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Murder in a Locked Box, Michaels and Clark Investigations Short Story, Episode 2

For the twelfth day in a row, the forecast is hazy, hot and humid. The Boston skyline hides behind a thick, orange cloud. Four times around the neighborhood yields a tight spot for my ten-year-old, white Mini-Cooper convertible. Feeding the meter every three hours will be today’s exercise and an excuse to get out of the office. To say work has been slow would be an understatement. I grab three coffees and muffins at the shop on the first floor and mount the stairs to our street-facing office on the second floor. Mary Ellen, our receptionist is knitting at her desk when I enter. She peers at me over her half-lenses.

“Good morning, Mary Ellen. I brought breakfast.”

“I had mine, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a taste.”

I open the inner office door. A crumpled, paper ball bounces off my nose.

“Damn. It would have gone in.” My partner’s feet are on the desk, left of his laptop. A ream of printer paper is on the floor.

“No apology for hitting me in the face?”

“You should apologize for wrecking my shot.”

“You’re impossible.” I set the goodies on my desk. “Come and get it.”

“Don’t you deliver?” he asks.

My neck veins bulge. “It must be nice to have a cook and butler at home. Get off your butt and help yourself like the rest of us.”

Laughing, he helps himself and perches on the edge of his desk. “What’s on the agenda, Madam Slavedriver.”

“Whatever it is can wait,” a voice bellows from the doorway. “Mind if I join the party?”

Detective O’Malley is an imposing figure at six feet. Judging by his tone and hawk-like scrutiny, this is not a social call.

“What can we do for you, Detective?” Elliot asks.

“Where were the two of you last night between the hours of nine and eleven.”

“I was home, in bed.”

“Alone?”

“No. With Sherlock Holmes.”

“Don’t be a smartass with me, kid.”

“The book is called the Hound of the Baskervilles.”

“Can anyone corroborate your story?”

“No. My help leaves at eight. What’s this about?”

“Miss Clark? Where were you between nine and eleven last night?”

“I was driving home from the Cape. There was an accident on the Sagamore Bridge. I was stuck in traffic for two hours. I didn’t get back until one.”

“Were you with anyone?”

“No.”

“You went to the Cape alone?”

Three pairs of eyes feel like lasers.

“I drove alone to and from a friend’s home in Chatham.”

“What’s the friend’s name?”

“The name is irrelevant. You can corroborate the accident piece. Now it’s your turn. Why are you asking us for alibis?”

“Mind if I sit? These new shoes are making my dogs bark.”

Elliot points to a chair. “Go for it.”

The detective sits and stretches his legs. “Last night a man died in his locked study.”

“Why think we had anything to do with it?” I ask.

“He had your business card in his hand when he died.”

“What’s his name?” Elliot asks.

“Philip Burbridge.”

“Name doesn’t ring a bell. Sam?”

“Never heard of him. Mary Ellen, please check our calendar.”

“I know there’s nothing in the calendar.”

O’Malley snickered. “Business is that good, huh?”

“We’ve been busier. What’s the cause of death?” Elliot asks.

“Nothing obvious. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy.

“Sounds like natural causes. Why are you investigating?”

“Burbridge was a partner in Burbridge, Latham and Jenkins, Attorneys at Law. According to Mr. Latham, Burbridge was preparing to file a lawsuit for a watchdog group, which would have brought the US oil tycoons to their knees.”

Elliot lets out a low whistle. “The media will be screaming murder conspiracy.”

“Exactly. Chief wants a thorough investigation.”

“Do you want us to consult?”

O’Malley raises his bulk from the chair. “Might as well. You’re up to your neck in it. Place is on Hancock.”

Family heirlooms adorn the six thousand square foot, quintessential home of Boston society. The maid escorts us to the study, a second-floor room facing the street. The white, wood paneled door has a steel core, with a keypad lock.

“Who has the code for the lock?” I ask.

“Mr. and Mrs. Burbridge.”

“Do you live here?”

“No. The cook and I work from ten to eight.”

“Do all the doors on this floor lead to bedrooms?”

She points to the first door on the right. “No. The ventilation system for the safe room is in there.”

“Could we see it?”

“Ask Mrs. Burbridge. I don’t have a key.”

Elliot crosses to the inner sanctum, while I thank our guide, “Call us if you think of anything that would help with our investigation.”

Philip Burbridge’s Fortress of Solitude is smaller than I imagined. The tiger maple desk to the right takes up a third of the floor space. Hunched forward on the desk, is a white male, in his mid-fifties. A bourbon bottle and glass lie on the floor. Bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling straight ahead. To the left are filing cabinets and a half-bath.

“Don’t you have anything better to do on the first day of Spring?” Garbed in hooded, paper suit and booties, Liza Steele straightens and views us through plastic goggles.

Elliot and she have a history, not all of it professional. “Sadly, no. Do you have a cause of death?” he asks.

“Nothing official until I perform the autopsy.”

“O’Malley asked us to consult. Please send me a copy of the autopsy report.”

“Will do. Same email?”

“Yes. Good seeing you.”

“Same here. Call if you have questions.

The techs wheel the gurney to the elevator. Liza follows, carrying a black, vinyl case, which resembles a toolbox. We opt for the stairs. The maid meets us in the foyer.

