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Authors: Medora Sale

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BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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“Thanks,” she said. “I needed that.”

“If you want compliments, you can have them,” he said. “You were described as one of the better-looking women here tonight. That's how I knew you were my eyewitness. But you still look tired.”

“It's been a long day,” she said, her voice sharp and hostile. “I just finished a rush job. And I got shanghaied by Clara to come here tonight—very much against my will, let me tell you.”

“I wish you'd stayed home,” said Sanders. “I'm not at my most gracious when I'm working.”

“You couldn't be any less charming than when I first met you. Remember? And do you mind if I sit down? I'm tired.”

Suddenly she looked even whiter and close to collapse. Sanders felt his heart lurch: he stepped forward and gathered her in his arms, holding her tightly. “I've thought about you,” he said quietly. “A lot.”

“Then why haven't you called me?” Her voice was muffled in the material of his suit.

“I did,” he said indignantly, holding her out to allow him to look her in the face. “For weeks I called you. You were out or not answering your phone. God knows what.”

“I was on assignment out of the city for a month! I have a machine. You could have left a message. I checked it every other day or so.”

“I hate answering machines,” he said fiercely. “I'm not going to pour my soul out to some goddamn piece of tape. When did you get back? You could have called me.”

“I did,” she said venomously. “You've obviously never tried to get in touch with you. It's easier to get through to the prime minister.”

He slowly released his hold on her and then steered her toward one of the leather chairs. “Here, sit down.” He began to pace back and forth around the cleared space in the study like a long-legged tiger in a very small cage. “What would you say,” he said, and then stopped and took a deep breath, “if I suggested that we get the hell away from here for a couple of weeks? Maybe go down to the coast or somewhere where we won't run into anyone?”

“You're kidding, of course,” said Harriet bitterly. She stretched out in the chair and yawned. “I won't even bother mentioning the work I have piled up waiting to be done. Since you probably don't find that important. But you also seem to have forgotten that you're tied up right now.”

“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“What in hell do you think you're doing here? Isn't this your case? You can't just walk off and leave it, can you?”

“Oh, this.” He looked around the study. “This'll be dead easy. Find out who gets all the money and there you have it. Might take a few days to nail down the proof, that's all.” He sat down on the substantial arm of the chair and dropped a hand cautiously on her shoulder. “Just wait. One of them will have gone trotting off and bought some cyanide from somewhere a couple of days ago—it's amazing how stupid people can be—and he'll have been hanging around the kitchen ready to pop it in her drink. There you have it.”

“Was it cyanide?” As Harriet spoke, she looked up at him, and her hair brushed softly against his wrist; he dug his fingers into her shoulder and bent closer over her.

“If your description was accurate, it probably was,” said Sanders.

“Did that doctor tell you what I said?” Her voice had softened to a murmur.

“Briefly,” he said, fighting to concentrate on something besides the feel of her shoulder under his hand and the scent of her hair and skin in his nostrils. “But I need the whole story.” He moved his head even nearer and with his free hand gently pushed her hair away from her face.

At that moment, Dubinsky knocked once and thrust open the door. The sight of his partner sitting on the arm of a chair, leaning over a witness whose upturned face he seemed about to kiss, stopped him where he stood. His massive frame filled the doorway and injected an air of profound disapproval into the proceedings. “You need me?” he said finally. Sanders leapt to his feet, reddened, and nodded. Dubinsky settled himself at the table, watching sourly as Harriet moved with suspicious haste to the straight-backed chair. Sanders retreated behind the desk and began the interview.

When she had finished her recital, Sanders leaned forward and twirled a pencil around his fingers, as if getting the action right were the most important thing in the world. “That's all you know about the people here?” he said finally. “You didn't get to know her family?”

“If I had known she was going to get done in, I would have made a great effort to find something out about each one of them,” she said, nettled. She felt that she had given a clear, lucid, and terribly useful account of the evening. “I had almost no sleep last night, and I spent most of the evening figuring out how to leave gracefully without offending her. I didn't have time to investigate her family. Or her friends.”

