Authors: Ron Base
Tags: #Mystsery: Thriller - P.I. - Florida
There was a great deal of speculation about the millions spent on high-powered lawyers. Not high-powered enough, apparently. The cost of defending himself, it was rumored, had drained off what little of Brand’s fortune the feds could not confiscate.
Everyone wondered what Mrs. Traven was living on, holed up in her Captiva estate. Maybe the cash stuffed in her Gucci bag, Tree speculated.
The Jack Russell reappeared dragging the elderly woman. She brought the dog to a stop near Tree’s car. He attempted to ignore her. She stood there inspecting him.
Tree smiled and nodded at her.
“Three hundred thousand,” the woman said.
Tree said, “I beg your pardon?”
The woman led the dog over to the car. Pale, freckled skin was easily offended by Florida sun.
“Three hundred thousand. How much they’re looking for on the short sale. That’s what you’re doing out here isn’t it? Looking at the house, trying to figure out how much it’s worth.”
“Guess I gave it away, huh?” He tried to look sheepish—not hard under the circumstances.
“I don’t know what happened to the sign,” the woman continued. “Maybe kids took it. But that’s what they want. A deal you ask me.”
“If this is Michelle Crowley’s place it certainly is,” Tree said.
The woman frowned. “Michelle Crowley? No one named Michelle Crowley owns this place.”
“Far as I know it belongs to some lawyer in Orlando. He rents it out.”
“Is it rented now?”
“I believe it is, although I haven’t seen anyone around.”
“Maybe I’ll take a closer look,” Tree said, getting out of the car. The Jack Russell tugged anxiously on his leash. “That three hundred thousand sounds like a pretty good price.”
“You won’t do better, not in this neighborhood. I keep a close eye on real estate prices around here. Sort of a hobby of mine. You can go over to Cape Coral and do better, but then you’re sitting in a No Man’s Land of unoccupied houses. Who knows when it’s going to come back.”
“Thanks,” Tree said. “I appreciate your help.”
“Come on, Mackenzie.” The woman yanked at the dog. In response Mackenzie yapped loudly, and pulled even harder on his leash. “Dogs,” the woman said. As though that explained everything.
Tree stood at the curb cursing himself. The great detective had spent hours watching an empty house.
He found an opening in a hedge and went through into a rectangular backyard with a swimming pool wrapped in a green sun dome screen to keep out insects.
A glass-topped table and four wrought iron chairs were on the terrace adjacent to the pool. The remnants of a candle dripped over a glass holder. A wrinkled
magazine on a chaise lounge lay open at “Lindsay Lohan’s Beauty Secrets.” Tree peered through sliding glass doors into a kitchen’s shadowy dimness. He tried the latch. To his surprise, the door slid open.
Immediately, he was assailed by a sickly sweet scent. He stepped inside. The air was stifling. A granite countertop divided the kitchen from a family room. A fifty-two-inch Sony flat screen occupied a corner of the family room. There was no other furniture.
He made his way around the counter and saw something in the sink. He fished his glasses out of his breast pocket in order to get a clearer view of what he was looking at in the uncertain light. Sure enough, it was a human head. Tendrils of blond hair drifted against the backsplash.
Retreating along a short corridor, he entered a combination dining room and living room. A setting for six, with attractive pewter charger plates, was laid out on a mahogany table. A naked woman occupied a chair at the head of the table. It was difficult to see how she was going to eat since her head lay in the kitchen sink.
ou look pretty shaken up,” Cee Jay Boone said. “Not me,” Tree said. “I come across headless corpses two or three times a week.”
“What? You’ve never seen a dead body before?” Detective Mel Scott’s gravel voice dripped with disdain.
“My Uncle Morris when I was eight,” Tree said. “He still had his head.”
“A detective who can’t look at dead people,” Mel said. “Jeez. What will they think of next.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Cee Jay Boone. “You just happened to be driving past a house on Barrington Court and decided to have a look.”
“Like I told you, detective,” Tree said. “I heard there was a bank short sale. My wife and I have been thinking of moving. I drove over here to take a look at the house, but there was no sign out front, so I thought I was mistaken. This woman came along with her dog and confirmed that the house was in fact up for sale.”
“I walked around to get a closer look, found the back door open and decided to take a peek inside.”
“And you just happened to find a head in the sink.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘just happened,’ but there was a head in the sink.”
They sat on the terrace while a police forensic team in white jump suits filed in and out of the house. A couple of firemen beside the pool sucked on cigarettes. A knot of paramedics lingered beside an ambulance in the drive. He could hear the squawk of police radios from the squad cars lined along the street. Uniformed officers were everywhere. Tree was amazed how quietly everyone worked. The cops didn’t make jokes like their television counterparts.
“We’re working with the Fort Myers police, Tree, that’s why we are here today,” Cee Jay said. “The last time we met, you were snooping around looking for Dara Rait.”
“Then maybe you came here looking for her.”
That caught Tree by surprise. “The woman in there is Dara Rait?”
“I didn’t say that. I asked you if you were here looking for Dara.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Pretty wild coincidence, don’t you think, Tree?” Mel said. “Of all the houses in Fort Myers, you happen to show up at the one with a corpse in it.”
“I guess it is, yeah.”
“And you don’t know anything about how it got here?”
“How would I know?”
Nobody answered. Mel abruptly rose and went inside, pushing past one of the emerging forensic techs.
