Examiner’s wagon was already at the Allenby residence when I arrived.
“Callie, over here,” shouted Sergeant Lennie Krebs, who was waving at me from the portico of the white brick, Mediterranean style house. Krebs was a roly-poly veteran from the old school of law enforcement who took it upon himself to teach me the tricks of the unlawful.
I pulled my 1990 Saab to a stop underneath a ragged palm tree on the narrow drive, next to a maroon Honda. I stepped carefully out of the Saab to keep from slipping on the wet brown palm fronds that were everywhere-on the street, on the Honda, on the sidewalk. The latest tropical depression, Elena, had passed through Ponce Bay last night and played havoc with Mother Nature’s handiwork.
But, according to Krebs, that’s the price one pays for living on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
On this post-stormy Tuesday morning, the wind was calm, and the sun was breaking through. Me? I’m Detective Calico Pride, a thirty-two year old, auburn-haired lass, as skinny as a cue stick and tall as a lamppost, with just enough Irish ancestry in me to be stubborn.
“It appears to be an accident,” Krebs said. “But knowing your disbelieving nature, I will reserve judgment until you tell me officially.”
“Am I that difficult to convince?”
He didn’t bother answering that question.
“A lady named Jane Allenby,” he said, reading from a small spiral notebook. “Doc’s prelim says, ‘cause of death, blunt trauma to the head due to fall down a staircase.’”
“Any other details?” I asked as we walked into the house-or, more accurately, the mansion. Original paintings on the walls, neo-modernistic furniture, the works. It even smelled like money.
“Appears she was drunk or drinking heavily when it happened. She was a wealthy real estate agent, around fifty years old.”
“Who found her?”
“Her housekeeper, May Riddick, called it in at around 9:00,” Krebs said. “She lives in a small apartment on the second level.”
“Is there a husband?”
“Yep. According to Mr. Allenby, he worked late last night and stayed at his office downtown. Seems he has a furnished apartment at the office for such occasions. We are trying to verify that.”
“Handy,” I said. “Where is he now?”
“He’s in the den resting. Doc gave him a sedative to calm him down. They took the housekeeper to the emergency room at Memorial. She took it pretty hard.”
The corpse was lying at the bottom of the staircase, dressed in a blue nightgown and white terry-cloth robe. Her head rested at an odd right angle on her bony shoulders. A glass tumbler lay a few feet away. I walked toward Dr. Ward Lansing, the M.E., who was kneeling in front of the corpse with a clipboard in his hand. I peered over his shoulder for a moment, and then backed away to leave him with his work.
In the dining room, I found Chief of Police Winston Fuller talking to a well-built man who looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. The man wore dark slacks and a tight Marlins tank top, probably chosen to show off his hunkiness. His name was Matt Cortez. He was employed as a gardener to care for the Allenby’s five-acre estate. When Fuller saw me, he told Cortez to stay close by then came toward me. Cortez pulled a couple of magazines from his rear pocket and sat down at the dining table.
“It’s clearly an accident,” Fuller said. “No point in you getting involved.”
“Someone see her fall?” I asked.
“What makes you so sure then?”
“Callie, for god’s sake. . . Don’t you ever accept anything at face value?”
“Ummm, not very often,” I said. “Okay if I nose around here for a bit?”
He gave me his disgusted look, the one he uses when he knows I will eventually wear him down and get what I want anyway. “One hour, Calico,” he said, holding up an index finger. “One hour. That’s all.”
I wiggled my fingers at him and said, “Bye, bye.”
That leprechaun dwelling inside my head, better known as “Doubting Tommy,” kept whispering sweet nothings to my skeptical nature. Experience, limited as it might be, taught me that it was smart to listen to the little green nuisance.
I walked over to the dining room, where Matt Cortez was sitting at the dining table reading his magazines and drinking a cup of coffee. I picked up one of them entitled Muscle Up.
“Are you into body building?” I asked.
“Two or three days a week. Once you start, you have to stay at it or you turn to flab.”
