Sunday, February 7, 2016

Upland Hall by Margaret Karmazin

A society widow becomes a private detective and takes on a locked room murder mystery; by Margaret Karmazin.

Back in the day, I longed to become a policewoman, but girls from my social class did not do such things. Instead, it was off to Bryn Mawr for a degree in psychology and then straight down the aisle with Winfield Caldwell III and on to raising a family. But throughout the diapers, scout troops and racket of teenage-hood, I devoured a zillion who-done-its and in my secret mind, I was always a detective.

When poor Win died in a freak accident while riding his bicycle to a nearby park, he left me alone in our ridiculously oversized home outside of Philadelphia. The kids, only one left in college and the rest out in the world, did not approve when I sold the house, held a grand auction, and moved into a condo in central Bucks County. After I established myself in the area, joining a few clubs to meet people, I dared let it be known that I was "sort of" a private detective.

"Mummy has gone off her rocker," William, my oldest, told my daughter Shelby, while (all this came to my ear eventually) my younger son Christopher defended me. "She has suffered the loss of her husband, you idiots," I'm told he retorted. "Give her a break. She needs distractions while she gets her shit together."

He had always been my champion and while I would never admit this out loud, I love him the most.

Eventually, someone from my garden club approached me with a small job: to find her stolen Bichon Frise. The police, busy with more important things, had apparently put the search on hold or tossed the paperwork into the circular file. It didn't take me long to solve the case and the lady did not like the answer: her son had sold the dog to support his drug habit. My next few cases involved small burglaries and turned up the usual culprits: cleaning women, babysitters, and in one case the next-door neighbor. For all of these, I charged for expenses only. I was enjoying myself but hankering for something juicier.

Then a woman named Sandra Merrick called for an appointment. We had tea in my study and her hands shook while she accepted her cup. "I hear that you're pretty good," she said.

"I don't know about that," I replied, but of course I hoped.

"They call it a 'cold case,'" she said. "My darling has been dead for over two years and apparently, they've given up on it. I've been paying taxes for decades and this is what I get? You can bet everything that if my Vanessa had been the police chief's daughter, they wouldn't have eaten or slept till they found the monster who did it."

She sounded as if the amount of energy it took to say the angry words didn't leave her any to actually feel anything. Since I didn't know anyone in the police department yet, I couldn't comment on its degree of laziness or incompetence.

"Tell me what happened to your daughter," I said.

She took a deep breath. "She was thirty years old, single, and had an apartment in Upland Hall. We felt she was lucky to get it - the waiting list was long, but my sister knew someone. Upland Hall was once the home of the Rushes, an old family around here; made their money in manufacturing small engines, I don't remember what kind exactly. Later the home was turned into a private school and after that, apartments. Vanessa had lived there about eight months when she was murdered." Sandra stopped to regain her composure.

"How did it happen?"

"She was shot in the back of the head inside her apartment on a Thursday afternoon, sometime between five and six PM. The coroner narrowed the time down. It was September 20, 2012. The thing was, everything was locked - windows, doors, everything. There was no way in unless she let someone in, but then how would they have gotten out and bolted the door from the inside? The police combed the entire apartment and found nothing. No dumb waiters, no trap doors under the rugs, no way into vents or anything. The ceilings are plastered and high. There's a fireplace but it's been closed in. The next-door neighbors were away on business and had solid alibis; same with the other tenants. No one saw anyone strange go in or out, though it must be said that everyone was out for the day except for one old lady and, at the time, she was napping.

"Inside the apartment, there were no clues. The gun used was a .22 caliber pistol; that was all they knew. At least she died instantly."

"So what you're saying," I said, "is that the police gave up trying to figure out how the murderer, whoever that may be, got into the apartment?"

She nodded, while fixing me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. "No suspects," she said.

"What about motive? Did anyone have one? Did everyone she knew have an alibi?"

"Everyone seemed to have an alibi. And as far as the investigators could see, no one had a motive."

"I hate to ask, but was she sexually violated?"

"No, nothing of that sort."

"Had she fought off her attacker?"

