Authors: Lee Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Table of Contents
In memory of Claire Smith, my friend and agent for twenty-five years
It was their Silver Wedding; such lots of silver presents, quite a show. We must not grudge them their show of presents after twenty-five years of married life; it is the silver lining to their cloud.
The Unbearable Bassington
With many thanks to James L. V. Wegman for all his help
“Is this Christine Bennett Brooks?”
The voice in my ear was female, no-nonsense, and of indeterminate age. “Yes,” I acknowledged. “Who’s this?”
“Are you the one who solved the murder of that man in Oakwood last year?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’ve looked into several murders in the last years, haven’t you?”
“Yes.” If I sounded tentative, it was because I didn’t know where this was going and I was somewhat intimidated both by the voice and by the direction of the words.
“Well, here’s another one for you. A body will be found later today. I want you to be the first to know. I think you may enjoy looking into this death.”
“Are you telling me someone has died?”
“I don’t believe I said that.”
My heart did something crazy. “Ma’am, is someone about to die?”
“I don’t think I said that either.”
“You—you aren’t doing anything to harm yourself, are you?” I was trying to figure out how I could alert the police while keeping this woman on the line when I had only one telephone in my home.
“Let me repeat what I said, Mrs. Brooks: A body will be found later today. I’m not saying where it will be found or whose body it will be—whose body it is,” she corrected herself.
“Who is this, please?”
“Mrs. Brooks, you are wasting your time and mine. I have things to do. I simply wanted to give you a heads-up, and you’re making it very difficult for me. Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I remember how happy— and beautiful—I was as a bride. I remember how handsome and strong and loving my fiancé was—my husband by the end of the day. Sadly, all things end.”
“Please,” I said, feeling panicky. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Don’t—”
“I assure you I have no regrets. I just wanted to say thank you for listening to me and to tell you—” She stopped.
“Yes?” I said anxiously.
“And to tell you—Just a moment.”
I thought I heard another voice and then the sound was muffled. “Hello?” I said. “Are you still there?”
There was a sound, loud and explosive. “Hello?” I said again.
The phone on the other end clattered to the floor or onto a table, and a few seconds later, as I shouted frantically into my phone, a dial tone pierced the silence. A chill passed through my body. Reverting to my oldest instincts, I crossed myself. Then, without hanging up, I put the phone down on the kitchen counter, grabbed my bag and keys, and ran out to the car.
“Just try to stay calm, Mrs. Brooks,” the police officer said.
I had made for the Oakwood police station as fast as I dared. They knew me because Jack, my husband, is an NYPD detective lieutenant, and he has pals among the Oakwood police. I appreciated the uniformed officer trying to calm me, but it did no good. I was nearly in tears, less coherent than my usual fairly calm demeanor, and certain that I had witnessed a shooting over the phone.
“I’m fine. Please listen to me. Something terrible has just happened. Can you trace a call if the caller has hung up?”
“Possibly, but it depends on the circumstances. Would you start from the beginning and tell me what happened?”
I told him about the phone call, the female voice, as much of the conversation as I could recall. “And then there was another voice.”
“On the phone?”
“No,” I said with irritation. “There was another person on the woman’s end of the call.”
“Man or woman?”
“I think a man. I didn’t hear anything clearly. But she stopped talking to me and started talking to him.”
“And then,” I said, swallowing, “there was an explosion— a gunshot, I think. And the phone fell. And then a dial tone came on the line.”
“Sounds like a prank to me.”
“Officer, please. She said a body would be found. I wasn’t talking to a child. This was an adult woman. Oh yes, she said today was her wedding anniversary. Her twenty-fifth, I think she said. That would make her fortyfive, give or take. I don’t think this was a prank.”
“We’ll look into it.”
I don’t want to say he was lying to me, but I felt he was placating me, not addressing me as an equal. “I left my phone off the hook,” I said urgently. “Is there something you can do right now to find out where the call came from?”
“Oh, you did?” He sounded almost joyous. “Wait here a minute.”
