Randy Untweiler, seventeen, a tall, skinny kid with dark blond hair, was the one who found her. He came out of the movie theater by the back door. He’d stayed after the last show to sweep up, and was carrying a bag of trash to be put into the huge green Dumpster near the door. He wouldn’t have seen her, because it was dark and had been snowing heavily—in fact, it was still snowing. All he knew was that he tripped over something big and hard, and fell. The trash bag split open when he landed on it, and he began swearing as he picked up the candy wrappers and empty popcorn and soft drink containers by the glow of a distant streetlamp.
It occurred to him to wonder what had tripped him, and he went over to kick at the object, whatever it was. Using his cell phone to weakly light the area, he dislodged enough snow to disclose the blank cold face of an old woman with hair the same color as the snow. After an astonished few seconds, he texted his best friend, Adam, that he’d found a woman’s dead body. Adam texted back, “u r joking,” and Randy texted, “4 real,” and Adam texted, “call 911.”
But Randy decided that such things as finding dead bodies didn’t happen to people like him and therefore it wasn’t real after all. Maybe it was a store dummy—he pulled off a glove and touched the face and found it as hard and cold as plaster. Still, he phoned his girlfriend, Harriet, to consult with her, and while arguing with her about it, Adam arrived, still zipping up his coat. Adam, short, plump, and intelligent, looked at the body and declared in scatological and obscene terms that Randy must quit acting like a fool, hang up on Harriet, and call the police.
Which he did.
There followed a lengthy scene involving a squad car and an ambulance, made surreal by lights flashing blue, red, and orange in the blowing snow.
Though the woman was frozen stiff, the responding policeman could not declare her dead, nor could the emergency medical technicians.
Nor could the two teens leave. Everyone had to wait for a representative from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. The man on duty lived in Maple Plain, a long way off, and he was grumpy on arrival. He prodded the dead women’s rigid face, tried and failed to lift an arm, and sighed at the obviousness of it all.
“Take her to the morgue,” he said, and went back home.
Randy and Adam were dismissed with a tale they could tell for the rest of their lives—Randy would have nightmares for years about kicking an old dead woman in the head—but the story rated only two short paragraphs in the next morning’s Star Tribune. No one knew who she was. She had no ID in a purse or pocket—no purse at all, in fact, just some old plastic shopping bags full of the detritus of her life. The sad assortment of objects—ranging from a change of underwear to a badly worn stuffed toy kitten to a half-used box of Handi Wipes—had nothing with a name on it. She didn’t match the description of anyone on the missing persons list, so there was no name or age or city of residence to lead to an identification or cause a twinge of sorrow. It appeared to be one of those deaths no one likes to think about, which happen to people living on the fringes of society.
Not surprisingly, under her body there had been found an all-but-empty quart bottle of bourbon, which, in most minds, explained it all.
Because there had been a spate of killings in an inner-city neighborhood as a gang war heated up, the unknown woman’s autopsy was moved down in order to discover legal medical information about the young male victims. Her body was not subjected to an autopsy for almost a week. Five days after its discovery outside the movie theater in Excelsior, a Social Security card was discovered in the innermost recesses of her clothing, much faded and battered. And that’s when her name was revealed: Carolyn Marie Carlson.
At age fifty-three, Carolyn was known to the police as a petty thief, a public drunk, a resister of arrest, a vagrant, a disturber of the peace. She had been thrown out of a number of homeless shelters for stealing, intoxication, and fighting.
“A pity,” said the medical examiner, stripping off his gloves, “that the only things we know about her are bad ones. I’m sure her mother thought she was the sweetest baby in the world.”
He shut off the tape recorder he’d used during the autopsy, from which he would compile a report. The body had a number of old bruises, none of them serious enough to contribute to her death, and he’d found nothing else that could be a cause of death. Dr. Halperin suspected it was exposure, complicated by the muddled thinking years of heavy drinking can induce—he’d found all the physical damage prolonged alcoholism can cause. Still, he’d taken blood and tissue samples to be tested.
“Now at least there may be next of kin to notify,” he concluded, picking up the Social Security card and rereading the name. Carolyn Carlson. Nice name. He wondered if she had been called Carol, or perhaps Lynn.
“Cousin Carrie,” said Margaret Smith, “was nobody’s idea of an ideal person. Our grandmother said ‘she’d steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes.’”
“What would a dead man be doing with pennies on his eyes?” asked Godwin.
They were in Crewel World, Excelsior’s needlework shop. The big front window faced north, and the sun had gone south. Godwin missed the morning sunlight that poured in during the summer, but not terribly; sunlight fades fabrics and paper. Artists are very fond of northern light; it’s best for telling colors. And stitchers are artists in needlepoint, counted cross-stitch, knitting, and related needlework.
“I asked her that. It’s from back in the days when families took care of their dead themselves, from before morticians.” Margaret came to the checkout desk with a painted canvas Christmas stocking by Constance Coleman in her hand. She was a very short, trim woman with curly blond hair and big blue eyes, the sort of woman who, many years ago in high school, was the top girl when the cheerleaders formed a human pyramid. “Apparently morticians know some kind of trick to keep dead people’s eyes shut, because they open on their own, and so back in the old days in England and Ireland they were weighted down with pennies, which were great big coins back then.”
“Yes,” nodded Godwin. “My partner, Rafael, has a coin collection, and one of them is an English penny from the reign of Queen Victoria. It’s big as a silver dollar, and solid copper.” He made a face. “And your cousin would steal them? Was she a really odd woman?”
“Yes, she was, but it’s just an expression. People haven’t taken care of their dead at home since before she was born. It’s just a way of saying someone would steal anything not nailed down. She didn’t steal big things, just little things. She was more like a nuisance than a danger to law and order.”
