The Gilding of Norm Lilly

T.G. Browning

Some people wear their unpopularity like a badge. When you've got it, baby, flaunt it!

There are three common reactions to an incoming phone call at 2:47 in the morning, if you're Doris Preston, Chief of Police of the City of Toledo, Oregon. The first is to grab the phone immediately, then snarl "What the hell do you want?" The second is to rip the phone out of the wall, turn over, and go back to sleep. The third is to elbow Milt in the ribs and mutter words to the effect that he should answer it, you're in conference.

All three methods felt too exhausting this particular morning, so Doris invented a fourth way. She answered it, and in a mild voice said: "Can't it wait till morning?"

This threw the person on the other end of the line, Jimmy Hartman, Doris's second in command, into confusion since he'd expected the three usual options and had an answer prepared for the first one, with contingency plans for two and three. The phone company got an easy 10 seconds of work transmitting nothing but phone hiss.

Finally, Doris sighed and sat up. "Okay, Jimmy, I'm awake. Not necessarily aware, but I am awake. What?"

"You'd better get dressed and meet me at 1131 Spruce Loop Road." He paused, licked his lips and started to continue, only to get cut off.

"Why on earth would I go to 113-something Spruce at--" Doris squinted at the alarm clock on the headboard behind her, "--2:48 a.m., Pacific Whatever Time?"

That Jimmy could answer, so he did. "To look at Norm Lilly's body before it gets hauled to the morgue."

Phone hiss. Gears slowly turning. And then, "Judas Priest. And you're not going to tell me he had a heart attack, are you?"

It was a rhetorical question but by this time, Jimmy didn't let that stop him. "No, he didn't. At least I don't think so. I think the three bullets in his chest killed him."

"Okay, Jimmy. I'm on my way. Start the ball rolling."

"Right, Doris."

Amazingly, Milt managed to sleep through it all. A fact that Doris planned to remember and comment on later.

The Oregon coast town of toledo is a small town set in a valley six miles from the ocean and the much bigger town of Newport. It was built on hills. Really ugly, nasty, smell-the-burnt-clutch hills that gave the town a freakish, poverty-stricken, San Francisco-ish, where-have-all-the-people-gone look. This made passers through pass right on through, at speed.

It had actually been a blessing when the Oregon State Highway Department had bypassed Toledo entirely, even though it put a number of locals out of business. For one thing, Main Street probably wouldn't have to be resurfaced for another thirty years. For a second, buildings on Main Street were freed up by an extended round of bankruptcies, which in turn lowered the asking rent, which in turn allowed a number of start-up businesses to be born. There were now more merchants on Main Street than at any time in the last 70 years--though they all made considerably less than the ones that they replaced.

Doris lived up the hill from Main Street and after turning left on it, headed for Butler Bridge. It crossed a slough of the Yaquina River and provided the only access to a peninsula where Spruce Loop Road happened to be. She glanced once at each of the three buildings Norm Lilly owned on the main drag and sourly shook her head.

If anybody was going to get murdered in Toledo, it would have been Lilly. The man had been cordially loathed and not-so-cordially threatened for the last twenty years, particularly so since the discovery that he had owned 80 percent of the land condemned by the state to build the bypass. It also turned out that he'd owned the only qualifying gravel pit within thirty miles, which provided the aggregate for the bypass and was the not-quite-silent partner of the contractor who got the bid. Throw in the fact that he'd slipped a ringer in as pitcher for the Little League team he sponsored--a midget with a wicked fastball--and you had a man destined to die by violence or venom. If Doris had only motive to go on, she'd be pushing retirement before she'd gotten through investigating the first-round draft picks.

Doris crossed the bridge named after Horace Butler, the first person to plunge to his death by falling off the railing while drunk, made a right just past the looming Georgia-Pacific semi-solid landfill, and three minutes later she was at the Lilly residence.

Jimmy had taken at least 20 more pictures than were needed or tasteful, and stood leaning against the upright piano in the front room. He'd managed to sweet-talk Tim Thompson to come out rather than the county coroner, a move which would win him brownie points with Doris. (Doris had sworn that the next time she looked at Dr. O'Hara, it would be over the barrel of an illegal automatic weapon.) Further, since Dr. Thompson was competent, while O'Hara added new, majestic meaning to the word incompetent, it meant saving at least four days of confused exchanges between the county coroner and the Toledo P.D. Jimmy might have been young, but he wasn't stupid.

Thompson was a tall man with a serious face and a permanent tan acquired by some mysterious process no one would guess about. He generally looked distinguished and thoughtful. At that moment, however, he looked more puzzled than anything else, and Jimmy found himself gnawing a knuckle wondering what the problem could be. He was about ready to find out when Doris opened the front door and marched in. Her dark brown hair looked to have had a passing argument with a brush sometime in the past hour or so and she had gone so far as to don her uniform, minus the hat. At 5'4" and 115 pounds, she might not have looked ominous, but that was only the impression that only the chronically stupid would keep for any length of time.

