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by Barbara Johnson
When former professional bodybuilder Candy Emerson is found dead in her Rehoboth Beach gym, the police rule it a tragic accident. But is it? Reluctant to pay a huge double indemnity claim to the beneficiaries, Candy’s insurance company sends novice investigator Colleen Fitzgerald to look into the case. What Colleen finds is:
First Published by Naiad Press 1995.
Candy Emerson breathed the tangy, salty sea air as she walked along the wooden boardwalk to her gym. It was barely light, still too early for most anyone else to be up and about. She paused to watch some gulls attacking a crab scuttling along the sand, one of the unlucky few exposed with the retreat of the tide. The birds fought briefly over the tasty morsel before one screeched triumphantly and sailed away over the dark water. Candy grimaced slightly before continuing her walk. The gym shoes she wore squeaked, but muffled her footsteps on the old wood. At this far end of the boardwalk, no bright patches of new wood marred its weather-beaten surface. The last hurricane had seen fit to damage the south end where the gay men gathered. Even now, some of the townspeople still chose to see it as an omen, and they hoped it would keep the gays away. Candy laughed out loud. It would take more than a broken boardwalk to keep the pretty boys from working on their tans.
The hair on her neck prickled as she heard running footsteps behind her. Since the gay bashing that had occurred a couple of weeks ago, everyone was on edge. She turned her head as the footsteps came closer, then smiled nervously and let out a deep breath when she saw the runner. It was Mr. Anderson who lived on Rodney Street. Seventy years old, and he still jogged every morning no matter what the weather. He waved enthusiastically as he swept past.
Almost to the end of the boardwalk, Candy stopped in front of Bodies By the Beach, the gym she owned. She breathed a sigh of relief to see that its plate glass window had survived yet another night. A poisoned political atmosphere was causing anti-gay sentiment to rise in the town, and at least three other gay-owned businesses had been recently vandalized. She’d thought about getting those metal, barred storefront protectors, but that seemed such a drastic measure, and an expensive one. Still, she was cautious as she put the key in the lock. She opened the door and turned on the lights, alert for any movement. Of course there was none. She was getting paranoid. She entered the gym and locked the door carefully behind her.
Candy immediately turned off the alarm and then the harsh overhead lights; for her solitary workout, she preferred the more subdued night lights. She was surprised to see used towels and free weights scattered around the carpet in the workout area—she’d have to talk to Stephan about making sure that everything was in order when he closed up at night. He’d been getting a little careless lately. She concluded he must have been totally distracted last night, and hoped he hadn’t gotten bad news about Phillip.
In a hurry to get started, Candy decided to leave the mess alone and went directly to the women’s locker room. She stripped off her purple and gold sweats—Baltimore Ravens colors—and tucked the bottom of her white muscle T into her black gym shorts. She put a terrycloth headband around her forehead, buckled her weight belt loosely around her waist, and put on a new pair of weight-training gloves. She rummaged through her gym bag for her bottle of Smartwater, then grabbed a fresh towel off the rack and headed to the workout area.
In the dim light, the room was almost gloomy; the Nautilus equipment stood like silent sentinels in the eerie quiet. Candy couldn’t shake a feeling of unease, but she controlled her jitters and got down to business. Just because she’d retired from professional bodybuilding didn’t mean she would let her hard, muscled body go soft. She did a few light exercises—stretches, calisthenics, some light weight work, the stationary bike—making sure she could feel the warmth penetrating her muscles. When she felt ready to lift, she loaded two twenty-five-pound plates onto a forty-five-pound barbell and settled it into the grooved holders above the flat bench. She tightened her weight belt carefully and then lay on her back with her legs on either side of the bench. She knew that Stephan would be annoyed that she hadn’t waited for him, but she’d been restless that morning and couldn’t sleep. Stephan had to know that she’d never do any really heavy lifting without a spotter, but she expected he’d give her the mandatory lecture on the dangers of working out alone when he arrived.
