Time Served: A Smart Guys Mystery Short Story

Apr 6, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Dennis Palumbo

This is the forth story in the Smart Guys mystery series written by Dennis Palumbo, which first appeared in From Crime to Crime. 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, the second, and the third story Mayhem In Mayberry, right here in KRL. This story is rated PG-13 for some strong language.

It wasn’t my first time in jail. Back in college–many years ago, I’m afraid–I was an overnight guest of the Pittsburgh Police as a result of protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Well, to be honest, this totally hot girl who sat next to me in Biology did the actual protesting. I just went along to offer moral support and in the vain hopes of getting some action.

The only action I got, of course, was a thrilling ride in the back of a police cruiser, an awkward call to my parents and a night rooming with two stoners and a pickpocket named Dwayne. Nice guy, by the way. Anyway, up until now, that had been the extent of my experience in the criminal justice system. But as recent events have made clear, a lot of new experiences were coming my way, thanks to the Smart Guys Marching Society. This particular meeting stands out in my memory for a number of reasons, but primarily because it was the first time we assembled somewhere other than my game room.

It all started one bright morning in early spring, as I was putting out the guacamole and chips, calculating probable beer consumption and wondering what the topics of the day would be. We’d spent most of the previous Sunday locked in heated debate about how to balance a citizen’s right to privacy with national security concerns, which was as much fun as it sounds. Naturally, I was hoping today’s subjects would lean a bit toward the lighter side. Shows what I know. Just before noon, the phone rang. It was Mark. “Is everybody else there yet?” His familiar, take-no-prisoners tone bespoke the years in covert intelligence which preceded his current job as a reporter for the Times.

“Nobody’s here yet. Why?”

“I need a favor. For a friend. Actually, a friend of a friend. A public defender named Carolyn Mullins.”

“Is she the friend, or the friend of the friend?”

He gave a quick, exasperated sigh. “Look, when the rest of the gang gets there, just drive ‘em down to police headquarters and meet me on the fourth floor.”

“At LAPD headquarters?”

“Didn’t I just say that? I’m calling from there now. I pulled some strings and got us a conference room.”

“I don’t understand. We always meet at my place. It’s tradition. Besides, I’m all set up here. My wife made her mother’s special guacamole and everything.”

“I feel your pain. Meanwhile, I just need you to get the Smart Guys down here ASAP.” Then his voice changed. “It’s important, okay?”

I hesitated. “Okay, I guess. That means Isaac, too?”

Mark laughed. “Are you kidding? Especially Isaac.”

Which is how the five of us–Bill, Fred, Mark, Isaac and yours truly ended up sitting around a venerable conference table in a quiet, carpeted room on the fourth floor of police headquarters. Since it was a Sunday and we were in an administrative area, we practically had the place to ourselves. Not that getting everybody to make the trip was a piece of cake. After showing up as usual at my place, none of the Smart Guys were too thrilled about braving the weekend freeway traffic to go downtown, except for Isaac of course, who still had his generation’s love for long Sunday drives, even if the destination was an eight-story building filled with cops. href=”http://www.coreyralstonphotography.com/”>

Anyway, after a lot of unnecessary grumbling and complaining, we all piled into my Toyota Highlander and for the first time, took the Smart Guys Marching Society on the road.

Mark met us in the lobby and took us up to the conference room where we found a pretty, 30-something blonde in a stylish, power suit–think Ally McBeal, without the eating disorder–sitting at the table. Her opened briefcase was over-flowing with files, legal papers and curled Post-It notes.

Mark had introduced her as Carolyn Mullins, a public defender engaged to a cop who was one of his long-time contacts.

Apparently, Mark had known Lt. Steve Hartwell since he’d made detective years before. “Steve’s a real straight-shooter,” Mark said. “No playing the angles, that bullshit.”

Carolyn smiled. “Except when it came to getting engaged. I practically had to twist his arm to get him to propose.”

Mark feigned confusion.
“And your point is?” Feeble laughs all around.

“So,” Carolyn said, after a polite pause. “Mark tells me you guys get together every Sunday, talk about current events, that kind of stuff. And you call yourselves the Brilliant Men or something?”

“The Smart Guys Marching Society,” Mark said.

“It’s kind of a self-deprecating, ironic sort of name,” I added defensively. “You know, like an inside joke. I mean, it’s not like we really think we’re that smart or anything.” Jesus, I said to myself, shut up.

Fred rescued me. “We were going to call ourselves the Desperate Husbands, but it seemed too derivative. Accurate, but derivative.”

She chuckled. “C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”

“The optimism of youth,” murmured Fred, who’d taken to saying things like that a lot lately. He’d just turned 47. Meanwhile, Bill was looking a bit restless, glancing around the room. He’d told me he had a dress rehearsal at four for the new play he was directing at the Mark Taper Forum, and he hated being late.

Mark watched him fidgeting and then turned to Carolyn. “How long ‘til she gets here?”

She checked her watch. “Steve just signed the papers to get her released. Once they get the escort duty straightened out, they’ll be right up. Figure ten minutes.”