She looked over the scene and Jimmy was gratified to see her glance once at Thompson and then nod in his direction. She didn't say anything but approached the body from the right side and then leaned over to get a better look.

Oh, thank God, she thought. No shots to the head. I just hate looking at that. Her eyes traveled down the body to the chest where two gunshot wounds were evident--neither one looked to have hit the heart. A little further down was the third wound Jimmy had alluded to--about belly-button level--and Doris suddenly a bad feeling begin a free ascent up her spine. She straightened up as Dr. Thompson also stood up and looked down at her, his eyes questioning.

"Oh, jeez." Doris muttered, looking around the body. "He wasn't moved, was he?"

Thompson shrugged. "I don't know at this point. But even if he was, you see the problem."

"Damn. Damn, damn, damn. I just hate it when things like this happen."

Jimmy straightened up and cocked his head, catching her attention. "What, Doris? What's going on?"

Thompson looked back to Doris, unwilling to intervene. "Coward." Doris muttered at him. "Leave me the dirty work."

"What dirty work? Doris..." Jimmy didn't like the way the conversation was going.

"Jimmy. Look at the body."

"I have, so?"

"Look around the body."

"I have Doris. What's your point?"

"Three wounds. None instantly fatal." She looked at him for a moment and then sighed. "So where's the blood? There ought to be blood all over the place."

Jimmy looked at the corpse and then back at Doris. "But there isn't any."



"So, either there's a vampire living under the carpet, or he was dead when he was shot."

Jimmy looked to Thompson, who nodded.

Absently, Doris asked, "Who called this in?"


"--ymous, right. Did you check the caller I.D. log?"


"--phone. Right." Doris straightened up and looked at him. "At least there are some things in life you can count on besides taxes." She turned to Thompson. "We're going to need time of death."

Thompson nodded. "I'll know after the autopsy."

Doris glanced over at Jimmy, and then at the former Mr. Lilly. Out of nowhere she said, "Look at his face. See anything odd?"

Jimmy bent over, emulating Doris's earlier stance. He didn't even twitch for almost a minute and finally sighed and straightened up. "No, I don't. What am I missing?"

Doris shrugged. "It's probably nothing but my imagination. I haven't run into Lilly more than a couple of times in the last six months. His face looks thinner."

Jimmy nodded. "I'll grant you that, but so what?"

"He looks terrible, Jimmy."

"He's dead, Doris. That happens a lot when people die."

She shook her head impatiently. "He looks like somebody who's been in considerable pain for quite some time."

Jimmy absently nodded and looked back at the corpse. He thought back to his uncle who'd died of bone cancer when he was a teenager. Damn, she was right.

Thompson spoke up. "Who was his doctor? That'd speed things along if we could talk to him."

Doris frowned and shook her head. "I know he wasn't McCallum's--but it could have been anybody from Newport. Jimmy, check the bathroom and bedroom for prescription bottles. Start calling around as soon as it's a decent time." Doris looked at her watch and groaned. "Damn, it's already four. Almost no point in going back to bed."

But she did.

The tail end of that crisp April morning greeted Doris when she took up the Lilly case again, heading to see the late Lilly's sister at the Lincoln County courthouse. She hoped to discover who his doctor had been, but with the great love often found between siblings, Doris figured she'd be lucky if Alice could recall his phone number. Calling the extended Lilly family close was accurate only if living on the same tectonic plate counted.

At least they were making progress. Jimmy had turned up a prescription for morphine tablets and was waiting for a call back from the Portland pharmacy where it'd come from. Too bad the prescribing doctor, a Dr. Raemi in Portland, had left on vacation and wasn't likely to return for two weeks.

Dr. Thompson had made it a point to retrieve the bullets first thing. After Jimmy had struck out calling doctors, he'd headed to Corvallis and the State Police Lab with all three--a 9mm, a .38, and a .22. Doris had only shook her head when she'd learned that bit of news. Three different guns argued for three different shooters and Doris had a bent mental image of people lined up to pay a buck to take a shot at Norm Lilly. Hell, with Lilly's popularity, such an offering could have put even the Lincoln County Fair in the black.

Alice had her back to Doris, but somehow sensed her approach. Before Doris could get a word out, the county clerk said, "I'm busy and you're out of your jurisdiction."

Doris expected no less. The two of them didn't have what one would call a cordial relationship.

"Glad to see you too, Alice. Got a few moments?"

"No. Not that it matters to you, I suppose."

"Too true." Doris rounded Alice's desk and parked herself in a chair from the next desk beyond.

Alice didn't look up. She was peering at a registered letter, reading with an intensity that would have done credit to a mercury vapor lamp.

