"No man can bring about the perfect murder; chance, however, can do it." Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
It sounded weird from the start. There were not so many homicides in the winter, especially after a massive ice storm with sub-zero temperatures. Criminals slowed down like lizards in the cold. And from what they said when they dispatched Rogers and his partner to the scene, this didn't sound like a homicide at all. Woman dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the car in the garage; man dead in the house from the same thing. It happened every time the power went down in the winter, that and fires. This didn't sound like a cabin-fever killing. Probably it wouldn't take long, Rogers hoped as he parked behind one of the squad cars at the curb.
Huffington already had out his shiny silver shield and the blue rubber gloves. He handed a pair to Rogers and opened the door.
"Slow down," Rogers said. "I don't want you to fall down and bust your ass again in front of these people." Three times this had happened in the three days since the ice storm paralyzed the city. The first two had been in the parking lot of the station house and at a Quiktrip store when they stopped for coffee. Rogers didn't want it to happen here, at a potential crime scene with all the uniforms and neighbors standing around. They would look like clowns.
He didn't want to hurt Huffington's feelings either and said no more as he slipped his Ice Buddy ice grippers over the toes of his boots. The driveway looked a little steep. The kid didn't reply but took exaggerated care getting out of the car and little baby steps walking up to the two black-and-whites to find out who to talk to. The street and everything else - houses, trees, mailboxes - was plated with two inches of ice. A few tire tracks ran through the powder snow blanket on top. The sun was out for the first time since the storm and it hung low in the crystalline sky, lighting up the ice so that it looked like there were diamonds everywhere. It had raised the temperature to a balmy seven degrees.
The air bit at Rogers' face as he climbed out of his seat with a stifled groan. The cops were out of their cars too, and Huffington had pulled off one of his gloves to write in his pad as he talked to them. The cops had on their hoods and throat warmers pulled up to their noses but Rogers could see which one was talking by the little plumes of cloud in front of their faces. Huffington was bare-headed and his cheeks were like apples in the cold.
Huffington was young and had just made detective. Rogers was supposed to be his mentor. Huffington said he couldn't believe his first partner was a veteran homicide investigator who had been lead on some famous cases. Rogers wasn't sure he could believe it either, but kept that to himself. Huffington liked to be called "Huff," but Rogers had been calling him Kid so far. He hung back a little before closing the driver's door, to let the kid have his moment.
When Rogers joined them Huffington was ready with the basic facts, probably bullet-pointed on his notepad. "Neighbor lady called it in this morning," he said, looking at the pad and gesturing to the house next door. Rogers looked and saw the woman standing on her porch, wearing a purple quilted-down blizzard coat that covered her from head to ankles and looked like a sleeping bag with arms. A man stood behind her wrapped in a hooded terrycloth robe that showed the legs of his flannel pajamas. The woman gave Rogers a little wave.
"They've been neighbors about eight years," Huffington went on. "She's sort of friends with the wife. Hasn't seen them since the storm. Called to check on them; nobody answers the landline or their cell phones. Nobody answers the door. She knows they're home; thinks maybe something's wrong. The officers got here a half-hour ago."
Huffington wanted to go on, but Rogers didn't need him to hear what the cops had to say. "Okay good, you go talk to Neighbor Lady, find out what she knows about them, and I'll get the rest of it from these guys then meet you in the house." He took a closer look at the two blue-hooded figures. "Excuse me, this lady and gentleman. Don't worry," he said at Huffington's alarmed look, "I'll wait for you."
Rogers pulled his knit hat down further over his ears and tugged up the collar of his parka again as Huffington minced his way on the ice to the neighbor's yard. The woman waited for him, but the man had gone inside. "Be careful," he heard the purple sleeping bag say to Huffington.
Rogers turned to the two cops. All he could see of the faces was their eyes and a little forehead. "So?" he said. He didn't recognize either one.
The shorter one with blue eyes spoke up. "I got the call, took about five minutes to get here. Talked to Neighbor Lady, came over here, pushed on the doorbell until I remembered I was forgetting the power is down." Her eyes crinkled. "You know what I mean?"
