I followed my GPS to a mansion playing king of the hill with its neighbors in a Cincinnati enclave of prosperous streets. I drove between two griffin-topped pillars and followed the paving-stone driveway to the front portico. Even at five-nine, I had to stretch to grab the brass doorknocker, cool to the touch. I rapped three times expecting something more vibrant than the dull clunk of metal on metal.
As the third clunk sounded I spied a doorbell buried in ivy next to the door. Way to make a good impression, Abigail. Before I could press the button, the massive wooden door noiselessly opened revealing a portly gentleman about my height with a full head of silver hair and a neatly groomed mustache.
“I’m Abigail Hancock,” I said. “I have an appointment to see Mrs. Tappan.”
“She is in the library.” He ushered me into the grand entrance, past an antique settee, octagonal calling card table and a grandfather clock, which announced ten o’clock with discreet chimes. I realized I was holding my breath and trying to soften my tapping steps on the polished oak floors, as if I were trespassing in a museum. He knocked at the second door down the hallway on the right and, without waiting for a response, entered. “Abigail Hancock, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Stuart. That will be all.”
Stuart closed the door behind him leaving me to face Mrs. Tappan. She remained seated behind a desk and inspected me like an MRI: in thin slices starting at my head and working down to my shoes. Inspection over, she motioned me to sit in one of the cordovan chairs before her. I guessed her for mid-sixties, a female Ichabod Crane: tall, thin, all angles. Clumps of bottle-orange hair protruded from her head. Her short-sleeved dress, patterned in pink roses, revealed a long roped neck and elbows so sharp they could scratch glass.
“I’m not sure what I expected, but you’re definitely not it,” she said. “I thought a bodyguard would be bigger…and dress differently.”
I thought my black pantsuit, pale yellow blouse, low heels and Coach handbag looked good. No one would consider me petite, but if she had been looking for a bruiser, my 135 pounds would hardly satisfy her.
“Perhaps I won’t be what you need,” I said, keeping my voice light and pleasant. “In the Secret Service, I learned the key to most assignments is preventing trouble. Brains, not brawn.” I gave her my best smile.
“That’s what I want,” she said. “Prevent trouble, that is. First, Stuart reported someone has tailed the Bentley when he drove Mother to the zoo. And then, I saw a strange man in the woods behind the house. I am concerned someone may want to harm her.”
“Does she have enemies?”
“Mother? She’s outlived them all. As her guardian, I feel it is appropriate to take precautions.”
“Who else lives in the house?”
“Lives? The three of us: Mother, Stuart and I. The other members of the staff do not reside here. The housekeeper comes three times a week. The cook prepares lunch and dinner, except on Sunday—that is her day off. The gardeners keep their own schedules.” She nodded as though approving the correctness of her answer.
I took in the elegant furnishings. Even the air smelled like old money. “I do not want to sound tacky, Mrs. Tappan, but who would benefit from your mother’s death?”
“Times are tough for charities,” she said. “Maybe one is trying to get its bequest early.”
Possible, but that struck me as highly unlikely. “Does all of your mother’s estate go to charities?”
She had the good graces to blush. “Most goes to me, but I would hardly call you if I intended to do her harm.”
“Does any—” Thumps low on the door interrupted my probe to determine who else might benefit from her mother’s demise.
“Just a moment,” Mrs. Tappan said. She opened the door to an aged sprite in a motorized wheelchair. The new arrival had wispy white hair, a face with a thousand wrinkles and piercing green eyes under a vee of bushy eyebrows.
“Betsy, I’ve asked you time and again not to close doors in my house.” The old lady spoke in a high-pitched, but unwavering voice. “I can’t open them from this infernal contraption. Introduce me to your company.”
“Mother, this is Abigail Hancock, the bodyguard I told you about.” Mrs. Tappan carefully enunciated each syllable in an overly loud voice. “Miss Hancock, this is my mother, Mrs. Wilhelmina Krinke.”
“Stop shouting. I hear you fine. I told you not to waste my money on a bodyguard.” Her eyes glared into mine. “How much do you charge, young lady?”
