by Jacqueline Seewald
This story was previously published in in the Gumshoe Review. Don’t miss our other Valentine’s Day mystery short story, Coffee Date.
The Sweethearts Detective Agency was founded by Bob and Nina Harris, two N.Y.P.D. detectives who opted for early retirement from the force. They’d met on the job, been attracted to each other from the first and were married a year after their first date. When Bob, a tall, husky former marine met Nina, a feisty blue-eyed redhead, he started to think it was time to consider marriage.
It was Nina who initially suggested the name for the P.I. firm. At first Bob had groaned, but the truth was it drew a lot of female clients. Ironically, these women were usually checking up on cheating husbands. Valentine’s Day was especially busy for the Sweethearts Detective Agency.
“I want to take you out for a special dinner tonight,” Bob told his wife that morning.
“I hope we can swing it. I know your schedule is as busy as mine.”
As was their routine, they discussed their cases each morning for the coming day, usually in Nina’s office where they shared coffee and whole grain toast. Nina insisted on fresh fruit as well. She was committed to keeping them both in good health. A slim woman herself, she hardly looked her forty years. Gone were the days when Bob could wolf down a couple of donuts for breakfast. He let out a sigh of resignation. “So what does your day look like?” Bob asked his wife.
“Lot more women cheating these days,” Bob observed.
“Equal rights,” Nina responded.“Who’s your client?”
“I’m shadowing a big shot executive name of Fred Warwick at the request of his wife. She told me he plans to be away on business tonight.”
Nina tossed him a wary look. “Yeah, I can guess what kind of business that will be.”
Bob crossed the room, unlocked a cabinet and brought out two small cameras. He handed one to Nina and pocketed the other. They also carried cell phone cameras and miniature recording devices. He and Nina made an effort to keep all their surveillance equipment up-to-date.
Bob had a recent photo of Warwick that his wife had provided and he studied it carefully. Ellen Warwick had promised to phone as soon as her husband left for his office. Bob planned to start his surveillance there. He might have been noticed if he staked out their house since the Warwicks lived on a cul-de-sac, a small dead end street in suburban Long Island. Last thing he needed was to be observed by Warwick or some curious neighbor.
It had been easy enough to pick up Warwick as the man left his office near noontime. The great thing about shadowing someone walking down the streets of Manhattan was that there were always so many people around. He was never spotted. When Warwick strolled into one of the many bistros that lined the upper East Side, Bob followed him inside. It was dark as a cave. The place oozed intimacy, perfect for a tête-à-tête. Bob noted the well-stocked bar. For certain, Warwick was meeting a woman here.
Bob opted for a table at a discreet distance from Warwick’s. He took the back corner booth and slipped into the gunfighter’s seat from where he could observe the establishment. He watched as Warwick pulled off his wedding ring and dropped it into his jacket pocket. Bob didn’t have long to wait before an attractive blonde a good deal younger than Warwick joined him at his table. She and Warwick embraced, and Bob surreptitiously took his first shot with the small digital camera.
“So, sailor, buy a girl a drink?”
Bob looked up momentarily startled. Then he smiled. “A stunner like you, sure I’ll buy you a drink and anything else you might want. But I ought to tell you I’m a married man.” He gave her a flirtatious smile.
She sat down opposite him. “That’s all right. I’m married too.” She gave a throaty laugh.
“So Nina, what are you doing here? Dropped your case and decided to follow me?”
“Nope, much as I love you, I’m committed to my job too.” With a jerk of her head, she indicated Warwick and his female companion who were holding hands. “Meet Mrs. Erickson,” she said in a soft voice, whispering the words in his ear.
“I do indeed.”
“How true. They seem to work in the same building, just not the same office.”
Warwick and Erickson progressed from holding hands to smooching. He and Nina both took a few shots.
“Nice easy job,” Bob said.