Rogers did know. There were no lights in his own house, or any of the houses on this street, or any street in this area and most of the rest of the town. The fleets of bucket trucks and linemen had started arriving from neighboring states late yesterday afternoon, and city maintenance was restoring power to traffic control lights as the grid came back up bit by bit. Estimates were a week in the dark for half the city. Rogers hoped his house was not in that half.
"So I pounded on the door, yelled police, pounded some more, then did a walk-around. Couldn't see at all through the windows, but the glass door at the patio in the back lets in a little light, and I thought I saw something on the couch in there. Called for backup, me and Blanda here forced the door, and - well, I guess you know the rest."
"We didn't touch anything," Blanda put in. "Thought you guys might want to have a look before we call EMSA and TFD. It's all just like we found it, except for the door and windows." Rogers looked past him at the little ranch-style house. The front door and all the windows were open.
"So it's pretty thick in there?"
"It was. We didn't stay inside long. I thought Gina was going to pass out when we got to the garage. I went back in to open the windows. It's probably some better now."
Rogers looked at the blue-eyed one. "Name's Palmerini," she said. "We were going to open the garage door too, but had second thoughts." Rogers caught her sideways glance, and knew who had wanted to open the garage and who had wanted to leave it shut.
"So two decedents?" Rogers liked to use that word with the uniforms.
"Dead guy on the couch in the den, dead gal in the car in the garage." Blanda paused for a beat. "Wait'll you see what was going on out there. With the female... decedent. You are not going to believe that shit!" He sniggered.
"So Gina, you okay?"
"My head hurts."
"Well good work." He held out a gloved hand, and shook both of theirs. Huffington was back now, squinting against the cold, his face red and his nose running. "Stick around, get warm, and give us a few before you call in the troops to trample all over my crime scene."
Blanda laughed. "Crime scene! I don't know about that, Lieutenant. It looks to me like a dumb-ass broad who didn't want to miss her favorite TV show. You'll see. Open and shut."
"Open and shut. I hope you're right. Palmerini, breathe some oxygen when the paramedics get here. Maybe have yourself checked out."
"I'm all right," she said. "I just hope we haven't wasted your time. It's just - we weren't sure if something didn't smell right."
"Because we couldn't smell anything at all," said Blanda, and they both laughed before getting back in their cars.
Huffington headed straight across the yard from the curb to the door of the house, but the ground under the ice was frozen and uneven and he slipped but didn't fall. Rogers took it slow up the slight incline of the glassy driveway and across the walk to the door, his Ice Buddies digging in like claws. They made it to the porch at the same time, Huffington irritated and embarrassed at his fourth slip on the ice. He had an electric lantern in one hand and a flashlight in the other. Their backs to the white glare behind them, the open door was a black rectangle cut into the front of the house. Rogers took his own flashlight from his coat pocket. They changed into their blue rubber gloves, turned on their lights and went inside.
The first thing they saw was the dead guy on the couch. He lay on his side like he was sleeping, mouth open in the cherry-red face, head resting on pillows from the couch and a bed, cocooned in a camo green sleeping bag that hadn't held any body heat for some time. A nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam stood next to an overflowing ashtray on the coffee table amid a litter of beer bottles, cigarette packs, soda cans, crackers and candy wrappers.
They couldn't smell anything, but their noses were frozen and CO had no smell anyway. Rogers took off his Ice Buddies and walked to the patio door to slide it open, kicking an unseen bottle across the floor on his way. He said, "Let's step out for a minute." Huffington turned on the lantern and set it on a dinette table and followed him outside.
"The house hasn't been open that long so let's figure it's not safe to stay inside until the fire department gets here to ventilate. We come out for fresh air every ten minutes or so. Five at a time in the garage until we get it open for a while. Your head hurts, you feel dizzy, sick, anything - out." Huffington nodded. "Let's open the garage first," Rogers said. "Take some deep breaths."
