by Jan Christensen
My first impression of Phillip was that he was blessed with ignorance. He knew nothing of world events, nothing of religion. And probably nothing much about sex. It was sort of refreshing—no angry tirades about the current goings on in the White House and Congress, and no heated discussions about religion. I figured he must be happy—ignorance is bliss, right? I wasn’t so sure about being ignorant about sex, but he could learn, couldn’t he?
The question was, did I want to be the one to teach him? He asked me out the night we met at one of those parties that were thrown by Pat and Pat, my favorite couple, and although I wondered about how his lack of knowledge about things that had always meant a lot to me would fly, I accepted. In high school, I’d been on the debate team and wrote for the school newspaper. Same in college. Now I was a journalist for a major newspaper. Phillip had a degree in biology and worked in a medical lab doing blood testing for horrible diseases.
Our date didn’t go well. “What do you think the President should do about the economy?” I asked over cocktails.
“Haven’t a clue. And if I did, what good would it do? He won’t listen to me, will he?”
Good thing Phillip was so handsome, I thought, as I looked at him, a bit stunned by his answer. He had dark brown hair, soft brown eyes, and a great smile. He was a slim six feet, and he wore my favorite brand of aftershave. I so wanted to like him.
“But you still have an opinion, don’t you?” I pressed.
“Why should I? What would I gain by holding an opinion?”?
Something to talk about, I thought it, but didn’t say it. This was uncharted territory. I didn’t ever remember meeting a guy who didn’t like to discuss politics.
“Well, perhaps you have an opinion about local politics where you can do something directly to get public opinion on your side. What do you think about the location for the new water treatment plant?”
“Well, then, you do have an opinion,” I cried, making a few diners look our way. I lowered my voice. “You believe all politicians are corrupt.”
“Not all. Just these particular ones. It appeared that the majority of citizens did not want the plant in the location the politicians picked. Ergo, someone paid them off.”
“Well, you at least follow politics, then.”
“Not usually, but in this case, the plant is around the corner from my home.”?
“Then, you protested the location?” I asked.
He laughed, but it didn’t sound pleasant. “Fat lot of good it did us. Never again.”
“Well, then, what are you going to do?”?
Peeling away the layer of ignorance to get to the one of knowledge had not been as nice as I’d hoped. The date ended badly, and not in bed.
Two weeks later, I saw the layout of the front page, “Phillip Monroe Murdered.”
“I know him,” I said.
The editor looked up at me. “How well?”
“Good. You’ve got the story. Local angle was that he protested the location of the water treatment plant, and when it was decided to locate it in his neighborhood anyway, he immediately put his house up for sale.”
“What? You think someone bought it, and when they found out about the treatment plant, murdered him?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
He turned out to be right about that.
I talked to the police first. My friend on the force, Sid, wouldn’t tell me much—just what had already been in the newspaper, and one more tidbit. Phillip’s ex-wife had shown up in town two days before the murder. Sid happened to have her address sitting on his desk, and he angled the paper so I could read it.
At the Royal Motel, I found Monique Monroe packing her bag. She agreed to talk to me, and we sat awkwardly: she perched on the bed and me in the only chair. “You’re leaving town already?” I asked, surprised the police would let her go.
“No, I’m going to stay at the house until after the funeral.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to hide my surprise.
“It’s cheaper,” she said.
“Won’t it bother you to be there?”
“Why would it? We never lived there together, and Phillip was murdered at the lab.”
She was pretty in a cheerleader kind of way. Blonde, blue eyes, nice figure. I wondered why she’d divorced Phillip. Or had he divorced her?
“So, how come you and Phillip broke up?” I asked. What I loved about being a reporter was the fact that I could ask impolite questions with impunity.
“We drifted apart. Phillip is…was…a very narrow person. He had few interests, except his work, which I found rather boring, frankly. So, after the passion wore itself out, I found no reason to stay with him. Fortunately, we never had children.”
“You have any idea who might have murdered him?”
“No. I can’t think why anyone would hate him enough to do that.”
“Maybe it wasn’t hate. Maybe he got in someone’s way. Maybe he found out something someone didn’t want him or the rest of the world to know. Could be any number of reasons.”
“I never thought of that.” Monique picked at the bedspread with her long, pink fingernails. “He never got along with his boss at the lab. Henry Webster.” She shuddered. “Unpleasant jerk.”
“He come on to you?”
She looked startled. “How’d you know?”
“You called him a jerk.” I laughed.
She gave a rueful laugh herself. “Came on strong. When I complained to Phillip, he said I’d have to handle it. He couldn’t risk his job.”
“I thought so.” Sarcasm didn’t sit pretty on pretty Monique.
“I bet soon after that, you divorced Phillip.”
“You’re very perceptive.”
“Thanks. That’s all the questions I have for now. I’m off to the lab.”
“Good luck. Although I no longer loved Phillip, I wouldn’t wish what happened to him on anyone.”
At the lab, I talked to the receptionist for a while. She didn’t even give me a decent quote about Phillip. His boss wasn’t much better.
Henry Webster was a big guy with clumsy-looking hands. His face was fleshy, and he had an unpleasant way of smiling. More like a leer. One of those guys who looks a woman up and down, offers his hand and holds onto hers a bit longer than is comfortable, even when she begins to pull away.
“Terrible what happened to Phil,” he began. He tried to look sorrowful. Couldn’t quite pull it off. “I hear Monique is in town. Have you talked to her?”
“Yes. She had no motive that I could see.”
“Of course, she did. Phillip divorced her, didn’t he?”