“Is Mrs. Burbridge available?” Elliot asks.

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Michaels and Clark.”

Faking interest in the wall art, I edge my way down the hall in her wake.

“Ma’am, Michaels and Clark want to speak to you.”

“What are they doing here?”

“They consult for the police.”

“Show them in. Come back in five minutes to show them out.”

Mrs. Burbridge strikes me as the perfect fit for Dallas society. Her tropical pant suit and cropped, bleached blonde hair seems out of place in conservative New England.

“Good morning, Mrs. Burbridge. I am Elliot Michaels and this is my partner, Samantha Clark. We are private investigators.”

“I know. I gave your card to my husband.”

“Why?”

“To investigate a girl claiming to be his daughter.”

“A DNA test would have resolved the issue.”

“He didn’t want to offend her by asking for one. I told him that he would be doing his daughter a favor to prove her legitimacy.”

“What was his reaction?”

“Philip was a ponderer. I learned to plant a seed and let it germinate.”

“What is the woman’s name?”

“Stacy Washington.”

“Where can we find her?”

“Philip put her up at the Four Seasons.”

“Do you have children?”

“Our three boys are mine, not his. Why are you asking me all these questions?”

“Your husband was working on a high-profile case. The police want to rule out foul play. Do you know anything about the case?”

“No. Philip kept me in the dark. He said that what I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me. That’s why he worked in the safe room.”

“Sounds like he knew the risks. Sorry to have to ask, but where were you and your sons last night?”

“We went to a play at the Wilbur, which started at 8 and ended at 10:30. After the play, we stopped off for a drink.”

“That’s all I have. Sam, do you have any questions?”

“Just one. If Miss Washington proved to be his daughter, what were his intentions?”

“He was going to include her in the family and his will.”

“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Burbridge,” Elliot closes.

The maid appears in the doorway at five minutes on the dot. Before leaving, I learn that a cable repairman was there the day Philip died to upgrade the boxes.

On the street, Elliot and I throw around possibilities. We agree that a hit is most logical. Oil tycoons stood to lose billions through the class action suit and anti-trust fines.

Back at the office, Mary Ellen brings us up to speed on the family. Alicia Burbridge met her husband thirteen years ago at the country club, where she was bartending. His first wife. Louise, died in a car accident seven months earlier. They had a whirlwind courtship and married three months later. He raised her boys, but never adopted them. Michael, her oldest is an accountant, David, the middle one a psychologist and Mark, the youngest is attending Harvard Law School. All are single and have their own apartments.

“Sounds like the current Mrs. Burbridge found her pot of gold,” Elliot said.

Elliot shoots baskets to pass the time, while I list the suspects: Alicia, her sons, Stacy Washington, maid, cook, cable guy and oil companies. The motive and opportunity columns require legwork. Mary Ellen tackles the National Cable Communications’ customer service line and I call the Four Seasons with my cell phone.

Mary Ellen places the handset in the cradle on my desk. “They didn’t send anyone to the house.”

“We need to know who got into the house under false pretenses and why? Call the maid at the Burbridge residence. Ask if the house has security cameras. Be sure to get it when you talk to her.”

“Were you able to make an appointment with the daughter?”

She was out. I left a message. Book her as soon as possible when she calls. Elliot…” My eyes rest on his empty chair. “Did you see him leave?”

“No.”

“I can’t believe he went home without saying good-bye.”

“You shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” Elliot preaches from the doorway. He has a cardboard tray with three extra-large coffee cups. Tucked under his right arm is a paper bag.

“What’s all this? It’s time to go home.”

“Liza sent the autopsy report. There were high concentrations of nitrogen in the blood. She ruled his death a homicide.”

“In a room, locked from the inside.”

The sandwiches and coffee more than fill the hole. As we down the meatball grinders, we bring Elliot up to speed.

The outer door creaks open. Before Mary Ellen can respond, a willowy, African American woman enters the room. With chiseled features and flawless skin, she could pass for a bronze sculpture. Elliot and she exchange greetings.

“Is Samantha Clark here?”

I finish chewing, wipe the tomato sauce off my face, stand and introduce myself.

“I got your message. I’m Stacy Washington.”

“Stacy, I’m so glad to meet you. Please have a seat.”

She chooses the one that Mary Ellen vacated.

“Tell us about your father.”

Her eyes light up as she speaks. “He was gentle, kind, funny and respectful. I understand why my mother fell in love with him.”

“Do you mind sharing their story with us?”

“He was attending Harvard University Law School and living in the family home. My mother was four years younger and working as a chamber maid. Staff had rooms on the third floor. They fell in love. She slept in his room most nights. Everyone in the household knew. It was not unusual for sex to be a job requirement, but theirs was a love story. When she discovered that she was pregnant, she left without telling him. He had a brilliant future. Together, they had none.”

My eyes fill with tears. “That’s so sad.”

“Why did you contact your father?” Elliot asks.

“My mother passed away six months ago. When I was going through her possessions, I found a shoe box, tied with a red ribbon and filled with dried red roses, pictures, notes and poetry. His words were so loving and tender, I had to meet him. I hounded my aunt until she told me the whole story.”

“How did he react when you confronted him?”

“He looked like he had seen a ghost. Before I could say anything, he got up from his desk, told me that I have my mother’s beauty and hugged me.”

