Authors: Ellen Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Nonfiction
Dotty Mulloy’s home was an old white clapboard farmhouse nestled into a tall stand of jack pine, a good hundred yards in from the main road. A screened porch stretched all the way across the front, and that’s where Dotty was sitting the following afternoon when Sophie pulled into the long drive.
Based on Dotty’s white hair, arthritic-looking hands, and the cane resting next to her rocking chair, Sophie estimated Dotty’s age at somewhere in her late seventies. Her eyes were lively, and she smiled broadly as she motioned Sophie to the wicker love seat.
“Lovely day,” said Dotty, adjusting her cotton skirt carefully over her knees. One knee was wrapped in an Ace bandage, while the other looked swollen and sore.
Sophie sat down, noticing a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses resting on the table between them.
“Help yourself,” said Dotty. “It’s a warm day. I thought we could use a little refreshment.”
“Would you like me to pour?”
“Go ahead. I was hoping my husband could be here to meet you, but he had business in town. While I was making the lemonade, I was listening to your husband’s radio show. I think it’s such fun that he’s broadcasting live from our fair. He has the most wonderful voice. And he always sounds like . . . I don’t know, like he’s smiling at us—like he’s up to something.”
“He usually is,” said Sophie, crossing one leg over the other. She’d worn a pretty yellow summer dress and matching heels today instead of her more comfortable jeans, sandals, and short-sleeved cotton shirt. “I’ll pass on your compliment.”
After taking a sip of lemonade, Dotty continued, “So, put me out of my misery. Tell me why the restaurant reviewer at the
wants to see me.”
Sophie wished she had a more pleasant answer. Instead of launching into a long explanation, she took the picture of John and Mary Washburn out of her purse and handed it to Dotty. “Do you recognize that man?”
All of Dotty’s good humor faded instantly. “Of course I do,” she said, her voice flat. “I don’t know the woman, but that’s Morgan Walters, my sister’s husband.”
“Look carefully, Mrs. Mulloy. Are you positive?”
Dotty held the photo closer. “Sure I’m sure. There’s that hideous snake tattoo on his arm, and he’s wearing those awful tight jeans, just like he always did. It didn’t leave anything to the imagination, if you catch my drift. No,” she sighed, shaking her head, “it’s not likely I’d forget what my sister’s murderer looked like.”
“That’s what I said.”
“But, I thought . . . I mean I’d heard—”
“That Laura committed suicide?” She looked away, her expression growing steely. “That’s what Morgan wanted everyone to think. He might have fooled the police, but he never fooled me or my husband. We always knew Morgan had done it. He was no good. Oh, he had a line with women that was smooth as butter, but if he cared about Laura so much, why did he isolate her out there at that godforsaken house? Why did he leave her all alone for weeks at a time?”
“When were they married?”
“April of 1960.”
Less than a year after the photo had been taken, Sophie thought, and less than two years after John and Mary were married. That made John Washburn—or Morgan Walters—a bigamist.
“When did Laura die?”
Looking down at her hands, Dotty replied, “November 16, 1965. It was a Saturday. Her best friend, Rebecca Scoville, found her.”
It was the same year Sophie had taken her unforgettable motorcycle ride with Morgan. “What did Morgan Walters do for a living?” she asked, afraid that she already knew the answer.
“He was a traveling salesman. Don’t ask me what he sold. I don’t think I ever knew.” Dotty glanced at the snapshot again. “Who’s the woman he’s standing with in the photo?”
“A relative,” Sophie answered. She hoped Dotty would leave it at that.
“Humph. He never was very forthcoming about who his people were. From the very first, my husband and I figured he had something to hide, but Laura was head over heels in love with him. Nothing we ever said made a difference.”
“How did your sister die?” asked Sophie.
“The police said she hung herself. Tied one part of a rope around a pipe in the basement, put a noose around her neck, stood on a chair, then kicked it out from under her. But it was all lies. Why would my sister kill herself? The fact that she didn’t leave a note should have been a red flag to anyone who was looking. Laura always told me how much she loved her life. Loved Morgan. Then again, I thought it was funny when I’d drive out to their place and she couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. Why would she act like that with her own sister—unless she had something to hide, too?”
“What do you think it was?”
Dotty lowered her voice. “I saw lots of liquor bottles around that house. Laura didn’t drink, so that left Morgan. I think she was trying to hide what was going on. There were times when I’d drive out to Trout Lake and Laura would be nursing cuts on her face, or bruises on her arms. Morgan did that to her. He had her so twisted around, so scared of her own shadow, that she wouldn’t even confide in her own sister.”
