A short story by
© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved
Sam Harper turned left off Willow Boulevard into a winding private road he had driven past all his life but never entered. In the distance, the McGuire mansion, a sprawling two-story home, stood like a limestone monument to the family’s ego. Its stately structure and steep-angled roof was nestled against a backdrop of tall, lanky pines. Harper imagined a flawlessly, well-groomed lawn would grace the property at the first sign of spring. For now though, the tree branches were heavy from last night’s snowfall. Up ahead, the usual gathering of city cars were parked on the circle drive in front of the home’s entrance. Among them was the van driven by the head of forensics, Carter Graves. The medical examiner’s vehicle assigned to Jack Fowler was situated immediately behind the van. Inside the home, uniformed officer Jason Culp was the first to greet Harper as he walked through the door.
“This way, Detective.”
Harper swept a glance around the foyer. Polished hardwood floors and thick Persian rugs ran the length of the vast open space. A massive staircase curved upward along the right side of the room near a wall flanked with multi-paned windows from the base of the staircase to the vaulted ceiling.
Voices seeped into the hallway from behind a set of closed double doors situated to Harper’s immediate left.
Three feet away, the dutiful officer Culp was directing him to go in the opposite direction. "Detective? The body’s upstairs.”
Three generations of McGuires had forged the city of Chandler, Massachusetts into an industrial Mecca at the turn of the century. On their way to success, they drove every viable competitor and a Fortune 500 company or two out of town. They secured their wealth and brainwashed every man, woman, and child into thinking Chandler would fall to ruins without them. Of course, they were wrong. After the family moved the business out West, Chandler not only survived, it flourished. But in everyone’s eyes, the McGuires continued to reign supreme. Harper wasn’t as surprised to receive today’s phone call as he was that a murder had taken this long to touch the lives of the McGuires. He unbuttoned his overcoat and asked: “What do we have?”
“Upstairs, first door to the right,” Culp said, gesturing with a nod in that direction. “It’s Catherine McGuire.”
“Old lady McGuire? She’s what? In her eighties?”
“Eighty-three. The daughter--”
“That’s the one,” Culp said, “claims she called the station as soon as she found her. Forensics and the doc are up in her room right now.”
“Who else is here from downtown?”
“My partner’s questioning the family in there.” He pointed to the doorway that had intrigued Harper a second before. “Lorenzo and Wade are standing by and waiting for orders.”
Harper pulled on a pair of latex gloves and made a move toward the stairs, but the look of consternation on Culp’s face made him stop. “What?”
The officer’s glance made a wide upward sweep. “Nothing like any homicide I’ve ever seen.”
“What do you mean?”
“The old lady died in her sleep. I’m no genius, but the sheets aren’t even wrinkled.”
“And you know this how?”
“I saw her with my own two eyes, Detective. My partner and I were the first to arrive. Not a mark on her—nothing out of place. Doesn’t feel right.”
“You think someone tampered with the scene?” Harper asked.
“Not according to them.” Again Culp gestured toward the door, “and no one was in the house who shouldn’t have been here—I checked.”
“Seems Mrs. McGuire’s health was failing so the son and daughter arrived on Tuesday.”
“Three days ago.”
“Yeah, something like that.
“Is that it?”
“No, the housekeeper has a room on the first floor off the kitchen,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder, “and then there’s Mrs. McGuire’s assistant. Her room is upstairs too.”
Harper leaned an ear toward the doors leading into the great room and listened to the loud, muffled voices. “Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”
* * *
Carter was taking particular interest in the glass of water and the sizeable collection of medication bottles he found on Mrs. McGuire’s nightstand. Jack was standing over the body. He pushed his reading glasses to the top of his head, wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips. He didn’t bother to look up when Harper entered the room.
“False alarm?” Harper asked.
“Not if the family has anything to say about it,” Jack said.
“You don’t sound convinced.”
Jack Fowler shrugged a shoulder without hiding the look of disgust that washed over his face.
“Your word is the only one that counts. Remember?”
“Yeah ... so I hear.”
