THURSDAY: A Body in the Crawl Space

BY NT FRANKLIN

Copyright is held by the author.

LOCAL HANDYMAN Wayne had drained the water and closed up the Tolbert summer home for the long Maine winter. Wayne closed up most of the summer homes in the Spruce Knob area of Clam Harbor, including Leo’s summer home. It was a big area and kept Wayne busy for most of two months.

Leo was driving by when he saw Wayne crawling out from under the house.

He needed to confirm Wayne was done with the house. It was hard not to run into Wayne in town, he seemed to be everywhere. Today he was shopping at the hardware store. “Beautiful morning. More duct tape, Leo? You bought a roll last week.”

“I know. You just can’t have too much duct tape, can ya?”

“Agreed,” Wayne replied. “No rush in you getting out of your place, Leo. I have even a few more this year to winterize. I finished the Tolbert’s place today because they’re always the first to leave. In fact, they’re already gone. Should get to the Thibault’s this afternoon.”

“Have fun, Wayne. I’ve got some things that move but shouldn’t, so duct tape it is.”

The full moon shone bright when Leo parked at the log blocking the Tolbert’s driveway and hauled the body out of his trunk. Fifty pounds of lime and her body, all zip-tied inside contractor bags were a struggle, even for a lean and muscular man like Leo. He carried it to the building and shoved it under the crawl space. With his cell phone as a flashlight, Leo squeezed into the crawl space and dragged the body along the wall away from the opening.

Once out, he replaced the lattice covering the crawl space entrance so it looked the way Wayne left it, if you don’t count the dead body.

The following morning, Wayne was at his usual spot at the Table of Knowledge. A group of six locals, retired like Wayne, all huffed and puffed and solved all sorts local issues, sometimes world issues, on a daily basis. The Table of Knowledge convened at 9 AM and kept going until the folks were done, or at least until the stories started repeating themselves. The Coffee Urn welcomed them. Good, steady, year-round business was always welcome. Besides, they were a congenial, harmless group. Even the summer college girls working the tables tolerated the occasional flirt from the male members.

“Darndest thing, I lost my favourite cordless screwdriver,” Wayne announced to the table.

“Where’d you lose it?” asked California Bill.“If he knew, it wouldn’t be lost,” replied Jersey Bill.

“If he knew, it wouldn’t be lost,” replied Jersey Bill.

“Two Bills, one brain,” said Howard.

One of the Bills harrumphed and the other rolled his eyes.

“You need some new material, Howard,” Mildred said.

This was the usual banter around the table. Ten years of familiarity fosters constant jabs and responses.

Howard finished his chocolate doughnut and asked, “Where were you working yesterday, Wayne?”

“Closed up the Tolbert place and nearly finished the Thibault place; I guess it’ll be at one of them.”

“Unless you left it on your seat and somebody stole it,” Mildred said. “That’s been happening around here recently…”

Jersey Bill interrupted, “Mildred, no one stole your pocketbook off your car seat. You left it somewhere.”

Robert harrumphed. “Well, first place I’d look, if I was going to, would be the Tolbert place.”

California Bill chimed in, “I’d go there myself if I needed a cordless screwdriver.”

“If you needed a worn out cheap cordless screwdriver,” Mildred said with a wry grin.

“Getting old, Wayne? A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” California Bill was on fire today.

Wayne smiled through it all. He’d dished it out last week, so turnabout was fair play. “If you nonproductive retirees are through, I’ll have to get back to gainful employment.”

“Under-the-table payments aren’t gainful employment, Wayne,” Jersey Bill quipped. “Besides, you retired three years ago.”

“I hope you find your tool,” called Mildred as Wayne walked away.

A wave without turning around was Wayne’s response.

It took Wayne 10 minutes to get to the Tolbert place. He checked inside and around the windows he had shuttered up with his cordless screwdriver.

Not finding it, he muttered, “I guess I’ll have to look in the crawl space.”

Carrying the big flashlight from his truck, Wayne moved the lattice to access the crawl space and entered on his hands and knees. He crawled to the center under the kitchen and saw his cordless screwdriver. On the way out he stopped short when he saw a large black plastic package. I know that wasn’t there yesterday.

