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Short Story

he polar bear stretched to its full nine feet, paws raised, razor-sharp claws extended, jaws gaping to reveal gleaming hungry teeth. I stepped back tentatively, heart hammering, then shook my head in disbelief. Realistic. The bear was stuffed, just like the caribou, ibex, mountain lion, elk, and moose that decorated the mahogany-paneled wall behind it. But the bear....

That you, Mac?"

Detective Colleen O'Connell appeared out of a doorway to my right. Early thirties, medium height, dark hair, athletic build, wearing jeans and a white oxford dress shirt. Underdressed and under control, as usual.

"Yeah," I said, gesturing to the bear. "Big one."

She gave it a glance. "Our victim shot it himself a couple of months ago. Thanks for coming on such short notice. This is going to be a political hairball so Johnny decided to call you in."

"This estate says money," I said.

"Lots of it. Are the press out there yet?"

"Yeah. I counted ten limos, and a Ferrari."

"I noticed that, too," Colleen admitted.

"What've we got?"

"Daniel Burlingame was hosting a Mardi Gras dinner party for forty of his closest and richest friends. He rubbed his forehead, started to stand up, lost his balance and keeled over into what was left of the first course. One of the guests is a plastic surgeon. He tried CPR, but nada."

"You suspect poison?"

"Johnny does. I'm open-minded."

Johnny was Dr. Johannes Ravenovitch, the Oakland County Medical Examiner. Good friend, former college roommate, lead singer of the hideously bad and happily defunct rock band, Raven's Wing, of which I was once the keyboard player. Now I'm a consulting forensic toxicologist, Dr. Theo MacGreggor, Ph.D.

"Let's go see what Johnny's thinking," I said.

The dining room had a polished oak parquet floor, so shiny I could see my transmogrified reflection under my feet. Multiple chandeliers dangled above a long oak table big enough to serve forty. The walls had been decorated with Mardi Gras masks and beads. Multi-paned windows looked out on a rolling snow-covered estate, what I could see of it in floodlights. The table was set with elaborate china and silver, abandoned except for the dead guy on the floor. I stepped close and checked him out: tall and big-boned, probably in his late sixties, with a thick head of silver-gray hair. An impressive walrus mustache. He wore a dinner jacket, which was significantly more formal than I ever cared to get in my own home. Who can figure the rich?

Johnny was prowling the scene while a police photographer snapped picture after picture. Johnny was six-six, thin, with long bony fingers, a prominent Adam's apple and eyebrows like mature caterpillars.

"What've we got?" I asked him.

"A billionaire dead before the main course," he said.

"Remember when we used to be happy with mere millions?"

"Burlingame of Burlingame Lumber; Burlingame Seacraft; Burlingame Technologies; and finally, his most recent introduction into the world of high-class eateries—"

"Mom's?" I ventured.

"Burlingame's," Johnny said. "Ever eat there?"

"Do they have Happy Meals?"

Johnny grinned. "What'd you do with Michael?"

"Emergency backup babysitter. I owe that kid mucho dinero for coming over at the last minute. Okay, why am I here? You're thinking poison?"

Johnny walked us over. "They said he was eating—he apparently was a big eater, and fast—when he kind of groaned and rubbed his forehead. Then he threw up—" I'd already noticed that. "—swayed as if he were dizzy, groaned again and collapsed."

"Could be a stroke or an embolism."

"Won't really know until I get him on the table," Johnny conceded. "Call it a hunch, but it seems suspicious. Plus I don't like his skin color."

I noticed for myself that the man's skin color had a slightly yellowish cast to it. "Maybe acute liver failure?"

Johnny shrugged and pointed to Burlingame's place setting.

I took a closer look at the table. He'd died during the first course. There were no serving trays, but the plates in front of everybody's spot except for Burlingame's were half-filled with food. It looked like some sort of stew, thick chunks of meat in a tomato sauce with peppers and onions and rice; it smelled spicy. Wine glasses and water goblets were filled or half-filled.

"Who cooked?" I asked.

"The wife supervised," Colleen said. "Sara Burlingame. She's a chef, but there's a staff of two cooks and eight servers waiting in the kitchen. They're all temps but one, who's sort of a maid, butler and cook all rolled into one. She looks after the household. Who do you want to talk to first?"

