Friday, January 30, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets ~ Part IV Conclusion

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Let the Dead Point the Way

The far end of the dimly lit hallway was barely visible from the elevator. Harper knew the sign above the last door to the right pointed the way into the city morgue. He also knew what to expect on the other side. The chill in the air would be as cold as the look of the stainless steel surfaces that dominated the autopsy room. It would permeate his clothing keeping them cool to the touch moments after leaving the place. White tiled walls shimmered under the bright florescent lights. The spotless floor, a large suspended scale, and three polished stainless steel tables, situated in the center of the room, were as expected as the smell of disinfectant that masked the stench of death.

“I came over as soon as I got your page,” Harper said. “What’s up?”

“Nice work letting the McGuires in on their mother’s final wishes. Come on, over here.” Jack Fowler crossed the room and pulled out one of the middle drawers in a morgue refrigerator. “The authorization for the autopsy came through a couple of hours ago. I was just getting ready to start on her. Want to watch?”

Harper cocked his head to one side and glanced down at the late Catherine McGuire. Her flesh looked pasty white under the florescent light; her lips were drained of color. “I’ll trust you on this one. Have a couple of other things to check on this morning.”

“So what was Allison Pike’s story?” Jack positioned the body onto a gurney and pushed it into the autopsy room.

“Same as the others. She’s a victim of circumstances. You know the old, I-was-just-trying-to-help story. Do me a favor.”

“If I can.”

“Check for poison in her system.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Just a hunch right now.”

“And if I don’t find anything?”

“We can say we tried and move on.”

* * *
Harper left the medical examiner to his pre-autopsy tasks of measuring and weighing the body then taking the usual photographs. The engine of his Jeep Commander fired up on the first try, but the plummeting temperatures gave him reason to give the motor a moment to warm again. He watched the wipers shove the snow from side to side and thought of the stinging accusations he’d heard getting tossed around days before. Not one allegation had led to evidence that would substantiate a charge of murder. Still, Pike’s list of references nagged at him. He checked them out and Jacob Stanley was right, there was nothing unusual about them, but that wasn’t the issue burning a hole in Harper’s mind. Allison Pike went to a lot of trouble to paint her relationship with Mrs. McGuire in pretty pastels, so why the need for references? Harper knew it was inevitable that he’d see Pike again. He’d insist she explain the possible glitch in her story. She, on the other hand, would make it a point to serve more wine.

At ten in the morning, Harper was in the forensics lab down in the basement of police headquarters listening to Carter Graves review his initial findings.

“Go ahead. Take a look,” Carter said, tossing Catherine McGuire’s high blood pressure medicine bottle at him. “There are no discrepancies in the dose she was given. Based on the date it was prescribed and recommended dose, there should be ten pills left in the bottle and ... there are.”

“What else was she taking?” Harper asked.

“Aside from the high blood pressure, she didn’t have any major illnesses. She was taking a daily dose of vitamins, minerals, calcium and a pain killer.”

“What kind of pain meds?”

“Over the counter Ibuprofen for arthritis. Hope I’m in her shape when I’m eighty-three. Anyway, no discrepancies there either.” Carter glanced at several sealed evidence containers on a nearby table. “Luminol showed no sign of blood anywhere at the scene—not on the bed, nightstand, walls, floor, bathroom—none. I took dust samples from her room and vacuumed the bedroom floor. I’ll let you know if I find anything worth looking into.”

Harper was beginning to think this was a murder that didn’t happen. A body and accusations.

“If she was murdered,” Carter said, “the killer didn’t mess with her pills.”

“What about the phone records?”

“One of my techs just got them back. He checked the calls made from the son’s and daughter’s homes. They each phoned Mrs. McGuire a couple of times a week since October. No way to know if they actually spoke with their mother, but at least they weren’t lying about making the calls.”

“October, huh?”

“Yeah, why? Does it mean something?”

“Allison Pike claimed that Clinton and Evelyn only called when they needed money. Do you suppose mom turned her kids down one too many times and pissed them off?” Harper frowned at the thought. “I take it back. Plotting to kill would be too much trouble for them. If you ask me, they’re all nuts, the old lady died in her sleep, and we just wasted taxpayers’ money.”