Candy lifted the barbell above her head and, inhaling loudly but evenly, brought the bar to her chest. A full exhale and the weight went up. She repeated the lift fourteen more times and then returned the weight to rest in the grooves. She rested only a few minutes before starting a set with twenty pounds more weight. She followed with a third set, then a fourth, adding ten more pounds each time. She sat up and shook out her arms. Only three more sets to go. Candy loved the way her body responded to pyramiding—increasing the weight a little each time and cranking out the reps. She could feel the blood pulsing through her veins, her muscles expanding as they pumped up. The rush it gave her was a physical high that no drug could replicate. She felt incredibly strong and powerful. Her body tingled, and she had the sensation of floating. She added ten more pounds to the bar and lay back down. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, wanting to block out all distractions.
She raised the barbell and suddenly felt a sharp pain on her arm. Her muscle spasmed and the weight hit her chest, knocking the breath out of her. Her eyes flew open, but her vision was only a blur. Panicked, she struggled to get a grip on the barbell, but it eluded her. It rolled from her chest to her neck, crushing her windpipe. The pressure increased.
She tried to gasp for air, but none came. She clawed at the barbell, her torso and legs moving violently as she tried to extricate herself from the heavy iron stranglehold. Another electric pain shot through her arm. Her body went limp, her arms hanging at her sides. Paralyzed, she felt the weight press down. Harder. A bright red light exploded behind her eyes, then blackness.
Lisa Anderson stuck her head into Colleen Fitzgerald’s cramped office. “The boss wants to see you,” she said. At Colleen’s unspoken question, Lisa shrugged her shoulders and raised her eyebrows before she left the room.
Sighing, Colleen pulled a rumpled linen jacket over her white cotton blouse and rose from her chair. The fan on the floor in front of her desk made the Indian cotton of her skirt billow into a bell around her legs. She pulled her hair out of its ponytail as she trudged up the long hallway, passing several offices that were just like her own—cramped and dingy and devoid of natural light. The faded brown carpet was stained, the walls a dirty white. The harsh fluorescent lighting did little to hide the dreariness of the downtown office building that was like so many others. And the air conditioning was on the fritz again. Colleen could feel the sweat begin to trickle between her breasts. God, another sweltering July day in our nation’s capital. If she didn’t get out of town soon, she would surely perish from the heat and humidity.
She passed through a pair of glass doors and immediately the decor changed. The walls shone with new mauve paint; the plush mauve carpeting matched exactly. Fine reproductions of famous works of art hung in perfect symmetry on the walls, and potted plants held strategic positions. The Muzak wasn’t as loud here as in Colleen’s area of the building. She rounded the corner and came to a halt in a large airy room. Two secretaries sat at separate desks on either side. One was on the phone. Colleen could hear his voice, soothing and low, as if he were comforting a small child. The other secretary stood on tiptoe and watered a trailing philodendron that perched on top of a file cabinet. Her tight black miniskirt crept up her thighs. Nice legs, Colleen thought fleetingly as she approached the man talking on the phone.
Obviously annoyed at the interruption, he looked up and covered the phone with his hand. “May I help you?”
“I’m Colleen Fitzgerald.” The secretary looked at her blankly. “Mr. Sampson wants to see me.”
“Just go in. He’s on the phone, but shouldn’t be long. Talking to his wife.” He waved his hand in dismissal and turned his attention back to the call.
“Thanks,” Colleen said, rolling her eyes as she turned her back. Some people are just so professional, she thought.
She hesitated a few moments before knocking on the closed door that had “MR. KEVIN SAMPSON” emblazoned on it in gold. In the six months that she’d worked at Sampson and Rhoades Investigations, she’d only seen Mr. Sampson once—at her orientation. He gave some cliché-ridden speech about what a wonderful place Sampson and Rhoades was and if everyone kept “his nose to the grindstone” and was a team player they would all enjoy the fruits of their labors. She couldn’t imagine why he would want to see her—a novice investigator, fresh out of school with a degree in Police Science. She hoped she hadn’t screwed something up already. At Mr. Sampson’s “Come in,” Colleen self-consciously ran her fingers through her wavy hair, willing it to lie somewhat flat. She had to get to a salon, and soon.
