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Manner Of Death Excerpt

     Adrienne's tomatoes froze to death the same night that Arnie Dresser did.
     September twenty-seventh is about a week early for a hard frost along Colorado's Front Range, but it's late for tomatoes. The only fruit left hanging on my friend's ragged vines the afternoon that initial winter cold front scooted south out of Wyoming were some hard, green orbs that didn't appear likely to ripen before the millennium. Since I'd already made enough tomato sauce and salsa to fill half my freezer, as well as a good chunk of Adrienne's, I didn't mourn the death of the tomatoes as much as I did the demise of the half dozen fresh basil plants that had shriveled and blackened in response to the assault of the chill Canadian air.
     Arnie Dresser's death was much more unexpected than was this first frost, but his passing caused me less initial reflection than did that of my neighbor's garden. The funeral was, thankfully, the first I would be attending in a long time and I suspected that I would shed no tears at Arnie's services. I hadn't seen him in years, and we had never really been close friends. My presence at his funeral was indicated, I felt, so as not to show disrespect. If I had fallen down a steep cliff in the Maroon Bells wilderness and cracked my skull open on a rock before succumbing to exposure, I'd like to think that someone like Arnie would come and pay his respects to me.
     That's actually not true. Most days, I really wouldn't care. On insecure days, maybe. Most days, no.
     Arnie—Arnold Dresser, M.D.—had stayed in touch. I had to give him credit for that.
     Since our days training together in 1982, in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center—he as a second-year psychiatric resident, I as a clinical psychology intern —Arnie always included me on his Christmas card list. Occasionally, he would send a note to congratulate me on something he had heard through the grapevine about my life, like my wedding, or to commiserate with me over some tragedy he thought we shared, like our divorces.
     Arnie's professional demeanor was a bit overbearing — okay, before he died, I considered him pompous and arrogant — but away from work he was a nice enough guy who I never put much energy into knowing well.  After my training at the Health Sciences Center was complete, I'd moved to Boulder to practice. Arnie stayed in Denver, enrolled in the Analytic Institute, and set up the de rigueur Cherry Creek office-cum-couch. I had often considered Arnie's congeniality toward me to be too much, even reaching the point of being gratuitous at times, but had never given much thought to understanding it.
     At his funeral, I expected to see a slew of other nice people and some not-so-nice people, whose faces I remembered from long ago in my training, but whom I never knew well either. That's the nature of internships and residencies. Short training rotations throw strangers together for intense interludes of manic involvement and long hours. It's no way to train quality health-care professionals, and certainly no way to develop enduring social relationships.
     If I was someone who was into class reunions, though, Arnie would have been my pick for chairman. He seemed to have had a need to stay in touch with a lot of us from his training years. In annual Christmas cards, he'd fill me in on news about many of the other residents and interns from those days and tell me what had happened to them over the years. I recalled some of the names, but the faces that went with them seemed to have composted in my memory. Other names Arnie mentioned in his annual cards rang no bell at all. They belonged, I suspected, to people he had included through some arbitrary misstep of his own recollection, as he confused me with someone else whose card he was writing while he took his annual, long Thanksgiving-weekend ski trip to Vail. Occasionally, reading the cards, I'd get momentarily somber over the news of some tragedy, or feel the reverberations of the stirring of ancient lust over the mention of someone for whom I'd had romantic, or more likely, purely lascivious yearnings. But mostly I didn't pay much attention. And since I was not a Christmas card writer, I never wrote back.
     My failure as a correspondent had never deterred Arnie, and I granted him points for persistence. So, despite the fact that a crisp September Saturday in Colorado offered an infinite variety of more enticing indulgences than attending a funeral, I decided that I would pay my final respects to Arnie Dresser.
            

