I was sitting across the desk from a murderer. Alone. No guards. No guns. No bars. No plexiglas wall with breathing holes a la Hannibal Lecter.
Just me. And her.
I slid an envelope across the table to her. She had been waiting for this moment. She called me almost every day for three weeks straight to get these.
Her ticket out. Large money. Scot free. She could hold her head high in society as an innocent widow. Newly-minted rich innocent widow just barely 40.
Instead of doing the walk of shame in an orange prison jumpsuit, where she belonged.
I had met her when her husband died mysteriously. She “found” him on the floor of their West County condo, barely breathing. She followed every protocol. Called 911. Acted distraught. Followed the ambulance dutifully to the hospital. Held his hand somberly after an ER doctor called the time of death. Wept.
Officially, it was a mystery. The medical examiner would do an autopsy. Toxicology screens were ordered. There were no outward signs of harm. No needle tracks on the arms to suggest an overdose. No bumps, bruises or so much as a shaving nick on his chiseled chin. Nothing immediately detectable in his blood that might have caused it.
There were no tears when I met with her to plan his funeral.
“Yes, I’m DOCTOR Geoffries.”
“Oh. Forgive me. Dr. Geoffries, I’m Dan. I’m the funeral director that’s going to help you.”
“Very good. Shall we get started?” All business.
And so began the planning of the large dog-and-pony show that the wealthy and socially connected like to have. Lots of flash. Solid mahogany casket. Thousands of dollars worth of flowers. The big church where They all like to go when their image calls for a presence in a house of worship. A lengthy obituary in the newspaper extolling the saintliness of the dearly departed. Etc.
When we spoke of the financial handling of the funerals she plopped a life insurance policy worth 250k on the desk.
“I have a few more of these. I will need an appropriate amount of death certificates. And I want to notified immediately when they are available.”
“And I need the name of a good photographer.”
“Ma’am?” This was a first.
“A photographer. You know, a person who takes pictures?”
“Yes, I know what a photographer does. What exactly shall I tell him as to the subject of his work?”
“My husband. In the casket. The flowers. The procession. Church interior shots.”
So I called my friend Lou. His response was similar to mine. “What in the hell, Dan?”
“I know, Lou. But you are the best. And she has the dollars to pay for the best. You want the gig or not?”
Of course, he took it. He’d be a damn fool not to.
The first night of visitation was to be a private family affair. I had been given explicit instructions on the minutiae of his grooming habits. He gelled his hair with a wet look. Armani suit was dry cleaned and pressed. French-cuffed dress shirt with the first two buttons undone. Precise placement of jewelry worth more than what I earned last year.
I saw him on the embalming table downstairs. It was clear that his job was to be a trophy husband/boy toy. Although this was years before “Jersey Shore,” this gentleman would have gotten along famously with the Gym, Tan, Laundry crew. Pierced ears. Tattoos on his biceps, back and belly button (When did guys start get tattoos there?) Obviously working hard to stay sexy for his incredibly average-looking anesthesiologist wife.
One problem. While the embalming fluid was being injected in the carotid artery, it went in smoothly but soon there was a reaction of some kind.
Boy Toy puffed up like a dead porpoise.
The embalmer Whit called me at home that evening in a panic. I raced back to work to see the damage.
“In 25 years I’ve never seen something like this. It’s crazy. There was some sort of reaction with whatever is in his system.”
“What could it have been, Whit? Any clue?”
“Not me. It’s just the damnedest thing.”
“She’s gonna be pissed at me. To the extreme.”
I wasn’t looking forward to having this conversation with her.
Whit dressed Boy Toy carefully. The hair was impeccably gelled. Jewelry was placed with microscopic attention. The belt buckle gleamed. Expertly applied cosmetics gave him an admirable, just-off-the-beach glow. Whit gently lowered him into the casket and BT’s puffy body rubbed against the sides of the casket. Had he been his normal size, he could have been the model in a Gucci Casket ad. If Gucci made caskets, that is.
Instead he looked like a caricature of dead Elvis with better hair.
My stomach knotted. There was a shit storm in my future. I was certain of it. I paced the corridors like a restless animal. Finally, headlights flashed through the west entry doorway as Dr. Geoffries pulled in.
I helped her with her coat. I could tell that the more servile I was, the better she would like me.
I escorted her into the stateroom. Lou waited in a side room fiddling nervously with his camera equipment. Her arm slipped from mine as she walked purposefully up to the casket, the way she might have walked up to a shiny burgundy Mercedes on the showroom floor.