“You must have been in shock,” I say.

“I was. We talked for hours. He was happy to have closure and excited to learn that I practice the same type of law.”

“That’s unbelievable.”

“I know.”

“Did he have plans for you?”

“He asked me to move into his house, but I declined.”

“Have you ever been there?”

“Yes. He invited me to dinner.”

“You met Mrs. Bainbridge?” Elliot asks.

“Yes.”

“How did that go?”

“She was courteous, but aloof.”

“What did you have to gain by your father’s death.”

“Nothing.”

“I’m all set. Sam, do you have any more questions?”

“No. Thanks for dropping by to share your story, Miss Washington.”

More like a model than an attorney, the ebony creature glides across the room to the door. When the coast is clear, Mary Ellen pops into the room, plops onto the blue, leather sofa and stretches her legs onto the matching rectangular ottoman.

“What do you think?” Elliot asks.

“I believe her. She had nothing to gain, unless her father had changed his will,” I reply.

“The motive is money. Who stood to lose or gain it by Philip’s death?”

“The oil companies would be off the hook for billions. Mrs. Burbridge is golden with him alive or dead.”

“We’ve got to get another look at the house.”

“Mary Ellen, did you talk to the maid?”

“Yes. Her name is Latisha Brown. Security cameras are inside and outside the house.”

Elliot picks up the desk phone. “Good work. I’ll call O’Malley. We’ve got to see the footage. Go home. He won’t be able to do anything until morning.”

In bed before midnight, I toss and turn with the image of a giant hand scooping up a village and squashing it. At six, the alarm ends the torture. Exhausted, I stumble to the bathroom.

The red, Mercedes AMG Roadster is at the curb, when I round the corner, sweaty from my five-mile run.

“Jump in. O’Malley has the security footage. The only showing is in fifteen minutes.”

“I can’t go like this!”

Elliot’s expression conveys zero tolerance for my vanity. I get in and buckle as the five hundred fifty horses roar into to roadway. The acrid smell of burnt coffee, greets my nostrils when we enter the station. O’Malley grumbles a salutation and points to two chairs at a table to the right of his desk. The footage shows the serviceman entering, with his head down, face hidden by the brim of his cap and exiting, back turned to the camera. Nothing else was recorded.

“What’s up with this?” Elliot asks.

O’Malley chuckles. “You wanted to see it. Looks like the guy knew what he was doing.”

I tune out the banter and rerun the video at half-speed, stopping it when the man was halfway down the walk. He wore black, converse sneakers. Dirty blonde, scraggly hair hung beneath his hat and he walked with a distinctive swing of his right arm, while his left hung close to his side.

I interrupt the conversation. “I know who he is.”

O’Malley barks his disbelief. Elliot eyes me with skepticism.

“Eddie Dixon.”

Both lean closer to sniff the screen.

“See it yet? Watch his gait. He’s got a slight limp from the fall he took from a second story window.”

“She’s right. That’s Eddie,” O’Malley concedes.

“It doesn’t match his MO. He didn’t steal anything. Has he turned hit man?” Elliot asks.

“He’s not a killer,” I note.

“Every man has his price,” O’Malley pipes.

“Any ideas about how the nitrogen got into the room?” Elliot asks.

“Not yet.”

“Check the ventilation system for the safe room. Eddie could have picked the lock, blindfolded, with both hands tied behind his back.”

“I’ll get the forensic team over there.”

“Sam and I will pay Eddie a visit.”

“No rough stuff.”

“You know me better than that. I’m all about finesse.”

Back in the car, I plead for a shower and breakfast. In response, Elliot hands me wipes from the console, lowers the convertible top and fires up the engine. Lack of sleep, low blood sugar and caffeine withdrawal make me cranky. I hope Eddie is cooperative.

The GPS leads us to an address in Roxbury Crossing, a neighborhood known for high crime statistics. The old, three-story Queen Anne Victorian, has six apartments, judging by the mailboxes by the entrance.

Like bees from a broken hive, young, adult males swarm the car. My tough girl image would not impress this crowd. I look to Elliot for a plan.

“Hi guys,” he says with a smile.

Stone faces, with penetrating eyes, do not speak.

“I have a business proposition. Who’s the boss?”

The crowd parts to allow a heavy set, African American to step forward. The braids on top of his head meet in a knot. Shaved on each side is a snake cut-out. “I am.”

 “Nice to meet you, Mr…”

“Snake.”

Elliot points to Eddie’s apartment building. “Mr. Snake, my partner and I are going into that building. We’ll be gone a half hour. I will give you $500 to protect my car.”

Pursed lips cracked with laughter. “We could strip it in five minutes and make a fortune. Why would we settle for $500?”

“Because I am working for the cops. I know who you are and where you are. If you prefer, I can send the heat to disrupt your car and drug businesses. I’m sure the competition will pick up the slack while we pull you off the street for a while. I offered you $500. It’s now $400. Take it or leave it. The price drops another hundred in one minute. Sam, time it.”

“All right. You have a deal.”

Elliot hands him two, one-hundred-dollar bills. “You get the rest when the job is done.”

The boss orders ten men to form a protective ring around the car. We crash the line and make our way to porch. Elliot pushes the button under mailbox 3B. There is no answer. Elliot rings again to no avail. On the third attempt, he leans on the buzzer without pause.