“Oh, I see.” Godwin stored that tidbit about stealing pennies away in his memory banks—he was peculiarly fond of old-fashioned terms and expressions.
Margaret put the painted canvas on the desk and said, “Will you help me pull the yarns for this?”
“Yes, ma’m, gladly.” Godwin picked up the canvas. It depicted three Scottish terriers standing with their forepaws on a windowsill to look out at a winter scene of snow and naked trees—with a reindeer just coming into view. In the foreground—in the foot of the stocking—were wrapped Christmas presents sitting on a patterned rug.
Godwin was a good-looking man a little below medium height, slender, with pale gold hair and light blue eyes. From a distance it was easy to believe he was in his early twenties, though up close the fine lines around his eyes and mouth gave away that he was closer to thirty. Once upon a time this caused him great anxiety, but now that he was in a settled relationship with Rafael (who was thirty-five), it didn’t seem to matter. He was Crewel World’s store manager—or as he put it, Vice President in Charge of Sales, Personnel and Displays, and Editor in Chief of Hasta la Stitches, the needlework shop’s newsletter and web site.
He led Margaret over to the far wall, where four long rows of knobbed wooden pegs supported thin skeins of needlepoint wool yarn in colors ranging from white and palest yellow, through deepening greens, reds and purples, and ending in black. Beside it were spinner racks, with DMC perle cotton in every color on one, and the more exotic flosses, including the hairy Wisper and furry alpaca, on the other.
He said, “Let’s start at the top. How about Crystal Rays dark blue for the sky?” He lifted a card of the shimmery ribbon from a rack. The sky on the stocking was darker at the top than the bottom, so he then reached for a lighter shade.
Margaret said, “I think I’ll do the sky all one color, so not as dark or as light as the ones in your hand. You know, it was her thieving ways that killed her.”
Godwin put the blues back and selected a medium blue. “Who? Oh, you mean Carrie. How did that happen?”
“Well, they found an empty quart bottle of bourbon with her body. She could never have afforded to buy a quart of that stuff, she must have stolen it. And probably from a person, not a liquor store, because she had bruises all over her, probably from someone beating her up—though it’s funny he didn’t get his liquor back. Maybe she gave as good as she got; she wasn’t afraid to fight back. But she got so helpless drinking it, she lay down in the snow and died.” Margaret was suddenly near tears, though she tried not to show it. “Such a foolish thing to do! Such a foolish, stupid thing to do!”
“Oh, Margaret, that’s so sad! How awful for her family to learn that she died that way!” Godwin, who had a kind heart, had a brief, unsettling image of an old woman stumbling around in a snowstorm, helpless with drink, too fuddled to find her way to shelter, then falling . . . He frowned and blinked the image away.
Margaret switched from sad to angry in the taking of a breath. “It was her own fault!”
Unable to reply sympathetically to that, Godwin went back to the spinner rack and began to turn it, looking for Rainbow Gallery’s Flair, a white, translucent tubular ribbon with a subtle roughness to its surface that made it glitter like snow. He pulled two cards of it. Finally he said, “How awful to have a cousin make such a mess of her life. Were you two close?”
“No, of course not. Well, we used to be, I was the closest to her in age, and we played together a lot when we were children. But once we got into our teens, she started having problems, and at last she drove me away. She drove everyone away, her brothers, even her parents. It just got worse and worse. She dropped out of school, couldn’t hold a job. We all tried, every one of us tried to get her to come in and get treatment, but she either flatly refused, or she’d agree and then she quarreled and fought and sneaked out of the clinic and broke all our hearts. It was finally easier to just stop trying. We did hope she’d hit bottom—that’s what we were told, that she had to hit bottom before she could start back up—but we were all afraid it would come to something like this first.” She sighed as if over a story gone stale with too much telling, and then shrugged. “Wisper for the dogs, right?”
“Yes, good choice. And how about this brown Alpaca for the reindeer?”
“We’ll want something else for his antlers, something smooth.”
They selected an off-white DMC Perle cotton floss for the antlers, and the same for the square frames of the window. They chose pink, white, and maroon wool for the patterned rug, but the rest—the presents, the wooden floor, the wall—were all to be done in DMC Perles.
“What a delicious green that 699 is,” said Godwin, approving her choice, “and 500, of course, for the shady side of the box.”
“Yes, of course,” agreed Margaret. “Poor Carrie, what a waste.”
She needed a set of roll bars for the canvas—“All my others are in use,” she explained, being the sort of stitcher who generally had four or five projects under way at once.
Her bill came to nearly five hundred dollars, which she put on her credit card. She thanked Godwin both for his help selecting the fibers and for listening to her distress over her cousin, and left.
Godwin described the conversation to Betsy when she came back from lunching with her accountant. “Now, I don’t know a whole lot about hard liquor, but isn’t it impossible for anyone to drink a whole quart of hard liquor in one sitting?”
Betsy, not much of a drinker herself, replied, “I don’t know. But it seems to me even an experienced alcoholic would pass out before finishing a quart of bourbon. Maybe, if she did steal it from someone, it was already half empty. Or maybe she was carrying it around, staying drunk for days on it.”
“Ah. Of course,” said Godwin, nodding. “That makes sense.” So no mystery here; no need for Betsy to exercise her sleuthing skills over this death.
“Well, I’ll be dipped,” said Excelsior police investigator Sergeant Mike Malloy. “And you’re sure about this?” He was scribbling notes as the medical examiner spoke. “The screening test was negative. Nothing in that bottle of bourbon that would harm a person—except for the alcohol, of course.”
“We ran the standard tests on tissue and the liquor, and they all came back negative.”
“Hmmm. That’s not what I was thinking at all. But thank you.”