Authors: Warren Murphy
Trace had always heard that Westport, Connecticut, was the home of the super-straight-arrow citizens of America’s eastern gold coast.
Then he got there.
First he ran into the guardian of a sweet little old lady—a fellow who looked like a gorilla but didn’t act quite as civilized as one.
Next he had an encounter of the closest kind with a beautiful lady next door who was in fevered competition to outscore her husband in the infidelity game.
After that he visited a doctor whose favorite means of relaxation was sitting naked in a hot tub with a glass of ice-cold champagne in his hand and an overheated blonde nurse by his side.
By this time Trace figured that no one in this terrific little town could surprise him—until a killer did….
Copyright © 1985 by Warren Murphy
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved
—The death of Helmsley Paddington, inventor of a string of pet products, was revealed today in papers filed in Superior Court here.
According to the brief filed by attorneys for Mrs. Nadine Paddington, the widow, Paddington, who was then 37, died seven years ago when his private plane crashed somewhere between New Hampshire and Newfoundland.
Paddington, a licensed private pilot, was on his way to Newfoundland to join in a protest against the killing of baby harp seals for their fur. At the time of his death, the couple were living in West Hampstead, New Hampshire.
Mrs. Paddington, now a resident of Westport, Connecticut, asked the court to officially declare her husband dead, even though his body has never been found.
Devlin Tracy said, “Well, well, so Helmsley Paddington died. What a shame.”
Tracy was a big, blond rumpled man who held a large brandy snifter of rosé between both hands. He was talking to Walter Marks, vice-president for claims of the Garrison Fidelity Insurance Company. Marks was barely five feet tall and he wore pin-stripe suits and elevator shoes in an unsuccessfully desperate effort to look taller. He had small hands and manicured fingers and he had that slightly distracted air of the chronically finicky, as if he were always looking around for something to dust.
It was obvious from the way his thin lips curled that he did not like Devlin Tracy.
“You know about Helmsley Paddington?” Marks said.
“Never heard of him,” Devlin Tracy said. “But I remember seven years ago, I woke up one night and all I could hear was dogs howling. It was like they were howling all over the world. At first I thought it was a werewolf UFO, but it wasn’t because nobody came to rip my throat out. Just dogs howling. I finally went back to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, they had all stopped. That must have been the time Paddington’s plane crashed. Dogs know things like that. Earthquakes too.” He waved to the waiter for another drink.
“Maybe you were just drunk, Trace,” said Walter Marks.
“That’s a possibility. I was drunk a lot then, as I remember,” Trace said.
“You’re drunk a lot now,” Marks said. He looked as if he were smelling something bad.
“No, no, that’s totally different,” Trace said. “Back then, I drank hard stuff, vodka, and I drank it all the time. I was committing suicide. I’m surprised you never tried to stop me. One would almost think you wanted me dead.”
“And how is that different from now?” Walter Marks asked.
“Now I drink only wine,” Trace said. “This is very good for your body because it prevents waxy buildup in your arteries. I may live forever.”
“God, what a prospect,” Marks said.
“I don’t know. I look forward to immortality with glee,” Trace said.
“Well, you still drink too much. I don’t care if it’s wine or vodka or bird’s-nest soup. You still always look like you have a buzz on.”
“There are reasons for that,” Trace said. “It’s not like it’s something I want to do.”
“I read this story about how high alcohol levels in the blood protect you against nuclear radiation. Those of us who believe in mankind have a responsibility to preserve the race. Do you know how awful I feel when I see all these people walking around, unprotected? It’s shameful. Don’t people care that they might be the last person left in the world and the whole future of the race depends on them? Drink, Groucho. Mankind is counting on you.”
“As long as noboy’s counting on you,” Marks said stiffly. “Let’s get down to business.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I want you to look into this Paddington case.”
“Why?” Trace asked.
“Because he was insured by Garrison Fidelity for a million dollars. With an accidental death, this Mrs. Paddington gets two million.”
