Elyod Green walked into Jeff’s Java for breakfast. She walked through the empty restaurant up to the counter. The Starbucks down the road may have had more options, but she’d been coming here since the day she started working for the force. Besides, Ann was here, and Elyod needed to talk to her.
Jeff, the owner of the joint was manning the front, and grinned when he saw Elyod. “So what’ll it be this time? English muffin with a side of arrest?”
She raised one eyebrow. “Is that any way to talk to a detective?” Then, in lowered tones, “Do you know when Ann’s next break is?”
Jeff opened his mouth to answer, but was halted by a grunt. A burly man was standing right behind Elyod. He was standing so close to her that she could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. Jeff reacted quickly. “I’ll be right with you, sir.” Then he mumbled under his breath, “Go sit down. Her shift ends in two minutes, so you can talk then.”
Elyod went and sat at a corner booth where another employee was mopping up a spilled drink. It was Emma, but she was shaking. “Emma, are you alright?” The girl turned towards her, revealing red eyes and a shiny face.
“I’m fine, just tired.” She mumbled, before finishing the mopping and racing back into the kitchen. She passed Ann on her way back, who went over to Elyod and sat next to her.
Elyod nodded towards the retreating back. “What’s wrong with Emma? She seems down today.”
Ann frowned. “She’s been like that a lot lately. But every time I ask her about it, she just says she’s fine and runs off. Maybe it’s something to do with that play she’s helping out with. Anyway, Luke is coming over before work. Maybe he can cheer her up.” Elyod nodded. Luke and Emma had been going steady for about a year now, so he was probably the one with the best chances.
Elyod dropped her smile. “And speaking of boyfriends, I wanted to talk to you about that guy you brought home last night. You know what part of town he’s from, right? I bust guys from that neighborhood weekly. He’s not good boyfriend material.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Look. Richard, one of my coworkers is free this Saturday, and he seemed really interested in you. Why not give him a shot, maybe a lunch date?”
Ann frowned at Elyod. “Sis, you talked to Brad for like, five minutes. And don’t judge someone based on where they come from, that’s just mean. And forget Richard. I don’t want to date a cop, it’s bad enough having one for a sister.” She started to get up.
Elyod grabbed her wrist, and Ann halted. “Okay, I admit I don’t know, uh…”
“Yeah, Brad. I may not know him that well but I do know Richard. He’s just a better fit.” Ann shook off Elyod’s hand. “Please, Ann! I’m only thinking of what’s best for you!”
The bell over the restaurant entrance rang just as Ann retreated back behind the counter. Luke walked in and up to Jeff.
“Hey Jeff.” Luke scanned the tables. “Is Emma around?”
“Man, first Elyod, now you. Isn’t anyone glad to see me?” But he was smiling, so Luke knew he was joking. Jeff pointed behind the counter. “She’s in the back. I’ll tell her you’re here.”
“That’s fine, just send her to the front. I actually came for something to eat before work.” He smiled, but he didn’t look very happy. What’s wrong with everyone today? Thought Elyod.
Emma came to the front and started to take Luke’s order. “I’ll take a latte and a breakfast sandwich.” Then he looked closer at Emma. “Hey, sweetheart, you okay?”
She nodded without looking up from the cash register. “I’ll go and get your order.” She grabbed a sandwich from the stack and shouted for someone to make the drink.
After finishing off her sandwich, Elyod headed to the front to say goodbye to her sister and to try to change her mind about Saturday. Just as she reached the counter, Emma put the coffee and sandwich on the table. Her hands are shaking so badly she’s almost spilling that. Something must really be wrong. Luke grabbed the items and kissed her. “I’ll see you after work tonight.” Then he grabbed a straw, slipped it into the cup of java, and ran outside to his car, sipping his still-hot coffee.
Elyod leaned on the counter to get a glimpse of Ann, and her hand nudged something. It was Luke’s car keys. Guess I should go give these to him. She headed out the door. There sat his midnight blue Honda. She had to admit, the guy had good taste in cars. She didn’t see Luke, so she walked to the right side of the car in case he was already inside.
She almost stepped on him. Luke was lying on the ground. Elyod bent down and shook his shoulder. “Come on Luke, this isn’t funny.” When he didn’t respond, her stomach dropped. She grabbed his wrist. No pulse. Luke was dead.
She ran for her Sedan on the other side of the parking lot. All her equipment was already in the car. She grabbed her cell, hit the speed dial for her office, and was relieved when her secretary picked up after the first ring. She didn’t bother with greetings. “This is Detective Green. There’s been an accident of some sort. I’m at Jeff’s Java on 6th street, near Alpine Ave. Do you know it?”
“Yes.” Said the voice on the other end. “We’ll send Inspector Edison and a team over as quickly as possible.”
Elyod hung up, grabbed her tape recorder, and headed back into the restaurant. She’d have to start getting statements from everyone inside.
About 3 hours later she was finished getting the statements of Jeff, Ann, and the other employees. It had taken a while to coax Emma out of the bathroom, where she had probably been having a good cry. Elyod had almost finished examining the corpse of her friend. She turned and looked back at Inspector Edison. “It’s a poisoning, probably a neurotoxin based on the symptoms and time of death. Did you have the drink and sandwich I sent in earlier checked for traces?”
The inspector nodded. “The sandwich came up clean but they found traces of poison on the drink. It looks like the employee who prepared the drink is responsible. We’re going to take her downtown for questioning.”
The person who’d prepared the coffee was Ann! No, there had to be some mistake. Cool down. Think. “Where was the poison found on the cup?”
Inspector Edison turned towards one of the other officers. He came forward. “We didn’t actually find the poison on the cup or lid. It was only on the top of the drinking straw.”