The spacious office, with one wall made entirely of glass, afforded a panoramic view of the Potomac River. She saw dozens of boats on the river and wished she was in one of them. She glanced around the room, taking in the expensive new wallpaper, the enormous oak desk, the elaborate computer setup, and the credenza that she would bet hid a full bar.
The man behind the desk was also huge and reminded her of silent movie star Fatty Arbuckle. He wore an expensive but ill-fitting smoke-gray suit. His white shirt was rumpled and stained with what appeared to be tomato sauce. His tie was the most hideous thing Colleen had ever seen—wide and pea green with what seemed to be black and white naked women cavorting across it. She was instantly offended, and averted her eyes to stare at the ostentatious gold pen and pencil set that sat precariously on the front edge of the desk. Seized by an uncontrollable urge to knock it off, she angled her body so she could “accidentally” bump it. Before she could accomplish her mission, Mr. Sampson slammed down the telephone receiver and startled her.
“Sit down! Sit down, Miss Fitzgerald!” his booming voice crashed into her ears. “Or may I call you Colleen? Nice Irish name, that. Nice Irish name.”
“Colleen will be fine, Mr. Sampson.” She sat gingerly on the edge of a black leather chair that faced his desk.
“Good. Good. Now, let’s get down to business, shall we. I’ve heard good things about you. Good things. I have a special assignment for you. You can prove your worth. Big reward possible. Big reward.”
Hiding the fact that Sampson’s repetitive speech was already beginning to get on her nerves, she smiled and looked at him expectantly. He looked at her expectantly. The silence in the room seemed interminable until she realized he was waiting for a response from her.
“Yes, Mr. Sampson?”
“A woman who respects authority. I like that. Now, we have a claim that came in a couple of weeks ago. A big claim. One and a half million smackers to be exact. Big, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, very big,” she answered obediently.
“Some bodybuilder type went and got herself killed in Rehoboth Beach. Police say it was an accident—as in case closed—but Fidelity Life and Casualty suspects murder or suicide.”
A female bodybuilder? In Rehoboth Beach? This could prove interesting, Colleen thought. She asked, “Why don’t they believe the police? Surely they investigated?”
“All this money involved? And an accidental death rider that doubles the amount to three mil? They don’t want to believe the police.”
Colleen nodded in understanding. “Who are the beneficiaries?”
He rifled through some papers in a manila folder. “Yes, here it is,” he exclaimed, pulling a sheet of paper from the stack. “There are only two, the deceased’s business partner, a guy by the name of Stephan Gray. Oh yes, and a friend named Lori Kestler.” He drew out the word friend like it was the punchline of a dirty joke. “Makes you suspicious right there, eh?”
“Oh come on, Colleen. A same-sex friend beneficiary? Something queer going on there, if you know what I mean. Something queer.” He winked conspiratorially.
Really? In this day and age to talk like that. She ground her teeth and clenched her cotton skirt into an ironing nightmare. This man was making her sick, but he was her boss and she knew she didn’t have the courage to take him to task. She controlled her anger. “What do you want me to do?”
He shoved the folder at her. “Read this. I’m sending you to Rehoboth Beach to ask some questions and get the answers Fidelity wants. I want you there ASAP so we can get this one settled and out of here.”
“Shouldn’t this go to a more experienced investigator?”
“You’ve been here long enough and I’ve heard good things about you. Time to prove just how tough you are. Just how tough. Besides, everyone else is on vacation or already on a case. I’ll send someone else if you don’t have this wrapped up within a week or so. Any more questions?”