The hesitation in Jack’s tone spelled nothing but trouble in Harper’s mind. He’d been down this same road with the ME more than once. It meant long hours of work with no guarantees they’d find the killer. Catherine McGuire was laying face up on the bed. Beneath the full-length pink nightgown was a frail body. In life she’d been a five foot tall, vivacious woman and the power behind the McGuire fortune. Now her pale boney arms and hands were limp at her sides. The gold and red quilted spread beneath her barely registered the slightness of her weight. Officer Culp’s observation knocked a little louder in Harper’s head. As he studied the tranquil expression on her face and the neatness of her room he had to admit that neither jibed with the usual murder scene.
“Do we have a case or not?”
“No way to tell without an autopsy,” Jack said.
"And you'll push this one to the top of your list, right?"
"Not going to do one."
“What are you saying?” In all the years Harper had worked with Jack, he’d never once seen the ME sweat in the middle of January. "Answer me. What's the problem?"
“My hands are tied, that's what. We’re dealing with the McGuires, Harp.” Jack walked around the bed to Harper’s side and lowered his voice. “They’re the closest thing this city has to goddamn royalty.”
“Easy, Doc. The walls might hear.”
“Hell, you don’t tell the McGuires what to do, least of all when the corpse is one of their own.”
“You’re dancing around the May Pole,” Harper said. “Spit it out.”
“According to Mrs. McGuire’s appointed guardian—her assistant, she left explicit instructions in her will—no autopsy. From the collection of meds we found on the nightstand, she wasn’t opposed to medical attention, but she didn’t like doctors poking around or getting stuck with needles. Certainly didn’t want anything to do with getting cut up—as if she’d know the difference now.”
“She obviously hadn't planned on anyone pulling the plug ahead of time. Don't see why you're worried. Wills can be contested, especially if there's reason to suspect she’s been murdered. Give me something to take to a judge and we’ll—”
“Impossible.” A frown rippled across Jack’s brow. “If she was murdered, the evidence is inside. I’d have to examine the organs and that’s not going to happen if I can’t take the body.”
“Let me get this straight,” Harper said. “The family reported her death as a murder right?”
“Doesn't seem to be any evidence of foul play.”
“Right, and based on the apparent lack of it, I can’t rule her death a homicide,” Jack said.
“Then what do they know that you and I don't? Are you really going to let a little thing like a will stand in your way? Personally, I’d be more worried about what the living will do to you than the dead.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Come on, Jack. This city’s leading family is yelling murder downstairs. You’re not really thinking of disappointing them, are you?”
Jack Fowler didn’t respond.
“Rational people don’t call the cops without a reason. Last will and testament or not, they’re going to expect me to investigate her death and I can’t do it without you giving the word.”
“Odd choice of words, Harp—rational. We’ve worked together what, six, seven years? How many times have we seen this type of thing before? You know being rational and levelheaded never enters the equation when there’s money involved. If there was an ounce of civility in her heirs, her death just wiped it clean away and replaced it with greed and suspicion. Hell, if they’re not accusing one another right now, it’s because they’re trying to get their stories straight and cover their tracks.”
“All the more reason to talk to a judge. But let’s say you’re right, then why report it as murder? All they needed to do was force their mother’s doctor to issue the death certificate stating she died of natural causes.” Harper slipped off his coat and glanced at the corpse again. “They could have split the dough after the wake before anyone questioned them. I mean, look at her. Who would have known?” Harper hooked a finger beneath the collar of his coat, flung it over a shoulder, and turned to leave.
“Where’re you going?” Jack asked.
“Where do you think? Into the lion’s den to find the killer.”
* * *
Jack’s right. Harper thought, as he reached for the knobs on the double doors to the great room. Death had a way of bringing out the cut-throats in families. There was always at least one person convinced he’d been screwed, ignored as a child and who drummed up a host of old baggage to get his just reward—revenge on the unsuspecting.
His thoughts flashed to his mother’s untimely death six years before and the hit and run driver who was never apprehended. His younger brother, Paul, never forgave the two homicide detectives in the family, he and their father Walt, for failing to find the guilty. Harper shoved the unwelcomed memories back, deep into the distant crevice from which they came, but that old familiar sting was as relentless as ever. He cursed under his breath at his inability to let go of his anger or to wipe his father’s pain from his memory. “Damn it,” he said under his breath and heaved open the doors.
