“It was just short of six in the morning when the telephone rang in the bedroom of Professor and Mrs. George Taylor. George rolled over and groaned, pulling the down comforter over his head. It had to be a wrong number. No one ever called them at this hour. Barbara Taylor jerked awake, reaching for the receiver.
Hello,” she said, pushing herself up and leaning against the headboard. “Yes, he is. Who’s calling?” Her eyes widened. “Hold for just a moment and I’ll get him.”
Shaking her head in disbelief she put the call on hold and shoved her husband roughly, pulling the duvet off his hidden head.
“George, wake up. It’s for you, someone from Sweden. He said he was from the Nobel committee.”
George sat up like a shot. At last. He was the chairman of the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of California Technological Institute. He’d been on the short list for the Nobel for years now, enduring disappointment after disappointment as his forty-year contribution to elementary particle physics was passed over. It was about time.
“George Taylor here,” he said.
“Dr. Taylor, I apologize for phoning so early on a Saturday morning. My name is Sven Pierrson, from the Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm. We’ve been trying to reach your colleague Dr. Edwin Larramore but we don’t have a home number, and of course, on a Saturday, no one is answering the Astronomy offices at your institution. You’ll be delighted to know that Dr. Larramore has been awarded the Nobel for his recent spectacular discovery. Your department must be very proud to have yet another, distinguished winner.”
George swallowed, trying to restrain his fury. A Nobel Prize for that arrogant, narcissistic asshole. Nothing could have ruined his day faster.
“If you’ll hold just a moment, I’ll check my cell phone. I’m sure I have both his home number and his mobile listed.”
Barbara was looking at him strangely but she waited until he’d completed the call before asking him what was wrong.
“It’s Larramore. They’re giving that bastard the Nobel.” His face was turning livid with rage.
“Oh darling,” said Barbara, “I am so sorry.”
Carolyn Larramore poured herself a cup of cinnamon apple herb tea and sat down with the morning’s Los Angeles Times. It was one of her weekend rituals. She liked getting up early and having an hour to herself before Edwin came in demanding breakfast and announcing his plans for their weekend. Fortunately today, Edwin had already left for his office, so her day would be peaceful. He had just received the telescope data download from his latest observational project and couldn’t wait until Monday to look at it. Perhaps she’d go to the Farmer’s Market. When the phone rang, she grabbed it.
“Is this some kind of a practical joke?” she said, upon hearing the caller’s words. “Edwin’s won the Nobel? Really?”
“It’s no joke, Mrs. Larramore. Your husband’s made an extraordinary contribution to science. May I speak to him please?”
“He’s not here,” Carolyn said. “He left early for his office. I can give you his mobile number and private line.”
When she hung up she took a deep breath. She supposed she should be happy to be married to a Nobel Prize winning scientist, but all she could think of was that this would be the final straw. Edwin was already so full of himself that this last award would make him intolerable. She had seriously considered leaving him a few months ago. Then she’d discovered she was pregnant. To soothe herself, she stroked her bulging belly and focused on the baby movements. Carolyn had always wanted a child but as the pregnancy progressed she became less and less certain that she could stand living with its father.
Professor Edwin Larramore turned on his computer, gave a satisfied smile, and closed the door to his office. Astronomy had become so much easier. He remembered his graduate student days and the all night sessions observing. At least telescope observations could now be done remotely. No more driving up to the top of some volcano, acclimatizing for a night to get used to the altitude, and putting up with the freezing cold and the dreadful cafeteria food. All he had to do now was to write a proposal, get it funded and be assigned his telescope time. Then some technician would program his requested observations and make his data available to download. He couldn’t wait to see it, but first, some coffee.
Larramore was a purist when it came to his coffee. None of that department swill for his refined taste buds. He preferred Peet’s espresso or, when he could get it, beans from one of the boutique coffee roasters. He kept a small refrigerator in his office for milk and his own high tech espresso machine. He noted that he was almost out of coffee as he measured two scoops carefully into the filter. He added bottled water, and while the espresso was dripping, he steamed a quarter of a cup of nonfat milk to a perfect foam. He liked it the consistency of shaving cream. He poured the coffee and the milk into his special mug and took it to his desk, settling comfortably into his executive chair. Nothing like that first morning hit of caffeine.