"No, apparently she was taken by surprise," she said.

"I need to see the files on this case. Can that be arranged?"

"I can tell the police that I've hired you. Do you know anyone on the force?"

I racked my brains. "No, but I play bridge with the DA's wife. You try at your end and I'll see what I can do. Can you give me the names of her good friends and work information?"

She pulled a folded piece of paper from her handbag and handed it to me. "She had two very close friends. All the information is on here."

"Did she have a boyfriend or romantic interest?"

"She wasn't seeing anyone at the time, that I know of," said Sandra, "other than an online thing, but the police checked that."

"Are you licensed?" She suddenly asked and I had to admit that I wasn't.

This frightened me. I had looked into becoming licensed, but there was no way I could meet the requirements. How to get around this? "Suppose I tell the DA's wife that I'm writing a freelance article on the case. You tell the cops the same thing. Therefore, I'm a reporter of sorts."

"Might work," said Sandra.

"Do I have your permission to suggest that I'm writing the article at your request?"

"Do whatever you have to," she said. I stood up, anxious for her to leave so I could set to work.

Diane Burdock, the DA's wife, said why not track down the detectives who worked on the case and see if they'll talk? One refused, but the other was willing. One evening at a local tavern, over drinks, he told me everything he could. I wrote it all down and promised him I'd share anything new I could find. Detective Doug Granger was around my age and appeared to be a kind, easygoing man who wanted the case solved as much as Sandra did.

Though Doug had given me information about Vanessa's two good friends and the people she'd worked with, I needed to meet them myself. Clark-Legere Insurance was owned by Miles Legere and Austin Clark and located on the main street. Mr. Clark was a silent partner; Mr. Legere ran the place. Vanessa had been one of the agents. I walked in at two in the afternoon.

Through a glass partition, I saw who I assumed was Miles Legere. He looked to be in his late forties with neatly trimmed brown hair and impeccable clothes. Preppy, you would say, though his tie showed fashion flair. He was of medium height and slender. My notes told me that he was married, but that his wife lived on St. Croix. He had no children.

A young woman sat in the front office talking on a cellphone and a man, probably in his thirties, was deeply involved with his computer. Neither seemed to notice me, but a middle aged woman appeared through a doorway and welcomed me.

"Good afternoon. I'm Marge Wiley, office manager. Can I help you?"

Her expression subtly changed when I told her what I wanted.

"At the request of Vanessa's mother, I'm writing an article about the case," I said. "I wonder if Mr. Legere and others here might talk to me a bit."

Marge made an effort to look sympathetic. "Well, Jason over there wasn't hired until Vanessa was gone. He took her place, in fact. Bill Hoover left a few months after Vanessa's death and moved to another office in Harrisburg. At the time of the murder, he was here in the office seeing a client. Emily there was here at the time also. I was at the dentist having a root canal and Mr. Legere was with a client at her home in Doylestown."

"Could I have a word with Mr. Legere, please?"

Hesitating, she glanced at his office then back at me. She exhibited a firm, protective stance and I immediately thought she's in love with him.

"Let me ask," she said.

Legere was finishing up a sandwich when I entered his office and he wrapped up the bits that were left and tossed them into his paper-basket. "Have a seat," he said, motioning toward one of the two chairs facing his desk. For a moment, I felt a terrible stab to my stomach, remembering the last time Win and I had seen our own insurance agent and had sat just like that, next to each other, facing the man.

"Something wrong?" said Legere and I told him what I'd been thinking.

"Sorry for your loss," he said and I could see the wheels turning in his head - a potential customer here, but I said, "Thank you," with a firm tone and that was that.

"Marge said you have some questions about poor Vanessa?"

"You were close to her?" I asked.

"She was my employee," said Legere.

"You weren't friends?"

He hesitated before replying. "We occasionally socialized. Friends of a sort, I suppose. Once in a while we'd go out for dinner."

"You're married, is that correct, Mr. Legere?"

"Technically I'm married, though I haven't laid eyes on my wife since, let me see... Christmas five years ago. She came up from St. Croix to visit her brother and we met for coffee. We get along quite well, as long as we're not under the same roof." He laughed.