Four weeks since Catherine McGuire passed away and the only abnormality Jack Fowler noted in his autopsy report was slightly raised elevations of blood pressure medication in her system and minor abrasions in her intestines. He found nothing else to prove that her death was due to anything other than natural causes. With the case closed, Harper moved on to the next homicide on the roster. Clinton and his wife moved into Catherine’s home and that was the last he heard of the McGuires until an hour ago. A million thoughts ran through Harper’s mind as he listened to the voice mail message left by the family’s housekeeper, Nelly Blount.

The mansion was a quarter mile away when the sun decided to show after five days of sub-zero temperatures. But relentless winds continued to blow and shaped the soft drifts of snow into waves across the open fields on either side of the road.

The housekeeper answered the door on the second ring and except for a quick glance over a shoulder she fixed her eyes on his.

“This way, Detective.”

Harper followed her down the main hall to the back of the house and into the kitchen. Stainless steel appliances were tucked in among spotless blue granite countertops that stretched into an L-shaped formation. On the back wall of the room was a span of large windows and patio doors that led to the terrace now under a foot of snow. Harper sat at one end of the kitchen table and watched as Nelly served him a steaming cup of coffee.

“Twenty-seven years. That’s a long time to work for one family; not the easiest bunch to care for either, you know.” Nelly nodded as if to emphasize her amazing ability to survive the McGuire ordeal. “Clinton and Eve were unruly as children now they’re out of control adults. Without their mother at the helm, who knows what they’ll do next.”

“About what?”

“This house, me, everything. Oh, I know, Clinton moved in, but there are no guarantees. Obviously, Mrs. McGuire didn’t make any provisions for me in her will so--”

“I’m sorry.” Harper trusted Nelly hadn’t dragged him here to discuss the McGuire’s bleak prospect of a future and her financial misfortune. “I read in the paper the court denied the McGuire’s request to contest it.”

“Such a scandal, but they brought it upon themselves. They’ll have to sell this house, you know. I should look for other arrangements I suppose, but at my age ...” Nelly mindlessly stirred her coffee several times before resting the spoon on her napkin and taking a sip. “At least Allison came out on top. Goodness knows she deserves compensation for all she had to put up from the ungrateful brutes. In fact, I heard she’s moving to St. Tropez.”

“France?” The image of her that evening in her home, sitting across from him with the fire casting a glow on her face invaded his thoughts with uncanny clarity. He had suspected Allison Pike just as he had the others. That was his job, but as evidence diminished and leads went cold, it became clear that Allison had been caught in the middle of an ugly family feud and was innocent of any wrong doing. He’d talked with her several times since, and although he had kept a professional distance, Allison had slowly haunted his thoughts. “When is she leaving?”

“Today. Her flight leaves at five.”

He glanced at his watch. It was ten after two. He quickly dismissed any thoughts of regret. “Mrs. Blount, when you called, you said you had something to show me.”

“Yes, I’m so ashamed. I haven’t been able to stop going over every minute of that day in my mind. The thing is, Mrs. McGuire was perfectly fine in the morning. She had been up and around, I should have—”


“That week Allison informed me that Mrs. McGuire requested to take all her meals in her room. I never questioned Mrs. McGuire’s request and did as I was instructed to do.”

“Did you question Allison?”

“Why should I have?” she asked as she twisted her napkin. “She and I always got along. After all, we were both in Mrs. McGuire’s employ. Yes, the request seemed strange to me but it wasn't the first odd thing Mrs. McGuired had asked for in my years here. If you want to know the truth, I was glad to have someone help out a bit for a change. No more running up and down the stairs every time Mrs. McGuire yelled for something. Hours before she died, Allison stepped out of the house for a bit."
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know, but when she returned, she went straight upstairs to her private own room. Not long after that, she was busy fetching the meal I had prepared for Mrs. McGuire. No, Detective, Allison took over much of Mrs. McGuire’s care which was just fine with me.”

Harper lowered his glance to the napkin Mrs. Blount had managed to shred into thirds. “What’s bothering you?”