“Every time I see Detective Scott, I get the impression he wants to hit me.”
“I don‘t think he wants to hit you,” Cee Jay said. “I think he’d be happy enough to kick your butt around.”
“Any idea why he doesn’t like me?”
“He thinks you’re an asshole.”
“What do you think, Detective Boone?”
“You’re shaking, Tree. Are you going to be all right?”
“I’m fine.” Maybe all this was getting to him more than he thought.
“You want to know what I think? I think you’re lying through your teeth.” She indicated the scene unfolding around them. “A murder’s been committed here, and you’re lying about it. That’s serious shit.”
“I understand,” Tree said.
“You understand? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You understand that you’ve got to stop bullshitting us, is that what you mean?”
“Look, I don’t blame you for being upset with me.”
“Upset with you? I’m not upset with you, Tree. This isn’t like, we keep you in after school. I’m conducting a murder investigation, and I’m expecting you to cooperate.”
“You’re right, I’m a little shaken up,” Tree said. “Give me some time to get a handle on things.”
“You need to tell the truth,” Cee Jay said. “That’s what’s going to help you more than anything.”
“I am telling you the truth,” Tree said. “The trouble is, you don’t believe me.”
“Yeah, that’s the trouble all right.”
Cee Jay sat back and exhaled. “Go on home, Tree. Have dinner with your wife. Tell her what happened this afternoon. I don’t know what she thinks of you as a detective but I suspect she’s going to think a whole lot less when you tell her about this.”
She paused, waiting for his response. When there was none, she looked even more impatient.
“The two of you talk it through, and then give me a call. But don’t wait too long. You don’t call and I find out you’re lying or withholding evidence, I swear to God I will arrest you and throw you in jail.”
“So you don’t want to tell me who that is in there.”
“You’re not listening to me. I don’t want to tell you because I don’t know. Now quit asking me questions and get the hell out of here.”
He stood up. His legs felt wobbly. He heard Cee Jay Boone say, “Do you want someone to drive you home?”
“No, I can drive.”
And he could. By the time he got behind the wheel of his car, he felt better. He crossed the causeway onto Sanibel Island. His mind began to churn through what he should do next and consider how much trouble he was in. He had not lied to the police so much as omitted certain truths, such as the name of his client and how he came to be at the house in the first place. He had promised to keep his relationship with Elizabeth Traven confidential. He didn’t think she was capable of cutting anyone’s head off, but what about the people she was dealing with—the criminal class as she called them?
No question that the police would be on him again. Detectives Boone and Scott thought he was an ineffectual amateur prone to fainting at the mere sight of a headless corpse. That might work for him, he decided as he parked the car in the drive. Hopefully, they considered him too dumb to know much of anything. Maybe they were right.
He got out of the car and started for the house. Marcello sat beneath a palm tree. “What did you do with my bike?” he said.
our bike’s in the house,” Tree said. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t take it on me.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that.”
They stood there looking at each other. Marcello appeared tired and pale, and unless Tree was mistaken, he had lost weight since the last time.
“Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?”
“Come on, let’s go inside.”
In the kitchen, Tree busied himself preparing tuna salad. Marcello shrugged out of his backpack and laid it on the chair next to him. He gulped down a glass of water. Tree dumped flaked tuna into a bowl and added mayonnaise and diced green onions before Marcello announced he didn’t like tuna.
“Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”
“You didn’t tell me what you were doing.”
“Okay. So what do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ham? I’ve got some sliced ham. How about a ham sandwich?”
Marcello nodded. Tree sighed and made him a ham sandwich. Marcello said he didn’t want lettuce on it. Tree removed the lettuce and set the sandwich in front of him. Marcello stared at it for a time, as if he thought it might be poisoned. He decided to throw caution to the winds and wolfed it down.
Tree poured him a glass of milk and Marcello finished it off in impressive gulps. Then he ate another sandwich. And three chocolate chip cookies. After he was finished, he looked less drawn and more alert.
Tree said, “Listen, we have to talk about your mother.”
“Have you found her?”
“I’ve been looking for her,” Tree said. “I went to an address at the Bon Air Mobile Park.”
Marcello just looked at him.
“A woman named Dara,” Tree went on. “Dara Rait.”
Tree watched to see if the name got a reaction. It didn’t.
“She bought that bike for you.”
“No she didn’t.” Marcello was adamant.
“Who bought it?”
He shrugged. “Reno.”
“Reno O’Hara bought you the bike?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Are Reno and Dara together? Your mom and dad?”
Marcello paused before he mumbled, “She’s not my real mother.”
Tree folded his arms and leaned against the counter, watching Marcello. “If she’s not your real mother, who is she?”
“She’s the woman with my dad,” Marcello replied. He spoke slowly, as though not certain of the words.
“Reno’s your father?”
Marcello nodded. That would explain why Reno turned up at the office. He was looking for Dara. Or Dara and Marcello.
“Your real mom sent you those letters,” Tree said.
“But you don’t actually know who she is.”
“That’s why I paid you money,” Marcello said. “So you could find my mom, and everything will be all right again.”
“Right now, though, everything isn’t all right.”
“Everything’s bad,” Marcello mumbled.
“Tell me what’s happening.”
“Reno? He’s pretty mad at me.”
“You’re hiding from Reno?”
“And his friends.”
“They’re looking for me.”
“But you don’t want them to find you.”
“They scare me so I hide from them.”