Friday, January 9, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets ~ Part I

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Read Parts II, III, & IV

Did Someone Say, Murder?

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--”

“Evelyn Gunter?”

“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.”

“For instance?”

“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.”

To be continued ...
Part II on Friday, January 16, 2009

* * *
About the author: Marta Stephens is the author of the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series published by BeWrite Books (UK)
SILENCED CRY (2007), Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)


  1. Marta --

    This is great -- so much fun to read in serial format!

  2. Excellent! I love the description of the house--a perfect place for a murder (or not). Keep up the great detective work Sam!


  3. Thanks, ladies. Never know what I'm going to walk into on a case. This one sounds like a walk on eggs. I'll keep you posted on what gives after I talk with the family.


  4. Hi Sam! Just wanted to let you know I stopped by!

  5. Sam, just wanted you to know there are men who read your blog, too. It's not all about those adoring women. LOL! Hey, Gus said to tell you hurry up and solve this crime so you can come back to Upstate New York and figure out what happened to that poor little girl at Silver Lake. Nobody around here seems to have the slightest idea, and the cops are stumped.

  6. Hey, Lazar. How's it going? Haven't heard from you in a while. And How's Gus? Bet he's keeping that fireplace going these days. Tell him the case he's asked about is still on the back burner but hasn't fallen off yet. I'm still collecting evidence, but it is a cold one, so until we rid the streets for new crime, any work I do on it, will be on my time.

    You know how the brass is. Jump when they yell but no guarantees of anything.

    Take care and thanks for stopping by.


  7. Sam, I love this one. I'm no relation to the nurse in Misery, but I do remember the chapter plays from my childhood. Nothing better than a superior beginning to a story then...? Come back for more.

    Oh, yeah. I'll be back!

  8. JF, I'm glad you're here. Even better that you're coming back. Bring a friend or two next time.

    Catch you later,

  9. Hello Detective Harper,
    Do you remember the fictional TV detective simply named "Columbo", a fully realized character played by actor Peter Falk? One of the things that made him so interesting is that Columbo sensed who the killer was at the start of each case and then incrementally uncovered the evidence to nab him. Does some thing like that ever happen to you? Do you ever sniff out the rat right from the get-go and then chip away at his confidence until he ultimately gives himself away?
    Your fan, Harry Hughes, author of THE BAIT SHACK

  10. Yeah, I remember Columbo. Also liked Hammer and Spade to name a few.

    But to answer your question, let's not forget that Columbo only had an hour to solve his case and a room full of clever writers to make him look smart. One thing for sure, he was observant and in this business, that's what it takes. You have to be sharp. I've been known to crack a few cases myself, you know.

    The thing is, if he had the killer pegged within the first ten minutes of the show, it was always because the suspect slipped up. Columbo saw it and then started to play that great cat and mouse game for the usual wow finish.

    Catch you later,