Sharon Knowles’s client arrived five minutes early. With the morning’s jackhammer artists on lunch break, she heard a stiff pounding erupt on the downstairs door. She swiveled her chair away from the computer’s dying screen and hurried down the steps.
“Sorry but we’re big on security here,” Sharon said letting the lady inside. “My office is first door on the right. Head on up. I’m right behind you.”
“Two locked doors,” said the youngish lady. “Upstairs and downstairs. That’s some security.”
Medium in stature, she moved with athletic precision on the pads of her feet encased in ratty red Nikes. Her short cropped hair complemented Sharon’s except it was a peroxide bleach. Sharon’s eggshell white was natural. Something else about her stood out. She was, as Ray Butcher liked to say, a rough customer.
They entered Sharon’s small, tidy office. The lady’s cursory glance around the space expressed neither approval nor disapproval. Instead, while seating herself, she assumed a brusque manner. “I’m in trouble,” she blurted out before introductions.
Sharon sat behind the green metal desk and leaned her forearms on its edge. “You’ve lost me, ma’am. Tell you what. Let’s go from the top,” she said. “For a start, are you Arlene Jones? Did we chat a bit earlier this morning on the telephone?”
“Yes, that’d be me” she said. “Mrs. Arlene Jones. I’m no longer married, though. My husband, Whit, died. That makes me a widow. Christ Almighty, I’m only 32, too. It’s a helluva age to label yourself a widow. Next thing, I’ll be an old maid.”
“You’ve a ways to go yet,” said Sharon. “Your husband died a violent death, Mrs. Jones?”
“Hell, it’s Arlene. Mrs. Jones was my grandma’s name. Yeah, Whit was murdered. In cold blood.”
While her agitated client chewed on a fingernail, Sharon hazarded a guess. “You came to me to track down his killer?”
“You catch on kinda fast,” said Arlene before checking herself. “Look, I take back that crack. I’ve got no cause to barge into your office acting spiteful. My apologies.”
“Accepted,” said Sharon. “So, the police are slow in their homicide investigation?”
Anger bulged sinewy cords in Arlene’s neck. “As molasses in January. Wait, there’s more, Sharon. May I call you Sharon? Great. I’ve got a second problem, so get this part. Whit’s will was altered on the sly. The beneficiary was changed.”
“You, of course, were the original one?”
“Damn straight,” she said. “Why Whit did it has me in knots. We had, you see, a strong marriage. Does that strike you as unusual in this day and age? Anyway, when his lawyer, Mr. Baxter, whipped this on me, I blew my stack. It had to be a mistake. A sick joke. Mr. Baxter, though, didn’t josh me. That’s what Whit stipulated. I saw his signature inked on the new will with my own two eyes. He must’ve torn up and threw away the first will.”
Sharon bobbed her chin. “Whit had his reasons to create the new will. What were they?”
“I don’t know. I do know the cops are throwing me hard stares,” said Arlene. “But I did not kill my husband.”
“Not to worry. The police investigate family members first to rule out as suspects. I’m curious, though. Where do Whit’s assets go now?”
“His favorite charity -- ”
The remainder of Arlene Jones’ sentence was cut short by the teeth-jarring jackhammers back at busting up pavement. The workers’ lunch was obviously over. Sharon signaled her client not to try and outtalk the clamor. Scribbling, she wrote on a pad: “Show me where Whit’s body was found!”
Arlene, already up out of her chair, motioned her hand to hurry.
* * *
“My Mazda needs brake work,” said Arlene. “Our mobile home carries a mortgage. I’ll get out newspaper ads to sell Whit’s bass boat. I despise the damn thing.”
“I understand,” said Sharon, wondering how and if she’d ever collect her fee. This client’s sad story, however, intrigued her. She gassed the Honda, and they edged away from the traffic light. “Why was Whit murdered on the earth dam?”
“I’ve no earthly idea,” said Arlene. “We never went to Burke Lake. We’re not part of the picnic-and-woods crowd. We were more into NASCAR and cut-rate beer.”
“Was there water in his lungs?” asked Sharon.
“Not that I know of,” said Arlene. “I don’t know what all was in the coroner’s write-up. Whit took a full blast of 00-buckshot from a two-pipe twelve gauge. Smack dab in the chest. That’s what killed him, I reckon.”
Jotting a mental note to check with Captain MacSorley, her former boss on the Bay City Police Department, for a copy of Whit’s postmortem, Sharon left-turned onto Ox Bridge Road. Midday traffic was light, and they made efficient time.