     Befitting Arnie's passion, which was climbing mountains, his services were going to be held in the high country, at a gorgeous stone church outside Evergreen. The town of Evergreen meanders over picturesque peaks and valleys twenty miles west — and a couple of thousand feet above-Denver, just south of Interstate 70. If Denver at times seemed to yearn to be cast as a landlocked San Francisco, and Boulder auditioned for the role of Berkeley, Evergreen would line up to play a serviceable Sausalito or Tiburon. Evergreen was close enough to the metropolitan area to be a suburb, high enough to allow commuters to feel they truly lived in the mountains, and rural enough so that they could believe their domiciles were in the wild.  But over the years this mountain oasis had started to attract cookie-cutter housing, which was soon followed by state-of-the-art supermarkets, and inevitably, a Wal-Mart. The charm, sadly, has been tarnished.
     The church was tucked away in the woods on the north side of the interstate. It was situated so that worshipers, or in this case, mourners, could gaze out the big western windows behind the altar and see what God had wrought on one of His better days during that frantic week of creation.
     From the front row of the church's sanctuary, on a clear autumn day like this one, the Continental Divide stretched north and south farther than human vision permitted, the jutting peaks flanked by glistening glaciers and framed by sky as pure as a mother's dreams.
     Arnie Dresser's love had been climbing those mountains. But he hadn't been a rock climber or an ice climber.  He wasn't one of those reckless types who conquered mountains while draped with enough ropes and hardware to stock a small-town True Value, inching upward toward the summit one handhold at a time. Arnie had been an avid recreational mountain climber. What he liked to do was walk up mountains, resorting to limited technical gear only when a particular rock face precluded a less determined stroll.
     But on the other hand, it would be a disservice to call Arnie Dresser a mere hiker. He was a proud member of the Fourteener Club, a loose assemblage of hiking-boot-clad outdoors people who had managed to ascend all fifty-four of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, from the diminutive Sunshine Peak at 14,001 feet, to the majestic Mt. Elbert at 14,433 feet. I'd trudged to the top of two of the fourteeners — Mt. Princeton and Mt. Sherman — so I considered myself officially one twenty-seventh of the way to membership. The fact that I'd been one twenty-seventh of the way to membership for the better part of seven years is an indication of the respect I could muster for people, like Arnie, who had not only completed one circuit of Colorado's tallest peaks, but had already completed two and eagerly gone back for more.
     Arnie had come from a wealthy family—the Dressers at one time apparently controlling a sizable amount of the cable TV business in Wisconsin. I'd never before bothered to consider what lavish touches financial resources could bring to bear on a funeral. I suppose I would have assumed that big bucks could provide the opportunity to occupy a fancier than necessary box in which to decompose, but Arnie's innovative send-off gave me a whole new appreciation of what family wealth could do to enhance a solemn good-bye.
     The church service was brief, an inspiring mixture of non-offensive liturgy from a tall, laconic minister, whom I didn't think had ever met Arnie Dresser, and poignant Quaker-like testimony from the surprisingly large gathering of loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. Arnie's body wasn't actually present in the church; he had apparently already been reduced to ashes that were on the altar, contained in a tasteful box made of cherry that looked as though it might have been designed to hold expensive cigars.  The box was dwarfed by two huge sprays of freesia.
     At the conclusion of the service a man younger than Arnie approached the pulpit and identified himself as the deceased's brother, Price. He invited the gathered mourners to leave the church with him and take a short hike down a dirt road through the nearby pine forest for a final goodbye. He didn't say why.
     The trek through the woods ended in a clearing that was empty except for a helicopter, a gleaming, jet-black model that had seats for six, in addition to ample room for what little was left of Arnie.
     I stood at the periphery, unsure of what was going to happen next. I was secretly hoping for a lottery that would give me a chance to be one of five lucky mourners selected to accompany the pilot back up into the Colorado sky. But the passengers of the chopper had been pre-chosen.  When Arnie's brother, Price, climbed in, I surmised that the fortunate few were family, with maybe a significant other or two thrown in.
     I watched from across the clearing as the cherry chest was handed up into the cabin. The act was accomplished with so much reverence and ceremony that it looked over rehearsed, like a Super Bowl half-time show or the bridal stroll down the aisle at a wedding. Moments later, the helicopter lifted off with a pulsating roar and those of us left behind waved good-bye to Arnie Dresser for the last time. The person next to me yelled into my ear that the chopper was on its way to the Elk Range to return Arnie's ashes to the place where he had died.
     Everyone on the ground was soon covered in a film of fine dust stirred up by the big blades.
     I wondered if the symbolism was intentional.
  

