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Alex Peres Mystery 4 - Murder Came Second.docx
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Chapter 5

Driving toward Mildred’s house, I thought of names for kittens, while Fargo kept turning toward the backseat and whuffling. Since Mildred had named her old cat Hercules, I figured maybe she was into Greek mythology. Well, okay. We could do that. The little calico looked to be sunny-tempered, so we could call her Eos, the dawn goddess. And the tabby hadn’t seemed the least bit pitiful to me. In fact, she had seemed quite sassy, so she became Eris, goddess of discord.

Parked in Mildred’s driveway, I printed a stick-up note on the pad I kept in the compartment: “We are homeless and helpless. Won’t you please take care of us? We know we will be happy with you. Love, Calico Eos and Tabby Eris.” Making sure the little plastic bowl of food in the carrier was full, I filled the other small container with water from the jug I keep in the car for Fargo, and set the carrier on the porch in the shade. One down.

Making the short trip to Harmon’s place, I repeated my actions. I didn’t really think Harmon would be interested in Greeks of long ago, so I signed his note: “Tom and Geraldine.” Mission accomplished.

It was late afternoon and I figured we had labored long enough for one day. We headed home for a game of tag with the hose, the thrill of picking one of my very own tomatoes, a big bowl of fresh cold water and a can of icy Budweiser. Cigarette number six, I feared, but I was in too good a mood to be very accusatory about it.

We continued the pleasant evening by ordering our favorite pizza—sausage with extra cheese. I made myself a salad and filled Fargo’s bowl with dry food, which he ignored, knowing full well pizza was en route.

Retiring to the living room, I clicked on the telly. One of the cable stations was featuring a Bio-Drama of the Woodchopper Woman whose photo I had seen in Cindy’s scandal sheet the other day. The thing that amazed me about such Bio-Dramas was not how bad they were, but how they existed at all. How on earth did the stations manage to collect so many pictures, so many relatives and neighbors and cops to be interviewed, in so short a time? Surely, they couldn’t keep files and film clips on everyone who ever went to jail or a mental facility! It was truly incredible. Of course we were going to watch it while we ate. Cindy would never know.

It boiled down pretty much to what had been in the paper. According to neighbors, Virginia Leonard was the average American housewife, thought to be happily married, a good housekeeper and good mother, if somewhat overprotective of her two children. Her husband Jeff worked for an auditing firm and traveled frequently, but seemed to enjoy his wife and kids whenever he was home.

“And then one afternoon, it all changed for the Leonards,” the commentator intoned ominously.

A neighbor joined him on camera. “It had been a pleasant summer day,” she said. “A little girl over on Fourteenth Street was having a birthday party. My two kids were going and so were Elaine and Bobby Leonard.” The screen flashed photos of the plain young girl and the beautiful little boy.

“I would have let my kids walk over to the party,” the neighbor continued, “But Virginia called and suggested she would take all four, if I would pick them up. That was typical. Virginia hated her kids to be anywhere without adult supervision. So that’s what we did. She took ’em and I picked them up after the party. I dropped them at the end of their driveway.”

Her voice began to quaver.

“I’ll never forgive myself. I dropped them off at their driveway, and those kids just walked up that driveway and right around the house to see their mother cutting up their father in the woodchopper. But I didn’t know. How could I have known? I had just backed the car out and turned toward home, and then I heard them screaming all the way down the block. I backed up at about ninety miles an hour. I don’t know how I did it. They were in the road holding each other and screaming. I jumped out and got my arms around them, asking them what on earth was wrong? They couldn’t even tell me, they just fell against me, sobbing.”

The screen now featured a picture of Virginia and Jeff Leonard in happier days—a slender young woman, slightly taller than her husband, who was a stocky young man with light brown wavy hair and an easy grin. She held a baby. He clasped the hand of a little girl.

Another neighbor next joined the interview. “I lived right across the street. A little earlier in the day I had been busy, and my then two-year-old Petey somehow unlatched the screen and got out of the house. He was always quite a little terror.” She smiled, remembering, as if it had been some sign of greatness to come.

“When I realized it, I ran out just in time to see Jeff Leonard pull in his driveway, jump out of his car and run out into the street to pick up Petey. Jeff was laughing as he scooped Petey up. ‘Now, Cowboy, where do you think you’re going? You’re going right home to mama, that’s where! No more adventures for you today, pal.’”

The woman took a drink of water. “He set Petey down in our yard, patted his bottom and said, ‘Now get along home, Cowboy, before you get hurt.’ I ran down and got Petey and thanked Jeff. I had Petey in my arms and he leaned over and gave Jeff a kiss on the cheek. Jeff tousled his head and left. I called out an apology and he turned and laughed again. ‘All kids get loose sometimes, no matter how hard you watch. I guess they have guardian angels.’”