Burke Lake was once part of a teeming apple orchard owned by Alma Stocking. As a small girl, Sharon had known Ms. Stocking, a kind-hearted lady who tended the apples in her spare hours. The farm prospered. Then the federal government traipsed along and claimed eminent domain, earmarking the property for an airport. When those plans fell through, Burke Lake Park was created. A few surviving apple trees blossomed every April, reminding Sharon of Mrs. Stocking. A perfect place for a corpse, it left her feeling melancholy and wistful.
“I knew the lady this land belonged to,” Sharon told her client as they pulled into the pea gravel parking lot. “The government bought it out from under her. It near broke her heart in half. She was never the same again, died unhappy and miserable.”
“Fricking government,” said Arlene. “It’s not been a help to working folks since Clinton left office.”
“I know the path leading to the dam,” said Sharon.
Arlene hesitated. “It’s spooky there.”
“You’re maintaining fine,” said Sharon. Her eyes roved over to Arlene who didn’t act flustered or skittish. A strong hunch told her this lady had no part in her husband’s death no matter which way police suspicions pointed.
“Two uniformed cops came and got me,” said Arlene as they strolled through the shady woods. “The lady cop was nice. Her sergeant -- a big ugly lug -- I didn’t much care for. They were running the good cop, bad cop con on me. Like on TV. Too bad it was a bust. I was simply a bereaved wife sobbing my eyes out.”
“Wasn’t Whit covered up by a sheet?” asked Sharon, incredulous.
“He was,” said Arlene. A bit later, she said, “As if that made a fat difference.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Sharon. “Really, I am, Arlene.”
“Thank you for saying that, Sharon. Your sympathy and help are great.”
“Have you retained a lawyer?” asked Sharon.
“Why? I’m innocent,” said Arlene. “Plus which, I can’t afford one. All I need is a good PI. And I got one.”
“I know one who might work pro bono on a case like yours.”
“Robert Gatlin. His offices are in Middleburg.”
“Here we are,” said Arlene.
At a quarter distance across the earth dam, the two ladies halted. Set-faced and pale, Arlene pointed downslope to the pebbly shoreline. “Right there my Whit laid. His chest rented apart. Raw and red as chuck beef. I puked over yon. Ask the man and lady cops.”
“Good Lord,” said Sharon.
* * *
Night. Alone. Frustrated. Sharon camped out in front of her television set. It sat mute. Her contemplative stare was lost in the screen’s green inertness. The angle the lamplight hit the tube’s glass reflected her troubled profile. She squirmed in the armchair. The strawberry wine cooler on the TV tray sweated, its seal uncracked.
A propos of nothing, Sharon recalled how Sherlock Holmes at such low points sank into extended periods of brooding before in a fraction of an instant the critical clue flew into his head. Viola! Dr. Watson, come here, quick. I need you! Or did he say it that way? Sharon couldn’t recall. No matter.
For Sharon, nothing so brilliant crystallized in her mind. This case’s tough part, as she mulled it over, was motive. Why would somebody want to slay Whit Jones? And in such brutal fashion? A shotgun blast to the chest at pointblank range was radical stuff. Who stood to gain from it? Her client, Arlene, who didn’t get a penny more, had no real mercenary motive. At first blush, Whit and Arlene seemed to have enjoyed a solid marriage.
Sharon speaking in a toneless mutter moved on. “Here’s a key question: why did Whit Jones go to Burke Lake’s dam at night when it was closed? There wasn’t another soul around. Aha. I thank you for that, Sherlock. It was ideal for a secret rendezvous. So maybe a second lady was in Whit’s life, the other Mrs. Jones.”
Pleased with her progress, Sharon next tackled the will Whit had seen fit to adjust. Why? That piece to the puzzle didn’t snap into place as easily. She picked up her cell phone and raised Captain MacSorley at home. The background din was a television’s raucous blaring. NYPD Blue, she identified from the theme music.
“Can you nudge down your set?” she asked him.
He complied. “What’s on your mind, Shar?”
“I took on a new client. Arlene Jones. Her murdered husband turned up at Burke Lake.”
“Along the dam from fatal shotgun wound to the chest?” said MacSorley. “Yeah, I know the case.”
“Is she good by your people for the murder?” asked Sharon.
MacSorley snorted. “I can’t share proprietary information on an active homicide investigation even, with my god-daughter. Moreover, she should know better than to quiz me.”
“If Arlene is a suspect, then don’t say anything,” said Sharon. After the meaningful silence, she said, “You’re barking up the wrong tree. Arlene didn’t kill Whit Jones.”
“No arrest warrants have yet been issued,” Captain MacSorley dryly noted. “I’ll tell you this much. Neighbors we canvassed said in recent weeks they had loud altercations. Plus, the wife has an abrasive personality.”