I stood in front of the classic high counter and watched him disappear into an adjoining room. I looked at my watch. At least fifteen minutes had elapsed since I put the phone down in my kitchen, since the gunshot rang in my ears. If someone was lying wounded in a house here in town, we could save him if we got there soon enough. Three long minutes passed. I was alone in the outer office of the Oakwood police station.
The phone rang, startling me. Someone inside must have picked it up as it stopped in the middle of the second ring. Come on, I thought. Do something.
The officer returned, a man in civilian clothes behind him. “This is Detective Palermo,” the officer said. “Mrs. Brooks. Her husband is Lieutenant Brooks of the NYPD.”
“A pleasure to meet you. I’ve met your husband. Jack, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Will you try to trace the call?” I was in no mood for chitchat.
“Let’s go back to your house and see what we can do. I’ll follow.”
I dashed out to my car, hoping he would move quickly. His car was parked closer to the building and he waited until I had turned into the street before he pulled out of his space. Less than five minutes later I was unlocking my front door.
“I just put it down without breaking the connection,” I said, handing him the phone, which was making unpleasant noises.
“That was the right thing to do. You can dial a code to get the number of the last call made to this number. If you’d hung up and someone else had called while you were out, that’s the number we’d get. This way we’ll get the number of your strange caller.”
I was relieved I had done the right thing. He took the phone, broke the connection, then turned it on again and dialed a few digits. He had taken a pen and a small notebook out of his pocket, and he wrote down a phone number as I watched. Then he dialed it.
He must have listened to twenty rings or more before he hung up. “Sorry,” he said. “No one answers.”
“Can you get an address?” I knew I was sounding pushy but I was certain that someone was lying dead or was dying in that house, and it was his job to find them.
“Give me a minute. Why don’t you sit down and relax, Mrs. Brooks. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
I was too keyed up to relax, whether sitting or standing. I walked away from him and stood at the entrance to our family room, looking away. He punched in a number, identified himself as a police detective, and asked for information on the number he had written down. It didn’t take long.
“OK,” he said, sounding more casual than I felt. “I’ve got an address. I’ll be on my way and I’ll let you know what happens.”
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to follow you in my car. The woman who called said she knew who I was, but I didn’t recognize the voice. I’d really like to know what’s going on.”
“Sure,” he said, and we went out to our respective cars.
He knew where we were going; I didn’t. I hadn’t even asked if it was a great distance away. My son would be home from school in an hour and a half, and I had to be here or make a quick phone call to find someone to meet him. I kept the radio off in my car so I wouldn’t be distracted and stayed close behind Detective Palermo. He signaled every turn so it was easy to keep him in sight.
I had been surprised when the officer introduced this man as a detective. Oakwood isn’t a very big town, and I wasn’t aware we even had detectives in the police department. It occurred to me that we might share his services with a neighboring town. Oakwood isn’t the kind of community that has a homicide more often than once every several years, although there are occasional break-ins and young people have been known to get in trouble. It was hardly enough to keep a full-time detective busy, but it was comforting to know that someone with that kind of training was available when we needed him.
He stopped at the curb in front of a group of attractive garden apartments and got out of his car. I parked behind him and then joined him at a door.
“It’s upstairs,” he said. “Two B.”
I followed him up and stood nearby while he rang the doorbell. When no one responded, he banged on the door.
“Looks like no one’s home. Let’s see if there’s a neighbor.”
The woman in 2A answered quickly, and Detective Palermo asked her about the occupants of the apartment across the hall.
She shrugged and looked unconcerned. She was an older woman, probably in her sixties, dressed in a cotton skirt and blouse, her hair half dark, half gray, and cut short. “The Mitchells. I haven’t seen them for a while.”
The name didn’t ring a bell.
“You know where they are?” Detective Palermo asked.
“I’m not friendly with them. They complained about things, and I thought it was better to let them go their way and I would go mine.”
“How many people live in their apartment?”