She sniffed. “That was the last time I saw him alive. He was the one that needed an angel. Then later, Virginia tried to say Jeff was abusing Petey! Right there on the street with me watching. Poor woman was crazed, of course.”

Fargo and I were doing pretty well. I was watching the screen and eating pizza and salad, with the occasional sip of beer. Fargo was eating the crusts and counting the pieces left in the box. The drama returned after brief commercials—about six minutes worth.

Our next guest was a retired woman police officer who had worked on the case. “Worst damn case I ever got assigned to,” she began. “I had nightmares for years to come. When my partner and I got there, a man from a nearby house was already standing at the end of the driveway, stopping neighbors from going into the Leonards’ backyard. When the kids had started yelling, he had come over and helped the neighbor woman herd them into her car again, and then he had run to the back of the Leonards’ house to see what was wrong. What he saw was Mrs. Leonard with a butcher knife and a hatchet, dismembering her husband on the picnic table and feeding the smaller parts into a woodchopper.”

The ex-cop made an automatic gesture toward her shirt pocket for cigarettes, remembered where she was and settled for water. “When Virginia Leonard saw the neighbor, she screamed something like, ‘Go away! I must save the children from this monster!’ The man saw the knife and hatchet and didn’t argue. He ran back out front, hollering for someone to call 911, and waving people off . . . and barfing all over the place.” That earned her a sour look from the commentator.

The ex-officer continued, with a faraway look, as if she were seeing it all again. “We were the first police car there. We talked her into turning off the chopper and telling us what was going on . . . as if we couldn’t see. She told us very calmly that her husband had often sexually abused their son and daughter. That he had admitted it and agreed to seek help. Then, just minutes before, she had seen him openly abuse the little two-year-old across the street and laugh about it with the mother, who must be abusive also.”

“That had apparently put Mrs. Leonard over the top,” the cop continued. “When her husband came into the kitchen his wife stabbed him six times with a butcher knife and dragged him into the backyard.”

A social services worker appeared next. “It took us till the next day to calm the children sufficiently even to talk to them. And to this day, I’m not sure what part of that whole sad story is true. The daughter Elaine said that the mother was always ‘nervous’ and wanted to know where they were and what they were doing every minute. Elaine added that up until the last few months, things had been a lot more fun when Daddy was home. He helped with homework, took the kids to baseball games, swimming, hiking, etc. Sometimes all four would go to a movie or, occasionally a theme park.” The woman stopped, put on her glasses and consulted some notes.

“Lately, things had been a mess, Elaine said, and blamed her brother Bobby. He didn’t want to go anywhere without Daddy, or didn’t want Mom and Sis to go along at all. He complained that Elaine and Mom didn’t want Daddy to love him anymore. Then he told her that Daddy loved him best, man-to-man, now that Elaine was getting big and grown-up like Mom. Well, you can imagine what a can of worms that opened up, especially when Elaine flatly and consistently denied her father had ever touched either her or, she was sure, Bobby, improperly.”

More commercials. No more pizza, and finally, the end of the Leonard saga.

The psychiatrist Jeff Leonard had agreed to see was never found and was thought to be a figment of Virginia’s imagination. Elaine quietly stuck to her story. Bobby stuck hysterically but vaguely to his and was thought to be lying. Medical examinations showed no signs of abuse to either child. One shrink added that Bobby had perhaps somehow seen his parents having sex and thought his father was hurting his mother, especially if she had been making moaning sounds at the time. He was simply a very sensitive child. Yeah, I’d bet. The kid looked beautiful but shifty to me. I figured him for just wanting everyone’s attention.

Virginia’s insistence that Jeff’s pat on Petey’s bottom was sexually abusive didn’t help her case. Neither did her plea that she had killed Jeff in self-defense, acting for her children who could not protect themselves. She was sent to a facility for the criminally insane, for life, such as it must have been. Solemn little Elaine and adorable blond, wavy locks Bobby were adopted—separately—in another state, and changed their names accordingly. Their whereabouts, the commentator smirked, were carefully guarded, letting us all know he could have found them if he wished.

Later, I let Fargo out for last call, and when he came in I patted his bottom. “I guess we’ll have to start watching that,” I told him.

He yawned and slurped some water onto the floor.

Friday morning I had snuck Fargo out for an early beach run and was back, sitting in the kitchen with a mug of my special Costa Rican coffee, when the phone rang. It was my mom.

After our hellos, she announced, “I’m at work. Mildred Morris was just here to drop off the monthly accounts. She looks ten years younger than she did yesterday.”

“That’s nice to hear, wish I could say the same.” Pause. Pause. “Er, is there some reason I need this information?”