“Mother, please!” Mrs. Tappan expelled an exasperated breath. “We’ve been over this.” She tugged her hair. With an obvious struggle she formed her face into a smile. In a sugary tone, she said, “It’s a beautiful day, why don’t you enjoy the sunshine in the solarium?”
“Fine. Be that way.” The old lady deftly spun her wheelchair and motored down the hall, muttering under her breath. Mrs. Tappan left the door open and returned to the desk.
I wasn’t sure about Mrs. Tappan as an employer, but the old lady’s vibrant green eyes intrigued me. My grandmother Hancock’s eyes were butternut like mine, not green, but they sparked with the same vitality. I still missed her a decade after her death. Mrs. Tappan and I agreed on a week’s trial employment.
I parked in the garage between an antique Bentley and a late-model Lexus and schlepped my bags to the room Mrs. Tappan assigned me. Once changed into sneakers, jeans and a turtleneck I walked the grounds to assess the security. Motion sensor lights covered the garage, back and front yards. A ten-foot stone wall capped with wrought iron spikes bordered the two-acre garden. The only entrances to the compound were the griffin-guarded driveway and a solid plank door in the rear wall of the garden. Secured from the inside with a titanium lock, the door offered access to the exterior grounds and ravine between this property and the next street.
Crunching leaves announced Stuart’s approach. “Looking for something in particular?” he asked.
At my request, he unlocked the gate. Outside we found an aluminum ladder lying on top of leaves drifted against the wall.
“Gardener?” I speculated.
“Ma’am, all of our ladders are wooden.”
The ladder gave substance to Mrs. Tappan’s fears, although kidnapping or robbery seemed more likely motives than a charity scheming for an early bequest. Autumn had been dry and I found no footprints or trails to prove an intruder had been there. We finished inspecting the surrounding woods and brought the ladder back in with us.
“How long have you worked here, Stuart?”
“Fifty-two years. Until she passed, my wife also worked for Mrs. Krinke.”
“You thought you were being followed?”
“On several occasions I have spotted a lemon yellow Beetle with the funny antenna like some youngster should be running it using a remote control. The driver’s door has a big black slash on it.”
“Did you catch its license plate number or see the driver?”
He closed his eyes. “No front plate, so not from Ohio. White man. Dark poodle hair and beard. Short, could hardly see over the steering wheel.” He opened his eyes. “Sorry, that is it.”
He filled me in on the dates and times of the sightings and the route taken on each occasion. When I thought the conversation had concluded, he cleared his throat. I arched my eyebrows in question.
“You are going to find out anyway,” Stuart said, “so I might as well tell you. I am to receive money when Mrs. Krinke passes on. But I would never do anything to harm her.”
Money is a good motive. I stayed quiet and let him fill in the silence. His jaw worked back and forth until he finally spoke.
“Mrs. Krinke bought an annuity that after her death continues my salary for the rest of my life.”
“Do other staff members have annuities?”
“You would have to ask Mrs. Krinke.”
I drove the neighborhood to determine what surrounded the residence. In front of the house was a steep hill affording views of downtown Cincinnati. On the other side of the back ravine from Mrs. Krinke’s estate, circa 1960 ranch houses mushroomed on both sides of the street. Sidewalks, cracked and lifted by fifty-year-old maples in the parkway, ran along both sides of the road. Bicycles and skateboards decorated front lawns. In the middle of the street, pink chalk outlined a hopscotch grid. At one-thirty on that crisp October afternoon, the streets were empty. I wondered if kids were sneaking over the Krinke’s wall. If so, why?
I scouted the neighborhood looking for places where a sniper might have a sight line to Mrs. Krinke’s house and grounds. Fortunately, the wall surrounding the property was high enough to eliminate any views of the first floor where Mrs. Krinke stayed. Of course, if an intruder got onto the grounds, all bets were off.
I returned to find Mrs. Krinke asleep in the overheated solarium, bright sunshine illuminating skin so pale her blood vessels looked like a subway map. I sat and listened to the soft Classical music coming from hidden speakers. She awoke with a start.
“Whatcha staring at? Never seen anyone sleep?” She fiddled with something in the pocket of her robe. “So Betsy decided to waste my money.”
“She’s worried. May I ask some questions?”
“No one wants to listen to an old lady.”
