Read Parts I, III, & IV
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?”
To be continued ...
Part III, Friday, January 23, 2009
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About the author:
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)