EXCERPT (PG) : Murder Investigation
By this time, Tessa sounded like Tallulah Bankhead with laryngitis. “All right, Lieutenant Sculpin,” she rasped. “Could I have some water first, please?” The detective crooked a finger at a big uniformed cop, who handed her a bottle. She took a large swallow, and recapitulated her movements of the morning for the fourth time.
“And the dolphins didn’t seem agitated?”
“No, everything appeared calm and quiet.”
“You heard no noise?”
“I told you. I was alone in the building. That is, until Henry came in.”
Sculpin, a stiff, straight-shouldered man in his mid-fifties, overdressed in a wool suit and Macintosh, mumbled, “Well, not exactly alone.”
Tessa shivered again and took another sip of water. Stillwater and Esther hovered anxiously over her. The director of Mote Marine Labs, Elver Johnson, sat by the turtle pool, his face a closed book. He’d only arrived a few minutes earlier, and had already succeeded in irritating the detective to the point that he’d been ordered to sit down and shut up. Bad publicity and an upcoming audit seemed uppermost in his bureaucratic mind. Leslie Pilchard stood at a distance, arms crossed. His clothes were rumpled, as though he’d slept in them. He did not look happy.
“Detective Sculpin, do you know who the…the dead man is?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing, Miss Diamond.”
Tessa threw a lightning quick glance at the corpse lying on a stretcher. Forensics staff milled around it, measuring things and popping items invisible to the naked eye into plastic envelopes. She shook her head.
Sculpin asked the other four lay people. No one claimed to recognize the victim. “Okay, Mister Johnson has given me his particulars.” He glared at the lab director, who glared back. “According to him the desk assistant—a Miss Weever—has all your contact information, but before you go, I want your name, title, and whereabouts at the time of the discovery.” He held his pencil up and gazed inquiringly at Henry.
Stillwater began to bluster, but a look from the detective quelled him. “Henry Stillwater, Coordinator of Resident Dolphin Training and Research. I’m the one who turned the lights on. I came in at my usual time. Eight-thirty. As usual.”
The detective jotted it down. Henry melted back into the group. Pilchard spoke up. His sharp little eyes darted back and forth and he wiped his beak-like nose in a way that suggested he often had to do so. “As you already know,” he sniffed, “I’m Leslie Pilchard, director of the turtle rehabilitation hospital. When Stillwater called me I was at home. Eating breakfast. As usual.”
“Okey doke.” Sculpin seemed unaffected by the tension. He turned to Esther. “And you?”
Esther blushed deeply and took off her heavy, black-rimmed glasses. When she brought her dark green eyes back up to meet the detective’s, Tessa felt a jolt of electricity cross the short distance between the two. She watched her friend carefully, glancing at the detective now and then for any evidence of reciprocity. “Esther Williams, Volunteer Coordinator. I’m the one who called the police.”
“Esther Williams.” He looked toward the ceiling. “Why is that name familiar? Oh yeah—the swimmer. Esther Williams.” He gave her an inquiring glance.
The blush deepened to an unbecoming purple. Tessa rescued her friend. “Yes, she gets that a lot. No relation.”
“I see.” As Sculpin kept his gaze locked on Esther, her complexion gradually paled to a more attractive pink. Tessa noticed that without the thick lenses her eyes sparkled like well-cut emeralds. “Uh, could I get your phone number, Ms. Williams?”
She whispered it. He leaned toward her to hear, his shoulder brushing hers. A hush fell over the group, the corpse and technicians forgotten in the little scene unfolding before them. The detective broke the spell. “Thanks, Miss Williams. Okay, the rest of you can go, but not too far.” At his words, the kind of sigh you normally hear at the end of a particularly romantic play drifted from the gathering. Sculpin must have missed it, for he continued in a brisk voice, “Now, is there a night watchman or janitor I can talk to?”
Pilchard said, “We don’t have a security guard. John Dory is the jack-of-all-trades here. He goes home at midnight. I’ve already put in a call to him.”
The detective swung around on Tessa. She cringed involuntarily, due partly to his cigar breath and partly to the menacing gleam in his chocolate-colored eyes. “You said you arrived around eight? So the place was left unguarded for eight hours. Pretty big window of opportunity for mischief. Joe?” He patted the CSI man on the shoulder. “Any ideas on time of death?”
“We’ll have to get confirmation from the ME, but we’re looking at closer to midnight than eight. Considering the extent of decomposition, the victim had likely been in the water six, seven hours when she found him.”
“Did he have any ID on him?”
“No wallet, no license.”
One of the lab technicians approached and handed him a plastic bag. “We found an overcoat on the floor behind a metal cabinet. These were in an inside pocket.”
Sculpin peered into the bag. “Looks like about sixty dollars and some change.” He jiggled the bag.
Tessa thought, there’s something wrong here.
Sculpin shook the bag again. “Wait, they aren’t coins. They’re chips. Gambling chips.”
That’s it. They didn’t clink.
The other technician called, “I’ve got something else.” With a pair of tweezers he pulled a soggy piece of lined paper from the dead man’s shirt pocket.
“What is it, Carl?”
The man brought a magnifying glass close. “All I can see are some letters and numbers. It’s in some kind of code.” He dropped it in a plastic bag and handed it to Sculpin.
As Carl turned back to the body, an object fell out of the corpse’s trousers and clanged on the floor. Sculpin picked it up with a gloved hand. “Key.” He turned it over. “Looks like an ignition key to an outboard motor.” He peered at Stillwater and Pilchard. “Could he have come here by boat?”
Pilchard shook his head. “There’s a small boat ramp in the back of this lot, but the gates are always locked. Only a Mote scientist can use it and then we have protocols.”
Sculpin dropped the key into a plastic bag and headed outside, the little group trotting after him, not sure of their obligations to the investigation. He walked around to the back of the building and surveyed the area. To one side lay a huge commercial shipyard, to the other a park, cut off from the Mote building by a tall, chain-link fence. Sculpin waved at the expanse of water before him. “Is that the Bay? Or a bayou?”
Henry said, “We don’t have many bayous here in Sarasota. That’s New Pass. It connects Sarasota Bay to the Gulf.”
“Oh, yeah. This here’s City Island, right? So what’s that piece of land across from us?”
“That’s Quick Point. It’s a nature preserve.”
“But it’s part of Longboat Key, right?”
The detective walked toward the boat ramp and inspected the gate. “So, if a boater didn’t want to be conspicuous, where would he come from?”
Both Pilchard and Stillwater stared at Sculpin, clearly doubting his intelligence. Pilchard spoke first. “Er…anywhere. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but we have lots of marinas around here. And lots of little keys.”
Sculpin harrumphed. “Hey, I’m from Orlando. I’m new to this landscape.” He gestured at the mangroves crawling over the beach like huge spiders. “Seems like there’s more water than solid ground here. Weird.” He smashed his hat on his head and gestured at his sergeant. “Okay, I think that’s all for now. The building must remain closed for the time being.”
Johnson pushed forward, nearly knocking Esther over. “But—”
The steely brown eyes stared the lab director down. “Good. I’ll be in touch.”