Authors: Archer Mayor
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
Klesczewski didn’t take offense. While Patrol had done a good job with the initial response, taking photos, notes, and statements that he’d considered adequate five minutes ago, now he was thinking, like Willy, that a personal visit was in order.
* * *
Lloyd and Lisbeth Jordan lived on Brattleboro’s northern edge, just shy of the Dummerston town line. It was as close to a suburb as Brattleboro got—a wealthy development that had become over time more like a neighborhood than an entrepreneur’s ambition. Even in such purely capitalist matters, Brattleboro had exerted its quirky socialist influence, softening the hard edge of a real estate venture until it looked merely like a gathering of old hippies, all of whom had just happened to get lucky on Wall Street.
Ron Klesczewski knew the underlying truth, of course, for while a few of the houses did look modest enough, he’d been reliably told that almost all of them exceeded the half-million-dollar mark. Certainly the most garish newcomers had tossed self-effacement aside, and gaudily overindulged in columns, fountains, tennis courts, and pools, eroding the gentility that had once charmed and sedated the older residents.
The Jordan spread was such an example, slapped on a raised denuded slope at the terminus of a paved dead-end road like a Disney castle on a soundstage. All the surrounding trees had been removed and replaced with acres of manicured, putting-green perfection, allowing for a panoramic view of the West River Valley, true, but inviting the winter’s galelike winds to wrap the building in an annual icy embrace. Ron didn’t even want to imagine the heating bills for forty-five-hundred square feet, all housing a single couple.
Not a concern now, of course, in the early summer warmth. The winter just past had been mild, leading most amateur meteorologists to predict a final, late-season snowstorm. But by now, even men as prone to caution as Ron were conceding that spring might be here to stay despite the old-timer’s description of Vermont weather as “nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding.”
Ron drove up the curved, crushed-stone driveway, past a couple of incomprehensibly abstract lawn sculptures fifteen feet tall, and alongside a dry-laid rock wall, the cost of which probably rivaled his mortgage. He stopped opposite a semicircle of granite steps leading up to a colonnaded marble porch and a pair of solid wood double doors that would have thrilled Mussolini.
As he swung out of his car, one half of those doors opened to reveal a stocky man dressed in Docksides, no socks, white slacks, a boldly striped blue shirt, and, of course, a red ascot tucked under his florid chin.
“Damn,” Ron murmured to himself. “No yachtsman’s cap?”
He slammed his car door and raised a hand in greeting, beginning the long climb to where the regal homeowner stood, legs apart and hands on hips, framed by the yawning entrance.
“Morning. You Lloyd Jordan?”
The man in the outfit responded indirectly. “You the cop who called?”
Ron was getting closer by now. “Lieutenant Ron Klesczewski. I head up the detective unit.” It wasn’t his standard greeting, but he figured a little pennant waving of his own couldn’t hurt.
“’Bout time,” was the predictable response. The handshake Jordan gave him was soft, moist, and meant to be perfunctory. It worked. Ron pretended to reach for a notepad and wiped his hand against the seat of his trousers.
“You weren’t here when the initial responders came by?” he asked innocently. “Right after your 911 call?”
Jordan scowled and stepped back into the doorway, allowing Ron access if not actually asking him in. “Flatfoots. Barely knew to scrape their shoes.”
Ron didn’t tell him that he almost hadn’t dropped by, given the thoroughness of their work. He did say, “I’m actually here as a courtesy, Mr. Jordan. There’s little more I can add to what they did.”
Lloyd Jordan’s eyes widened. “You’re joking. You here to give me a bumper sticker, then? A sorry-for-your-loss pat on the head? What the fuck do I pay these goddamned taxes for if all I get is a bunch of Keystone Kops bumping into each other?”
Ron pretended to consult the contents of his pad. “I understand your irritation. What did you lose, by the way? Nothing was noted in the report.”
Lloyd’s pink face darkened and his eyes narrowed, although he didn’t immediately respond. From his years of interviewing secretive people, Ron sensed he’d hit a button.
“Nothing,” came the answer from a woman’s voice back in the house.
Ron stepped inside, his eyes adjusting from the midday sun. He was in a two-story amphitheater—more lobby than entranceway—cool and dark, with a sweeping staircase before him and a palace-suitable chandelier overhead. The owner of the voice was on the fifth step of the staircase, heading down in bare feet, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. She was as country-casual as her husband was Greenwich-chic.