Fred was helping himself to coffee from a large cardboard Starbucks carryout keg. We’d stopped on the way here. Paper cups, napkins, and plastic silverware were splayed on the table next to a box of chocolate donuts and two cartons of low-fat milk. “I assume we’re talking about a crime suspect,” Fred mused, eye-balling the coffee-to-milk ratio in his cup, “given our surroundings?”

“First-time offender,” Mark said, “but she’s being held without bail.”

Fred gave Carolyn a questioning look, “old legal pro to young public defender,” but she recovered nicely.

“It’s a first-degree murder charge. Premeditated. Plus, well–the other thing.”

“What other thing?” I asked.

Mark answered. “The accused won’t talk.”

“That’s right,” Carolyn added. “She won’t say a word about the night of the crime or the victim. Not even to me, her attorney, which is another funny thing. She can afford to hire her own lawyer, but she refused to even discuss legal counsel. The court had no choice but to assign her a public defender. Lucky me.”

“That is strange,” said Fred, frowning.

Bill just seemed annoyed. “Look, since I don’t know who or what we’re talking about, mind if I ask a question?”


“Who or what are we talking about?”

“A reasonable question.” It was Isaac, sitting back in his chair at the far end of the table. His hands rested on his round belly, eyes half-closed, gentle face book-ended by his signature mutton-chop sideburns. As was his custom, Isaac hadn’t said much since we’d arrived, so that when he did speak it came–as it almost always did–as a surprise.

“Very reasonable,” Mark agreed. “Carolyn here is defending a woman named Martha Bramlett on a charge of first-degree murder. She’s accused of killing a real estate mogul named Elliot Keyes.”

“Hey, I saw that story on the news,” I said. “Happened a couple nights ago, right?”

Bill sat up. “Yeah, Elliot Keyes. The one with his face plastered on all those bus benches.” He scratched his chin.

“What’s that slogan of his again? ‘He’s the Keyes to your next home.’ Pretty lame, if you ask me.”

I ignored him. “And this Martha Bramlett is supposed to have killed him? How?”

“According to the news,” Fred said, “he was dispatched by the proverbial blunt instrument.”

“Not so proverbial,” Mark replied. “The cops are keeping it from the media for now, but they have the murder weapon.

Looks like she bashed Mr. Keyes’ head in with a brass candlestick.” He smiled. “Just like in the game, Clue.”

Carolyn winced. “Yeah, everyone in my office has been doing that joke. ‘Martha in the living room with a candlestick.’ Everybody thinks it’s hilarious but me. I’m the one who has to defend her and she’s giving me nothing. Not a word in her defense. She barely seems to care.”

“No alibi?” Fred asked, taking his seat. He carefully laid out two donuts on a napkin next to his coffee.

“Nope. Pretty much just name, rank and serial number.”

Bill looked at Mark. “Now I know why you asked us to meet you here. You want us to give Martha the old Smart Guys treatment.”

“Something like that.” Mark adjusted his dark-framed glasses. “Carolyn told me she was getting desperate, so I thought maybe if we put our heads together we could help her out.”


“Well,” Mark turned to me. “I thought maybe as a therapist you could use some of that empathy crap to get Martha to open up.” He smiled. “No offense.”

I smiled back. “None taken.”

Carolyn raised her eyes across the table to Fred. “And when Mark told me you were a friend of his, I must admit I got excited. A lawyer with your notoriety, your wealth of experience I thought could only help.”

Fred considered this carefully. “Mark, I like this woman. Carry on.”

Mark just rolled his eyes, but I had a question too. “Carolyn, aren’t attorney-client conferences supposed to be confidential and private? I mean, is Martha okay with having us join you?”

“I asked her, of course. She said I could bring along the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, if I wanted. She didn’t care. Sometimes I wonder if she even registers anything I say.”

“I assume you’re doing a psych “eval”?” I said.

She nodded. “Tomorrow. We’ll have our shrink talk to her and then the D.A. will have his. It ought to be a fun day.”

Mark stirred. “Look, maybe the best use of our time ‘til Martha gets here is to go over what we know for sure. Start at the beginning. You mind, Carolyn?”

“Makes sense to me.”

We waited as she went through some papers in her briefcase and then began laying them out neatly before her. I was suddenly aware of the subtle scent of her perfume. How different from the usual aroma of beer, burnt popcorn and half-eaten burritos that usually permeated a meeting of the Smart Guys! Vive le difference, as guys a lot more sophisticated than me used to say.

“This past Thursday night,” Carolyn began at last, reading from a police report, “911 got a call from outside Elliot Keyes’ home in the Pacific Palisades. It was from a kid delivering groceries to Keyes. He says he rang the bell a couple times and then looked in the front window. He could just see past the hall into the living room. There was an outstretched arm on the hardwood floor, with blood oozing out from under it. He immediately called it in.”

Carolyn looked up from the report. “When the cops got there, the delivery kid was pretty upset. According to the officer who questioned him, the place the kid works for charges the delivery people if they don’t come back with payment due. The kid was freaking out, since he had a full bag of groceries, including a bottle of Dom Perignon.”