“Yesterday afternoon she found two adorable kittens left on her doorstep. A note said their names were Eos and Eris.”

“What strange names!” I grinned at my mug.

“Not if you once knew a little girl who was crazy about Greek mythology,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know, I know you did it. You’re a softie and I love you. Bye.” She hung up.

Cross Mildred off the worry list. One down, one to go. The phone rang again. This time it was Cindy.

“Hi, darling! Tried you earlier, but the line was busy.”

“Yes, it was Mom.”

“Everything okay?”

“Oh, sure. She called to tell me someone left two cute kittens on Mildred Morris’s doorstep, and Mildred is recovering rapidly from Hercules’ sad disappearance.” I sipped the coffee, getting cool but still great.

“And I suppose you had nothing to do with that.” I could tell she was smiling.

“Absolutely not.”

“Alex, are you lying?”

“Absolutely.”

“I thought so. You can be quite nice on occasion. It’s why I put up with all the other times.”

“All what other times?”

“I have to get downstairs. I just wanted to let you know, we’ll be back around six or so. Choate says he will drop me off, so you don’t have to worry about fetching me from the airport.”

“I always find you fetching.”

“I’m glad. I gotta run. I love you, cat woman. Bye.”

“Me too. Bye.”

My two phone conversations gave me inspiration to do a few things around the house. How had it gotten into a mess in just one day? Fargo had tracked up the kitchen. I had duplicated him in the bathroom. The empty pizza box and a dirty ashtray plus an empty beer can decorated the coffee table. Jeez! The couch pillows were squashed. Oh, Lord, give me strength. He did, I guess, until around noon, when I said the hell with it.

I wondered how Harmon was coming along with the deck and if he would be finished by tonight when Aunt Mae returned. I hoped she would have no reason to go down to the cottage, and assumed Cindy and I would be here overnight.

I took for granted that Harmon would be lunching at the Wharf Rat Bar. Maybe I should go down and ask about his progress. That was the only reason I was going. I certainly would have preferred to stay home and have a nice cucumber sandwich and some of Cindy’s skim milk for lunch, but I really needed to know about the deck and should pay him if it were finished.

Leaving His Nibs ensconced in the shade with a bowl of water, I went inside and found a seat at the bar. Sure enough, Harmon had joined his confreres for luncheon and was, as usual, dominating the conversation.

“Well, o’course I ain’t no expert on cats. But they was so little and helpless . . . what you gonna do? I brought ’em in and quick-like read that little paper that came with ’em, telling you what to do with them, and we was off to a fine start.”

I began to relax and ordered lunch before I tuned back in. “Now that little cutie, Geraldine, she just curled up in my arm and looked around like a little . . . a little princess . . . and then fell right asleep. But that Tom.” He sighed deeply. “I tell you, he’s forever runnin’ up my pants leg and jumping from my lap to the table and slidin’ all over the floor.” He shook his head heavily. “He don’t give a man a minute’s rest.”

I turned to my sandwich and iced tea with a free conscience. Harmon was in love.

Shortly after six, Cindy barged through the kitchen door, dropping her suitcase, kicking off her high heels, and fending off Fargo’s exuberant greeting. I got up to kiss her hello, and she gave me a peck and pushed me away. “Don’t touch me! I’m sweaty and awful. Boston was an oven. The plane and Choate’s car were worse after being parked in the sun for hours. I hate these damn shoes. I’ve always hated these damn shoes. I think I’ll burn them. Don’t even speak to me. Just pour me something cold while I shower before I die.”

It was just Cindy letting down after two days of being terribly gorgeous and professional. I could wait. “What do you want to drink? A tall Scotch?”

“No.” She was struggling to get out of her dress, but I knew better than to help. “I’d just belt it down and be a nasty drunk, along with everything else. Iced tea is fine.” She sidled out of the kitchen, dress still over her head. I guessed she knew where she was going.

I poured two iced teas from the pitcher we kept in the fridge and added ice and lemon. Then I took her suitcase in and put it on the bed. The shower was running, and Cindy was swearing like a sailor at something.

Fargo looked at me with concern. “Don’t worry, it’s not terminal. Come on.”

We returned to the kitchen and took the iced tea glasses outdoors. Ten minutes later Cindy padded barefoot across the grass, dark curls still damp, dressed in shorts and one of my too-big T-shirts—looking about sixteen. She sank into my lap. “Hello, darling, did you miss me? I don’t know why you would.”

I kissed her and proved that I had. She sipped her tea and stood, pulling my hand to bring me up with her. “I don’t know why you came all the way out here, just to turn around and go back inside . . . at least I think the neighbors would prefer we go back inside, don’t you?”

“We must always be thoughtful of the neighbors,” I agreed and walked quickly toward the door.

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