Authors: Michael Craft
The author thanks both Mitchell Waters and John Scognamiglio for their encouragement, wise counsel, and friendship.
The story that unfolds on the following pages is the product of an active imagination. Characters, places, and organizations named herein are largely fictitious. Any similarity to real-world counterparts, however, is hardly coincidental, and readers are invited to draw any conclusions they wish, inflammatory or droll.
$100 MILLION AT STAKE
Missing airline heiress will be declared dead in three months
By Mark Manning
Journal Investigative Reporter
CTOBER 1, CHICAGO IL
—Three months from today, January 1, will mark seven years since the unexplained disappearance of Helena Carter, sole heir to the late Ridgely Carter, founder of CarterAir. Considered by many analysts to be the nation’s most profitable regional airline, the privately held corporation holds cash reserves estimated in excess of one hundred million dollars.
Should Mrs. Carter’s disappearance remain unexplained on January 1, she will be declared legally dead, and her fortune will be distributed according to the terms of a will bequeathing the bulk of her estate to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and a substantial sum to the Federated Cat Clubs of America (FCCA).
Mrs. Carter disappeared from the grounds of her Bluff Shores estate, north of Chicago, on New Year’s Day nearly seven years ago. The police investigation has been stymied from the start. If the heiress was abducted from her home, her captor left no evidence of the deed. If, on the other hand, Mrs. Carter disappeared of her own volition, she left no clues as to her motive or destination.
Jerry Klein, chief operating officer of CarterAir and executor of Helena Carter’s estate, has recently persuaded the courts to allow the estate to increase its reward offer to a half-million dollars for information leading to knowledge of the whereabouts of the heiress, whether living or dead. Police have dismissed numerous new leads generated by the offer, characterizing the informants as either cranks or frauds.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 1
With the approach of the seven-year deadline, wide speculation has grown that Mrs. Carter was murdered, and one of this city’s news organizations has openly named a suspect amid rhetorical calls for justice. The
’s investigation, however, has revealed no evidence to corroborate these accusations, and it is the position of this newspaper that Helena Carter must logically be presumed alive.□
SEE TREES.” THE
hushed voice speaks slowly through the phone. “I see a large house surrounded by trees.”
Mark Manning laughs. Confident that there is no need to take notes, he caps his pet pen, an antique Mont Blanc.
“I fail to see what’s so funny, Mr. Manning.” The voice is indignant. “I’m only trying to help. This information could be useful to your stories.”
“Sorry,” Manning says indifferently, “but it’s a safe guess that any wealthy person would live in a big house. And most houses have trees around them.” He closes his note pad and adds it to the tidy clutter on his desk in the newsroom of the
“But I see these things so
,” the voice persists. “With a little help from you, Mr. Manning, we could find her body.”
dead, then? Do you see that?” He stares at his computer terminal, transfixed for a moment by the rhythmic winking of its cursor.
“Certainly,” the voice responds, as if clueing-in an ignorant child. “Everyone knows
Mr. Manning. It’s common knowledge.”
“Thanks for calling,” says Manning, bringing the conversation to an abrupt close. “I’m on deadline right now and can’t talk any longer.”
He hears a little squawk from the receiver as he tosses it back on top of the phone. He lights a cigarette with a small brass lighter that he flicks, extinguishes, and returns in a single motion to the pocket of a crisp blue oxford-cloth shirt.
“Hey, handsome, deadline was nearly an hour ago,” says a taunting voice from behind. Daryl, a copy kid, overheard the end of Manning’s call and now sidles into the reporter’s cubicle. With an easy familiarity, he perches on the desk and asks, “How many does that make?”
“Three this morning,” says Manning, disgruntled. He rolls his chair back from the desk, loosens his tie, and unbuttons his collar. “Every time my byline appears over anything pertaining to Helena Carter, I get a flurry of calls from these damned mystics.” He tosses up a leg and plops his foot next to the computer. Reflections from a fluorescent work lamp glisten as wavy bands in the polished cordovan of his shoe.
“Then why’d you write it?” asks the college intern, fanning his hands in disapproval of the cigarette smoke. He flares his nostrils, exaggerating the “demure Negroid features” that are sometimes the subject of his coy patter.
“Because today is October first. In three months the estate will be settled—unless she reappears before then.”
“She can’t very well reappear from the grave, can she?” asks Daryl, scrutinizing a hangnail at arm’s length.
“Of course not. But I don’t think she’s dead. I think she disappeared of her own free will.”
“Sure, Mark, the old gal could’ve run away for lots of reasons—maybe she’s just screwy.” Daryl swirls a finger at his temple. “Isn’t it more likely, though, that she’s been killed?”
“There was no motive to kill her.”
hundred million dollars
isn’t a motive? Look, doll, I’m the first to concede that you know more about this case than anyone else does. You’ve been on this story from the start, and there isn’t a paper in the country that hasn’t picked up your stuff, byline and all.”
“What about the
“I stand corrected. The tabloid across the street has not run your byline, but then, they’ve got Humphrey Hasting, and he’s writing exactly the kind of sensational fluff they’re famous for. But you, Mark, are the expert. My God—how many reporters get calls from a chief detective asking for clarification of details of his own case? So I bow to your expertise. Does that please you?”
Manning answers with a shrug. He plants the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and joins his hands behind his head, stretching lithely.
His is not the body of most thirty-nine-year-olds. Lean and muscled, he’s in better shape than most at twenty-five. The well-defined planes of his face hint at the precise workings of an analytical mind, as if made visible through the piercing clarity of uncommonly green eyes. His hair, now peppered with those first dashes of gray, is worn a bit short for the fashion of the day, imparting a military attractiveness to his bearing—an impression made all the more vivid by the pleated khaki slacks he always wears.
Daryl crosses his arms, preparing to rest his case. “So how can you say—knowing everything you know—that a hundred million dollars is not sufficient motive for murder?”
Reaching to flick the ash of his cigarette, Manning sits forward in his chair with a sigh that seems to say, All right, I’ll explain this just once.
“Helena Carter’s will was located without difficulty shortly after she disappeared. It took some doing for a flock of ‘interested parties’ to persuade the courts to open the will of someone not known to be dead, but it was indeed opened, primarily for any light it might shed on motives for murder. All that was learned, though, is that the document simply does not raise any suspicions or point to any suspects.”
“But, Mark, the old girl must have been crackers. No one in his right mind leaves that kind of fortune to be split between an animal pound and a church.”
“Not a ‘pound,’ Daryl. It’s a federation of cat clubs. Carter was a cat-lady; she bred them. She was also a devout Catholic. The stipulations of her will were well thought out, and she employed top legal talent to implement them; she was no madwoman. She never had kids, but saw to it that her one surviving sister would be cared for by means of carefully constructed trusts. Yes, she decided that the bulk of her legacy would be used to endow organizations that were significant to her, but I don’t think that’s
“Look, Mark, it doesn’t matter if she was nuts or not. Point is, whoever murdered her obviously didn’t know
was in the will. He apparently thought there might be something in it for himself.”
don’t know. How about the houseman that Hasting and the
keep harping on?”
“Daryl, people can
for knocking off little old ladies. And if that lady happens to be sole heir to a highly profitable airline, representing one of the fattest fortunes to grace the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, you can bet that the effort to find and fry the culprit will be intense. Why would anyone choose to jeopardize the contented fulfillment of his twilight years on the mere hunch that it might be worth his while? Would you?”