by Dennis Palumbo
This is the third story in the Smart Guys mystery series written by Dennis Palumbo, which first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. There are nine Smart Guys mysteries–watch for more here in KRL in the future and check out the first one, The Smart Guys Marching Society and the second, right here in KRL. This story is rated PG-13 for some strong language.
Whoever said that conversation should stay away from the topics of religion and politics wouldn’t last ten minutes in a meeting of the Smart Guys Marching Society. Which, it turned out, was fine with Mark.
“If you ask me,” he said, ignoring the fact that no one had, “everybody’s gotten a little too ‘politically correct’ lately. I mean, what’s the point of debating issues if you’ve got to be so damned careful about what you say?”
“When have you ever been careful?” I said, struggling to open my beer’s twist-off cap. “I must’ve missed those meetings.”
“Here, have a chip,” Bill said, offering him the bowl from the coffee table. “And chill out.”
“I mean it,” Mark went on, scooping some guacamole onto his plate, “it’s getting to the point where you can’t say anything about anybody. Take my article in today’s Times–you have any idea of the kinda grief I’m gonna get from feminists? There’ll probably be bomb threats!”
“Probably,” Bill echoed. He popped open a can of peanuts, handed it over to Mark. “You oughtta try some of these, too.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me at all,” I agreed. I turned to Bill. “Didja get enough of the chili? There’s lots more, you know.”
There was an awkward silence, as Mark looked from Bill to me, then back again.
“Let me guess,” he said tersely. “Neither of you guys read my piece in this morning’s paper.”
Bill and I exchanged guilty looks.
“It’s great to have fans,” Mark muttered.
“Now wait a minute,” I said hastily. “With all the rain we’ve been having, the garage flooded. I spent the morning getting boxes off the floor.”
“And I had two shows last night,” Bill chimed in. “And you know my wife and I usually sleep in on Sundays.”
“I saw it, Mark,” said Isaac, coming in from the kitchen with the bowl of my wife’s chili he’d been re-heating in the microwave. “Very incisive. To the point.”
“Good old Isaac,” Mark said, smiling. “I knew I could count on the one literate member of the group.”
“Speaking of the group,” Isaac said, settling into his corner chair, balancing the bowl on his knees, “we don’t seem to have a quorum.” As always, he sat surrounded by untidy stacks of his beloved sci-fi and mystery classics. “Where’s Fred?”
“He had to go out of town on business,” I said. “Some little place up north. But he was supposed to be back last night. I know he planned to be here.”
“Here” was the paneled game room of my house in the San Fernando Valley, the site of our weekly meetings of the Smart Guys Marching Society. We’d gotten off to a slow start today, due to the unusually heavy rains that had been pounding Southern California all week, making driving somewhat treacherous.
Bill, an actor and theater director, had arrived first, pulling a drenched jacket off his lanky frame and hanging it carefully on a brass wall-hook. Then came Mark, a former Intelligence agent turned journalist, wiping his shoes on the back door mat, grumbling under his breath about the collective ineptitude of L.A. drivers whenever it rains.
And, of course, there was Isaac, our most recent member. A distant relative of my wife’s, he was staying as our house guest. In his late 60s, he had white muttonchop sideburns and a wry glint in his eyes. Retired now, he prided himself on being a “Jack of all trades.”
I’m a psychotherapist, and the host of these weekly stag sessions, a sort of mid-life experiment in male bonding. Though we came together last year to carve out an afternoon’s respite from our careers and families to discuss the issues of the day, lately we’ve found ourselves often engaged in puzzling out some crime problem that’s found its way into our midst.
Which is to say, Isaac puzzles them out. As unlikely as it seems, he’s kind of a whiz at it.
Not that he’d had much chance to prove it lately. For the past few months, the Smart Guys had been pretty occupied discussing political blogs, the economy, early Christian mystics, and the questionable practice of directors acting in their own films (high marks for Sydney Pollack and Spike Lee, not so good for Quentin Tarentino).
