by E.B. Davis
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
The corpse sat upright on the sofa, his feet on the floor. If his head hadn’t sunk into his chest, he could have entertained guests. Maybe he had. A red, white, and green flannel shirt topped his tan cords. He looked middle-aged. A red Santa hat, its tip accentuated by a white pompom, covered his head. He didn’t look merry. Signs of gastric distress were apparent on the carpet at his feet. The outstretched fingers of his right hand covered his stomach.
A bag of Farm Fresh Christmas cookies rested on its side on the coffee table in front of him. Probably a bedtime snack. A half-full wineglass of something dark red, a Merlot or Cabernet perhaps, sat on a coaster.
The man had died in the family room of an oceanfront rental house on Hatteras Island just north of Hatteras Village. I scanned the room. It looked like a generic rental. The furnishings were impersonal and neutral, like a job applicant dressing for professionalism rather than individuality. Maggie Dutton, the rental agent who found him, waited downstairs in the game room where I’d asked her to stay. No one else was in the house to contaminate the crime scene so I decided to question the agent before help arrived. She’d been through enough.
I grasped the stair rail with my gloved hand. Plastic booties covering my sneakers made for slippery walking. The air felt cooler as I descended. Downstairs, I found her, tears trickling down her face.
“I’m sorry you found him, Maggie.”
“It was such a shock, Sue.” She blew her nose.
“Did he rent the house from Island Realty?”
“No, he was one of our owners. He always blocked off the week before and after Christmas for his own use.” She blotted her face with a tissue. “Not that we have that many renters at this time of year, but there are some folks who like to rent the larger houses so they can enjoy the holiday with their entire clan.” She paused, her eyes unfocused on the external surroundings as if searching her mind for a bookmark. “I knocked. When no one answered, I let myself in using the office key.” She held up the key with her gloved hand. Her index finger poked through the glove.
It reminded me–my son, Jared, needed Santa to bring him a new pair. I filed that item to my “to-do” list and got back to the interview. “When was this?”
“Just before I called. Half hour ago.”
“Did you touch him or anything in the room?”
Her eyes opened wide. “Hell, no!”
“Why were you here?”
“Even though he owns the house, we’re responsible for upkeep and maintenance. He reported that the HVAC unit to the lower level wasn’t working correctly. I wanted to pinpoint the problem before sending out repair personnel. You have no idea how often the thermostat controls baffle people.” Her concentration on recounting events had quelled her emotions. Tears no longer streamed down her face.
“What was his name?”
“Is he married?”
“I think so.”
“Did you see him when he arrived?”
“No. He has a key. We didn’t know if he was here or not. Just because he blocked the weeks off the rental calendar doesn’t necessarily mean he used the weeks. He called to request HVAC service. Only reason I knew he was in the house.”
“Was the house cleaned after the last tenant?”
“Not only cleaned, but we did the annual scrub down. Finished Wednesday. I inspected it myself.”
“How long has he owned the house?”
“About ten years. But there was a change in the house title this year. Maybe he got married. I’m not sure. Check with Jarvis. He probably represented him.” The only lawyer on the island, Jarvis Detwieller enjoyed a thriving practice. Maggie balled up the tissue and stuffed it in the pocket of her coat. “I’m sorry I can’t answer your questions, Sue. I’ll ask Mr. Beckman.”
Mr. Beckman owned Island Realty. “That’s okay. I’ll call him later. I’ll need the names of the cleaning staff so I can eliminate their fingerprints and yours, too.”
“Mr. Beckman has all of our prints on file. He does criminal checks on everyone before hiring.”
“You can go. If I have other questions, I’ll call you.” Maggie nodded and opened the door to a bright, cold December sunshine. I walked out on the deck and watched her back out of the driveway. Her rusted Camry looked overdue for replacement.
Light reflected off the waves, first breaking on the sandbar and then near the beach. The houses on both sides appeared empty. No cars were in the driveways. Neither had garages. I stood still watching the light. The crunch of tires sounded on the crushed shell driveway. My help had arrived.