"Look, Alice, I'll make this as painless on the two of us as I can. Okay?"

Alice shook her head, held up a well-manicured nail, finished what she was reading, and then put it down slowly. Softly she said, her face chiseled in smooth, unyielding stone, "That son of a bitch." Her voice sounded almost awed.


Cold gray eyes bored into a set of equally cold gray eyes. "My brother, Norman."

"Which is why I'm here. Norm's..."

"Dead. I know." She paused and took a deep breath. "I got a call from the hospital."

"I won't say I'm sorry. You don't like hypocrites any better than I do. Your brother was a jerk."

"No argument. On that, you, me, Mother, and all three of Norm's ex-wives can stand shoulder to shoulder. Probably a whole hell of a lot of others too numerous to name."

"Was he sick?"

Alice regarded Doris for a moment and then flicked her eyes around the room. Abruptly she got up. "You want answers, I want a smoke." She didn't wait to see if Doris followed; she headed for the back of the office and the worker bee elevator. Doris just managed to get a hand interposed between the doors as they closed, waited for the doors to sullenly jerk back open again and then joined her. Alice ignored Doris and fumbled in her purse, finally extracting a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter. About that time, they hit the top of the building and exited to the county prisoners' exercise yard, forty square yards of asphalt, chain link fence, and razor wire. It doubled as the smoking ghetto, which might explain why a lot of the smokers had started to act a lot like lifers on Devil's Island.

"So you want to know about Norm's health," Alice said, after lighting up. "Why is that?"

"I don't know if you've been told, but Norm had three bullets in him when he was found."

Alice cocked her head and blew a smoke ring. A faint, wan smile lurked behind the smoke. "Really? Self-inflicted?"

"I doubt it."

"So somebody killed him and you're asking how his health was." Alice looked off to the west, where she could see two tiny black figures grimly trying to surf in water within spitting distance of freezing. "I can't for the life of me see how it makes any difference."

Doris didn't answer immediately but followed the other woman's gaze for a moment and then looked back at her. Why did she want to know? She couldn't think of a good reason.

"Just trying to pin everything down. Probably doesn't relate in any way..."

"But you're so thorough you make me queasy."

"Thanks. Glad to help out."

"It happens that you're right. Norman was sick. Terminal, as a matter of fact. From what I was told--"


"Norman, who else? And no, he wasn't trying to mend fences before he croaked. Far from it. He wanted to make damned sure my daughter paid off her loan to him before he went to that great boiler room in the sky. Or ground, more likely, the bastard."

"How long did he have?"

"Between three and five months. Assuming, of course, that he couldn't get a liver transplant."

"His liver was...?"

"Inflamed, enlarged, and cirrhotic, was what I was told. It sounded like it wanted more Lebensraum to me."

"Loaner livers are hard to get, I take."

Alice nodded, still looking thoughtful. "Scarce as hen's teeth from what I hear. I tell you, I nearly died laughing when he told me."

Doris cocked an eyebrow; she realized that someone wanting to see Norm die slowly and horribly probably wouldn't shoot him. Much too quick an end. A really nasty poison would beat a gun hands down, with an attitude like that.

"When did you last see Norm?"

"Hell, I don't remember, Doris. Sometime last week. Wednesday, I think. Here at the courthouse when he was filing some papers.... He was shot three times?"

"That's the way it looked."

"But you think he was already dead when he was shot, right?" Alice's expression was so neutral it couldn't properly be called an expression.

"Where did you hear that?"

"O'Hara been talking about it. It's all over the building."

Doris sighed. "Swell. Why couldn't he wait a day or two for revealing that?"

Alice nodded--she didn't think that much of O'Hara either.

"I guess that answers what questions I had. If you can come up with anything that relates to the investigation, give me a call. I can't imagine what it might be, but keep it in mind."

Alice shrugged and watched as Doris headed around the elevator to the stairs. There was something implacable about Doris that made her nervous.

Doris decided to take a chance that Tim Thompson was in and O'Hara wasn't, so she dropped by the county coroner's office on her way out. Natalie Cloughlin perched on a stool, idly browsing the Web for lack of any real office duties. Natalie was a snoop, a ghoul, and a gossip... which explained why Doris thought she was a scream 90 percent of the time.

"Hey, Doris. Looking for Tim or Dale?"

Doris regarded her for a moment before she replied. "Take a wild guess, Natalie."

The other woman chuckled evilly. "Tim stepped out about five minutes ago but should be back any minute. Dale is flapping his gums to one of the commissioners, two doors down."

Doris sighed. Cooling her heels never appealed to her, even if it was part of the job. She grabbed a note pad and a pen and started to write a note to Thompson. She had gotten six words into it before the door opened behind her and she heard a soprano voice.

"Is Chief Preston--oh. There you are."