Before she had a chance to answer, he picked up the phone and dialed a number. It was his dismissal. With a bad taste in her mouth, Colleen grabbed the folder and hurried out of the room. The two secretaries in the outer office were in the exact same positions as when she’d first come in. Only now the one on the phone was speaking more heatedly and the plant waterer was snipping off dead leaves. Nice jobs, Colleen thought as she headed out the glass doors and back into the dreary world of peons.
When Colleen got back to her office, Lisa was waiting for her, perched on the edge of Colleen’s desk, and showing off lots of leg in the red miniskirt she was barely wearing. Don’t any of the women around here believe in pants, Colleen thought grumpily as she put the folder into her briefcase. She’d been single for more than a year and celibacy was beginning to wear on her. Determined not to waste her time ogling her straight co-worker, she poured herself a mug of coffee from the small coffee maker on her file cabinet, then watched as a Klingon Bird of Prey materialized on her Star Trek mug.
“So, are you fired or what?” Lisa asked with characteristic bluntness.
“Is that the only thing that happens when people go into Mr. Sampson’s office?”
“No,” Lisa wisecracked. “Now that you mention it, some people he puts on probation.”
Colleen laughed. “Well, I am not fired or on probation. I’m on special assignment.”
Lisa leaped off the desk. “Special assignment? How’d you rate that?”
“He said he had good reports about me and it’s my chance to prove my mettle. So, I’m going to Rehoboth to check out a suspicious claim.”
“Rehoboth? Man, I don’t believe this. You get to go to the beach? In July?” Lisa started to pace the room, her long tapered fingers glued to her shapely hips. She was so annoyed that she spit as she talked. “I’ve been here longer than you!” She started making clucking noises as she paced. Colleen expected her arms to start flapping at any minute.
“I know exactly why Mr. Sampson picked me over you,” Colleen said soothingly. “This is an open-and-shut case. You have a lot more experience than I do, so he wants you here to take care of more important things.”
Colleen’s attempt to calm her friend didn’t work. “Great! This is just great. I’m being punished for being a good worker!!” Lisa kept clucking as she walked back and forth in front of Colleen’s desk, but she didn’t flap her arms.
“Look, I’m sorry, Lisa,” Colleen said finally, “but I need to get back to work. I have a few things to finish up before I go. Do you mind?”
“Just wait until Janis hears about this.”
Oh great, Colleen thought. Janis was only the biggest gossip in the office. She was likely to decide Colleen and Mr. Sampson were having a torrid affair. Well, she couldn’t worry about that now. “ ’Bye, Lisa. Have a good week.”
The leggy brunette stalked out of Colleen’s office, but forgot to slam the door. Colleen sighed, and then let a grin spread across her face. What luck! Rehoboth in the summertime! One of the gay meccas of the Atlantic coast. She decided to stop at Lambda Rising Bookstore on the way home to pick up a lesbian travel guide. Maybe she could find a good lesbian-owned bed-and-breakfast. This could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.
She glanced at the clock. Still one hour before quitting time. She got her briefcase and fished out the manila folder. Might as well read up on what she was supposed to do. She sat at her desk and sipped the scalding hot coffee.
The file was kind of skimpy. It contained the original insurance policy, a copy of Candy Emerson’s will, the death certificate, a summary of the police report, letters from both beneficiaries, and a couple of newspaper clippings.
Bodies By the Beach owner, Candy Emerson, was found dead early one morning at the gym by her business partner. Official cause of death: a 245-pound barbell had fallen on her, crushing her chest and windpipe, effectively strangling her. Colleen grimaced as she read the gruesome details. Didn’t these weightlifter types usually have partners to prevent stuff like that from happening? She tried to visualize something that weighed 245 pounds. Would it be like lifting a couch? A washing machine? It was impossible for Colleen to imagine lifting that much weight—her own over-fed cat seemed heavy at just fifteen pounds.