In other words, the usual eclectic mix of debate, pedantry, informed opinion and high rant.
“What we need around here,” Bill had been given to remark on more than one occasion, “is another good crime to solve.”
Which, it turned out, was exactly how we were about to spend the rest of this grim, rainy afternoon…
A sudden pounding at the back door made us all jump.
“It’s me!” a familiar voice called out.
“It’s open,” I said, rising, just as Fred, laden with brief-case, overcoat and umbrella, bundled into the room.
“I made it!” he exclaimed, laying his things in a neat pile on a side table. He stroked his trim, reddish-brown beard brusquely. “Geez, it’s pouring out there.”
“Glad to see you,” Bill said, tossing him a beer. “You know how we worry.”
“Where were you again…?” Mark asked absently.
“Little town north of Chico,” Fred said, between grateful sips. He negotiated his way past the food platters and chairs to his usual spot on the corner of the couch. “It’s called Praiswater…”
“Sounds quaint. Let me guess–white picket fences, farmland, church steeples, etcetera…”
“Close enough, except there’s timberland instead of farmland. Actually, not much of that left, either. The logging industry’s taken a beating the past decade or so.”
“What were you doing up there?” I asked.
“Your wife make the chili?” Fred was scooping heaping mounds of it into a bowl.
Mark smiled. “We better let the poor boy eat first.”
“That’s okay,” Fred said with difficulty, mouth full of chili. “I can talk and eat at the same time.”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Mark said.
“Besides,” Fred went on, after a huge gulp of beer, “I’ve got a surprise for today’s meeting. I brought a guest–” He glanced at his watch. “That is, he should be coming along any minute. Probably got held up in the rain.”
“A guest?” Bill said. “Is that allowed? I mean, is that in the rules?”
“What rules?” Mark said, frowning. “Up till now it’s been pretty basic–we show up, eat and kibbitz, right?”
“I don’t see why one of us couldn’t bring along a guest.” I looked at Fred. “Friend of yours?”
“Client,” he replied. “Name’s Brian McKay. I’ve been one of his family’s lawyers for years. The senior partner at my firm was Brian’s grandfather’s classmate at Harvard.”
Mark nodded. “Old money?”
Fred gave a wry smile. “Very old, and lots of it.”
“What does Brian do?”
“Depends on the season. In winter, it’s skiing in Vail or back-packing in Bhutan. Summers, he likes scuba-diving in Bali or fishing in Belize. Of course, year ‘round, there’s the constant sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.”
“A real party animal,” Bill said.
Fred shrugged. “Your basic trust fund kid.”
“Yeah,” Mark said dryly, “but is he really happy?”
“Delirious,” Fred said. “Currently he’s dating a lingerie model from Victoria’s Secret.”
Bill gnawed a knuckle. “This just gets better and better. Why don’t I just shoot myself now?”
“If it’ll make you feel any better, there is one hitch,” Fred’s smile faded. “He’s just been charged in connection with the death of a teenage girl.”
“Good Lord.” It was Isaac, looking up for the first time from a paperback collection of Asimov’s Robot stories.
Before the rest of us could interject, a new voice boomed from the back of the house.
“Hey, Freddie, my man! Are you somewhere in this pathetic monument to suburban kitsch?”
“Come on in, Brian,” Fred called out.
Brian McKay, barely 20, was dark and wiry in his rain-soaked duster, long dirty blond hair clinging wetly to the collar. A diamond-stud earring, mirrored sunglasses and black leather boots completed the Euro-trash look.
He shook the oversized coat off, letting it drop in a sopping wet mess to the floor, and then collapsed with a gale-like sigh of disgust into my favorite old rocker. I thought I heard the weathered pine slats splintering. I winced.