Doris looked over her shoulder and saw a woman she knew vaguely: Christine Langerhaus. She worked for Georgia-Pacific, bossing shipping, scheduling trains bringing in materials and taking paper products out. Doris had spoken to her on a number of occasions by phone--generally when some Toledoite had been trapped by a train undergoing extended mating rites.

"Here, Christine. What do you need?" Doris turned back to her note with the intention of finishing it, but found her hand frozen in mid-scrawl when Ms. Langerhaus said, distinctly:

"I killed Norm Lilly last night. I thought you might want to talk to me."

Doris found her whole body slowly and very carefully turning to the left, as she wondered if Christine had brought the gun along to show Doris just how she'd shot Lilly. She rather hoped she hadn't. Natalie's bemused expression crossed her field of view, and Doris felt minutely relieved that Natalie didn't look like somebody who expected her counter to require the massive cleaning of bloodstains in the next thirty seconds.

Just as distinctly as Christine had spoken, Doris replied, "Oh. Really?" Her voice sounded so calm that she wondered if someone else might have replied for her.

"Here's the gun."

Doris's larynx, warmed up and working on its own without cerebral support, said, mildly, "That's very thoughtful of you..." and her left hand, following the lead provided by the voice box, reached out slowly. It's amazing how many body parts figure they can really shine if they're only given half a chance. Before Doris had even managed to look at the woman, her hand closed around the grip of a gun.

Doris hefted the gun curiously, noted it was an old Colt Police special, a .38, and regarded Christine Langerhaus for a moment and then, for want of anything more dramatic to say, asked, "Want to have a seat?"

Christine shook her head and Doris found herself shaking hers in response. "Okay. Let's get you back to Toledo, then." Natalie regarded the two other woman, her expression like that of a seeing-eye dog who doesn't believe what it's seeing.

"That'll be fine," Christine said after a moment's pause and the three women found themselves looking at each, stuck in one of the those awkward social situations that Emily Post never considered.

Doris didn't remember to recite Miranda rights until they were out of the building and nearly to the squad car.

Doris drove back to Toledo with her mind revving in high gear. From the beginning, Lilly's murder--if murder it was, and Doris wasn't convinced--had the feel of a carnival house of mirrors. Nothing was quite right. Except, of course, that Lilly certainly had enough people who would have liked to see him safely underground. She was mulling that over and occasionally glancing back at her prisoner when Meg, the Toledo Dispatcher, called.

"Doris, you need to get back here. We've had a break in the Lilly case."

Doris grabbed the mike and muttered darkly to herself. Of course. Had to be. "Don't tell me--let me guess. The mayor just turned himself in for killing Lilly."


Then a click and what sounded like someone taking a deep breath. "Really? Then that makes two people. The justice of the peace just walked in and gave himself up to Mort for shooting Lilly. You think they did it together?"

Doris snuck a look back at her prisoner, who was lost in thought, staring out the side window. She didn't appear to have heard. "No, Meg. No. I repeat. No. Bud did not turn himself in--but I do have someone who did. Has Mort read the J.P. his rights?"

"Of course. Mort says the J.P. was being blackmailed!"

Doris risked a glance back at her passenger just in time to see Christine's head snap around and her face turn ashen. Her eyes were wide.

Okay, so Christine was being blackmailed, too. I bet whatever Norm had is currently floating above Toledo in a fine black ash. Better not let them compare notes.

"Shove the J.P. into the file room and have Mort keep everybody away from him. I'll be there in about five minutes with who I found behind door number 1. Under no circumstances put him in a cell. Preston out."

Like most small towns, there were a number of positions that didn't pay enough to keep anybody who had such bizarre needs as three meals a day or a change of clothes. The jobs were damned important, but the citizens expected somebody to do them because of an overabundance of civic responsibility or underabundance of common sense. Chickens would starve on what the City of Toledo paid for mayor, city council, fire chief, or justice of the peace. You can bet Doris wasn't swimming in greenbacks herself.

People still did the jobs for whatever reason. Take L. Kent Parsons, the Justice of the Peace. To keep himself in a style accustomed to food, Kent ran a drug store. A good half of his business was by selling mail-order alternative medicine items, stuff people called folk remedies thirty years ago.

Not that many places sold packaged kits for mustard plasters, with directions printed in three colors and four languages. Very few places had pamphlets on cupping, lancing, or the care and off-duty feeding of leeches. The State Attorney General's Office had only recently been able to talk Parsons into removing his pamphlet on home trepanning and was still working on getting him to drop the kit. (It came complete with local anesthetic, drill, gauze, plaster, and a road map to the skull, brain, and dura mater. It may not have been a big seller, but at the price he got for it, he didn't have to sell that many. He certainly didn't count on repeat business for that particular item.)