“Get off the damn buzzer!” A voice barks from the speaker.

“This is Elliot Michaels. My partner, Sam Clark and I would like to ask you a few questions.”

There is dead silence at the other end. Elliot rings again.

“We’ve got a runner. Cover the front,” he says, as he runs down the side, brick walk toward the rear of the house.

From behind a bush, Eddie sticks out a leg. Elliot is airborne until gravity prevails.

Streaking down the property line, the slippery thief is beyond my reach. I whistle and point. Snakes’s men knab Eddie and drag him back to the car.

“Thanks, guys. We’re back up to $500.”

Elliot rounds the corner of the house as Snake’s men throw Eddie at my feet.

Not only are my partner’s khaki trousers caked with dirt, but they are torn in the knees.

Elliot places a foot on Eddie’s chest. “All we want is a nice, quiet conversation. You’d better give me straight answers or I’ll let you spend recreational time with these men. Got it?”

Eddie nods his understanding.

“Why were you at the Burbridge residence yesterday?”

“I don’t know any Burbridge.”

Elliot’s foot gains weight. Eddie’s face displays pain. “Try again.”

“Alright. Get your foot off me.”

Elliot digs into his pocket and pulls out five bills. “Thanks, Mr. Snake. You earned a bonus. We’ve got it from here.”

Snake counts the money and stuffs it into the front pocket of his jeans. “Pleasure doing business.” He smiles and disappears into the throng.

Elliot helps Eddie to his feet. “Ready to answer some questions?”

“What do you want to know?”

What were you doing in the Burbridge home?”

“Installing a camera.”

“Where?”

“In the air vent for the study.”

“Why?”

“They wanted a view of the desk.”

“Who’s they?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sam, find Mr. Snake.”

“Wait. I swear, I’m telling the truth. I got a letter with instructions and $750. Got another $750 in the mail today. I can show it to you.”

“I don’t want to see the money, but I need the letter and envelopes. Was anything in the room besides the ventilation system?”

“A ladder and a couple of fire extinguishers.”

With letters in hand, we drop by the police station. O’Malley is in his office, mumbling at the whiteboard.

I knock. “We’ve brought you a present.”

He turns. “Jeez, Michaels. You let that weasel get the drop on you?”

We recount the chat with Eddie, excluding the use of Snake’s men. O’Malley’s brow furrows.

“Forensics found two small holes in the flexible hose to intake vent. They didn’t find a camera, fire extinguishers or a ladder.”

“Eddie’s letter proves that he’s telling the truth,” Elliot says.

“Could the fire extinguishers be red nitrogen tanks?” I ask.

“Which were removed after the murder with the camera,” Elliot adds.

O’Malley agreed.

“According to the maid, the only ones with keys were Mr. and Mrs. Bainbridge. My money is on his wife, I add.

“What’s the motive?” O’Malley asks.

“Money. Philip Burbridge had a daughter, or so he thought. She killed her husband before he changed his will.”

Elliot points out that she has an alibi.

“If not Mrs. Bainbridge, then who?” O’Malley asks.

“The maid has access to the bedrooms. She could have taken the keys and had others made,” Elliot theorizes.

“I’ll have background checks run on the cook and the maid.”

“We’ll work on Mrs. Burbridge’s alibi.

Elliot drops me at my apartment with the promise to return in an hour. Famished, I stuff my face with guacamole on crackers, washed down with diet iced tea. Four oatmeal cookies complete my heart healthy breakfast, lunch combo. Enroute to the bathroom, I eye the fluffy, comforter on my bed. I resist the urge to crawl under it and push through to restorative hot water pulsating on my neck, shoulder and back.

Time. The word repeats in my brain. As I wrap my hair in a towel, I consider the possibilities. It was time to file the lawsuit. The oil companies were running out of time. Setting up the nitrogen and removing the tanks took time. Eddie needed time to plant the camera. The killer needed time to turn on the tanks. Philip Burbridge ran out of time.

When I step out of the apartment building, I grin. Elliot is ahead of time. Shaved, showered and perfectly coiffed, he should be on the cover of GQ Magazine.

On the way to the office, I relate the epiphany that I had in the shower. “If Mrs. Burbridge had the tanks set up and a cab waiting, she could have made it home, turned on the tanks and gotten back to the theater during intermission.”

“That would be tight.”

“But doable.”

Mary Ellen is at her desk when we arrive. “Mail is on Sam’s desk. There is an envelope from Philip Burbridge.”

If she was going for shock value, Elliot and I did not disappoint. The hand-addressed #10 envelope bore his return address in the upper left-hand corner. A clever lawyer, Philip knew that his writing would confirm the contents’ validity. Inside is a handwritten letter and his most recent will.

Elliot calls to Mary Ellen. “Call O’Malley. Tell him we solved the case and have loose ends to tie up. Then round up Alicia Burbridge, her sons, Michael, David and Mark Collins, Stacy Washington, Latisha Brown and Eddie Dixon. Ask them to be here at seven.”

“Got it.”

“We’d better serve drinks. This one is tough to swallow,” I comment.

At six forty-five, the self-serve bar is busy. Most elect an alcoholic beverage and pass on the snacks. At seven, all find seats in a semi-circle and Elliot takes the floor. I stand by the door with Mary Ellen.