The discussion he heard moments before immediately ceased—heads jerked up as he stepped into the room. He recognized the McGuire siblings from years of newspaper photographs. Both had their mother’s eyes and their father’s distinctive Roman-shaped nose. But the brother and sister had developed their own wicked tongues putting the heat that spewed out from the roaring flames in the hearth to shame.
Four sets of probing, dry eyes scrutinized Harper’s moves as the uniformed officer handed him a slip of paper. It contained the names of those present and a sentence or two each had offered up as the utmost truth.
“Well, it’s about damn time.” The man who rose to his feet and took a step too close to Harper was Clinton McGuire, a man in fifties sporting an expensive tan and touch of gray along the temples. “Can we just move on?”
“Have a seat, Mr. McGuire,” Harper said as he finished reading the note.
“We demand answers.” Clinton shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned forward as if to make a point. “Now!”
Harper ignored the man’s outburst and continued to read through the officer’s scribbles. He glanced up at the patrolman and gave him a nod. “Thanks, I’ll take it from here.”
“We’ve been sequestered in this damned room for over two hours. I want—”
“I understand Mr. McGuire. You have my deepest condolences. Now, would you please take a seat?”
“Yes, Clint. Shut the hell up and sit down.” Evelyn Gunter raised a crystal tumbler to her lips and took a sip of what Harper knew to be fine distilled liquor. He watched her squirm a bit in the wingback chair near the fire and take a deep breath. Mrs. Gunter was impeccably groomed from her over-sprayed hair down to her Gucci slippers. A well-manicured hand held on to the glass while the other gripped the arm of the chair a little too tight.
“Yes. Of course, who else would I be? For what it’s worth, that’s Mr. Gunter,” she said, pointing to the man on the couch. “Jesus, Vic, sit up and act as if you have some sense for a change.”
Vic’s elbows were resting on his knees; his posture made it clear that seconds before his head had been buried in the cup of his hands. Harper took note of the bloodshot eyes and the rumpled shirt and hair and tucked those facts in the back of his mind.
The slender woman on the other end of the couch who was coiling her finger around the silk printed scarf hanging from her neck seemed neither drunk nor vile at the moment.
“I’m Sylvia,” she said. “Just thought I’d mention it in case you’re interested. I’m with him.” She nodded toward Clinton and rolled her eyes. “But trust me, I’m nobody around here.”
“Wonderful, Sylvia dear. Now that we know who the hell we are, can we please get to the bottom of things?” Clinton paused for a moment. “Detective?”
That was the first thing Harper had heard thus far that made any sense. “Let’s start with you Mrs. Gunter. I understand you found your mother.”
“Yes, that’s right. I—”
“She’s embellishing the truth again, Detective. Eve didn’t go in to mother’s room until after Nelly cut loose with a blood-curdling scream,” Clinton said, curling his lip.
“Why the ... I’ve checked on mother every morning since we arrived long before you ever woke from your booze-induced slumber.” The look in Evelyn’s eyes could have burned a hole through Clinton’s heart like a red-hot poker.
“Hell, she was still alive in the morning.”
“Who is Nelly?” Harper asked again.
Evelyn and Clinton continued to argue. Vic took a few unsteady steps to the bar at the other side of the room and poured himself a straight shot of bourbon. Sylvia pursed her lips and persistently played with her scarf, rolling it up and down then letting it slip through her fingers.
“Enough!” Harper yelled. “Everyone sit down and keep your mouths shut until I give you permission to speak.” Harper looked them square in the eyes. “Bicker all you want, but not on my time. Do I make myself clear?” With their incessant backbiting momentarily quashed, he broke the silence, “You, Mr. McGuire. Who is Nelly?”
“The housekeeper, Nelly Blount. She’s been with the family for years. She’s the one who found mother.”
“And when was that?”
“Just after lunch.”