“Look at this article,” I said. “It says, ‘Put Muscle on that Skinny Frame in Twenty Minutes a Day.’ Now that’s the kind of help I need to get a real policewoman’s physique.”
“Take the magazine if you want,” Cortez said. “I’ve read through it several times.”
I saw that the magazine was addressed to an Anna Graham, so I gracefully declined his offer.
“Do you live here on the estate?”
“No, I live over at the Bayview Apartments, about nine miles from here. I drive that beat-up Honda out front. They don’t pay me enough to buy a real car.”
“Wow, look at that gal,” I said, showing Cortez a picture of a beach babe. “What I wouldn’t give to have that build.”
“You look fine as you are now,” he said.
“Oh, what a nice thing to say. But down to business. Tell me about your morning.”
“I told everything I know to Chief Fuller, but I guess I can tell it again. I left my apartment at about 7:30 this morning and arrived here at about 7:45. I knew I had a full day ahead with the storm and all. I started with the fishpond, cleaning out the leaves and small branches. And then May came running out and told me about Mrs. Allenby.”
“What was your relationship with Mrs. Allenby?”
He smiled. “She gave me a nice paycheck every Friday morning, that’s all.”
“How about the housekeeper?”
“We speak to each other occasionally, that’s about it. She’s inside, I’m outside.”
“One last question. How long have you worked here?”
“Six, seven months, somewhere around that.”
Dr. Lansing’s report was brief and to the point. Everything he found was consistent with an accidental death. Plus, there was no evidence of a struggle. Score one for the Chief.
“I don’t know the blood alcohol level yet, but I would guess it’s high,” Lansing said. “She must have fallen and hit her head on the corner of this step. There was a bit of hair and skin tissue on the wood that is consistent with the deceased’s hair and the wound on her head. I estimate the death to have occurred between 11:00 and 11:30 last night.”
I inspected the deceased but found little to add to Doc’s evaluation. Her hair had not been combed, and she still had a slight residue of makeup left over from the previous day. The smell of liquor still clung to her body, and there appeared to be a brown smudge on her blue nightgown, probably makeup. Her house slippers had gray rubber soles with a slight ripple on each of them, and the steps were carpeted down the center of the walking area. It would be difficult to slip on them, but for an intoxicated person, who knows?
Hal Allenby was in the den. I pushed open the heavy oak doors and entered unannounced. I found Allenby in front of a huge glass fronted cabinet holding a metal box in his hands. He quickly pulled a small black case from the pocket of his suit coat and placed it in the metal box. Then he placed the box on the shelf, closed the glass doors and locked them.
“Mr. Allenby,” I said. “I’m Detective Pride. I’m sorry to intrude on you at this time, but there are some things I need to ask.”
He was younger than had I expected. Younger than his now-dead wife by about ten years I guessed. He was obviously taken aback by my sudden appearance.
“Yes. I’ll be glad to help any way I can. It’s such a terrible tragedy.”
“How long have you two been married?”
“It was a second marriage for both of us. It would have been three years in November.”
“Any problems? Was the marriage sound?”
“Of course our marriage was sound. What a rude question. Just what are you hinting at anyway?”
“Just routine, Mr. Allenby. What about life insurance? Did you or Mrs. Allenby have a policy on her?”
He crossed his arms, obviously irritated at my question. “Five-hundred thousand dollars,” he said curtly. “With me as the beneficiary. And I am the beneficiary of her entire estate in her will too, if that’s the next question.”
“Ah, you’re psychic,” I said. “One final question. What did you place in that box just as I entered?”
His face went stone cold white with anger. “It is none of your damned business what I put in that box. Now, if don’t you have anything further, I have some arrangements to make.”
Hit the big nerve, didn’t I?
