by LD Masterson
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
It wasn’t the fanciest house I’ve covered a body in, but it was right up there. He was lying at the bottom of a curved marble staircase, an older man in bathrobe and slippers. The pool of blood around his head evidently had been enough to keep the EMT’s from any misguided attempts to revive him. I’ve had more crime scenes ruined by over-eager EMTs.
Not that this was a crime scene. Not yet. But someone had called in Homicide, so it was at least suspicious.
I walked over to the uniform standing near the body and flashed my shield. “Carczek.”
He was a big one. Tall enough that I stayed a step back, so I didn’t have to bend my neck to look up at him.
“Whitaker,” he answered. “I was first on scene.”
“Okay, Whitaker, what have we got?”
He pulled out his notebook. “Deceased is Walter Emerson of this address. Age seventy-two. Nine-one-one call came in at oh-seven-nineteen from his wife, Lisa Emerson. She stated her husband had fallen down the stairs, bleeding from his head, and unresponsive. I arrived a couple minutes before Rescue, confirmed the vic was dead and had the neighbor who was here,” a quick glance at his notes, “Anna Kirkpatrick, take Mrs. Emerson into the other room while I secured the scene.” He nodded toward a set of double doors on the far side of the large foyer. “One of the EMTs is with them now. I also put the Emerson’s dog in the backyard. Rescue has a real thing about loose dogs.”
“You have anything here that says this wasn’t a simple header down the stairs?”
“No. Not really. It just…felt off. Rescue said they were out here earlier this month. Same vic, possible heart attack. And no one actually witnessed the fall.”
It wasn’t much. But I’ve been around long enough to know when a cop says something feels off, it’s worth a second look. I studied the body. Mr. Emerson looked pretty fit for a guy in his seventies. He was missing his left slipper and the right one was partially off his heel, the sole facing up. Nice rubber tread, fairly new. He’d turned as he landed, exposing the crushed right temple. The blood trail started about a dozen steps up.
I stepped around him and started up the stairs, walking as close to the edge as I could. They looked clean and dry all the way up. I found the missing slipper four steps from the top. The upstairs hall was carpeted with no loose edges I could see and no signs of a trip wire.
Nothing to indicate foul play. Still… I went down to talk to the wife.
The EMTs were leaving. I told Whitaker to get the necessary photos and release the body to the coroner while I talked to the ladies.
“Then take a quick turn upstairs. Make sure there aren’t any visitors.”
Laura Emerson was younger than her husband by about thirty years and probably could pass for ten younger than that without the reddened eyes and smeared makeup. She was dressed in tight black leggings under a long loose top of something that shimmered when she moved. The room was done in various shades of icy blue and had the ‘company only’ feel of my grandmother’s front parlor.
Both women rose from the sofa when I entered. The neighbor, Kirkpatrick, seemed relieved to have me there. I put her in her mid-fifties. Dressed in a simple running suit with her hair tied back, she looked liked she’d been pulled out of her morning jog.
I motioned them to sit and let Emerson wave me to the nearest chair.
“Mrs. Emerson, I’m Detective Carczek. I’m sorry for your loss. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I think so.” Her voice trembled and she dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “I was on the front porch. I had asked Anna to stop by… I had something for her, and I didn’t want to leave Walter alone. He had a heart attack a few weeks ago. Very mild but the doctors told me to be careful with him. I shouldn’t have left him alone. I didn’t think he’d try to come downstairs.” This time her voice broke, and she turned her face away.
“It’s okay. Take your time,” I told her.
After a few shuddering breaths, she was able to continue. “We were talking, and I heard him cry out and the sound of something falling on the stairs. We ran inside and…saw him. I wanted to do something, but I was afraid to move him. I used my cell to call nine-one-one. The police office arrived first. He said Walt was… He asked Anna to bring me in here. We heard the paramedics come. One of them came to check on me. He said your officer was correct…that my husband…”
She let the tears flow then. They seemed real, but I knew what Whitaker was talking about it. I’ve dealt with enough grieving widows to spot a performance. Hers was a good one, I’ll give her that, but I still felt like applauding. Kirkpatrick slid closer and awkwardly patted Emerson’s shoulder.
“Was there anyone else in the house this morning?”
She shook her head and spoke into the tissues. “No. We have a live-in, but she’s on vacation this week…visiting her grandchildren.”
“Could someone have entered the house without your knowledge?”
“I don’t see how.” Stronger now. Answering the questions she’d been waiting for. “We have a very good security system with cameras outside. Why are you asking about…? Do you think someone…?”
“Just routine, ma’am. Mrs. Kirkpatrick, can you add anything?”
“No. Not really. I had just stopped by, like Mrs. Em…like Lisa said. She met me on the porch. She had baked a coffee cake for my husband and I, and she asked me to come by after my morning run so she could give it to me.” She offered Emerson a grateful smile. “The door was still open so we heard Mr. Emerson fall. We rushed in…but when I saw all the blood, I knew there was nothing to be done.”
I’d been expecting another performance. Corroborating witness. But this one felt genuine to me. If she’d been part of a setup, I don’t think she knew. I took my leave of them and told Mrs. Emerson I’d be in touch.
A quick check of the dead guy’s finances confirmed what I’d already figured. He was loaded and she’d signed a pre-nup. That’s a whole lot of motive. I wondered about that heart attack. Something hinky there? Or maybe it just got her to thinking…all that nice money. Why wait? But how would she pull it off? The security footage showed no one in or out that morning and Whitaker said the house was clear. Drugs maybe. Easy enough to slip her husband something to make him wobbly. He might have been wobbly enough already, and she just needed to leave him alone.