Amazingly, the others nodded in agreement about the time. Harper glanced at his watch. It was ten of two which figured right since he had been the last to arrive at the scene. Harper was almost afraid to push his luck, but the next logical question needed to be asked. “And what makes you think your mother was murdered?”
“Allison Pike. A cold, self-serving extortionist.” Evelyn narrowed her eyes as words and spittle shot from her lips.
A crease rippled across Clinton’s brow and for the first time, he seemed to be in a pensive state of mind. “Mother hired Alli about a year ago as an assistant to help keep track of her appointments, take her places, run errands, that sort of thing.”
“She had us for chrissakes, mother didn’t need her.” Evelyn mumbled the words between gulps of booze. “Oh yes, Alli seemed sweet enough at first, but that didn’t last.”
“She was subtle, I’ll give her that,” Evelyn said. “Alli gushed at every word mother said and lavished her with attention. Mother certainly loved getting attention.”
“Yes.” Clinton leaned back in his seat and crossed his left foot over his knee. “She seemed so efficient, we never questioned her motives at first. It was almost a relief that someone was taking care of things. I mean … mother was sharp and had never been shy about dismissing an unworthy employee so …”
Evelyn nodded in complete agreement with her brother then added: “But then it got so that Mother quit returning our calls. We made countless trips into Chandler over the past several months to see her. Recently, there was always an excuse as to why we couldn’t—everything from mother taking a nap to her being in the tub.”
“Befriending an elderly person isn’t a crime though,” Harper said.
“Alli didn’t just befriend our mother,” Clinton said, “she formed a wedge between us.”
“You want to know what the real stinky beef is all about?” Vic slurred his words. “The old lady changed her damned will. Cut these two vultures, and us,” he flung a finger at Sylvia then poked himself in the chest, “right out.”
“He’s right,” Sylvia said. “With one bitchy stroke of a pen she disinherited us and made Alli her guardian. The woman even insisted on dispensing mother’s medication and overseeing the food preparation. Can you believe it? After kissing up to the old bag all these years she cozies up to a complete stranger. What a hideous slap on the face.”
Evelyn raised a slender finger to her eye and dabbed the first tear Harper had seen since entering the McGuire mansion. The conduct he witnessed in the past twenty minutes validated Jack’s comment about money, death and greed. What else had Jack said about the McGuires? Oh yeah, royalty—my ass, he thought. Harper had a good picture of how things were, but even if these four’s suspicions were right, all the hatred in the world didn’t make it so or answer the why or how.
“Money is no object, Detective,” Clinton said. “Do what you must to convict her.”
“That could be construed as a bribe, Mr. McGuire. So I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear it. But I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were you. If your mother was murdered, I’ll know and whoever did it won’t be able to shake me off.” Harper let them hang on to his words as he started for the door then turned. “One last question. Had your mother always been opposed to autopsies?”
Each of the four searched the other three’s faces.
“What an incredibly strange thing to ask,” Evelyn said, raising the glass to her lips and draining its content. “Mother never mentioned it, why?”
* * *
The brass nameplate permanently attached to the brick façade of the Stanley building read, “Jacob D. Stanley, Attorney At Law.” Harper pulled open the door, unbuttoned his overcoat, and instantly felt his steps sink into the thick pile of burgundy carpeting. Except for the middle-aged guy waiting in the pinstriped suit with his nose in the New York Times, the lobby was empty of clients. Overstuffed chairs and lush tropical plants that didn’t belong in Massachusetts in January or any other time of the year, lined the path that led directly to the knockout redhead sitting behind the desk.
She glanced up from her filing and offered a practiced smile, but her eyes were immediately drawn to the badge secured to Harper’s belt. The blunt cut of her hair fell just at the shoulders, the blue of her eyes matched her blouse, and looking down from his vantage point of six feet up and standing well over her head, the bit of visible cleavage was a distraction he didn’t need at the moment. Harper was trained to hone in on the details, but he wondered what the hell he was thinking. Now she was looking him straight in the eyes.
“Mr. Stanley is expecting me—Sam Harper, homicide.”
“Have a seat, Detective. I’ll let him know you’re here.” A take-me-home smile eased across her lips as she disappeared down the hall.