"Let's talk to this woman, the one who's in charge of everything. Bring her out, okay?"

Johnny said, "In front of her boss?"

"You bet," I said.

Colleen disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared moments later with a middle-aged woman in dark formal clothing, wearing a pristine white apron. She was heavy-set with worried features, but her green eyes were clear and intelligent. Colleen introduced her as Mrs. Janet Rafael. Her name gave me no idea as to her nationality, but her accent was vaguely European, possibly British with a trace of South African.

"Hi," I said, gesturing to the table. "I understand Mrs. Burlingame did the cooking tonight."

"Yes, sir. Mrs. Burlingame is a chef. I'm only a cook."

"What's the difference?" I asked.

She smiled sheepishly. "Sometimes it's only a matter of style, or attitude."

"So what have they eaten so far? I don't know what this is." I gestured to the table.

"Mrs. Burlingame was celebrating Mardi Gras tonight. They began with shrimp and crab gumbo, followed by liver Creole."

I looked closer at the food remaining on the exquisite gold-rimmed china. "This is liver? The second course?"

"Yes sir."

I rubbed my jaw and said, "They were drinking wine?"

Johnny pointed to a row of empty bottles on a sideboard. "Krug champagne," he said. "Pricey."

I examined the dozen bottles without touching them. "Do you know if they were opened to allow them to breathe—"

"You don't let champagne breathe, Mac," Johnny said with a sigh.

"No?"

"No. Wine, yes. Champagne you want the bubbles. No reason to have it go flat." To Colleen he said, "He's impossible."

"I know."

I cleared my throat and glanced to Mrs. Rafael for confirmation. She nodded. "Is Mr. Burlingame a heavy drinker?" I asked.

She hesitated, hands twisting in front of her like snakes mating. I turned away from the bottles of champagne and stepped closer. "Mrs. Rafael?"

"Y-yes," she said. "He drank quite a bit."

"Any liver disease that you know of?"

"Like...cirrhosis?"

I nodded.

"I don't know. Mr. Burlingame liked his drink." I thought about that for a moment and decided it deserved a follow-up.

"How much?"

"Sir...."

"A couple of beers?" I asked. "Six-pack a day? Bottle of scotch? Bottle of wine? What? How much did he drink?"

She sighed in resignation, hiding her nervous hands in her apron. "Mr. Burlingame...I think he was an alcoholic. He easily drank a fifth of scotch a day, sometimes more. And martinis and wine."

"Any pre-dinner drinks tonight?"

She nodded.

"Where?"

"In his private office," she said. "He met earlier with Mr. Baerren and Mr. McTevich in his study while Mrs. Burlingame entertained Mrs. McTevich in the sitting room. When the rest of the guests arrived they were escorted to the salon for drinks and appetizers."

I stalked around the table, peering at the half-finished food on the plates, except for Burlingame's plate, which was bare except for a single piece of meat. "Mr. Burlingame a fast eater?"

"Yes sir. Very."

I looked up at her and smiled. "Gulp his food, did he? Ate it so fast he barely tasted it?"

"Yes sir." I nodded.

"What else was for dinner?"

"I was only serving, sir."

"Right," I said. "What were you serving?"

"Blackened red snapper with dirty rice, sir."

"Any dessert?"

"Bread pudding with whiskey sauce."

"Sounds good," I said. "Except for this liver Creole."

"You have an adolescent's taste in food, Mac," Johnny said. Colleen said nothing.

I shrugged. "I think that'll be all, Mrs. Rafael. Thank you very much.... Oh, one more thing."

She turned to listen to my question.

"This wasn't family style serving, right?"

My question apparently crossed a boundary of etiquette.

"Of course not," she snapped.

"Of course not," I echoed. "Meaning each plate was filled and delivered to the table, like at a restaurant."

"Presentation is very important," Mrs. Rafael said.

"So you did the presentation?"

"No, sir. Mrs. Burlingame did, for each course. Mrs. Burlingame, followed by the waiters, served each course. Everything was done with great formality and panache, Doctor. The quartet played a different piece of Dixieland jazz before each course, or would have if Mr. Burlingame hadn't...."

"Who'd she serve first?"

"The head of the house, of course."

"Not the guest of honor?"

