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Alex Peres Mystery 4 - Murder Came Second.docx
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Chapter 21

After dropping Noel off at the Marshes, I pulled in our driveway to find Cindy backing out of it.

“Whither goest?” I got out of the car, did my Quasimodo hobble over and kissed her through the open window of her car.

“If you can’t guess, you really need help. Where would I go if I couldn’t concentrate at work, couldn’t find you, couldn’t stand the sight of a police car and plan to write a whole new song about yellow ribbons?”

I rested my forefinger delicately on my chin and pretended to think.

“If you’re really stuck, there’s a note on the kitchen table.”

“Aha! Could it be that lovely little cottage by a homey little pond?”

“Your adjectives are reversed, but yes. I really want peace and quiet. If you’ve been running around all day, you must be ready to go hide, too. Why are you limping?”

I was embarrassed to mention it. “Oh, when I was playing Superman this morning, I tripped on my cape and turned my ankle. I’ll get an Ace bandage at some point.”

“Like now. It can’t be good to walk or drive with it not supported.”

“I don’t—”

“In that little cabinet in the half bath. Go get it.”

The thing that amazed me was not so much that Cindy could tape an ankle as well as Lainey, but that she knew exactly where the bandage had been. Honest, could you walk right to a certain spot and lay your hand on a bandage you use maybe once every two years?

Anyway, I then drove to the cottage while Cindy went off on a spree to Evans’s Market where delicious things awaited—all ready, or very nearly ready, to eat. Later, we sat on the deck, where Aunt Mae had joined us, the three of us nibbling a smooth Stilton and sipping a smooth bourbon, tea for Aunt Mae, and at least two of us listening to our nerves loosen up with almost audible twangs.

I was working slowly up to a nap, when a car came to a noisy halt in the gravel in front of the cottage. Two doors opened and closed, one normally, one in a manner that made me listen to see if it dropped to the ground.

My brother stomped onto the deck, followed by an anxious-looking Trish. Leaning against the railing, he spread his arms like an evangelist in full swing. “Sing hallelujah, everybody. The murder is solved! Solved by none other than our own genius, Captain Anders.”

“Aha!” I laughed. “Let me guess. It was a transient who broke through the French doors to get out of the rain. He just happened to fall down the basement stairs and into the closet where the silver was stored. Coming back to the kitchen, he spied Terese, didn’t want her to give him a bad write-up, stabbed her and ran away with the loot, wearing Harmon’s boots because his own were wet.”

“You’re closer than you think,” Sonny snarled. “The only big difference being he kept stabbing Terese until she told him where the valuables were kept. And the entire household slept right through it.”

Captain Anders had an IQ almost up there with the speed limit, and blamed every crime in town on an unknown and therefore virtually uncatchable transient. There were many of us who could tell you his age right to the day. His retirement party would be a crowded affair.

“Well, that could be good in a way,” Aunt Mae teased Sonny gently. “Now you can just relax and refer everyone to the clever Captain.”

I saw Trish wince, as Sonny slammed his fist down on the railing. “You got it, Aunt Mae. You fu . . . darn well got it. Thanks to Anders, I’m relieved of the Segal case. Relieved!”

“Why?” I managed to ask.

“Because Anders went to Chief Franks with very good reasons I should recuse myself,” he said. “Could I please have a drink? Yours looks good.”

“I’ll get it,” Cindy said and stood. “What about you, Aunt Mae? Trish?”

Trish asked for iced tea, Aunt Mae said she’d stand pat and Cindy returned moments later with two drinks, both about the same color. Sonny had some hefty comfort in his glass.

He took a swallow and his eyes watered slightly. Clearing his throat he explained, “Aunt Mae, if you recall, you gave Ophelia a plant which Terese destroyed. That angered you, so if you had any information about her, you might not report it. Doubtless you will be rigorously interrogated shortly. Mom has been out with Noel a few times. In case it isn’t our transient, it is one of the actors—perhaps Noel—and Mom is protecting him. Alex is friendly with the whole bunch, plus Harmon, and was one of the first on the scene, possibly changing various evidence to shield them all. I kid you not.”

Aunt Mae set down her glass. “I don’t know whether to laugh or go slap the old fool silly.”

“He ought to be retired as being mentally impaired,” Trish snapped. “This is the dumbest thing I ever heard of. Why did Chief Franks go along with it?”