“Tough break.”

“Tougher on Elliot Keyes. The cops broke in and found him on the floor of the living room, head caved in and blood pooling everywhere. The wound was fresh, so it must’ve happened shortly before the delivery kid got there.”

She put down her file. “This is where things get strange. Ten minutes later, as the M.E.’s van is pulling up to the driveway, the driver spots a car parked about a hundred yards down the street. He tells the cops on the scene, who go down and find a woman sitting behind the wheel, staring straight ahead like she’s in shock. She barely acknowledges them as they open the car door.”

She took a long breath. “This, they will learn, is Martha Bramlett. For now, all they know is that a woman in her late 20s is sitting in her car in a blood-splattered dress, with a large blood-splattered brass candlestick on her lap. Oh, and she’s wearing gardening gloves.”

“Let me guess,” said Fred. “Equally blood splattered.”

“If not more so. They take her into custody without incident, though they note she seems pretty out of , like she’s stoned or something, though a blood test confirms there wasn’t a trace of alcohol or drugs in her system.”

“She consented to giving the blood sample?”

Carolyn nodded. “I know. She gave consent without an attorney present and in a questionable state of mind. It goes to competence. Goddam cops know better, but…”

“You and Lt. Hartwell must have some interesting conversations,” Bill said.

“Tell me about it. Anyway, I think I can use the lack-of-consent issue to get some leverage with the D.A.”

“About the candlestick,” Mark said. “I assume the blood was Elliot Keyes’?”

“Yes, a positive match with the victim. Same goes for the blood on Martha’s dress and the gardening gloves.”

“Martha’s sure making it easy for ‘em,” Bill said.

“What about the crime scene?” I asked. “Anything there? Like a matching candlestick? Those kinds of things usually come in pairs, don’t they?”

“Usually,” Carolyn replied. She pulled a large manila envelope from her briefcase and spilled its contents on the table. She fished through the small pile of Polaroids until she found a picture of the murder weapon.

“Here it is.” We passed it around the table. It was an ornate, weathered brass candlestick, about twenty inches tall. Obviously old, like an antique, its dull patina was streaked with rivulets of dried blood.

“Was it from the Keyes house?” Fred asked.

“The cops don’t think so. They questioned the maid, who comes every day but leaves at six. According to her, there was no such candlestick in the house. She’s been Keyes’ maid for ten years. Says she’s cleaned every inch of the place a hundred times and that she never saw anything like the murder weapon.”

“But the crime scene itself,” I repeated. “What did they find?”

“There were definitely signs of a struggle. Crime scene techs found a dozen sets of prints, all of which could be accounted for. Keyes himself of course, plus according to the maid, he had an ex-wife who came by frequently to scream at him over money. As did Keyes’ accountant, lawyer, and business partner. There were matches or at least partials, for all these folks.”

Carolyn frowned. “Unfortunately, there were a number of Martha’s prints as well, on tables and glassware.”

“Sounds like the maid was a bit less thorough than advertised,” Mark said.

“That’s the problem. See, the maid had taken a week off to go see her relatives in El Salvador. Lots of time while she was gone for fresh prints to accumulate.”

“Keyes had a lot of visitors,” said Fred.

“He was a busy man,” Mark explained. “Heads one of the city’s leading real estate firms, offices all over and an army of agents, generating millions in commissions.”

Carolyn shook her head. “Not according to his most recent audit. His accountant told the cops that with the market going soft the past couple years, Keyes was actually in some financial trouble, though he lived like a rock star. Yacht, couple of houses, the usual status toys, but in terms of liquid money, the well was running dry.”

“What else did the police find?” Mark asked.

“In the house? Not much, but they went through Martha’s car of course, and found a suitcase with clothes packed inside. Also, on the passenger side front seat, a book which Martha had checked out of the library that same day in a white plastic bag, with the loop handles also smudged with blood.”

“A book?” I asked. “What kind of book?”

She showed around another photo, this time of a thick hardcover book with the imprint of the L.A. public library on its cover. It was a travel guide to Switzerland.

“Again, Martha’s making the case for the cops,” Carolyn said.
“The tech geeks scoured the laptop in her apartment. They found that she’d checked her American Express account online to find out how many member miles she had and about flights to Switzerland.”

Mark sighed, taking off his glasses. “That just about nails it, don’t you think, Carolyn?”

“I don’t know what to think. Anyway, here’s the rest of the evidence photos, if anyone’s interested.”

We took turns looking at the pictures. One showed a somewhat wrinkled, bloodstained pair of vinyl blue gardening gloves. Another was a photo of the blood-splattered dress Martha had been wearing the night of the crime. I don’t know anything about women’s fashions, but it sure looked expensive. I said so.

“It was,” Carolyn said. “Poor Martha must have been in some state, all right. The price tag was still on the dress, attached to the sleeve.”

“Do the cops know when the dress was bought?”

She nodded. “When and where, earlier that same day, at a very trendy place in Beverly Hills. At least, I couldn’t afford to shop there.”