“It’s raining like piss out there,” Brian said, glancing around my game room. He spied the bottles on the coffee table. “Don’t tell me ya got nothin’ stronger than beer? And like a feeb, I spilled the last of my stash in that crappy rental I drove over here. Man, I can’t catch any kind of a break lately!”
Isaac leaned over and whispered in my ear. “An unpleasant youth,” he said seriously.
Fred gamely went ahead with the introductions, drawing something less than a curt nod from our visitor. At which, Fred stood up and went over to where his client sat. With a single motion, he took off Brian’s dark glasses and slipped them into his breast pocket.
“Hey!” Brian exclaimed.
“Were you wearing these, driving over here?” Fred asked. “In the pouring rain?”
“So what if I was? What are you, my mother?” Brian pointed a menacing finger up at him. “Don’t forget, you work for me!”
“I work for your family, not for you personally.”
“Big deal,” Brian said, folding his arms. “Just remember: one call to my old man, and your boss kicks your Ivy League ass out on the street.”
I was beginning to think that maybe we should re-examine the policy of allowing guests at our meetings.
“Look, Brian,” Fred said evenly, “I don’t care whether you like me or not. But I have an obligation, not to mention a retainer, to provide you with the best possible legal counsel, and I intend to do that.”
“Yeah? Then what the hell am I doin’ here with these losers?” Scanning the room, Brian’s eyes bored into mine. “Wait, don’t tell me…This is group therapy, and I’m gonna get in touch with my feelings.”
“Okay, that’s it!” Mark got to his feet, glaring at Brian. “Listen, you little creep. You’re not the only one who can make phone calls. I know people who know people, okay? Big, bad people. I can have your legs professionally broken by supper-time.”
“C’mon, Mark,” Fred said. “I brought Brian because I thought if we all heard his story, we might figure out a course of action.” He looked meaningfully at his client. “Don’t let his amiable behavior fool you…this boy’s in big-time trouble. He needs all the help he can get.”
This seemed to quiet Brian a bit. His shoulders slumped in the rocker, and his voice thickened.
“Man, I don’t know how the hell this thing happened…” He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, as though a child trying to shut out the sight of something upsetting. “I mean, I didn’t do nothin’…”
Fred, softening somewhat himself, put a hand on Brian’s shoulder. “I’m afraid you did do something. And a girl’s dead because of it. I’m just not sure it was your fault.”
Mark sat back down, ran his hand through his black hair. “I guess it couldn’t hurt to at least hear his story.”
The rest of us nodded our assent. Even Isaac, with a rueful smile, was willing to close his book on his lap.
“Thanks, guys.” Fred pulled a free chair over, sat next to his client. “Okay, Brian. Just tell it to them the way you told me…”
“It all started last week,” he began, eyes blinking as he tried to focus. “Last Friday night. I was comin’ down outta the Sierra Buttes, up at the border where ya cross into Oregon. A buddy from school’s got a place on one of those little lakes, and I had just been up there, chillin’. Anyway, I’m toolin’ down the highway–the weather sucked, foggy and drizzlin’–and there was this big lumber truck up ahead of me. I was gettin’ tired of breathin’ his exhaust, so I sped up to pass him. All of a sudden, I feel this sharp bump, and glass is spraying my windshield–
“I, like, freaked, but I managed to pull over, and go take a look. Lousy truck musta kicked up a rock or somethin’ with its rear tires. Knocked out my right front headlight.”
He shook his head. “My brand new Porsche Turbo Carrera. Anyway, I figure I better try to get it replaced. I drive on for a couple miles till I see an exit sign for Praiswater. I pull into town–and I’m tellin’ ya, it’s gotta be the most dead-ass, dried-out piece of real estate I’ve ever seen. Like Mayberry on life-support, ya know what I mean?
“I find a gas station, but the rocket scientist who works there tells me the mechanic’s gone for the night, and besides he’d probably have to send to Chico for the right part. No Porsche dealerships in Hicksville, I guess. So I’m stuck there for the night. Really blows. I get a deluxe suite in the nearest roach motel and crash till morning.”