“I do,” I said, again mesmerized by her striking eyes. I pulled a chair opposite her. “Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt you?”
“For my money? See my rogue’s gallery?” She pointed to the wall covered with family pictures. “I’ve set up a fund for my grand nieces and nephews and their children to use for college. Most of the rest of my money goes to a trust fund to take care of Betsy. After her death, the remainder goes to charities. Betsy won’t control my money, see? That’s what she’s afraid of.”
“She’s not the trustee?”
Something flashed in her eyes before she dropped her gaze. “I love the girl, but she couldn’t find her way out of a wet paper bag without a compass.”
My laughter brought a grin to her face. “How about your staff?”
“I’ve provided for all of them, but since they lose their jobs, I don’t think you would call that benefiting.”
A long “kreee” from outside caught her attention. She followed the flight of a red-tailed hawk until it settled into a large blue ash near the garage. She turned back to me. “I’m afraid, young lady, you’re barking up the wrong tree. No one on the staff wants to harm me.”
My further questions about staff, enemies and anyone interested in buying the property didn’t provide useful information. The one tidbit I gleaned concerned the ladder.
“Stuart’s getting a little forgetful. When I had the ivy cleared from the walls, what? Two, three years ago? We bought a ladder like you described.”
The music changed from something Classical to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Mrs. Krinke sat up taller in her seat. “He wrote this the year I was born, you know. Nineteen-thirteen. Premiered in Paris. The audience hated it. People usually react negatively to things they don’t understand. Like old age. Turn a hundred and with one mistake they think you’re senile. Do you ever make mistakes, young lady? Misunderstand someone’s motives?”
“All the time.”
“Of course you do, but that doesn’t make you senile.” Her eyes flashed like emeralds struck by a laser.
“It was stupid of me. I thought he was trying to be helpful. Do you use computers, young lady?”
At first it was pleasant to be called “young lady” as I was on the downward side of forty, but it was wearing thin. “Please call me Abigail. Sure, I have a computer.”
“Mine is a blessing since I don’t have the mobility I once had. One of my great-grandnephews put all my music on it. I look things up on the Internet. And the kids and I,” she waved vaguely toward the pictures, “IM each other.”
“Except I made the mistake that cost my freedom.” Heaviness imbued her tone; her eyes dimmed.
“Your freedom?” I echoed. Sunlight broke through the clouds and I moved my chair so I would block the sun from shining in her face.
“I thought he was trying to help straighten out my account.” She dropped her head and sighed. “He had my credit card number and called to confirm whether I had bought a vacation package to Alaska. Of course, I hadn’t. He offered to remove the charge, cancel the card and send me a new one. And he told me about a website where I could enter my other credit cards so they could be monitored for suspicious transactions. I should have known better. But he was so helpful on the phone.”
“You’re certainly not alone. Millions are cheated every year.”
“Fortunately one of the real credit card companies spotted an unusual transaction and called me. My stupidity was abundantly clear. I spent the afternoon canceling all of my cards. I had too many of them anyway.”
She seemed to shrink two sizes. “My daughter convinced a judge that I couldn’t take care of my money. She had herself appointed my guardian.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“When you’re old, fairness has nothing to do with it. Always make sure you have your mad money. Make sure.” Tears snaked down her cheeks.
I grabbed a tissue and handed it to her.
“Best advice my mother ever gave me,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Krinke, what was?”
“You should call me Willie.”
“If you’ll call me Abigail.”
“Before my first date, my mother gave me enough money to get home if something happened.”
“You have some mad money your daughter doesn’t know about?”
She looked away from me, dabbing tears from her cheeks. “I think I’ve said enough.”
So this was a game. She wanted me to know something, but I had to figure it out from clues. Before I could try another approach, Mrs. Tappan interrupted us, insisting Mrs. Krinke needed to rest before dinner. Willie winked at me as she wheeled out of the room.
After dark, I dressed in camo and slipped outside. The moon’s halo shone through the clouds, providing sufficient light to reconnoiter. Keeping to the shadows, I walked around the wall and into the woods to a large boulder high on the opposite side of the ravine. Curled next to it, I had an unobstructed view of the grounds. Over the next eight hours the only activity consisted of a family of raccoons scrabbling around an ancient maple, a great-horned owl hooting in the distance and an opossum hissing in surprise at my presence.