Then, staring at the evidence photo which had just been passed to him, Isaac spoke. His voice had its usual wry, curious tone. “Any details about this book they found in her car?”

Carolyn consulted the report. “Not much. Taken out that day from the public library on San Vicente, published in 1998, Third edition.”

Isaac looked puzzled for a moment and then passed the photo back up the table to Carolyn.

Folding his arms, Fred spoke. “So, Carolyn, adding it all up, what do the cops think?”

“They think the same thing the D.A.’s office thinks, which is that Martha Bramlett killed Elliot Keyes.” She shook her head. “Their theory has a zillion holes as far as I’m concerned, but the physical evidence is damning.”

“On first glance, yeah,” Bill said.

“Anyway, here’s the way they see it,” Carolyn went on. “Martha plans to kill Elliot and then skip the country. She goes to his house and either lets herself in-they found a key to the house among her own set of keys-or else the victim himself lets her in. The point is, there was no sign of forced entry. Martha has the candlestick with her and wears the garden gloves to make sure she doesn’t leave any prints on it. The fact that she brings the murder weapon with her, and is wearing gloves, is clear evidence of premeditation. Plus the choice of murder weapon suggests what the D.A.’s calling ‘callous disregard,’ a desire to cause great pain and suffering. When you add in the online research about plane tickets and member miles, the Switzerland travel guide found in her car and the packed suitcase…”

“They figure she planned to do the deed and skip the country,” Fred finished for her. “Premeditated, all right.”

“Sure looks it. The D.A. is going to argue that she went into the house, with or without Elliot Keyes’ consent. Then she attacks him, clubbing him from behind with the candlestick inflicting the kind of blow that splatters a lot of blood, on her and her clothes. Then she runs to her car and tries to drive away, but stops after half a block. The shock of what she’s done hits her. She’s frozen behind the wheel in some kind of daze, still holding the murder weapon. That’s when the cops find her.”

“And she really won’t talk?” Bill asked. “Won’t defend herself? Tell her side of the story?”

“I’m telling you, I’ve tried to confer with her three times for a couple of hours each. I think she asked for a glass of water, a bathroom break and what the weather was like outside. Other than that, she just stared at me. I swear, I wanted to bash her head in with a candlestick myself.”

We all sat for a moment in silence. Finally, stroking his trim beard, Fred said what I suspect we all were thinking.
“C’mon, Carolyn. This is nuts. Who brings a candlestick to a guy’s house to kill him?”

She shrugged. “I’ve seen stranger things. I remember this one freak who strangled his wife while wearing hand puppets. And I had another client who stormed into her boyfriend’s office at work, took a shishkabab skewer from her Louis Vitton bag and stabbed him in the heart.”

Fred looked over at me. “Now do you see why I mostly do corporate work?”

Carolyn raised her chin. “Hey, she had a legit beef. That guy was a two-timing prick.”

Mark rubbed his forehead. “Look, can we stay on task here? My question is, are the cops sure she brought the candlestick with her? I don’t care what the maid says, it just seems more credible that the candlestick was on a table or something and Martha just grabbed it up.”

“Two problems with that,” Carolyn replied. “First, the maid swears she’s never seen that candlestick, or anything like it in the house. Secondly, your theory supports the idea that the murder was a crime of passion. That Martha and Keyes got into some kind of argument and in the heat of the moment she killed him. The thing is, how then do you explain the gloves, the travel guide and the online research about flights to Switzerland? It’s circumstancial evidence, I agree, but it sure as hell points to premeditation.”

“Maybe,” Mark said, “but it still doesn’t add up. If, for example, Elliot himself opened the door to let her in, wouldn’t he think it’s a little strange that she’s standing in his doorway with a heavy brass candlestick?”

“Maybe she had it behind her back,” I said.

Mark sighed heavily. “Yeah, that would look normal. Keyes wouldn’t suspect anything funny about that.”

“Okay, then,” I went on, unfazed, “how about this? Whether Keyes sees the candlestick or not, why doesn’t Martha just clobber him the moment he opens the door?”

“Remember, forensics concluded he was hit from behind,” Carolyn said.

“That’s what I mean. She could’ve done it the moment he turned his back. Why give up the element of surprise? Why wait until they’re in the living room?”

Carolyn started scribbling notes on a legal pad. “Hey, I like that. I think I can use it. Thanks.”

I admit I shot Mark a smug look. He shrugged. Then I spotted Bill glancing at his watch. I knew he was getting anxious about the rehearsal and debating whether to stay or go. Finally, he got to his feet. “Look, let’s say she did whack the guy. Why? What was her relationship to Elliot Keyes? Did she even have one? I mean, there has to be some kind of motive.”

“Another reasonable question,” Isaac remarked dryly.

“See? Isaac agrees with me.” Bill stretched, as though stiff from sitting and went over to pour himself a large cup of coffee. I knew then that he was in this for the duration.

Meanwhile, Carolyn was fishing for another file from the papers in her briefcase. “I’m afraid Martha had a motive. We have statements from co-workers, friends, relatives and also from people close to Elliot Keyes. Based on everything we know so far, I’ve pieced together a likely story.”