Allenby went to the door of the den and invited me to leave. I took the hint. I left Allenby stewing and walked through the dining area to the rear door of the house, located just adjacent to the kitchen pantry. I stepped out on a small landing and looked around. To the left of the landing was an outside stairway leading to a door on the second level. I eased up the stairs and saw a name on the door that said May Riddick. So the housekeeper had her own private entrance? I tried the door. It was locked, but there was a small window nearby. I put my hands around my face to block the sun and looked in. It was an ordinary looking apartment, a little more cluttered than mine, but otherwise ordinary, with magazines and clothes strewn everywhere.
When I returned to the kitchen, Fuller was waiting for me.
“Do you really think her death was not an accident?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“Well, I know this. Your hour is about over. Wrap things up here and clear everyone out, on the double.”
I nodded but did not say anything. Tommy was still poking around within me with his shillelagh. Maybe the whole thing was just a ghost chase and had nothing to do with her death, but I was not yet ready to concede that possibility. I had already discovered a couple of things that had fueled my curiosity. Luckily, Sergeant Krebs was always ready to help me on the Q.T., so I motioned to him and got him off to one side.
“Lennie, I need a favor.”
He looked over toward Fuller who was walking out the front door. “What do you need?”
I handed him a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Could you check with the phone company, courthouse, or anywhere else you can think of, and see if there is a record of this person living in the area, now or in the past? If so, find out what you can.” The phone on my desk rang at 2:10 that afternoon. It was Sergeant Krebs.
“Did you find anything?” I asked, my fingers crossed.
He told me.
I quickly got on the phone and made a few discreet calls.
I got you now, I thought as I leaned back in my chair with a smile stretching across my face.
Fuller threw a fit when I told him that I was going back to talk with Allenby.
“Calico, I told you we have bothered him enough. So back off,” he said. “It was an accident pure and simple.”
“Trust me, Chief,” I said. “Let me talk to him one more time.”
He glared at me but stood and put on his hat.
We returned to the Allenby mansion at 4:35 that afternoon-Sergeant Krebs, a red-faced Winston Fuller, and me.
May Riddick answered the doorbell. Since I had not met her previously, I introduced myself and requested that she inform Hal Allenby that Fuller and I wanted to see him. She was polite and well mannered as she guided us into the den while she went to get Allenby.
Sergeant Krebs walked toward the rear of the estate.
As she walked away, I took notice of her for the first time. She was a trim and attractive woman, dressed in gray slacks and white pullover. Not as tall, or thin, as yours truly, but one who possessed the solid build of an athlete-maybe tennis or swimming. I guessed her to be in her mid-thirties. Not your run-of-the-mill housekeeper by any means.
She returned in a few minutes to tell us that Mr. Allenby was tied up right now but would be here shortly.
“That’s fine,” I said. “In the meantime, I have a couple questions for you. That is, if you are up to it? I understand you were in the hospital earlier?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m okay now, it was just the shock of finding Mrs. Allenby lying there.”
“How long have you worked for the Allenbys?”
“About eight months, I guess.”
“How did you find out about the job?”
“I don’t really remember. I think a friend told me that the Allenby’s housekeeper quit, so I just called them.”
“And they hired you right away?”
“Well, yes, that’s right.”
“Who hired you, Mr. Allenby or Mrs. Allenby?”
Before she could answer, Hal Allenby walked in to the room. “What now? I thought you said all the questions were finished.”
“Well, uh, Detective Pride wants to clear up a few things Hal.” Chief Fuller said. “I’m sure you understand.”
He did not as much as acknowledge my presence in the room. No hello, how are you, a nodding of the head, or how’s the weather? But hey, I was not there for afternoon tea and chitchat.
May Riddick turned to leave.
“No, please stay Ms Riddick,” I said. “We’re not finished yet.”
She stopped and stood in the doorway with her hands clasped in front of her. Krebs and Cortez came in and stood beside her.
“Mr. Allenby,” I said, walking over to the glass fronted cabinet. “I would like to see what you put in the metal box this morning.”
He turned to Fuller. “I told her yesterday and I will tell you both now, that is none of your business.”
The Chief looked as though he were about to say something to me, but restrained himself.