After breakfast, I found Willie facing the woods in the solarium, headphones on, left foot tapping underneath the blanket covering her lap. Her hands conducted music in four-four time. Once I sat on the leather ottoman across from her, she took off her headphones, pulled a small black box out of her robe pocket and fiddled with the controls.
“Got to turn my ears on. My hearing aid interferes with the headphones.” Her eyes turned hard. “Betsy informed me I could only go out if you approved and went with me. Your rule or hers?”
“Did you have a particular place in mind?”
“The zoo. I like to sympathize with the animals about being caged without permission.”
“I go on Wednesdays. I like first thing in the morning. It’s quieter.”
I slept during the day, watched the uneventful ravine all night and after breakfast took Willie to the zoo. The VW was not in evidence. I lifted her out of the Bentley into her wheelchair. She settled in, did a quick wheelie and motored up the hill. She was chatting with the gate attendant when I caught up to her. I pulled out my wallet to pay my entrance fee.
She reached up and restrained my hand. “I’ve been a long-time Erkenbrecher Society member. You’re my guest.”
The attendant nodded. “Mrs. Krinke is one of our most treasured supporters.”
As we toured the grounds, it became clear all the staff knew her; many asked if Stuart was okay.
“He’s been bringing me for years,” Willie said in explanation after another request about his health. “Let’s go see the polar bears.”
We watched two bears play a version of keep away with a beer keg. “They look so cuddly,” she said. “But in the wild they’d have us for an easy meal.” She chuckled. “Although the two of us would provide short rations.”
“What a novel way of looking at it,” I replied, enchanted by this elder pixie.
One of the bears fell backwards into the water with a huge splash. We shared a laugh.
“Do you have any pets, Abigail?”
“I travel a lot, it wouldn’t be fair. I used to have cats.”
“Declawed? Or did you let them out?”
“They were indoor/outdoor cats. I knew they might not live as long, but I think they enjoyed life more.”
“Exactly right,” she said. “Let’s go see the monkeys. I like them a lot better now I don’t smell so well.”
It would have been hard not to spot the yellow VW bug that followed us as we left the zoo parking lot. With little effort I maneuvered the Bentley behind the VW and wrote down the Kentucky license plate number. Then I sped up and ran an “orange” light to lose the tail.
After settling Willie at home, I tapped my resources to dig dirt on the bug’s driver. Albert Coletti lived directly across the river from Cincinnati in Covington, KY. At five-one, he was physically small. Size doesn’t matter when you can kill with a gun, which had earned him a manslaughter conviction. It was time to pay the punk a visit.
Coletti’s address was a dilapidated rooming house in a run-down section of Covington. His VW wasn’t in the neighborhood, so I parked a block over and found his room on the second floor. No answer to my knock.
I snapped on gloves and took out my lockpick set. “Imagine that,” I said as the door swung open. “Some people don’t lock their doors in this town.” Entering the room, I clicked the lock shut so I would hear his key in the door. I flipped the switch by the door and a bare bulb hanging from a ceiling fixture flickered on. A cockroach scuttled to the exposed sink drain. The efficiency reeked of stale cigarette smoke and rancid grease. Unwashed dishes covered the kitchen counter and overflowed the sink. An unmade bed took up most of the floor space. Two folding chairs and a table with a broken leg propped up by six telephone books completed the décor.
It didn’t take long to rummage through his quarters, netting a money wrapper for $5,000 and, sealed in plastic in the toilet tank, a handgun with the serial numbers filed off.
Footsteps and the rasp of metal key in metal lock announced Coletti’s return.
The mop head lay prone, nose buried in the orange shag rug before he was aware I was in his apartment. Seconds later, I had cuffed him to the sink.
“Tell me what I need to know, Coletti, or your parole officer gets this souvenir.” I showed him the bag containing the gun. “What do you want with Mrs. Krinke?”
After three minutes of denials, I headed toward the door.
“Hey! You can’t just leave me here.”
“Cops will join you shortly.” I flipped open my cell phone and dialed my answering machine. “I need to report a break-in at—”
“Wait,” he keened. “I never saw him. I swear. We only talked over the phone.”
