breath.
"She's been here a few days, sir. No sign of foul play."
Skip walked through the door into the small bungalow. He saw a petite brunette kneeling by the body, which was already showing the signs of decay. Covering his nose with a handkerchief, he knelt down beside her.
"Hey, Blanche, how's it going?"
She paused from her work and looked over her glasses at him. "Hey, Skip. Peri with you?"
"Why would she be?"
Blanche's look became a stare. "Because she lives two blocks away, she used to clean the Peters' house, and she wouldn't pass up a chance to look at the scene."
"She was going to come, but-" Skip couldn't admit their argument. "She's got a meeting this morning."
"Meeting, huh." Blanche scribbled in her notebook, then stood up. "Well, offhand, it looks like a heart attack, which only means there aren't any signs of anything else. I don't know if she was under a doctor's care. Pretty coincidental that Bob had a heart attack less than a month ago."
Skip stood and looked at the scene. The coffee cup lay on the carpet, a dark patch in a splatter from the chair. "Yeah, that's what Peri said. I suppose two heart attacks in two elderly people isn't that odd." He paused, thinking. "But a blood panel would be a good idea, even if she has a note from her doctor. I'd like to rule out poisons, overdose, that sort of thing."
"Maybe it's a coincidence, but we should cover our bases." Skip walked through the small house, to the single bathroom. He opened the mirrored medicine cabinet over the sink, checked under the counter and opened all the drawers.
"I don't see any prescriptions," he told Blanche as he returned to the living room.
He saw Officer Mason standing in the doorway. She appeared to be talking on a cell phone, her face flushed and body tense. He walked toward her; as he approached, she pushed a button and stuffed the phone into her pants pocket.
"Everything okay, Ella?"
She looked at him, opened her mouth, and burst into tears.
Crying women were not Skip's forte. He tried to be comforting, but he really wanted to tell them to snap out of it. Peri understood. Sure, she cried sometimes, but mostly when she was physically injured, and usually she acted like she wanted to tell herself to snap out of it. Bracing himself, he stepped in closer to the young officer. Her hair smelled like a piña colada.
"Something you want to talk about?"
"Sorry, sir," Ella replied, taking several breaths to calm her sniffles. "Personal matter."
"Need some time?"
"No, sir." She straightened and looked him in the eye, her face puffy.
Skip stepped back. He and Ella stood and stared at one another while a clock in the living room ticked through the awkward silence. Ella blinked first.
"It's my son. He's in the principal's office again. I can't keep him out of trouble."
"Do you need to go take care of it?"
"No, not this time." She shook her head. "I've been jumping down to the school every time they call. Jorge treats it like another day off. I told him this time he'd have to tough it out in the office until my shift ends."
"Can't his dad help out?"
"We don't see much of him."
"That's too bad." Skip didn't know what else to tell her.
"It's just hard for Jorge. He lives with me and my mom and my sister, and I think he feels like there are too many moms in his life and not enough dads."
"I understand. Maybe if he was on a sports team, or maybe he could be in that Big Brother program."
She looked up at Skip with a smile that told him his suggestions were nice but not new, or helpful. "We'll work it out, Detective."
"All right, then," Skip said, patting her shoulder. "See if you can find a name around here of someone to notify. Talk to the neighbors."
He watched Ella turn for the door, wondering if he had just been as useless as he felt, but was interrupted by Blanche. "Why don't you call Peri? She used to clean their house."
"Yeah, I know." Skip opened the top drawer of the desk next to him and rifled through some papers. Most were stubs from bills, a few lists written in a shaky hand, but nothing said, In Case of Emergency.
"She probably knows where their contact information is."
Skip opened another drawer. "Yeah, I know."
Blanche held up her phone and smiled. "I got her on speed dial."
"Thanks, Beebs, I'll take care of it." He retrieved his phone from its holder and pressed Peri's number. His finger poised over the Send key, he hesitated. Peri's sarcasm was the worst part of her.
Man up, Carlton, he thought, and pressed the button.
"Hi, you've reached Peri Minneopa, Private Investigative Services…"
Skip waited for the end of the greeting, happy to have avoided any more arguments. He left a message, and then resumed his search of the house. More papers were in a pile on the small accent table next to the recliner. Skip leafed through them, documents in legalese, describing a parcel of land, title searches and name affidavits. It appeared the Peters had bought land out in Palm Desert. The documents were dated within the last year, but Skip wondered why they were lying out on the table. On a hunch, he dug his cell phone out again and pressed a number. It answered after one ring.
"Bonham here." Placentia's crime scene unit consisted of one officer, Jason Bonham, who tagged and bagged evidence before sending it to the Orange County forensics lab.
