[ WARNING - This is a murder mystery. It contains sensitive content. ]
Detective Michelle “Mickey” Mantle looked at the autopsy report–Accidental Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. An open and shut case; the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector were dead; except they shouldn’t be. The expiry date wasn’t for ten years; they were nearly new.
The manufacturer confirmed that batteries with that expiry date had only been on sale for two months. Taking the batteries and a printout of the manufacturer's information, she went to do battle with the coroner.
Jim “JJ” Johnson had been Vancouver’s chief coroner for twenty years. In that time, he had seen everything from drug overdoses to decapitation. His decisions on cause of death were final and rarely challenged. As soon as he saw Michelle, he knew what she was going to say.
“Go away.” He growled.
“Chris Peterson was murdered.”
“Piss off. . . . I know carbon monoxide poisoning. God knows I have seen enough of them.”
“Did you check the batteries?” she said, slamming the batteries on his desk.
“They were dead.”
“They shouldn’t be. . . . Check the expiry date. They are less than two months old.”
Johnson glared at her. Christ, how did I miss that. He goes to his filing cabinet and pulls the folder with his notes on the Peterson case. It is remarkably thin. He quickly finds what he was looking for, a one paragraph statement on the carbon monoxide detector.
He reads aloud.
‘The batteries in the carbon monoxide detector were dead. Replacing them with fresh batteries shows the detector is functioning normally. A label on the detector says the batteries were replaced by his son in January.’
He takes the folder back to his desk and sits down hard. He sits there stroking his chin.
“Well, what are you going to do?” she demands.
“Could be a mistake on the label.” he muttered.
“Change the cause of death to Indeterminate and get the batteries tested.”
Johnson scowled. This slip of a girl telling him how to do his job didn’t sit well. That she is right made it worse.
Trying to appease him she says, “I’ll buy lunch if I’m wrong.”
Going into his computer, he changed the official designation. “Happy? . . . Now piss off.”
Two days later, Johnson was at Mantle’s desk. “Get your coat.” She smiled. “The lab said the batteries were probably dead before being put on the detector. We’ll go look at the crime scene, then I’ll buy you lunch.”
It was one of those Edwardian homes that pepper the Shaughnessy Heights area of Vancouver. Screened from the road by a row of laurels, Mickey placed it as original and not one of the faux Edwardians that were in fashion. The exterior had recently been restored, although the grounds were in need of some TLC. Walking to the house, Mickey looked at the two chimneys. Only one had a metal cap, the telltale sign the fireplace had been converted to gas.
Johnson rang the doorbell. A middle-aged woman, well on her way to what would euphemistically be called matronly, answered the door. “Mr. Johnson, what brings you here? I thought you had all you needed.”
“Just a few loose ends to wrap up Sandra. . . . May we come in.” JJ doesn’t introduce Mickey. He had worked with her before. He would introduce her when she was ready. As she put it, “People are more likely to speak freely when I act like a secretary following her boss around.”
They go into the bedroom, a large room on the ground floor.
Mrs. Peterson asks, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
JJ hated tea, but wanted her to leave them alone. “Yes, that would be very nice.”
The gas insert in the fireplace caught Mickey’s attention. It is an older, ventless model. “I didn’t think that type of gas fireplace was allowed in a bedroom.”
“They're not. . . . This was originally Peterson’s den. He turned it into a bedroom after he tripped and fell down the stairs last spring, breaking his hip. . . . Prior to that, he had his own bedroom upstairs.”
“That’s what the incident report said.”
“Anything else I should know that didn’t get into the file?”
“His doctor had prescribed Xanax, he took one before going to sleep. . . . And the bed showed signs that someone else had been in bed with him. . . . I didn’t ask.”
“Who says chivalry is dead? . . . I think we need to talk to Mrs. Peterson.”
They go to the living room where Mrs. Peterson has laid out tea. Mickey took in the room; the furniture is period, but reproductions and not very good ones; the tea set had mismatched cups; Mrs. Peterson’s cup has a small chip in the base; the fireplace has a new, vented, gas insert.
JJ takes the lead. “I am sorry to have to inform you that we are now considering your husband’s death as suspicious. This is Detective Michelle Mantle, she is heading the investigation.”
Taking over, Mickey asks “How long has Mr. Peterson used the den as a bedroom?”
“Since last spring.”
“Does he usually have the gas fireplace lit?”
“No, just since the cold weather started.”
“In the last two months, who would have had access to your husband’s bedroom?”
Mrs. Peterson looks puzzled and doesn’t answer right away. “Just my son and me.”
“You have your own bedroom?”
“How long have you and your husband had separate bedrooms?”
Mrs. Peterson is getting angry. “For just over three years. . . . How is that any of your business?”