The police report certainly supported the accidental death claim. The victim was apparently capable of lifting 245 pounds and was known to work out alone. When her partner, Stephan Gray, arrived at the gym at six-thirty, he saw the words “Dyke Bitch” scrawled across the window, but no other signs of trespass or forced entry. Hmmm, she thought, was that where Mr. Sampson’s “something queer” remark had come from?
After Gray turned on the lights and walked into the workout area, he saw the victim and ran to her aid. But she was clearly dead. Gray claimed he touched nothing and called the police immediately. No evidence of burglary. The cash register was untouched, nothing was missing, and the police found the victim’s set of keys to the gym in her gym bag.
The victim’s smeared fingerprints and blood from her torn fingernails were all over the barbell, bench, and plates. Results of latent fingerprinting and scene analysis were inconclusive—which was to be expected given the number of people who used the gym each day.
Colleen’s mind flashed back to the slides of strangulation victims that were shown in one of her classes. She shook the grisly images out of her head and finished reading the report before she called the actuarial tables up on her computer. Death by barbell. She scanned the files.
Suspicious strangulations in prisons. Convicted murderers dropping weights on each other. An irate woman smashed a twenty-pound dumbbell into her husband’s groin while he was bench pressing, which caused him to drop the weight and crush his windpipe. Lots of people beating each other’s heads in with barbells and dumbbells. Fights over equipment.
None of these bloody scenarios fit this case. According to the police report, Candy’s body had no marks other than those caused by the barbell and by her thrashing around to free herself. Colleen wished she had the actual autopsy report. It was possible the police had missed something that the coroner would have found.
After thoroughly checking the files on murder, attempted murder, and vicious assault, Colleen considered the possibility of suicide. Suicide within two years of a new policy automatically voided it, and Candy’s policy was only twenty-three months old. But the particulars of this case, combined with the fact that there were no documented cases of suicide by barbell, made suicide seem like wishful thinking by Fidelity. Three million dollars was a lot of money for the company to have to shell out, and Colleen had seen insurance companies stonewall payment on valid claims for as little as a hundred grand.
She moved onto the beneficiaries. Candy’s business partner, Stephan Gray. What could be his motives? Unrequited love for Candy? A business deal gone sour? Gambling addiction? Drugs? Just a plain old quarrel that got out of hand? And the other one, Lori Kestler. Friend. Colleen had to agree with her boss that “friend” often equaled “lover” on these policies. Lots of possibilities there. Jealousy. A jilted lover. An affair discovered. A rival. Perhaps the relationship broke up and Lori wanted the money before Candy changed the policy? Colleen had already seen that situation several times before. And the graffiti on the window would certainly seem to indicate that Candy was a lesbian, or at least someone thought so. She decided to hold off on further speculation until she’d had a chance to interview Gray and Kestler and check their backgrounds.
Colleen poured a second cup of coffee before she unfolded the newspaper clippings. “Female Body-builder Found Dead” and “Musclewoman Meets Tragic Fate.” The accounts contained no new information about Candy’s death, but did provide some insight about her life.
It seemed that Candy Emerson’s bodybuilding career began as a young girl with an interest in gymnastics. In her early teens, told she was too tall and bulky to compete in her chosen sport, she turned to weight training and wanted to try wrestling. That too was denied her because girls were not allowed to compete in a “male” sport. Undaunted, Candy continued working with weights and discovered a talent for track and field, where her strength gave her an advantage with the discus and javelin. In college, she majored in physical education and was encouraged by her coach to try powerlifting. She won a few local competitions, but within five years had turned to bodybuilding. Her meteoric rise to champion was apparently legendary.
She won several world championships before winning the coveted Ms. Olympic Universe an unprecedented three times in a row. She then retired from professional bodybuilding to open Bodies By The Beach, a health club on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. She was 48 years old when she died.
No surviving relatives listed. Nothing about a husband or boyfriend. Colleen thought about her own family—all four grandparents still alive, both parents, two siblings with children, various aunts and uncles and cousins. Odd that Candy had no other relatives. The articles made no mention of family history.
