Authors: Nancy J. Cohen
by Nancy J. Cohen
Copyright (c)2002 by Nancy J. Cohen
First E-Reads Edition 2004
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"If you succeed, I'll sell you my half of our jointly owned property," Stanley Kaufman offered. "You'll double your rental income and get rid of me all in one swoop."
Marla Shore gave her ex-spouse a sardonic grin. "Oh joy. All I have to do is solve a murder which _you_ may have committed."
"You've been wanting to get me off your back. Well, this is your chance. Don't make a hasty decision you'll regret later."
Dressed in his high-powered attorney suit, Stan appeared out of his element in the stark confines of the city jail. Marla's gaze traveled from the painted gray concrete floor to the metal sink and toilet unit at the opposite end from where they stood. The room stank of urine and stale sweat. A built-in bench qualified as the sole piece of furniture; residents didn't stay long in a holding cell. Fluorescent lights lit harsh angles on walls that pressed too close. Gray scored as the operative color, coating the solid door with its secured viewport. It seemed the wrong choice in a place where society drew definitive lines of justice.
Stan would have to hire his own partners if he was actually charged with murdering his third wife, Marla thought. "Why do you think I can find Kimberly's killer? You've got money. Engage a private investigator."
"You've solved cases before," Stan replied, his hazel eyes glinting as though he didn't want to admit she'd done something right. "Obviously, you're more on the ball than that detective friend of yours, Lieutenant Vail. He'd like to bust my ass."
"If it weren't for Dalton, I wouldn't have been allowed to see you," she snapped, her glance flickering contemptuously at Stan's thin black hair brushed off his forehead. It reminded her of how many times he'd brushed off her accomplishments over the years. Ever since their divorce, Stan had never let Marla forget how much he'd done for her. Even now, despite her ability to manage her own hair salon, she couldn't believe the man regarded her capable enough to do him a service.
"Maybe we haven't gotten along in recent years," he said in a half-apologetic tone, "but we had something once. For old times' sake, give me a break."
"Tell me what happened, and then I'll decide," she said, striding to the bench and plopping herself down. She avoided the seat's encrusted crud so it wouldn't soil her khakis.
Hands folded behind his back, Stan paced purposefully like a trial attorney. "I'm a sound sleeper. You remember, don't you? When I fall asleep, I don't even hear the lawn men trimming hedges outside our windows. This morning, I awoke at my regular time, seven o'clock. Kim usually gets up earlier and has a cup of coffee waiting for me. I couldn't smell it like I normally do, but her side of the bed was empty, so I figured she'd be downstairs."
He halted, shoulders slumping. "I should have known something was wrong, because I couldn't hear her moving around the kitchen. Kim was a good wife. A good wife," he repeated in his habitually annoying manner. "She always had my breakfast ready on time." His resentful glare told Marla how she'd never met his expectations when they were married.
"Go on," Marla grated, suppressing her irritation.
"I was still in my pajamas when I reached the foyer. Our stairway is just a few steps from the front door," he explained. "Kim was lying on the floor. I called her name, but she didn't respond, and her body was awfully still. I couldn't imagine what had happened. Did she trip and fall down the stairs? In a terrifying flash, I thought she must have broken her neck until I saw the blood. It had seeped out like fingers of a river."
His eyelids squeezed shut, and a tremor rippled through him. Seconds ticked by while he regained his composure. When he opened his eyes, pain glistened in their depths.
Surprise slashed at her. She hadn't realized Stan could feel so deeply about anyone. Rising, she embraced him in a quick hug, startling both of them. While she cursed Stan for his arrogance, she didn't wish upon him this type of suffering. Grief was a difficult burden to carry alone. "Tell me more," she said encouragingly, stepping back a few paces.
He drew in a shuddering breath. "I-I knelt to see what I could do. I turned her onto her back, but it was too late. Too late. She'd been stabbed in the abdomen. It must've hit a major organ. I'll never forget the look in her eyes -- terror mixed with astonishment." His voice faltered. "I-I froze, Marla. For the first time in my life, I didn't know what to do."
"You called the police."
"Yes. Somehow I stumbled into the kitchen. It crossed my mind that I should wash my hands." He turned them palm up as though to show her the stains. "Instead, I grabbed the phone and called the cops."
"What did you do until they arrived?"
"I don't remember." He squinted as though trying to force memories into his brain. "Before I knew it, uniformed officers were pouring into my house."
"So you opened the door for them."
"No, it was unlocked. The officers let themselves in after ringing the bell. I was too numb to respond."