Brian favored us with a tight smile. “You guys with me so far.”
“I’m taking notes,” Bill said, smiling right back.
“The next day’s Saturday,” Brian continued, unfazed, “and after talkin’ with the mechanic, another genius, I learn it may take till evening to get the new headlight, so I place a couple calls to the real world. Just to make sure I’m not in the Twilight Zone or something.”
“Who did you call?” I asked, for no good reason.
“My broker. My shrink. Dude I know who runs a club in Palm Springs. And Terri.”
“The lingerie model,” Fred replied helpfully.
“Oh, yeah,” Bill said. “Her.”
Brian’s face grew animated. “And here’s where I get totally bummed-out. Terri had to leave L.A. all of a sudden, to fill in for this other chick who got sick on some fashion shoot. I find out she’s on a beach in Barbados, showin’ her stuff for the spring catalogue, while I’m stuck in Mayberry with a busted headlight.”
“That’s a bummer, all right.” Bill’s mood seemed to have lifted somewhat.
“Tell me about it,” Brian complained, oblivious. “I was goin’ nuts sittin’ around that motel room, so I figure I’ll check out the locals. For laughs, ya know? Turns out, I landed in Praiswater just in time for the biggest event of the year—the Founder’s Day Festival. And, man, if the constant drizzle was puttin’ a damper on things, you sure couldn’t see it. There were signs in all the shop windows, banners hanging over Main Street. Real small-town Americana. I thought I was gonna hurl…
“But the biggest thing of all was gonna be that night—the Founder’s Day Dance. Old guy at a newsstand told me everybody was gonna be there. They had this tradition, guys askin’ their girlfriends to marry ‘em at the Dance. ‘The most romantic night in Praiswater,’ accordin’ to this geek.”
“Sound like friendly people,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Brian retorted. “From what I saw, all those hicks did was trash each other. I had a burger in the local grease palace, just soakin’ up a little atmosphere, and you shoulda heard ‘em. Who’s cheatin’ on who, who’s a lyin’ crook, who’s probably a homo. Like bein’ in a Disney movie from hell.”
Bill nodded. “Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. The dark underbelly of small town life.”
“Can we try to stay on track here?” Fred said testily.
“Look, you told me before I came here not to leave anything out,” Brian said, leaning back in the rocker. It squeaked mournfully. “Now where was I? Oh, yeah, I’m gettin’ some lunch, and the waitress points out the window, across the street, to the one big business in town. ‘Honest’ Harve Hansen, whose appliance store takes up half of Main Street. Even through the fogged-up glass, you could make out his big frame standing on the sidewalk in front of his place. Had one of those grins like he was runnin’ for office. Just then, a sedan rolls up to the curb, and a girl in a raincoat and hood jumps out, throws her arms around him.
“‘Look at ‘em, will ya?’ says the waitress. ‘Like they were teenagers. I swear, if that Sally Grant had her way, she and Harve’d be joined at the hip.’ From what some of the other customers said, it sounded like old Harve had got real lucky after his divorce. Sally was some young thing from San Diego, got together with him right after she’d moved to town. Was totally devoted to him, they said. Even pulled him out of a drunken fight he’d started in some bar.”
“Was he some kind of trouble-maker?” Bill asked.
“Are you kidding? Harve was the pride of Praiswater. Local boy makes good.” Brian laughed darkly. “New money. You know what that kind is like.”
“Look, guys, can we just cut to the chase?” Mark said.
“Okay, okay.” Brian shifted uneasily in his seat. “I guess that brings me to that night, Saturday night. I go back to the garage around five-thirty, and Mr. Goodwrench tells me the part never arrived for my car. I’m thoroughly cranked over this, but this guy just smiles and suggests I stay in town for the big dance. Every couple in Praiswater’s gonna be there, he says–and everybody else goes just to see who’s gonna propose to who. Like this is something I’d ever do in a zillion years, right?