"Mr. McTevich? No sir. Mr. Burlingame was served first," she said firmly.

"Uh-huh," I said. I looked off into space for a moment, then shrugged. "Thank you, Mrs. Rafael. That'll be all for now."

Colleen told Mrs. Rafael she could return to the kitchen or her quarters, she'd be back for a statement.

"Any ideas?" she asked me.

"Maybe. Tell me what we know about McTevich before we talk to him. Where are they, anyway?"

"In the library. Bradford McTevich is the owner of the Hungry Bear restaurant chain. Familiar with it?"

"Of course." It was a family-friendly restaurant geared for everyday food. Their logo was a teddy bear tucking into its supper. My son regularly begged to eat at the closest one. I hated it, but they offered miniature teddy bears free to kids, which seemed to be the calling card for Michael.

"His wife, Melanie McTevich," Colleen continued. "Then there's Sara Burlingame, his latest wife, the chef. You think the dinner's poisoned?"

"Mmm," I said. "Who else?"

"There's forty guests, Mac."

"But the ones who met in the private study?"

"The McTeviches and George Baerren, a friend of the family. He's apparently been a close friend of Daniel's for some time."

"What's he do?"

"He's a taxidermist."

I cocked an eyebrow. "Burlingame kept him busy, didn't he?"

"He sure did. Wait until you see the library."

I liked the library, everything a wealthy man's library should be. It was a long room with walls of windows overlooking part of the estate; the other three walls contained floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, most of which appeared to be leather-bound. Leather furniture was arranged near reading lamps. The hardwood floors were covered with oriental rugs. Very macho. In one corner a full-grown tiger appeared ready to leap. In another corner a leopard.

Forty people or so mingled in tight clots, almost all with a drink in their hands taken from an actively tended bar at one end of the room. They all wore formal dress. Colleen led me to a single grouping of chairs occupied by four people.

"This is Doctor Theo MacGreggor," Colleen introduced me. "He's consult—"

"When will this be over?" the oldest man said. He was heavy in a dark suit, balding, with a short-cropped white beard. In a room filled with the elegant rich he seemed like a walrus lurching through an antique store.

"A few more inquiries, Mr. McTevich," Colleen reassured him. Mr. McTevich had his arm around an older woman, who I assumed was Mrs. McTevich. She was dabbing her eyes with a silk handkerchief, white, which went well, I thought, with her elegant green and blue silk dress. I guessed her age to be in her sixties, close to her husband's, who seemed much more robust than his frail wife.

The other couple threw me a bit. Mrs. Sara Burlingame could be no older than thirty-five, a slender and curvaceous brunette with high cheekbones and flashing dark eyes. The dress she wore was black, sleeveless and short, revealing tanned, beautifully shaped legs and ankles, tapering to delicate feet balanced on stiletto heels.

"Surely my husband had a stroke," she said. "That's what it looked like to me." She dabbed at her eyes with a silk handkerchief, but as far as I could tell her makeup wasn't even remotely smudged.

I smiled at her. "Mrs. Burlingame, then?"

"Yes."

I looked at the last man. "You must be George Baerren, then?"

Baerren was no older than forty, muscular and fit with broad shoulders and rough, work-worn hands. He peered at me through gold-rimmed glasses, his eyes the color of bitter chocolate. His tuxedo fit him perfectly, as if born to it. He ran a hand over his thick curly brown hair just tinged with gray and in a gentle voice, said, "Yes, that's me. I don't believe the detective said what you're here for, Doctor."

"Could we go somewhere more private?"

"My husband's office—"

We followed Sara Burlingame out past many puzzled guests. One of them said, "Do you need my help, Sara?"

She shook her head. "No thanks, Geoffrey. Just a formality."

Daniel Burlingame's private sanctum was small compared to every other room in the house. Still, the oak desk was as large as my car, the leather chair a throne. The four special guests settled into maroon leather armchairs.

Baerren repeated his question. Who was I?

"Oh," I said. "I'm a forensic toxicologist. Poisons—"

"You don't think Daniel was poisoned, do you?" Sara Burlingame asked, alarm crossing her face.

I nodded. "Yes, Mrs. Burlingame, I do."

"This is outrageous!" Mr. McTevich said.