Or he could have just fallen down the stairs. Missed the step. Tripped on his robe. Heck, he could have had another heart attack. Just because the wife wasn’t truly grieving didn’t mean she killed him. Accidents happen.
But I didn’t think so.
I decided to have another chat with Anna Kirkpatrick.
The Kirkpatrick home had all the warmth that was missing next door. Mrs. Kirkpatrick ushered me past a living area filling with comfortable looking furniture and through a kitchen the size of my apartment. We ended up on a large walled patio overlooking a beautiful flowerbed. Garden tools and soil caked gloves told me I’d interrupted her work.
“I think we’ll be more comfortable out here.” She waved me toward a seat at a white wicker table. “I’ve asked Sophia to bring out some lemonade.”
I complimented her garden and made small talk until the lemonade had been served and we were alone. “Mrs. Kirkpatrick, I like to ask you a few questions about the Emersons.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be much help. We barely know them. Jack and I moved in almost five months ago, and I don’t think I’ve exchanged a dozen words with Mrs. Emerson before today.”
“So the coffee cake…that wasn’t a usual thing?”
“Oh, heavens, no. When she called yesterday and asked me to stop by after my run this morning, I had no idea what that could be about.”
“How about Mr. Emerson?”
“Well, I did run into him more often. He walked his dog, Butch, every morning about the same time I do my run. But we just exchanged good mornings, not much more than that. He did have a very pleasant smile. I’ve missed seeing him in the morning.”
“Missed seeing him?”
“Since his heart attack. He doesn’t walk Butch any more.”
I took a drink of my lemonade and glanced at the house I could just see over the privacy fence around the Emerson’s back yard. I wasn’t going to get anything useful out of Anna Kirkpatrick.
“I felt bad for Butch, at first,” she continued, “missing his morning walks, but I imagine he enjoyed his training sessions with Mrs. Emerson just as much. Dogs do, you know.”
She offered me a slightly embarrassed smile. “I could hear her, over the fence. She worked with Butch every afternoon. I guess he’d never had basic obedience training, although he seemed very well mannered on his walks.”
I could feel the hairs on my neck starting to rise. “What was she trying to teach him?”
“Just basic commands. Come, sit, stay. That sort of thing. But I’m afraid he wasn’t a very good student.”
“Well, he kept getting under her feet, I suppose. She was always telling him to move out of her way.” She altered her voice into a fair imitation of Lisa Emerson, “Get out of the way, you fool. Move.”
“Mrs. Kirkpatrick, I’m sorry. I just remembered… You’ve been very helpful. Thank you. And thanks for the lemonade.”
I was on the phone as soon as I cleared her front door.
“Whitaker? It’s Carczek. Grab some backup.”
If Lisa Emerson wasn’t pleased to see me, she didn’t show it. She ushered me into the ice blue parlor like a welcome guest. The shimmery top and leggings were gone, replaced by widow’s black, and her makeup was carefully subdued, highlighting her red rimmed eyes.
“Detective Carczek. What can I do for you?”
“I don’t mean to disturb you, Mrs. Emerson. I just wanted to let you know I’ve seen the video feed from your security cameras and it confirms that no one came in or out of the house last night or this morning. I mean, no one who could have harmed your husband.”
“Harmed my… I don’t understand. Walter fell down the stairs. He wasn’t well. He shouldn’t have been trying to come downstairs on his own. I shouldn’t have left him…”
Her expression was a perfect mix of distress and guilt with just a touch of confusion. I really should start carrying little mini Oscars with me for truly outstanding performances.
“No, it’s just routine. First step in an accident investigation is ruling out foul play.”
“Oh, I see. So you’ve done that? Ruled out foul play?”
“Well, it certainly looks like—”
“Yes, that’s just Butch. I’m sorry, he doesn’t usual go on like that.”
I got up slowly, “Maybe I better check. Might be—”
She moved to intercept me. “No, I’m sure it’s fine. He’s probably treed a squirrel or something.”
There was a crashing sound, like something striking the wooden fence. “I think I’d better check that out.”
She really had no choice but to lead me to the back door, protesting all the way that she was sure it was nothing. We stepped outside and across the big covered porch. A handsome brindle boxer was trying to scale the fence between the Emerson’s property and the Kirkpatrick’s, caught up in a frenzied response to something we couldn’t see.
“Butch,” I ordered. “Stop.”
The dog, obviously well trained, stopped and turned toward me, waiting for my next command.
“Detective…thank you. He seems to be fine now. I think we should go back inside.”
Butch trotted up and stopped in front of me.
He dropped immediately, eager to please.
True to his training, Butch got up and moved close in front of me, pressing against my shins. I glanced at the stricken widow. No Oscar needed this time. She knew.
I gave him the final command. “Get out of my way, you fool.”
Tail wagging, Butch circling around behind me and leapt up, striking my back with his front paws. The weight of him knocked me forward onto my hands and knees. I heard the rapid click of high heels retreating into the house and pulled myself from under the dog.
“Good boy, Butch. Good boy.” I hoped he’d never understand the role he played in his master’s death.
I followed Mrs. Emerson back into the house and through the open front door. As instructed, Officer Whitaker and his backup had left off annoying Butch through the fence and were positioned across the front of the house. I was glad it had fallen to Whitaker to grab and cuff our killer, but I saved the best part for myself.
“Lisa Emerson, you’re under arrested for the murder of your husband, Walter Emerson.”
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