“Thank you for coming. When you leave here, you will know not only how, but also why Philip Burbridge died. I will lay out to the events that led up to his death. As you know, Mr. Burbridge was working on a class action suit against the major oil companies for price gouging. Eddie, please tell everyone why you posed as the cable repairman the day of Philip Burbridge’s death.”

“I ain’t proud of it, but a guy’s gotta eat. I got a letter in the mail and money to plant a camera in the ventilation grate. I don’t know what the guy was thinking. The study was like Fort Knox, but the room with the ventilation system was nothing more than a locked broom closet. A kid could pick the lock.”

Alicia comes to her husband’s defense. “The room is a secure place to work and keep sensitive documents. It is not a bomb shelter.”

Elliot takes charge. “Thank you for the explanation. What did you see in the room, Eddie?”

“Two fire extinguishers and a ladder.”

“We now know that those fire extinguishers were nitrogen cannisters. Nitrogen poisoning causes a quick, painless death with unremarkable autopsy findings. Everything pointed to a natural death except the toxicology report showed higher levels of nitrogen in the blood.”

“Mrs. Burbridge, you were at the Wilbur Theater with your sons the night your husband died. This afternoon, Sam tracked down a taxi driver who will testify that he picked you up at intermission, drove you home and back to the theater. You paid him an extra $100 to step on it and run lights. Is that true?”

All heads swiveled in her direction.

Michael’s eyes are wide as saucers. “Mother, you told us that there was a long wait in the ladies room.”

Stacy was on her feet. “You killed my father because you were afraid he’d leave everything to me.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Miss Washington, please sit down. She didn’t kill your father.”

Alicia’s tough façade crumbles. Burying her face in her hands, she quivers with silent sobs.

“Mrs. Burbridge, please tell us what happened that night.”

She uncovers her mascara-streaked face and lifts her head. “Philip had pancreatic cancer. None of the proposed treatments promised a cure. He researched different methods of suicide and decided on nitrogen. I didn’t want to see him suffer, so I agreed to help him. My part was to remove the tanks and ladder, so his death would appear natural. He didn’t want Stacy, Michael, David and Mark to carry any guilt that they should have seen it coming and stopped it. Philip was familiar with Eddie’s skills and hired him to install the camera. I distracted Latisha long enough for Eddie to do the job. Philip wanted his death recorded, to prove that it was at his hand and to protect me. That night, he insisted that I go to the play with the boys, so that we all had an alibi. With the house empty, he would place the tanks, turn them on and go to sleep. He had the Michaels and Clark business card in his hand because he wanted them involved from the start. During the first act, I couldn’t bear the thought that he was going to die alone. I ran home to stop him, but it was too late. I had no choice, but to follow his plan, so I returned to the theater.” She pulls the camera from her purse. “It’s all on here.”

Elliot lifts the letter from Philip. “Today, we received this handwritten letter from Philip, which corroborates everything you heard.”

Alicia stands, walks over to Stacy and crouches in front of her. “If I seemed distant when we met, you weren’t the problem. I was having a tough time facing your father’s imminent death. I made up the DNA stuff to keep the detectives engaged until Philip’s letter arrived. I am not worried about money. When we were married, I signed a pre-nup. Philip created a two-million-dollar fund for me, which has done nicely over the years and guaranteed my sons’ college educations. Whether we divorced or he died, I would be financially secure. I loved your father and he loved me, but there was always a faraway look in his eyes. Now I know why. Your father didn’t need DNA proof because he knew that you are his flesh and blood. He suspected that your mother disappeared because she was pregnant. Your coming into his life was the answer to a dying man’s prayer. He shared his changed will with me. We agreed that you would inherit everything, including the house. It is the family home and you are his blood heir, the daughter created with his first and true love. He also stated in the will that he would be honored if you took your rightful name of Burbridge.”

Stacy’s forehead wrinkled. “I am proud of my mother’s name and I built my career with it, but I will consider a hyphenated version.”

“He would have liked that. I will be out of your hair by the first of next month.”

“You don’t have to move. It’s a big house. Please stay.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Latisha, I’d like you and the cook to stay.”

“I will. Can’t speak for the cook.”

Elliot smiles. “Detective O’Malley, here is the evidence that Philip’s death was by suicide. When you officially close the case, I want the letter returned for our files and the camera returned to Alicia Burbridge.”

“I’ll see to it,” O’Malley replied.

Elliot lifts his glass. “Please join me in toasting a wise, selfless man, Philip Burbridge.”

Michaels and Clark Investigations- Episode 1

Ancient tumblers click and the rough, hewn door creaks open. Two hooded soldiers march me down a dimly lit, dank corridor. Condensation pools on the stone floor. With a spear point pressed against my spine, I mount the spiral staircase. Ten-foot doors swing open. The waiting crowd jeers with anticipation. Blinded by the sun, I squint to assess the circular arena. Struggling against the ropes that bind my wrists. I earn a strong whack across my shoulders, that knocks me to the ground. Forced to my feet, I stumble to the guillotine at the center of the field. Kneeling, the executioner secures my head in the lunette. The blade is released. I scream and bolt upright in bed. The phone rings and I will my breath to normal.

“Clark…Can’t it wait until morning?…Okay. You’re on.”

