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Authors: Cynthia Riggs

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Cozy

Death and Honesty

BOOK: Death and Honesty
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FOR
DIONIS COFFIN RIGGS
POET
1898—1997
The fickle Island weather turned raw and chilly, and a cold April rain slashed against the west windows of Victoria Trumbull’s house. Her granddaughter, Elizabeth, lighted an oak fire in the parlor, and Victoria settled into her mouse-colored wing chair with a book of Robert Frost’s poetry for a comfortable evening of reading.
When the phone rang, Elizabeth answered. “For you, Gram. The chief.”
“Am I getting you at a bad time, Victoria?”
“What can I do for you, Casey?”
The call was from Mary Kathleen O’Neill, also known as Casey, the town’s police chief. She had appointed Victoria her deputy after realizing how much the ninety-two-year-old poet knew about the Island and its inhabitants. In fact, Victoria was related to most of them.
“Have you seen Ellen Meadows lately?” Casey asked.
Victoria marked her place with a slip of paper and set her book aside. “Not for several days. Why?”
“She’s disappeared.”
“How long has she been missing?”
“She didn’t show up this noon for a lunch date with Selena and Ocypete, the other assessors. How do you pronounce her name, anyway?”
“She pronounces it ‘Oh-SIP-i-tee,”’ said Victoria.
Casey paused. “Wait a sec, Victoria. Someone’s on the other line.”
Victoria heard a slight click as Casey put her on hold. While she waited, she held up her glass in a toast to her granddaughter.
Elizabeth lifted hers, too. “To you, Gram. Thanks!”
It seemed only a short time ago that Elizabeth, going through a divorce, had invited herself for a couple of weeks. Now, Victoria couldn’t imagine life without her sunny granddaughter.
Casey came back on the line. “Sorry, Victoria. Thought it might be news of Ellen, but it was Jordan Rivers complaining about Lambert Willoughby’s rooster. Where was I?”
“You were saying Ellen didn’t show up for luncheon with the other two assessors.”
“Right. They went to Ellen’s house earlier this evening, before it started to rain. She wasn’t there. At least they didn’t see her. Adolph hadn’t been fed or let out, so the animal control officer took him home with her. I don’t know that anyone’s cleaned up the mess.”
“Is Ellen’s car in her driveway?”
“The two said it wasn’t.”
“I don’t know Ellen well,” said Victoria. “In fact, I don’t know any of the three assessors well. I have no idea where Ellen is likely to be.”
“It’s not a police matter yet, but if she’s fallen or had a stroke or something … She’s in her seventies. At her age, you know …”
“No, I don’t know,” Victoria said firmly.
“I asked Junior Norton to stop by while he was making his police rounds. No one answered his knock.”
“I’m sure her door’s not locked.”
“We police …” Casey paused. “I can’t enter her house without her invitation.” She emphasized the word “I.”
Victoria waited.
Casey said, “The woman who bought the old Hammond place had an argument with Ellen about her assessment.”
“She’s not the only person in town to have argued with Ellen. I’ve had some heated discussions with her myself,” said Victoria.
“You know I can’t authorize you to enter her house on official business. However, as a friend and neighbor. Or at least, neighbor …”
“All right,” said Victoria, getting out of her comfortable chair. “I’ll ask Howland to take me there.” She disconnected and immediately dialed Howland Atherton, her friend and a semiretired drug enforcement agent.
“I know Ellen only by sight,” Howland said after Victoria explained about the missing assessor. “Enough to keep out of her way What’s on your mind, Victoria?”
“I need to check her house.”
“Now? I’ll be glad to take you, but it’s pouring.”
“The sooner the better. Casey is worried about her.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“I can take you, Gram,” Elizabeth said.
“Keep the fire going. I won’t be long.”
When Howland showed up, rain was pouring off the main roof of Victoria’s old house, overflowing the wooden gutters and gurgling through the metal drainpipes. Howland parked as close as he could to the west steps, but even in his short dash to the entry, his yellow slicker was drenched. He tossed back his hood, exposing silver hair that curled artistically around his forehead and ears.
“I’m wet,” he said. “I’ll wait out here in the entry.”
She shrugged into her faded tan raincoat and tugged her rubber gardening boots over her stocking feet, wincing as the boot rubbed against her sore toe. The wind blew rain into the open entry door and whistled through the cracked pane in the kitchen window.
As she was buttoning the raincoat, Victoria said, “Casey won’t go into Ellen’s house without a warrant. She wants me to check, as long as it’s unofficial.”
Howland nodded. “An adult missing for less than twenty-four hours doesn’t give the police probable cause.”
Elizabeth appeared, holding a musty black silk umbrella. “I found this in the attic, Gram. It’ll help keep some of the rain off.” She escorted Victoria to the car, then dashed back into the shelter of the entry.