"Jason, can you bring your kit to the Peters' residence? …Yeah, it looks like natural causes, but her husband died recently, too… I know, but I just don't like coincidences."
Skip hung up and walked back through the house. Blanche was watching the gurney with Dottie's body being wheeled out by two young men.
"Everything okay with you and Peri?" Her gaze remained on the black bag.
Women were like sharks, he thought, when it came to relationships, they could smell a drop of trouble in a sea of love. "Sure, fine."
Blanche walked toward the door. "I've got another call, but I'll get the autopsy and tox screen results to you as soon as I have them." She smiled and waved on her way to her car. "There's Peri now."
Skip watched Peri lope up the sidewalk, then slow to a walk. She took her iPod from its casing around her arm and pressed some buttons, then put it back and took her ear buds out, draping them around her neck. He studied the way she pulled her cap down and her ponytail back as she started up the path to the house.
She stopped by the coroner's van and talked to Blanche. Skip saw the way the two women smiled and grimaced and laughed in a way that made him feel like he was the main event. Peri glanced up at him and waved, confirming his suspicions.
He stood at the door, ready to hold it for her, but she paused again, at the clump of police officers, chatting and smiling. They smiled back.
He had to admit, even in sweaty running clothes, Peri was a good-looking gal. Craig Daniels, a recently divorced detective about their age, laughed at something she said, and Skip felt just a pinch of jealousy, mixed with the pride of being her – her what?
"Boyfriend" was so high school, "significant other" so dry. Forget "soul mates", that was just plain chick-flick. There was no term to describe them, but he was hers and she was his and they knew it, even if they had no rings or paper or even shared living quarters to prove the fact.
Peri bounded up the steps to the front door. "Hey, Skip, did I miss much?" She took a deep breath, followed by a shallower one. "Wow, it smells in here."
"Body's gone, but come on in. I was trying to find a number for someone to notify."
She gestured toward the hallway. "You can check Bob's nightstand, but I know they didn't have any children. They might have siblings - I think I remember a Christmas card from a brother."
A plaintive meow came from the hall as a large, orange tabby appeared. He trotted over to Peri, only looking at Skip to blink before leaning his body into her legs.
"Mr. Mustard, I forgot about you." She bent down to scratch his back. He arched his spine into her nails, his head cocked and eyes closed in kitty bliss. "This is Dottie and Bob's cat."
"He won't be able to stay here," Skip said. "I'll call Animal Control."
Peri continued to massage the cat, from face to rump. "Like, the pound?"
"I guess. Why?"
"Hmm, nothing. Well, actually, when I was little, I used to go to the shelter in Salinas with my mom. She was a rescuer."
"No wonder you don't do pets."
"It was nothing like that. I've told you about my folks. They were free spirits, but they weren't hoarders. Helen would take the adoptable pets home, spend some time socializing them, then unload them on gullible neighbors."
Skip laughed. "Gullible, huh? How'd your dad like your mom's hobby?"
"Erik didn't mind."
"I still can't believe you call your folks Erik and Helen."
Peri stood up and stretched her arms skyward. "Like I said, free spirits." She looked over at Mr. Mustard, who had strolled away to sharpen his claws on the leg of the sofa. "How long does he have, til, you know?"
"Til what? Oh, I think they keep them for a week before they put 'em to sleep."
"Yeah, I think." He watched Peri walk over and scratch the cat again. "Maybe less."
Mr. Mustard, having reached his fill of attention, nipped Peri's hand and ran back down the hallway.
She sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I know I'm going to hate this, but I'll take him home with me."
Skip looked at her. "The woman who can't keep goldfish alive? You know, you can't flush a cat, Doll."
"Ha ha. It's just temporary, until I can find a new home for him. Besides, I doubt if he'll let me forget to feed him. Fish don't meow."
The cat bounded back into the room, stopping at Peri to butt his head against her shin before dropping something at her feet. She reached down and picked it up.
"Mr. Mustard likes to play fetch." She opened the wadded paper and read. "'Decide now, five-five-five, oh-two-six-four. Think it's anything?"
Skip took the note from her. "I don't know, but we'll run it down. As soon as Jason gets here, I'm off. Want to get together later for lunch?"
"Sure, um, I've just got that meeting." Peri looked at her watch. "Crap, I'm running late. Can you drop the cat over at my place? His crate's in the hall closet, litter box in the bathroom, food should be on the second shelf in the pantry."
"Oh, Doll, I don't have time-"
"Come on, Skipper, please? I can't carry all that stuff back without a car." She reached up and kissed his nose. "I'll buy lunch."
Skip smiled. "Think you can afford me?"
She leaned into him and ran her hand down his shirt, her fingers massaging his chest. "I think I can make you forget about lunch altogether."
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