“Her doctor seems to have had his eye on you, though,” said Sanders. “I'd watch him if I were you.”

She glared at him.

“Who was she, besides someone whose house you photographed? It's a nice picture, by the way,” he added, glancing at the sixteen-by-twenty on the wall. “Where does all this ostentatious wealth come from?”

“What have you got against ostentatious wealth?” said Harriet sleepily. “No, forget it. She was an actress. Terribly famous in Germany, apparently. You know”—she yawned—“world-class on the legitimate stage. I saw her tonight doing a chunk of Shakespeare, and let me tell you, she was good.” Harriet brooded for a minute over the thought. “In fact, fantastic. Anyway, she moved here to be with her daughter and her grandchildren, and if you want to know anything about them, there's a whole book of pictures of them on the table over by your sergeant there, and you can get bored out of your mind looking at them the way I had to. Her husband must have been rich as all get out and very upper class—she was a
von
, after all—but he died before she came over here. She was very charming, but overpowering. No one else could have dragged me out to a party tonight when all I wanted was to go to bed”—suddenly blushing and self-conscious, she glanced at Dubinsky and paused a second—“so I imagine she might have been difficult to live with. She seemed to squabble with her daughters, and they, I think, were squabbling with each other.” She gave a brief account of what she had heard. “The only trouble is,” she said, “that, naturally, they fight in German, and I lost some of it.”

“Who was near the table that had the tea on it in the fifteen minutes before she died?” he said abruptly. “You must have seen that.”

“For God's sake, John,” she replied waspishly and familiarly, noticed Dubinsky's suspicious glance, and reddened again, “I wasn't keeping count of people. I didn't notice who was over there.”

Dubinsky flipped back a couple of pages in his notebook. “The nephew was standing by the table,” he said heavily. “Klaus Leitner. Also the daughter, Veronika. And the maid. And someone called Kirsten Müller, who really didn't seem to know anyone there. A lot of the people I talked to weren't certain about the times. Mrs. Theresa Milanovich never budged an inch from the fireplace that anyone noticed; her husband and Frank Whitelaw, the deceased's business manager, were at the other end of the room talking to the deceased.”

“What did you get from the housekeeper? She must have had her eye on things.”

“Nothing yet,” he said, his voice still sour.

“You'd better watch out for her,” said Harriet, looking over at Dubinsky's six-foot-four, 250-pound frame. “She's about five foot two by five foot two of solid muscle, and mean as hell.”

“Why don't you go and tackle her, then,” said Sanders to his partner. “Find out what you can about that damned tea and if anyone was in the kitchen. Yell for help if you need it.” Dubinsky looked unamused, but got lightly to his feet and left the two of them alone.

“I'm not sure I can take having you around like this,” said Sanders, standing up and moving closer to her. “Not if Ed is going to spend his time bursting through doors, looking morally outraged.”

Harriet shook her head helplessly. “Is this going to take long, do you think?”

“Probably all night, if I'm lucky. But you don't have to stay.” He placed his hands gently on her shoulders. “Why don't you go home and get some sleep?”

“No one has said I could go home yet. You've forgotten, I'm a witness. Maybe even a suspect.” She yawned and stretched in her chair.

“Shit,” he muttered. “I guess you'd better stay until the others have been seen.” He looked critically at her. “And I suppose you should go back and join them. Look out for that doctor.” Within seconds he was back at the desk, absorbed in his embryonic pile of notes.

Sanders stood as the woman entered the room. Her movements across the floor were jerky, as if each leg were uncertain about its destination and not at all sure it wasn't going to collapse when it got there. He preferred his women to have enough muscle to carry their height, he decided. This one would faint if you suggested taking her for a walk. Or even for a beer and a sandwich. She looked like an underfed greyhound, and a bad-tempered one at that. “Sit down, Mrs. Milanovich,” he said perfunctorily. “I'm sorry to have to disturb you at a time like this, but—”

“How long is this going to take?” she interrupted. Her English wasn't quite sloppy enough to be native, but it was pretty damned good. Good enough to be extremely bitchy in.