“That doesn’t make her a killer,” said Sharon.
MacSorley changed topics. “Police work, bah. Do you have anything better to chew the fat about?”
They chattered for a few minutes before Sharon begged off by pleading an early rise the next morning. A little later before drifting off to sleep, she had an inspired idea pop into her head on where to begin the next day. “Thanks again, Sherlock,” she mumbled before turning over to her side and falling into a restless, dreamless slumber.
* * *
Les Baxter was your typical lawyer. In his office the next morning, Sharon heard him drone on and never get to the meat of anything. She found her attention wandering out the window to watch a three-man crew tearing up roadway by a strip mall. Construction went on everywhere. When the big-shouldered construction worker lifted a jackhammer from the truck, she inwardly moaned.
“Mr. Baxter,” she said to interrupt the attorney. “Give me the straight skinny. Why did Whit Jones alter his will? For such a bizarre request, you must’ve wondered why he cut his wife out.”
“Whit stayed button-lipped about it,” said Mr. Baxter. “I didn’t ask him why. Oh, I may’ve rolled my eyes or some such drama, but I’m paid to execute my client’s wishes, not to question their motives, no matter how outlandish.”
Raising her hand, Sharon sneezed. A pungent cigarette pall hung in the office. Her irritated eyes blinked back tears.
“God bless you,” said Mr. Baxter.
Nodding a superfluous thank-you, Sharon opted for a different tack. “Can you disclose the charity benefiting from Mr. Jones’ bequest?”
“Do you have a need to know?” asked Mr. Baxter.
Sharon smiled back at him every bit as sardonically. “My client, the dead man’s wife, does, yes.”
“Except that Whit’s will expressly freezes her out,” Mr. Baxter said.
“Tell you what. Why don’t I march out of here and look it up for myself? A probated will is a matter of public record,” Sharon said.
“Touché,” said Mr. Baxter, his imperious smile wilting. “I’ll spare you the trouble. Whit diverted his estate to the Native American Caretakers.”
“They sound like a worthy cause,” Sharon lied, lifting herself out of the lumpy chair.
“Indeed,” said Mr. Baxter. “Before you leave, here, take one of my business cards.”
“Thanks but I already have a lawyer in my corner,” said Sharon.
Sharon resented Baxter’s grating nosiness on top of his greasy manners. “Robert Gatlin if it’s any of your business.”
Mr. Baxter shrank back. “Robert Gatlin. He’s a heavy hitter. Have fun reading Whit’s will.”
Sharon squinted at him. “No thanks to you, counselor.”
“Good day, Ms. Knowles,” he said as a backhanded way of dismissing her.
* * *
Arlene was livid, her glass-hard eyes slit. They’d convened in Sharon’s office. The water main fixed, calm was restored, and they had a normal conversation. “I’ve never heard of such an organization,” she said. “Who are the Native American Caretakers?”
“I dunno,” said Sharon. “The Chamber of Commerce shows no record of them.”
“Are they in the Yellow Pages?” asked Arlene.
“It’s too new to be listed,” said Sharon. “I picked the street address off Whit’s new will. They’re located on Lee Highway above the Circle.”
“That’s several minutes from here,” Arlene said.
“We can go in my Honda,” said Sharon, not trusting Arlene’s circumspect brakes. “On second thought, maybe it’s not such a brilliant idea for you to show up at their door.”
“Nonsense,” said Arlene. “Our cover story -- ain’t that what you PIs call it? -- to get in will be two ladies looking to do volunteer work for nonprofits. How can they turn down our offer of free help?”
“True enough,” said Sharon.
As Sharon drove, they talked and Arlene asked, “Do you like being a PI?”
Before fielding the question, Sharon realized they had yet to discuss the matter of her fee. Extra copies of her contract lay folded up in the glove compartment. Deciding now was a gauche time to broach the topic, she gave Arlene a pat answer. “I like helping troubled folks such as yourself,” Sharon said.
“Much money in it?” asked Arlene.
“If all my clients pay me in a timely fashion,” said Sharon, “I can make bank and save a bit for my old age, too.”
“Of course, I’ll meet your going rate,” said Arlene. “I can pay my own way. Give me a few weeks.”
Sharon squirmed. “That comment wasn’t put out as a hint. We’ll settle later.”
“Swell by me,” said Arlene. “As long as you understand this ain’t a charity gig.”
The building they sought sat cattycorner to the duckpins bowling alley. It was built of dun-colored brick and supported a red mansard roof. Sharon parked them behind a pyracantha jungle, its profuse berries a fiery orange.
“This neighborhood is a dump,” said Arlene.
Sharon agreed. “It gives me the willies, too.”
