"I did not come here to write an obituary."
Gloria Trevisi, editor, writer, photographer, and general dogsbody of the Plattsford Sun, made this startling statement to the corpse that was lying, grotesquely twisted, almost at her feet.
Back arched, mouth wide open and eyes rolled back, the body lay across the remains of a broken coat tree and under a jumble of other debris in the front hall of what otherwise looked like a prim little house. The clothing was dirty and smelled. It was, by far, the worst sight Gloria had seen in her life.
Just seconds before, Mary Connors, the county’s Christmas Food Bank coordinator, had dropped a packet containing a perfectly delicious hot turkey dinner on the hardwood floor, releasing a tantalizing aroma of roast fowl to mingle with the other, more rank odors permeating the house, and propelled herself outside.
Gloria would have followed right behind her, if her coat had not become snagged on something sharp. And since it was her only winter coat, she was frantically attempting to free it without ripping the lining and sending clouds of goose down spewing into the shambles that had met them in the front hall.
"It certainly is not a good day to take your picture," Gloria added to that taut, waxy face staring up from the floor, as she tugged gently at the fabric with shaking fingers. "For one thing, you haven?t shaved." The stiff chin stubble, she noticed, glistened with old, dried saliva. She swallowed hard, averted her eyes from the horrid face, and concentrated on loosening her coat from the sharp spike on which it had become impaled. Her numb brain fumbled for the beginnings of a good Catholic prayer while from outside came the sounds of Mary, on her knees, noisily liberating her lunch. "Oh, hell," Gloria muttered, jerking on her coat hem and battling a rising panic.
Once freed, she, too, stepped over and around broken tables, fallen pictures, and everything else that littered the floor. Being younger, somewhat taller, and a lot more slender than Mary, she made her exit quickly and with less fuss, and managed to maintain her calm until she was on the front walk. Then she collapsed. Her car was only a few yards away, but she had to sit for a minute on Reg McIvor’s porch steps, face pressed to her knees, eyes tightly shut, and take a few deep breaths of cold December air before she could reach it. Death smelled.
Opening her eyes, she stared down at her black leather boots, the toes partially covered with dry snow. A few minutes ago she and the food bank coordinator had trod on these very steps, and had knocked briskly on the unlatched front door. With country-bred neighborly confidence, Mary Connors had called a cheerful greeting, pushed the door open, looked back at Gloria, and whispered, "He always leaves the door off the latch when he’s expecting someone. He’s a bit deaf, you know."
She could see Mary now, squatting face down in the neat box hedge, reminiscent of one of those tacky garden ornaments one sees propped up in perennial borders of houses in East Lister, except they showed big women in frilly underwear bending over the Sweet William, and Mary was a big woman bundled in gray stretch pants and maroon parka, gyrating over the remains of her midday meal. Between heaves, she tried toapologize to Gloria for something over which she obviously had no control. Poor Mary had seen him first.
Thoughts of lawn ornaments helped Gloria recover. The man inside was past help, and the woman at the hedge not yet ready for comforting words. Taking a deep breath, she rose slowly from the steps, hoisted the camera bag to her shoulder, and walked to her old Mazda wagon at the end of the driveway. Digging out the car phone that Tony Lambert, her absent husband, insisted she have with her in case of emergency, she plugged it in and switched it on with trembling fingers, prayed that it would pick up a signal, dialed the police, and mentally thanked Tony for his extra concern for her safety. Then she took several more deep breaths and tried to get her bearings after walking into that ghastly scene?and running out.
The house was about a half-mile from North Andover, a small village in Ramsbottom Township not far from Plattsford, the local metropolis of six thousand. It was small, and neat, with a one-acre lot of large old trees, flower gardens hidden under a bed of leaves and thin layer of snow, a snake wood fence, and a short paved driveway. For the retired gentleman farmer who lived here, it was probably a little piece of paradise.
So why did it look like hell?
"Mary, are you all right?" Gloria called to the woman by the hedge.
"I?ll never be all right again," Mary moaned. "Poor Mr. McIvor! We have to call someone."