Nelly paused for a moment. “Two days before she died, Mrs. McGuire got it into her head that she wanted a large bouquet of tulips in her room. I couldn't be sure, but is sounded as if she and Allison were disputing something. Their voices carried down here to the main floor. A minute later, Alli ran out the front door. I assumed it was to buy the tulips. I then went upstairs to tidy Mrs. McGuire’s suite and noticed she was standing at the bedroom window that overlooks the driveway. After a moment, Mrs. McGuire handed me this.” Nelly smoothed the creased corners of the sealed envelope she took from her pocket. “I feel horrible about it. I was supposed to mail it for her. Instead, I slipped the envelope into the pocket of this cardigan while I finished with her room. After that, I got busy with other things and completely forgot about it until today when I put the sweater on again. I thought it would raise suspicion to mail it after her death. That's why I called you.”

Harper rubbed a thumb over the surface and felt three small, round, hard objects inside the envelope addressed in Catherine McGuire’s handwriting to her attorney Jacob Stanley. He ripped it open, took out the note leaving the three items inside. He read it, returned the page to the envelope then slipped it into his breast pocket. “Thank you, Mrs. Blount.”

“Well, what did she write in the note? Is it important?”

“You did the right thing in calling me. I’ll take care of it.” Harper drained the last of his coffee and glanced out toward the terrace as he slipped on his coat. “Did you say, tulips?”

“Yes, why?”

“They’re out of season. No shop would have them in stock this time of year.”

“I know.” Nelly rolled her eyes. “All I can say is, Mrs. McGuire was a bit eccentric at times and when she got into one of her moods, you didn’t ask why.” Nelly raised a hand to her lips and frowned. “If you ask me though, she didn’t want flowers at all.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Allison bought her two dozen beautiful red roses instead, but Mrs. McGuire didn’t react to them one way or another. I suppose the reason the whole incident stayed with me is because Mrs. McGuire was never one to have fresh cut flowers around. Sometimes she was a horrible person to please.”

Harper was back in his car, siren on, racing toward town and waiting for the medical examiner to answer his phone.

“Jack, it’s me,” Harper said. “I have new evidence in the Catherine McGuire case. I need some answers and fast.”


“Why would Mrs. McGuire write to her attorney about grapefruit seeds?”

Harper recognized the silence on the other end of the line and knew he hit on something that had rendered the medical examiner speechless. “Jack, are you with me?”

“Jesus, Harp. Damn, it makes perfect sense now.”

* * *

Three o’clock and the only things on Harper’s mind were Allison Pike and her five o’clock flight to France. He nosed his Jeep into the driveway behind her BMW then ran to knock on her door. “Allison. It’s Sam Harper.” He waited a second or two then knocked again. This time, he hammered the door with his fist. “Come on, Allison, open up!”

Allison cracked open the door. The surprise in her eyes faded into contempt as she motioned for him to come in.

"Harper, this isn’t a good time.”

“Is it ever? We need to talk.” He stepped into the living room and glanced at the five pieces of luggage on floor. “Going somewhere?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’m really in a hurry. My flight—”

“This won’t take long. Why don't you sit down?"

"I'd rather not."

"All right. There's a small detail about the case that's been nagging at me from the very beginning.”

“I thought we were done with it?”

“You told me you met Catherine McGuire at an art gallery and it was only after you two became friends that she hired you as her assistant.”

“That’s right, what of it?”

“Throughout the investigation I heard comments about Mrs. McGuire’s strong character. She was a woman who knew her mind—followed her own instincts, never took anyone’s word for anything.”

“That pretty much sums her up.”

“Then why did you give her a list of references?”

“Excuse me?” Allison feigned a smile but couldn’t disguise the uneasiness that had flashed across her face. “What difference does it make now?”

“If she trusted you as a friend why did she need references? Wouldn’t she have known if you were right for the job?”

“She asked for them.” Allison took a step back.

“I don’t think so. No more than it was her idea to cut the family out of her will. What kind of game were you playing, Alli?”

“You’re out of your mind.”


“Check the records, Detective. The case was closed two weeks ago. You’ve had your fun, now leave.”

“No one’s going anywhere except for your art gallery pal. He’s at police headquarters right now having a chat with my partner. I heard he’s cooperating and talking about the scam you two had going.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Sure about that?” he asked. “Your friend was the one with connections, wasn’t he? He knew the widows who frequently visited the gallery and introduced you to them one by one. Am I close?”


“You gained their trust, stole them blind, and split the sum with your pal. By the way, does he know you’re leaving town with the McGuire fortune?”

“Talk all you want, Harper. I’m not listening to this nonsense.” A nervous laugh deceived her attempt to blow him off.

