by Paddy Wight
“What do we have here?”
I’d had this job for going on three years. Not easy, always being self-employed, but it was better than either alternative – either fielding a-thousand-and-one questions about past employers and references, la, la, la, or being out on the street. So, the local cops were short a few investigators. So, I knew my business. So.
“No struggle, no prints, just a corpse, Frank.”
“So, I see. Victim sitting where she died, blood from the mouth, no wounds visible. Looks like she went pretty quick. Surprise on her face; blood on her shirt.”
I surveyed the home office quickly. A few cigarette butts in the ashtray, some with lipstick, some not. Also, a small pile of pipe ash. No shape, like from a cigar, but there was the consistency of shredded and chopped leaves, and not the fine ash of a cigarette. The air had a lingering scent as well, suggesting the pipe smoker had not been there too long ago. I looked at my partner, Agatha. No woman I could love as much as her, but we were there strictly on business. She was quiet, but I saw some redness in her eyes. Something in the air, something from the mystery guest’s pipe, maybe?
I put on my lab gloves, bagged the butts for the cops to take to their lab. The ashes I poured carefully into another baggie, and put it in my own case.
The body was still somewhat warm. If the pipe smoker were the culprit it seemed he – or, possibly, she – had been there a while. At least an hour’s visit. Nothing appeared to be disturbed in the office, other than its proprietor, that is. All I had to go on was the pipe theory, and the victim’s face. She seemed to have been at ease with her last visitor, yet saw some need to maintain a kind of official distance, in that she was behind her desk, and not in one of the more comfortable chairs in the sitting area. She had opened her mouth, either in surprise, or else to scream. Either way, what she saw was a shock to her. The only sound, though, seems to have come from a small-caliber weapon of some sort planting one round through the back of her throat. I would think, a pistol. Easier to carry and conceal, and the weaker impact from the short barrel would help explain how it penetrated enough to cancel her breathing ticket, but not so much as to even make an exit wound. Such a shot would have instantly severed her cervical cord, paralyzing everything below the brain stem. The killer had done some real homework on this one.
Following Agatha’s reaction, our next stop was a neighborhood tobacconist. Not all that easy to find, with the neighborhood being host more to hookah shops and bubble-gum steam counters. “Vaping,” they call it?
After about twenty minutes, we found “H.M. Pype Shoppe & Tobacconyste” on the edge of the new “uptown” district of Greenville, with the fancy coffee bistros and franchise “pubs.” I asked the kid about their different blends and what went into them. When it seemed he didn’t know Burley from Izmir I asked for the owner. After making sure I wasn’t trying to get him fired – it was his second week on that job – he headed to the back, sucking down a huge cloud of “vape” smoke as he went. I swear it smelled just like grape candy.
In a moment, the owner showed. An older guy, with an old briar pipe in his teeth. Good. Somebody that might know real ‘baccy from bubblegum, I thought.
Playing my cards as close as I could I asked, “Tell me, sir, what blends do you have in, say, the range that would leave a rich ‘room effect,’ but have an element that would irritate some eyes, here and there?”
“You’re wanting to irritate people?”
“Not at all. Just wondering what kind of leaf would leave that kind of edge in the air. Somebody was smoking something like that a while ago and it seemed like the kind of cook-out element I was smelling might be a step up from the English Burley blend I’ve been smoking.”
“Well, now, that could be a Perique. It’s not all that common, and it’s a little more of a peppery note. Cook-outs, like with a wood smoke, would suggest a wood-fired tobacco. Springfield doesn’t show up too much lately, but Latakia is quite popular. There are two varieties. No, actually, only one, now. There was an excellent one produced in Syria, but well, that’s when Syria actually had an economy to support any commerce at all. Now, it’s all from Cyprus, but there are a number of blends which do use it, today.”
“Do all these blends have the same effect, burning eyes and such?”
“Oh, not at all. In fact, if you’re smoking an English blend at all there’s going to be some amount there. In fact, I have a tinned variety here – yes, here it is – Balkan Sobranie. It is pretty much on the borderline between whether the Latakia shows up on its own or just hides and supports the other leaves. Here. I’ve got an open tin in the humidor cabinet.”
I had picked up a little sampling pipe a while back. One of those gimmicks with a carbon bowl that doesn’t carry any leftover flavors from one batch to the next. Filling it about half up, lighting it, drawing up a small cloud, I glanced over at Agatha. She started rubbing her eyes as if she’d just come out of a tear-gas trainer.
“Nice flavor, but my partner doesn’t seem to approve. What else is around the same recipe?”
“Well, there are several. Bayou Morning, Bailey’s Front Porch, Star of the East, quite a few, actually.”
Enough of that. Back to the shack, supper, science fiction, and sleep. Next morning, on the phone.
“Swanson here. What’ve you got, Vandyke?”
“Nothing so far, Jack. Seems like the killer was a pipe smoker, but what he smoked could have been one of a dozen, from what I’ve found out so far. Agatha put me onto a lead, but it didn’t wind up with more than that. An English blend. Biggest category on the market. Wish I had more. What about at your end?”
“The victim was Mary Anne Bradley. She came here from Albuquerque, apparently for some kind of meeting. She had rented the office space for that purpose, but we haven’t found any leads on who she was meeting, or why. Oh, yeah, the butts were all hers. Guess she’d smoked a couple before refreshing her makeup for whoever she was meeting. Nothing from that. She worked in real estate, but God only knows what she had in mind coming here. She lived alone – divorced, or widowed. Not sure which. Her husband had been an Army major, working some ‘Secret Squirrel’ kind of enforcement assignment in Europe. Seems she had taken up with his brother while he was deployed. He came home, found out, and vanished. Two weeks later, the brother vanished as well. After zero contact, nothing from Missing Persons, she had him declared dead. Insurance payment, new career, everything rosy. Until yesterday. Yeah, and the round the medical examiner took out of her neck was a .22. A tracer round.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. But then if the bullet is made of burning phosphorous, what’s left of it for forensics? The killer was either really sharp, or extremely pissed off.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ll keep you posted with whatever else turns up. Tough turn of events, just when she was putting her life together.”
“Well, maybe, or maybe not. There are some other things about her activities that don’t leave her looking too clean, but nothing we’ve been able to connect with anything in this town.”
“Yeah, well, they do say karma’s a bitch. I’ll keep scratching. Stay in touch.”
There was really no more to go on. She came to town to meet somebody, some kind of business deal, from the looks of the office rental. Big money business, for what she must have paid for that suite. A nameless visitor showed up, and spent over an hour there, from the fact he’d unloaded his pipe for a refill instead of pocketing it when cold. He had approached her at her desk, and probably from no farther away than the front edge of it pulled out some small pistol. Probably from his sleeve, from the time she seemed to have had to react, and probably with a muffler. A muffled .22 wouldn’t give a sneeze loud enough to warrant a “bless you.” All that was pretty obvious. All that remains, the one question still to answer, was, “who sneezed, and why?”
A week later, Swanson sent a manila folder marked, “Bradley, Mary Anne.” down to Cold Cases. Another week and I took Agatha with me up to Albuquerque. Fairview Memorial Park. “Well, Mary, I guess they’ll never know, will they?” Agatha couldn’t resist the sight of the fresh dirt, but squatted heroically, and kicked a fair load of it against the stone, as I was filling my briar. So long, Mary Anne. Balkan Sobranie. Good blend.