I shrugged. "Just a few questions, actually. How's everybody feeling? Anybody feeling ill?"

They all shook their heads. I continued. "Mrs. Burlingame, did your husband have liver problems?"

Sara Burlingame nodded. "He had advanced cirrhosis. Also high blood pressure."

"Any medications?"

She listed a few.

"May I ask what the reason for this party was?"

The question seemed to catch them off guard. Finally McTevich cleared his throat. "It was a celebration, actually. We were finalizing a partnership with Burlingame Eateries and Hungry Bear Enterprises. We are...were...." He shrugged. "We're going to start a chain of high-end restaurants around the country, loosely based on Burlingame's, but not quite as gourmet. More for mass consumption. It seemed like an excellent combination of Sara and Daniel's culinary skills and tastes, and my experience in restaurant franchising."

"Paperwork signed already?" I asked.

"Yes. Like I said, this was a celebration."

"And," George Baerren said, "the polar bear out front was introduced today. Daniel was quite proud of it."

"I saw it," I said. "You're quite an artist."

"Thank you."

"I'd love to talk to you about that more in a second, but first, Mrs. Burlingame, since your husband is dead, does the deal go on? Legally? I assume you'll take over the estate?"

She seemed flustered. "I'm...yes, I imagine. That's really up to the lawyers, but I imagine so."

"No prenuptial agreement?"

"No, of course not!"

"I see." I turned to Colleen. "Well, that's all for now. Mr. Baerren, if you've got a minute, tell me about this polar bear!" I was gushing, hoping I came off like an airhead. Not much of an act.

Colleen looked startled, but I saw Johnny nudge her with his elbow and nod for us to follow. I led the way, aiming my stream of babble at George Baerren.

"This is amazing," I said, pointing to the bear. "There's one kind of like it in the entryway to Anthony Hall at Michigan State University. I've always wondered, though...I mean, what's under there? Is the skin over some sort of form? Is it skinned in Alaska, or what?"

George Baerren seemed pleased to talk about it, but I noticed Sara Burlingame wore a stricken, tense expression on her face. "Well, with these animals Danny shot, I always preferred him to put them on ice and have them delivered to me as quickly as possible. That way I could do the skinning myself."

"Do you use the skeleton?"

"Oh no," he said, smiling. "Just the skin. In this case I also kept the jaws and the claws. Those are real. Impressive, aren't they?"

They were.

"What do you do with the skeleton?"

"Well, actually, I've sent it to MSU. It's in the beetle room. Ever heard of it? It's this big room filled with millions of beetles and they eat the meat right off the bones. Danny wanted the skeleton donated to the vet school at MSU. He was an alum, did you know that?"

"This is barbaric," McTevich snapped, clearly fed up. "I've had about enough of this."

I nodded. "I'm very sorry, Mr. McTevich. You're quite right. Perhaps you and your wife could wait elsewhere. We really only need Mrs. Burlingame and Mr. Baerren for this."

"I don't see why this is necessary at all," Sara Burlingame snarled. "My husband is dead! If you want lessons in taxidermy this is hardly an appropriate time." For the first time I noticed a slight French accent.

I smiled at her, lovely woman that she was and close to my age. "I think I only have a question or two more, Mrs. Burlingame, and I think you'll find it very relevant. Mr. Baerren...what did you do with the guts of the polar bear?"

He paled slightly. Sara Burlingame jumped in. "Tell him nothing, George. This is ridiculous. Mr. McTevich, would you please call Geoffrey in here. Geoffrey Fei—"

"Good idea," I said. "It'd be a good idea if he were here while Det.Sgt. O'Connell reads you your rights."

Colleen shot a distressed glance at me, then at Johnny, but Johnny was suddenly smiling. He had made the connection, I thought. Colleen saw the smile then turned back to me, surprise on her face. "I think he should answer the question, Mrs. Burlingame. Here or at the Sheriff's Department."

"Don't say a word! Brad—please get Geoffrey!"

"I...I...incinerate them," Baerren said. It hadn't taken much for him to lose his cool. Sweat was beading up on his forehead and his skin had lost a shade or two of its winter tan. I smiled.

"Even the liver?"

"You can't prove it!" Sara Burlingame screamed. "You can't prove it."