Ellen’s house was only a half mile from Victoria’s, but the rain made it seem farther. The windshield wipers slashed back and forth, moving curtains of water without making much difference in visibility.
Ellen’s house was dark. Howland parked close to the side entrance. Across the road, Alley’s General Store was closed for the night, the porch regulars long gone.
As they went up the steps to the kitchen door, lilac branches heavy with tight buds slapped them wetly. Victoria knocked, waited, then cupped her hands against the glass pane and peered in. When there was no answer, she pushed the door open and they stepped inside. Howland switched on the lights and sniffed. “Something smells bad.”
Victoria agreed. “No one let her dog out.”
Nothing seemed out of order in the kitchen. Victoria noticed several cardboard file boxes on the dining room table and stopped to look.
“Forget those for now,” Howland said.
They checked the front hall. The parlor seemed almost too neat. Obviously not used regularly. Nothing was out of order in the two upstairs bedrooms or the bath, so they returned to the kitchen, where the smell was strongest.
Victoria looked around. “Someone cleaned up whatever dog mess there was. We haven’t checked the pantry.”
The pantry door was partly hidden by the refrigerator. Howland lifted the latch and tugged the door open.
Victoria’s first impression was the stench. The second was the buzzing of flies. Only then did she focus on the woman lying on the floor, a chubby woman, her eyes open, her face a purplish color, a scarf knotted so tightly around her throat that it sank into her flabby flesh. In her death throes, she had soiled herself.
Victoria backed out of the pantry. “Call Casey, will you, Howland? It’s not Ellen.”
Victoria and Howland waited in the dining room for the police, sitting at the table far from the open pantry door.
“Could you tell who the victim was, Victoria?”
“I believe it’s Lucy Pease, Ellen’s neighbor. I didn’t want to look too closely.”
“Hell of a crime scene,” said Howland, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. “No telling how many people have tramped through the house looking for Ellen, including the two of us. In cleaning up the dog’s mess someone incidentally cleaned up any nearby evidence.”
Victoria could think of nothing to say. The sight in the pantry was too horrible. She had no desire to write, her way to pass time, and no desire to talk. She’d known Lucy Pease only slightly, enough to greet her at the post office. Lucy was a pleasant enough widow with two grown boys who lived off Island and a married daughter who lived in West Tisbury. Victoria had never sat with Lucy at the senior center luncheons, never played Scrabble with her.
Howland ran his hand over his face and rubbed his nose again. He crossed his arms and tapped his foot.
“Perhaps Ellen is off Island,” Victoria said.
Howland stopped tapping his foot.
“What was Lucy doing here?” Victoria continued. “Why would anyone kill her? A burglary gone wrong? The house is so tidy, it didn’t look as though anything was disturbed.”
Howland said nothing.
“Did the killer think Lucy was Ellen? The two weren’t at all alike. Lucy was short, plump, and white-haired. Ellen was, or is, medium height, muscular, and colors her hair. Black.”
She stared absently around the room, at the glass-fronted
cabinet with tennis trophies, at a framed photo of Ellen in military uniform accepting an award from some dignitary, at the blue jardiniere with long-stemmed silk poppies. Her glance stopped at the stacks of cards next to the cardboard file boxes patterned in a mottled black and white, like the school composition books her daughters had used. Each box was about the size of a shoe box. She reached for one of the stacks and drew it toward her.
Howland leaned back in his chair and watched, arms still crossed. Victoria scanned the top card, then picked up the one below and examined it, and then the next. She frowned as she looked at still another card.
Howland leaned forward. “What have you found?”
She held up one of the cards. “These are property cards that describe each and every piece of property in the township. Our taxes are based on this information.” Victoria’s frown deepened. Wrinkles on her forehead and around her mouth formed angles of disapproval. “They belong in Town Hall, not here.”
“I suppose the assessors were working with them.”
“The records belong in Town Hall,” Victoria repeated. “The assessors have an office in Town Hall. They have no business working in a private home where citizens can’t know what the assessors are plotting.”
“‘Plotting’?” Howland laughed.
“There’s nothing funny about this.” Victoria held up the pile she had looked through and slapped it. “The cards in this stack represent the highest-assessed properties in town. What were the assessors doing with them?”
She laid the stack of cards on the table, pushed her chair back, and began to say something more, but at that moment the police arrived, Casey and Junior Norton from West Tisbury, and Sergeant Smalley and Trooper Tim Eldredge from the state police barracks in Oak Bluffs. Before they could exchange greetings, an engine roared into the driveway and stopped. Doc Jeffers, the medical examiner, had arrived on his Harley.
The doc shucked off his oilskins and helmet and hung them, dripping, on a hook beside the kitchen door. He nodded at Victoria, then fished around in his black leather bag and pulled out
a pair of latex gloves, which he snapped on, and went about his business of examining the body in the pantry.
Tim Eldredge hung his own foul-weather jacket next to the doc’s, conferred with Sergeant Smalley, then took a notebook and pen from his shirt pocket and joined Victoria and Howland at the dining room table.