Two years younger than me, Woody unfolded his tall, lean body from the van. He surfed in the cold water months, covering himself head to toe in neoprene except for his face and hair, which were respectively tanned and bleached, catching the rays and belying the season. He looked like a surfer-freak. “Yo, momma, what you got?”
I shook my head. Woody sounded like a blond Norfolk gangster. I leaned over the railing. “You been up to Naw-Folk over the weekend?”
I knew all too well. Cindy, his seven-year-old daughter, had been in the same elementary school class with Jared until his ex moved to Norfolk. I folded my arms across my chest. “Tell me about it. Jared spent last weekend celebrating Christmas with my ex because he’s taking his girlfriend skiing in Aspen over the holiday. At least I know what he bought Jared. Not the two expensive items on his list. I thought Daddy would get him one of the big ones.”
I could only afford to buy Jared one of the gifts. My contempt must have shown. Woody climbed the stairs and laid a sympathetic arm around my shoulders. I shook him off not wanting to cry. “Come on. I think we have a homicide on our hands. At least I’m treating it that way until we know otherwise.”
“A Christmas present. For us?” Sarcasm was Woody’s gift.
“Yeah. Someone killed Santa. He’s our gift.”
Woody responded by lifting his eyebrows. I turned and headed into the house as he brought our equipment in from the van.
As Dare County’s investigator on Hatteras, I was trained to process crime scenes. B & E was our most frequent crime due the availability of empty rental homes ripe for theft. If two murders occur in a year, we were unlucky. Vacationing mainlanders committed most of our homicides. The Graveyard of the Atlantic took the most victims.
We photographed and fingerprinted the upper level family room, kitchen, and bedroom. While Woody cuffed plastic over the vic’s hands and feet, I perused the master bedroom. One suitcase lay on the floor. I rifled through the clothes. They were large men’s clothing, but I took a shirt for analysis just to be sure they were the vic’s. His wallet and cell phone lay on the bureau. I flipped open his wallet. His driver’s license photo verified his identity. Richmond address. I bagged it and the phone, which I’d examine later. One side of the bed was rumpled. The sheets were neatly tucked in on the other side. In the bathroom, nothing looked extraordinary so I returned to the family room.
“You call this into the coroner?” I asked Woody.
“Yep. I’ll wait for the coroner if you’re finished.”
“Remember the wine bottle. It’s in the kitchen.” Woody nodded. “I’ll see you back at the station.”
I drove through Frisco. Santa and his reindeer had commandeered an olden surfboat in front of a Christmas-decorated shop. Boating made more sense to me than flying reindeer, but then I no longer believed in magic. I was such a Scrooge.
Back at the station, I started a preliminary report, compiling a list of evidence, and filled in chain-of-custody forms. I typed in the date, December 21st. My mind wandered to Jared’s Christmas list. I needed to wrap this case up before the holiday so I could finish buying and wrapping his presents. After I finished reporting on the crime scene and victim, I summarized my initial findings and determined the facts I needed to discover.
Beckman answered a few of my questions over the phone. Redding had signed the rental agreement along with his wife, Marcia, and a man named Brett Ambrose. The rental income minus the agency fee was split equally among the owners. Redding’s and his wife’s shares were combined into one monthly check. Beckman also gave me the names of his three cleaners. He already had fingerprint cards in his files for them and Maggie. In his business, he said, it was for his and their protection. He promised to scan and email the fingerprint cards to me, which I’d forward to the county examiner.
I called an officer I knew in Chesapeake. He accessed the Virginia database and forwarded drivers’ license photos for Marcia Redding and Brett Ambrose.
My call to Jarvis answered the ownership question. The house title listed three owners with equal ownership, the same three listed on the rental agreement. Redding had married earlier in the year and had his wife’s name put on the title. That meant Brett Ambrose’s percentage of ownership dropped from half to a third. As I hung up my desk phone, I wondered if that fact was significant to my case.