She paused, gathering her thoughts. “Martha Bramlett worked in one of the branch offices of Keyes’ real estate company. According to everyone who knew her, Martha was a real star there, on the rise. Beautiful and smart, which is always a two-edged sword for a career woman. I mean, everyone loved her, but they also envied her. You know?”

Are we talking about you or Martha? I thought. Even nowadays, women like Carolyn had a rough road to hoe in such a competitive, testosterone-fueled environment as criminal law.

“Anyway, Martha was also a bit of a contradiction. She was super-sharp and even ran the company website, but friends say she was also kind of old-fashioned. She liked men to open doors for her and spent her weekends gardening in the yard behind her duplex on Wilshire.”

“Hence the gardening gloves,” Fred said.

“Hence,” Carolyn agreed. “In terms of her personal life, she’d been going with a guy named Richard Langley. He runs some kind of music production house and does stuff for record labels and the movies.”

“How was the relationship?” I asked.

“Depends on who you ask! They’d been together for two years, very intense. He apparently was the more serious about it, wanted her to move in with him. The problem was, rumor had it that Martha was secretly seeing Elliot Keyes–meeting him after work, having ‘nooners’ at local hotels.”

“Just your typical old-fashioned girl,” Mark said.

Carolyn shot him a dark look. “Don’t be so damned judgmental, Mark. Haven’t you ever done something stupid for love?”

Mark leaned back in his chair, a bit stung by the vehemence in her voice.

Fred nudged him. “As your attorney, I’d advise you to take the fifth.”

Mark adjusted his glasses. “Will do.”

“Anyway,” Carolyn continued, somewhat testily, “Elliot Keyes was recently divorced from his wife Anita, who was always going after him for more alimony, but his business had been hemorrhaging cash and losing assets for at least a couple years. Like I said, Keyes’ own financial people confirm things were looking bad. Last month, Keyes had to sell his yacht to give more money to his ex. In fact, there were rumors that he was thinking of getting back together with Anita, purely for financial reasons, and that Martha found out and was devastated.”

Fred groaned. “There’s the motive.”

“Right. Keyes wants to go back to his wife, Martha is furious. Goes to his place on Thursday night and puts a super-sized divot in the back of her lover’s head.”

“Another two-timing prick for your collection,” Mark blurted out as though he couldn’t help himself, which got him another look from Carolyn.

“I don’t know why Steve likes you so much,” she said, tersely. “Or maybe I do.”

Bill cleared his throat. “See, this is what happens when we have an alcohol-free meeting of the Smart Guys. No lubricants for those touchier moments.”

Another long, awkward pause, then thankfully, Carolyn’s cell rang. She answered.

“Okay, thanks.” She clicked off. “That was Steve. He’s bringing Martha Bramlett up now.”

In less than a minute, there was a knock on the conference room door.
Mark rose to answer it, letting in an unsmiling Latina police matron, a tall, thick-shouldered man in a blue blazer that I assumed was Lt. Steve Hartwell and the suspect herself.

Martha Bramlett was indeed beautiful, almost as tall as Hartwell, with dark, lustrous hair pulled back from her proud face and piercing grey eyes. Even the loose prison clothes couldn’t disguise the curves of her slender figure as Steve and the police matron “perp-walked” Martha to some empty seats around the table. She seemed indifferent to the handcuffs binding her wrists.

I took another minute to take in Martha Bramlett’s pale, drawn face. There was something haunted in her look, both fragile and determined at the same time. Mark introduced Steve all around, and then the lieutenant came over, gave Carolyn’s shoulder a quick, affectionate squeeze, and sat down next to his suspect.

“What are you doing?” Carolyn asked him.

Steve frowned. “Sitting down.”

“Oh no you’re not! This is a privileged communication between me and my client.” She indicated the police matron, who’d taken up a position in the far corner. “You and the matron have to leave.”

Steve’s face darkened. Then, with a sweep of his catcher’s mitt-sized hand, he indicated the rest of us. “What about these guys?”

“They’re my consultants,” she replied evenly. “They’re participating with my client’s consent.”

“Look, Carolyn,” Steve said deliberately, “I called in a lotta favors to get the suspect released from Metro. She’s being held without bail, remember?”

Her eyes were steady, looking into his. “Martha Bramlett has a right to confer with her attorney. Due to the number of participants in this meeting, a different venue was required.”

She tried on a smile at her fiance. “C’mon Steve, if sitting in a windowless room at police headquarters isn’t still being in custody, I don’t know what the hell is.”

There was no question, her intended looked unhappy. He glanced over at Mark. “This your idea? If so, man, you owe me.” Then back at Carolyn. “You both do.”

With that, he rose, nodded to the police matron and herded her out the door, but he turned at the threshold. “You have twenty minutes. And I’ll be right outside this door.”

“Good,” said Mark coolly, “in case Martha overpowers all of us and makes a run for it.”

“Gimme a break, will ya? Next beer call, you’re definitely buyin’. And for the record, this sucks.”

He closed the door behind him.

Bill sniffed loudly. “I thought that went rather well, don’t you?”