I love Saturday morning. It’s my first opportunity all week to sleep in past my usual 6:30 AM alarm. Sometimes I even stay in bed until 8:00. I opened my eyes, rolled over and put my head on my fiancé Daniel’s shoulder. He wasn’t quite awake yet but he put his arm around me and snuggled. The other three members of our household are my six-year-old daughter, Zoe, who enjoys sleeping in even more than I do, and our felines, Mittens and Ginger. At Zoe’s request, the cats sleep in her room, as a result of which my slumbers are not disturbed when they decide it is time for the staff to prepare breakfast. I looked at my watch and decided that 8:45 was beyond the point of self-indulgence, especially since we were meeting our realtor this morning to begin the process of house hunting. I disengaged from Daniel and headed for the shower.
Daniel had recently succeeded in selling his charming Venice bungalow for an absurdly inflated price, so we now had a hefty down payment to supplement the funds I had from my late husband Ben’s trust fund. I was waiting until we found a suitable house before putting my Brentwood condominium on the market. I had no illusions about the ease of finding the perfect home on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Daniel’s realtor had been his ex-wife. She had offered to help us find our nest and would no doubt have been pleased to get the listing for my condominium, but happy as I was that she and Daniel had a cordial relationship, house hunting with her felt too close for comfort. Daniel had politely declined her offer without any prompting from me, which convinced me once again that I’d selected the right guy. Plus, he had good taste in jewelry. I loved my antique emerald engagement ring.
Our new realtor was Jacqueline Cantor, a pleasant lady in her sixties who had helped my practice partner and her husband to find their home. She was low key and, according to my partner smart enough not to suggest that every house we saw was perfect for us.
I put on a pair of gray wool pants and a fuzzy black sweater, brushed out my long red hair and applied some blush and lipstick. On my way downstairs to the kitchen, I gently woke Daniel and told him coffee would be ready in a few minutes.
To my surprise, Zoe was actually up and playing with the cats on the kitchen floor. I got out a can of tuna and kidney, filled the cat water bowl and started the coffee. Zoe wanted Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast and I wanted scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, so I whisked up some eggs and waited for Daniel to come downstairs.
“Good morning everyone,” he said.
Zoe smiled. Mittens and Ginger ignored him, and I kissed his cheek and handed him a mug with black coffee. I never understood how he could manage to look so sexy in the morning. Daniel was well over six feet tall. His craggy face with its deep blue eyes smiled at me. His dark hair, with hints of gray was still wet from the shower. He was wearing jeans and a long sleeved black T-shirt that clung to his well muscled chest. All in all, an enticing sight across the breakfast table.
“Mommy, why can’t I go with you to look for houses?” Zoe asked.
“Not today, sweetheart. You have a play date, but I promise that if we find anything we are seriously considering, we’ll take you with us so you can decide if you like it.”
“I don’t want to be too far away from my school and my friends,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I don’t want to be too far away from my hospital and my friends either.”
I had given the realtor strict instructions about where I was willing to move. Being an obstetrician, I do an unfortunate amount of driving in the middle of the night and I didn’t want to be very far from Labor and Delivery. I’d taken a map and a compass and drawn a twenty-minute circle around Memorial, and eliminated the eastern half, since Daniel, a Detective with the LAPD, also worked on the Westside. This left us with the most expensive real estate prices in town, and I knew our search would be challenging.
I filled two plates with scrambled eggs and sat down at the table. Two minutes later, Daniel’s cell phone rang. The minute I saw his face, I knew I was going to be house hunting by myself.
“What is it?” I asked, after he hung up.
“A suspicious death over at the Technological Institute. Some astronomer was found dead at his desk by one of his graduate students. Brenda took the call. I need to get over there and assess the situation. I’m sorry Hannah. “
I shrugged. “If we only made plans on weekends when neither of us was on call, we’d never do anything. I can look without you. I doubt I’ll find our dream house the first day.”
The UCTI campus was a bucolic refuge from the surrounding streets of Westwood. Low-rise, Spanish Revival buildings sat among leafy trees and winding garden paths. Daniel parked his Mustang behind Brenda’s police cruiser and followed his campus map to the Physics and Astronomy building. A patrolman stood guarding the front door, and directed him to the third floor. Daniel put on his shoe protectors and gloves and opted for the stairs.
The third floor corridor was a silent series of closed doors except for the office in which he found Brenda Jordan. He had been partnered with Brenda two years ago when she was just a Sergeant, but she had rapidly climbed the ranks to Detective. Daniel liked working with her. She was smart, far more computer savvy than he, easy going and reliable. She was also looking unusually good lately. Her blond hair, once cut into an unflattering short style had grown out to a shoulder length bob. She had recently started working out regularly and had lost about twenty pounds, an improvement on her short, stocky body. Daniel hoped a new romantic relationship might account for the changes but Brenda was tightlipped about her personal life, and Daniel respected that.