“As brief a time as possible,” he replied evenly. “But there are a few questions that I must ask—”

“Because I have to get home to my children—”

“Did you leave them alone?” He could interrupt as well.

“Certainly not.” The words quivered with indignation at the suggestion. “They are with their nurse.”

“Then, unless you believe she is likely to depart in the middle of the night, I hardly think that—”

“That is not the point. I feel uneasy if I am away from them too long.” So, having established herself as a flawless mother and a certified “good person,” she was settling down in the chair and preparing to be a daughter, thought Sanders. That is, she drew a tiny handkerchief out of the tiny gold bag she carried and dabbed at her eyes before looking up at him. “Do you know what happened to Mamma? We have been going mad up there because no one will tell us anything. Except that it probably wasn't a heart attack. And why are the police here?”

“There isn't very much to tell, I'm afraid. At the moment, this is a routine investigation into a sudden death. Her doctor felt that it was possible that she did not die from natural causes and requested that we be called in.” He paused in his recital for a reaction. She sat across from him, her long legs crossed, her elbow on the desk, her head to one side, listening with rapt attention. The pause lengthened.

Finally, she found the weight of the silence too much and played her side. “Not natural causes?” she said, her voice gently puzzled. Her eyes widened and filled with tears. It tugged the heartstrings until you remembered that she was the daughter of a famous actress; she was probably practicing inherited skills on him.

He declined the gambit. “That's right. Now, can you tell me what was happening when your mother collapsed? What you were doing at that moment?”

“No, I really can't,” she said, sadly and sweetly. “I'm afraid I simply wasn't paying any attention to Mamma right then. I was talking to my husband and one of his friends, and to Dr. Alexander and his wife, as well, I think. I didn't notice—” Her voice broke, and the tiny handkerchief made its appearance once again. “I just heard that . . . that awful cry she made and saw her fall. It was terrible.” She raised her eyes for one more expressive instant at him. “Do you think she could have . . . put something in her drink?”

“By ‘she' do you mean your mother? Mrs. von Hohenkammer? Are you saying that she deliberately administered a fatal dose of something to herself?”

Theresa's eyes widened again in confusion. “I don't know. If it wasn't a heart attack, though, how else could it have happened? And Dr. Alexander said it wasn't a heart attack.”

“Why would she do such a thing?”

“It may not seem much to you, but . . . Mamma always had a reputation for being a very beautiful woman and a great actress, you know. And recently, well . . . she was pretty far into her fifties, although she pretended to be much younger,” she added spitefully, “and the parts just weren't coming in. And after Papa's death—she felt terribly guilty about that. She wasn't living at home, you know, when he died, and that bothered her terribly.”

“You mean that she had been separated from her husband?”

“Not precisely separated, but”—and she slid away from that topic—“perhaps she couldn't face the prospect of becoming old and helpless and unloved.” Theresa's voice trembled with sincerity as she finished.

Sanders leaned back and considered her. There had been something else in that voice, too, and he was willing to bet a week's pay that it was hatred. “Thank you, Mrs. Milanovich,” he said briskly. “We'll certainly take that into account. You have been most helpful.” Two can lie as easily as one, after all. She smiled in sweet triumph, stood up with careful elegance, and walked out of the room. He was still repelled by the way she moved across the floor.

The door to the library snapped open before he could send for anyone else. A small, neat young woman with short dark hair and a white face stood in the doorway. “I am Veronika von Hohenkammer,” she said crisply. “If you have finished talking to my sister, I'd like to get this over with.” After the wispiness of the first one, this one's aggressiveness momentarily startled him. He could see why the two daughters might hate each other.

“Actually,” he said, standing up and taking his brisk tone from her, “I had been planning on seeing her husband first so they could both go home. I gather they are concerned about leaving their children.”

BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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