“Did you ever confront him about it?” asked Sophie.
She shook her head. “It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life. I should have done more to help Laura get away from him.” She wiped a tear from her eye.
“What happened to Morgan after your sister died?”
“He sold the house and left town. Far as I know, he’s never been back.” She removed a handkerchief from her apron pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “How come you’re so interested in Morgan?”
Sophie’d been thinking about how she would answer that question. “The truth is, I ran into an old friend recently who used to know Morgan. He gave me the snapshot. My friend thought Morgan might still be living up here, so I told him I’d check it out when I was in town. Actually, I met Morgan myself once when I was thirteen. He took me on my first motorcycle ride.”
“Did he ask you for a date?”
Sophie did a double take. “No.”
Dotty snorted. “From small comments Laura used to make, I got the impression that he was a . . . well, a very highly sexed man.” Dotty’s face flushed. “Thank God, my husband was never like that.”
“So, you think he was unfaithful?”
“With women around town?”
Dotty considered the question. “I doubt it. He was gone so much, I’ll bet he had a woman in every small town from here to Nebraska.”
It was an interesting adjunct to Sophie’s theory. A traveling salesman with more than one wife. Maybe even more than two. “You mentioned that Laura had a best friend.”
“Yes, Rebecca Scoville. Nice woman. Laura and Rebecca were the same age—went to school together. Laura was nine years younger than me. I suppose I seemed like an old fuddy-duddy to her.”
“Where does Rebecca live?”
“Down in the Cities. After her divorce, she started a small business. She still sends me a Christmas card every year.”
“I wonder if I could get her address.”
With great effort, Dotty got up. “I’m kind of slow. The arthritis in my knees is the worst.”
“Can I help?”
“No, just drink your lemonade. I’ll be back shortly.” The screen door banged behind her as she entered the house.
Sophie finished her glass and was just about done with a second when Dotty returned. “Here,” she said, dropping a file folder in Sophie’s lap.
“What’s all this?”
Dotty didn’t answer until she was once again seated in the rocker. “It’s a copy of the official coroner’s report on Laura’s death. I stuck a copy of the police report in there, too.”
Sophie was amazed. “How did you get your hands on that?”
Rocking slowly, Dotty said, “Well, the police report was public information, so that wasn’t a problem. But the coroner’s report, that was another matter entirely. See, the county coroner retired a few years after Laura died. He was a medical doctor and a friend of my husband’s. Seems crazy to me, but nobody was interested in his files back then. That’s the way the government was run. Maybe it still is. Anyway, he asked us if we wanted Laura’s records. Of course we wanted them. I hoped that, one day, that file would help us prove what Morgan did to her.” She sighed. “It’s a terrible thing, being so powerless. I know the truth, but I’m helpless to do anything about it.”
Sophie looked at the file. On the outside, Dotty had written Rebecca Scoville’s home address.
“You take that with you,” Dotty continued, looking off in the distance. “I’m an old woman now. I’ve got no use for it anymore. Maybe you’ll find something in there I missed.”
Okay, so I’m not very good at this writing stuff. Neither are you. It’s been at least a year since my last letter.
Lots of changes. I was down in Jeff City about six
months ago—thought of trying to see you, but I guess
what happened really put the fear of God in me. I stay as
far away from the police now as I can get.
You probably want to know what I did with the
money. Maybe you’ll think I’m a chump, but I couldn’t
stand to be around it, so I dumped it in the nearest gutter.
I’m on my own now, and I’m learning some important
things about myself. Believe it or not, I’m good with
people. Really good. But I’m not so good at punching a
time clock every day. I went that route for a while.
Worked in a bakery. Man, those early hours are enough
to kill your soul. Now I’ve found something better—
something that gives me more freedom. I hate all the
worn-out rules people try and make you believe. I’m still
a rebel at heart, but a quiet one now.
I’ve taken a job as a salesman. My route includes
what they call the “five-state region.” South Dakota,
North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Beautiful country.
You know how I always thought my brother was a
jerk? Well, I’ve changed my mind. He’s on to something,
Gilbert. He’s working hard. Making a good life for himself. When people looked at us, they always thought I
was the smart one. People can sure get the wrong idea.
What a guy looks like on the outside doesn’t mean shit.
Hey, I forgot to tell you. I got married in April. Man,
she’s a peach. Her name’s Laura, like the song. Raven
hair. Beautiful blue eyes. I suppose it sounds sappy, but
I’m so in love with her I could burst. I’ll send you a picture next time.
