by Daryl Wood Gerber
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by Daryl Wood Gerber aka Avery Aames.
About a month ago, my son Patrick called us. Nothing dire, as my law partners at Livingston, Strom, and Willoughby would say. Quite the opposite. Patrick was so excited. Tasha, his beautiful, talented bride, had gotten a small publishing deal for her bodice-ripping romance novel. Small was an overstatement, but I kept my tongue. His wonderful thrillers were not yet published, but he didn’t sound jealous. Not in the least. Tasha was going to be on a panel at Romance Extraordinaire, he went on. A local writers’ conference. Would my wife and I come to hear her speak? We agreed. Tasha wasn’t bad. She didn’t mumble. She didn’t bore everyone to tears. However, when she wasn’t speaking, she stared straight ahead with an idiotic blankness planted on her face. Was she listening to the others? Did she even care–
I digress. Let me start the story with this morning. I represent an eclectic clientele for matters both professional and personal, but no one with a portfolio under twenty million. Mostly artists, producers, athletes, and yes, the occasional superstar author. I was called to the hotel suite of Joshua Riis, a rousing success of a mystery author. He sold more books in a day than most authors could sell in a lifetime. He was in town attending a mystery and thriller writers’ conference. And guess what? He had found a woman in his bed. No big shock there. Groupies existed. The problem was, this one was dead.
Joshua, rumpled and grungy, looking nothing like the rugged stud on the back of his book covers, rubbed the stubble on his chin and shrugged. “Liquor’s my muse.”
“You need a new one.” I rarely drank.
I stepped inside the suite, a setup that no ordinary author could afford. It consisted of three rooms ? a living room, a kitchenette and two bedrooms, both doors closed. Art adorned the walls. All fake, of course, Joshua informed me. Nothing like he had hanging in his home.
“Things I’m saving for a rainy day. Everything can be traded if necessary in the event… ” He hesitated, as if realizing the inappropriateness of the thread of conversation.
“You look like crap.” I slipped on a pair of plastic gloves I had brought from home. Yes, I represented other clients who had been in jams. When summoned, I assessed the situation and then I called the cops. “How many beers did you drink?”
“Honest.” He started to blink rapidly. His usually piercing eyes were bloodshot and dry. “There were other guys here. Around one a.m. I tucked into the room over there.” He indicated the room on the left. “I put on my headphones, cranked up the classical playlist and started writing. Like I always do. I didn’t hear anyone come or go.” He sighed. “Man, this is super bad, isn’t it?”
“It’s not good. Show me the body.”
Joshua led me to the bedroom. He opened the door and pointed. “There.”
A woman with blonde hair was lying on the pristine white comforter, her face turned away from the door. She was wearing a spaghetti-strapped black dress, the skirt bunched around her thighs. Her left arm hung over the side of the bed. Strip her and paint her gold and she would sort of resemble the victim in Goldfinger.
“She’s dead. I felt for a pulse, and I–” Joshua leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and shoved his knuckles into his mouth.
A nod. No grit behind the gesture. I turned my attention back to the crime scene. There didn’t seem to be signs of a struggle, no lamp overturned, no pillows on the floor. The drapes were pulled. For privacy?
“I’ve never seen her before,” Joshua said.
“She didn’t come in with the rest of the crowd?”
“You know how it is.”
“Actually I don’t. Enlighten me.”
“Some people at a conference crowd the bar. Others go to rooms. People come, people go. Everybody just hangs.”
“I’ll need names of all the people who were in this suite.”
“I don’t know who–”
“Figure it out.”
He nodded. “Was Patrick here?” I asked.
“You know he was. You called him.”
My son had introduced me to Joshua. They had attended undergraduate school together. Joshua, like Patrick, had set his sights on becoming a lawyer, but then he wrote a thriller and it sold right out of the gate. Morgue Review. His protagonist was an antisocial medical examiner and widower with an exceptional knowledge of poisons. Not exceptional, but he had a unique voice, critics claimed. Joshua was another reason why Patrick had wanted to become an author. Joshua made it look easy. “Did Patrick stick around?” I asked.
“No. He left to see a show.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not everyone comes to a con to get educated. Some visit the Big Apple because the hotel rates are low and they can sight-see for cheap.”