“On top of this, I finally get through to Barbados, and guess who happens to be vacationing right on the same beach where Terri’s shooting? Rick Ransom, lead singer of the Vipers, that’s who!”
“So?” I asked.
“So? Ransom’s a major hound. If I didn’t get my butt to Barbados, he and Terri’d be shackin’ up by Sunday. So I decided, to hell with waiting for the new headlight, I’d just drive down to Frisco and grab a plane to the islands.
“Naturally, the rain’s picking up when I finally get my act together and get back on the road. With my one headlight, and the storm gettin’ worse, highway’s like driving down a dark tunnel. We’re talkin’ the boonies, just south of town, trees on both sides…I admit, I was nervous. I was even drivin’ below the limit. Way below. Plus I’d taken a couple hits before I left–”
“You smoked some grass?” Mark stared at him.
“Just to take the edge off,” Brian said, voice tight. “Anyway, I’m hunched over the wheel, tryin’ to see. And I swear, not goin’ over thirty-five…when all of a sudden I see a blur appear right in front of me, a figure–I slam on the brakes, but I think I hear a bump–”
“Jesus,” Bill whispered.
“I jump out of the car and go around to the front…and she’s just lyin’ there, in the road.” He sat forward, hands rubbing the tops of his knees. “It was a girl…all smudged, and kinda crumpled there. She was practically naked…just wearin’ a bra and panties. Good bod, too, ya know?”
I looked at Fred, who just rolled his eyes.
“And I’m freaked to the max, I don’t know what the hell to do. Then I hear a car pull to a stop behind mine…I look up, and it’s Harve Hansen, peering down at me in the rain. ‘Are you all right, son?’ he says. ‘I was just on my way to the dance and–Oh my God, that’s Joy Phillips!’ He gets down next to me, checks the girl over. ‘She’s unconscious,’ he says. ‘We gotta get her to the hospital.’
“I’m too numb to say anything. Harve goes to his car, comes back with a big blanket, and we wrap her up in it. He picks her up like she don’t weigh nothin’, starts back toward his car. ‘Follow me,’ he says.
“I get back behind the wheel, and watch him in my rear view mirror gently lay her in the back seat of his car. Then he gets in the driver seat and pulls around, and starts back down the highway, with me following. We drive back toward town in the rain, until he pulls into the driveway of the county hospital.
“I park right next to him, outside the Emergency entrance, and run in behind him as he carries her to the admitting desk. I just kinda stand there, stunned, as a couple nurses put her on a gurney and take her through some swinging doors.
“Harve tells me he’s gonna go call her parents. I don’t know what to do, so I just sit down on a couch there, by the vending machine. After awhile, this older couple show up, looked like somebody punched ‘em in the gut. Harve comes with them, tells me they’re Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. The old lady just stares at me, her mouth moving, but no words are comin’ out.
“Then I heard Mr. Phillips arguing with somebody–the doctor, I guess–they want to see their daughter. The doctor says no, they gotta operate right away. But Phillips breaks away, runs down the corridor, and I find myself running right behind him, just in time to see the surgical team pushing a gurney into the operating room. They got the girl on the table, oxygen mask on, tubes in her arms…
“It’s like some kinda dream…‘cause then they whisk her away, and the doctor is shouting, and Harve is pulling Phillips back from the doors…”
Brian lapsed into silence so suddenly, it took us all by surprise. Then, after taking a few breaths, he looked up at us, the color drained from his face.
“So then we all just sat there on the couch, waitin’. Nobody sayin’ nothin’. Suddenly, this guy comes in, says he’s Sheriff Winston, and he’s got this kid with him–I mean, he looks like freakin’ Opie–and he’s totally wigged out, pacing back and forth. His name’s Bobby Ancetti, looks like he’s about sixteen. Turns out he works in the Phillips’ grocery store. The sheriff says the kid admits that he’d taken Joy Phillips to an old abandoned shed in the woods he knew about, just off the highway. He was gonna do her before goin’ to the dance, ya know?