They went back in and through the kitchen found their way to the garage. Breathing shallowly, they flashed their lights around: a light-colored SUV, a darker mid-sized pickup, and the side and overhead door, both closed. "I'll get the side door," Rogers said. "You get the overhead."
Crossing in front of the SUV, Rogers saw the dead woman behind the wheel, bathed in a soft amber glow from the dashboard lights, her head fallen forward so he couldn't get a look at her face. He opened the side door to the white light outside.
Huffington pulled the rope latch and threw up the overhead door, letting in the rest of the light. Rogers put his flashlight in his pocket and stepped outside. Huffington met him halfway to the front of the house.
They took deep breaths of the bright cold beside the garage. Huffington said he was okay from his few moments behind the cars. That had to be where the gas had come from; there were no butane-fired space heaters in the house and on their way through the kitchen Rogers had seen the appliances were electric. He knew they were going about this a little stupidly, not knowing how much of the Silent Killer CO still filled the house, but he didn't want to wait for an all-clear from the fire department. It had been hours, a day or more even, since the SUV had run out of gas, and the house had been open for a while now. Besides, the firemen would fuck up his crime scene if, God forbid, that's what this was.
They went back in through the front door and checked out the rest of the house, two bedrooms, one bath, furniture, personal belongings, and about a hundred empty containers of adult beverage. They stood over the guy in his sleeping bag on the couch. "Open it up?" Huffington said.
"Yeah, if you want to know what his shit smells like and see what kind of bottle he has in there with him." Huffington hesitated, uncertain. "Yeah, we gotta do it," Rogers said. "Let me."
He found the zipper and pulled it down and around, then flipped the top of the bag over the back of the couch. They both stepped back from the waft of post-mortem bowel movement. The man lay fully clothed, one arm under his head, the other folded across his chest. And sure enough, there in the crook of that arm was a bottle of peppermint schnapps. The smell was foul. Alky's shit was the worst.
"Take pictures and meet me outside," Rogers said. "Then we'll have a look at the missus."
Palmerini was waiting for him on the porch. One of the cruisers was gone from the street. "There was an injury wreck on 51st," she said. "Blanda was getting bored so I told him I'd stay. Okay if I hang back and watch?" She had pulled down her parka hood and throat warmer. She had blonde hair, pulled back, and now looked vaguely familiar.
"Sure, why not?" Rogers said, and noticed Huffington at his side. "Let's go."
Palmerini stopped just inside the garage between the two cars as Rogers went on to the driver's door and Huffington went up the other side. It was locked. They were all locked. "Shit," said Rogers.
Huffington came around to the driver's backseat glass. He held a closed folding knife with a seat-belt cutter and a glass-breaker pike on the end.
"Wait," said Palmerini. She went into the house and a few minutes later came out with the man's keys. "They were on the coffee table," she said.
Rogers found the fob key for the SUV and clicked it unlocked and opened the door. The woman slumped in her seat with her hands on a touch-screen pad plugged into the charger socket of the car. A television program played on the screen. She had not taken this ride alone; a bottle of vodka in a bucket of ice on the passenger seat had kept her company. A half-full glass filled a cup holder. The ignition was on. The gas gauge rested on E.
With Roger's palm on her forehead, her head rolled easily back to the headrest. No rigor yet, so it had been last night. The white cords of earbuds ran down the sides of her head to the pad in her lap. Her skin had the deep sunburnt color of CO poisoning. She looked to be around thirty. She was not pretty or ugly to Rogers. She was dead.
She had thrown her coat into the back seat and was in houseclothes: a sweatshirt, jeans, and snowboots. Rogers looked for blood and signs of trauma on her neck, face, and arms, and found none. No contraband in purse, console or glovebox. He straightened up with a sigh. They watched him expectantly. "What was on TV last night?" he said. Blanda grinned but nobody answered.
He and Huffington walked around in the garage, stopping here and there. The pickup was unlocked, empty. They saw a lawnmower, yard tools, a shelf of cans, jugs, sprayers and funnels, a high shelf lined with used buckets of paint, a corner stacked with miscellany. An empty five-gallon plastic bucket next to the kitchen door.