“Patrick lives in Brooklyn. He can see a show anytime.”
“Not on his budget. Someone had discounted tickets.”
I heaved a sigh. Six months ago, my wife and I cut off Patrick and Tasha financially. He was temping, she was waiting tables and they were living on peanuts. “Are you saying Patrick went with a group?”
His lack of awareness made my teeth ache. I rolled my head on my neck to loosen the knots. “Back to you. What did you do next?”
“It’s why the bagels are so tasty,” I muttered. Something my mother, rest her soul, would have said. “Go on.”
“I saw the door of the other bedroom hanging open. I whipped around. Didn’t see anyone in the suite. Went to the bedroom. Saw her.” He pointed again. “I didn’t do it. You’ve got to believe me. Man, this will ruin me. This–”
“Hold it together. I’m going to take a closer look, okay?.”
I moved toward the body and smelled something familiar. Chanel No. 5. My wife’s favorite perfume. I drew within two feet of the bed and stopped. Something gripped the pit of my stomach. “It’s Tasha,” I whispered.
“Who?” Joshua asked.
“Don’t know her.”
“You’ve never met?”
“I don’t live here, remember? I’m a So Cal boy.” Southern California. He had been a surfer dude during his teens.
The deep V in the back of Tasha’s dress revealed a tattoo of fornicating spiders I had seen before. At our first meeting, Tasha had arrived in a Gothic outfit, ill-cropped hair framing her gaunt face, shawl hanging limply over her sloping shoulders. Her skin-tight skirt barely covered her bony rear end. My wife had looked at me with disdain. I mouthed, ‘What could we say to Patrick? That we didn’t allow trash into our home?’
A bit of background. My wife Murielle and I live on the Upper East Side, in a palatial flat with a view of the park, a doorman and a driver to take us anywhere we wanted. I am a well-respected lawyer; my wife, a dedicated volunteer. We are always cordial, we raised our son to be the same and we raised him to want the life we had. And he did…had…until he met Tasha, a cocktail waitress who aspired to become an author. Suddenly Patrick wanted to become an author as well. Out the window flew the Ivy League education and the dream of a six-figure salary. Why didn’t she comb her hair? my wife wondered. Probably snipped it herself. Was that chic? And why didn’t the girl engage us in conversation? Five months, my wife gave them.
Three months later, Patrick told us he was ecstatically happy and they were getting married.
I gazed down at Tasha’s body. Our son wouldn’t be happy now. “You really never met her?” I asked.
Tasha was clutching a lily with its petals torn off; the petals were strewn beside her. A lily. The death flower.
“You said Patrick was here,” I stated.
“Patrick left for the theater about what time?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Seven, maybe.”
I brushed the scraggly hair off Tasha’s face and gasped. Her lips were blue, her eyes bulging. A dark bruise circled her neck. A single shiny fiber clung to the wound. I turned back to Joshua. “You sure you don’t know her?”
“What don’t you understand about I never saw her before?” he shouted.
I raised my hand to calm him. “I’m just trying to get the details. When the police come, they’re going to rip this place apart. You were in the hotel room when this woman was murdered.”
“I can pay–”
“The police don’t want your frigging money. They want answers.” I had represented a murderer before, the daughter of my wealthiest client. She had a bad reaction to heroin, lost her mind and killed her supplier. I encouraged her to start life over. I hoped to get her into rehab, but she OD’d on sleeping bills before the case went to trial. Not my finest hour–or hers.
“Sit,” I ordered Joshua. We backed into the living room and settled onto the gunmetal-gray leather sofa. “Let’s piece the night together. Tell me the names of everyone who was here.”
Joshua’s eyes rolled up in his head, like he was channeling someone else’s memory. “Patrick, Axel, Katrina, and Burson were here.” Burson was another struggling author, a thirty-year-old playboy who had inherited every cent of his deceased father’s newspaper empire. He was bleeding cash on toys. His personality was, at best, fractured.
“Who are Axel and Katrina?”
“The Larsons. They’re a couple,” Joshua said. “He’s about twenty years older, but she digs older men like you.”