“I guess they were half-way into it when she got scared and changed her mind, and just ran outta there in a panic, in her bra and panties, cryin’ and stuff. She musta run out onto the highway, just as I was comin’….”
Brian’s voice choked. His hands turned to fists on his knees. “But, I didn’t see her till it was too late. I swear, all of a sudden, she was just…there…”
He struggled to compose himself, and I noticed again how youthful his face looked. Unformed. And–I allowed myself a professional hunch–unparented.
“Anyway,” he went on at last, “about two hours later, the doc came out to where we were all waiting, and told us that Joy was dead. Her parents just started sobbing, but Opie went nuts and jumped me, screamin’ ‘You killed her!’ Harve and the sheriff had to pull him off. Then…well, I knew I better call my old man.”
He smiled without humor. “Took me three hours to track him down. He and his new girlfriend were in Paris.”
“The next morning, Brian’s father called me,” Fred said. “By the time I could get up there, it was Monday night. A lot had happened by then. The Phillips were pressing charges against Brian, with Sheriff Winston only too happy to consider everything from substance abuse to vehicular manslaughter. Brian’s attitude didn’t help.”
He glanced balefully at his client.
“Look, I’m sorry the girl’s dead, but I didn’t mean to hit her. Christ, she ran right into me!” Brian looked away.
His mood swings, from easy bravado to a kind of little-boy incredulity, were becoming familiar to me now. He seemed to shift, perhaps unconsciously, into whichever role would absolve him of responsibility in that particular moment.
“I also found out,” Fred continued briskly, “that the grieving parents have hired a high-profile attorney who’s urging a civil trial, regardless of what actions the police take, to claim damages in the millions.”
“What can you expect?” Mark said. “Brian’s family has those deep pockets lawyers just love.”
“Thanks a lot,” Fred said. “Anyway, I got Brian re- leased, but the police have impounded his car. Of course, the rain wiped any possible physical evidence clean…”
“Tell ‘em about the funeral you dragged me to,” Brian moaned. “That whole crummy town would like to lynch me.”
“It’s true, I persuaded Brian to come to the funeral home, to pay his respects.” Fred shrugged. “It may have been a mistake. The family must’ve posted Harve Hansen at the door, because when we showed up he told me the Phillips had requested that Brian not be permitted to attend. I insisted I be allowed to enter and express my condolences on behalf of the McKay family. Hansen said okay, and I went in for a few minutes. It seemed like half the town was there. I met Sally Grant, Bobby Ancetti, the surgeon who’d operated on Joy…and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. They refused to speak with me. I guess I couldn’t blame them. So I went out and got Brian, and we flew back to L.A.”
We all looked at each other for a long minute. There didn’t appear to be anything to say. Brian seemed to realize this, and suddenly hauled himself out of the rocker.
“Maybe I missed it,” he said to Fred, “but it doesn’t look like any of your buddies here has a brainstorm. I’m screwed, and I know it.”
“But those damages the Phillips are talking about are outrageous,” Fred protested. “I’m sorry for their loss, of course, but it was an accident…”
“Who cares?” Brian pulled on his still-damp overcoat. “Don’t you get it? Them hicks saw me comin’, man. They wanna bleed the family vault, I say let ‘em.”
He turned to the rest of us. “Thanks for nothin’. I’m outta here. With my luck, Terri and that metal-head spent the week wreckin’ the bed-springs, so I got a plane to catch. Maybe if I wave what’s gonna be left of the family fortune in front of her, I can do a little damage control.”
With that, Brian McKay snatched his dark glasses back from Fred’s shirt pocket and stomped out of my game room, and then out of the house.
Another long moment of silence followed.