If they let you read books, there’s a couple I’d send
you, books Laura got me to read. One is
Catcher in the Rye.
Lord of the Flies.
That one was weird.
But the one that really hit me hard was—
Too Late the Phalarope
by Alan Paton
Cry, the Beloved Country
too, but this book is better. It’s all about a man
who doesn’t feel at home—not anywhere. Not in his
house, not in his body, and not in his mind. He has a deep
longing for love, but he never quite finds it. He also has
terrible bouts of depression because of what he calls “his
lust.” See, he’s locked in this unforgiving, puritanical society, and because of that, he’s doomed to destroy himself and everybody around him. But the point is, he’s
a good man . . . a loving man trapped in a society with
a lot of unjust rules. It’s a sad story. Tragic, even. For a
man like that, maybe tragedy is the only possible ending.
“So,” said Bram, flipping through the file on the death of Laura Walters, “you actually think Bernice’s father was married to two women?”
Sophie was loading up the dishwasher. They’d returned home from their whirlwind trip to Grand Rapids shortly after nine. While Sophie attended to a bit of hotel business, Bram had occupied himself by preparing a couple of his famous Bruder Basil omelettes. And now, Sophie was cleaning up.
Over dinner, she’d finally thrown caution to the wind and confessed her real reason for wanting to visit Grand Rapids. She was entirely too excited by her conversation with Dotty Mulloy to keep it to herself.
First, she explained her personal connection to Morgan Walters. Bram took it all in with a small roll of his eyes. Next she told him that both she and Dotty were positive that the man in the picture, otherwise known as John Washburn, was none other than Morgan Walters. The tattoo on his arm proved it. But the clincher was, Morgan had murdered his wife and gotten away with it. He was a murderer as well as a bigamist.
Amazing as it might seem, instead of insisting she drop the matter, that she was a total busybody with no business prying into other people’s affairs, Bram warmed to the subject. He’d read through the complete file while Sophie puttered in the kitchen. And now he was ready to talk.
“Sure, I think he’s a bigamist,” said Sophie. “Dotty said he was the kind of guy who probably had a woman in every town he called on. What if he had more than two wives, Bram? What if he had three or four. Or more!”
Bram held up a hand to quell her enthusiasm. He was sitting at the dining room table, a glass of ice tea resting next to the file. “Trust my instincts on this one, Soph. It gets to be a case of diminishing returns after awhile, especially if he had to support more than one household. Why not just have affairs? Why get married?”
Sophie leaned against the kitchen sink, tossing a damp dish towel over her shoulder. “Maybe he loved weddings, or maybe he harbored some ethical notion that he shouldn’t sleep with a woman unless he was married to her.”
Doing his best Orson Welles imitation, Bram said, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
evil,” said Sophie, joining him at the table. “If he marries, then murders.”
“He hasn’t killed the wife he has now, and they’ve been together forever. What’s her name again?”
Bram leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know, Soph. It seems pretty clear you don’t have all the facts.”
“No, but I’ve got a police report on a death that should never have happened.”
“Yeah, I’ll admit that was pretty interesting.” He ticked the salient points off on his fingers. “Laura Walter’s body was found hanging in the basement of her home by her best friend, Rebecca Scoville, at approximately ten-thirty on the morning of November 16, 1965. A Saturday morning. Scoville said she’d stopped by because she and Laura had planned to do some Christmas shopping together that day. When she couldn’t get a rise out of anyone inside, she used a key hidden under a flower pot to get in. After discovering the body, she rushed upstairs to call the police just as Morgan entered through the back door. At Rebecca’s prompting, he ran downstairs and found his wife hanging from a water pipe. The police arrived a few minutes later. No note was found at the scene.”
“Which is suspicious,” said Sophie, drumming her fingers on the table. “Don’t most suicides leave notes?”
“How the hell should I know? To continue: Morgan said he’d gone into town to a get haircut, but that he’d forgotten his wallet and had to come back to get it. He confirmed that his wife had been depressed recently, but he never thought she’d kill herself.”
Again, Sophie interrupted him. “Dotty said her sister
depressed. I figure it was just something Morgan made up to throw the police off the track.”
“But, did you read Scoville’s statement? She agreed with him. She said Laura had really been down before her death.”
“Everyone is depressed now and then. I’d be good and depressed if my husband was gone two weeks at a stretch.”
“But Laura knew he was a traveling salesman when she married him.”
“It’s one thing to know something in the abstract, and another thing entirely to live with it day in and day out.”