I have ten minutes to pull myself together or lose ten dollars and a dollar for every minute I am late. Elliot tossed out the bait and I bit. My shortie nightgown hits the floor on route to the bathroom. The sunken eyes in the mirror receive a cold-water splash and my pearly whites get one pass with the electric toothbrush. A baby wipe suffices for cleansing the pits and groin, with deodorant picking up the slack. Taming my fiery curls with an elastic is the final touch. My foot touches the curb as the red, Mercedes AMG Roadster glides to a stop.

My partner shouts from the open window, “You look like Hell.”

I climb in. “Don’t start. You owe me ten dollars.”

“The guillotine nightmare again?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You should see a shrink.”

“Why did you wake me up in the middle of the night.”

“A thirteen-year-old girl is missing. She was last seen in the dining room at 7 P.M., having dinner with her mother, father and fifteen-year-old brother, Dillon. After dinner, she went upstairs to her room.”

“What’s her name?”

“Molly James.”

“Why us?”

“They want to keep it quiet.”

“The police have more resources.”

“I know.”

The sky is warming as we follow the winding, tree-lined, dirt drive to an open, iron gate. Ahead is a stucco, Tudor mansion, that has seen better days. The plantings are overgrown and the lawn is riddled with weeds. The housekeeper leads us to the parlor, where the family is congregated by the fieldstone fireplace. A bald, stocky man in his forties rises from a chestnut, leather chair.

“Samantha Clark and Elliot Michaels, I’ve heard a lot of good things. Thank you for coming. I’m Trevor James. This is my wife, Jenny and son, Dillon.”

Jenny is frail, with a sallow complexion. Her turban scarf cannot mask the lack of eyebrows and facial hair from chemotherapy. She nods an acknowledgement. Dillon is beside her on the sofa. Built like his father, he has his mother’s doe-like, brown eyes.

Elliot begins questioning. “When did you discover Molly was missing?”

“At eleven, when I did a bed check.”

“Your children go to bed at eleven on a school night?” I ask.

“No. Lights out is at ten. I look in at eleven.”

Dillon wiggles in his seat.

“When you found Molly’s bed empty, what did you do?” Elliot continues.

“I looked for her in the bathroom, then in the kitchen. When I couldn’t find her, I searched every room, which took a while in a twenty-room house.

Elliot directs a question to Jenny. “At what time did you realize Molly was gone?”

“When my husband woke me an hour ago.”

“Dillon?”

The boy’s eyes are riveted to the floor.

“Don’t waste your time. He’s deaf.” His father’s tone is crisp.

Elliot and I are private investigators. Messy divorces and insurance fraud are not on our list of services. Our styles differ, but we get the job done. Elliot solves mysteries with logic. I pick up vibes.

“While Elliot’s finishing the interview, I’d like to see Molly’s room.”

Trevor scowled. “I’ll escort you when we’re done.”

“Time is of the essence, Mr. James. Dillon can show me where it is.”

I crouch in the boy’s line of sight and reach for his hand. His eyes search his mother’s face for approval. She smiles and nods. In the foyer, away from parental oversight, I sign that I want to see Molly’s room. We go to the right wing on the second floor. There were four doors off the corridor. Dillon opens the first on the left. I sign my appreciation and tell him to wait in his room. Looking relieved to be released, he disappears into the room next to Molly’s.

Decorated in lavender and white, the room is frilly and bright. The queen-size bed is a white, four-poster with a canopy. Lavender shag rugs accessorize the wide board, oak flooring. On the wall by the bathroom door, is the vanity and bench. Between two windows, is a matching double-dresser with a round mirror. The view, from the back of the house, is the walled, English garden that no longer displays prize winning roses and pruned shrubs.

One window is missing the screen. From the windowsill, there is a short drop to the back porch roof. To the left, a mature ivy, has overgrown its trellis and creeps along the cedar shingles. I climb out the window and pick my way on the slight pitch to Dillon’s room. He is wearing Bluetooth earbuds to play a video game, odd for a deaf, young man.

Back in Molly’s room, I go through the drawers and closet, which would pass military inspection. On my way out I pause in the doorway to scan the room. Nothing shouts that a teenage girl lives here. Missing are posters, stuffed animals, jewelry and make-up. I close the door and slip into the room across the hall.

Painted British racing green and decorated with heavy, mahogany furniture, it feels more like a study than a bedroom. There is a queen bed, desk, bookshelves, walk-in closet filled with men’s clothes and an adjacent bathroom.

The next room is brighter with off-white walls, but death’s smell hangs in the air. Pill bottles line the oak dresser. Beside them sits a pitcher of water on a silver tray. A shawl and blanket lay rumpled on the navy upholstered chair and ottoman. Centered on the left wall is a queen brass bed. The closet and bathroom belong to a woman.

I cross the hall to ask Dillon if Molly has a special place that she likes to go. A blank stare is his reply. I try again in sign language. His noncommittal shrug ends my futile attempt.

Back downstairs, I make a sweep of the foyer and stick my nose into the dining room, where the housekeeper is polishing silver. “Hello.”

Her smile is trained civility. “Do you need something, madam?”

“I would like to ask you a few questions.”

Dressed in a simple navy frock, she continues with the busy work. “I saw nothing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No.”

