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Authors: Medora Sale

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BOOK: Sleep of the Innocent
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“May I help you?” The words were meek enough, but the tone was one of crossed arms and heavily planted feet.

“I'd like to speak to Mrs. Neilson,” he said briskly.

“I'm afraid she isn't here at the moment. Is she expecting you?”

With a sigh he pulled out his ID and set it squarely under the woman's nose. “Sergeant Robert Lucas. Metropolitan Toronto Police. It is most important that I talk to Mrs. Neilson as soon as possible. Do you know where she is?” This was the point at which the housekeeper should have screamed and fainted in alarm. She didn't.

“She's down at the stable,” she said, in the same tones she might reserve for describing the whereabouts of the man who looked after the septic tank.

“In that case, I'll wait,” said Lucas, prepared, if necessary, to sit on the front steps. Because if he left without seeing her, bloody Baldwin would send him out again. He wondered grimly how long he was going to be on special duty, stuck with Baldwin.

“You'll have a long wait, then,” she remarked sourly. “If it's that important, you'd better go and speak to her yourself. It's in back—you can't miss it,” she said, pointing to the gravel walk that circled the house.

If the neat white building hadn't looked very like a stable to him, he would have been drawn to it by the small warm noises—the stamps and snorts and nickering—that ooze out of all stables. The wide door was open, giving onto a clean cement floor, and he stepped inside. There were six box stalls, three on each side, but only three of them had tenants. The first on the left had been fitted up as a tack room, its walls bright with ribbons, and the first on the right as an office, with a desk, two chairs, and a camp bed all crowded into it. The stall next to it was stacked neatly with feed and straw. Mozart bubbled gently from a cassette player on the desk.

Two heads emerged over their doors to look at him; a third horse, a chestnut mare, was standing facing him with a faraway look on her face as her legs were being vigorously rubbed down. “Mrs. Neilson?” said Lucas to the crouching back in front of him. “Could I have a word with you?” The chestnut tossed her head in warning, and Mrs. Neilson rose quickly to her feet. She looked to be in her mid-twenties—startlingly young to be Neilson's wife. She had long shiny hair the same color as the mare's glossy coat, and dark eyes that regarded him acutely, wondering no doubt what in hell he was doing there. She was dressed in worn, mud-splashed corduroy breeches, a beige turtleneck sweater, and a gray tweed jacket with scuffed leather patches and a tear on the sleeve, but her riding boots were as clean and well cared for as the tack in the room to his left and as the coat of the chestnut mare. What man could possibly have traded—even temporarily—this magnificent creature for that thin, messy little slut in the hotel? Maybe he hadn't. Maybe Jennifer's story was true, then.

“Yes, certainly,” said Mrs. Neilson at last, since he seemed to be without anything to say. “What did you want a word about?”

He gritted his teeth. This was the bad part, the part he had been avoiding by thinking irrelevant thoughts about her clothes. “I'm with the Metropolitan Toronto Police—Sergeant Lucas.” He held out his card, as before. “You're Mrs. Carl Neilson? Your husband is Carl Neilson?” It was, he knew, a stupid thing to say, but it gave the widow the chance to realize that something was wrong.

It worked. She laid a hand on the mare's withers, as if to steady herself. “Something has happened,” she said. “That's why you're here, isn't it?”

“I'm afraid so, Mrs. Neilson. There's been a—something has happened at your husband's hotel, at the Karlsbad. He's been shot.”

“He's dead?” she asked, her voice flat. Lucas nodded, bracing himself. This was when the reaction started. Sometimes. Sometimes it didn't start until much later, and what you got was this cool stunned acceptance. Not as good for the widow, maybe, but a hell of a lot easier on him. “You're sure?” she asked again. “Dead? Not just hurt?”

“No—I'm afraid there's no question of that,” he said gently. “He was dead when we found him.”

“Did he . . .” She hesitated and stopped, taking a deep breath. The mare snorted and bent her head around to find out what was going on. “Did he do it himself? Was it suicide?”

Lucas shook his head. “It doesn't appear to have been suicide. No.”

“Then that means that someone killed him.”

“It looks like that.”

“Who would—when did it happen?” she asked.