"Why haven't you obtained a divorce?" I asked.

It was clear by his expression that he considered this none of my business, but he answered. "No real need. Neither of us is interested in remarrying. My wife is Catholic and would prefer not to add divorce to her other sins." Again he chuckled. "And for me, it gives me protection against unwanted pressure."

"When was the last time you saw Vanessa?" I asked.

"I saw her at work the day she died."

"And then you went out for the afternoon?"

"I had a long, late afternoon session with a client. Sweet old lady, we've known each other for years."

"Could I have her name?"

"I can't divulge the names of my clients," said Miles. "To the police, I had to, but you're not police."

Of course he was right and I didn't tell him that I already had the name of the client. What I'd really wanted was just to observe him as he spoke.

As I stood up, I said, "Did you consider Vanessa attractive?"

The question caught him off guard and he frowned. "Sh-she was attractive, yes. Not my physical type, but I could see that some men would find her pleasing." He paused. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work."

I thanked him and left.

Checking the contacts list I'd received from Granger, I called and made appointments with Vanessa's two best friends.

The first was Suzi Wilkes, married now and with a baby on the way. We perched on bar stools at her kitchen counter and sipped fruit smoothies. "Delicious," I said. "Well, you know why I'm here, so let's dig in. Did Vanessa have relationships with any men? The police seemed to think not, other than one online thing, but the man lives in Fort Lauderdale and had an airtight alibi."

Suzi looked down. "Yeah, the online guy. He weighed at least three hundred and fifty pounds and was unemployed." She laughed ruefully.

"You didn't approve."

"There were intelligent, active men right here asking her out, men of a healthy size. I introduced her to a few of our unattached friends, but she never bit on it. She was an attractive woman. I never understood why she didn't seem to want a normal relationship."

"Did she ever physically meet the online man?"

"Once. She went down to Florida a couple of weeks before her death. She seemed to like him, though not much happened after that. They just kept in contact by email and phone."

"Did anyone hate her?"

Suzi looked surprised. "Not that I know of. She was very quiet, not the sort of person that would rile up people. I can't imagine anyone having strong, negative feelings about her."

"How did she get along with her boss?"

"All right, I guess. They socialized occasionally." Suzi hesitated.

"Yes?" I prompted.

"Sometimes he made her feel funny."

"How do you mean?"

"I don't know, maybe once in a while, he seemed too interested in her life? Considering that they didn't have anything going. Of course, even if he had come on to her, she wouldn't have considered seeing him. Not as long as he stayed technically married."

"Was she attracted to him?"

"She admired him, but didn't find him sexually appealing. But then Vanessa didn't seem to find many men appealing that way. I'm not implying that she liked women instead, but maybe she just didn't have much of a sex drive. There are people who are asexual - I saw a documentary on it."

"Did you tell the police about this?"

"About my thinking she was asexual?"

"No," I said. "About her feeling a little creepy about her boss."

She was silent for a moment. "No. They didn't ask anything that even made me think about it. They wanted to know if the two of them had a sexual or romantic relationship and I told them no."

"You don't know of any old boyfriends suddenly showing up?"

"She only had one serious boyfriend in her life and he's married now with kids and lives in Seattle. She hadn't seen or talked to him for years."

Vanessa's other BFF lived in New Hope, so I made a day of it, checking out the funky shops and having a fantastic lunch at Mother's Restaurant. After scoring a gorgeous hand-hooked rug, I located the little clapboard house of Pamela Watts. It was painted lavender with burgundy trim and had a tiny, flower filled front yard.

"A fairy tale house," I remarked as Pamela let me in.

She smiled. "Tea?" she offered.

As we sipped, not wanting to influence her answers by explaining what Suzi had said before her, I
simply asked about Vanessa's love life.

She shook her head. "I never understood Vanessa's taste in men. In addition, Vanessa wasn't the sort you could ask direct questions - certainly not about sex. There was something about her that made people behave discreetly. Me, they ask anything!" She laughed.