* * *
“Yes, I appreciate your predicament.” Jacob Stanley polished his reading glasses then placed them back on the bridge of his nose. “But the attorney/client privilege doesn’t end when the client passes. You know that.”
“Yes, I do, but—”
“It continues on in perpetuity. I can tell you this, Mrs. McGuire was of sound mind when she changed her will.”
“Her family doesn’t agree. Any idea why she didn’t let them in on it?” Harper asked.
“I assume you’ve had the pleasure of meeting them, right?” Stanley paused for a moment. “Yes, of course you have. Regardless of what you’ve heard about Catherine McGuire, she had a soft spot for her children, the irony is, they never appreciated it.”
“So what was her motive?”
“You need to understand that my job was never to persuade Catherine to do anything she hadn’t already set her mind to. I was here to advise her on the legality of her actions and the ramifications thereof, not meddle in her private life. Her personal affairs were off limits.”
“You have to admit, the whole thing seems strange,” Harper said.
“Maybe to the average person it does, but there was nothing routine about Catherine McGuire. Perhaps she faced her own mortality and didn’t like what she saw. I do think she felt alone much of the time.”
“Is that when she hired Allison Pike?”
Stanley thumbed through a few pages in Mrs. McGuire’s file then stopped and flipped back and forth between two pieces of paper. “Ms. Pike was employed last year on December 27. Catherine changed her will eight months later—hardly a hasty decision.”
“What about Pike’s background? Anything suspicious?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Stanley signaled Harper to wait while he picked up his phone. “Beka, could you come in a minute?”
Within seconds, the redheaded beauty walked in, took three sheets of paper from Stanley’s hand and left the room. She returned minutes later with a set of copies.
“Here,” Stanley said. “Maybe that will help clear up some of your questions.”
Harper studied the list of references Allison Pike had submitted to her former employer then whistled at the salary noted at the bottom of the page. “Can’t say I blame the McGuires for being upset. A hundred grand a year is a chunk of change for driving an old woman around and keeping her calendar. Pike had a sweet deal going, why would the family suspect her of wanting to stop the gravy train?”
“I’m sure it’s a ploy to contest the will. Like I said, Detective, no one forced Catherine McGuire’s hand. She came to see me of her own free will with a clear mind and conscience. I’m sure Ms. Pike will be glad to fill you in on anything else you need to know. Her phone and address are at the bottom of the second page.”
“Thanks.” Harper folded the pages lengthwise then handed the attorney his business card. “If you think of anything else.”
“I will.” Jacob Stanley paused for a moment then frowned. “Have you ever missed a chance to do something and later regretted it?”
“Yeah, once or twice. Why?”
Stanley removed his reading glasses again and placed them on top of his desk. “I was out of town on business this week when my secretary called to say that Catherine had phoned twice on Monday to speak with me—wouldn’t leave a message—Catherine never would. Anyway, I was having a heck of a time with cell phone connections and assumed whatever Catherine wanted could wait a couple of days until I got back. It didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. Haunting, wouldn’t you say?”
* * *
The information Harper received from attorney Jacob Stanley two days before led him to the front door of a 1930s bungalow on west 43rd. When he knocked, he expected to meet a middle-aged spinster with orthopedic shoes on her feet and a hard look in her eyes. Instead, Allison Pike stood in the threshold dressed in white close-fitting slacks, a red cardigan sweater, and waves of flowing dark hair swept over one shoulder.
She smiled and ushered him into the sitting room where the mellow sound of Etta James drifted through the air. He hadn’t intended to agree to coffee, but the temperature outside was ten below and he couldn’t say no to the warmth emitted from crackling log in the fireplace.
Allison brought in a tray with a carafe, two mugs and the usual condiments. She did the pouring and left him to fix his own. She grabbed one of several throws and curled up in the overstuffed loveseat across from his. Harper noticed the zest in her style; every move triggered a spark. There was no hesitation in her voice, no concern in her eyes—not even when Harper informed her of the McGuires’ accusations.
“I can’t say that I’m surprised,” she said. “They were against Catherine’s decision to hire me from the beginning.”
“Tell me about it. Start with how you two met.”