The newspaper photos were not very clear, but the woman looked to be very attractive. Big, blonde, and most definitely tanned.
To Colleen, she looked to be extraordinarily tall. The classic bodybuilding pose showed off broad shoulders and a heavily muscled body. It was a little too much bulk for Colleen’s taste. Candy’s breasts in the skimpy bikini seemed nonexistent. That was definitely not to Colleen’s liking. Still, Colleen didn’t think she’d turn down an opportunity to date someone like Candy. She kind of liked the somewhat masculine look about her.
Colleen closed the Emerson file. Candy was obviously a celebrity in the world of bodybuilding, but Colleen had never heard of her and she knew nothing of the sport. It always seemed like too much work. To be honest, any exercise seemed like too much work to her. She knew that she should do something—walk or swim or take aerobics classes. At twenty-seven, she sort of took her body for granted, but did notice that her weight was creeping up. The days were gone when she could eat anything she wanted and not gain an ounce. She read all the magazine articles that said exercise was essential to healthy living. Heck, Sampson and Rhoades put out brochures about the same thing. She pictured the portly Mr. Sampson and smiled at the realization that she wasn’t the only employee ignoring the company’s advice. Well, at least she was a vegetarian—that should count for something. Thinking about her body reminded her that she’d need to buy a bathing suit for this trip. Maybe that would induce her to swim?
The jangling of the telephone startled Colleen out of a silent argument over whether to get a one-piece or a bikini. She knocked over her coffee mug as she reached for the phone. The Klingon Bird of Prey disappeared as the hot liquid spilled over her blotter. She grabbed a couple fistfuls of Kleenex to soak up the coffee.
“Colleen Fitzgerald,” she managed to shout into the phone.
“I’m not hard of hearing yet,” her mother admonished.
“Sorry, Mom,” Colleen replied. “I just spilled coffee all over my desk. What’s up?”
“Your father and I want to go away for a few days next week. Do you think you could come by the house a couple of times and check to be sure everything is okay?”
“Can’t help you out this time.” Colleen silently thanked her luck. Driving out of the city and around the beltway to Gaithersburg was not her idea of fun. “Sampson and Rhoades is sending me away on assignment. I have to go to Delaware for a couple of weeks.”
“Delaware? What’s in Delaware?”
“I’m investigating a case, Mom. That’s my job, remember?”
“They don’t usually send you away. Can’t you postpone this? I don’t want to have to ask your brother.”
Colleen blotted the tissue more furiously. “He lives a lot closer to you than I do. You two at least live in the same state.”
Her mother let out an exasperated sigh. “He’s got a family, you know. He can’t be leaving all the time to come up here.”
“Well, I can’t this time either, Mother.” She took a deep breath before adding, “And I really wish you wouldn’t keep thinking that just because I’m single, I have no life of my own.”
“Don’t use that testy tone of voice with me, young lady. And don’t forget to send a postcard.”
The dial tone buzzed in Colleen’s ear. She cradled the receiver gently. She loved her parents dearly, but they refused to lose their dependence on her. Her brother, William, lived only ten miles from them, but the fact that he had a wife and kids seemed to make him immune to their needs. So she ended up house-sitting and pet-sitting and babysitting and gardening and chauffeuring and delivering—doing all those support jobs that lesbians always seem to do for their families. How dare the right-wing homophobes say we have no family values, she thought angrily. It’s the families that don’t realize our value!
Colleen glanced at the clock. 4:55. She wasn’t going to wait five lousy minutes, so she turned off her computer and straightened up her desk. Well, she mused, at least her family had stopped asking her when she would be getting married. Wouldn’t they be surprised if they knew their nice Catholic girl was a lesbian? Or perhaps she didn’t give them enough credit. Maybe they did know.
She stuffed the Emerson file back into her briefcase, turned off the coffee maker, and headed for the Metro.