“Well, that was a complete and utter thrill,” Bill said at last. He headed into the kitchen. “Anybody else want a beer? I’m buying.”
“Okay,” Fred said, “so he’s got a slight attitude problem.”
“Don’t forget about him and Terri.” Mark laughed. “Now there’s a heart-tugging romance. I really hope those two wide-eyed kids can work it out.”
“You boys can laugh,” Isaac said suddenly, from his corner chair. As always, I’d almost forgotten he was there. “But there is real romance at work here. In fact, she loves him very much.”
Isaac shook his head impatiently. “No, no…I’m talking about Sally Grant. She must love Harve Hansen very much indeed. Why else would she take such a risk to protect him?”
Mark, Fred and I turned, almost as one, to face him.
“Of course,” he mused, “it’s possible that it all happened exactly the way it seems, but I don’t think so…”
“What are you saying, Isaac?” It was Bill, coming back in from the kitchen.
“Actually, it was Brian McKay himself who unwittingly suggested it to me. Something he said just before he left. ‘Them hicks saw me comin’. He meant, of course, that they’d targeted him as a rich chicken to be plucked in court. But I suddenly realized he’d inadvertently stumbled on the truth.”
“What truth?” Mark said.
“That Harve Hansen and Sally Grant had literally seen him coming,” Isaac said. “How could they not, despite the rain and the darkness? His single working headlight was a dead giveaway, since in such a small town everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everyone knew about Brian’s broken headlight, in what was certainly the only Porsche for a hundred miles, so it was easy for Hansen and Sally to recognize it.
“Of course, they had to act quickly, very quickly. She’d have to strip off her clothes, down to her bra and panties, smudge herself with dirt. Crumpled on the road, in the rain and the glare of Brian’s single headlight, feigning unconsciousness…It was a daring move, perhaps foolhardy, but–”
Isaac smiled. “I don’t know why, but I like to think it was her idea, rather than his. I never cared for that boisterous, newly prosperous, rowdy type. I can just see ‘Honest Harve’ standing in his store, pumping the hand of some poor sap before stiffing him on a new washer-dryer combo the lad probably can’t afford anyway.”
“Excuse me,” I said, head spinning, “is anybody else lost?”
“Let me explain,” Isaac said. “It all becomes quite clear if you remember the sequence of events. Brian is driving slowly on a rainy highway, when suddenly a figure appears in front of him. He slams on the brakes. Lying on the road is the crumpled body of a girl, apparently injured by the impact with his car. As luck would have it, Harve Hansen shows up, and announces that the unconscious girl is Joy Phillips. Having never met or heard of the girl, why wouldn’t Brian believe him?”
“I’ll be damned,” said Fred.
“If, as I maintain, that girl pretending to be injured is actually Sally Grant, what happens next is crucial. Harve wraps her in a blanket and carries her to his car. Brian stays behind, watching in his own car’s rear view mirror. He sees Harve lay the girl gently in his back seat–where the real Joy Phillips, who is actually injured, has been hidden. Sally climbs out of the blanket, wrapping it around the real victim, and slips unseen out of the back seat.
“Now, with the real Joy Phillips in the blanket, Harve drives to the hospital, with Brian following. Sally, left behind on the road, dresses again and makes her way on foot back to town. Her part in the plan is done.”
Mark broke in. “But at the hospital, Brian saw the girl being wheeled into the operating room. Wouldn’t he notice that it wasn’t the same girl as on the road?”
Isaac shook his head. “When Joy Phillips was wheeled past him on the gurney, her face was covered with an oxygen mask. And remember, there was no reason for him to doubt it was the same girl.”
“But wait,” Bill said. “Brian knew what Sally Grant looked like. He saw her hugging Hansen earlier that day.”
“Through a window, across the street,” Isaac reminded him. “And Sally was wearing a raincoat, with a hood. There’s no way he could’ve gotten a good enough look at her to recognize her later that night on the ground.”
