Dead Body Language: Chapter One

I licked the tip of my murder weapon, then hesitantly sipped the Nugget Cafe’s coffee as if it were strychnine.

"Okay, I sneak up behind the principal right after biology, shoot him in the back with the gold-handled derringer, and - shit!" I threw down the pencil and ran my fingers through my newly bobbed hair.

You'd think living in a colorful California gold rush town called Flat Skunk, once famous for its early homicidal heritage, I’d be inspired to knock off the high school principal in an innovative way. It was now part of my job.

I took another swallow of what the Nugget Cafe served in place of palatable coffee. But strychnine in the gold country beat mochas in the city any day. I tapped my murder weapon on the table, then used it to draw a line through my latest attempt at premeditated homicide. I nearly shredded the nugget-imprinted napkin I'd embellished with my scrawling.

"Goddammit! I can't use a gun to kill the principal. Everyone in the school would hear it - even if I wouldn't," I said.

This confession garnered some attention from the regulars at the early morning hangout. Sheriff Elvis Mercer halted mid-conversation with a look that said, "Folks around here don't talk to themselves out loud, Connor honey. And they especially don't talk about murdering other folks."

I forced an innocent smile at the sheriff, then took another look at my hopeless mystery puzzle and tried another tack. "OK, I'll wire the P.A. system so when the principal goes into the office to make an announcements on the microphone about smoking in the bathroom--"

Zap! I jumped. A hand touched my shoulder and I hadn't seen it coming.

It was Lacy Penzance, the self-styled town matriarch, saying something I couldn't make out; her lips barely moved.

I turned up the volume on the hearing aid behind my left ear - the only ear that receives any sound at all - hoping it would help with reading her tight lips. To Lacy Penzance, it probably looked like I was scratching fleas.

"Thorry," I said, and swallowed my bite of toast whole, nearly lacerating my throat in the process. I coughed and slapped my chest a few times. "Sorry. What did you say?" I turned so I could see her face more clearly.

"I . . . you are Connor Westphal?" was all I caught.

I looked her over. I'd never seen her up close, although that wasn't surprising even in a small town like Flat Skunk. We didn't have a lot in common, except maybe a love of the historic Mother Lode mining town.

She was silk suits, Mercedes, Brie, women’s auxiliary; I was torn jeans, beat-up 57 Chevy, BLTs, and Protestant work ethic. It all added up to money - opposite sides of the coin. Although we were only a few years apart - I'm 37, she looked fortyish - Lacy Penzance and I were generations apart in dollars and design.

"May I sit down?"

At least that's what I thought she said. She really didn't use her lips for much more than sporting scarlet lipstick. I swept some toast crumbs off the table, folded the mystery-annotated napkin, and gestured to the seat across from mine.

The woman slid slowly and deliberately into the worn red leatherette seat. She removed her peach-tinted sunglasses, revealing red-rimmed eyes bordered by tiny crow’s feet and smudged makeup. There was enough Obsession wafting off her neck to cause me to lose my appetite, especially for cold toast. But something in the meticulous facade caused me to feel a pang of sympathy for the woman.

Nervously, Lacy pulled a wad of carnival tickets from the black hole of her purse and set them on the gray Formica table. She spoke again; I understood very little.

Even those skilled in speechreading see only about fifty percent of the words on the lips, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved. I usually carry around a little tape recorder in the event I should need something clarified later by an interpreter. But I didn't have it with me this morning. I like to ease into Mondays. As for my hearing aid, it only helps a little with the lip-reading. Without it I tend to hear only very low or very high sounds - bass guitars, car alarms. I often turn it off when I’m trying to write.

Without taking my eyes off her lips, I could see the tickets twisting in her slim fingers, but I was fairly certain her comments had nothing to do with what she held in her hand.

"You own that little newspaper, the one that circulates throughout the Mother Lode?"

Little newspaper? Apparently she'd sized me up too, and didn’t think I looked the part of publishing magnate. Maybe a lone woman in maroon jeans and an old "Oh My God, I Forgot To Have Children" T-shirt, who talks to herself, wasn't Lacy Penzance’s idea of a media baron. I sat up straighter to make up for the image problem and slipped my feet back into the pink moccasins I had kicked off.

"Yes, my office is . . ."

She interrupted before I could point across the street. "I know where your office is." She look intently into my eyes as she ripped off two tickets, and placed them deliberately on the table.