     The place where he died.
     The how of Arnie's dying was actually more interesting to me.
     The story I had pieced together from news accounts and from mutual acquaintances, who were busy either cataloguing rumors or spreading them, was that Arnie had been alone, climbing a steep, but nontechnical section of Maroon Peak in the Elk Range near Aspen. Climbing alone was apparently standard practice for Arnie since his divorce. When the accident occurred, he was well below timberline, late September being much too late in the season to attempt to reach the peak of a fourteener without winter gear.  Members of the mountain rescue team that had recovered his body and examined his clothing and provisions were certain that this had been a mere recreational jaunt. No witnesses had seen the actual fall. The consensus, however, was that Arnie must have lost his footing on a notoriously tough section of trail and tumbled back down a rocky slope for almost one hundred and fifty feet, before clearing a rock cornice and soaring through the air for another hundred feet or so.  That a climber of Arnie's experience and skill might die from a slip-and-fall seemed ironic. In the days before the funeral I'd heard speculation that he had been suffering from recurring bouts of vertigo, or that his heart rhythms had been irregular, or that maybe a TIA, a baby stroke, was to blame for the loss of balance that led to the fatal fall. 
     But no one knew.
     What we did know was that when he came to rest for the last time, he was crumpled piteously on a flat rock, high on the south side of Maroon Peak. The rock shelf where he died was the size of a racquetball court, and the left side of Arnie's skull was flattened like a carelessly dropped melon.
     Over the course of that night the chill Canadian air blew down from the north and stole the remaining life from his weakened body.
     It was the exact cause of death as Adrienne's tomatoes.
           

     Lauren had decided against attending the funeral of a total stranger, arguing persuasively that life generally delivered enough grief and that she didn't see any reason to go inviting any extra. She'd never met Arnie Dresser and could barely recall the Christmas cards he'd sent, which were always addressed to me, not us.
     We had driven up to the mountains together. She had dropped me off at the church while she went across the valley to get pampered at the Tall Grass Spa on the other side of Evergreen near Bear Creek. By the time she came back to retrieve me at the church, the helicopter and all the cars but two had departed. The afternoon was warm and I waited in the shade, sitting alone on a stone wall in front of the church. My sport coat was hanging on a nearby fence post.
     September twenty-seventh was not only a little early for a first killing frost, but it was also a little late for that year's fall leaf season. Even at the lower elevations along the Front Range, the glory of the metamorphosis of the aspen leaves as they changed from sweet green to golden was already a few days past prime time. But Lauren and I hadn't been up to the mountains at all this month and we thought we would take advantage of the location of Arnie's funeral to venture a little farther up I-70 in hope that some of the gilded glory remained intact in the high country.
     When she arrived back at the church, driving my old Land Cruiser, Lauren had a warm glow about her that I associated with post coital splendor. The spa treatments had left her sleepy and pink, and she asked me to drive as we left the church. As she got out of the car to move to the passenger side, I found myself distracted by the sunshine that was sparkling off her raven hair. Lauren had recently cut her hair short for the first time since we'd met and I was still getting used to the change. The novelty of seeing her long neck and sleek jaw exposed captivated me.
     As she walked around the front of the car, I checked her gait and was encouraged that I saw no any evidence of a limp. My assessment of Lauren's health these days was an unconscious but constant concern, a kind of reflexive checking that reminded me of patting my pocket for my keys or touching my hip for my pager. I let myself feel encouraged by the evenness of the strides she was taking, though I knew damn well that the limp could be back the next time she got out of the car, whether that was ten minutes from now or five hours.
     That's what her multiple sclerosis was like for us. I always kept an eye on it.  It was a cantankerous dog that I always suspected could bite.
     She asked about the funeral at the exact same moment that I wondered aloud about her massage.
     She pulled a bare foot from her black clog and rested it on the dashboard. "I got a pedicure, too," she said. "That's why I was late."
     I glanced over at her slender toes, with newly painted, shiny violet nails. She has great feet. I said, "I like the color. It's cute. Sort of an Addams Family touch. Arnie'e funeral was, well, different. Interesting. The service itself was unusual. Lots of people talked. It was nice."
     "What was so different?" 
     "That came after. His body had already been cremated and once the services were over, we all walked down this trail and there was a big black helicopter waiting to whisk his ashes back up to the Elk Range to the mountainside where he died. Somebody told me that his remains are going to be scattered from the chopper over the spot where he fell."
     "Really?" She glanced over at me with a skeptical face as if I was making this up.
     "Really. Big jet helicopter, six seats. Black, like a hearse. Took off from this little clearing down the road from the church. People waved good-bye as though Arnie was actually heading off to climb Everest or something."
     "You wave, too?"
     "No. Actually, I had been kind of hoping to be invited for a ride on the helicopter."
     She said, "Oh, so you were being petulant. And what do you mean you wanted a ride? What about me? I was supposed to cool my heels while you flew up to the mountains to sprinkle ashes?"
     "You were getting a pedicure, remember? You still want to go looking for leaves?"
     "Absolutely. Central City?"
     "No, I don't think so. I'm not up to fighting the gambling traffic."
     "How about Georgetown, then? Guanella Pass?"
     "Yeah, good. I'm hungry. You?"
     "Famished. I didn't eat at the spa. I was in a Mexican mood. They were serving seaweed and some grain that I thought was bulgur but wasn't."
     "Quinoa?"
     "Maybe."
     "Silver Plume for lunch, then?"
     "Perfect."
     I'd noticed that Lauren and I were having more and more conversations that felt like they had been scripted from a synopsis prepared by Cliff's Notes. For about a mile on I-70, I wondered what it meant.
     Then I began to notice the golden leaves on the mountainsides and I didn't wonder anymore.
            