Over drinks, Warwick whipped out a velvet jewelry box and handed it to Mrs. Erickson. This brought on more kissing and some intimate caresses. Violin music was being piped in, perfect for the occasion, but the couple seemed aware only of each other.
Bob held his wife’s hand for a few moments. “Don’t say I never take you to romantic places,” he teased.
Nina narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
Mrs. Erickson glanced at her watch and got ready to leave. She blew Warwick a final farewell kiss as she left.
“Well, see you later,” Nina said, hurrying to follow.
As Warwick paid his bill, Bob signaled the waiter for his own check. Bob thought Warwick might be headed back to his office, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Bob tailed Warwick to another small, intimate restaurant where the man had a rendezvous with yet another blond beauty. With this woman, he shared a meal, more kisses and caresses, and then a duplicate of the first jewelry box was proffered. Well, at least Warwick was generous to his girl friends.
Next stop was one of the nicer upscale hotels. Bob watched as Warwick registered. He stood nearby and taped the conversation as he listened.
“Yes, sir, anything else?”
“I’ll call for room service when I’m ready.”
Warwick posted his credit card as requested. “Mrs. Warwick should be here shortly,” he said. Warwick slipped the desk clerk an extra twenty just to make certain that he was paying attention. Then he took the elevator up. Bob stepped in and went to the rear. He followed Warwick down the corridor, wishing he could figure a way to get a surveillance camera set up in the room.
Bob lurked in the hallway for a short time wondering if Warwick might come out again, but no such luck. Bob glanced at his watch. No doubt someone from security would pick him up if he waited around much longer. He would have liked to get some shots of the woman and Warwick in flagrante, to immortalize the infidelity on film. He took the elevator down to the lobby and settled into a chair close by the registration desk. Sure enough, about a half hour later, a stunning blonde asked for Mr. Warwick’s room. She removed her coat but not her large, dark sunglasses. She also wore a tight low-cut red dress and stiletto heels. Bob clicked off a couple of quick shots of her on his cell phone camera before she got into the elevator. He didn’t want to be obtrusive. But he needn’t have worried. Every male eye in the lobby was fixed on the blonde bombshell.
Bob felt he had enough now for Warwick’s wife. He’d already instructed her to check credit statements and phone bills for evidence. She’d done so and noticed odd charges on her husband’s credit card: large room service bills and purchases for women’s clothing from stores she never shopped at since she considered them too expensive. The jewelry Warwick had been handing out today like pop tarts would probably set him back plenty, Bob reasoned. Even the red velvet boxes looked expensive. Ellen Warwick was sure to notice that on his credit card statement. The guy was nailed for certain.
The lady could confront her husband with plenty of evidence of his infidelity. The philanderer would be paying well for his cheating ways in the divorce settlement.
Bob returned to the office and discovered that his wife’s door was closed. He could hear her voice and those of other people. She was obviously in conference with some clients. He slipped into his own office and waited for her to finish. Since the walls were paper thin, he couldn’t help but overhear some of the conversation going on next door.
“How could you do this to me, to us, Julia?”
“How could you have me followed?” The woman’s voice rose with a tremulous vibration.
“Mr. and Mrs. Erickson, can I suggest you consider seeing a marriage counselor,” Nina said.
“What for?” Erickson sounded belligerent. “Nothing can save our marriage. She betrayed me, betrayed my trust in her.”
“I believe you have a child, don’t you?”
“That’s right,” Erickson said in a quieter tone of voice.
“For her sake, shouldn’t you at least try to work out your differences?”
“My wife saw another man on Valentine’s Day, accepted jewelry from him. What’s there to say? I’m shattered, devastated.”
“Are you really? You miserable hypocrite!” Mrs. Erickson’s voice dripped acid. “Just so you know, Ms. Detective, I wasn’t the one who started this. Jimmy cheated on me first. He was unfaithful almost from the beginning of our marriage. I tried to deny it. I’d go to sleep alone in our bed pretending that Jimmy was working late at the office.