The bag containing the phone lay on my desk. I put on latex gloves, took the phone, and lifted some prints off the phone. Finished with the exterior, I scrolled through Redding’s last calls and photos. I attached a USB cord to his phone, downloaded his contacts and pictures, printing a few. Marcia and Brett were listed in his contacts. I recognized Island Realty’s phone number and checked the time of the call to verify Maggie’s story. There were a few local numbers also listed that I’d have to track down. I filled out a form requesting a warrant and attached it to an email sending it to the clerk at the Dare County courthouse in Manteo, an hour’s drive, where I’d have to deliver the evidence this afternoon for analysis.
Marcia deserved the first call. Calling seemed impersonal, but I assumed she was four-hours away. Her number started with a Richmond 804 area code. But if the number was to a cell phone, she could be anywhere.
No one likes informing family of a loved one’s death. Not having to look at their grief-filled faces was better for me, I’m too empathetic. But when murder was the cause of death, I had to suspect the loved ones first and gage their reactions. It was my job, but it made me feel like an insensitive jerk. In this case, I’d only be able to assess her voice.
I dialed and broke the news to her. After her initial emotional outburst, she calmed and questioned my sanity. That was disbelief talking, a normal reaction. After I assured her that a stranger wouldn’t be in their vacation rental with her husband’s wallet and phone, she started to deal with the new reality.
“What happened?” she asked. From the sound of her voice, I conjured a mature businesswoman of middle age. I sifted through the phone’s pictures I’d printed and found a woman’s image matching her driver’s license photo.
“We’re unsure. Once the autopsy is done, we’ll be able to tell you.”
“He was supposed to be on a business trip in Raleigh.” Her voice held confusion and dismay.
Although I’d seen no evidence of a tryst, my ex had proven that some newly married people had no problem philandering. This was the part I hated the most. Informing them of a spouse’s death was bad. Revealing their betrayal was worse. I’d had to come to terms with that myself.
“It appeared as though he was alone,” I said to tamp down her suspicions. “The rental agency finished cleaning the house on Wednesday. They received a call from him on Thursday night complaining about the lower level heat. The agent found him dead in the family room this morning.” I wondered why, especially at this time of year, the agency hadn’t dealt with the HVAC problem on Friday.
“I thought staying over the weekend was strange. I told him so before he left, but he said driving back and forth to Richmond for just two days was ridiculous.”
“And when was that?”
“When was he due back?”
“Where did he work?”
If I had to check, I’d call them, but it didn’t seem relevant yet. “Did he ever check on the house?”
“We took turns with Brett, the other owner. Charlie and I would go together, make a long weekend of it when the house was unrented.”
“Was Brett Ambrose a friend?”
“Yeah. Charlie and Brett went in on it as an investment before we got married. I’ll have to call Brett. They were close.”
“Your name was put on the title this year,” I said, hoping she’d follow up.
“Brett needed money. His oldest started college this year. Neither Charlie or I have children, and we both work so we bought some of Brett’s share to help him.”
“Cookies–no way. Charlie had Celiac Disease. He has to eat a gluten-free diet. He’d never buy those cookies or eat them. The wine could have been some Merlot we buy by the case. He may have taken a bottle or two to drink in his hotel room. Someone else had to have been at the house.”
A point I’d already concluded, but she was getting up to speed now, and her logic was without fault. “I’m not familiar with Celiac Disease. If he ate cookies would it be fatal?”
“No, it’s an allergic reaction affecting the small intestine. Causes inflammation and interferes with the uptake of nutrients. The sufferer feels bad, gets headaches, and might have adverse GI tract symptoms. The long-term issue–it weakens the immune system making them vulnerable to other diseases and infections. They’re anemic.”
“Would he throw up?”
“Did he ever wear a Santa hat?”
She broke down crying. I waited for her to gain control. “He loved wearing that stupid hat. He’d wear it around the house during the holidays.” I heard her gulp.
I hated what I had to tell her. “The coroner’s office will call you when they finish the autopsy so you can make arrangements.” She broke down again. I gave her my cell phone number and got off the phone leaving her privacy to grieve.