Bram closed the file. “What really seemed like a major problem to me was when the police searched Walter’s car and found his bags in the trunk, packed and ready to go. I mean, it was a Saturday. If he was going out of town, he wouldn’t be leaving until Monday, right? Why have your bags in the car so far in advance?”
“You think he was planning to take off?”
“Sure looks that way to me.”
“Then why did he come back?”
“Maybe he really did forget his wallet. It’s certainly possible. And he wouldn’t get very far without it.”
“But the police were never able to prove Laura’s death was anything other than a suicide. That meant Morgan didn’t have to run off. He was able to sell the house, move away and never look back.”
Bram sipped his ice tea. “Okay, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say he did murder her. What was his motive?”
Sophie had been thinking about that all afternoon. “Maybe Laura found out about his other wives and threatened to tell the police. He had to protect himself, and the only way to do it was to shut her up. Permanently.”
“Sounds pretty cold.”
“That doesn’t stop it from being true.”
“All right, granted. But when you come right down to it, maybe it
Sophie didn’t buy it. Someone who broke the rules in one direction could easily break them in another. Besides, hadn’t John Washburn just admitted to murdering a man in Rose Hill? Maybe it was all connected. “It drives me wild that we may never know the truth.”
“Are you planning to tell Bernice about your suspicions?”
“Heavens, no. That’s the last thing she needs.”
“So, you’re just going to drop it? Walk away?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I realized it was a ridiculous question the moment the words left my mouth.”
“Is that a veiled comment?”
“I’d hardly call it veiled.”
The fact was, Sophie had already begun to formulate a plan, one that might help her discover the truth. Tomorrow morning, she intended to set the wheels in motion.
Before Sophie left for the
on Tuesday morning, she approached the concierge desk in the main lobby. Last night, after returning home from Grand Rapids, she’d asked one of her assistant managers to locate a photo shop that could make several dozen copies of the snapshot of John and Mary Washburn. She wanted them first thing in the morning. Sure enough, a white envelope stuffed with prints was waiting for her at the desk. Also waiting for her was a letter.
Sophie recognized the handwriting even before she looked at the return address. It was from Nathan Buckridge, her childhood sweetheart. Nathan had come back into her life last spring. It had been an emotionally charged time for them both, especially since their reunion had coincided with his explosive family problems. By June, Nathan was in jail. In return for his cooperation, the D.A. had given him a reduced sentence. With time already served and more time off for good behavior, he would be out of jail before the end of the month.
Over the summer, Nathan had left several voice mail messages for her at the paper, asking her to come visit him. He said they needed to talk. In his mind, what had transpired between them was still unresolved. And yet for Sophie, the situation was clear. She’d made a terrible mistake with an old love, a man she was still drawn to, but one with whom she had no future. She’d let matters get out of hand last May, but it wouldn’t happen again.
Even now, she continued to be amazed at how easily she’d been seduced by the intense pleasure of an old romance. Secretly, she still daydreamed about the night she and Nathan had spent together, even though she’d made a firm decision. She loved her husband; her life was with Bram.
Before the trial, Sophie had explained all this to Nathan. She hoped it would be the end of it. But of course, it wasn’t. When she looked at herself in the mirror now, she saw a different person staring back at her, a woman who could cheat on her husband and keep it a secret. Even more amazingly, a large part of her didn’t regret what had happened. But the part that did had to live with the guilt every day. The experience had altered her in ways she didn’t even understand yet.
Sophie sat down in the hotel lobby and opened the letter. It had been written in pencil on a piece of lined notebook paper.
I’m being released at the end of the week. Thought I should let you know. I still want to talk. I’ll be returning to New Fonteney, and will probably live in the main hall until I figure out what to do next.
New Fonteney was an old, deserted monastery a few miles north of Stillwater. Nathan had purchased the property last spring hoping to convince his mother to develop it into a Midwest campus for the Buckridge Culinary Academy. After his brother, Paul, nixed the deal, Nathan had toyed with the idea of starting his own cooking school. As a Cordon Bleu–trained chef with over twenty years’ experience, he certainly had the credentials. But then he’d gone to jail. Everything had been put on hold.
I had the phone service restored, so you can reach me at 651-555-2095. I hope you’re well. I miss you. And I love you.
Sophie felt oddly flattened by the note. In all outward ways, her life was back to normal now. Nathan represented chaos, confused emotions, frustrated desire and potential disaster. Tucking the letter into her briefcase, she rose and and asked the bell captain to send someone for her car. She gave him her usual chipper smile, but today, it almost choked her.