“Accidents happen,” Trace said with a shrug. “Pay up.” He surrendered his empty glass to the waiter and started drinking from the full one. Marks waited until the waiter left before he spoke again.
“Not accidents like this,” Marks said. “Not like he dies and she doesn’t say anything for seven years. I had one of the researchers check the indexes. Not a word in the paper for seven years about these people. Not a word.”
“Dead men don’t talk,” Trace said. “That might explain it.”
“I don’t believe it,” Marks said. “You think there would have been a rumor, a buzz from somebody, a question. ‘What happened to Mr. and Mrs. Poop?’ That kind of thing. Why have they left the public eye?”
“Paddington, not Poop,” Trace said.
“No. They called them Mr. and Mrs. Poop. That was like a joke because he kept inventing these things to pick up dog crap or something. Christ, he makes a zillion dollars out of dog turds. What kind of a world is this?”
“Look at the bright side,” Trace said. “If he didn’t, the world would have been knee-deep in dog droppings. You’d be neck-deep.”
“Please save your short jokes for somebody else,” Marks snapped. “So, anyway, there hasn’t been a mention of these people for seven years and now all of a sudden she’s got a lawyer and she wants us to give her two million dollars.”
“Ah, why not?” Trace said. “Make her day. Send her the money.”
“Because I don’t believe in any of these missing-at-sea things and seven years later, whoops, he’s dead, pay up.”
think happened?” Trace said.
“I think this is a scam,” Marks said. “Just like they always are. I think this Paddington guy is living in an abandoned mine shaft someplace and every weekend he comes up and stays in a motel twenty miles outside town and porks his wife and they’re having a big laugh at our expense. That’s the way it always is.”
“You seem to have your mind made up already,” Trace said. “Why bother me with it?” He turned away from Marks and asked the bartender for a cup of Sanka.
The bartender looked at Marks quizzically, but the insurance-company official shook his head no, sourly, as if annoyed at being disturbed.
They were the only two customers sitting at the long bar. It was chillingly cool, but through the front window, the men could see the summer heat shimmering up from the pavement of the Las Vegas Strip.
“This whole thing will be in court in a couple of weeks,” Marks said. “We want to be ready before then, and know how this Mrs. Paddington’s trying to cheat us. It’s right up your alley. An easy one for you.”
Something in the tone of his voice made Trace suspicious. He thought silently for a while, then said, “You’ve had somebody else working on this, haven’t you?”
Marks looked up with an expression of hurt astonishment. Trace just glared at him, and finally Marks said casually, “Well, we had somebody else take a quick pass at the case. Just a light sweep, if you will.”
“And…Well, he didn’t find out anything,” Marks said.
“I don’t believe you, Groucho,” said Trace.
“What don’t you believe?”
“I know you. You don’t hire anybody to take a quick pass at anything worth two million dollars. You had teams of damned investigators digging into this thing for—what’s the date on the clipping?—right, for two months and they’ve come up with zilch and now you want to give me this dead end with a couple of weeks left so that if I can’t find anything either, you can blame it on me and tell the world how incompetent I am.”
“You really astonish me, Trace,” Marks said. “I’m giving you a job. That’s all. A job. Why do you always try to make it a matter of personal animosity between us?”
“Because it is. Because you hate the fact that Bob Swenson is my friend, so you can’t fire me because the president of the company likes me. So you keep giving me these rotten jobs and trying to make me fall on my face. It’s what you always do.”
“I’m hurt. I came to give you this job because I thought you could use the money. You usually can.”
“Not anymore. I’m on my way to being independently wealthy,” Trace said. “Did you notice? I’m drinking Gallo wine now. I’m moving right up. No more wine in cardboard barrels. It’s all first class from here on in.”
“Rich relative die?” Marks asked.
“Nothing that good,” Trace said.
