Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
“I’m not sure that we’ll find anything new,” I told Neil as Leo drove us to the Grant residence. “The cops always look at the significant other when foul play is involved. There’s some incredible statistic about murder and romantic relationships. Detective Capri confirmed that’s because there’s usually a motive as well as opportunity, two out of the three biggies needed to make a case hold up in court.”
Neil wasn’t happy, I could tell by the set of his shoulders. But he was with me, so that counted for something. “Which leaves means. Did you find out exactly how Aileene Grant died?”
I nodded. “Arsenic in her dinner.” The internet was a glorious thing. I’d learned more from twenty minutes using Sylvia’s smartphone than all morning at the library, with the added bonus that no one tipped a bookshelf on me. “She worked for the Greys that summer, helped out with cleaning and serving at their parties.”
Neil whistled. “Arsenic.”
“I talked to Sam Ruiz and he pulled the file. Most likely it came from a box of rat poison her mother kept in the Grey’s pantry to treat for rodents.”
“The police are sure it wasn’t a mistake though?” Leo asked. “Like woopsie, someone grabbed the rat poison instead of the baking soda?”
“No. Her mother confirmed that she’d filled her plate from the same trays as the party guests. All the main serving dishes and several plates were tested but Aileene’s was the only one that pinged for arsenic.”
“Poison’s a woman’s weapon,” Neil observed. “So much for your significant other theory.”
“Not necessarily. Remember, Candie Valentino had a girlfriend. Or, and I think this is more likely, the father of Aileene’s baby was married or engaged. Hell hath no fury and all that.”
“You know,” Leo met my gaze in the rearview mirror, “You practically glow when you talk about this stuff. It’s pretty damn creepy.”
I ignored him. “Here’s my theory. Aileene’s young and restless, but beautiful. She catches the eye of the newly shackled in matrimony Mr. Grey and they provide an escape for each other.”
“Shackled in matrimony?” Neil raised an eyebrow.
“You know what I mean. Anyhow, they start up a hot and discreet affair but not discreet enough. So she gets knocked up and somehow the wife finds out.”
“Somehow?” Leo and Neil chorused.
“I don’t know, maybe Aileen decides to hit them up for child support. The how doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mrs. Grey won’t tolerate her good name being dragged through the mud, so she kills Aileene and makes the problem go away. And they have enough money and scary lawyers to cover the whole thing up.”
“Your theory is filled with clichés, not to mention holes,” Leo said. “You’re making a bus load of assumptions about people you haven’t even met.”
“It’s pretty thin, Uncle Scrooge,” Neil agreed.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’ve been around enough wealthy people to understand the mindset. They don’t think the same way we do. If I’m wrong, the universe will prove me wrong.”
“You’re wrong,” Mrs. Grant said forty five minutes later as we sat across from her on her overstuffed floral loveseat.
Dang it. “About what exactly?”
“Well, there’s no way Christopher Grant could be Gillian’s father. He’s sterile.”
My eyebrows crept up. “You’re sure?”
Mrs. Grant nodded, obviously distressed. “Yes. He had the mumps as a wee lad, and could never father children.”
Leo nudged me in the ribs. Neil remained quiet but I could tell he fought a smile.
“But the Greys have a son,” I protested weakly. “Jacob.”
“Adopted.” Mrs. Grant fired the last shot and sank my battleship. My theory gave a death rattle and was no more.
“Besides,” Mr. Grant said, “we know who Gillian’s father was.”
“Was?” A sick feeling squished around in the pit of my stomach.
Mr. Grant nodded. “Aye, he was a local boy. He died in the first Gulf War. Gillian still visits his family when she comes back to town.”
Crap, not only had I been wrong, but I was completely out in left field. And my heart went out to Gillian, another orphan like me who’d lost both of her parents. We didn’t just look alike, our lives were so similar it was unnerving. Was it any wonder I wanted to help find her mother’s killer?
A thought struck me then. “Mr. and Mrs. Grant, is there any way I could talk to Gillian?”
Mrs. Grant frowned. “Aye, she’ll be home tomorrow night.”
“No, I mean, sooner than that. Does she have a cell phone? I could call her.”
“Now wait just a minute.” Mr. Grant’s tone grew stern. “There be no need to upset poor Gillian about this old business. She’s in school and she’s got enough things to worry her mind.”
“Right, I didn’t think. Sorry. Of course the weekend will be soon enough.”
We said our goodbyes. I forced my expression to blandness, knowing we were being watched from a squeaky clean front window.
“What the hell was that?” Neil turned around in the front seat to look at me.
I risked a quick glance over my shoulder. We were safely ensconced in the car and the Grant’s place grew smaller and smaller behind us.
“I had a thought,” I whispered. “If you were a kid and your mom was murdered, what are the chances you’d look into it at some point?”
“Pretty damn good, especially if Gillian Grant is anything like you.” Leo nodded as he turned up the hill to the Grey’s estate.
Neil asked, “Do we have a new theory for this one or are we just going off the cuff?”