“OhmyGodWHATHAVEYOUDONETOHIM?” There were no pauses between the words as the pitch of her voice hit the roof.
“Dr. Geoffries, there was some sort of a chemical reaction to something that was in his system. When the fluid circulated with his blood, be began to puff up uncontrollably.”
Her eyes were little slits when she cranked her head around to glare at me.
“What sort of chemical reaction might that be?” She almost whispered the words, like she was daring me to answer.
“I have no idea. Nor does the embalmer, who has embalmed thousands of bodies in his career and never seen anything like this.”
“I want to speak with HIM.”
Sorry Whit. Time for you to join me under the bus.
Whit came up, rumpled and just hastily having thrown on his tie and jacket.
“Yes, Dr. Geoffries?” Whit always had that genuine, good ol’ boy charm that most people loved. Dr Geoffries was not one of those people.
“Care to explain this?” She jerked her head in the direction of the casket.
“Ma’am, my best guess is that there was something in his system that caused this.”
“Oh really? What might that something be?”
“Ma’am, I haven’t the foggiest. But there must be something for this to have happened. This is no ordinary embalming reaction. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Maybe drugs. Prescription drugs that is. I don’t mean to…”
She got up in his face, nose to nose. She added index finger thumps to Whit’s chest to punctuate her point.
“Unless you are a coroner or some sort of forensic expert, I don’t care to hear your theories. I suggest you keep your countrified ‘wisdom’ to yourself,” she snarled.
The color drained out of Whit’s face. He had never had a family speak to him like that. Wordlessly, he left the room.
Dr. Geoffries walked over to the bookcase, pretending to study the titles.
Without turning around, she drew a deep breath and said, “bring the photographer.”
Later, Whit grilled me as we headed to our cars.
“What’s the deal with her? Why’d she go off on me like that? She asked for an explanation and I was trying to give her one.”
“Dude, this whole thing is one fucked up mess. What’s with the photographer? What’s with all this show?”
“She’s not acting like any widow I’ve ever seen, Dan. She is cold-blooded. Clinical.”
“Well, she’s a doctor, Whit. Maybe the clinical act is some sort of defense mechanism.”
“Nope. I’m a lot older than you. There is something else going on here. I can feel it, but I don’t know what it is.”
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of gingerly tiptoeing around any conversation with her during the very public visitation and funeral.
Boy toy was buried with a flourish. Dr. Geoffries left town. And then the phone calls started.
“Dan, this is Dr. Geoffries. Has the medical examiner ruled on the cause of death yet?”
“We haven’t heard, Doctor. Shall I call you when we hear from them?”
“No, I will YOU. I’m not there anyway. I needed a break after the funeral. I’m in the Grand Caymans.”
The Grand Caymans. Probably a good place to hop off the radar screen.
But whose radar screen?
Then it hit me. She planned on island hopping for the next few weeks until she got a preliminary report from the medical examiner. If it came back how she had hoped (ie death unknown causes) she’d catch the next flight back to the States, gather up her pile of insurance cash and carry on with her merry widowhood.
If she got back any indication that the death was suspicious and eyes were turning to her, she’d hop the first flight to one of those faraway islands with no extradition to the United States.
It all started to make sense.
For nearly three weeks she called almost daily. For three weeks she hopped from this island to that island.
Finally, the medical examiner’s preliminary report came back.
Death – unknown causes.
Yes, sometimes even in this day and age of advanced science, they have to fall back on those three words.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I almost heard relief in her voice when she made the final call the day after we got the ME report.
And after all, who but a trained medical professional like say, an anesthesiologist would know what chemical to give someone in a precise enough dose to kill them…
but not be detectable in toxicology screening blood work.
She was in my office the afternoon following our last phone call to get the death certificates. They were in the envelope I slid to her across the table. I was barely able to hold myself together to have a conversation with her, suspecting what I did. She murdered him for money, plain and simple. And she was going to get away with it. Damn I was mad. I had no proof, nothing to go to the police with. Just hearsay and suspicion.
But she didn’t get away with it. Not for long.
About six months afterwards, Whit came up to me with a big silly ass smile on his face, with a death notification call sheet, which we use when someone calls the funeral home to report a death.
The name on the death call sheet: Dr. Geoffries.
Under notes: possible heart attack.
I looked at Whit. He looked at me. We both smiled and he said and I thought the exact same thing.
“He came back and haunted her ass to death.”