Sonny was now calm enough to snake a cigarette off the table. “Well, he did and he didn’t. Anders would have been quite capable of stirring up the Board of Selectmen, although I doubt they would have done anything. But he could have caused some talk that might possibly affect a later trial. This way, Mitch is publicly running the investigation, but he reports quietly to me, and I report quietly to Franks. Probably no real harm done.”

“But there will be talk.” Aunt Mae sighed.

“Oh, yes, some,” Sonny said. “But everyone will know who started it. I guess I shouldn’t have been so upset. Chief Franks is the guy who fills out my efficiency reports, not Anders. Now, who’s this?” Another car door slammed.

It was Mom. “If it’s a family reunion, shouldn’t I have been invited? Oh, what gorgeous cheese! Sonny, you’re bright red. Have you a got a fever?”

We finally got her updated and provided with some white wine, and then we were all suddenly quiet.

Finally, Mom set her glass down firmly. “Well, I think we are all as smart as Anders and Mitch. So who’s the killer? What about Harmon, first? I think we can cross him off. The thought of Harmon stabbing and robbing is beyond comprehension.”

“Mother,” Sonny said, “People can snap, even for only a few minutes, and do things they would never ordinarily do. You know better than I how he adored Rob. The older brother, the hero, the medals, the big military funeral. And now, even though he knows it’s just another Terese lie, he has this tiny little doubt. Was Rob a coward? Was it all a sham?”

He took a cautious sip of his drink. “So he flips. He kills her then covers up as best he can. It’s even possible he doesn’t remember what he did.”

We all began to speak at once. Aunt Mae rattled her ice cubes loudly for attention. “I know all you say is correct, Sonny. People may indeed slip out of character under stress, but not usually in the small things.”

“What do you mean?” Trish asked.

“I’ve known Harmon all my life,” Aunt Mae said. “I never knew him to enjoy discomfort or have much patience, except with animals. It’s hard to think of him standing in the cold rain for at least an hour, hoping Terese might come back downstairs, and then going through all that brouhaha of broken glass and tracked-in mud and broken locks. He’d have forgotten why he was there. If he were going to stab her, it is likely to have been in the middle of Commercial Street at high noon, after three beers.”

I laughed. “And don’t forget the missing boots. Harmon would never throw away boots less than a year old. Hell, some of his overalls are older than I am! If Harmon had worn those boots, you’d have found them under his bed. And the Brownlees’ silver. If you assume Harmon hasn’t gone truly crazy and really stolen it, that’s under his bed, too. He would never just toss it where a passerby might find it and keep it. If he was using it for a ruse, it’s somewhere safe and close to him, till he can return it.”

Sonny nodded reluctantly. “You may have something. I hope so. If it’s Harmon, let Anders arrest him. I don’t think I could do it.”

“You won’t have to, darling. He’s as innocent as a lamb!” Mom gave him that motherly assurance that means absolutely nothing and yet somehow makes you absolutely sure everything will be okay. “How about Nick Peters? He certainly loses no love on Terese.” She looked coyly at her empty glass. I started to get up, Cindy pushed me back and took the glass, and Mom continued.

“I went over to the Marshes to give Noel a ride out to the amphitheater. We were waiting for Hamlet to get dressed so he could ride with us. Nick was explaining Terese to me. I thought it was quite insightful.”

“In what way?” Sonny asked. “He never seemed the philosophical type to me.”

“It’s amazing what I bring out in people.” She grinned. Actually that was true, but I don’t think she knew it.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she mimicked. “Nick was saying that no matter who took the silver or why, Terese was the real thief in the bunch. I first though he meant she literally stole things, but his interpretation was quite different. He said she liked to steal things of no intrinsic value, but that people loved. Oh, look!” She pointed to the pond where a pair of rare saddleback ducks had just landed in their migration trip. “Fargo, don’t you dare chase them!”

“Nick mentioned Diane and George Hoskins,” she added. “After Terese’s crack about George’s kids not resembling him, every time he looked at one of them in the future, he’d have just the tiniest doubt it was his child. Terese had stolen a little piece of George’s trust in Diane. And Harmon. Wouldn’t Harmon always have the tiniest doubt that army medal he’s so proud of displaying means nothing? Nick mentioned some other incidents, like Ophelia’s little plant, destroyed because it was a thoughtful gift to a girl not used to receiving presents with no strings attached. He said he had suffered a similar loss as a boy, and he knew the hurt never went away. I was really quite touched.”