“Don’t mind him,” Carolyn said. “All bark and no bite. Well, hardly any.”

She turned, about to speak to her client when suddenly Isaac got up and went over to where Martha sat. To my astonishment, he took her cuffed hands in his own and looked directly into her startled eyes.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said quietly.

She just kept staring at him and then spoke her first words since entering the room. “What’s your name?”

“Isaac, and I just want to say, I sincerely hope the person you’re protecting is worth it.”

There was a collective murmur as we all shifted in our seats exchanging puzzled glances. Martha kept her gaze on Isaac, as if there were no one else in the room. “I still won’t say anything,” she announced softly.

“I know,” Isaac said. With that, he went back to his seat at the table.

“What was that all about?” asked Carolyn.

“As you said yourself, Ms. Mullins,” Isaac replied, “there are a zillion holes in the police theory of the crime. I don’t know exactly how much a ‘zillion’ is, but it’s close enough.”

“C’mon, Isaac,” said Mark, “if you’ve got something on your mind, let’s have it. What do you think?”

Isaac settled back in his chair. As always, I got the sense that he took tremendous pleasure in enlightening his audience-the magician about to pull yet another rabbit out of another hat. “Well, as rude as it is to speak of someone in the third person when they’re sitting right next to you, I think that Martha Bramlett and I share one thing in common: we’re both somewhat old-fashioned.”

He glanced in her direction, but she’d gone back to staring straight ahead, silent and seemingly uninterested. “But, as do I, Martha lives in the modern world. She’s a successful career woman. She has enough computer savvy to run the company’s website. She researches her travel possibilities online as well and yet she takes a travel guide out of the public library–a book at least ten years out of date! Why do that, when she could find much more current information online? And finally, what was it doing in a plastic bag in her car?”

I took another look at Martha, watching for any telltale sign on her face, but there was nothing.

“That certainly caught my attention,” Isaac went on. “As did her use of the old brass candlestick as the murder weapon, but it wasn’t till I learned about the dress that I knew for sure.”

“What about the dress?” Carolyn asked.

“You said the price tag was still on it. That could indicate either extreme haste on Martha’s part or mere sloppiness on the part of the store clerk. But it also suggests something else, as do the gardening gloves.”

“She wore those so she wouldn’t leave any prints,” Mark reminded him.

“On a murder weapon she intended to remove from the crime scene?” Isaac looked doubtful. “Remember, she was found sitting with it in her car. Presumably, she planned to dispose of it. If the crime was premeditated, as the police claim, that had to have been her intent. Right?”

“Then what do you make of the gloves?” Fred asked. “Why are they important?”

Isaac smiled. “This is where being old-fashioned gave me a slight advantage. Maybe for people your age, this quaint notion is passé, but in my time, women assembled the kinds of items we’re discussing for a specific reason.” He leaned forward. “What I mean is this. The candle stick was something old, the dress was something new, the library book was something borrowed and the gloves were something blue.” His voice sharpened. “Martha Bramlett wasn’t going to Keyes’ house to murder him. She was going there to marry him!”

The room practically exploded,
as suddenly everyone was talking at once–to each other, to Isaac, to Carolyn–everyone but me. I was just focused on Martha. Something had shifted in her expression; her eyes had suddenly softened, grown moist and achingly sad.

“Married?” Mark finally managed to get Isaac’s attention. The rest of the room quieted. “To Keyes?”

“Of course,” said Isaac. “He and Martha were in love. His ex-wife was grinding him down, his finances were dwindling. I think it likely that he and Martha planned to elope that night and leave the country to start a new life in Switzerland.”

“How can you be sure?” I asked.

“I can’t be, of course,” Isaac said. “Though I think the bottle of Dom Perignon that Keyes was having delivered is certainly suggestive. Perhaps he planned on having a celebratory “goodbye-to-our-old-life” toast with Martha before they flew off into the sunset.”

Mark took off his glasses and aimed them at Isaac. “But if all of this is true, what the hell happened? Why aren’t the happy couple sitting having a drink, as we speak, somewhere in the Alps?”

Isaac finally turned to where Martha sat, as still as before, but now obviously fighting a tremble in her lips. “Only Martha can tell us that,” he said kindly. “Am I at least correct on what happened just before the murder? That you and Keyes planned to get married and run away? That you showed up that night, as pre-arranged, and you had with you a plastic bag containing the borrowed book, the blue gloves and the candlestick. And that you kept the price tag on the dress to show Elliot that it was, indeed, something new? Something you’d bought just that day.”

Now he and Martha were looking at each other as they had before, as though they were alone in the room.

Suddenly, Carolyn put a restraining hand on her client’s arm.

“Martha, no. Don’t say a word.” Carolyn turned to Mark. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you and your friends to leave.”

Bill nearly sprang from his seat. “Wait a minute! After bitching this whole time that Martha wasn’t talking, now you want her to shut up?”

“Yes,” Carolyn said sharply. “at least until she and I are alone. I don’t want her to incriminate herself in any way. She and I have to talk this through.”