That’s it! The poison must have already been on his lips, and that’s how it got on the straw. But why would the perpetrator want to get it on his lips? She looked closer at Luke’s face. His lips were badly chapped. Then she saw a glint of red. Blood! His lip was split! If someone put the poison on Luke’s lips, it would have almost immediately entered the bloodstream and started working. But how could someone get it there without looking suspicious? She went over in her head what Luke had done while he was in the restaurant. He’d opened the door and walked up to the counter, where Jeff had greeted him. But Jeff and Luke had never touched, and Jeff hadn’t given him anything. One suspect ruled out.
Thinking back on it, Ann and Luke hadn’t even looked at each other once during the whole time Luke was inside the diner. There was no way she could have done it.
What about Emma? He’d talked with her, she’d handed him the food, and then he’d left. Wait. Luke had kissed Emma before leaving. If she had somehow managed to get the poison onto her face and then had Luke kiss her, she could have done it. But how? A toxin strong enough to kill Luke in a matter of minutes could have hurt her, even if she didn’t have an open wound. And the interrogation team had checked everyone thoroughly. If Emma had been covered in poison, they would have seen it.
But what if she had gotten the poison off before the cops showed up? She must have washed it off in the bathroom! Hadn’t the police practically dragged her out of there for questioning? She could have been in there getting the poison off her face. Come to think of it, Emma’s face had been very shiny earlier. Elyod had thought it was just tears, based on the girl’s eyes, but now it seemed more unnatural. And when she had come out of the bathroom, her face had been much duller, and perfectly dry. Maybe she left something behind, something that would prove her guilt. She ran through the restaurant doors and into the bathroom.
If Emma wiped off the poison in here, there should be something left, like paper towels or even a trace of the toxin in the sink. She started digging through the trash can and pulling out the paper towels. Some of them were just bunched up wads, or so wet they tore at the lightest tug. It was actually pretty disgusting, putting her hand in there with who knows…what? Her hand brushed against something different. I hope it’s not a diaper. But it felt rubbery, not mushy. She pulled it out. It was something like a rubber rag. She pushed aside a bunch of paper towels and stretched it out on the floor. It was a face mask, but not the type you use for beauty treatment. This looked more like something actors would use to cover their faces so they could completely change their skin without fear of smudging. Or to protect yourself from a lethal poison.
She heard a ruckus outside in the restaurant. “Look, I didn’t do it! I had no reason to!” It was Ann. They were already taking her down to the station!
Elyod grabbed the mask off the floor and ran out of the hallway just in time to get between the Inspector and the door. “Inspector Edison, Ann’s not the culprit. Emma is and I can prove it!”
When Ann, Emma, Elyod, and the inspector were all seated in one of the large corner booths, Elyod started to explain. “The first thing I asked was about where the poison had been found on the cup. If it was indeed in the cup where the coffee had been, I would have admitted that Ann was a possible suspect. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was found only on the straw. At Jeff’s Java, customers pick out and put in their own straws. There was no way for the culprit to know which straw Luke would pick, so she couldn’t poison it ahead of time. That means that the poison had to come from Luke, his lips in particular. I was here the whole time Luke was, so I know what he touched with his mouth before taking a sip from the straw, and the only thing he touched with his lips was…” She paused for dramatic effect. “Emma’s face! He kissed her on the cheek after she handed him the food. He then left, sipping the coffee as he went.”
The inspector wasn’t sold. “She couldn’t have kept that strong of a poison on her skin. It would have hurt her. Besides, a poison like that can’t kill unless it goes directly into the bloodstream.”
Elyod looked at him. “That is true, but the poison did have direct access to Luke’s bloodstream. When looking at the body earlier, I noticed his lip was split, all the way down to the blood vessels. This cut allowed the poison to penetrate directly to the victim’s bloodstream, thus killing him as effectively as if it had been injected into him.”
The inspector was nodding. “Okay, I get that part, but you still haven’t explained to me how the poison didn’t hurt the girl. Even if it’s only lethal in the bloodstream, we would have seen some signs of harm.”
“That’s because Emma never let it come in contact with her skin. When I came in earlier today, Emma’s face was shiny. I thought it might have been tears, but it was actually the poison glistening off this.” Elyod handed him the mask. “I found it in the trash of the women’s bathroom where the suspect was hiding. It’s a mask that professional special effects makeup artists use on actors when they have to cover the actor’s entire face and don’t want to worry about smudges. Emma works as such a cosmetics person at the local theater, so a simple mask like this was easy for her. After Luke kissed her and was poisoned, she went into the bathroom to take off the mask and throw it away. That’s where we found her after the crime. But she made the mistake of leaving the evidence where anyone could find it. Luke was killed by his own girlfriend. I don’t know why, though.”
Ann gave the girl a sad look. “Yeah, why would you do a thing like that? Until today you guys were getting along fine. I thought you’d get engaged soon.”
Emma broke down. “He didn’t have time to ask me. He was dying!” She started to sob even harder.
Elyod gave her a minute to calm down, and then asked “What do you mean, dying?”
Emma looked up from the wet tissues balled up in her hands. “Luke had pancreatic cancer. It’s nearly untreatable, and he doesn’t have the money to cover those kinds of medical bills. He told me about a week ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Since he couldn’t afford the treatments, he was always in pain, and didn’t know when he was going to die. He even told me that he would rather have been dead than in that kind of pain. So I killed him so he wouldn’t have to feel that anymore. I did what was best for him!”
Elyod felt bad for Luke. What a twisted kind of love. But then she thought about the conversation she’d had with Ann. She’d said those exact same words. Really, she and Emma weren’t all that different. And that was scary.