“You haven’t gone and actually put money into one of your lunatic business schemes, have you?” Marks asked. He shook his head. “Not that CB bible of the air? Or those backward signs for the fronts of cars? Or making Oklahoma into a parking lot?”
“Tulsa, not Oklahoma,” Trace said. “And you’ll rue the day you declined to invest in them. But, no, to answer your question, this is something totally different.”
“I’ve invested in a bar and restaurant,” Trace said.
Marks laughed aloud. “You’ll drink up all the profits, if there are any.”
“This restaurant’s three thousand miles away. Oceanbright in New Jersey. You know it?”
“Shore town?” Marks asked.
“Right. Right on the ocean, and so’s the restaurant. A friend of mine is going to run it and I own a piece.”
“What kind of return are you getting?” Marks asked.
“The money’s going to start rolling in any day now,” Trace said. “You know how traffic is every Friday night getting out of New York?”
“Well, all those people are going to the Jersey shore. To Oceanbright. To my restaurant. Every one of them. I’ll tell you, I’m going to be swimming in wealth.”
“Did you know that the highest failure rate for new ventures is in the restaurant business?” Marks said. “Seventy-five percent of all new restaurants fail.”
“You just made that up,” Trace said. “You’re trying to ruin my day and make me work for you.”
“No, it’s a true statistic. My lawyer told me. Somebody tried to get me to invest in a restaurant and he checked it out for me.”
“Who’d want you in a restaurant?” Trace said. “You’d scare all the customers away.”
“They wanted my money, not my charm.”
“I hate you, Walter Marks,” Trace said. “You have a knack for making everything banal and dirty.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” Marks said. “Try to get your money back before it’s too late.”
“This restaurant is going to be one of the ones that succeeds. It can’t miss, I tell you.”
“Well, I wish you luck. Honestly, I wish you luck.”
“I’ll make believe that you mean it,” Trace said. “So you understand why I can’t take this job for you.”
“I really don’t. Even if your restaurant pays off, which I doubt, you’ll still have to have some money coming in.”
“I’ll get by. The restaurant’s opening real soon and I expect a big check from them any day. And in the meantime, I’ve still got my retainer from you people.”
“You’re turning me down, then?” Marks said.
“I don’t know how we can justify continuing to keep you on retainer when you won’t provide any services,” Marks said.
“What do you mean by that?” Trace asked.
“You’re an accountant, you should understand.”
“I used to was an accountant. Now I are an entrepreneur,” Trace said.
“You can still understand. We pay you a retainer so that you’re available when we need you. If you’re not going to be available anymore, then we can’t justify paying you a retainer, can we?”
“This is my life you’re messing around with,” Trace said.
“I, for one, hope you get wealthy and famous in the restaurant business,” Marks said.
“If you come into my restaurant, I’ll give you the appetizer free. But not the shrimp cocktail. That’s fifty cents extra.”
“Okay. Let’s leave it at that, then,” Marks said.
“You’re very gleeful about this, Groucho,” said Trace.
“Trace, let’s be honest about this. You don’t like me and you don’t like working for me.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“What would you say?” asked Marks.
“I’d say I hate you and I hate working for you.”
“Okay,” Marks said. “I’ll go along with that. And you are not exactly one of my favorite people either. So I think it’s not such a bad idea that we come, like this, to an amicable parting of the ways, so to speak.”
“You’re happy to be rid of me, aren’t you?” Trace said suspiciously.
“Yes. I would say that.”
“Well, I’m not quitting yet.”
“You don’t have to quit. You just have to decline to work. That’s what you’re doing.”
“Do you want to get rid of me two million dollars’ worth?” Trace asked.
“Two million? Oh, that’s if you could find any fraud or anything wrong with this Paddington case. Detectives, real detectives haven’t been able to find anything wrong.”
“If there is something wrong, I could find it,” Trace said stubbornly.
“We’ll never know that, will we?” Marks said. “Now that you’re a restaurant tycoon.”
He left a few minutes later, smiling uncharacteristically. Trace stayed behind at the bar.