“Do you live here?”

“Yes. My room is off the kitchen.”

“Near the back porch?”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear anyone on the porch roof?”

Pausing her hands, she answers without making eye contact. “No.”

“Maybe you didn’t see her last night, but you’ve seen her go in and out that way before, haven’t you?”

Rough, arthritic hands drop the microfiber cloth onto the sheet-covered table. Laser-like eyes meet mine.

“Yes.”

“Has she disappeared before last night?

“I wouldn’t say disappeared.”

“What would you call it?”

“Hid.”

“What does that mean?”

“I said too much.” Her jaw clamps shut and eyes drop. She picks up the cloth and attacks a candlestick with what my grandmother called elbow grease. I call it anger.

Knowing when to fold them, I bid adieu and cross the foyer to the parlor. Elliot hastily wraps up the conversation to join me. In the car, we compare notes. Mine are quasi factual, based more on instinct. His are facts, as told by the parents, which could be a combination of truth, misinformation and lies.

“Did the parents have anything to add?”

“Only that she was introverted and liked to spend time in her room.”

“Or escape out the window.”

Swiveling in his seat, Elliot asks, “We can rule out kidnapping?”

“Yes. According to the housekeeper, Molly snuck out regularly to hide.”

“From whom?”

“That’s what we have to find out.”

“Her Dad?”

“That’s my bet. Mother appears to be battling cancer. The father could be turning to his daughter.”

“He’s paying us big bucks to find her. Doesn’t sound like a child molester to me.”

“I feel it in my bones.”

“You’re projecting your experience on this case. Maybe I should handle this alone.”

“No way in Hell. If he is molesting her, I’m going to bring him down.”

“Have it your way, but if you do or say anything out of line, I’m dumping you in the nearest ditch.

“Nice guy.”

“Consider yourself warned.”

I twist in my seat to show him my back as the engine roars with power. In the mid-morning light, Elliot heads toward the main road, slowly picking his way through the potholes that he nailed inbound.

“Stop the car!”

“Why?”

I point to the vultures circling over a stand of trees on my right.

“It’s probably a deer,” Elliot says.

“My gut disagrees.”

“Your gut better be right.”

He pulls onto the grass and pops the trunk. We don our boots and ponchos.

“You owe me,” Elliot mutters.

“For what?”

“For dragging me through a muddy field in the rain.”

“You can’t blame me for the weather. At least the hay isn’t knee high. They must rent it to a farmer.”

Out of breath at the edge of the woods, I vow to lose twenty pounds and get back to the gym an hour a day. Looking debonair as usual, Elliot is not breaking a sweat.

The trees create a heavy canopy and protection from the deluge. We pause to rest and let our eyes adjust to dim light. There are two well-defined paths. Rather than splitting up, we agree to follow the one to the right for ten minutes. If we find nothing, we will double back to try the other one.

“Ladies first.” Elliot gestures toward the trail.

“That’s okay.”

“I don’t like snakes.”

“Macho, rich kid is afraid of snakes?”

Beads of sweat form on his forehead. “I’m not kidding.”

“There were probably more snakes in the grass.”

“Now you tell me.”

Seeing that his breathing is rapid and shallow, I make a mental note of his kryptonite and ditch the sarcasm. “I’ll go first.”

Elliot is on my coattails as we dodge tree roots and rocks. Nine minutes into the journey, I turn to face him.

“Ready to turn around?”

Peering over my right shoulder, Elliot’s eyes become saucers. “Over there.”

I spin to see weathered shack through the underbrush. “Good eyes, Sherlock.”

Elliot forgets his fear and rushes ahead. His six-foot two-inch stride leaves me in his dust. At five feet four inches, I run to stay close. The trail ends at a clearing, large enough to accommodate the shed, with a few feet to spare in every direction. Feeling like Gretel, I follow Hansel to the door. He raps three times. I expect a witch to answer.

“Nobody home,” Elliot says, as he turns the knob.

The shack is not the magical place that I imagined, nor is it grimy and filled with spider webs. A wood stove stands on a brick hearth in the middle of the room. Stacked wood and a box of kindling line the left wall. A couch and chair face the stove. Along the right wall, is a twin bed.

A fluffy, cinnamon Teddy Bear strikes a regal pose on the chair. Three smaller bears, a lamb, a dolphin and a horse surround him. A cabinet against the back wall houses containers of water, granola bars, a Ziploc bag filled with chocolate chip muffins and a box of cereal. The cooler beside it is filled with milk, juice, pudding, yogurt, hard boiled eggs and cheese.

“What do you make of this?” Elliot asks.

“This is Molly’s safe place. Her friends are here,” I say, pointing to her stuffed animals.

“Where is she now?”

“Good question.”

“I’ll take a look outside.”

I snuggle the stuffed animal king and sink onto the couch. The stove’s glowing embers are mesmerizing. My eyelids become heavy. I succumb to the weight. A terrified girl’s movie flashes in my mind. I see her afraid of the dark.

The door creaks open. My vision evaporates.

“Find anything?” I ask.

“Yes.”

I know that tone. “Molly?”

“No.”

Behind the house, a man’s body is lying in pool of diluted blood. Multiple stab wounds to the chest appear to be the cause of death. Judging from his white hair and beard, I place him to be in his mid-sixties.

