Authors: Ritter Ames
Johnson's face stayed as impassive as the area's native granite, but Constable Banks showed surprise at her words.
Teach these two for getting complacent and taking the word of some self-possessed rich kid
. Then, ashamed of herself, she amended the thought. She was a stranger. It was natural for a teenager to throw her over to save his kith and kin. "Did you speak to her stepdaughter?"
"Sophia Nethercutt-White left right after you. Said Amelia Nethercutt mentioned she was going to the kitchen for more tea. Ms. Nethercutt-White only returned after the death was discovered."
"In updating her will, might Amelia have included changes the heirs weren't happy with or expecting?" Kate asked.
"The attorney said everything was standard," Johnson responded. "Mostly differences in how the late woman's greenhouse and flower stock were taken care of, and the means for setting value on everything else. A few new bequests added, but nothing significant or likely to cause a fight. It's really none of your business, ma'am."
Kate felt her face redden. Didn't the man realize she didn't care who got what, as long as she wasn't charged with murder? "That's not why I asked."
"I'm listening, Mrs. McKenzie."
"Well…" She felt shaky, realizing how confrontational this interview was becoming. "Did Sophia tell you she had a problem with my working among the various collections in the house? She didn't like the idea of Amelia signing a new will either."
The men exchanged startled looks, and she recounted the conversation that occurred in the front parlor. Johnson's expression returned to stone before she finished.
"As you probably know from all the cop shows on television, Mrs. McKenzie—"
"Those aren't my cup of tea, Lieutenant." Kate shook her head, before realizing what expression she'd used, and amended, "I mean, my video viewing is usually limited to whatever my six-year-olds watch in the evening."
Johnson rolled the page containing her fingerprints into a tube, and tapped it several times on the tabletop. "What I'm trying to get across is how, no matter the crime, but especially murder, we must follow a number of leads before settling on a final suspect."
"In that case, why didn't you question me at my home?" She knew an edge was creeping into her voice, but didn't care. "Let's face it. I'm the person least likely to gain from her murder."
"Like all the other witnesses in the case, we needed you here to take your fingerprints," he explained. "Get a hair sample to eliminate trace evidence."
"So, everyone else has come in?"
"Well, most." His expression changed, admitting he was telling her more than he wanted. "This is just a first step in the investigation. And since your story follows a logical path and you clearly have no inheritance motive—"
"Then, I'm not under arrest?"
"You are a lead we needed to question," he said. "Not to say we won't have more questions for you later, but you've satisfied what we need to know at the present time."
Kate almost congratulated herself, thinking all misunderstanding was cleared away, until she remembered the ride in the police cruiser and wondered whether HPD had offered chauffeur services to any of the other 'leads.' She didn't want to ask. "Am I free to leave?"
"Yes." Lieutenant Johnson put the fingerprint card atop his notes and closed the folder. Rising, he added, "But don't leave the area."
"That sounds like I'm still a suspect."
"Everyone who was in that house remains a suspect." Johnson tapped the file twice on the tabletop, then turned and signaled Constable Banks, concluding the interview.
Keith enveloped her in a hug as soon as she entered the vacant lobby, and Kate found herself tearing up. "Honey, it's okay. It's over." He stroked her hair.
She nodded, unable to answer, still worried about the suspect label hanging like neon over her head. Nevertheless, this wasn't the place to discuss it. She whispered, "Let's go home."
The Jeep's dashboard gave off a comforting glow as they drove down Main Street. The two-hundred-year-old First Episcopal Church stood stately white in the moonlight, its steeple pointing the way to heaven, with the darkened maple trees behind creating a perfect, inky backdrop. They passed Tucker's Hardware and the Country Store, alive during the day to serve residents' needs and now shut tight. Only the dozen or so streetlights fought the darkness. Midnight was fast approaching, and Kate wanted to be home, snuggled under the down comforter in the couple's king-sized bed.
"Did Meg take the girls home with her?"