I flinched. I knew Joshua didn’t mean the comment as a slight, but I’m sensitive about my age. I’m not bad looking. In fact I look younger than I am and I work out. Murielle calls me a silver fox. On our anniversary, she bought me a bow tie to match my hair as a joke. Still, that darned ticking clock. “Are both of them authors?” I asked.
“Axel, not Katrina.” Joshua listed six other names, all women.
“None of the others were Tasha, as far as you know.”
* * *
While waiting for the police to arrive, I called Patrick and asked him for an alibi. He cried at first, unable to believe his beloved wife was dead. When he composed himself, he said he left Joshua’s place shortly after I called to tell him Tasha was looking for him. He said he tried to touch base with her while he took a taxi to the theater, but he couldn’t reach her. I asked who went with him. He said he went alone. Which show? Jersey Boys. He’d been once before. Was he lying? I requested the cab number. He couldn’t recall. I questioned him about the others that were in the hotel room with Joshua. He only remembered seeing Axel and Katrina.
“Nobody else?” I said.
“Maybe a conference wife?” Sometimes guys have what are called conference wives. A sort of what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas wife. Sometimes they fool around; sometimes they don’t; they just like a female conference attendee to fawn over them. Men are pigs.
“Were you playing around on Tasha? Was she jealous?”
“Are you nuts? I love her.” His voice broke. He mumbled, “Loved her.” Then he cried again. “Oh, Dad, she’s dead? Really dead?”
“Yes, son.” I had often witnessed delayed reactions with my clients. They offered matter-of-fact answers followed by bursts of humor, followed by stunned despair. Patrick couldn’t stop crying. “Look, Patrick, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to ask. Is it possible Tasha was having an affair with either Joshua or Burson?”
“He was there.”
“He’s a hack. He doesn’t have an ounce of creativity in his little finger. He writes the same story over and over. No way would Tasha mess around with him.”
“What about Axel Larson? I haven’t read his books, but he writes romance stuff like Tasha.”
“Uh-uh. He’s way older.”
“I hear his wife is about Tasha’s age.”
“What if Katrina saw Tasha making out with her husband? What if she got jealous?”
“Dad, Tasha wasn’t attending the conference.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does. You can’t get in without a badge.”
“You can get into a hotel room, son. At any time.”
Patrick grunted. Not his best comeback.
* * *
“You sure client-ed up fast, Third.” Detective Shawna O’Reilly tucked a loose hair over her ears, while searing me with her steely gaze. I had been on the receiving end of that gaze too many times to count. We had known each other since grade school. Her folks were still irked that she had gone into public service instead of politics. She rarely referred to me by my given name: Patrick Willoughby, preferring the nickname. I was a “son-of-a-son-of.”
I kept mute, unwilling to give her the satisfaction of a response. I had worked just as hard as my father to earn my wealth. So what if I hadn’t chosen the serve-the-public route like she had? Not everyone is a saint.
“Joshua Riis.” O’Reilly removed the toothpick that was clenched between her teeth. She had given up cigarettes six months ago. “This is the big time.”
“I’m always big time.”
O’Reilly’s techs were dusting the hotel bedroom for fingerprints. Someone had already bagged Tasha’s feet and hands. The de-petaled flower, too.
I said, “My client didn’t do it.”
“If Mr. Riis isn’t guilty, why does he need a lawyer?”
From the doorway I could see Joshua giving his statement to a pony-tailed woman at the dining table. I’d advised him to be straightforward. A glass of water sat in front of him; he ran a finger aimlessly around the rim. His lower lip looked chewed raw. So much for his tough guy image.
I said, “He’s scared.”
“Can’t buy his way out,” O’Reilly said.
“Doesn’t expect to.”
“All your clients expect to. Just last week, that gal that lives in the Dakota ? you know the one, the rock star with the hair ten shades of purple–hands me a wad to keep quiet about…you know.” She sniffed.
“Did you take the bribe?” I asked, knowing she hadn’t. O’Reilly was true to her work.
She grinned. The creases around her eyes deepened. Not many cops smiled as much as O’Reilly. She lived a good life, she was quick to say. She had a darling husband who could cook rings around Rachel Ray and twin girls who were both going to be doctors. One had already applied to the Peace Corps. “If not your client, who did this?”
“I have no opinion.” I really didn’t.