Mickey ignores the question. Pausing for a few seconds, “Someone else was in the bed the night your husband died.”
Peterson explodes. “Did he have his trollop of a secretary come over when I was out? In my house.” She was screaming, “In my house. . . . If you want to find someone with a motive to kill him, you should talk to her.”
Calmly, “Why would she want him dead?”
“He was going to sell the apartment he bought for her and her bastard son.”
“Her three year old son?” Mickey ventured.
Peterson jumps up screaming, “Get out. Get out now.”
Mickey turns to JJ, “A little late, but we should seal that room.” Then to Mrs. Peterson, “Thank you. I may have more questions later.”
As they walk back to their car, Mickey observes, “That went rather well.”
Sarcastically, “Yeah . . . You hit it out of the park.” Pausing, “You can be a real asshole at times. These people have feelings. She just lost her husband, and her son blames himself for the defective batteries.”
Mickey seems to ignore him. “Lunch?”
On the way to the White Spot, Mickey calls Constable Carson. “Hi Brian. Looks like we have a murder investigation. Clear it with Staff. I need you to do a financial check on the Chris Peterson file, wife, son, the works. Look at credit card receipts. I am looking for batteries purchased in the last two months. And check if there is any insurance. . . . Thanks”
JJ looks at her. “You don’t really think they would use a credit card, do you?”
“Do you carry much cash?” JJ shakes his head. “Me neither.”
After lunch, Mickey drops JJ back at his office and goes to interview the secretary, Carolyn Brooks. Not what most people envision as the other woman, she is a short, mousy, thirty something brunette. She leads Mickey into Peterson’s office for some privacy. Mickey sits down, Carolyn starts pacing, starts talking.
She was self-deprecating, “I am not what you expected, am I?” Actually, she was. The Hollywood stereotype of the busty young blonde were the exception, women like Carolyn were the usual. “Sandra called. Called me a murderer, a whore, said our son wouldn’t get any of Chis’ money.” She laughed. “What money. They are broke. Even the house is mortgaged to the hilt.”
Mickey knows all she has to do is let her talk.
“It started just over three years ago. The business was in trouble even then. He just needed someone to talk to. Sandra just kept telling him he had to work harder. He turned to me. . . . I know it is a cliché, but we didn’t really mean it to happen. . . . Then I got pregnant. He was a good father under the circumstances. . . . I don’t know where he got the money, but he pulled together the down payment for my apartment; I pay the mortgage. She thinks she will sell it, but it is joint ownership. It’s all mine now. . . . Did she mention the insurance?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“There is mortgage insurance on their house, and this apartment, a million dollar policy for our son and Chris Jr., and I think she has a ten million dollar policy.”
“Do you think she could have killed him for the money?”
Carolyn shrugged. “Possibly. He said he was having trouble making the premiums. He was going to cancel everything except the mortgage insurance at the end of the year.”
“How about her son?”
“Chris Junior, no–not unless his mother talked him into it.”
Mickey closed her notebook. “I am sorry, but I have to ask, were you with Mr. Peterson on the day he died.”
“Had you been there before?”
“No, that was the only time. . . . He called and said he needed to see me. . . . We just lay there holding each other for over an hour. His wife almost caught us.”
The next morning, Constable Carson is waiting for Mickey to come in. “Got the information on the batteries you wanted. It is strange . . .”
She cut him off.
“Chris Peterson Senior bought them?”
“Yes, but that is not the only strange part. There were two purchases. First he bought an AA battery holder, the type they use for building electronic projects, and some wire. Then, a week later, a six volt lamp and a pack of AA batteries. . . . How did you know it was the father?”
“Just a hunch.”
“Did you look at the life insurance?”
“Yeah, he got them three years ago.”
“So the suicide clause has expired.”
Constable Carson nodded. Damn. No one likes to investigate suicides. There isn’t any closure for the family, just a lifetime of self recrimination.
Mickey calls the lab, then goes to see JJ. She goes into his office and slumps into the chair next to his desk.
JJ watches her for a minute then snarls, “Shouldn’t you be out catching bad guys?”
Mickey doesn’t answer right away. “You said he took a Xanax.” JJ nods. “Sleeping in a room filling up with carbon monoxide–painless?”
His expression changes, he whispers, “Yes.”
She tells him about purchases.
“Why did he buy new batteries?”
“I checked with the lab. If he tried shorting out the batteries, they could explode. I think that is what happened. . . . Using the lamp would run down the batteries slowly, without any obvious damage.”
JJ looks troubled. “I’m not going to change the report to suicide based on two credit card receipts and a theory.”
“I can live with that. . . . We need to tell the family. His son needs to know he didn’t kill his father.”
“You go–I don’t think they would want to see me.” She starts to leave.
“Mickey," he barks, "You did good.”
“Why doesn’t it feel that way?”