Rogers wanted some fresh air. "Let's get warm again," he said, and led the way to Palmerini's car.
He eased into the passenger seat as Palmerini started the engine of the cruiser and cranked up the heat. Huffington got in the back. They made cop talk while it warmed up inside, pulling off their hoods and hats and gloves and opening their coats.
"Do I know you?" Rogers asked Palmerini.
"That arson fire," she said. "The hoarder?"
"Oh Jesus, yeah. God, what a mess that was."
She turned to Huffington. "Son killed his mother with a hammer then tried to burn the house down." Huffington said he remembered. "Detective Rogers got the confession."
"It's not hard when they want to confess. A lot of them do, when it's matricide," Rogers said. "He kept telling me about a suspicious-looking character he'd seen hanging around. I asked what the guy looked like and he said 'Well, he looked a lot like me.' What an idiot. He fucked up the arson, then filed an insurance claim. When the adjuster got his inventory she almost drove me crazy wanting to know when we were going to charge the guy. Gold, jewelry, coins, a stamp collection - the place was a treasure trove according to Sonny Jim, if you could find anything."
They made chuckling noises and eye-rolling faces and he could see they were waiting. "So what do you think?" he asked Huffington, because he was supposed to be teaching him how to be a police detective.
Huffington's words came pouring out. "Well I see where Blanda was coming from. They were starting to go a little stir crazy, maybe getting on each other's nerves, fighting I bet. They were both drunk. Neighbor Lady said they fought all the time, she could hear it sometimes, and Mrs..." - "Holtzclaw," Palmerini supplied - "Holtzclaw told her some things that make hubby sound like kind of an asshole.
"So maybe she's been keeping up with the weather and her favorite TV shows on her phone and the pad, and they run out of juice, she wants to watch another favorite TV show and get away from her asshole husband so she doesn't have to listen to any more of his shit, and she comes out here and starts the car and plugs in the charger to watch her show. She's nice and drunk and warm for the first time in a couple of days and she has her bottle to keep her company. Then she goes to sleep and doesn't wake up because she was so drunk she forgot to raise the garage door. An accident."
"At least she died happy," Rogers said.
"And took her asshole husband with her," Palmerini added, "so they could keep making each other miserable in the next life."
Huffington couldn't stop. "Or maybe she didn't forget, and left it closed on purpose. A murder-suicide."
"Or a suicide-murder. She would have died before he did. Can you murder somebody after you're dead?" Palmerini's question hung in the air for Rogers to answer.
He said, "What if she didn't forget to prop open the door? What if she used that orange paint bucket we saw by the kitchen door? Didn't that look out of place to you?"
A long silence. Palmerini turned her surprised look to Huffington in the back seat. "Uhh," he said. Rogers turned to look at him too.
"So..." Huffington began. Rogers watched him work it over in his head. "A crime of opportunity?"
Rogers raised an eyebrow, nodded. "Go on."
Huffington started piecing it together. "Wifey's out in the garage, all snug in the nice warm car with her vodka and her iPad. Hubby's freezing his ass in the house, pissed off, because why else wouldn't he have gone with her to the car? They were fighting about something."
"Probably their data plan," Palmerini said, and both men laughed.
"Yeah!" Huffington said. "Or whatever. And he's got a half a quart of bourbon in him and been drinking beer all day, and he gets one of those bright ideas that seem so good when you're drunk. So he waits until he knows she's all wrapped up in her show, or nodding off maybe, sneaks out there. It's pitch dark and she can't see or hear anything with her earbuds and the light from the screen, if she's even awake. He stays low, goes down one side of the garage or the other, moves the bucket and lets down the door nice and quiet, then sneaks back inside. Shuts the door to the garage and leaves her out there all closed in with the car running."
"The perfect murder," Palmerini said.
"Except..." Rogers waited for the rest of it.
"Except... except he lies down on the couch in his sleeping bag and thinks he'll finish off his bottle to calm down while he waits. So drunk - it'll look like the most natural stupid accident there ever was."