“Basically, I want to find out why the Greys bought the Grants’ estate, did nothing with it and then turned around and sold it to your parents over two decades later when the market is at an all-time low. They could have hired someone to do the same thing we’re doing at any time, but they let it fall into disrepair. There’s got to be a reason for it.”
Leo parked in the graveled lot off to the side of the Grey's circular drive. Neil helped me down from the car and hissed in my ear, “Pick your words carefully.”
He wasn’t happy. I knew he wanted to cut and run and forget we’d ever heard the name Aileen Grant. But he respected my choices and, despite his misgivings, he was there to back me up
I nodded in total agreement. After the last humiliation, I really didn’t need to throw any more wild ideas out there just to be eviscerated.
The door was opened by a large and scary woman with a severe bun and small piggy eyes. She looked oddly familiar. The flat black eyes narrowed on me and her nostrils flared as though she caught a whiff of manure on my boots. “You!”
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” My eyebrows drew down. Damn it, where did I know her from?
“Virginia Beach,” Leo hissed, not half as subtle as he probably thought. “You got her ass fired and I took her job.”
It clicked in my brain like a shotgun being ratcheted back. Well, if anyone in this town wanted me dead, dollars to doughnuts I was looking right at her. What were the chances? But then again, considering the Grey and the Senior Phillips families were acquainted, probably better than I’d thought.
“Hilda,” I said to the scary woman and swallowed hard. “How’ve you been?”
She glowered at me from beneath bushy eyebrows, but didn’t speak. I shifted back into Neil. His hand landed on my shoulder, a reassuring weight. He might want to take a strip off of me in private for continuing this investigation, but in public we were united. A team, for better or worse.
“Hilda?” A young woman’s voice called and light footsteps echoed down the massive entry hall. “Did I hear the door?”
And then there was Veronica Grey, all big blue eyes and curly brown hair, innocent as a lamb. The photographs hadn’t done her justice. They’d missed her pixie-like movements and quicksilver smile. She was older than me by almost a decade—I knew by the dates on some of the articles I’d found that she’d been doing charity work when I was still in high school—but she looked several years younger.
“Mrs. Grey.” Neil stepped forward and offered his hand.
She eyed him warily, probably because the bruises around his broken nose and unshaven jaw had taken on a sickly yellowish green tinge. He was dressed well enough, in slacks and a navy sweater, but the mask of healing flesh lent him a sinister air.
“I’m Neil Phillips, Laura and Ralph’s son.”
Her face lit up at the name and her shoulders relaxed. “Oh, I’d heard you were in town. You look just like your father. It’s the chin, I think. Ralph has such a strong chin.” Her voice was accentless, in the way only someone who’d undergone stringent grammar and elocution lessons could achieve.
Neil introduced me as his wife and Leo as a family friend, then got down to business. “Do you have a few minutes? We wanted to ask you some questions about the property my parents purchased.”
“It would be my pleasure.” She smiled genially and asked Hilda to fetch a tea tray. Hilda cast me a dark look and I vowed not to ingest anything she could tamper with. There’d already been one poising on the premises. No need to tempt fate. Or Hilda.
“Come, sit down.” Veronica Grey waved us into a sitting room with a massive river stone fireplace along the far wall and an incredible view of the river. Neil and I sat side by side on the loveseat and Leo perched on an ottoman. We looked hopelessly out of place amidst the splendor of the white and rose room, all of us with our red rimmed eyes and rumpled clothes.
Veronica waited until Hilda had served delicate china cups full of fragrant tea and taken up residence behind her employer before she asked, “What is it you want to know?”
Neil poked me in the back. His gesture was subtle but the message was clear.
This is your show, Uncle Scrooge.
I set my full cup and saucer down on the blindingly white end table and squared my shoulders. “Well, we were wondering if you had heard about the ghost rumors when you bought the place from the Grants.”
Veronica’s eyebrows rose but she answered easily enough. “Of course. Have you met the Grants?”
When we nodded, she continued, “Mrs. Grant is incredibly superstitious. She tells stories to our son, Jacob, all the time about “the wee folk.” So yes, we were well informed.”
“But you bought the place anyway?”
Veronica hesitated. She also set her delicate tea cup aside in a careful manner that spoke more to her embarrassment than care for the fragile thing. “Well, yes. The Grants were having some…well…solvency issues I guess you would say.”
“You mean financially?” Neil clarified.
Veronica’s cheeks flushed. “It’s really not my place to discuss their personal business, but I want you to understand. Mr. Grant came to us and asked if we would purchase the place from them. His asking price fell well below market, but he needed the money up front. Chris and I discussed it and decided there was no harm in investing in the property. We bought it from them, with every intention of selling it back to them in a few years’ time, once they had a chance get back on their feet.”
“That’s why you never remodeled the place.” Leo kept his opinion about that to himself.
“How generous,” I murmured.
“Not at all.” Veronica waved my praise away like a cloud of cloying perfume. “They’d worked for Chris’s parents, had practically raised him. I met them soon after I met the Greys and became friends with Aileene. They were like family to us by then.”