But I knew it was a lie. Finally I installed a software program on his computer that recorded his e-mails, chats, and the web sites he visited. Let me tell you, it was very illuminating. I tried to be a good wife in every way. I asked myself, what’s wrong with me? Aren’t I pretty enough, smart enough, witty enough? Why wasn’t I enough for him?
When I finally got the courage to confront him, you know what he said to me? ‘I need variety.’My love for him shriveled and died that day. So I started hanging out at singles bars because I was lonely. And I met men who thought I was pretty enough, clever enough, hot enough. Yeah, I had an affair, several of them, in fact. My time with those men was special, passionate and magical. And I have no regrets.” Her voice was choked with anger.
“No counseling,” Bob heard Erickson say in a flat tone of voice. “The marriage is over. I’ll be getting a divorce lawyer. You can do the same, Julia. We’re done here. Send me your bill, Ms. Harris. You’ve earned your fee.”
Bob continued to listen. He heard the two parties leave the office separately, door slamming twice in rapid succession. He stepped into his wife’s office. “I guess you heard all that,” she said, looking up at him.
“Kind of sad, the death of a marriage.”
“It seems he decided to make three different women happy today. He really got into the spirit of the holiday.”
Nina laughed. “No kidding? He’s got a lot of energy.”
“And he’s into blondes. All three women were.”
Nina shook her head. “Guess I’ll cross myself off his list of possibles.”
Bob pulled his wife into his arms. “Hey, red, you just do that. I’m not sharing. You’re gorgeous and I’m crazy about you.”
“Sure. Whatever you like.”
It wasn’t until the following day that they found out about the murder. It was on the morning news. Bob immediately phoned Detective Redding, NYPD Manhattan Homicide. The pleasantries were soon dispensed with. “I was working for Warwick’s wife, tailing him yesterday. I can give you details regarding his whereabouts until he ended up in the hotel room.”
“That’s the thing,” Redding said, “a good-looking blonde was observed going up to his room, but no one saw her leaving. She vanished, disappeared without a trace. We’ve already dusted for prints and only found his. Looks like this wasn’t a crime of passion but something planned. We found a glass of liquor that forensics says was dosed with strychnine. We’ll know more after the autopsy report.”
Bob was thoughtful. “He was seeing at least three women that I know of. And we have the details on one of them, a Julia Erickson. I’ll drop by later after I’ve talked with Nina. She has the info on Erickson.”
“Thanks,” Redding said. “You were always a good cop.”
“Have you spoken to the wife yet. Does she know?”
“Yeah, I phoned her earlier. She kind of hung up on me.”
“Maybe I should go see her. She knew he was cheating on her, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t care about him. People are funny that way.”
Bob asked Nina to accompany him to visit Ellen Warwick. He thought it might be more appropriate. But when Mrs. Warwick answered the door, Bob decided a sympathy call was probably unnecessary after all. Her eyes were hard and unemotional. She was a plain-looking woman with short, graying brown hair, dressed in baggy jeans, an over-sized sweatshirt, and sneakers.
“You heard?” she asked. “Of course, you did. Well, I’m sorry someone murdered him, but I’m not sorry he’s dead.” She focused her sharp gray eyes on them as she tore at a tissue with savage motion.
“You’ll likely be hearing from the police.”
“What for?” She suddenly sounded alarmed.
“They’ll want to question you and also keep you informed.”
“I don’t know a thing,”she said. “You conducted the investigation. You can give them details about what he did yesterday.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Nina tugged at Bob’s arm. When she had his full attention, Nina pointed to a desk in the corner of the living room. Bob narrowed his gaze. On the desk sat a red velvet box, an exact duplicate of the ones Warwick had given to two of his blond girlfriends. Bob stared at Ellen Warwick.
“What are you looking at me that way for?”
“Mrs. Warwick, I was just imagining what you look like in a blonde wig.”
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