“No!” Martha’s voice rang out in the room like a gun shot. “No, Carolyn,” she continued, in a calmer tone, “I don’t want them to leave. It doesn’t matter now anyway.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Isaac said. “Since the person you’re protecting is long gone by now, right? Out of the country and out of the reach of the law.”

“Is this true, Martha?” asked Carolyn.

“I hope so, yes. So your friends might as well stay. With Elliot dead, I don’t care what happens to me now.”

We all looked dumbly at each other. “Looks like we’re staying,” Mark said to Carolyn, “if that’s okay with you, too.”

She spread her hands. “Whatever.”

Isaac looked at Martha. “May I continue?”

“Feel free.” Her voice was flat. “You’ve been doing great so far.”

“Well,” Isaac said, “I think you showed up at Elliot’s house as expected and he opened the door. You were delighted to show him what you’d assembled for good luck, for an auspicious start to your new life. He welcomed you in, said perhaps that he’d ordered some champagne for a wedding toast. But what neither of you knew was–”

“I’d been followed,” Martha said.
She let out a long breath, as though she’d been holding it in since the night of the murder. Then her eyes grew sad again. “I was so happy, it almost seems pathetic now, running around all day, taking out the library book, buying the dress, digging out my favorite blue vinyl gardening gloves. I couldn’t resist taking out a book about Switzerland, since that’s where we were going, but it was just too perfect, right?”
“And the candlestick?” asked Fred.

“It had belonged to my grandmother. It was part of a pair, but the other one was lost years ago. I loved my grandmother dearly. It was my most cherished memento, so I thought it appropriate to…” She choked up then, her cuffed hands in front of her mouth. She drew a couple quick breaths and continued. “Anyway, I put the book, gloves and candlestick in the bag, put on the new dress and went to Elliot’s. I hadn’t told him what I was bringing. I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Her tone strengthened again. “But I was the one who got a surprise. I was followed to Elliot’s place–”

“By Richard Langley,” Isaac said.

Mark stared. “How did you know that?”

Isaac shrugged. “It seemed to me that the only other person with a probable motive was Keyes’ ex-wife Anita. But even if she was angry or jealous of his relationship with Martha, why kill the goose laying golden eggs?”

Fred agreed. “True, she was managing to squeeze more and more money out of the sorry bastard. In fact, if Anita were going to kill anyone, I think it’d be Martha.”

“As do I.” Isaac turned to Martha. “It was Richard, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. I wasn’t in the house thirty seconds before he came in the door. Elliot hadn’t locked it behind us.”

“So Langley knew about the rumors,”
I said carefully, “about you and Elliot?”

She nodded. “He also knew they were more than rumors. Richard was very…this is so hard to say, because I know he loves me with all his heart, and I’d tried to break up with him. I tried to do it kindly, without hurting him.” Tears filled her eyes. “But I’d lied to him all the same, never told him about Elliot and me and never really admitted to Richard that I didn’t love him anymore.”

Martha looked anxiously from one of us to the other. “You have to believe me, I’m not someone who…I’m not casual about love, or sex. I’m not–” She hesitated and then glanced down at the table. Her voice grew an edge. “I’m not someone who screws around on her boyfriend, then runs off with the boss. Except that, when it comes down to it, I guess I am.”

Nobody spoke. Martha rubbed her wrists inside the handcuffs, as though just now aware of being bound. “Anyway, I’d just opened the bag and shown Elliot my grandmother’s candle stick. I’d put it on the coffee table. We were laughing about how old and huge it was, but also that it was perfect and we’d move heaven and earth to find its mate after we were married. That we’d–all of a sudden, Richard came in and saw Elliot and me. He just started yelling like a crazy man. He said that he loved me, that I was ruining his life and that he’d never find someone like me again. Elliot got between Richard and me and pushed Richard away. Elliot told me I didn’t have to listen to this, that he was going to call the police, that it was our life now. That’s when–”

“That’s when Richard grabbed up the candlestick,” Isaac said, “and hit Elliot from behind.”

Her voice rose, choked with tears. “But you have to understand, he didn’t know what he was doing! He was out of his mind with rage and grief. Over me! I’d brought him to it, I’d cheated on him. It was all my fault…”

“Now wait a minute,” I said.

She didn’t even hear me. “We just stood there, looking down at poor Elliot. Richard was frozen, like a statue. He couldn’t believe what he’d just done. I knew my Elliot was dead and that was my fault too. The whole thing had happened because of me.” She wept openly now. Carolyn began softly stroking her client’s arm.

“That’s when you decided to protect Richard,” Isaac said quietly, “and that’s when you told him to leave.”

She nodded. “I told him he had to get out right away. At first it was like he was paralyzed, the candlestick still gripped in his hand. So I reached into the plastic bag and put on the gardening gloves. Then I made Richard give me the bloody candlestick. I told Richard I’d take care of everything. I’d get rid of the candlestick and the police would never even know he’d been there. Maybe they’d think a burglar killed Elliot. It took a few minutes, but I finally persuaded him to leave. He went out the front door as fast as he could.” She took a quick, calming breath.