To pay back the world, God, and possibly any other deities that might have been offended, Kent worked for low pay and weird hours as the Justice of the Peace. He sat in judgment on traffic matters and, by arrangement with the county, set bail for minor offenses. Even Doris had to admit he did a pretty good job on the whole, even if she did figure he set bail awfully low.

Doris waved off any questions as she ushered Christine into the back and got her settled in one of the three cells. As soon as she emerged, it was to a confused gabble of questions from Meg, Jimmy, and Mort as well as Fred Vasquez, who usually worked night shifts. She again waved for quiet and sat down on her desk. For a few moments she listened to their speculation and was about to put a halt to it when the phone rang and she picked it up without thinking. "Toledo Police, Preston."

"Doris, I think you might want to come home." Milt was speaking precisely, in his Police Voice. It gave Doris the willies.

"Why would I want to come home right now, Milt? Aside from the fact that it's almost quitting time and I haven't eaten."

"Well, there's a package that's been delivered--or rather it will be if you come and sign for it. UPS."

"Can't you? "

"No, you have to."

"Well, he'll be gone by the time I..."

"That's unlikely. I've kind of taken the driver into custody. You really want to come home. Now."

Doris looked at the ceiling for a moment. "Judas Priest, Milt. I really don't want you to tell me that the UPS driver has confessed to shooting Norm Lilly. I don't think I could take that right now."

Milt paused for a moment before answering which gave Doris a bad moment. There was still a third shooter to account for. "Well, no, I won't tell you that. But the box Norm Lilly sent you might have something in it that might prove interesting."

By this time, the rest of the squad room had lapsed into silence and stood around like a herd of disgruntled penguins waiting for a herring handout. The side of the conversation they heard begged for speculation. They also knew Doris would shoot anybody who started doing so.

Doris sighed. "Okay, I'm on my way." To her onlookers, she said, "Okay, people. Find something to do. I'll be back in a bit. Jimmy, I want you to get Tim Thompson over here--be persuasive. I've got to know what he's got before we start talking to Christine or Kent."

She had a crummy feeling Norm Lilly was having a laugh somewhere, right about now. She was seriously thinking of using what remained of him on Earth for target practice.

In actual fact, Milt had merely sat the UPS driver down and given her coffee and a donut while he wrote out a note for the woman's supervisor. The woman's name tag, barely visible under a shock of orange hair that crawled down her left shoulder, said Emily. She kept one hand possessively on the package and the other alternated between a Bridge Bakery cinnamon donut and her coffee, all the while looking around the kitchen speculatively. She didn't have a clue why she was being detained, but with a cop writing an excuse, she figured it counted as a break and she could kick back.

Doris drove up, came in the back door and surveyed the kitchen scene before saying anything. The box under discussion was about twelve inches long, nine wide and two inches deep. About the size of a ream of paper. Doris sincerely hoped it wasn't.

"I'm Doris Preston. Where do I sign?"

Emily sighed and stuffed the rest of her donut into her mouth. While chewing, she pulled out the data board and handed it to Doris, who scrawled her name. "Thanks for waiting. You're helping an ongoing investigation and it's appreciated."

"Can I finish my coffee?"

"Take the cup with you. We got plenty," Doris muttered as she looked the package over. Emily lifted the cup in a salute and left.

Doris sighed and began slitting the shipping tape on the box with her pocketknife, all the while chewing the inside of her cheek. "I don't suppose I need to check it over. I doubt it's a bomb."

"Probably not. Should I go in the other room just to be safe?"

"Hell no. I go down, you go with me. That was the deal."

Milt chuckled softly and sat back. Doris favored him with a glare and then opened up the box. Inside was a letter, lying on top of a mass of various papers--check stubs, credit card receipts, hotel room receipts, you name it. "Oh, God. That son of a bitch."

Doris knew exactly what it was. All the fixings for blackmail, probably on half the people in town. Probably only missing whatever evidence Christine and Kent had destroyed last night.

She looked at Milt, who found himself totally at sea. He didn't have any of the particulars on the arrests Mort and Doris had made that day. Doris sighed and explained.

Milt took it all in stoically enough and didn't interrupt. When she finished, he looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, "Lilly was a pillar of the community?" Distaste tinged each word.

"Only insofar as he was rich and had a lot of influence."

"So what are you going to do? This is probably evidence of a bunch of crimes."

Doris shrugged. "Right now, I'm not going to do anything but read the bloody letter. Then I'm going to seal the box up and hide upstairs under the bed."

"Are there a lot of unsolved crimes in Toledo?"

Doris thought for a minute and suddenly realized that she couldn't think of more than one or two. She shook her head. Not real crimes, stuff that really should be solved and not picayune odds and ends that could safely be ignored, like in any small town. But that didn't mean there weren't things in there that nobody knew about that should be attended to. Oh, Judas. I'm going to have to figure out what I'm going to do with it. I think I'd rather retire and become a streetwalker. Or a bag lady. Maybe a nun. Some order far away that doesn't allow talking but does allow sex and husbands. Too bad I can't think of one.