“Your mind’s going at high speeds,” O’Reilly said. “I can see action in your eyes.”
“There are other players to choose from.”
“Yeah, Riis told us about them. The husband and wife. The playboy author.” O’Reilly glanced at Joshua. “Heard Fourth attended the party.”
“He left. Around seven. To see a show.”
O’Reilly eyed me.
“Jersey Boys,” I offered.
“Is he coming in voluntarily?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Let’s cut out of here and have a chat.” O’Reilly jerked a thumb.
* * *
Central Park in May is at its most beautiful. Azaleas are in full bloom. Irises and daffodils, too. The air is crisp, cool, and dry. In my spare time, I dally in the garden on our verandah, listening to the noise of the city below and I imagine myself in some foreign land working the soil. Murielle says I’m eccentric. I like to think of myself as a Renaissance man. I cook. I taught my son to cook, too, French, Italian, you name it. Murielle would rather shop. Bergdorf’s is her favorite spot. The last time we went to lunch we met at the Hermes counter downstairs and took the escalator up, one floor at a time. She showed me every item on her wish list. I told her she didn’t need a wish list; she could buy anything at any time. I earned enough that neither of us would have to worry. She batted my arm and said I needed to be more fiscally responsible. It was our little game. We had married right out of college and had lived on a shoestring for five years. Only five.
No one called my son Junior. Once people like us got past the second Roman numeral, we simply went by our first name, last name or nickname. I sat on the bench but I didn’t lean back. “He married Tasha a few months back.”
“Were they happy?”
Except whenever they were with us, at the house or out to dinner. Then they both acted tense, like they expected us to scold them or something. Patrick said we were judgmental; Murielle said we were discerning.
“How long have they known each other?” O’Reilly asked.
“She was an author?”
“She didn’t make a living at it.”
O’Reilly smirked. “That doesn’t mean she wasn’t one. We’ve all got a book in us, don’t we? I started one. It’s half done.”
“A true crime novel that you can’t talk about until all the parties involved are dead?”
“Something like that.” O’Reilly leaned back on the bench. Sunlight cutting through the gigantic trees cast long, bar-like shadows on her face. “One page a day,” O’Reilly went on. “Some famous author told me that. Write one page a day and in a year, you’ve got a book.”
“Tasha wasn’t talented,” I said.
“I’ll make the comparison again. Ever heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? Talent has nothing to do with success.” O’Reilly crossed her legs and neatened the center pleat on her pant leg. “Do you get along with your daughter-in-law?”
“I did my best.”
“How about Murielle?”
O’Reilly and Murielle had met a couple of times at police functions. Annually we donated a healthy amount to the police fund. Our city needs to be safe. We need manpower to cover the cost. Lawyers can’t do it all, my partners and I joked.
I said, “She didn’t like Tasha, if that’s what you want to know.”
“Didn’t like her, as in she wished she was dead?”
My jaw tensed. “Murielle would never say that.”
“Actually she would. To one of her best friends.”
“Mine to know.”
I waved a hand. “Murielle can run off at the mouth. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“Really? Because this friend was saying…”
I flashed on the lily again. Just last week, Tasha and Patrick had come to our place for dinner. Tasha made a smart-aleck comment about the Monet in our guest room, how the lilies looked so gaudy. The remark angered Murielle. The next day, while we were shopping at Bergdorf’s, Murielle brought up the exchange. I stupidly defended Tasha. Everyone had a right to an opinion, I said. Murielle lashed out at me for taking Tasha’s side. She asked me if I liked Tasha more than her. Of course I didn’t, I said. I loved her. If looks could kill…
“You listening, Third?”
O’Reilly pulled a plastic baggie from the inside of her jacket. In it was something silky and metallic. Recognizable. My heart started to hammer my rib cage.
“Is that the murder weapon?” I reached for the baggie.
O’Reilly snatched it away. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“Is it a scarf?”
“You’re amazing. Like one of those magician’s playing a guessing game with the audience. Is someone feeding you the intel?” With bravado, she swiveled to look for a nonexistent assistant. She turned back to me, her face as hard as ice, and wiggled the bag. “Does this look familiar?”
My insides were quivering, but I forced myself to remain steady. “Should it?”