“We were just shaken, is all,” she added, crossing over to him and giving him a cool, firm handshake. “Lisbeth Jordan. Glad to meet you. Thanks for coming.”
“My pleasure,” Ron answered her, meaning it. “Ron Klesczewski.”
“We don’t know what might’ve been taken,” her husband broke in. “A place this size…”
“Some food,” she said, looking coolly at her husband. “Unless he took something of yours I don’t know about.”
“Crap,” he said angrily. “I checked my office, top to bottom. Doesn’t even look like he entered it. Nothing was touched. Probably bypassed it entirely.”
Ron thought that an interesting layering of denial. He turned to Mrs. Jordan. “The uniformed officers mentioned the food. What was it, exactly?”
She smiled slightly and turned on her bare heel. “I’ll show you.”
Both men followed her through a side door, down the length of a lavishly decorated dining room, and through a set of swinging doors into a restaurant-style kitchen. She led them to one of two steel-door fridges and pulled it open, exposing enough to feed a platoon of gourmands.
“You can’t really tell because of all the junk in here, but a jar of pickled herring was opened, and a small bottle of champagne. Both were put back where they belong, which is why I didn’t notice them at first.” She pointed to a counter beyond the butcher-block table in the room’s center. “We got distracted by the milk and cake.”
Ron saw the three-dimensional version of one of the crime scene photos he’d already studied, of a dirty glass and a small plate with the remains of some chocolate cake on its surface.
“The cake was left over from a party two nights ago,” Lisbeth Jordan explained without prompting. “It looks like he had a single slice.”
“Son of a bitch,” her husband growled. “Fucking eating our shit like he owned the place. I would love some time with this creep.”
“The eating is part of this man’s signature,” Ron explained, addressing mostly Mrs. Jordan, whom he considered the more rational of the two, simultaneously wondering what a background check on Lloyd might reveal. There seemed to be a lot of sweatshirt attitude under the yachting clothes. “We are asking all the victims to please keep that under their hats. We like to withhold something from public knowledge, in case we get an impostor claiming to be the crook. Happens sometimes with people needing attention.”
Lisbeth was nodding. “I’ve heard of that. Sure, we’ll play along.”
Lloyd was pacing the length of the kitchen. “Jesus, Liz, this isn’t one of your stupid cop shows. These guys have no clue what they’re doing. Holding back information isn’t going to get them or us diddly.”
Lisbeth smiled and gazed at Ron purposefully—he immediately sensed that she hated the name Liz. “We’ll keep quiet about the food. I promise.”
Lloyd stopped in midstride and demanded, “Why’re you here anyhow? You haven’t done anything too impressive so far.”
“Honey?” his wife inquired. “Didn’t you say you had to call Frank this morning? I can show Mr. Klesczewski the rest of the house.”
A telling silence followed the transparent ploy, but apparently they were both well used to reciting their lines. Lloyd obediently took his cue, nodded curtly, and headed for the door, announcing, “I’ll be in my office.”
Lisbeth made no apology after his departure, except to gesture a little wearily as she offered, “Would you like that tour?”
* * *
In many ways, despite its grandiosity, the house ended up lacking character, reminding Ron of a woman’s face veiled with too much makeup, or of Lloyd Jordan himself, with his white pants and ascot. Each room’s supposed treasures were displayed with the rhythmic dullness of the fancy photos in a high-society magazine. Extravagant, certainly, but reflective only of the bored interior designer who’d coordinated with the builder to stage it all properly—a builder, Ron suspected, who had in turn been working from an out-of-the-box starter castle kit. In fact, in the end, aside from a few photographs, vestiges of Lloyd and Lisbeth themselves were rarely visible. When it came time for them to leave this house, Ron fantasized their doing so in the smallest of moving vans, allowing the next inhabitants simply to fill the empty closets in order to call the place home.
Throughout the tour, Lisbeth answered questions relating to their friends and their general habits, their comings and goings. Some of these inquiries had already been addressed by Ron’s predecessors, others were stimulated by the conversation. The lifestyle that emerged struck Ron as foreign and unenviable.