“This afternoon. I'm sorry someone didn't come earlier, but he had no wallet on him, and it took us a while to find out—”

“You're sure it
Carl?” she said quickly.

“The hotel manager identified him.”

“Bent? Bent Sigurdson?”

That sounded familiar. Lucas nodded.

“He would know.” She sounded oddly reassured, as though the certainty of the identification comforted her. “Poor Carl,” she said. She stood absolutely still, leaning slightly against the mare. “He was so afraid of dying. More than most people, I think. Do I have to identify him? I will if it's necessary.” She patted the mare, who was stamping restlessly and turned to nudge her pockets.

“She's expecting something,” said Lucas, nodding at the mare.

“There's a carrot on the desk, if you don't mind,” said Mrs. Neilson. “She'd kill for carrots.”

He stepped into the office, grabbed the carrot, broke it in half and fed one piece to the impatient animal; then, with a friendly pat, he caught her firmly by the halter and led her into the empty box.

“You've done that before,” said Lydia Neilson.

“That I have,” said Lucas. “Did your husband ride? Is one of the horses his?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, I suppose.” She spoke hesitantly, as if she felt her comments could be construed as a betrayal of marital trust. “The mare is my hacking pony—actually, I guess she's a bit big to be called a pony, but”—she gave him a pale smile—“she's a pet. Well, they're all pets, in a way. Too much so. That was Jasmine. This is Hector—eh, baby, come here,” she cooed, and a big bay stuck his head farther over the door. She opened it and led him out. “Isn't he a beauty?” she said. “Most of the ribbons in there are his. He's very neat and intelligent—he can tell exactly what I'm thinking before I think it.” She raised his head to show him off. “You should see him over a fence. Poetry. Restrained poetry. But Carl's horse—I suppose he was Carl's horse, although he didn't ride him very often—is over here.” Lucas held out the other half of the carrot for Hector, who took it with restraint and dignity and then paced elegantly back into his stall. “Achilles,” she said, opening the last door, and an enormous gray gelding stepped out and then shook his head impatiently. “Isn't he a fine size? That's how they described him. He's Irish.”

“Did you get him here?” asked Lucas.

She shook her head. “I went over to the spring sales and fell in love with him. Then they told me his name, and I knew it was fate. You should see him move. He's young yet, though. He's from Tipperary—the finest bloodstock in the country, they say. I paid a bundle for him by the time I had him shipped over. He was a birthday present for Carl—I wouldn't spend that much on a horse for myself—but Carl never appreciated him. He was threatening to sell him this spring; it broke my heart to think of it. Eh, baby?” she murmured. “Do you think you could find another carrot? There should be one in my bag—it's on the chair. Everyone else got a carrot, didn't they?” she went on softly, rubbing his nose.

Lucas went back into the little office and found her handbag sitting on a chair. He unzipped it. Inside was chaos; everything you might expect to find in a woman's purse: wallet, keys, lipstick, comb, tissues, pens, pencils, notebook; and, in addition, two large dirty carrots, a plastic bag with sugar lumps in it, and a hoof-pick. “There you go,” he said, and handed her one of the carrots. “Who looks after the stable for you and exercises the horses?” he asked in real curiosity.

“Who looks after it? I do,” she said, surprised, sending Achilles back into his stall with a nudge of the halter and a slap on the rump, and then reaching her hand with the carrot on it over the door to him. “I do everything. Clean it out every morning, give each one a good gallop, work with Hector a bit, groom them, everything. I love it. It gives me something to do. The house is filled already with people tripping over each other to do the work. They don't need me. Anyway, it means I have an excuse for not traveling all over the place with Carl on business trips. My God! What's the matter with me?” She sat down on a couple of bales of straw piled up outside Achilles' stall. “What am I saying? Carl's dead, and I'm bitching about going on business trips with him. I mean, I could have. Joe down at the riding stable will always look after the beasts for me if I need him.” She shook her head and looked blankly up at Lucas.

“Don't worry about it,” he said. “It's the shock. It takes a while to get used to it.”

“I suppose,” she said, standing up. She walked around the stable and fastened all the doors, picked up her purse, turned off the cassette player, flicked off the light, and headed toward the door. “Come back to the house and we'll have some tea,” she said. “Mrs. Howard will have it ready.”