"Do you know if anyone was interested in her? Did she ever mention that she thought someone might be?"

Pamela shook her head. "She did go out occasionally with her boss. Just for dinner. I think he came to her apartment a few times to help her fix stuff. Sometimes the landlord didn't take care of problems immediately and Vanessa liked things to be perfect."

"Do you think she had romantic feelings for him? Did he for her?"

Pamela shrugged. "She thought about it once that I know of, but apparently decided against the idea. She did say that sometimes she felt he was a bit smothering. But I believe that she did enjoy him in a platonic way."

"Were there any women you know of who might have been angry toward her? Anyone who hated her?"

Pamela shook her head. "God no. Vanessa didn't inspire strong feelings like that. She was very low key and conventional."

Aside from what the two young women said, I had a gut feeling about Miles Legere. The thing to do was check out his alibi. I had the name and address of the client he claimed to have been with while the murder took place, thanks to Doug Granger, and immediately drove to her house.

A woman in her late seventies answered the door. Surely this was not the client. Anyone that age wanting life insurance would be paying through the roof. But yes, Lauretta Marsh was the client.

"Oh, the insurance isn't for me," she said. "It's for my son-in-law."

"Your son-in-law?"

I followed her to the kitchen where she poured me a cup of coffee. We sat down at the large oak table. "My daughter's first husband got killed in a motorcycle accident a year after they married. He left her pregnant with twins. Her second husband was a Marine and died in the Gulf War leaving her now with three kids to raise. When she married her third husband, Mark, I decided I'd had enough and with his permission, took out a life insurance policy on him. I keep the policy up to date and in addition make sure Mark stays fit. I buy him a gym membership every Christmas!"

"Now that is taking good care of your daughter," I said, laughing. I glanced around the kitchen, a cozy place with yellow walls and blue bottles glinting on the windowsills. "Is this where Mr. Legere sat with you when he went over your policy? The afternoon of Vanessa Merrick's murder?"

Since I had explained why I was there when she first opened the door, my question did not startle her. "Why, yes, this is where we sat. I remember I'd made a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls and even though it might spoil his supper, he enjoyed two of them." She smiled.

I looked up at the fascinating cuckoo clock on her wall. It was obviously German with all the accouterments, doors to open and shut, probably little people that would pop out. "Fascinating clock," I said. I checked my watch. The times did not match. "Is it broken?"

She set a plate of scones on the table, followed by a blue butter dish. "It's very exact, as long as I remember to wind it."

"You don't always remember to wind it?" I said.

"Well, I make the effort but occasionally I forget. My late husband brought it home from the Black Forest when he went to school in Feldberg. He spoke German perfectly and taught it at Bucks County Community College."

"So when you told the police that when you checked the time after Mr. Legere left, you're not positive that the kitchen clock was wound?"

She sniffed. "Well, I haven't entirely lost my mind yet, but I suppose there is the possibility that it had stopped and I didn't think about it. I don't pay much attention to time around here. I remember he did arrive on time because he mentioned it - he said something like, 'Well, in spite of that traffic, I got here on time.' Does it really matter? Mr. Legere is a nice man; I've known him for years. There isn't a chance he could be a murderer. He goes to my church every Sunday."

Hadn't the police seriously questioned this? Or had they just taken Mrs. Marsh's word for his being there between four and six-thirty? But then if I had not sat down to have coffee, I would never have noticed the cuckoo clock's imperfections. "When the police interviewed you, was it in the kitchen here?" I asked her.

"Oh no. We sat in the living room. One of the detectives was admiring my foot stool in there and said he ought to get himself one."

"Thank you, Mrs. Marsh," I said.

Supposing Legere was the murderer, and of course I had no real proof he was, the question remained as to how he had gotten into Vanessa's apartment, shot her and then left while leaving everything locked from the inside. Until I could connect Legere to some way of getting in there and out, I had nothing.

As for his motive, I had an idea, but nothing to back it up. Somehow I could picture his office manager Marge helping to stir up trouble between him and Vanessa, but again, this was wild speculation.