The last stop was the master bedroom, the most personalized spot in the whole house. The enormous bed was still unmade, its center tellingly undisturbed while both edges revealed where each had swept back the covers to get up that morning. Ron pictured that middle swath as a domestic DMZ, providing privacy as much as extra room for playful wrestling. He was happier with the far more intimate double bed he shared with his wife.
Keeping to business, however, he stepped up to Lisbeth’s side of the mattress and looked down at the night table.
“The Post-it was stuck here somewhere?” he asked.
She sidled up to him and quietly removed the small bottle of lubricant. “Yes. I didn’t even notice it until I sat on the edge of the bed to put on my jeans, after my workout and my shower.”
She reached out and flipped the blanket over the exposed bottom sheet, as if covering herself. “Sorry,” she said softly. “The maid doesn’t come till tomorrow. She had a crisis in the family.”
Ron glanced at his ever-ready notepad. “That’s Grace Duquoin? She have a key?”
Lisbeth looked up at him, surprised. “Yes. Well, of course.”
“You told the others only Nick Penney had access.” Lloyd had described Penney as his “estate manager” to the uniformed team, a euphemism for a subgroup of locals who moonlighted as property caretakers when homeowners were out of town, which among this set was often for months at a time.
She nodded. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I forgot about Grace. She’s almost like family, she’s here so often.” She looked around. “It’s such a big place.”
For the first time, Ron wondered how long she’d been married to Lloyd, and under what circumstances. He wandered over to a dresser beside the love seat under the broad window. Scattered messily across its surface were cuff links, two expensive watches, a wallet … all belonging to Lloyd. Two framed photographs showed a couple of children.
Already knowing the answer, he cast a glance her way and pointed at the photos. “Nice-looking kids. Yours?”
Her expression didn’t change. “Lloyd’s grandchildren. I’m his second wife. We don’t have any children. We don’t even see those two very often,” she added.
He nodded and moved to an open closet door. The light was on inside, revealing an area the size of a small bedroom, lined with racks, shelves, and hanger space, all stuffed with belongings. It seemed that neither Lloyd nor Lisbeth was overly neat. Thank God for Grace, Ron thought, and the money to keep her.
“That’s a little embarrassing,” she said from behind him.
He turned. “The mess?”
She was faintly taken aback. “No. I meant the sheer mass of it all. I never actually thought I was that much into clothes. Lloyd keeps pushing me to buy more.”
He saw her dilemma, if without much sympathy. “It can be a balancing act, all right,” he said vaguely. “But nothing was disturbed in here, that you know of.” He was thinking of Willy’s disgusting suggestion of at least one of the Tag Man’s possible interests.
“No,” she told him. “I checked.”
He resisted looking for her underwear drawer and instead moved back to the master bedroom. As he stood there, taking it in as a whole once more, his eyes fell to the coffee table before the love seat. Given the room’s general disorder, the coffee table’s surface was perfection—from magazines to a small tasteful vase to an antique art deco ashtray—every item neatly placed and squared away. It looked as if a highly efficient maid had applied her talents to this one spot only.
He pointed to the far wall’s doorway. “Bathroom?” he asked.
She smiled ruefully. “If you thought the closet was messy…” She nodded in its direction before adding, “Plus, we’ve both used it since your men came. They did take photographs. Even fingerprinted the toilet toggle thing.”
He knew that. They’d outdone themselves, spending excess time here, no doubt enjoying the combination of low-level crime and high-end environment—a rarity for any of them.
He addressed her embarrassment. “That they did. No need for me to intrude any more, Mrs. Jordan. I’ll get out of your hair right after I have a final chat with Mr. Jordan.” To indicate his intention to do the latter alone, he thrust out his hand for another pleasant shake, adding, “I can’t say your husband is wrong to be pessimistic. We don’t have much to go on, even though this guy has hit so many places. On the other hand, that may be how we get him in the long run—it doesn’t look like he knows how to stop, meaning he’ll screw up sooner than later.”
She frowned at that. “All he ever took was food?”
“That’s all we’ve been told, from people just like you.”
“And he never came back to the same place twice?”
He saw her concern. “Again,” he stressed, “not that we know of. He seems to like the novelty of a new place every time. That being said, you might want to change your locks and maybe have your security looked at.”