Wayne tugged on the package but it hardly budged. He felt through the bag up and down the length. Legs!

Wayne jerked back and whacked his head on the floor stringer. Before his head cleared, he was out of the crawl space and on the phone to the Clam Harbor Police Department.

After explaining to the dispatcher that there wasn’t an emergency because the person was already dead, Wayne gave the location of the corpse and sketchy details.

“And no, I didn’t disturb the scene once I knew it was a body,” Wayne said. “I watch CSI crime stuff on television, I know the drill.”

Wayne waited on the porch steps pulling his tape measure in and out. He expected Detective Jed Calhoun of the Clam Harbor Police Department to arrive in under 10 minutes. It took most of an hour for James Flannigan, the fat chief of police, to arrive.

“Christ, Chief, you needn’t have rushed here. I told dispatch the body was already dead. Though I began to think it might start smelling before you got here.”

“Morning, Wayne. Tolbert’s place, huh? Just starting closing up summer homes?”

Wayne smiled. “Does everyone know my business? I already closed up this place, which is why I know the body wasn’t there yesterday.”

Flannigan’s bald head reflected the sunlight when he handed his hat to Wayne. “Couldn’t wait until next month?”

“Ah, come on Chief, this actually gets you out of the office.”

Flannigan frowned and climbed into the crawl space and checked out the package. Then he called the County Coroner. “You don’t have to hang around, Wayne.”

“Yeah right, and miss this? Ya think I want Robert giving an account of this when he wasn’t even here? I got all fall to close up houses. A dead body under a house comes along once in a lifetime.”

“Suit yourself,” Flannigan said as he settled on the porch steps next to Wayne. “I called the State CSI lab, should be here soon.”

The CSI unit sent the youngest member into the crawl space. With the Coroner supervising, he had the black plastic package out on the lawn in just over an hour. When he opened it up, the dead body turned out to be female. That much was clear to Wayne. The rest was a bit of a blur as he threw up in the hosta off the end of the porch.

Next morning at the table of knowledge, Wayne held center stage.

“You saw the body?” Jersey Bill asked. “Who was she?”

“Saw her? I found her. They wouldn’t let me see her up close. You know, crime scene contamination and all that. You should’ve seen Flannigan squeeze his fat ass under that house. Bet he wished Jed was back from vacation.”

“I heard the police are waiting notification of next of kin,” California Bill chimed in.

“Did you find your tool?” Mildred asked.

“For Pete’s sake, Mildred. That’s what you want to know?” California Bill chided her.

“Yes, Mildred, I found my cordless screwdriver. I left it in the crawl space where I found the body. I’ll bet it’s Tolbert’s young wife. I never cared for her. She never fit in, even as summer people. Always demanding something.”

“They left a week ago,” Howard said.

“Good morning, Howard. Good to see the coffee is taking effect,” Jersey Bill said.

“There was another young woman in and around town the past two or three days,” Mildred said. “Not from here, and way past tourist season. Maybe it was her,” Mildred contributed.

“Some random young woman in town. Really, Mildred?” California Bill asked.

“Five foot seven, 135 pounds, reddish hair, sound like her, Wayne?”

Wayne cocked his head, “Could be.”

Howard perked up. “Jed’s on vacation this week. The Chief isn’t going to lift a fat finger to solve this. This is his last month on the job. The original don’t make waves guy isn’t going to ripple the water his last month. I bet we can solve this murder before Jed gets back.”

All six were in. Robert took charge as usual. Howard and the Bills went to the police department and the rest went to the crime scene, since the crime scene tape had been removed.

At the scene, Wayne asked, “What do you expect to find here that the CSI techs missed? I was here just yesterday.”

“We may need to look inside the house and you have permission from the Tolberts to be here because you’re the maintenance man,” Robert answered.

“Where’d you park? Right next to the house where we did?” asked Mildred.

Wayne straightened up and said, “No, I moved the log blocking the end of the driveway so the coroner would have easier access. I got bored waiting on the porch steps for the chief to make a doughnut stop before he came.”