“Sorry, Mr. Atherton, sir, and Mrs. Trumbull, ma’am. I’m supposed to take down your statements.”
Howland nodded. Victoria said, “Of course.”
While Tim was asking questions and taking notes, Victoria could hear Casey and Junior Norton discuss with Sergeant Smalley the placement of yellow crime scene tape. When that was done, Smalley came over to the table and waited for Victoria to finish talking.
“When you’ve given your statement to Tim, Mrs. Trumbull, there’s no need for you to stick around. You, too, Mr. Atherton. We know where to find you.”
Victoria got up from the hard chair with relief. The rain drummed steadily on the kitchen roof.
“Wait inside,” Howland suggested. “I’ll get the car.”
A few moments later he pulled up close to the door and helped Victoria into the passenger seat.
“I could use a stiff drink,” he said. “You don’t happen to have any scotch, do you?”
“I do. Enough for both of us. I hope Elizabeth kept the fire going.”
 
The next morning was bright and fresh with a hint of spring. A soft breeze shook rainbow mist off the cedars in the pasture.
The night before, Elizabeth went to bed before Victoria and Howland returned, leaving soup warming on the stove. Victoria hadn’t felt like eating supper. After two stiff drinks with Howland, who’d had only one, she turned off the burner under the soup and went straight to bed.
This morning she made up for not eating supper, and tucked into her usual hearty breakfast of shredded wheat and sliced banana. There was a knock on the door and Casey entered.
“Morning, Victoria. Are you okay? Sorry I put you up to it. Awful, finding Mrs. Pease like that.”
Victoria pushed her empty cereal bowl aside. “Has anyone notified her daughter and sons?”
“Junior called them last night. The sons are on the eight-fifteen ferry from Woods Hole. Annie, her daughter, will meet them.” Casey checked her watch. “They should be here any minute, and I need to be over there to talk to them. Before I go, though, I have something to show you.”
“Help yourself to coffee,” said Victoria. “You know where everything is.”
Casey took her mug into the cookroom, a small room off the kitchen where Victoria liked to write, and set it on the table, then spread open a manila folder and shuffled through the contents. “Here’s a photocopy of a note Sergeant Smalley found in Lucy’s pocket. From Ellen to Lucy saying she had to go off Island for an emergency dental appointment and would be away overnight. She asked Lucy to feed Adolph and let him out.”
“That answers a couple of questions,” said Victoria.
Casey sat down and stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into her coffee. “I’d never have recognized her, Victoria. Not a nice sight.” She continued to stir. “The forensic guys came over last night on the late boat.”
“Were they able to find anything?”
“Too many people in and out. They collected what they could. There may be some trace evidence.”
Victoria was silent.
“Doesn’t seem like a robbery,” Casey went on. “Burglars usually don’t kill unless they’re surprised, and then they most likely smack the victim on the head without intending to kill. This was deliberate. A scarf knotted around her neck.”
“I suppose we can assume Ellen was the intended victim,” Victoria said.
“Possibly.”
“If so, the killer was someone who didn’t know either woman.”
Casey pushed her chair away from the table. “I’m glad the state police are handling this. Gotta go, Victoria. Thanks for the coffee. Take care. And please,” she studied Victoria, who had a
certain determined look about her, “please, Victoria, don’t get involved this time.”
After Casey left, Victoria brushed crumbs off the table and set up her typewriter to work on her weekly column for
The Island Enquirer
. She wrote for some time, trying to word the news of Lucy’s death sensitively. At one point she took a lunch break, then worked in her garden for an hour before she went back to her writing.
Finally, she got up stiffly, bent her knees a couple of times to make sure they still worked, and went up the step from the cookroom into the kitchen. As she did, she heard a car drive up.
Howland’s battered white station wagon pulled up by the steps and he got out. A large shaggy dog took up most of the area behind the backseat.
“I’m on my way to the vet’s, Victoria. I can’t stay Fluffy ate something that didn’t agree with her.”
“Not serious, I hope?”
“Who knows. She likes to roll in dead fish she finds on the beach. I passed Casey on the way, and she asked me to tell you that Ellen Meadows returned to the Island on the ten-fifteen boat this morning.”
“Was anyone at her house to break the news of Lucy’s death?”
“Junior Norton’s been there all night. The forensics team left around dawn. Casey had Kerry Scott’s cleaning crew in. They’ve come and gone.”
Victoria heard a sharp bark from Howland’s car.
“I’ve got to go,” said Howland. “Fluffy can’t wait much longer.”
Victoria continued writing. She finished around four and was drinking her tea when a white car that seemed as long as Packer’s Oil delivery truck pulled up by her kitchen door. Surely the driver had taken a wrong turn. But the limousine stopped and a uniformed chauffeur went around to the passenger side and opened the door.
BOOK: Death and Honesty
11.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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