“Well, we have a couple of choices here, Mr. Allenby,” I said, taking the Chief’s silence as permission to continue. “We can ask Sergeant Krebs to go to Judge Everhard for a warrant while we sit here and amuse each other, or you can save us all a lot of grief by agreeing to show it to us. After all, I already know WHAT it is. I would just like to see it for myself.”
“You know? How could you know?”
“I know a jewelry case when I see one, and there are only a few jewelry stores in Ponce Bay,” I said. “I found the right one on the second call.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Allenby insisted.
“What happened?” I asked “Did Mrs. Allenby find out about your extra-curricular activities and threaten to leave with all her millions if you didn’t stop your dilly-dallying?”
Allenby twisted in his seat. He looked at me, then at Fuller. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here. Jane just fell. She was drunk and fell, that’s all.”
“Sergeant,” I said. “Go to Judge Everhard and get that warrant.”
Allenby took a deep breath and threw up his hands. ”Okay, Detective, you win.”
He then went to the cabinet, retrieved the metal box and handed the black case to me. I opened it and removed a heart-shaped locket, surrounded by diamonds, on a gold chain.
“Nice,” I said. “The inscription reads, ‘To May With All My Love, From Hal.’” Allenby looked at Riddick. “I was going to surprise you with it tonight May. Then, when all this happened…”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the Chief’s back had stiffened in his chair.
“We know exactly what happened Mr. Allenby,” I said. “And we know who was responsible for the death of Mrs. Allenby. Your playmate, May Riddick, is really a woman named Anna Graham. Matt Cortez and Anna Graham initially rigged this whole thing to blackmail you. She would get you into her bed, which was easily accomplished, and then they would threaten to tell Mrs. Allenby about it. Then as time went by, they would keep ratcheting up the dollars, more and more. Her living in the same house made it rather convenient for those nighttime trysts, didn’t it? And a wife accustomed to drinking the night away made it all that much easier. But then greed got the better of them.”
“You’re crazy,” Graham said.
“Don’t say anything else Anna,” Cortez shouted.
“I knew you were lying from the very start,” I said, looking over at the hunk. “You said that you arrived here at 7:45 this morning. No way, Jose. Your Honda was covered with dead palm fronds just like those on the street. That car was here last night during the storm.”
“That has nothing to do with me,” Graham said quickly.
“I beg to differ,” I said. “Cortez spent the night in your apartment, like he did in the pre-Allenby days when this plan was hatched. I would hazard a guess Mr. Allenby, that it was your friendly housekeeper who suggested Cortez for the gardener’s job. Am I right?”
Allenby hung his head. He didn’t even have to answer the question.
“Cortez even took a few outdated body-building magazines from Anna’s cluttered apartment to pass the time. He knew he wouldn’t be working today. It would be a day of mourning. Those magazines had mailing labels addressed to Anna Graham. I saw similarly titled magazines strewn about her apartment. I couldn’t see the mailing labels on them, but it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. From there, it was not difficult for Sergeant Krebs and me to dig out the real Anna Graham-you, the so-called May Riddick, former manager of the Sweet Buns Gym.”
Allenby stared at Graham with disbelieving eyes. “You killed Jane?”
“No, it wasn’t me,” she said. “It was Matt…”
“Anna, shut up!” Cortez yelled, trying to break away from Krebs’s grip.
“When I told him you were spending the night in town, he said he had a quicker way for us to become rich. He said if we got rid of that drunken wife of yours, you and I could then get married, and we would be rich. I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen. He just waited outside the bedroom door, and when Jane came out to go downstairs as she always did, he shoved her down the stairs.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You two could have become rich. But only after you killed Hal Allenby too. That was the next step in your plan. Take the two of them away Sergeant.”
“With pleasure, Detective.”
Hal Allenby sat with his head buried in his hands, shocked at what he had heard. Chief Winston Fuller looked over at me, nodded his head in appreciation, and winked.
Then I heard my good buddy, Tommy, whisper in my ear, “Nice work Lass, now let’s go find an old fashioned Irish pub and split a pint. We might even invite the Chief.”