“My understanding was that she initiated it.”
“She told you that?”
“Never trusted that woman. Or the next one he got mixed up with. Have you talked to Rita?”?
“No. What can you tell me about her?”
“She’s his current girlfriend.”
I bit my tongue. Henry Monroe didn’t need to know I’d gone out with Phillip. I wouldn’t have, if I’d known he was involved. “Why don’t you trust Rita?” I asked, wondering if she’d scorned Henry as well. A man scorned loves to put down the women who refused him.
“She looks a lot like Monique. Rah-rah type. Demanding. I never thought Phillip had much sense as far as women were concerned.” He paused. “Or much else, come to think of it.”
“Is there anyone else you think might have had something against Phillip? Another worker, perhaps?”
“Maggie, the lab assistant, had a thing for him. But he never gave her a second glance. Mousy little thing.” He dismissed her so easily. I hadn’t realized my opinion of him could get any lower, but it did.
“Any possibility that there was some professional jealousy? Was he in the way of anyone getting a promotion or anything like that?”
“No. Except for Maggie and the receptionist, and of course, me, everyone is on the same level.”
??”Is it okay if I talk to them?”
“Sure. On their breaks.”
“Thanks,” I said, and stood up.
I talked to everyone briefly, found out when their breaks were, and set up times to interview them. Meantime, I hung around, watched them work. It looked boring to me, but they all seemed intent and happy. Maggie dashed between tables, fetching stuff, picking up reports as they were finished, and generally making herself useful. I wouldn’t have called her mousy. I thought she purposefully downplayed her looks at work. Dressed up for an evening out, I bet she could be quite attractive. Henry Webster wouldn’t be able to see that, though.
As I watched, I noticed one man kept his eye on Maggie. His name was Roger Thurmgood, an average-looking guy with graying hair which curled around his collar. The hair made him look older than I believed he was, and I thought if he got a decent haircut, he’d look much better.
Maggie seemed depressed. Never smiled. She appeared to be doing the job by rote. She never gave Thurmgood a second glance.
I interviewed several people before I got to Thurmgood. I asked for his address and telephone number, as I did of everyone in case I needed to follow-up. I looked at him with surprise after he told me.
“That’s Phillip’s old address.”
“You bought it?”
“Yeah. Got a good deal.”
“Did you know why he was selling it?”??
“Said he needed a smaller place.”
“Did you find out why he was really selling it? Maybe after you bought it?”
Thurmgood wouldn’t look at me. He had bought a can of Coke from the vending machine, and he grasped it firmly, picked it up and down, making wet circles on the table.
“I thought,” he said softly, “that if I bought his house, I’d be more like him, and Maggie…”
“Did she?”??”No. She didn’t laugh at me out loud, but I could tell she thought I was an idiot. Then she told me why Phillip really put his house on the market.”
“The water treatment plant.”
“I guess you might have been pretty mad at Phillip for tricking you that way.”
“Well, it didn’t make Maggie any fonder of me. I felt so stupid.”
“I can imagine. What did you do?”
“The two of us were working late the night I found out, and I confronted him about it. He just laughed and said, ‘Buyer beware.'”
“Phillip was a pretty cold guy.”
“So, then what did you do?”
“Nothing. What could I do?”
“You could have killed him. Haven’t you heard that expression, ‘He made me so mad, I could have killed him?'”
“Yes. No, I mean I’ve heard the expression, but I didn’t kill Phillip.” He stopped making circles with his Coke can and looked up at me.
“I think you did,” I said softly. “It was too much for you. First, Maggie was in love with him, not with you, and then he tricks you into buying a house that will decrease in value. You were alone with him, and you snapped. Or maybe you didn’t snap. Maybe you decided with a clear mind that Phillip needed killing.”
“Maybe I did think that. But I didn’t do it.” But his voice faltered, and he sounded scared.
Just then, Maggie rushed into the room and shouted, “I know you did it. It had to be you. You hated him! No one else hated him.” She began beating Thrumgood around the shoulders. I guessed she’d been listening at the door.
I watched as Thrumgood tried to defend himself. Somehow, the whole scene felt off to me. I didn’t think any of this was Maggie’s usual style.
Henry Monroe must have heard the altercation. He blustered into the room. “What’s going on here? Maggie, stop that!”
Maggie sagged into a chair and began to cry. Both men looked at her, perplexed, and my reporter’s instinct told me that it was all an act.
“Why’d you kill him, Maggie?” I asked, not sure she had, but taking a shot in the dark.
She looked shocked, then frightened, but only or an instant. “I didn’t. Why would I? I loved him!”
“But he didn’t love you,” I said.
“I was going to make him love me. If I killed him, that would never happen, would it?” She looked at me defiantly.
“Something happened to make you realize he’d never love you. What was it?”
Now she looked more frightened than ever. “Are you psychic?” she asked.
I smiled. “A little.” I wasn’t really, but if it helped to get her to talk..
“He called me ‘Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes’ when I told him I thought it was wrong to sell his house to Thrumgood. Then he laughed. It wasn’t that I realized he’d never love me. It was then I realized what a horrible man he was. And that I’d wasted so much of my life, pining after him. Why? Because he was so good looking?”
I didn’t tell her she wasn’t much better than old Phillip. She’d come into the break room purposely to try and get the murder pinned on Thurmgood.
So, Phillip was murdered because he sold his house. My editor was right. I hated it when that happened.
The first chapter of Jan’s mystery novel Haunting Dreams was featured in a past episode of Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast. You can listen to it here, or on the player below.
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