Sonny and I swapped a fast quizzical look. Had Nick known Terese before Ptown? I quickly interjected, “Well, you never know what sensitivity lurks in people, do you? I mean, take me, right now I’m getting very sensitive on the subject of food.”

“Try not to cry.” Cindy patted the top of my head. “Trish and I just ordered a bunch of goodies from the Chinese place. We are on our way to go and fetch it, if it will all fit in the car.”

While they were gone, Aunt Mae and Mom went inside to arrange plates and flatware. Sonny took this opportunity to tell me that two apparent untruths had turned up in Elaine’s story. I wasn’t surprised. Her nervousness and her unwarranted anger at me indicated she was afraid of something or someone. I wondered what she didn’t want known.

“First,” he said, “Was her comment about the maids warning Harmon not to track up the kitchen with his boots. Remember, Elaine made a point of calling attention to it? Well, I asked Ellie and Betts about it. They both deny ever yelling at him about his boots, said he was always super careful about wiping his feet. How does that grab you?”

“Like Elaine wanted you to remember it. But why?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “By the way, do you know for sure where Harmon kept his boots over there?”

“Absolutely, by the mower in the garage. He always brought them out and sat on the back porch to change from sneakers.” I sucked on an ice cube. “Everybody knew,” I said.

“Great. And there was another thing. Remember Elaine said she took a sleeping pill and was aware of nothing till Ophelia started screaming yesterday morning?”

God, was it only yesterday? It seemed like a month ago. I nodded and he continued. “Ellie and Betts are like maids the world over, I guess . . . curious. They say that except for Noel and Elaine, all the people in the house have regular pharmacies stocked in their bathrooms. You name it, they got it. Carlucci in particular. But Noel only has some acid reflux stuff and some allergy pills and Tylenol, and Elaine has an antidepressant and something for urinary tract infections. No sleeping pills, not even nonprescription ones. Yet she said she took one.”

“Maybe she got one from someone else.”

“Maybe. I will—pardon me—Mitch will check that out.”

“Little cracks are beginning to show here and there. They’ll lead to big ones at some point.” I sipped my drink. “I liked Elaine so much. Now, I’m afraid she may have done something silly, trying to protect Bobby, and she certainly has got it in for me all of a sudden.”

“Hmm. Wouldn’t you think she’d be intelligent enough to know you couldn’t keep that family tale quiet once Terese was killed? In a way, it doesn’t matter. Hamlet and Paul are the frontrunners, so far, anyway.”

“I think she’s hoping you’ll blame it on Paul, assuming Hamlet doesn’t crack and confess.” I heard the car in the drive. “The caterers are here!”

“Good. I just realized I’m running on empty. One quick thing.” He looked around to see that we were still alone. “When we were walking down to get your car this afternoon, Noel told me something. He had said nothing in front of you, because he thought it might lead to something dangerous, and he didn’t want you to know it.”

That irritated me. “Who is this guy, Sir Lancelot, the white knight?”

“Could be. Or Merlin, who’s manipulating this whole scenario to go the way he wants. Anyway, he said he was lying down resting this afternoon, sort of dozing, and seemed to recall a voice from last night. Terese’s he thought. Apparently after she went downstairs, he thinks she laughed and said to someone, ‘What are you doing in that crazy getup?’ And then she may have said something like ‘Oh, God, no! Don’t! No!’ And then silence. Or, he said, he could have dreamed it.”

“Oh, hell, he dreamed it, Sonny. Or it was something on TV he halfway heard in his sleep. What does he think she saw, somebody dressed up like Henry VIII, carrying an executioner’s axe, chasing Terese—made up like Anne Boleyn—around the kitchen?”

“My thoughts exactly.” He kindly offered me a cigarette from my pack. “Except for one thing. Back to Ellie and Betts. They noticed right after the Brownlees departed that they had left one of those cheap, see-through plastic raincoats and hats hanging in the hall closet. Probably left it there on purpose for anyone to use in a pinch. The maids say almost everyone in the house has borrowed it at one time or another. Either one of those tall male suspects would have looked pretty silly all zipped and hatted up in it, maybe naked underneath, wouldn’t they? And it would have worked wonders protecting a killer from Terese’s blood, wouldn’t it?”

He paused and smiled. “And it’s gone.”

“Oh, shit.”

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