“A painter friend of mine had his oils featured in a gallery downtown during the spring arts festival. Catherine and I were drawn to the same painting. That one,” she said, pointing to a large landscape rendition hanging on the opposite wall. “I’m a nut about impressionist style, aren’t you?”
Harper took a drink of his coffee while he mulled around the abrupt redirection and chose to ignore it. “Then what?”
“We developed a friendship. Catherine often invited me out to her home. What began as the occasional visit quickly became weekly chats. Sometimes after dinner, we’d talk for hours. Next thing I knew, she had the housekeeper prepare a room for me so I could stay overnight.” Alli brushed back a strand of hair from her eyes and studied Harper’s face as if waiting for his immediate reaction.
“Did the family object at that point?” he asked.
“I’m not sure if they were even aware of our friendship. That’s the point, Detective. They never called on her except to ask for money so they didn't know what was going on in her life. Trust me, none of this was planned. In spite of having a family and wealth she didn’t have what she needed most, love—a sense of belonging.” She paused for a moment. “She called me her guardian angle. The true is, I’m the one who was saved.”
“It’s personal and I’d rather not go down that road, but suffice to say that she was lonely and I needed a sense of belonging too.”
Allison’s words echoed the same sentiment Jacob Stanley expressed in their meeting on Wednesday, but just like two wrongs don’t make a right, neither did the word of a lawyer and the sole beneficiary of the McGuire fortune equal the truth. “I understand you were hired last year on December 27, is that correct?”
“Yes, I think that’s right.”
“You two met in the spring and what, eight, nine months later she hired you as her personal assistance? What happened that December?”
“They left her alone.” Allison raised a slender hand to her lips then turned toward the fire that had now engulfed the massive log in the hearth. “Those vile, ungrateful … if it hadn’t been for me, she would have been alone over the holidays.” She wiped a tear from her eye and slipped into an uneasy silence.
She looked up, tears glistened in her eyes. “That set the stage for what happened next.”
“A few months later she called to say that she needed to see her lawyer and wanted me to drive her to his office. That’s when I found out she had been discussing a change in her will. The meeting was simply for the purpose to sign papers. The last thing I expected was that she made me her guardian.”
“You could have backed out.”
“Not likely. No one ever backed out of a Catherine McGuire order.”
“Is that what it was? An order?”
“It felt like it.”
The flair of confidence Harper saw in her a moment before vanished. She threw back her head and closed her eyes as if the question had awakened an unpleasant memory.
“So your duties were more that of a caretaker; you dispensed her medication, took charge of her meals—”
“Managed her appointments too?”
“Jacob Stanley said he missed a couple of calls from Mrs. McGuire the day before she died. What was that all about?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You just said it was your job to keep track of her appointments.”
“Not all of them. She was a tyrant in that respect. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me. She paid you a hundred grand. Why didn’t you know?”
“I didn’t need the money,” she said, placing her half-empty mug on the tray, “but I could use a drink. Care for one?”
The sudden change in her tone didn’t escape him. Harper told her he’d pass on the drink then rose to his feet. While she tinkered around in the kitchen, he examined the collection of books on the nearby shelf. Allison Pike’s tastes varied from the literary classics of Mary Shelley and Earnest Hemmingway to modern fan fiction, history, and travel. Then one book among several caught his attention. He was thumbing through 200 pages that listed a detailed assortment of poisons, their sources, and their affects on the human body when Allison walked back into the room with a glass of wine.
“Interesting,” he said.
“I also have books on psychology, military strategies, religions of the world, emergency first aid, and the history of rock and roll.” She took a sip then a few more steps until she was inches away. “My interests are varied. What’s your passion?”
He waited to give her an answer, not because he needed to think twice, but because one good tease deserved another.
“Justice, Ms. Pike, and the terms of Catherine McGuire’s will. Have a seat.”
To be continued.
Read the conclusion of “Dirty Little Secrets” on Friday, January 30, 2009 at http://samharpercrimescene.blogspot.com
Marta Stephens is the author of the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series published by BeWrite Books (UK)
THE DEVIL CAN WAIT – (2008)
SILENCED CRY (2007), Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)
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