"Damn." She took a deep breath. "Listen to this."

Hello, Doris. How are things? You will be getting this after my murder and are probably wondering just what's going on. Well, I'll tell you. Since I've not got all that long to live thanks to cancer, and I hurt quite a bit, I just thought I'd spread my good fortune around and make my passing memorable.

I'm not a popular man and I take a certain amount of pride in that. Most people in this jerkwater town don't have the sense God gave a gopher. They're stupid and smug in their stupidity. They can be counted on to cheat at pinochle, drink too much, sleep with anything that can be talked into taking the time out, and can't recognize people who are their obvious superiors, much less treat them as such. So, over the last thirty years, I've watched the idiots and taken notes until I had something on damned near everybody of any importance. Enough to embarrass, humiliate, and more important, incarcerate plenty of people.

Interestingly enough, I don't have anything on my sister or you that isn't past the statute of limitations. The only thing I found was that night you hot-wired your roommate's car and drove into the Willamette River. That was after you had steam-rolled a six pack of Colt .45, if you recall the details and I doubt that you do. The picture of you throwing up on your roommate is priceless... and don't bother looking, it isn't in the box. I'm having it buried with me.

Now, as for my murder, I have a few candidates for that. First, there's L. Kent Parsons, who I've been blackmailing for 17 years. Then there's Christine Langerhaus. Same story, 9 years. Finally, there's my mother. The old bitch found out I'd skimmed 20 grand a year off the trust Dad left her--you can figure she's not a big fan of mine.

Have fun. Go to town. You've got months and months of arrests and trials and general brouhaha and I can guarantee you're going to hate every minute.

And you'll do it. You're such a smug, sanctimonious snot you'll do it because it's the right thing to do.

You never should have told anybody about that midget. I really didn't have anything against you, personally, until then.


Norman Lilly, deceased.

Doris put the letter down and looked far less grim than Milt would have expected. Even more to his astonishment, she wasn't grinding her teeth. "You've thought of something."

Doris didn't answer immediately. She sat back and drank some coffee, drank some more, and then looked back at Milt. "Yeah, I did indeed. Let's wrap this up. I'm going back to the station to talk to Jimmy and Tim Thompson. I'll leave you to clean up this mess. When you're done, I want you to go to Newport and pick up Alice Tromlits. If you could bring her down to the station, I think we can get this whole thing finished tonight."

Jimmy looked peeved at the prospect of missing dinner with his wife. Tim Thompson sat at Jimmy's desk, having his dinner, a triple cheeseburger with everything. Meg stood with her left hand holding the left side of the jacket high while her right hand chased the sleeve around behind her back. At this point the sleeve was winning. She caught Doris' expression out of the corner of her eye and abandoned her quest. The prospect of possibly getting an hour of overtime while listening to what was essentially gossip was not an opportunity Meg could ignore. She found a spot out of Doris' direct line of fire.

Once seated, Doris leaned on her desk, her left hand cupping her chin and asked, "Well, Doctor, what did you find out?"

Thompson swallowed and reluctantly put the rest of the cheeseburger down. "Well, I'd have to say that Lilly died of a heart attack. It was close, but I think it was a heart attack rather anything else. There's no question he was dead long before the bullets took up residence. "

"What ran second?"

"Poison--strychnine to be accurate. There was a large dose in his stomach that he'd only started to digest. Just traces in the blood." He looked thoughtful and then made a face halfway between astonishment and bemusement. "He drank it in some coffee--and I use the term loosely. Jimmy found the coffee cup, and the stuff in it didn't pour so much as crawl. Maybe the shock of that hitting his stomach triggered the coronary."

"You think?"

"Nope." He went back to eating.

"Okay. How about morphine? Did he have any in him?"

"No, now that you mention it. Surprised me a bit. I would have thought he was in considerable pain from the condition of his internal organs."

"So we have a death by natural causes, one case of attempted poisoning and three cases of corpse shooting. That's more or less what I figured."

All three looked at Doris questioningly. Thompson didn't know Doris well enough to draw a conclusion from her statement, but Jimmy and Meg did--their expressions hammered on Doris like Alaskan mosquitoes who've sighted their first meal of the spring. She ignored them.

"Jimmy, kick both Christine and the J.P. free on their own recognizance. Tell 'em the usual `don't leave town' hype, but add that I want to see both of them tomorrow afternoon--about two o'clock. OK?"

"Aren't you going to question them?" Jimmy asked.

Doris shrugged. "I doubt if they have anything important to tell us. Whoever poisoned Lilly might, but not them. All three shooters can't even be considered accessories after the fact; I don't plan to bring that charge against them." Doris looked at Meg who met her glance stoically, expecting to be forced to quit the scene before anything interesting happened.