Mildred walked toward the road. “So, they searched the wrong area for clues. We need to look in the area before the log.”

Wayne left Robert to look around the outside of the house while he caught up with Mildred. “That’s the log and right here is where it was. You can see the marks in the road where I dragged and rolled it into the woods.”

Mildred took four strides toward the road. “This’ll be about where the car trunk would be. I doubt anyone would put a dead body into the seat. It had to be lifted out of the trunk, maybe put down and maybe dragged.”

Wayne called out, “Robert, come here, Mildred’s onto something.

After 15 minutes, Robert said it was getting too hot and the search was over for the day. “We’ll compare notes tomorrow morning at coffee.”

At exactly nine the next morning, the Table of Knowledge was at full strength.

Robert said, “Howard, you’re busting at the seams. What did you find out at the police station?”

Howard picked up his coffee cup, took a long swallow, and put it down. “Well,” he said, “it seems that both Mr. and Mrs. Tolbert are accounted for. The chief contacted Mrs. Tolbert about their place being a crime scene. Apparently, she was rather upset about the situation and gave the Chief an earful about crime in Clam Harbor.”

Quite satisfied with himself, Howard leaned back in his chair and glowed.

Robert seized the pause in the conversation to claim the floor. “We found out the police searched the wrong area for clues. It became too hot and we had to quit, but we’ll be back there later today.”

All nodded in agreement.

“Where should we go next?” asked Howard.

“Why not try Eleanor at the newspaper?” Mildred said. “She knows everyone and everything.”

“Great plan,” said Robert. “We’ll split up like yesterday.”

The three wandered around the grassy area where they felt the car had parked. “Nothing new here,” Mildred said.

Wayne drifted away from the others and into the woods to rid himself of some coffee. He looked down just before unzipping his pants. “What the . . .”

“Got something Wayne?” Robert called.

“Yeah, a pen from the Seaview Inn.”

“The big white hotel on Atlantic?” Mildred asked.

Wayne looked at the pen in his hand. “Yeah, 300 Atlantic Avenue, Clam Harbor.”

Robert, not to be left out said, “Oh, that’s the hotel with no view of the sea. Better keep looking around.”

Robert organized the trio into a grid search pattern of the area. “We’re just tromping down weeds now. Tomorrow we’ll regroup and see where to go next.”

At the morning coffee ritual, Howard announced that Eleanor didn’t have any news about anything. “We wasted almost three hours listening to an account of her sister’s gout.”

“That’s not totally true, Howard,” California Bill said. “When we asked about a young redheaded woman in the area, Eleanor said she was new housekeeping help at a hotel.”

“This time of year?” Mildred asked.

“I dunno, it’s what she said.”

Robert waited until he had everyone’s attention before he, gave a full account of the hotel pen found at the crime scene.

Jersey Bill wasn’t impressed. “Wayne probably tripped over it taking a leak.”

Wayne swallowed hard so as to not choke on his cruller, then stared at his coffee mug.

“But Wayne found it, and that what’s important,” Mildred said. “What hotel did Eleanor say the new girl worked at?”

“California Bill put his coffee down and said, “She didn’t. But there’s a hotel across the street from the newspaper office. Probably that one.”

“That the Seaview?” Mildred asked.

“Yup,” he said between sips of coffee.

Mildred rose from the table. “You people wait here. I’ll be right back.” And she was gone in a flash.

“Where’s she going?” Wayne asked.

“I thought you knew, she’s on your investigative team,” Howard replied.

“Harrumph.”

Robert, in an uncharacteristic show of generosity, bought everyone another doughnut round.

Before the doughnuts were finished, Mildred walked through the door. She wore a big smile before she even saw the chocolate doughnut at her place.

“Give it up, Mildred,” Jersey Bill said.

Mildred took a bite. “Well,” she said chewing, “my sister’s boy’s girlfriend, or at least girlfriend this week, works at the Seaview Inn. Tommy just started at the popcorn store three doors down.”

“The one on Atlantic?” Interrupted Jersey Bill.

“Let her finish!” There were four voices in unison.