They piled out and sidled through a dented steel door. Both ladies blinked in the semi-darkness. There was no elevator. A flight of concrete stairs took them up to the second floor, where they invaded a stuffy corridor. A hand-drafted cardboard sign taped to the first door read: NATIVE AMERICAN CARETAKERS HEADQUARTERS. As Sharon pushed the doorknob, Arlene touched her.
“It looks about right for a fly-by-night operation,” she said.
“Now, now. Put on a happy face and smile,” said Sharon. “Remember we are two lady volunteers.”
“I’m Mrs. Snodgrass, and you can be Miss Crabapple.”
“Snodgrass? Crabapple?” Arlene said. “Can we pass for a pair of mousy librarians?”
“You’ll do fine,” said Sharon. “Follow my lead.”
“Then lead on, Mrs. Snodgrass.”
“Why thank you, Miss Crabapple.”
The suite they entered contained only the one desk, a bat black wood monstrosity. A tall, erect lady sat perched in the chair. Her bobbed hair was dyed orange-red, a match with the pyracantha berries outside.
“Yes?” she said gazing up from reading a ladies fashion magazine. Her smile, Sharon noted, was perfunctory and fake as her hair coloring. Her exposed teeth were jagged and predatory. Sharon’s willies sent a new shudder up her spine.
Arlene, nervous, talked before Sharon could get a word out. “This is Mrs. Snodgrass. I’m Miss Crabapple. We’re here to help out.”
“Help out?” The lady’s confused expression regarded them.
“To do volunteer stuff,” Sharon said. “Post stamps, answer phones, make the coffee. Whatever.”
“We’ve no need for extra assistance,” said the lady. “We’re pretty new and still setting up shop.”
“Is Native American Caretakers just yourself?” asked Arlene.
“Oh no,” said the irritated lady. “We have a staff and remain small by choice. Look, my attorney is due any second now. You really must leave.”
Arlene, despite Sharon’s pointed glance, barged ahead. “Good lawyers, so hard to find, are a godsend. Who is yours?”
The lady fumbled for a ready lie, then tossed out what really lingered on her tongue. “I use Les Baxter. Except he’s too busy to accept any new clients.”
“Aren’t they all?” said Arlene. “Well, come along, Mrs. Snodgrass. We’re not needed or wanted here.”
Turning, Sharon smiled back at the lady as they filed out the door. Once in the stairwell, she grasped Arlene’s forearm. “What is going through your mind?”
“What goes through any suspicious wife’s mind,” said Arlene. “That lady was Whit’s easy action on the side. He denied ever having an affair. I believed him up to a point. She’s the one.”
“That’s quite a leap to make,” said Sharon. “We’ve no proof.”
“Wrong. Did you smell her perfume? I did. And the nose knows. Whit these past weeks reeked of the same stink.”
“But, Arlene, any lady could buy and wear that brand,” said Sharon. “Although I’ve never smelled a cedary lady’s cologne before.”
“Her exotic tastes in perfume,” said Arlene, “set it straight in my mind. She’s the other Mrs. Jones.”
* * *
Arlene and Sharon were stumped on how to prove that Whit Jones had an affair with the Native American Caretaker’s secretary much less make any headway on solving his murder. Perfume by itself was flimsy evidence to go on. They were back at Sharon’s office.
“We need a lawyer’s input to figure out Baxter’s involvement,” said Sharon.
“That Gatlin fellow?”
“Yes. I’ll put him on the speaker phone,” said Sharon. “I better warn you. Gatlin can be egotistical and high strung. Don’t let it rankle you. It’s part of his shtick.”
Gatlin, however, was an indulgent mood, quite amendable to charming two ladies. He listened without interruption to Sharon’s chronicle of the case thus far before speaking. “I’ll tell you outright, Arlene. Whit didn’t doctor his will to avenge your killing him if you ever discovered his infidelity. He didn’t need to, darling. His lawyer, I’m sure, advised him as much.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Sharon.
“Our state has a slayer statue,” said Gatlin. “Simply put, if Arlene is found guilty of having pulled the trigger to kill Whit, she doesn’t inherit a penny. It’s the law.”
“Mr. Gatlin, why did Whit change the will?”
Instead of a reply, Gatlin asked, “Who is this Les Baxter? That name rings a bell. Didn’t he come up for a disbarment hearing a while back?”
“He represented Whit Jones and now the Native American Caretakers,” said Sharon.
“It’s screwy how Baxter’s client Whit left his worldly wealth to a charity that Baxter also happens to represent,” said Gatlin.
“And where Whit’s whore also works,” said Arlene, her tone bitterly brittle.