I hung up. After a couple of false starts, the pissant coughed up the story. Afterwards, I duct-taped Coletti’s mouth and searched his VW, discovering a stash of weed, a sawed-off shotgun and a typed note with information about Willie.
Back inside I ripped off the duct tape. “You’ve been a very bad boy. I have a deal for you. Play nice with me and I’ll forget the whole thing. Otherwise, your P.O. gets a goody bag that’ll keep you penned for years. Got it?”
As I had requested in my phone call to Mrs. Tappan, she, Willie and Stuart were gathered in the solarium when I ushered Albert Coletti in, holding his elbow in a firm grip.
Willie shot me a hard look. “Who’s that?”
“I’d like to introduce Albert Coletti. Please be seated.”
Willie and Stuart traded eye messages honed over fifty-two years. Stuart eased onto the ottoman next to Willie’s wheelchair. Mrs. Tappan settled into a rocking chair in the far corner of the room.
At my prompting Albert spilled the whole deal. The person ordering the hit talked like he had a stick up his butt. The guy had described the house and gardens and where Willie slept. He left the ladder outside with a written note giving details about Willie’s scheduled outings and a five grand retainer with five more promised after Willie was dead. Coletti had used the ladder to scale the wall, but the motion sensitive lighting scared him off. Since then he had followed the Bentley looking for an opportunity.
As Coletti talked, Stuart shrunk into himself. Mrs. Tappan became florid, her hands covering her mouth. Willie’s face morphed to chiseled granite.
When Coletti finished his recitation, I ushered him from the house and reminded him what would happen if he didn’t stay away from Willie. I returned to a silent room. Putting on my most intimidating glare, the one I learned at Secret Service training in Glynco, I said, “The person who ordered the hit and talked like he had a stick up his butt is you, Stuart.” I pointedly stared at him, but he couldn’t maintain eye contact. “Did you want to retire but needed the money? It’s time for the truth.”
Stuart’s mouth opened and closed like a catfish out of water.
Willie put a finger to her lips and Stuart closed his. “When I was nine,” Willie said, “I was quarantined for a month with scarlet fever. I couldn’t leave my room. Red signs plastered the house and my bedroom door.” She flashed a quick smile. “If I ever see a chamber pot again, it will be too soon. We lived on a farm in nineteen twenty-two. My parents put our one radio in my room. When their favorite shows were on, they sat on the other side of the door and I turned up the volume. My mother covered herself, like those Muslim women, to bring food or remove empty dishes or the slop jar. All day I sat at the window and looked out at the fields and woods beyond. It was the longest month of my life.”
“Mrs. Krinke, you don’t have to—” Stuart started.
“I learned a lot from that experience. In this world, I need few material possessions, but friendships and independence are invaluable. Laura Clarke came to my house every day while I was sick. We traded notes. Had to hold them up to the windowpane to read.” She licked her lips. “Stuart, can you get me some water, please?”
Hands on his knees, Stuart grunted and pushed himself up. He poured from the pitcher and handed her the glass.
She took a deep draught. “I have buried two sons and every friend I ever had, except for Stuart. My daughter convinced the courts I’ve lost my marbles because I made a mistake and let a crook get access to my credit cards. My doctors threatened me with pneumonia and death if I continued to go outside in bad weather. So I tried that. What better way to go? But my doctors have been as wrong about me catching pneumonia as they were when they told me my breast cancer was fatal forty years ago.”
I rested my weight against a wall. My Secret Service training didn’t cover this.
“Mrs. Krinke, I really don’t—”
“I have a head of steam, Stuart, and you should know by now I won’t stop ‘til I’m in the barn. I liked talking with my investment advisor and jointly deciding strategy. I enjoyed giving money to my favorite charities: the zoo, the symphony, NPR and the Nature Conservancy. My daughter put a stop to all of that. According to her, I should save my money for a nursing home or for my family.” Willie thumped her chest with a bony finger. “I earned it all with my real estate business. Unlike her dead husband, I’ve provided for the family.”
Willie took another drink of water and exhaled a long, slow breath. “I figure you for a take-charge person, Abigail. Am I right?”