I was suddenly aware that we were attracting the attention of some of the Nugget’s other patrons. Although my peripheral vision is no better than a hearing person's, I'm not distracted by blaring boom boxes and whispered gossip, so I tend to tune in closely to visual cues. I sensed that our pairing had caused some interest in the cafe.

Lacy Penzance leaned in closer. "I stopped by there a few minutes ago. The gentleman in the room next to yours said you were here."

Gentleman? I must have misread her lips that time. I would not call my office neighbor, Boone Joslin, a gentleman even when he was clean and sober.

Jilda Renfrew interrupted with a toothy smile, much too bright for a Monday morning, and delivered the hot chocolate I had ordered. Lacy sat back abruptly, and I took a moment to pour the chocolate into my half-filled coffee.

"What can I do for you, Lacy?" I asked, after a warming swallow of do-it-yourself mocha. It had been an adjustment, breaking the Starbucks addiction, but the benefits of trading Forty-Niner football tickets for the Forty-Niner heritage had outweighed the minor modification.

Lacy glanced around, licked her lips, then began to speak. I studied her nearly motionless mouth, feeling the onset of a headache from the intense concentration.

"I can't talk to you here. Could you buy one of these raffle tickets for the frog-jumping contest this weekend? Everyone will assume that's what we're talking about. Then I'll meet you--" She looked down at her purse and I missed the rest.

I reached a hand forward. "I'm sorry - what? You'll meet me . . .?"

"I've got to go," she interrupted, suddenly looking a little frantic. "Twenty minutes. In your office. Please. It's about my sister . . . she’s missing . . ."

I thought that’s what she said anyway. Before I could clarify, she cut me off again and I missed what she said. She had a frustrating habit of interrupting me. It couldn't have been much - a couple of words - but I was curious as hell as to what she wanted from me.

After all, this was Lacy Penzance. She was an icon in Flat Skunk, a relic of elegance and wealth from the heydays of the gold rush in this now rustic, gold-stripped town. I'd meet her if only to find out what could be so important that she needed me. Hopefully Jeremiah Mercer, my part-time assistant, would be there to interpret for me. I didn't want to miss a word.

"Fine. My office," I said. I hoped I said it quietly.

"That will be four dollars, please." This time I had no trouble reading her lips. Her exaggerated mouth movements were no doubt a performance for the on-lookers. So, she was going to stiff me for a pair of frog-jumping tickets I didn't even want. If it was a scam, she was quite a con artist.

I forked over the cash and thanked her for the tickets with little enthusiasm. I stuffed them into my jeans pocket as she moved on to the next unsuspecting diners. Curious to see her try to stiff them with her sales technique, I slurped my not-quite-mocha and unfolded the napkin with the mystery puzzle.

"Got a deadline, Connor?" Sheriff Mercer asked, as he stopped by my table on his way to the cash register. At least, that’s what I thought he said. It wasn’t easy reading his lips with that toothpick dangling from his mouth. Thank God he had given up the chewing tobacco habit that was so popular around Skunk.

"Eight-thirty-seven in the morning is too damned early to be planning the perfect murder, Sheriff. Deadline or no deadline."

"Who you gonna kill off this week, Connor? I got the one last week. I knew the dentist did it. You never fooled me."

He grinned proudly and tapped the table with a sausage finger. Hoisting up his khaki pant with a couple of handfuls at the waist, he shuffled over to the cash register, leaving me to my death-by-caffeine and impossible mystery puzzle.

I stared out the window at the bubblegum blossoms of the flowering plums that framed the old Pioneer Cemetery across the way. Those pink puffs gave the crusty old mining town an incongruously delicate fluffy trim, like the cake crumbling with age in Great Expectations. Around here it didn't matter if you couldn't hear the hoot of the owls or the rustle of the rivers - I could feel the heartbeat of the forty-niners in the antique town I now called home. I didn’t miss San Francisco a bit; I loved everything about the Mother Lode.

"Give it up, Connor." The sheriff had returned to toss a ten-cent mint on my table. "We’ll take care of any mysterious murders that occur around here. You better stick to writing the obituaries." He chuckled and sauntered out the door as if he didn’t have a care in the world. That calm exterior was what made Sheriff Mercer so effective in his job. And damn if he didn’t solve everyone of my mystery puzzles.

