H is for Homicide Page 3

"He have family here in town?"

"Not that I ever heard. Vera Lipton, the CF claims manager, was his immediate supervisor. She'd have his personnel file."

"What about you?"

I shrugged. "Well, I haven't known him long, but I consider him a good friend." I corrected myself into past tense with a small jolt of pain. "He was really a nice guy… pleasant and capable. Generous to a fault. He wasn't very open about his personal life, but then, neither am I. We'd have drinks together after work a couple of times a week. Sometimes the 'happy hour' stretched into dinner if both of us happened to be free. I don't think he'd really had time to form many close friendships. He was a funny guy. I mean, literally. The man made me laugh."

Lieutenant Dolan was making penciled notes. He asked me some apparently unrelated questions about Parnel's workload, employment history, hobbies, girlfriends. Aside from a few superficial observations, I didn't have much to contribute, which seemed strange to me somehow, given the sense of distress I was feeling. I couldn't take my eyes off of Parnell. The back of his head was round, the hair cut almost to the scalp. The skin of the back of his neck looked soft. His eyes were open, staring blankly at the asphalt. What is life that it can vanish so absolutely in such a short period of time? Looking at Parnell, I was struck by the loss of animation, warmth, energy, all of it gone in an instant, never to return. His job was done. Now the rest of us were caught up in the clerical work that accompanies any death, the impersonal busywork generated by our transfer from aboveground to below.

I checked the slot where Parnell usually parked his car. "I wonder where his car went. He has to drive in from Colgate, so it should be here someplace. It's American made, a Chevrolet, I think, eighty or eighty-one, dark blue."

"Might have been stolen. We'll see if we can locate the vehicle. I don't suppose you know the license number offhand."

"Actually, I do. It's a vanity plate – PARNELL – a present to himself on his birthday last month. The big three-oh."

"You have his home address?"

I gave Dolan the directions. I didn't know the house number, but I'd driven him home on a couple of occasions, once when his car was being serviced and once when he got way too tipsy to get behind the wheel. I also gave Dolan Vera's home number, which he jotted beside her name. "I've got a key to the office if you want to see his desk."

"Let's do that."

For the next week, the killing was all anybody talked about. There's something profoundly unsettling when murder comes that close to home. Parnell's death was chilling because it seemed so inexplicable. There was nothing about him to suggest that he was marked for homicide. He seemed a perfectly ordinary human being just like the rest of us. As far as anyone could tell there was nothing in his current circumstances, nothing in his background, nothing in his nature, that would invite violence. Since there were never any suspects, we were made uncomfortably aware of our own vulnerability, haunted by the notion that perhaps we knew more than we realized. We discussed the subject endlessly, trying to dispel the cloud of anxiety that billowed up in the wake of his death.

I was no better prepared than anyone else. In my line of work, I'm not a stranger to homicide. For the most part, I don't react, but with Parnel's death, because of our friendship, my usual defenses – action, anger, a tendency to gallows humor – did little to protect me from the same apprehensiveness that gripped everyone else. While I find myself sometimes unwittingly involved in homicide investigations, it's nothing I set out to do, and usually nothing I'd take on without being paid. Since no one had hired me to look into this one, I kept my distance and minded my own business. This was strictly a police matter and I figured they had enough on their hands without any "help" from me. The fact that I'm a licensed private investigator gives me no more rights or privileges than the average citizen, and no more liberty to intrude.

I was unsettled by the lack of media coverage. After the first splash in the papers, all reference to the homicide seemed to vanish from sight. None of the television news shows carried any follow-up. I had to assume there were no leads and no new information coming in, but it did seem odd. And depressing, to say the least. When someone you care about is murdered like that, you want other people to feel the impact. You want to see the community fired up and some kind of action being taken. Without fuel, even the talk among the CF employees began to peter out. Speculation flared and died, leaving melancholy in its place. The cops swept in and packed up everything in his desk. His active caseload was distributed among the other agents. Some relative of his flew out from the East Coast and closed his apartment, disposing of his belongings. Business went on as usual. Where Parnell Perkins had once been, there was now empty space, and none of us understood quite how to cope with that. Eventually, I would realize how all the pieces fit together, but at that point the puzzle hadn't even been dumped out of the box. Within weeks, the homicide was superseded by the reality of Gordon Titus – Mr. Tight-Ass, as we soon referred to him – the VP from Palm Springs, whose transfer to the home office was scheduled for November 15. As it turned out, even Titus played an unwitting part in the course of events.

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