"But instead of going out to discover her dead body he passes out. The garage fills up with carbon monoxide, it's got nowhere else to go but into the house, through the heating ducts maybe. So instead of waking up a bereaved widower, he wakes up dead."
"Who knows? Maybe she has money, life insurance. Maybe he felt like he'd had enough of her shit." Palmerini scowled, and Huffington shrugged. "What do you think?"
He had yet to call Rogers by his name. Rogers said, "I don't think anything, Huff," and saw his newbie brighten at the sound of his own name. "I think you should have another look. Take pictures. Take Palmerini with you. I'll be waiting in our car. And don't fuck up my crime scene." Huffington scrambled out and made a diagonal up the driveway, Palmerini in tow.
Rogers' car was toasty by the time they got back twenty minutes later. Palmerini sat in the back and looked over the seat as Huffington showed Rogers the pictures on his cell phone. "I think you called it, Bill," he said, emboldened now. "See, there's ice on the rim of the bucket. And check this out." He swiped through three pictures of the snow-covered ice on the driveway where it had banked against the middle of the garage door, taken from different angles. They showed a semi-circular groove pressed into the snow powder, now turning mushy under the high sun, footprints all around, one breaking the arc of the half circle.
"Matricide, you called that hoarder case. I've heard that, and patricide, infanticide - regicide, killing the king." Palmerini smiled. "I learned that from Game of Thrones. But what do you call killing your wife?"
"Uxoricide," Rogers said. "I looked it up. But that's not what this is. The name for this is stupidicide, which means accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Open and shut."
They both gaped at him. "What?" Huffington said. "But..." He stopped at the sight of a fire truck grinding up the street, an ambulance close behind.
"They got here fast," Rogers said. "I just called a few minutes ago. We need to clear the scene, get the bodies out, ventilate the house. Crime scene tape will just get in the way." He saw Huffington's jaw working as he searched for words. "Look, kid, they're both dead. That barrel is all speculation. No matter what happened, who is there to prosecute?"
"Lieutenant -" Palmerini started.
"What's the point?" he said to her. "Statistics? This investigation is the coroner's now. We have a report to fill out, next of kin to notify. Will it do them any good to think this may have been a murder, based on the evidence we have? Forget it. There'll be plenty of bad guys to chase when the weather thaws and they crawl back out from under their rocks."
The blonde-haired young policewoman and the red-faced young detective sat stunned and speechless. "That was good police work, anyway," Rogers said. "Both of you."
The only place to get something to eat in the whole city was one McDonalds, miraculously open, but when Huffington drove by on his way home from work the line for the drive-through stretched three blocks down the street. He called his wife and she told him not to worry, she had a plan.
When he got home the fireplace was blazing and candles were burning everywhere. Carla had just finished slicing up an apple and was arranging the wedges on a big plate with cheese, almonds, crackers, and grapes. "I thought we'd go Mediterranean tonight," she said. "And I'll kick your ass at a game of Scrabble later."
"You keep talking like that, and I'm gonna have to take you back there and screw ya, Carla Jean." He only called her that when they were alone. It was their little joke.
He opened a bottle of wine to go with their continental repast. He asked how her day was and she said so busy she couldn't remember all she'd done. Huffington knew she was home all day; she was the court reporter for a judge on the felony docket and the courthouse was closed. It was where they had met.
She asked him about his day. Between bites and sips, he told her about the call to the dead couple's house. He said it was an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He left out the murder idea.
"Those poor people!" she said. Then, "She was too loaded and forgot to prop open the door, that's really sad. And really stupid."
"Really stupid," he said. "What was on TV last night, anyway? Something special?"
"I don't think so. What do you mean?"
"I mean it's almost like cause of death should be carbon monoxide poisoning secondary to watching television. You know? They'd both be alive if she didn't just have to watch some TV show with the power out." He ate a slice of apple, shaking his head in wonder. "Couldn't live without it. Watching TV, all the time. Who does that?"
Carla sipped her wine and set down the glass. "Everybody," she said.