In the early mining days, murder had been a preferred form of recreation in this Mother Lode town of Flat Skunk. According to my Cornish great-grandmother, Sierra Westphal, 836 gold-diggers were axed, hacked, hanged, shot, or stabbed to death during the five years that followed the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Sierra, or Grancy as my father used to call his grandmother, wrote in her tattered diary: "If you ask me, the mortuary is the real gold mine in this Califoyrna town." (Stet.) She’s partly responsible for my being here.

Back then more brothels and saloons flanked the muddy "gold-paved" streets than all the churches, banks, mortuaries, and jails put together. Today the gold country is part of California's attic, a tame collection of tourist traps, trendy boutiques, bed-and-breakfast inns, and bogus gold-mining expeditions. About the only threat to safety is stepping into the line of fire of a tobacco-chewing spit-shooter.

And this coffee.

"More?" asked Jilda, crinkling up her Cornish nose that was shared by many from Rough & Ready to Angels Camp. The part-time waitress/manicurist/Mary Kay Cosmetics consultant/Naughty Lingerie Hostess squinted every time she asked a question. I briefly wondered if she was trying to murder me with the poisonous liquid even chocolate couldn’t save. What I would give if they served a real mocha. With whipped cream. And chocolate sprinkles.

Jilda relaxed her squint and poked at her frizzy, permed hair with sparkling fingernails. I’d made a promise to myself early on not to take her up on her offer for a free introductory manicure. Otherwise I’d probably be sporting bejeweled inch-long acrylic nails, dipped in Neon Magenta.

"Didja hear me, Con?" she said, raising the coffee pot to illustrate her question.

"Got an antidote?" I replied as she poured. Before I settled here, I used to think any mouth-breather could work at a diner like the Nugget if they could chew gum while using a pencil and didn’t have cholera. But Jilda’s ability to pour coffee from a height of three-feet without spilling a drop had changed one of my many stereotypical attitudes.

I tried to shake my thoughts back to the matter at hand - my weekly deadline - as I stared at the false front of the Hotel building across the street. The bucolic picture faded from view as one of the town’s good ol' boys headed toward the cafe from across the street. The man’s lumbering gait and self-conscious mannerisms distracted me from the frothy view of the trees and my half-hearted attempt at completing the next mystery puzzle.

Mickey Arnold, wearing the ubiquitous 501s and a khaki sheriff's department shirt, grinned, waved, and needlessly tucked in the shirt as he approached the cafe window. It wasn’t vanity that caused him to straighten up, more like insecurity, I thought.

I smiled and waved back at the thirty-something deputy sheriff, even though his body language was telling me more than I was ready to read. Despite being deaf, I don't possess super x-ray vision as some "hearies" seem to think. But I do tend to tune in visually, since I rely on my sight to bring me information I don’t get auditorily. Where I am not able to notice a change in tone of voice or notice a subtle vocal nuance, I can read a face and interpret body language well enough to see what many hearing people overlook. A twitch of an eyebrow or a shift in body weight often speaks louder than words.

Did Mickey realize his current swagger and strut were shouting all kinds of messages. It didn’t matter - all that was about to change dramatically. The still attractive, impeccably dressed Lacy Penzance, her attention focused on the tickets she was stuffing into her bag, was moving toward the door - and heading right toward Mickey.

I waved a warning hand at him, but he apparently mistook it for flirtation. He gave the window reflection another glance, smoothed his buzz-cut hair, and checked his belt for kinks and twists.

"Watch out!" I mouthed through the glass as the two pedestrians approached their calamitous fate. But Deputy Arnold was too busy primping to read me lips. I’m self-conscious about raising my voice in public. It often comes out squeaky and distorted, I’m told. I held back for a few moments, then yelled just as he made a turn. Too late.

Too bad, because he didn't look at all attractive in the Nugget Cafe doorway, sprawled on top of a startled, gasping Lacy Penzance.

The impact was solid and forceful, obvious from the aftermath. I almost felt it myself. Lacy’s roll of tickets and the contents of her purse had scattered in all directions - under tables, counters, and feet - while the deputy’s hat and sunglasses bit the dust at top speed. He’d smacked into Lacy Penzance so hard, it’s a wonder he hadn’t knocked her unconscious.

Perhaps if he had, I wouldn’t have gotten poison oak, my underwear would still be in my top drawer, and a few more Flat Skunk citizens would still be alive.