“The problem is, you found out too late that Catherine McGuire was as shrewd as you are. It wasn’t enough that she was paying you well, you got greedy. That's when you convinced her the family didn’t care and talked her into cutting them out of the will.”

“No. It wasn’t like that. I had no idea that—”

“How exactly was it then? Jacob Stanley knew her a hell of a lot longer than you and your story doesn't match his. According to Stanley, Mrs. McGuire knew what her children were like but loved them unconditionally."

She took another step back without taking him out of her sight.

"I’m thinking that somewhere along the way she must have realized you couldn’t be trusted," he said. "What’d you do, let it slip that it was you who wouldn’t let the McGuires get near to her?”

“They didn’t care about her.”

“I imagine Catherine threatened to report you. Is that what turned things around? The fact that her resistance didn’t quite fit into your plans so you decided it was time to end things.”

“No. It’s not true.” Allison’s eyes widen as she turned her head to the sound of siren approaching her home. “I couldn’t. I never—”

“Mrs. McGuire wasn’t bedridden, so why did you tell the housekeeper that Catherine wanted her meals taken to her room?”

“She ordered it.”

“I'm willing to bet Catherine McGuire was held prisoner in her own home to buy you some time knowing that Nelly would never question your authority.”

“I’m calling my attorney.”

“In your own words, your interests are varied. Diverse enough to know that traces of poisons can be found in an autopsy. Was that an added insurance clause in the will in case you had to resort to it?” Harper reached for the handcuffs. “But you didn’t need it because you knew grapefruit consumed in any form would conflict with Catherine’s high blood pressure medication. It elevated the amount of medication in her system and consequently lowered her blood pressure to dangerous levels without a trace of what caused it. The question is, how did you do it? Mixed it in with her other juices to disguise the taste? Hell you could have bought extract and gotten away with it. But in your rush, you got sloppy. All you wanted to do was make certain Mrs. McGuire got it down before she realized that she had taken it.”

As Harper slipped the handcuffs over her wrists and read Allison her rights, the scent of her perfume sickened him as much as the thought of how easily he could have fallen for her.

“You can’t prove any of this.” Hate mixed with tears welled in her eyes.

“Want to know what Catherine McGuire did the day she sent you off on a wild goose chase after tulips?”

“I couldn’t care less.”

“You should,” he said. “She was desperate to get you out of the house. She left two phone messages for her attorney. When he didn’t answer right away, she wrote him a letter.” Harper reached into his coat pocket and shook the envelope Nelly Blount had given to him the hour before. “This one. Accusing you of her murder. Catherine McGuire had you pegged, Allison, and it’s all right here dated, signed and sealed in her handwriting.”

“For God’s sakes, if she felt threatened, why didn’t she call the police? See, she didn’t know what she was doing. Why do you think she needed a guardian? Her own children wanted nothing to do with her. She needed me--me!”

Harper tipped the content of the envelope onto the palm of his hand and let Allison see the three grapefruit seeds Catherine had saved with the intent of sending them to Jacob Stanley. “You must have been in a hell of a hurry to not strain the seeds."

She didn't respond.

"Wealth doesn’t diminish the insecurity brought on by age. She was scared to death of you—you—the only person she accuses in her note. Last thing she wrote is, ‘If anything happens to me, give the seeds to my doctor, he’ll know.’”

"Listen to you," she said. "You're making this up as you go. That doesn't prove a thing. I’ll fight this, you know.”

He took her by the arm and handed her to the uniformed officers.

"Harper? Do you hear me?"

“Your greed blurred that fine line between right and wrong, Alli. How many more of these cases am I going to find in your past?”

Again, she didn’t respond. Why would she? Harper could see the calculated cold indifference in her eyes. There was nothing more to say.

The End


  1. Great blog and great short story, Marta. I like the way you spotted the photos down through the story.

  2. Whoa! I sure never saw that coming. This was fantastic. Can't wait to get into your next case!

  3. Hey Chester. Some case, huh? Stop by again. I never know where the next case will take me.

    JF, I never know where the evidence is going to point. Alli's the worse kind of killer; you don’t see her kind coming. Face like an angel, chill water running through her veins. Lucky for me she got sloppy.


    PS: Have your read about my other two cases? Silenced Cry and The Devil Can Wait? They both got some pretty good press.