It was my turn to host Bridge club and Diane was first to arrive (I seemed to always tack "the DA's wife" after her name in my mind). I liked her and hoped we would end up being good friends, though she was at least ten years younger and probably considered me an old coot. "How's your research going?" she asked.

"Not terrible, not wonderful," I said. "I need to tie up some ends. Do you know anyone who could give me detailed history on Upland Hall, like where the victim's apartment was in relation to how things used to be?"

Diane thought a moment. I hoped no one arrived until we finished talking, but the other two had driven together and rapped on the door. After I let them in, Diane laid a card on the counter by my purse and car keys. "I wrote it down," she said. "My mother is friends with Mary Wilder who used to teach English at Upland Academy before they turned it into apartments. She was there for years and is also an officer in the historical society, so if anyone knows the ins and outs of the place, it would be her."

Though I adore bridge, I have to say that this particular day I couldn't wait for it to be over so I could call Mary Wilder. We set an appointment for the following day.

"I was born in 1942," she told me, "so I was living while the Rush family still occupied the mansion, though by that time the only ones left were Mr. Rush and one of his sisters. I believe at the time, they were both in their early eighties. It was becoming too much for them but even so, they didn't sell until 1948. It wasn't easy to find a buyer for such a monstrosity. You can imagine the upkeep. The conglomerate that bought it took five more years to raise the necessary funds to open Upland Academy in 1953. I began teaching there in 1970 and stayed until the school closed in 1986. It was a blow when they closed down but fortunately I found another position at Solebury where I stayed till retirement."

"When did they turn the building into apartments?" I asked.

"Another group bought the building in 1989, remodeled and opened it for rentals in 1992, bringing back the original name of Upland Hall."

"I'm going to cut to the chase, Ms. Wilder." I explained the mystery of how the murderer could have gotten in and out of Vanessa's flat and asked if she could imagine any way of doing that.

She laughed, shook her head and laughed some more. "You know," she said, "in the old days, the moneyed families enjoyed a different moral code than us plebeians. While the middle and working class did their utmost to appear proper, the rich did as they pleased. Many upper-crust married couples carried on affairs, either the man or the woman or both, and often one spouse would politely turn the other way while things went on."

"I've read about that," I commented, eagerly leaning forward. We were sitting in her cozy den where she must spend most of her evenings.

"Well," Ms. Wilder went on, "when guests were coming for the weekend or an extended stay, the hostess would often place them in convenient proximity for their affairs. For instance, if Mr. Smith was carrying on with Mrs. Jones, everyone knew it and if Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones were either not in attendance that particular weekend or clearly did not care what was going on, the Smiths would be situated next to the Joneses and there would be a means for the two to transverse the divider between the two suites."

"You mean a secret door or something?" I asked, now growing excited. "But wouldn't the one notice the other one leaving their bedroom?"

"The rich, my dear, usually did not sleep in the same bedroom as their spouses. Possibly when newly married, but soon each would have his or her own room and I suppose that occasionally they visited each other since children did keep appearing."

"So you're saying that the Rushes had bedroom suites for visiting couples and each contained more than one bedroom?"

"Not every guest was given a suite; some just one bedroom. If I remember correctly, the mansion had four of these double room suites and several regular bedrooms. All of them had adjoining baths, some larger than others. The poor servants, however, had to make do with one bath for women and one for the men."

She smiled and looked off into the distance. "I imagine that there were secret ways of moving from one suite or, in some cases, between single rooms."

"But," I said, "the police checked Vanessa's apartment from top to bottom and found nothing of the sort."

"You have to know where to look," she said. "You have to know how they did it in those days. And you might need to have attended Upland Academy as a student and enjoyed the run of the place. Children adore finding secret panels and they pass down the knowledge to those succeeding them."

I sat up straight, suddenly alert. "Let me ask you something. Do you happen to know if Miles Legere was a student at Upland Academy?"

She was silent for a moment. "There was a boy there by that name, yes. I didn't have him in my class, but my fellow English instructor, Brian Heron did. He was a small boy, a little underdeveloped, but later he caught up. Nothing stands out about him in my memory other than that and he was good at math."