“Lucky break for old Harve,” Mark said quietly.
“Yes. The plan depended on Brian, as a stranger in town, having never seen either Sally Grant or Joy Phillips before that night.”
“I just thought of something,” Fred said. “Now I understand about the funeral…”
“Exactly,” Isaac said, eyes twinkling.
“Yeah, well I don’t,” said Bill.
“Harve planted himself at the door of the funeral home just in case Brian and I might show up,” Fred explained. “He couldn’t allow Brian to enter, and so he made up that story about the family not wanting him to attend.”
“Maybe they really didn’t want Brian there,” I suggested.
“It doesn’t matter,” Fred continued. “The important thing, as far as Harve was concerned, was to keep Brian out. Because if he went in, as I did, he’d encounter the same people I saw…including Sally Grant! He might recognize her as the girl he saw crumpled on the road–a girl who was supposed to be dead!”
“But, Isaac,” I said, “what I can’t figure out is how you figured it all out in the first place?”
He chuckled. “Something about Brian’s accident just felt wrong to me, but I didn’t know what it was…until I remembered what night the accident happened. Saturday night. The most romantic night in Praiswater.’ The Founder’s Day Dance.”
“I see,” I said. I didn’t see.
“Everyone in town said Harve and Sally were in-separable. Like a couple of teenagers. When Harve stopped behind Brian on the road that night, he said he was on his way to the Founder’s Day Dance. If so, why was he alone? Where was Sally?
“My guess is, Harve and Sally were driving together, on their way to the dance, when poor Joy Phillips suddenly ran out in front of them. Harve couldn’t stop in time–maybe he’d had a few drinks. Remember, Sally had had to retrieve him from a drunken brawl once.
“In any event, they see that the girl is badly hurt. Perhaps Sally realizes that with his previous reputation for drinking, he could be in serious trouble. For all we know, Harve could have a couple of DUI’s that nobody but the police know about.
“They’ve just gotten Joy into the back seat when, in the distance, they see a car slowly approaching. With only one headlight. Thinking fast, Sally strips to her underwear, and has Harve pull the car off to the side of the road, in the shadow of the woods. Just as Brian’s car arrives, Sally takes the dangerous risk of running in front of him, pretending to be hit–”
“It’s an old con artist trick,” Mark said, nodding. “I’d be curious to see if the police have a record on her down in San Diego.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Isaac said. “It’s not something I’d have the nerve to do. But, then, I suspect Sally Grant has quite a remarkable love for Harve Hansen. One which I doubt very much he deserves.”
“Geez, Isaac, you sound jealous.” Bill was fishing in a basket for one of the few remaining chips.
The older man smiled. “You may be right.”
“But what about my case?” Fred asked abruptly.
“I suggest you have Sheriff Winston get a photo of Sally Grant down here for Brian to examine. If he can ID her as the girl he thought he hit with his car, she and ‘Honest Harve’ will have a lot of explaining to do.”
Fred looked thoughtful. “I just hope I can catch him before he flies to Barbados.”
With that, he got up and started punching buttons on his Blackberry.
“Hold it!” Bill exclaimed, tortilla chip poised half-way between the basket and his mouth. “This means Brian’s gonna be exonerated. The little creep skates free–!”
“Free to travel the world,” Mark added with a bemused smile, “with a lingerie model from Victoria’s Secret.”
“It…Dammit, it isn’t fair!” Bill tossed the chip, uneaten, back into the basket.
“I must agree,” said Isaac, reaching for a book, “it isn’t. As I said, an unpleasant youth.”
I had a thought. “Is that why you didn’t tell us your theory about what really happened until Brian left?”
“Now that you mention it, yes…” Isaac smiled, opening his book. “Something to do with ‘pearls before swine,’ I’m afraid…”
The book must have been a favorite, for in moments he was lost in it.
The first photo in this story was provided by Corey Ralston of Corey Ralston Photography.
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