     Our lunch destination was on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, just downhill from the spot where I-70 burrows through the Divide at the Eisenhower Tunnel. The town of Silver Plume rests against the side of a mountain about two miles up the valley from its restored nineteenth-century mining sister, Georgetown. During the Colorado precious-mineral frenzy a hundred-plus years ago, Georgetown was gold and Silver Plume was silver. In the years since, Georgetown had been lovingly restored and painstakingly polished to a Victorian luster that probably surpassed its appearance during the 1880s. Silver Plume, in contrast, sat in rickety, nineteenth-century decaying wonder, with dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, and hitching posts that actually once had animals tethered to them.
     Georgetown lived for tourists. Silver Plume somehow just managed to survive. In excess of ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the cars that exit I-70 at Silver Plume turned south to the parking lots for the Georgetown Loop Railway tourist attraction. To get to old Silver Plume, you had to turn north of the highway and weave across a suspicious-looking wooden bridge and down a couple of narrow lanes that didn't look like they were going anywhere you might deliberately want to be heading. One more bend and you were heading east on the main street in town. It didn't take a western historian to know that Silver Plume was nothing but a ghost town in training, one of the few remaining authentic vestiges of the Colorado mining west.
     In the middle of Main Street, with big windows to catch the brilliance of the southern sun, was our destination, the KP Cafe.
     The furniture in the cafe was as old as the building, but not as well cared for. None of it matched. The attitude inside was friendly and warm. Folks who wanted to be left alone were left alone. Those who wanted to chat got chatted with. The food was just fine. When the coffee was fresh it was good, but sometimes it burned after it sat for a while on-the big old Bunn machine behind the bar.
     Lauren and I poked our heads in the door and said hello to the same waitress we'd had the last few times we had been in. Her name was Megan. She suggested, and we gladly took, a sunny deuce by the front windows. We ate at the KP five or six times a year, always on our way to somewhere else. It was sufficient frequency that we were treated like honorary regulars.
     We both ordered Mexican and decided to split a beer.
     Megan smiled at Lauren and ignored me. My memory was that she had done that the last time we were in, too.
     Maybe thirty seconds after we ordered, another couple entered the cafe. I noticed their arrival because they were both in suits. Megan stopped wiping the counter because they were both in suits. His was a nondescript navy. Hers was a vibrant fuchsia, trimmed with raspberry. I didn't recognize her, but I knew that suit. These two had been at Arnie Dresser's funeral.
     I whispered to Lauren, "They were at the funeral, too."
     She glanced over. "In that suit?"
     I shrugged. "I doubt if Arnie was offended."
     "That's important, I suppose. But how does one offend ashes, anyway? Doesn't make it funeral garb in my book."
     "I didn't know you had a book."
     She punched me across the table as Megan directed the couple to a cramped table in back, near the door to the restrooms. I assumed, with some confidence, that they weren't regulars. I watched with gossipy interest as the two of them immediately entered into a contentious discussion about something I couldn't quite overhear. Their upper bodies were leaning forward over the rickety table so far that their heads almost touched in the middle. Her voice was louder than his. I thought I heard the Deep South hibernating somewhere in it. I finally lost interest as Megan dropped a couple of menus on their table.