“I never see them come and go. More than one, I’m sure of that. A woman, maybe, I don’t know, fifty. A man. Maybe two men. I guess they’re a family.”
The detective’s slow pace was annoying me. I knew I shouldn’t, but I butted in. “Excuse me, you said they complained about things. Did one of those people complain to you?”
“To me and the building manager.”
“Which one complained to you?” I thought she might give us a description and it would ring a bell.
“The woman. Holly is her name, I think. It was a while ago.”
“Can you give us a description?” Detective Palermo asked, finally doing his job.
“I told you, maybe fifty. Dark hair, thin, bracelets that jingled. Sometimes I would hear the jingle when I was inside, and I knew she was coming or going.”
“Does she work?” I asked.
“Could be. She isn’t around much during the day.”
“You know her husband’s name?” the detective asked.
“Ask the building manager. He’s got that in his records.”
“Did you hear a loud noise there this afternoon?” I asked.
She shrugged again. “I just got home.”
We went downstairs and found the manager, a man in his thirties named Larry Stone, at a desk in a small office. Detective Palermo asked if he could get inside the apartment to investigate a complaint made to the police about a possible crime.
“Sure,” the manager said. He rose from his chair quickly, took a large ring of keys out of a file drawer, and led the way back to 2B. “What kind of crime?” he asked as we walked briskly up the stairs.
“We’re not sure.”
“You can look around. Just don’t touch anything.”
“You can stay and watch.”
Larry Stone rang the bell twice before putting the key in the lock. In a second, he had the door open and he was inside. “Holy—” he said in amazement.
We followed him in and I realized the source of his surprise. The apartment was empty. There was no furniture, no pictures on the walls, no rugs on the hardwood floor.
“They moved out,” he said. “What the hell’s going on here?”
I wondered the same thing. “They didn’t say anything to you?”
“Not a word. They got security coming. Why would they leave without getting it back?”
Detective Palermo walked into the kitchen. “There’s a phone here,” he called. “It’s live.”
I followed him. The phone was on the counter, a traditional instrument with a wire connected to a jack near the floor.
“Will you dust it for prints?” I asked.
He gave me a look I didn’t appreciate. “I have no evidence of a crime.”
“You have the report of a sane citizen,” I retorted. “You know a call was made from this telephone to mine this afternoon. You know I didn’t imagine it. Something’s going on and I think it’s a case for the police.”
“OK, we’ll check the phone for prints,” he said.
I wondered if there was a way to get Det. Joe Fox, who worked for the county, to take over the case. He, at least, would believe my story. I had met him a couple of years ago, when he was as skeptical of me and my story as this man, but he has turned around, largely because I’ve helped him clear some local homicides. Maybe if Jack made a call . . .
“Do you mind if I look around?” I asked.
The apartment had three bedrooms, lots of windows and closets, two nice bathrooms, and well-kept hardwood floors in the living room and dining area. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but wonder why a family would leave such a nice apartment without notifying the building manager, especially when they had a month’s security waiting for them, something I would never do. And why would a woman return to this apartment to call me after having moved out?
Every closet was empty. The medicine chests were empty. If the lease read “broom clean,” the occupants had fulfilled their obligation.
This was no ordinary three-bedroom apartment. It was extraordinary. The large kitchen had a beautiful tiled floor in a pale beige. Against the wall over the counters, just beneath the cabinets, were lights that illuminated the whole counter space. The wood of the cabinets may have been teak—I’m not an expert—and were finished in oil. They almost made my mouth water. The cabinets in my kitchen are older than I am and look it, although we had had them painted, which brightened them up.
The bathrooms were breathtaking, with marble fixtures that gleamed. Mirrors covered much of the wall, including a corner that reflected the background in infinity. I could only call it striking. Each bathroom had a large tub with spouts to shoot water at various levels, and two marble basins.
Whatever the occupants were paying for this apartment, it was a lot of money. They were not people who lived from hand to mouth or even a few steps above that. They were well-to-do and yet they had moved out without a word to anyone, as though they were behind on the rent.