“Three dots, and they all connect up to Baxter.” Gatlin sucked between his teeth. Sharon and Arlene stared at the speaker. “It sours my stomach to think it.”
Sharon said, “What, Baxter murdered Whit Jones?”
“It’s a better than even bet,” said Gatlin. “Look, don’t do anything just yet. Let me do some poking around.”
After they severed the connection with Gatlin, Arlene folded her head into her hands and began crying in hoarse sobs. Sharon didn’t have a license to fix hearts broken by lying, cheating, and betrayal.
* * *
Captain MacSorley, a large and blocky man, fit inside Sharon’s Honda gingerly. It didn’t seat him comfortably even with the bucket seat shoved all the way back. She mashed on the gas and they rolled out of the station house’s parking lot.
“Where is Lawyer Gatlin?” he asked her.
“At my office with Arlene Jones, my client,” replied Sharon. “You’ve never seen my office, have you? It’s a small room overtop a self-storage rental facility. My landlord, Ray Butcher, lets me have it for a song.”
“Great,” said MacSorley. “Doing this is highly irregular.”
“You’re only angry because Gatlin is running this show,” said Sharon.
“I am the captain of police,” said MacSorley. “Gatlin is a grandstanding lawyer chasing rich old ladies and headlines.”
“Gatlin is helping me on this case,” said Sharon. “As you are. You’ll have to set aside your petty professional jealousy and work with us.” They moved again in the Honda. “Jealousy?” said MacSorley. “Me envious of Gatlin? Not on your life. I am the captain of police.”
“He gets TV interviews and you don’t, Captain,” said Sharon. “It bugs you to no end. Like I said, this isn’t about you boys. We have an arrest to effect and get Arlene off the hook.”
“What did Gatlin unearth on this Baxter?” asked MacSorley.
“Patience, Captain. I’ll let Gatlin lay it out for you,” said Sharon. “All I can say is I have to agree with his approach.”
As they turned into the self-storage facility parking lot, MacSorley bit his lip. He then followed Sharon up the stark steel stairs to her second-story office. “When are you getting a real office?” was his only comment.
Sharon’s office with four people crowded inside it was intimate. The only three seats occupied, MacSorley stood behind Arlene and Gatlin. The two men exchanged curt nods before Gatlin arose and extended a hand. They shook and Sharon behind her desk facing the group beamed her approval.
“Okay Gatlin, let’s have it,” said MacSorley. “Time is tight.”
“Right. Well, it’s simple, captain. Baxter is a scammer along with his female accomplice.”
“Whit’s whore,” Arlene said with thunder in her eyes.
“Not entirely,” said Gatlin. “It was a planned seduction and murder. Baxter and she have pulled this con before in Montana. Only the victim wised up and caught on to what was up before he ended up dead and the bogus charity made off with his estate. He told authorities and after an investigation Baxter was disbarred. He simply moved on to greener pastures here.”
Arlene’s face blanched. “You mean Whit was duped?”
“By one of the slickest pair in the business,” said Gatlin.
MacSorley stirred. “What do you need from me?”
“Expedite a search warrant,” said Gatlin. “We’re seeking a murder weapon.”
“A double-barrel twelve gauge shotgun,” said Sharon. She pushed the desk phone at the captain. “Flex some of your muscle, Captain.” Gatlin laughed.
“All right, if it solves a homicide, I don’t mind,” said MacSorley.
* * *
Three weeks later, Sharon arrived at the self-storage facility early. Seated outside the downstairs door to her office was Arlene Jones. Despite a glum, grim face, she smiled and waved at Sharon who parked and hopped out of the Honda.
“I’m back,” said Arlene. She waved a brown envelope drawn out of her shoulder bag. “This is a check for the balance I owe you.”
“I’m sorry for what this has put you through,” said Sharon, slipping the envelope into her own purse. “Walk with me upstairs. I have a final something to show you.”
Once they were in the office, Sharon gave her client a police report. Sighing, Arlene scanned through it. “Baxter and his wife,” said Sharon, “were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud through the fake charity.”
“What about murder? They killed Whit!”
“That’s coming soon. The fraud charge is just to hold them while the cops get all the evidence for the murder charge.”
“Fabulous,” said Arlene.
“There’s more,” said Sharon. “Take this, too. It’s Gatlin’s phone number. You’ll now get the entire estate, see? Whit’s will should be declared invalid, and by law all his property will go to you as his wife.”
Only then did Arlene begin to grasp the improvement in her circumstances. “What if there’s a snag?” she asked, skeptical.
“That’s what Gatlin is for,” said Sharon. “You call him. He’s the lawyer wearing the white hat.”