Doris surprised her. "Meg, stick around for another hour or so. The only two people I want to talk to are Milt and Alice Tromlits. Anybody else, screen out for the next hour. I'll be working on writing some stuff up--"

The phone rang, barely beating the front door opening. Meg jumped for the phone and Doris found herself looking at two women--Alice Tromlits and her mother, Matilda Lilly. Matty to her friends, had she any, which she didn't.

Matilda Lilly was pushing 85, but unlike a number of the seniors in town, she didn't look like she got any enjoyment out of straight-arming the Grim Reaper. With her grim expression, narrowed black eyes in a pasty Grandma Moses/Apple Doll face, she looked like she'd much rather kick the Reaper in the nuts and have done with it. The woman radiated bitterness like a working smithy radiated heat. Doris could tell where Norm came by his spitefulness; hi-test malevolence that potent rides DNA like a tick rides a rabbit.

Before Doris could so much as mutter "Oh, jeez," Matty started in.

"Just who the hell do you think you are, you little puffed up bitch? Rousting my daughter around like some cheap streetwalker--not that the idiot doesn't need rousting, but I'll do it, not some jackass woman cop who..." Matty stopped rather suddenly in mid-tirade.

It was the cold gray eyes boring into her that did it. That and the twitch of Doris's right hand which plainly showed the hand's desire for the close companionship of a gun. Matilda Lilly may not have been much of a reader of the printed word, but she certainly qualified as a speed reader of physical text.

Doris looked mildly disappointed. She glanced at Alice questioningly.

"My mother got a little upset when I mentioned you had a talk with me this afternoon." Alice shrugged.

"Really? Pity." Doris looked back at the old woman and then pointedly looked at a chair a comfortable distance away. "Shut up and sit down. If you interrupt me just once, I'll throw you in a cell and have somebody hose you down. That is, unless you want to confess to shooting your son. He seemed to think you planned to."

Matilda pursed her lips tightly and remained mum.

"No matter." Doris turned back to Alice and waited while the other sat down in the chair beside her desk. Without preamble, she asked, "How in hell did you get him to drink that coffee? Couldn't he taste the poison? Besides, I would have thought he'd refuse to take a chance on anything you'd give him."

Alice smiled slightly. "By that time, he didn't really care what I had in it."

Doris looked thoughtful. "What did you do with his morphine?"

"Flushed it."

"Really? What actually was in the prescription bottle? Remember, we can have it analyzed."

"I put some old saccharine tablets in it. I figured he wouldn't notice."

"Did you know he was setting things up to have somebody kill him?"

Alice sighed and nodded as she crossed her legs. Without asking permission she lit up a Lucky Strike and took a big drag.

Her mother looked astonished. "You killed him?" From the tone of voice, Doris couldn't tell if Matty approved or heartily approved.

"I sure as hell tried. His damned will saddles me with the trust for you and more liens on the estate than you can count on your fingers and toes. On top of it all, the bastard left me just enough money to make sure I'd have to pay taxes on it. I'm going to lose everything to lawyers. Prison's starting to sound pleasant after fifty years of the two of you."

Doris sat back in her chair and casually asked, "How did you get Christine, Kent, and..." Alice favored her with a chill look and didn't finish the list. "...and the rest to actually shoot a dead man?"

Alice snorted. "Norm always did have a problem with overkill. He didn't know which of the three would crack and he didn't care. He just wanted out."

"And when Christine showed up..."

"Before, actually. I gave them all a call and told them they could get out from under Norm's thumb without killing him. I had to sweeten the deal, I'm afraid. I ended up giving them each $2,000 on top of the original blackmail evidence."

"Did you really think we'd miss the fact that he was already dead when he was shot?"

Alice looked disgusted for a moment and then shrugged. "I didn't think of that until after Christine shot him. Only then did I realize he didn't bleed."

"Well, brighten up. You don't have to worry about a murder charge. The autopsy pegged the cause of death as a heart attack." Alice looked mildly surprised.

Meg cupped the phone she held and called to Doris. "It's Milt. He says Alice Tromlits's house is burning down."

"Oh, that's just ducky." Doris glared at Alice. "You set it, didn't you?"

The other woman nodded. "Hell, yes. I own it outright and I mailed a registered letter to my insurance company informing them I'd torched it. After our little talk, I knew you weren't buying the idea Norm had been blown away, and knowing my brother only too well, I figured he'd planted lots of evidence in my house."

"Evidence of what?" Doris asked, more to herself than to Alice.

Alice favored her with a withering look and with the merest hint of a smile, said, "Don't be silly. I'm not going to answer that."

Par for the course. Asking a Lilly for cooperation was nearly as pointless as eating celery. The entire Lilly family seemed to have a talent for making life miserable for just about anybody within a blast radius of at least 7 miles--that being approximately how far away Alice's house stood, or smoldered, as the case might be.