Brenda was examining the body of a middle-aged man, slumped over his desk. The dregs of a cup of coffee had spilled on the desktop and carpet. The dead man had vomited onto his shirt. His face looked unusually flushed. Daniel took in the scene.
“Who was he?”
“His name is Edwin Larramore, Professor of Astronomy. One of his graduate students came in to work with him this morning and found him like this.”
“Heart attack?” Daniel asked. “Stroke, perhaps?”
“Don’t know.” Brenda said. “I guess the autopsy will tell us, but I thought, just in case, we should have the crime scene team collect some of those vomit and coffee samples. It looks as if he made himself some coffee with that fancy machine, drank most of it, threw up and died.”
“You have a suspicious mind,” Daniel said, “but I agree.”
“Suspicion is in my job description,” Brenda said.
“Any history of heart disease?”
“The graduate student didn’t think so, but we’ll need to ask his wife. I have his wallet and cell phone. His address is on his driver’s license.”
Daniel examined the phone. There was a missed international call at 8:35 AM and a voicemail. He played it on speakerphone so that Brenda could hear.
“Dr. Larramore, this is Sven Pierrson from the Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm. I have not been able to reach you directly at any of your numbers, but I am calling to notify you that you have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Please return my call at your earliest opportunity.”
“No shit,” Brenda said. “We’ve got a dead Nobel Prize winner. Looks like he died before he knew.”
“Where is the graduate student?” Daniel asked.
“Down the hall, in the student lounge. He’s pretty shaken up. I figured you’d want to talk to him. His name is Kumar Aggarwal.“
“Thanks. Why don’t I do that while you wait for the lab team and the medical examiner?” Daniel said. Brenda nodded.
Daniel stripped his gloves and walked to the lounge. It was occupied by a tall, skinny Indian man in his early twenties, wearing a pair of neatly pressed jeans and a navy polo shirt. He was holding tight to a mug of tea and pacing the floor when Daniel arrived.
“Mr. Aggarwal, I’m Detective Ross,” Daniel said. “Thank you for waiting. I just have a few questions for you, and then you can go home.” Daniel thought Aggarwal looked ill. His face had a green tinge and his hands seemed to be trembling.
Aggarwal nodded. “What do you need to know?”
“What time did you come in this morning?” Aggarwal stopped pacing and looked at his watch.
“It was a little after nine o’clock. The professor had asked me to meet him here so we could begin the analysis of our new data
“Do you normally work on Saturdays?”
“Frequently,” Aggarwal said. “Sundays too. Professor Larramore expected all his students to be available all the time when new information needed to be processed.”
“What kind of information?” Daniel asked.
“We are searching for earthlike planets around other stars. Each time we observe, we obtain a huge amount of data and it takes a long time to go through it to find the subtle changes we are seeking. Dr. Larramore was dedicated to the search and expected his students to be productive.”
“I see,” Daniel said. “When you arrived this morning, what did you do?”
“I went directly to the Professor’s office to let him know I’d arrived. I knocked and when there was no answer, I tried the door. When I opened it, I saw him lying over the desk. He looked ill.”
“What did you do?”
“I went in and asked if he was alright, or needed help. When he didn’t respond, I touched his wrist to see if I could feel a pulse. His body was cold and I realized he was dead, so I called 911.”
“I’m sure this must have been very difficult for you,” Daniel said. “We’re going to need to notify his family. Do you happen to know his wife?”
Aggarwal nodded. “She’s on the faculty in the Chemistry department. Her name is Carolyn Larramore. You should probably notify
Dr. George Taylor, our department chairman, as well. I’m sure he would want to break the news to the rest of the faculty and Dr. Larramore’s students.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said. “Why don’t you write down your contact information for me, in case I have any additional questions for you, and then you can leave.”
“I should probably get back to work,” Aggarwal said. “Dr. Larramore wouldn’t have wanted me to go home.”
When Daniel returned to Larramore’s office, Dr. Bill Pincus, one of his favorite medical examiners, was bent over the body.
“Hi Doc,” Daniel said. “What do you think?”
“I think I need an autopsy and a toxicology screen,” Pincus answered. “That should tell us if it was a natural death or a suicide.”
“Or a murder?” Daniel asked.”
“Possible,” Pincus said. “I’m not ruling out anything. I’ll let you know when we have the results.”
Daniel motioned to Brenda to join him. Now came the worst part of a case, informing the family.
Excerpt from Murder in the Goldilocks Zone, by Paula Bernstein
© 2020 Third Street Press. All Rights Reserved.