I made notes on the conversation. It sounded as if they had a good marriage, but then he had gone to Hatteras without telling her. What was the purpose of his visit?
Woody returned. I told him what I’d learned. He sat back in his chair pondering. “Maybe Marcia lied to you. Could have married him for his money. They travel here together. She offs him with poison, a female M.O., wipes her prints off the bottle, cleans her glass, the bath, and bedroom, and she’s out of there. If she killed him last night, she had plenty of time to get back to Richmond. I’d check out her alibi.”
“Maybe. She sure seemed broken up about it.”
“And what about good friend Brett? Maybe they had a triangle. Brett’s in love with Marcia. He meets Charlie here and kills him. Since he hasn’t stayed in the house, there’s less evidence to clean up. Besides, other than on the cookies or wine, if either one killed Charlie, finding their fingerprints in the house wouldn’t prove anything except that the cleaners didn’t do a great job.”
“Okay. You take Brett. I’ll take Marcia. We’ll find out where they were Friday night.”
The phone on my desk rang. I answered, took the information, and ended the call. “You requested the blood test?”
“I asked the coroner. Fastest way to find out.”
Doctors faced with unconscious patients took blood samples when poison was suspected. They couldn’t find out the exact substance through the quick test, but it gave them enough information for treatment. “Elevated lactic acid and oxygen levels in the vic’s bloodstream. Enough for the doctor to be unequivocal. He was poisoned.”
“Probably in the wine.”
“I agree. They can do the tests to find out what kind. Once we figure out who did it, then we can look for it. Unless it’s stashed somewhere in the house. I need to go back there and look. I also want to check out the lower level heating system.” I gave Woody a disgusted look. “I hate it when I’m not thorough.”
“You have to sift through all the data to find out what is important. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet, relax.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You go back to the house. I’ll take the evidence to Manteo unless there’s shopping in Nags Head you have to do. What were those gifts you wanted to buy for Jared?”
“A skimmer board and a video game. But I’m only buying him the skimmer board. I don’t have the bucks for a video game.”
“Good choice. I like their boards. I’ll go to Manteo. You get Jared the board and go back to the house. If I find out anything, I’ll call you.”
“Deal,” I said.
When I returned to the house, I didn’t find poison, but I discovered someone had turned off the lower-level heating unit. I also found a neighbor at the house next door. I knocked on the door, and a woman greeted me.
I pulled out my identification and introduced myself. “We’re interested if you’ve seen activity at the house next door in the last few days.”
“I got here on Monday to get the house decorated and stocked for the holiday. The first few days, the house was empty. But on Thursday, I noticed there were lights on in the house. A man came out on the deck.”
“No visitors, but there was that lady from Island Realty.”
“How do you know the woman was from the real estate company?” Maggie had driven her car when I saw her.”
“She was driving a minivan that had the logo on the side.”
“When was this?”
“Friday, around seven p.m.”
“What did she look like?”
“She came around seven. When did she leave?”
“I’m not sure. I turned off the lights around nine and looked out. The van was gone then.”
We talked a few minutes more before I thanked her. The information surprised me. I should know better by now, but I try to see the good in people. But when Woody called from Manteo with fingerprint information, he confirmed the neighbor’s story. Dismayed, I got in my car to question the suspect.
I found Maggie in her cubicle at the agency near closing time. She looked up in alarm as I sat down in the chair in front of her desk. “Why did you do it?”
She hopped off her chair and peeked over the partition walls. “What are you talking about?” Her voice was a harsh whisper, like an admonishment uttered during church.
“Killing Charlie Redding. From what I could tell, he was a good guy.”
“Susan Kay Bartelle,” she said like a schoolteacher trying to put me in my place. “How dare you accuse me?” Denial wasn’t a great offense, but then, she didn’t know what evidence we had.
“Come off it, Maggie. Your fingerprints were found on the cookie bag.” I exaggerated a little. Only her index fingerprint was on the bag where her glove had worn through. “Charles Redding had Celiac Disease. He couldn’t eat anything with gluten in it. Besides, I checked at the grocery store. Jenna Tanner confirmed that you love those cookies and bought another bag on Friday afternoon.” Maggie’s expression was a mix of contrition and anger.