Milt got home about two hours later, smelling of smoke and bearing evidence of unwilling participation in crowd activities. Getting melted marshmallows out of a police jacket isn't easy, which explained his tight expression. A dark smudge under his jaw completed the picture and gave him a raffish air he normally didn't carry.

He doffed his jacket and hung it up, put away his other cop gear, and then ran a hand through his crew cut: one very long day. Maybe not as filled with revelations as Doris's, but a day that could have benefited from less activity. Lots less activity.

And the day was not yet done, he could see.

Doris sat on the fireplace hearth, warming her hands over a small fire she'd built using what little dry wood they had remaining this long after winter. Crackles and pops and an occasional hiss drifted out of the fireplace reluctantly, as if the hot smoke had tried to suck the sound up the chimney as it made its escape. As he approached, he watched Doris reach into a sack, rummage around and extract some paper, which she promptly stuffed under the one big piece of wood in the fireplace.

Milt dared it to remain unburned. Only a piece of wood would be stupid enough to go one on one with Doris right now. He sat down in the recliner and leaned back. He sighed. He waited.

He got bored. She wasn't going to tell him what she was doing and he really, really didn't want to ask straight out. At least she'd found the box under the bed upstairs where he'd placed it, as her sub-ether spousal telepathy had directed. She knew he wouldn't get rid of it. He just couldn't.

Hide it, yes. Forget about it, damned right. Destroy possible evidence? No way.

Doris was a hell of a lot more pragmatic than he was--always had been. He'd seen that the night he'd first determined that Doris was as serious about him as he was about her. The subject had been blackmail then, too.

She looked at him, gave him a tight grin, fished around and grabbed a handful of paper.

"You sure, absolutely sure, that you want to do that?"

Doris simply nodded.

"Did you read any of it--I mean, you had to have looked at some of it."

Doris shook her head. She still didn't say anything. Lord, he hated it when she needled him like this. Milt's curiosity bump was very nearly as big as he was.

He couldn't stand it. "Dammit, Doris. Say something. Say anything. Don't just sit there."

"I'm not. I'm feeding a fire." She grabbed another handful and stuffed it into a convenient location between a piece of two-by-four and the log. She watched if for a second. "How did your fire go?"

Milt sighed. "Total loss."

"Did you know Alice set it?"

Milt looked thunderstruck and then morphed to perplexed. "Alice was at the station? "

"She showed up with Mummy Dearest and confessed to poisoning Norm and torching her place. By now Fred has her over in the county lock-up but I think she'll get sprung as soon as the D.A. looks at the particulars in the case. I can't feature anybody prosecuting her. I can think of a number of people who might even applaud her."

"So why did you have her locked up?"

"To make damned sure that Alice didn't off Mummy or vice versa. I'm hoping by tomorrow morning that the two of them have cooled off enough to resume their normal, probably sick, family relationship."

Milt took a deep breath, assimilating things at a quicker rate than most people would have expected. He caught his mental breath and then asked the question. "Why?"

"Why what? Why am I dumping the entire case into the nearest facility that won't chuck it back up at me? Because there is no case. Attempted murder is the worst we could go for and I think a smart lawyer could convince a jury it was just a case of mercy attempted murder. Corpse desecration? How can I go for that when I want to do things to Lilly's corpse myself? And if any of the particulars come out, you bet half the town will feel that way too.

"How can I burn Norm's evidence? How the hell can I not burn it? It's about as close to a pure act of evil as anything I've ever seen."

"But evidence?"

"Evidence of what? And when does it actually become evidence of other crimes? The way I see it, only after somebody reads it. Nobody but Norm knew what was in there. He's gone. Ipso facto, it's not evidence. Not the way I see it."

Milt swore softly to himself. "That's convenient--and that's sophistry."

Doris grinned. "You know that. I know that. But I don't think the paper knows that." She shoved the rest of the sack into the fireplace, watched until it caught fire and then went over and sat in Milt's lap. She looked at Milt, gave him a quick kiss on the forehead and then looked back at the fire.

"God, I hope that somewhere, somehow, good old Norm knows just how warm his little gift has made me feel."

"Not possible."

"Don't count on it, Milt. If there is any justice, anywhere, ever, he will."

The fire flared up, a sheet of yellow that blocked out the soot-black behind it as is danced and spun and reached for the sky beyond the chimney. The log caught and the crackle of pitch pockets chuckled softly to the night.

For a very long time--an eternity, perhaps.

T.G. Browning ( is a traffic engineer in Oregon and has had several stories published via the web, although he generally spends his time writing novels. His first novel, Wired, is scheduled to be published this fall. He writes a column for the e-zine Dark Moon Rising on book collecting.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 T.G. Browning.