“Then I scooped up the plastic bag and left the house myself. I’d just gotten into my car and driven off when I saw the delivery van pulling up the street from the other direction.”

She’d regained her composure completely by then. Her voice was quiet but clear. “I pulled to a stop half-way down the block. Sitting behind the wheel, I rubbed the candlestick with both gloved hands. I guess I hoped it would rub off Richard’s fingerprints, in case it was ever found, though I had no idea what to do with it. People in the movies always throw the murder weapon in the river or something. Then suddenly…I don’t know, I guess it was a delayed reaction, but all my pain and grief about Elliot just washed over me, a kind of searing pain like I’ve never felt before. I couldn’t even start the car again. All of it…Elliot’s death, what Richard and I had just done, it was all so overwhelming. So I just…sat there, with the candlestick on my lap.”

“Until the police opened the door?”

She looked away. “All I knew was that I had to protect Richard. So I didn’t say anything…to anybody…”

Carolyn chose her next words carefully. “Martha, don’t you think that we should go to the police with this? I mean, I understand why you did what you did, but this isn’t fair to you and you know it. It isn’t right.”

Martha almost smiled. “I don’t need anyone to tell me what’s right or wrong. The way I was brought up, I know that only too well. That’s why I told Richard to leave the country. Besides, if the police ever do find him, I’ll deny everything I just said.”

I had to speak up.
“Martha, please listen to me. I appreciate your upbringing, the values that were instilled in you. But don’t allow your guilt and sense of responsibility, no matter how sincere, to ruin your life.”

“For once, Mr. Sensitive is right,” Fred added. “You can’t go to prison for life for a crime you didn’t commit.”

Martha’s jaw tightened. “Watch me.”

Carolyn’s eyes were fierce with frustration. Then she took hold of Martha’s cuffed hands and squeezed. Hard. “Goddammit, Martha, don’t you see–?”

There was a loud knock at the door and then, without waiting for a response, Lt. Steve Hartwell was in the room.

“Steve,” Carolyn said. “Please. Another minute–”

“I don’t think you’ll need it.” He looked directly at Martha. “Richard Langley just walked into his local precinct and confessed to killing Elliot Keyes.”

She half-rose from her seat, stricken. “No!”

“Jesus,” Mark said softly.

Martha just stared.
“But I told him to get away. He promised me–”

Carolyn patted her arm. “Honey, it’s better that he didn’t keep his promise. Better for you, maybe even better for him.”

“That’s not true.” Martha sank into her seat again. “You know that’s not true. But why? Why did he do it?”

“Because he loves you,” Isaac said kindly. “He couldn’t let you be convicted for a crime he committed.”

“But don’t you see? It was my fault. All of it my fault.” She began crying again.

“Carolyn.” Steve’s voice was terse. “I think your client ought to come down and make a full statement. Langley’s confession changes everything. Now she’s just looking at accessory after the fact.”

“I know. A first offense, in a state of grief and emotional confusion.” She looked up at him. “I can make a meal out of that.”

“I’ve seen you do it with less,” Steve said, with a reluctant smile. “Let’s get going, okay?”

The same police matron stepped in the room from behind Steve. Carolyn gave us all a somber look, and then helped lead Martha from her chair and slowly out of the room. I couldn’t help but notice that Martha had retreated to a kind of dissociated state again. I told myself to make a point of contacting Carolyn soon; to be sure Martha was getting the professional help she would need.

As Martha was led away by the matron and Steve Hartwell, Carolyn stopped at the doorway and turned. “I want to thank you all. Especially you, Isaac.”

“No need,” Isaac said. “I had a feeling that Langley would eventually confess. At least I hoped he would.”

“Then you have more faith in human nature than I do,” she said thoughtfully. “Price of the job, I guess.”

With that, Carolyn Mullins followed her client out. This left the rest of us alone in the room.

Fred broke the thick silence. “Remarkable…”

“My sentiments exactly.” Mark was absently wiping his glasses on his shirt.

As we began packing up the coffee leftovers and trash, Mark turned to Isaac. “Amazing work, as usual. Hell, I’m not even surprised anymore.”

“Nor should you be.”

Bill put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder. “That’s what I like about this guy. No false modesty.”

“Actually,” Isaac said, “I believe Mark deserves some credit for suggesting this to Carolyn Mullins in the first place. I think a change of venue did us a world of good.”

Fred chuckled. “You may have a point there, Isaac. How about we do the next one on the beach in Maui?”

“Works for me,” Bill said.

On our way out the door, he had another thought. “By the way, if Lt. Steve and Carolyn do get married, I got twenty that says it won’t last six months.”

There were no takers.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

The first photo in this story was provided by Corey Ralston of Corey Ralston Photography.

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), who is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). He also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His crime novel, Mirror Image (Poisoned Pen Press), the first in a new series, features psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. The sequel, Fever Dream, is on sale now. The next Rinaldi thriller, Night Terrors, comes out in May. You can find more info on his website.


  1. As always, a great story from a great series by a terrific writer.

    • Thanks so much, Barry! Means a lot coming from a writer I so admire myself.


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