“Jenna’s such a busybody. Figures she’d keep track of who bought what and how much.”
“It’s her job, Maggie.” Jenna had gloated a bit, but I wasn’t going to give Maggie an inch and leaned over her desk closing the distance between us. “Were you having an affair with Redding?”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bugged out. “Of course not. You know I wouldn’t hurt Marvin like that. He’s been through enough.”
She looked down and shook her head. “You really don’t have to arrest me, Sue.” She looked up. “I’ll lose my job. Redding was just another tourist. No one knows him here. No one will mourn him.”
“I need to know.”
“This will hurt Marvin. You can’t do that to him not after losing his job.”
“He’s going to be put through more.” I looked at her. Tears started to drop from her eyes. “You may not have realized it but the house next door is occupied. It’s a Frisco Realty rental house so you probably didn’t know. A woman rented it for three weeks. Next week her family arrives. In the meantime, she’s run a lot errands getting holiday-ready for them. Her car wasn’t there much. I guess in the dark Friday night you didn’t see it, but she saw you.”
Maggie folded her hands on her lap. In prayer? I didn’t know. “Why, Maggie?”
“Things have been tight for Marvin and me since he got laid off. We needed more money. I skimmed money off rental income checks to owners about six months ago. If I hadn’t, we would have lost our house. I couldn’t let that happen. Few owners noticed. When they did, I told them we had made repairs to their houses. No one demanded a receipt.”
She looked at me like she was justified, especially since her tactic had worked. “Mr. Redding?” I prodded her.
“The first time I skimmed, Mr. Redding didn’t question it, but with having to buy Christmas gifts, I did it again last month. This time he checked up on the repairs at the house. He didn’t believe we repaired anything. He was an investment banker. More money than God. He couldn’t consider it a Christmas bonus. Penny-pinching rich jerk.” She stopped talking.
“The Christmas cookies?”
“It’s rude to visit during the holidays without bringing a gift. I’d already bought the cookies so I brought them with me.” She inhaled. “Can you believe he didn’t eat one?” She sounded incredulous. I cocked my head prompting her. “He opened the package and offered me some. I love those cookies, Sue.”
“So you killed him because of his hospitality?”
“Of course not.” Her face scrunched in disgust. “He called on Thursday. Told me he wanted to talk with me at the office about the amount deducted from his check for fictitious repairs. I couldn’t have Mr. Beckman find out. So I told him I’d come to him Friday.” Maggie looked at me. “Don’t you understand? I could have lost my job and my house. Can’t you overlook this? It’s not like I’m a criminal.”
Solving the case didn’t make me happy, but at least I had plenty of wrapping time. I even baked some Christmas cookies for Jared and invited Woody for Christmas dinner.
“Why not? I had time to run up to the Kill Devil Hill’s K-Mart while I waited for the examiner to get prints off the cookie bag. By the time I got back, she had matched it to Maggie’s print. I thought she had just contaminated the crime scene when she found the body.”
“Yeah, except when I talked with the neighbor. She told me that the lights were on under the house on Friday night. She saw Maggie go into the house.”
“Redding illuminated his killer so she wouldn’t have to grope up the dark steps. Nice guy.”
“Yep, and by doing so, he helped us solve the murder. I found an old bag of rat killer at the Dutton’s house. Marvin said because they live near a marsh Nutria come out at night. Didn’t want them getting into the house.” I shuddered. Nutria, swamp rats with blood-red tongues and long rattails, grossed me out. I didn’t protest when Woody put his arm around me.
“I got you a little present,” he said.
“I got you a little present, too,” I said, and unwrapped the gift he’d placed in my hands. It was a gift certificate for a massage. “Thank you,” I said and watched as he opened his gift of suntan lotion and hair conditioner.
“Like, you trying to tell me something, Sue?”
I grinned. Surfer-freaks are oblivious.
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