Undaunted, Mildred continued. “Tommy called his girlfriend. Seems they don’t have a new housekeeping girl. But what they do have is a new girl in long stay at the inn. Five foot seven, 135 pounds, reddish hair. She had a very regular visitor.” Mildred paused.

This time there were five voices in unison, “Who?!”

Mildred ate more of her doughnut before she continued. “One Mr. Leo Maroni.”

“I saw him buying duct tape at the store. I’ll bet that was the duct tape around the bag,” Wayne said. “So, Leo killed his latest lover.”

Howard turned to Wayne. “Latest?”

“Yeah, he told me about some of his conquests when I did work around the house. That is, if the Mrs. wasn’t around.”

“Ya think that might have been important to mention, Wayne?” California Bill was turning beet red.

“We don’t know why Leo would kill his lover. He’s never killed them before,” Wayne replied. “I saw one last week in the grocery store.”

“Who said it was Leo?” California Bill asked. “What motivation would he have for offing his latest lover? Maybe it isn’t her.”

“Maybe the Mrs. found out and she did in the girl,” Wayne offered.

“Maybe it’s time to call Jed. The chief said he’d be back when, tomorrow?” California Bill asked.

“Yes, and I’ll make sure he’s here,” Robert said.

Detective Jed Calhoun showed up at the Table of Knowledge the next morning at five minutes before nine.

“Nice to see you, Jed,” Robert said. “Pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee. I assume you eat doughnuts.”

“Thanks, Robert. You said you had something for me about the murder at the Talbot place.”

“Jed, we don’t start until nine. Have a sip of coffee.”

Jed sat and sipped coffee until Robert started precisely at nine. While Robert spun his yarn, Jed took notes. By the time Robert was done, it was hard to believe anyone assisted.

Jed closed his notebook and finished his coffee. “Fascinating. I hope you let me take it from here. I do appreciate the effort. Besides, I’ll bet you need to discuss the state of the road repairs in town.” With a twinkle in his eye, Jed was gone.

“Think he’ll do anything about it?” California Bill asked.

Robert finished his sip and said, “He’ll get to the bottom of this. Mind you, if he’s not back here tomorrow, same time, I’ll buy doughnuts and coffee. How’s that for confidence?”

“Perfect,” said Wayne. “Nothing better than free doughnuts and coffee.”

Discussion on cold patch versus hot patch for road repair took up the next hour.

The next morning, Jed was sitting at the coffee shop, waiting for the gang to arrive. Almost on cue, the table of knowledge members entered the Coffee Urn one after another. The six gathered around his table and Robert asked, “Jed, anything new on the case?”

Jed pointed to the clock. “It’s five minutes before nine. Have a cup of coffee and a doughnut, I’ll talk to you at nine sharp.” Friendly snickers and finger pointing at Robert sounded through the shop.

At precisely nine, Jed stood up and went to the Table of Knowledge. “Through your excellent efforts, we have a confession.”

“It was Leo. I knew it all along!” Wayne said.

“Nope. It was Gloria Maroni, Leo’s wife. It turns out, the young lady in question wanted more of Leo, or at least more of his money. She arrived at their house and threatened all sorts of things. The Mrs. clubbed her with a fireplace poker and she died instantly. Leo transported the body to the Talbot’s house after he saw Wayne close it up, thinking it wouldn’t be found until spring.”

“She volunteered that information?” asked Mildred.

“She caved after Leo spilled the beans.”

“You don’t say,” said Robert.

“Yes, their stories corroborate each other and they’re both being held for charges. She for second degree murder and him as an accessory after the fact and tampering with evidence. As a thank you, the Town of Clam Harbor would like to cover the coffee and doughnuts this morning.”

Harold jumped right up. “No way. Robert offered and we’re going to take him up on it. The town needs to spend its money on weekend hours for the dump and road repair. Robert doesn’t pay enough taxes as it is.”

“Not nearly enough,” said Jersey Bill.

“Fair enough,” said Jed. “I think I’ll take my leave and let you discuss the needed fixes in town politics. I need to drive around and earn my salary from the town. And don’t you worry about the pothole across from the library, I’ll talk to the public works chief this morning.”

Jed tipped his hat to Mildred and nodded to the others.

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