"Arrest these two," I said to Colleen. "They poisoned him."

Baerren made for the door, but I stuck out my foot and he tripped right over it, sliding on the pink marble floor. Colleen had her cuffs out and his wrists shackled behind his back before you could say "liver Creole."

"What is the meaning of this?" McTevich demanded. His arm was around his wife, who was weeping into his shoulder.

I said, "Polar bear liver is toxic. Johnny, you'll want to test Burlingame's stomach contents, have the liver tested and ID'd, if possible. Also run a tox screen for Vitamin A."

Sara Burlingame was rigid with rage. "You're out of your mind! Completely insane! I demand this lunatic leave immediately!"

Two more sheriff's deputies appeared and Colleen directed them to cuff Mrs. Burlingame. To me she said, "I'm not sure I understand."

"Liver is very high in Vitamin A," I said. "But Vitamin A, although it's necessary for us to live on, doesn't get secreted in our urine like Vitamin C does. It gets stored in our fat and in our liver. Beef liver is very high in Vitamin A, too, but not at toxic levels. Polar bears, seals, walruses—their livers have amazingly high levels of Vitamin A. So high it's toxic to human beings. I don't know the numbers right off hand, but I would guess three or four ounces of polar bear liver would be toxic...particularly to a man with a bad liver. If I were you I'd check around, see if George and Sara were having an affair. George gave her the liver and she made sure her husband ate it."

"It's not true! Liar!" she screamed.

Colleen read them their rights while Johnny and I walked back into the dining room. Sara was still screaming at her, but George Baerren had begun to confess. Colleen was sorting things out.

Johnny said, "The bear did it."

I shrugged. "That poor bear was minding his own business and some guy shot him. You ever see that bear at MSU?"

"Yeah. What I remember most is about seven large bullet holes in its chest."

"I heard another story about shooting polar bears. Guy was shooting a charging one with a 30-06 and hitting it in the chest. It kept charging. It kept charging until he finally put one in its face. Know why it wasn't penetrating his chest?"

Johnny shook his head.

"Because," I said, "the bear was coated with three inches of ice."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding." I smiled. "Why'd you suspect poison?"

He shrugged, directing the deputies to help him bag the body. "Mostly I wanted to cover my bets. I knew who these people were and how much money was involved. You notice the President of General Motors in there?"

"Uh-huh. Lot of political pressure."

"You bet."

"Besides, Colleen has a sixth-sense. That's why she called me in. Then she called you in."

"She's a hell of a cop," I said.

We could hear Sara Burlingame screaming. I grinned again. "Well, I'm going to go home. I'll type this up with references."

"Good work, Mac. As usual. But come on...headache, vomiting, death. That's so generic. How'd you figure Vitamin A poisoning?"

I laughed. "I'm a toxicologist. When I walked through the door I saw a polar bear. I thought, cool, then footnoted in my head: polar bear liver is toxic. A minute later I'm being told they ate liver. Interesting coincidence. Then I find out the wife cooked the meal, everyone's meal is delivered to them by the hired help, but she personally delivers her husband's courses, wrapping it in this elaborate party pooh-bah that only the rich could appreciate. Then I find out one of the guests is a taxidermist who recently stuffed a polar bear. Lot of coincidence. All I had was a theory."

"It turned out to be right."

I shrugged. "Lucky guess."

"If you insist. Now what?"

"Go home. Put Michael to bed. Pay ransom to Michael's sitter." I peered out the windows. It was starting to snow. Not heavy, but the road might be slick. "I'd better get going before the roads get bad."

"Mac, you ever notice how weird murder gets when the mega-rich are involved. Claus von Bulow and the Menendezes, all those guys. I mean, why not just shoot him in the head? Be a lot simpler. Why get so fancy?"

I shrugged and zipped up my parka. "Maybe they think they're smarter than everyone else. That would be a pretty typical profile of a poisoner. Death by remote control. High intelligence. Arrogance. Some of the FBI people say cowards, but I'm not so sure. Maybe."

"Still, poisoning by polar bear liver? What kind of mind thinks of that?

"A twisted one," I said. "But Burlingame's just as dead. In the end, whether its a knife, a gun, strangulation or blunt object, the end result's the same. Use polar bear liver, the guy's just as dead."

© Mark Terry



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