"Ah," I said. Long pause while I did a major jig in my head. Then I said, "Would you know of anyone who was a student there, other than Miles Legere, that I could talk to? Maybe an adventurous type who probably did know those secret passages?"

Ms. Wilder laughed. "Well, my niece, Jennifer, was a holy terror back in the day. It was only out of respect for me that the Headmaster didn't expel her. If anyone would know the ins and outs of the place it would be Jennifer. And be warned: she is still as naughty now as she was then!"

Jennifer Umstead looked the athletic type and was still dressed in her tennis whites when I arrived at her spacious Colonial outside of Newtown. Her dancing eyes seemed to back up what her aunt had said about her.

"Aunt Mary told me what you're after. Is there a particular area of the place you're wondering about? I remember six secret passages, so do you want to narrow it down?"

"Well, they have made the place into apartments," I said, "so it's hard to tell what they kept or took out. The apartment in question is on the upper west end of the building and at the back, facing south."

"Ah," said Jennifer. "That section was the girls' dorm when I was there; they may have changed that later. They kept the suites as they were, just put in bunk beds and placed four kids into the double room suites and two into each single bedroom. I know that one of the closets in the double girls' suite at the end of the building had a secret door into the closet of the suite next door. We were always partying in there and if the housemother came in all indignant, we visitors slipped into the suite next door to escape."

"One of the closets, you say?" I blurted.

Jennifer laughed, obviously remembering amusing times. "Yeah, it was kind of amazing. It was a skinny, sliding door in the back of the closet between the two smaller bedrooms in the suites. Just part of the wall, you would never normally notice. There was a little button hidden in the woodwork back under a shelf, and if you pressed it hard, it released the door."

After leaving Jennifer's lovely home, I called Doug Granger. The detective met me at the same tavern as before, only this time we had dinner. "Have I got some news for you," I'd told him on the phone, and now I shared it.

He sipped his Manhattan and slowly smiled. "Interesting," he said.

As I tested my martini, I told him about Miles Legere having attended Upland Academy.

"He had an alibi, the old lady."

I filled him in on Mrs. Marsh's clock and her prejudice in favor of Legere.

"Hmmm," he said. "I am not sure how we missed this. Never saw the damned cuckoo clock."

The waiter arrived and we ordered.

"What would be Legere's motive?" he asked.

"Not sure. I'm thinking that his interest in Vanessa was definitely not platonic. I am also thinking that Marge, the office manager is in love with him. There could be something there."

"You think she could be the killer?"

"I hadn't thought of that," I said. "Does she own a gun? Does Legere own a gun?"

"We checked everyone we knew of who knew her for registered guns and came up empty, though of course anyone can have an unregistered gun. It's not so common in this neck of the woods but in other parts of Pennsylvania, very. We didn't have warrants to check Legere's home, nor that of Marge Wiley. No strong call to get them."

"Okay," I said. "My next task is to find out how either of those two might have had access to the apartment next door to Vanessa's."

"I'm getting a divorce," Doug blurted out of nowhere. "We've been separated for almost two years and I think it's time." He looked at me uncertainly.

Until that point, I had not thought of him as anything but a kind and helpful acquaintance, but now he'd tossed a screw into the works. But the way he looked at me made something stir inside me that I hadn't felt since Win died. How had I missed noticing until now that firm jawline and those mischievous brown eyes?

"Probably a good idea," I finally replied. "Though getting over a long relationship takes time." I fixed him with my own intense look and, being the detective he was, he understood my hesitation. And, being the gentleman he obviously was, he cordially continued our meal as if nothing had been said.

Vanessa's old apartment was now rented to Richard Fleece who ran a florist shop. I visited Mayflower's the next day and was fortunate to find the owner in a temporary lull while waiting for a delivery. He motioned for me to follow him to the back of the store where he'd been working on his books.

"Don't think it doesn't bother me that a murder took place in my apartment," he said. "I keep waiting for her ghost to appear at the end of my bed, but so far nothing. They did come down in the rent because of the disclosure thing. I don't expect that to last forever, but right now it's a favor to my budget."