"Where did they find you? In the kitchen?"
"Hovering over Kimberly's body. I'll admit it doesn't look good for me, babe."
"Maybe an intruder entered the house and Kim surprised him. Do you think robbery was a motive? If you could prove things were stolen -- "
"Nothing was missing. The cops asked me to check before I got dressed." Stan's gaze held genuine bewilderment. "I can see why they believe I did it. Blood on my pajamas is damning evidence, but I-I touched my wife when I tried to save her. What was I supposed to do, leave her lying there bleeding to death? I don't know how we're going to clean up the mess on the floor."
From his use of the joint pronoun, Marla realized he hadn't come to grips with his loss. "Did the police find signs of forced entry?"
"N-No, that's the peculiar thing. The windows were secure, and our other exterior doors were locked. There weren't any footprints on the ground, either, and the sprinklers had been on earlier."
"So when the cops confronted you, there were no signs anyone else had been in the house, and you had blood on your clothes."
His face darkened. "Hell, Marla, whose side are you on? Things may not have been perfect between us, but I'd never hurt Kimberly. You know how I abhor violence. When you and I were married, I never mishandled you in anger. Never."
_Not physically, no. But you're skilled in throwing verbal darts that can wound._
"What do you want me to do?" she asked him, intending to speak to Detective Vail to get his viewpoint.
"Help me, Marla." He spread his hands toward her. "The police don't believe me. Find out who killed Kimberly, and I'll sell you my half of our rental property at a reasonable price."
"Are you willing to put that in writing?"
"Why? You don't trust me?"
Her lip curled in a cynical smile. "Well, Stanley, let's just say I like to protect my investments."
His spine stiffened. "If that's what it takes. Will you do it?"
His voice echoed in the high-ceilinged room, and it struck a chord within her heart. When they'd first met, Stan had pulled her out of a morass so deep, Marla feared she'd never emerge into the light again. Didn't she owe him the same favor?
"I'm surprised you have such faith in me, but yes, I'll check things out," she replied. Her nature wouldn't allow an innocent man to be convicted. No matter how much she loathed Stan, injustice wasn't tolerable.
On the other hand, she didn't discount the possibility that he might be guilty. In that case, this could be a ploy to distract attention from himself. She'd look for evidence, and if it pointed toward Stan, he'd lose her sympathy pretty quickly. But that possibility was later down the road. Marla knew quite well she enjoyed solving mysteries because they provided spice in an otherwise routine life. She sought the challenge, despite Detective Vail's warnings to steer clear of his domain. Maybe it was the challenge of matching wits with him that entertained her.
Several paths opened in front of her, and she leapt at the nearest one.
"What did you mean, things weren't perfect between you and Kimberly?" she demanded.
Stan shrugged. "I set her spending limits, but Kim always exceeded them with her credit card. We had our minor disagreements, that's all. When she behaved herself, we were as close as glue to paper. Why did she have to get herself killed?"
_Anger is a natural part of the grieving process,_ Marla reminded herself, biting her tongue. "Would you like me to contact your partners?"
"I've already phoned them, thanks. Your detective friend made an exception by allowing me to call you, too."
"Really? How kind of him."
Stan cleared his throat. "So tell me how you'll proceed." His gruff tone belied the imploring look in his eyes.
Despite her sympathy, it amused Marla to hold the upper hand. "I suppose I could attend the funeral. I've never met any of Kim's relatives. How are you going to make arrangements if you're in jail?"
"I'll get out on bail as soon as I have an arraignment. But I don't think it's a good idea for you to attend the funeral. I have a better plan. An intruder isn't the only possibility. Kim's murderer might have been someone she knew. You can start with her family."
Marla knew little about Kim's background. Why would she? Kimberly had been Stan's secretary when he'd been married to wife number two, Leah Kaufman. Marla had believed Stan would finally be happy with Leah since they had two lovely children. But he was a man who'd never be satisfied, because Kim had seduced him right under his wife's nose. Leah had been the one who'd initiated their divorce. Now Kimberly was dead. Stan had achieved a brilliant career, but he'd been unsuccessful in the marital arena. At least he couldn't be accused of lacking a taste for variety, Marla thought spitefully. She fingered her chestnut hair, curled inward at chin length, musing over the differences in his choices of wives. At five feet six, she didn't quite match Stan's height. Leah's short auburn layers suited her petite figure, while Kim had been a busty, blue-eyed blonde with a model's long legs. Marla's eyes were cocoa brown; Leah's were almost black. Maybe Stan would go for a green-eyed, raven-haired beauty next.