"I?ve called the police. You?d better come and sit down." Gloria immediately regretted the invitation; but she couldn?t leave the poor woman out in the snow, especially if she were about to go into shock; already she was visibly trembling. And better to hurl biscuits in her old Mazda than in a delivery van full of food baskets and hot meal trays for shut-ins. The shut-ins would not appreciate it much. Still, she hoped Mary would have the sense to stick her head out the window. "Was that definitely Mr. McIvor?"
"Yeah, that was?Oh, no!" Halfway across the lawn, Mary turned green again. Gloria ran to offer assistance and gently helped her to the car. A tiny voice was urging her to fetch her camera and go back inside for a photo of that gruesome scene, but at a small town weekly newspaper in mid-western Ontario one just didn?t do?that sort of thing. Even Gloria, veteran of city and suburban newspapers, once accustomed to working under conditions of stiff competition with other news media, held to certain standards of decency in news coverage.
She placed Mary in the passenger seat with the door open; the woman still looked terribly pale. Grabbing a crocheted throw from her back seat and tucking it around her, she handed Mary the telephone, then picked up her camera and straightened up, studying the road, the driveway with the two sets of tire tracks from her car and Mary’s van, the yard with Mary’s footprints leading to and from the hedge, and the front steps, where she had sat for several uneasy moments. The front of the house looked perfectly normal, except for the slightly open door. That was the way they had found it: pulled to, but not latched. How long had it been that way? She didn?t recall that the house was cold inside?
She walked a few steps out onto the road, pointed her camera at the best angle of the house and snapped, not that the paper would need it; but it was something to do. The small amount of snow on the ground showed her footprints at the edge of the road, and the prints of an earlier visitor tracking diagonally across the front yard, possibly a neighbor bringing Mr. McIvor’s mail from the village store. She hadn?t paid attention to them when she had arrived, but now? Surely if someone had noticed that the door was off the latch?
A low growl caught her attention, and she turned to see a small black mutt crouched by the fence, mouth open and drooling. Did Mr. McIvor have a dog? And had it been frightened by something? Likely, it hadn?t been fed in a few days, Gloria thought. "Hey, you poor little thing, do you like turkey?" The dog met her eyes with a sorrowful stare. "It’s all right. Come to me?" She approached cautiously and held out a mittened hand in a friendly gesture, palm open and fingers low, crooning encouragement to the frightened, lost animal.
The dog lurched forward suddenly and grabbed the mitt, biting down hard on three fingers. Gloria yelled, swore, and snatched back her mitten. "I take that back, you lousy hound." She stepped quickly out of the dog’s path, removed the mangled mitt, and examined her fingers for teeth marks. Heart pounding, she cradled the hand against her coat and eyed the dog. The animal seemed to be gagging on its tongue. She eased backward out of reach.
"This definitely is not what I had in mind for our Christmas edition," she declared, cradling her pinched fingers under her warm coat as the dog staggered off, whining, its back legs trembling violently as it searched for another target. A police cruiser pulled up and a tall woman in uniform stepped out, pulling on a heavy winter parka. "Be careful," Gloria called to the police officer. "This dog is either sick or injured. It just clamped down on my hand."
Constable Sheila Miller ducked quickly back into the cruiser and radioed for animal control and the health department. Gloria joined her.
"You say the man is dead. Are you certain? Did you try to revive him?" She began to walk quickly toward the house. Gloria followed.
"I didn?t touch him. And I?m certain he’s dead-probably for a couple of days. He looks?" She swallowed. "He looks grotesque. We came right back outside, and Mary was sick, and there was this dog wandering in the yard." She waved her hand toward the front fence.
The officer stopped at the foot of the steps and gazed down at the place where Gloria had been sitting. "Did Mrs. Connors touch the dog too?"
"No, Mary stayed in my car. She has had one hell of a shock. I gather she knew the?the gentleman inside."
Miller glanced toward Gloria’s car where Mary sat sideways, chubby legs dangling out into the snowy driveway, and nodded. "What are you doing here?"