I liked Richard immediately - one of those things where you feel like you already know the person somehow. I could picture the two of us gossiping madly over lunch. I explained why I was asking for information and brought up his next-door neighbor.

"The Jamisons? They've lived there for years and are away a lot. They have an import/export business and do a lot of traveling to Asia. They invited me to a cocktail party once."

"Would you happen to remember if someone named Miles Legere or Marge Wiley was there?"

"Oh," he said, shaking his head, "I wouldn't remember who was there, it was a couple of years ago. Wait. I know who Miles Legere is. He runs the insurance place on Main. He's in the Chamber of Commerce."

"Was he at the party? Can you rack your brains?"

"You know, now that you mention it, he was. I seem to remember him talking about that bypass they wanted to build here. He was very much against it, bad for business."

"Do you think the Jamisons would talk to me?"

"Worth a try," said Richard. "Would you like me to try and set you up? Frankly, I never liked it that this case was left unsolved. Suppose the murderer comes back for whoever's in that apartment?"

"I really don't think you need to worry about that, Richard," I said. "But if you would set me up with your neighbors, I would be most grateful." I handed him my card.

The meeting had to wait another week until the couple returned from Bali. I arrived at five in the afternoon and was offered a drink, so I opted for my usual, a vodka martini, which Greg Jamison expertly mixed.

"Are you close friends with Miles Legere?" I asked.

"I wouldn't say 'close,'" said Leigh Jamison, "but we know each other. He's been here for parties."

"You've known him a long time?" Damn, that martini was good.

"A few years, yes," she said. She smiled at her husband. "Thanks to Miles, we have the best cleaning woman around. He's the one who hooked us up."

My ears perked up. "Cleaning woman?"

"Yes," said Leigh. "We had to let our old one go since she developed sticky fingers, and we were desperate. Neither one of us has time to clean. So Miles said his had an opening and that was that. She's just wonderful."

It took some persuasion to get the woman's name out of them since like most people with a good cleaning person, they feared I would lure her away, but I explained that I merely wanted to talk with her about the case. They couldn't understand why and I didn't want to explain. "She might have been in the building when something related to the murder happened," I blithered and eventually they gave way. I couldn't really warm up to the Jamisons and was glad when the interview was over.

Lena Dubrowski was about my age and attractive. Apparently all that bending and scrubbing was good for the figure. She lived with her husband who was currently out of work and annoyingly present. He kept putting his two cents in from the living room while we tried to talk in the kitchen.

"I clean once a week for Mr. Legere," she said. "Once in a while I also cook some things for him. He likes Eastern European food and I make him certain dishes. He lets me use his kitchen for that."

I cut to the chase. "Is there any possible way he would have access to the Jamisons' apartment while they're away?"

She looked surprised. "I can't imagine how or why he would want to."

"How do you get in when they're not there?"

"I have a key," she said.

"Do you have keys to all your client's homes?"

"All except one. She's always home when I'm there."

"Lena," I said, "I want you to think hard about this. Is there any way Mr. Legere has ever had access to your keys?"

She was about to deny any such thing when she stopped. "There was one day I was cleaning at his place and for some reason he was home. He came in and said he noticed that I had a flat tire. I was upset because I had another job right after his. He offered to take my car to his garage while I was working and get the tire fixed. Said he had a couple of errands in town anyway. I thought that was so nice of him. He said he would put the spare on and drive my car, so I gave him my keys. He was back in a couple of hours with my car all ready to go."

I smiled. "Do you remember when this was? Roughly."

"It was a good while back, a couple of years ago."

Miles Legere must have taken her key and had a copy made. He probably copied all of her keys and when the time came to finish off Vanessa Merrick, he could try them all in Jamisons' lock.

"All of this is circumstantial," said Doug when I burst in on him at the station. "But I like it. Let me check into this key business and then we need to see if the Jamisons will let us take a look at their closet."