The grid over the viewport slid open. "Ma'am?" said the attending officer.
"I just need a few more minutes," she pleaded. Relieved when the woman nodded, Marla returned her attention to Stan.
"Kimberly's family lives in an exclusive compound in East Fort Lauderdale," Stan explained, plowing a hand through his hair. "They're rich, you know. Their investments involve coffee plantations in Costa Rica and South America. Miriam Pearl, Kimberly's grandmother, requires a daily nurse. They've been advertising for an aide so the nurse can take Sundays off. You're free on that day of the week. You'll apply for the job so you can check things out from an insider's viewpoint. Her family has never met you, so you won't be recognized."
Marla's spine stiffened. "What? You want me to apply as a health aide? I have no background for that kind of job."
Even as the words left her mouth, she imagined herself undercover investigating Kim's murder and a thrill of excitement spiraled through her. If she really wanted to play the part, she could consult her friend Jillian, a seasoned actress. Jill had plenty of experience pretending to be someone else.
"You can do it," Stan said encouragingly. "Kim's mother, Stella, and her aunt Florence live on the grounds. So does her uncle Morris and his family, plus assorted servants."
"Any sisters or brothers?"
"He passed away, leaving the bulk of his wealth to Stella."
"What about the old lady's nurse? She'll see right through me. I'll have to ask her for instructions on what to do."
"In all likelihood, Agnes will be gone by the time you arrive on Sunday morning. Don't worry so much, babe. You're good about caring for people." _Just not about me,_ his sour expression implied. "It can't be so difficult to watch over an old woman for a day."
"I don't understand why you suspect one of Kimberly's family members."
He shifted his feet. "First of all, Kim may have opened the door for someone she knew. Secondly, who stands to gain from her death? One of her relatives, that's who." He lowered his voice. "Kim is ... was due to receive an inheritance from Grandpa Harris when she reached the age of thirty. She'd just turned twenty-six last month on January tenth, meaning she still had four years to go. With her out of the way, one of her relatives gets her share."
"So you think she was murdered for her money."
"I can think of other reasons," Marla muttered, recalling the blonde's nasty attitude the few times they'd met. Marla wasn't the only one who'd resented the woman. Another person came to mind immediately, but she didn't mention her theory to Stan.
"I'll see what I can learn," she promised, touching his arm. "How will I contact you?"
"I'll get out of here when the judge sets bond. You can reach me at the office or at home." He leaned toward her, eyes glistening in a manner that made her uncomfortable. "I really appreciate this. I know I haven't been agreeable lately, but that's because you don't need me as much as when we were married."
_I don't need you at all now, pal, except for that rental property._ Marla was accustomed to his arrogant, condescending manner. Having him request her help threw her off guard. She almost liked him better when he was in a vulnerable position.
"I'll handle it, Stanley. I'm sorry you have to suffer this indignity." Her gesture encompassed the jail cell.
His gaze locked on hers, and he reached out to stroke her cheek. His touch brought back memories best left forgotten. "I care about you, Marla, even after all these years."
She stepped back abruptly. "Don't push it, Stan. Be grateful I've offered to help you and leave it at that. Good luck with the judge." She strode to the door, where she knocked loudly to draw the guard's attention.
Upstairs, she walked briskly into Lieutenant Dalton Vail's office, knowing he anticipated hearing the results of her interview. After Stan's unnerving influence, it was a pleasure to see the lines of concern on Vail's face as he rose to greet her. Sharp angles defined his features, set off by bushy eyebrows and thick, peppery hair parted to the side. Feeling empowered, Marla boldly kissed him on the mouth.
"What was that for?" he asked, a smile creasing his craggy face.
"You're a refreshing change from Stan," Marla replied, appreciating Vail's two-sided perspective on life compared with Stan's blurred distinctions. At least with Vail, you knew where you stood: he valued truthfulness rather than deception. Dalton stated what was on his mind, at least as far as she was concerned. Stan's motives were more questionable.
Vail's smoky gaze raked her, then he grasped her shoulders. The warmth from his hands seeped through her cashmere sweater. "Would you like to try that again for the benefit of my colleagues?" he asked in a husky tone. His glance darted to the open door through which the cubicles beyond were visible.
Marla realized Dalton's aim was to pair them publicly as a couple so she'd be forced to commit to him. He'd become especially intent on this goal after her fake engagement to Arnie Hartman had ended. Come to think of it, Marla already had acting experience pretending to be Arnie's fiancee, so maybe posing as a nurse's aide wouldn't be so difficult. Not that she'd tell Vail her plan. She could imagine his explosive reaction.