     A minute or so later, Megan brought us our beer, along with a basket of tortilla chips and some salsa that didn't come out of a bottle. Lauren was taking her first sip of beer as her eyebrows arched. I turned toward her gaze and saw that fuchsia suit was approaching our table. I sat back on my chair.
     She said, "Dr. Gregory? Dr. Alan Gregory?"
     The woman wearing the fuchsia suit was apparently somebody I should have, but didn't, remember from long ago at the medical center in Denver. With more embarrassment in my voice than I felt, I said, "Yes, that's me. I'm Alan Gregory. I'm sorry, do I know you from the Health Sciences Center? I think I recall seeing you at the funeral."
     She fingered the lapels of her suit jacket with both hands. "Yes, yes. I was at Dr. Dresser's services. But no, I didn't do my training here. I went to Georgetown. Not the little one we just passed down the hill here. The big one in D.C." She laughed at her own wit and held out her hand to shake mine. "I hope you will please forgive my intrusion. My name is A.J. Simes. Dr. A.J. Simes."
     I wasn't sure if I was ready to forgive her intrusion. I shook the hand she offered and said, "This is my wife, Lauren Crowder. Lauren, Dr. Simes." 
     "Pleased to meet you, Ms. Crowder."
     I was afraid she was going to ask to pull up a chair. She didn't. I hoped her visit was over, It wasn't.
     She said, "This may seem presumptuous—my walking up to you like this—and after you hear what we have to say, perhaps preposterous as well, but my associate and I feel that it's essential that we have a word or two with you, Dr. Gregory. I do hope you don't mind." She tilted her head toward her companion across the room, who appeared embarrassed and wasn't looking our way.
     I sighed. "Actually, we're enjoying a rare afternoon out. Another time would be much better. I'll be happy to arrange some time to see you ... both. Why don't I give you a card?"
     She shook her head in a tight little arc, almost more of a shiver than a shake. "Please don't jump to conclusions, Doctor. I'm not usually an impolite woman. Not at all. Interrupting you like this makes me easily as uncomfortable as it is making you. What we want to discuss with you just shouldn't wait, I'm afraid."
     Simes looked back over her shoulder at her companion. He was studiously avoiding her, his eyes raised toward heaven. It appeared that he was either in deep prayer, or he was into architectural relics and was doing a thorough examination of the pressed-tin ceiling.
     Megan walked up behind A.J. Simes with two large platters of steaming Mexican food that she was gripping with pot holders. She had a pained smile on her face and she was dancing back and forth from one foot to the other as though she had to pee. I was guessing that the aging pot holders in her hands had lost some of their original insulating capacity.
     Over Simes's shoulder, Megan said, "Careful, now, you guys, these platters are hot."
     I cleared space in front of me for the food and asked disinterestedly, "And why is that, Dr. Simes? I don't even know you. Why can't this wait?"
     Simes moved her feet a little—though not quite enough for Megan to pass—and faced me directly. She turned her head toward Lauren until she was certain that she had the attention of both of us. But she spoke to me.
     "This can't wait because," she said, "after quite a bit of investigation, and a significant amount of contemplation, I'm relatively certain that someone is going to try to kill you, Dr. Gregory."
     Behind her the green-chili burrito platters went down with a roar.  Refried beans erupted into the room like lava from the Second Coming of Mt. St. Helens.

 

Manner of Death

Signet Paperback, ISBN: 0451197038

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