Keith shook his dark head in the dim light. "They didn't want to go, and dug in their heels to be home whenever we came back. Meg promised to either get a sitter or stay up and trek between the two houses."
"Poor Meg." There was plenty of room in their house for the boys to sleep over, but the youngest Berman refused to bed down anywhere but his own bunk.
Yet, as much as she trusted her neighbor with the twins, she was glad the girls were snug in their own room. The Berman place was a bit of a madhouse with two large dogs, an equal number of cats, a snake, a bearded dragon, an ant farm, two rambunctious boys, and an entirely different household routine. Besides reawakening the pleadings for a pet of their own, something Kate continued to fend off as long as possible, the change in bedtime venue would likely have been too much for Samantha and Suzanne. Especially after watching their mother escorted away by the local constabulary. In a Berman bed, the girls would have no doubt been lying awake in the darkness, worried and wired, set to be tired and cranky the next evening—when Keith could escape to the radio station.
Kate didn't want her kids cranky; she'd reserved that emotion for herself.
Her exhausted mind still labored through roller-coaster feelings evoked from the grief of learning her client had been killed, followed by the nerves of being interrogated about the murder.
Keith reached across the center console and laced his fingers with hers. She felt huge tears swell and fall. One hit the back of his hand, and he looked over. Wordlessly, he pulled to the shoulder of the road in front of the Winstons' small apple farm and wrapped his arms around her.
"I'm okay. Angry more than anything." She sniffed, and counted off fingers as she continued, "I mean, first I get overwhelmed by Amelia and dissed by her stepdaughter. Next, I lose income I was kind of counting on, at least for a while, and have to un-order supplies for the job I'm not going to finish. Finally, I can't even spend a quiet evening with my kids because the police haul me away in a squad car like a suspect. Me! The one person with nothing to gain from Amelia's death except the 'benefit' of not having to quit. Can you think of a more stupid motive?"
"It's their job, Katie." When she glared at him, he quickly added, "Not that I disagree with you."
She had to laugh then, but reached for the tissues on the dash. "Just drive us home. Please."
He used one finger to raise her chin. "You okay?"
"Absolutely." She sniffed again. "But, I didn't thank you for coming tonight. Knowing you were in the building really did make the whole situation easier."
"Where else would I be?" His teeth reflected bright white.
"I love you too," she said, returning the smile. "But, I really want to go home."
"That is one wish I can definitely grant, my lady." Keith kissed her forehead, then settled back into his seat and checked for traffic.
The Berman house sat unlit and shut tight as they entered the cul-de-sac of the tiny neighborhood, but Kate could see the kitchen light sifting through the windows of their own, otherwise darkened, home. Keith grabbed a stray hockey stick off the front porch, and she pushed through the door. A lamp clicked on in the living room, and Tiffany James, the most reliable of the neighborhood crew of rotating teen sitters, and the daughter of Kate's local nemesis, interior decorator Valerie James, bolted up from the couch.
"Mrs. McK! They let you go free!" Tiffany shot across the room and surprised Kate with a hug. "Mom was afraid you'd be in the big house for
. Murderers rarely get out on bail."
I'll just bet your mom was worried about me.
Kate's mental sarcasm matched her irritation level, but she kept her voice light as she told the teen, "They only wanted to question me as a witness. Nothing more serious."
"The police interview many people and follow a lot of leads at the beginning of any investigation," Keith cut in, propping the hockey stick against one wall and hanging their jackets in the closet. "Kate was happy to help in any way."
Tiffany pulled out of the hug and studied Kate's face. "You're so brave. I hope I have your courage if I ever find myself in equally dire straits."
Kate felt pressure building in her chest and wanted to snap, 'I need more courage to handle whatever stories you and your mother concoct about me,' but Keith jumped in first. He pulled out his wallet and said, "We appreciate your pitching in tonight, Tiff. Come on and I'll take you home."
"The twins were
," Tiffany effused. She slipped the money into her back pocket and shrugged into a burgundy leather jacket she scooped off the end of the couch. "So
"Thank you, Tiffany." Kate nearly ran up the stairs to escape.