“Me too. I should have hired a lawyer and fought for my rights, but I was too embarrassed. Plus, I originally thought my daughter was doing it so she could monitor what I was doing—just in case I really did start to lose it. That would have been okay. But it quickly became clear she thought I was incapable of making any decisions on my own. When it was time for Plains Indians to die, they simply walked away from the tribe.” She looked down at her legs. “I waited too long.”
“So you asked Stuart to find a hit man,” I said. I turned to Stuart, whose face was a marble mask of tragedy. “I won’t ask how you came up with Albert Coletti. You did it because you’ve been with Willie for over fifty years. But you didn’t agree, so you alerted Mrs. Tappan to the car following you.”
He cleared his throat and croaked, “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“You used your mad money,” I said to Willie. “All along you’ve been hinting, hoping I would figure it out. Well I did. Now what?”
“It’s what I want,” she whispered. “Please allow me this wish.”
I had completely forgotten that Mrs. Tappan was in the room until she pushed out of her chair and looked out the windows. She pulled the hair at the sides of her head before facing us. “For the life of me, I would never have imagined what I have just heard in this room.” Her hands lifted to tug at her hair and with great concentration she lowered them to her sides.
“Mother, look at these pictures surrounding you.” She held one up showing a raft of cute children. “Why do you want to leave them? Why do you want to leave me?”
“Stuart,” Willie said, “could you allow the three of us some privacy, please?”
His head drooped so his chin touched his chest. “As you wish, ma’am.” The door clicked behind him.
“Willie,” I said. “I understand your Indian notions, but as your bodyguard I couldn’t let you do it. Did you know that if the tribe didn’t agree, they wouldn’t let the person go?”
“No,” she said. “Never heard that.”
Neither had I since I had made it up on the spot. “I canceled the hit. The five grand is mostly gone. Here’s what I heard you say. Tell me if I am wrong. You lost your independence and because you see people treating you as so much excess baggage, you have given up on life.” I switched to my fake Yiddish accent. “For you and your daughter, I have such a deal.”
Willie’s mouth twitched a smile. Mrs. Tappan stared at me as though I had morphed into ET.
“Mrs. Tappan, you can return to your mother some of her joie de vivre. There is nothing you can do about her legs—Stuart has to act as her legs—but you can do something about her interests. Allow her to decide with her investment advisor how to handle her investments. Hire your own advisor to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Will you do that?”
After a long pause, Mrs. Tappan nodded once.
“And allow your mother to donate as much to her favorite charities as she did before you took over her finances—assuming your investment advisor doesn’t think it will bankrupt her. Will you do that?”
After an even longer pause, she said, “Yes. I’ll call him in the morning and start the process.”
“Excellent. And Willie, I have a job for you.” Something to occupy your time and mind, I thought. “I want Stuart to videotape you while you tell your life’s story.”
Willie’s brow furrowed. “Why would I want to do that?”
“I’ll bet it’s fascinating. My grandparents are dead and my family stories are lost forever. You owe it to your great and great-great nieces and nephews. I know how much they’ll appreciate it.”
It took a minute before she shifted her focus from the woods. “You’re trying to distract me from carrying out my plans. Suppose I go along with this nonsense, what’s in this for me?”
“First, what you and Stuart have done stays between us.” I closed my eyes and silently prayed my gamble would succeed, that being active would reinvigorate Mrs. Krinke. After a cleansing breath I continued, “If after three months you still want to leave us—well, I know lots of better ways of ending your life than hiring a hit man.”
Mrs. Tappan pulled at her orange hair.
Willie returned her gaze to the woods.
As I waited for their response, a dull ache throbbed behind my eyes. What had I just done?
JAMES M JACKSON authors the Seamus McCree mysteries, BAD POLICY (March 2013) and CABIN FEVER (April 2014), published by Barking Rain Press. BAD POLICY won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods and Georgia’s low country. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, ONE TRICK AT A TIME: How to start winning at bridge (Master Point Press 2012). His website is http://jamesmjackson.com. You can find him on Facebook (http://on.fb.me/17NSLhC) and Twitter (@JMJAuthor – https://twitter.com/JMJauthor).