G is for Gumshoe - Page 75/98

"What subject?"

"I'm getting to that. This is an article on 'Human stress cardiomyopathy' written by a couple of doctors in Ohio. Here we go. Catch this," she said. "Mrs. Grey suffered a characteristic damage to her heart-a cell death called myofibrillar degeneration brought on by fear-generated stress."

"Can you translate?"

"Sure, it's simple. When the body gets flooded with intolerable levels of adrenaline, heart cells are killed. The pockets of dead cells interfere with the normal electrical network that regulates the heart. When the nerve fibers are disrupted, the heart starts beating erratically and, in this case, that led to cardiac failure."

"Okay," I said cautiously. I had the feeling there was more. "So what's the punch line here?"

"This little old lady was quite literally scared to death."


"It's just what it sounds like. Whatever happened to her in those hours she was gone, she was so badly frightened it killed her."

"Are you talking about her being lost or something more than that?"

"I suspect something more. The theory is that, under certain circumstances, the cumulative burden of psychological stress and pain can generate lethal charges in cardiac tissue."

"Like what?"

"Well, take a little kid. Her father beats her with a belt, ties her up, and leaves her bound in a vacant room overnight. Next morning, she's dead. The actual physical injuries aren't sufficient to cause death. I'm not talking about the stress levels most of us experience in the ordinary course of events. Without getting graphic about it, it's analogous to certain animal experiments relating focal myocardial necrosis to stress."

"You're telling me this is a homicide."

"In essence, yes. I don't think Dolan would consider it such, but that's my guess."

I sat for a moment while the information sank in. "I don't like this."

"I didn't think you would," she replied. "In the meantime, if you haven't figured out yet where she was, you might want to try again."

"Yes." I felt a heaviness in my chest, some ancient dread activated by the proximity to murder. I'd done my job efficiently. I'd tracked the woman down. I'd helped facilitate the plan to move her to Santa Teresa, despite her fears, despite her pleadings. Now she was dead. Was I inadvertently responsible for that, too?

After I hung up, I sat there so long I found Dietz staring at me with puzzlement. I was picking at the flaps of the cardboard box, peeling the first layer of paper away from the corrugation. I tried to imagine Agnes Grey's last day. Had she been abducted? If so, to what end? There'd been no demand for money. As far as I knew, there hadn't been contact of any kind. Who had reason to kill her? The only people she knew in this town were Irene and Clyde. Not beyond the possible, I thought to myself. Most homicides are personal crimes-victims killed by close relatives, friends, and acquaintances… which is why I limit mine.

Blindly, I looked down. The paper was coming loose from around the cup I'd rewrapped. The broken halves lay in a torn half-sheet of newsprint that was yellow with age. I blinked, focusing on the banner partially visible across the top. I tilted my head so I could read the newsprint. It was the business section of the Santa Teresa Morning Press, a precursor of the current Santa Teresa Dispatch. Puzzled, I removed the paper from the box and smoothed it across my lap. January 8, 1940.I checked the exterior of the box, but there were no postmarks and no shipping labels. Curious. Had Agnes been in Santa Teresa? I could have sworn Irene told me her mother had never been here.

I looked up. Dietz was standing right in front of me, hands on his knees, face level with mine. "Are you all right?"

"Look at this." I handed him the paper.

He turned it over in his hands, checking both sides. He noted the date as I had and his mouth pulled down in speculation. He wagged his head back and forth.

"What do you make of it?" I asked.

"Probably the same thing you do. It looks like the box was packed in Santa Teresa in January of nineteen forty."

"January eighth," I said, correcting him.

"Not necessarily. A lot of people save newspapers for a time at any rate. This might have been sitting in a stack somewhere. You know how it is. You need to wrap up some dishes and you grab a section from the pile."

"Well, that's true," I said. "Do you think Agnes did it? Was she actually in this town at that point?" It was a question we couldn't answer of course, but I needed to ask it anyway.