“I believe it’s your wife’s.”
I tilted my head ever so slightly. “Why would you think that?”
“It’s got a name tag sewn in the hem.”
What the hell? Never, never, never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer. Even more calmly than before ? I could stay cool in the most heated court battle ? I said, “Women hate to lose things.”
Murielle hadn’t come from a wealthy family. She went to college on a scholarship, and yet the moment we met, I’d known she was the woman for me. We met at an intellectual level that most people only dreamed of. She donated her time at soup kitchens and organized fund-raisers for all sorts of pet projects. Women of a certain stature, she often told me, need to give back. With composure I didn’t feel, I said, “You can’t think my wife killed her.”
“This was found in Tasha’s purse.”
“Tasha must have stolen it from Murielle. That girl could be quite sneaky.” I drew in a quick breath as a notion hit me. “Wait a sec. Why would the murder weapon be in Tasha’s purse? Why leave it behind?”
“Did I say it was the murder weapon?”
“Why show it to me then?”
“Because it was purchased a week ago at Bergdorf’s. You purchased it.”
“The salesperson remembered you. She called you a silver fox.”
“Third, your face is plastered in the society column at least once a month.” O’Reilly swiveled to face me. “The clerks at places like Bergdorf’s study those columns with a fervor.”
“What was the plan? To frame your wife?”
“You bought this when Murielle went to the restroom. You stuffed it inside your suit jacket. What happened, Paddy Waddy?” she said using the childhood nickname I despised. “Did Murielle find out you were having an affair with Tasha?”
A laugh burst from my throat. “As if.”
“As if,” O’Reilly echoed.
“C’mon, Shawna, it’s me. Like I’d go for a broad half my age with stumps for legs.”
She pursed her lips. “Did Murielle threaten to expose you? Is that why you put your wife’s name on the scarf and stuffed it into the victim’s handbag?”
My mouth fell open in stunned silence.
“Here’s how I figure it, Third. You called Fourth. Said his wife called you and begged him to call her.” O’Reilly nodded. “Yeah, Paddy, me lad, I’ve already spoken to your son. After relaying the phony message about his wife, you told him you were going out with your partners for drinks. To establish your alibi. But your phone record doesn’t lie. You called Tasha right after. Told her to meet you at Joshua’s in a few hours. You knew your client’s schedule. You knew he’d crawl into the second bedroom and crank up the classical playlist so loudly he wouldn’t hear Death knocking at his door. Once everyone left, you and Tasha sneaked in. You and she had a good old romp, but you planned ahead. See, I figure she threatened to tell wifey poo about you two. You couldn’t let her live, but you didn’t want Murielle any more either. How better to get rid of both of them?”
I snorted out a laugh. “I have to give you credit, O’Reilly. You say you’re writing a true crime novel, but you’re a fiction writer at heart.”
“You left your card by Joshua’s phone, Third. On purpose, is my guess. He doesn’t remember how it got there. Still, he called you. In trouble. You came running. That gave you reason to leave your hair and prints all over the crime scene.”
“I didn’t kill Tasha.”
“No, of course not. She strangled herself.”
I took a deep long breath. “Maybe she did. She was into kinky.”
“Now, how would you know that?” O’Reilly cocked an eyebrow. “Truth, my friend? You’re good for it and you know it.” She propped another toothpick in her mouth and chewed. Waiting.
A dog and owner ran by, feet smacking the path. Birds twittered. Children screamed with delight. My gut turned sour. Caught! Me. The best lawyer this side of the Atlantic. “It wasn’t my fault. I’m telling you she was kinky. She wanted me to” ?- I pleaded with my hands ?- “to asphyxiate her.”
“We didn’t find an extra large plastic bag sitting around, Third. Sorry. Try again.”
“With the scarf.”
“Uh-huh, and when she didn’t revive, you let us blame your son, his friends and your wife. Real stand-up guy, Third. What would your father think?”
I hung my head. I wasn’t a good man. I never said I was. I had been given too many opportunities, had too many crimes swept under the carpet, by my father, by his father. All for the sake of the Willoughby name.
If only my son had married an ice princess like Murielle, maybe I could have resisted Tasha in the first place.
More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in the current issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section.