She felt soiled from sitting in the interrogation room. After checking on her sleeping "angels," she hit the shower. She came out wearing her favorite, pink silk pajamas. Comfort was suddenly everything to her. Keith was already in bed, propped up on pillows and reading
"The girl can't help it that her mother's a bitch, honey," Keith said softly, dropping the magazine on the night stand before drawing the covers back for Kate.
"I know, but now the talk of Hazelton will be how I'm up for capital murder charges or something equally ridiculous." She tugged the comforter straight, then scrunched down into a fetal position. "I'm tempted to keep the girls home from school tomorrow. I don't want them to hear any crazy stories."
"Which will make people talk all the more." He touched the rubber band on Kate's wrist. "This week has been pretty stressful. How've you been doing?"
"Six by the time I was released from the police station. Another two in the shower once I started obsessing about Amelia's death and the interrogation, and after hearing Tiffany's effusive words of support."
She punched her pillow, visualizing Valerie James's smug face. "
I don't know how Valerie knew where I was, but no doubt she's the one who told Tiffany. Meg wouldn't have said anything."
"Honey, we had a police cruiser in front of our house." Keith pulled her into his arms. "You can bet behind each set of our neighbors' curtains were eager pairs of eyes watching you climb in and drive off with the officers. News like that is too juicy to keep quiet, especially after everyone's been gossiping today about Amelia's death. All it takes is one busybody making a phone call, and soon the news is viral. Besides, Valerie is probably still steamed that Amelia gave the job to you instead of choosing her design company."
"It isn't even what the witch does," Kate argued. "Organizing can entail some design, especially in reducing household items that don't meet the design theme. But what I was hired to do was more quantifying and codifying. Why would she want the hassle? All I hear out of her is how many
she gets from satisfied customers."
His chest muscles rippled as he shrugged a shoulder. "Probably wanted the job to get into the house, then she could have made other suggestions afterward for additional commissions."
"Well, given what happened because I was awarded the great honor, Valerie should be thanking me rather than spreading malicious rumors."
"Go figure." His brown eyes were at half-mast. "Don't worry about the twins. They think you walk on water. Sam will probably punch anyone who tries to say something bad about her mom, and Suze will wither them with one of her looks."
It was good hearing his words. Not because Sam might get into another scrape—that would simply lead to more of the same kind of parent/daughter/teacher talks they'd too often had following the move to Hazelton. Sam's first grade teacher assured them this was nothing more than a phase while their daughter got used to her new home, but it was still worrisome. However, Kate took solace in knowing the golden-curled pair remained capable of handling most anything as long as they stuck together. "They're quite a team."
"You bet," Keith seconded. "I'll take them to school in the morning and explain things to their teacher."
"You're such a good husband." She patted his bare chest.
"And a tired one."
"Go to sleep."
Within minutes, his breathing changed, and she knew he was lost to REM and dreams reliving past hockey glories, while she lay wide awake. After half an hour she decided to give in and get up.
Chamomile tea was her first thought, but at the reminder of Amelia's death she chose warm milk instead. The intermittent stirring gave her time to circle the living room and kitchen, picking up and replacing the flotsam and jetsam that signaled an active family lived in the house. She straightened the skates in their utility room cubbies, glanced at the hockey stick rack and noticed Keith had replaced the one he'd brought in from the front porch. Still moving, she set the girls' backpacks on the wooden bench in the entry, and closed a book someone had left face down on the coffee table. She moved back to the kitchen and added ingredients to the crock-pot, guaranteeing hot, cinnamon oatmeal by morning. Finally, the steaming white liquid was ready. She poured it into the floral decorated
cup Suzanne gave her for Mother's Day two years back, and grabbed an Oreo from the jar.
The food and normalcy of the activities seemed to do the trick, and soon Kate noticed the comforting impression of heavy lids. Before sleep, though, she decided to start another load of laundry. She hated this chore, but doing a bit each day kept the blasted baskets from overwhelming her.