Another kind of eruption came to mind as he pressed his body closer. His touch left her weak-kneed and on a hormonal rush, but she wouldn't be swayed from her purpose. "Stan didn't do it," she said, disentangling herself. "I believe him. I've never seen the man so upset."
Vail sighed as though he'd expected that response. "Murderers kill _because_ they're upset. What did he tell you?"
"Probably the same things he reported to you." She strolled to a bookshelf and picked up a toy police car from a collection of miniature vehicles. Dust coated its surface, making her wonder who cleaned his office. "Stan woke up around seven, went downstairs, found his wife stabbed to death in the front hallway. He tried to revive her, got blood on his hands, stumbled into the kitchen to call the police."
Vail snorted. "Don't you find it hard to believe he heard nothing while his wife was attacked?"
Marla faced him, refusing to be intimidated by the stubborn thrust to his jaw. Tall and imposing in a sport coat and tie, he wore an authoritative air that fit as tautly as his jacket. "Not if Kimberly had let someone she knew into the house. Since the door was unlocked, that seems logical."
"Have you considered that Stan is playing upon your sympathies, and through you, he hopes to throw me off track?"
Marla smirked at the absurdity of the notion that Dalton could be thrown off track. "You? You're like a bloodhound running after a piece of fresh meat, never put off from the scent. He's afraid, Dalton. The evidence looks bad against him, and he knows it. He wouldn't have asked for my help otherwise." She returned the miniature car to the shelf. "If you brought Stan in this morning, why did it take so long for him to call me? I didn't hear from him until three o'clock. He's lucky I was home; Monday is normally my day to run errands."
"Processing a crime scene takes time, and so does questioning a suspect. His attorney didn't make it easy for us."
She noted the gleam in his eyes. "I'll bet you enjoyed interrogating him."
"The man hasn't treated you well. I did him a favor by letting you into the cell block."
"No, you didn't. You're hoping I've learned something new. Stan suspects one of Kimberly's relatives may have bumped her off to inherit her share of the family fortune. You'll be speaking to them, I presume."
"I'll question anyone associated with the deceased. That's my job, remember? Not yours. What did Kaufman want you for, honey?"
Marla was so taken aback by his use of the endearment, mostly because she felt he meant it, that an answer tumbled from her lips. "He wants me to find Kimberly's killer," she said, stopping herself before she blurted out the rest of Stan's scheme. "What about friends and neighbors? I really don't know much about their life together."
He crossed his arms, eyes narrowed perceptively. "I don't either, not yet. I'll attend the funeral to see who shows up."
"I suppose you'll canvas the area to see if any of the neighbors noticed strangers in the vicinity."
"I know my duties, thanks. Why do I have the feeling you've got something up your sleeve? You've given me that same look before, and I don't like it."
Uncomfortable from standing in one place for so long, Marla crossed the room to lean on his desk. "I owe him, Dalton. I don't expect you to understand, but I feel an obligation to the man. He was there for me when I needed him, and now it's his turn."
Vail groaned, passing a hand over his face. "Oh no, he's got you wrapped around his little finger like ribbon on a package. Well, I need you, too. Brianna's thirteenth birthday is in March. When are you going to help me plan her party like you promised?"
"I've been meaning to check into different places around town. Did your daughter mention how many kids will be coming?"
His face folded into a perplexed frown. "The list tops thirty and keeps growing. A lot of her friends are having fancy affairs for their bat mitzvahs, so Brie wants to do something different from an ordinary party. In the meantime, next week is your birthday. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty that night. We'll meet Arnie and Jill at the restaurant." His voice lowered. "February fourteenth is Valentine's Day. That makes it special for us."
"Yeah, I'll be thirty-five. Another year older."
"That's not what I mean."
"Oh? Tell me more."
"You'll see when the time comes."
Marla swallowed. Going undercover to investigate Kimberly's death beckoned as a more appealing option than dealing with Dalton's hints. If her intuition was right, she wasn't the only one with something up her sleeve.
"Stan wouldn't look so spiffy in prison garb," she said to change the subject. "I'd hate to see him convicted if he's innocent, so I hope you'll keep an open mind where he's concerned. I assume you're planning to keep me informed about your progress on the case."
She could swear his tightened lips were stifling a smile. "On what?"
"On my progress with you, sweetcakes."