She took him in through a small back door and along a short tiled hallway. The room she led him into was as seductive as the stable. It was relatively small, but a set of three windows looked out over the paddock and the stable. The windowsill was deep, with a couple of cushions lying on it: someplace to sit and drowse away an afternoon, he thought. A fire burned in the fireplace, and the comfortable chairs and sofa were covered with dark, countrified material. There was a desk, audio equipment, a small piano, and some book space. The housekeeper stalked in with tea, followed closely by a thin, dark-haired little boy with worried blue eyes, who ran over to his mother's side and whispered urgently in her ear.

“I don't know, sweetheart,” she said, gently shaking her head. “He's around somewhere. Ask Mrs. Howard. Maybe she put him away.” He snatched up a chocolate-covered biscuit and left as quickly as he had come.

“That's Mark,” she said simply. “He's eight. I'll tell him later. When we're alone.”

“Do you have other children?” asked Lucas, looking down at the tea in his hand as if he had never seen such a thing before.

She shook her head.

He stared at the fire, mesmerized, relaxed. He could sit in this room for hours, beside this elegant, slightly muddy woman, except that he was not here on a social call. He pulled himself together. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” he said.

“Not at all,” she said readily. “What do you want to know?”

“Where you were this afternoon?” The cozy atmosphere came apart with a jerk.

“Oh. Of course. It's the obvious question, isn't it? Well—I was out on Jasmine. We went for a long ride—all through the woods. Didn't get back until after four. That's why I was still rubbing her down when you came in.”

“Do you ride alone?”

“Usually. Very awkward, I suppose.” She smiled and offered him a piece of shortbread. “From your point of view, I mean.”

“Mrs. Neilson,” he began, and hesitated.

“Yes?” She looked entirely composed and unafraid.

“Is there any reason that you know of why a girl, a singer, would have a key to your husband's apartment?”

“Reason? Do you mean a printable reason? An excuse? Not that I can think of. I mean, only the usual reason—and that seems quite likely.” She seemed to ruminate for a while. “A singer, you said?”

“Mmm. A singer—with a band.”

“With a band?” She seemed surprised. “What's her name?”

“Jennifer Wilson,” said Lucas without thinking. Oh, Christ, he said to himself. That was bright. “Look, I shouldn't have given out her name like that,” he said. “I'd appreciate it if you'd forget it, if you can.”

“Oh, that's all right. I won't do anything to her, don't worry. I'm just surprised. I thought that Carl—well—you can't tell, can you?” She stared into the fire, apparently considering the oddities of life. “May I ask you a question?”

“That depends,” he said. “Actually, you can ask it, but I don't promise to be able to answer it.”

“Do you know when I can get possession of his private papers—his account books, I mean—and things like that? Not the business ones—they're the property of the corporation, I assume—just the private ones. I'm afraid that there are bills to pay and that sort of thing, and he was in the habit of locking everything up in his safe unless he was out of town. Then, of course, I looked after the household money.”

“Don't you have the combination?”

“No.” She shook her head.

“I don't know. But surely you can have access to anything in the house. Why don't you call his lawyer?”

“Maybe,” she said unhappily. “I suppose I have to call him anyway.”

“Did your husband have any enemies that you know of?”

“Enemies? What kind of enemies do you mean?” she asked sharply.

“Any kind,” he said.

“Not that I know of. He might have, I suppose. Business enemies. I don't know anything about his business.” She shook her head and turned to look out the window toward the stable.

Lucas stifled a yawn and couldn't think of anything else to ask her. “Thank you for your help,” he said lamely. “And for showing me the horses. It's a long time since I've seen such magnificent animals. Do you have someone to stay with you?” he added. “I should be going.”

“Don't worry, Sergeant. There are enough people in this house to guard me. Anyway, my sister will always come over if I need her.” She sounded very tired now. “I'm all right, really. It was a shock, but Carl and I hadn't been what you would call close for some time. I'm not surprised about the singer in his apartment. I have Mark and the horses—I guess he needed something, too. Poor Carl.”

BOOK: Sleep of the Innocent
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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