He called a couple of hours later. "A hardware store owner in Doylestown remembers Legere from a photo coming in to have copies of keys made. A whole key ring full. Fortunately, I caught the Jamisons before they leave for their next trip. Are you up for a visit there this evening?"

Doug picked me up and my heart was pounding as we climbed the steps to the second floor of Upland Hall. Once again, the Jamisons were cool and detached, but they did not stand in our way. First we examined the closet in their master bedroom and found nothing. But in the guest room closet, after feeling around in the dark under the shelf above the hanging clothes, my fingers found the button Jennifer had described. And pressing firmly on it, we saw the wall slide away and there was the inside of Richard Fleece's closet.

Doug expelled a long breath, while the Jamisons behind us gasped. Finally Greg Jamison said, "Well, we are going to do something about that!"

"I'm calling that contractor," said Leigh Jamison firmly.

Back in Doug's care, he said, "We need to find the gun. What we want now is a warrant to search Legere's apartment." He dropped me off and said, "I'll call you." And then he laid a large hand on top of mine and said, "Thank you for all of this."

An hour later, he called. "The judge was lenient; he wants the case solved more than anyone. "You can't come along, but I'll call you as soon as I can."

I tried to read but mostly sat on the edge of my seat watching my phone and literally fell off the chair when it rang.

"Got something," Doug said. "Little pearl handled thing, kind of an antique. Maybe it was his mother's. Had it inside a coffee can in the back of a kitchen cupboard. We'll get ballistics on it immediately. I can't guarantee it won't take a few days."

I thought I would die waiting and when the time came, he made me wait some more, insisting we meet at the tavern again. This time I dressed up a little - midnight blue, draped top, big silver earrings.

As soon as I spotted him in his booth back there in the cozy gloom, I knew.

"We got him," he said. "Perfect match to the bullet in Vanessa's head."

It would take a while before Miles let loose with an explanation. When it came, Doug reported that he was crying. "I offered her everything. I would get a divorce, I'd marry her the instant it came through and take her wherever she wanted to go. I'd do anything for her, but she didn't give it a moment's thought. Not even a second! I'm not interested in a relationship right now, I really do care about you Miles, but I'm just not romance oriented or however she put it. And two weeks later, she took her vacation time and flew to Florida to meet that stranger! I found out about it all later! She chose a jobless, three hundred and fifty pound loser over me! I own a business, I'm very respected in this town, I am financially set... how could she?"

Sandy Merrick received the news with a certain lack of surprise. "I never liked the man," she said. "I always thought he was creepy." She paused. "I guess I am just too tired to hate him."

She shook her head. "When is the trial?"

"We don't know yet, but Doug Granger will keep you informed."

"I don't know how to thank you," she said. "You know, maybe you should actually write that story."

I am thinking about doing that. It would be fun to embarrass my kids. Sandy did pay me for private investigation, but of course she couldn't designate the money for that on the check. "For closure," she wrote in the blank and it was so satisfying I almost didn't want to cash it. Almost.

"You'd better write that story," Doug told me later. "Don't make me arrest you for practicing a profession without a license."

So I'm writing the damn story.

4 comments:

  1. Full of observations. I like, "She sounded as if the amount of energy it took to say the angry words didn't leave her any to actually feel anything." Throughout, the narrator is noticing things, large and small, and hooking them to possibilities, like any good detective, while bringing the reader along. The mystery "who" is de-emphasized in favor of the more intriguing "how" and "why." Artful wording and pace - a pleasing story

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  2. i´ve always thought this type of story is very hard to do, requiring a great deal of thought. this is a very well written addition to the genre, with realistic characters and a well constructed denouement. also i see the beginnings of a series here. good luck!

    Mike McC

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  3. A good coherent narrative, although a longer version might allow for a few blind alleys and partial masking of the clues? The characterisations were well executed with powerful and imaginative use of language. An enjoyable read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  4. What a fun story! The author weaved this mystery yarn with expert embellishments. I loved the MC, loved the idea of an older woman mastering the private detective trade, and garnering the interest of an actual police detective in the process! Great job, Margaret Karmazin!

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