"I?m supposed to be taking a photo for a feature on the Christmas Meals to Seniors program," she said. "Instead we found Mr. McIvor had died. I?m sorry. I didn?t know what else to do. Am I supposed to call the police, or his doctor, or minister, or what? I don?t know his family."
"Police will do. Did you leave the door open?" The police officer stared at the house. "Shall we go in?"
"The door was already open when we arrived. But you?d better go in without me. I?ll’stay outside with the dog." Gloria walked back to her car, glancing behind to make sure the dog wasn?t following, and slipped into the driver’s seat.
"Thanks," Mary murmured, handing back the phone. Her hand shook. "I called for another driver. I?m not in any fit shape to go anywhere else today."
Great, Gloria thought. In thirty minutes, half of Plattsford would know of Mr. McIvor’s death, thanks to Mary’s urgent phone call. And the immediate family had not even been given the official word.
Murmuring something comforting to Mrs. Connors, she fidgeted with the phone in her hand. Should she contact her own office? This was supposed to be her afternoon off, and her husband had called from Montreal early this morning and suggested that she stick close to home so someone could deliver?her Christmas present, of all things. All she really wanted for Christmas was Tony himself, safe at home, tucking into a steaming bowl of pasta and telling her all the news of the chamber orchestra’s concert tour; or better yet, stretched out under the Christmas tree?but perhaps she should save that daydream for later. During the eight months they had been married, apart from one glorious week in Prince Edward Island this summer, she could count the nights they had spent together on both hands, with fingers to spare. In fact, they?d probably seen more of each other before their marriage, before he?d accepted this marvelous opportunity to tour Canada as first violin of a chamber ensemble sponsored by a prestigious symphony, and before she?d accepted her less glamorous job on a small newspaper in the corn belt of mid-western Ontario after her corporate career ended abruptly with economic recession. Needless to say, Gloria rarely felt married; she felt the same as she had when they were first dating, nearly three years ago, in Toronto: like a single woman in her early thirties, looking after herself.
And that was what had nearly ended their marriage last summer. Difficult as it was to consider the feelings of a husband who was never around, she must. She hoped this wouldn?t take too long; Tony would be calling tonight to ask her how she liked her present, and would be quite put out if she had to tell him she had missed the delivery. She supposed she could fake it?"Yes, darling, it fits beautifully, but can we afford it?" Whether it’s a star sapphire necklace or a solid cherry wood dining room suite, she supposed it would work. But what if he?d sent her a new washing machine? Not a chance! Tony would never be that practical. But who wanted practical presents, anyway? Knowing Tony as she did, it was far more likely’she shelved that daydream as well.
Checking her watch and glancing briefly at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she straightened her warm, woolly hat that tended to droop over her forehead and hide her bangs. Her shoulder-length, dark gold-colored hair was neatly tucked into the collar of her coat, and her warm, honey-hued complexion inherited from the Italian side of her family gave one the impression she had been south for a holiday. The farthest south she had been in the past several months was North Andover, southwest of Plattsford. Her work had its demands.
"God, what a mess in there." Startled out of her daydream, Gloria looked up to see Sheila Miller standing beside the car, shaking her head. "I called off the ambulance. You?re right; he’s dead. And I?m damned if I can guess how, or why. It certainly doesn?t look like any natural causes that I can think of, though I suppose a heart attack, or stroke?"
Animal control and a county health inspector arrived while Mary, still pale and shaken, was dispatching six turkey dinners in a fresh van, and Constable Miller was taking Gloria’s statement. They checked the grounds, captured the poor, sick dog, and went into the house to investigate the scene.
Then the straight-faced public health inspector walked up to Gloria with a signed sheet of paper. "Take this, Ms. Trevisi, and give it to your doctor. It is an authorization for the release of vaccine. We can assume the dog that bit you is rabid, so you?ll have to get your shots. Wash your coat, and anything that may have come into contact with the animal, to be on the safe side. And burn the mitts, too, if you will." He turned abruptly and walked away, leaving her standing, staring at her torn woollen mitten.