“Do you think Molly did this?” Elliot asks.

“I don’t know. The killer was enraged or terrified. The knife penetrated a denim jacket.”

“Trevor’s plan to keep the police out of it is down the tubes.”

“Was this man a friend or foe? Someone was stocking the hideaway.”

“And where is Molly?”

“She couldn’t have gone far. The coals are still hot in the stove.”

“Killers run.”

“Frightened girls run, too. I flashed that she is sitting in the dark.”

“When forensics get here, everything will point to Molly. The fact that she disappeared makes her look guilty.”

“I know. What’s our next move?”

“After you call it in, we’ll head back to the James’ house. Tell the cops where we’ll be.”

My stomach grumbles noon as I press the doorbell. The housekeeper answers and tells us to wait in the parlor until after lunch. Elliot explains that this is now a murder inquiry and the police were called. Color drains from her face.

“Molly?” The housekeeper’s words were a whisper.

“No. We’re still looking for her,” I reply.

“Who?”

“A white-haired man with a beard.”

“Billy!” Her knees buckle. Elliot catches her before she hits the floor and eases her into a nearby chair.

“Who’s Billy?”

“My husband.”

Elliot and I exchange befuddled expressions. Her controlled sniffles morph into uncontrollable sobs.

“What’s going on? What have you said to upset my housekeeper?” Trevor’s booms, as he struts across the foyer.

Willing her knees to support her weight, she rises with fire in her eyes. “Billy’s dead! I’m through being a part of your masquerade, Trevor.”

“Henrietta, I’m sorry.”

“Did you kill him?”

“Of course not!”

She steams past him to the dining room. Elliot and I stay at her heels.

Jenny rises to meet her. “Mama, what’s wrong?”

“Daddy’s dead.”

Weeping, the women embrace. Elliot and I step away to give them space. A few minutes pass before the energy wanes.

“Was it a heart attack?” Jenny asks.

“No. He was murdered.”

Jenny’s hands fly to her face. “Oh my God! The killer must have Molly.”

Her mother gives her a squeeze. “Baby, you know I would never want to hurt you.”

“Mama?”

“Dillon, you know grandma loves you. It’s time to talk. Where’s Molly?”

Trevor bellows, “He can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

“Jenny, tell him the truth.”

Jenny looks at Trevor, to Dillon and back to Trevor. “There’s nothing wrong with his hearing. He has selective mutism.”

“What the Hell is that?”

“It is an anxiety disorder. He speaks only to Molly, Mama, Daddy and me.”

“Why did you tell me he was deaf?”

“You would have used force and made matters worse.”

“Really? Could they be any worse? You babied that weakling and never paid any attention to Molly. Now she’s gone! It’s all your fault.”

Despite Elliot’s warnings, I go for the abuser’s jugular. “Mr. James is it her fault or yours?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you sexually abuse your daughter?”

A vile laugh sends chills up my spine. All eyes turn to Dillon. His deflated persona discarded, he is on his feet, in an aggressive stance. “That fool couldn’t get it up if he wanted to. All my life, he treated me like shit. He teased me to make me cry, then told me to be a man. I waited a long time, but I got even. I took his precious princess again and again.”

Trevor dives for his son. He lands one punch before Elliot grabs his arms and pulls him back. The chilling laugh overrides Jenny’s heartbreaking wails.

Grandma’s granite expression is impossible to read. “Dillon, why did you stab grandpa?

His reply has no emotion. “Because he got in the way.”

Her lips quivered, but she kept her composure. “How did he do that?”

“Last night, I followed Molly to the cabin. Grandpa came out and told me to go home.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “Where’s Molly?”

“According to Google, she’ll be with Grandpa soon.”

Jenny stood to face him. “Dillon William James, where is your sister?”

“Sorry, Mom. She was screaming so loud, I had to put her on ice.”

“What does that mean?”

He collapses into his chair like a popped balloon and resumes his practiced blank stare.

Guessing Dillon’s play to control the situation, Elliot ignores him. “Does anyone know what he meant by putting her on ice?”

Around the table all heads shake in the negative, except one. Grandma has a furrowed brow.

Elliot notices. “Do you have an idea, Henrietta.”

“This is a long shot. We have an icehouse on the farm.”

“Where is the farm?” I ask.

“Trevor and Jenny couldn’t afford this place, so we bought all the land around the main house. I live in what was the caretaker’s house. The icehouse is mostly underground, near the cabin.”

Dillon snipes the effort. “It’s too late. She’s out of oxygen.”

Elliot launches, pulls Dillon from his seat, forces him to the floor and binds his limbs with zip ties. “Keep an eye on him. Samantha and I will get Molly. Have an ambulance meet us there.”

“I’m going. You’ll never find the icehouse without me,” Henrietta says.

“Wait for me. I’m a nurse.” Jenny runs to the kitchen and returns with a first aid kit, water and granola bars.”

“Trevor, I’m warning you man. Don’t hurt him. Police will be here soon,” Elliot yells over his shoulder.

With the pedal to the medal, the Mercedes kicks up a rooster tail of loose stone and dirt. Henrietta takes us to a tractor access, used for haying. The car bounces over muddy ruts until it lands in one and sinks to the frame. Only one hundred feet from the brush-covered mound, we sprint the rest of the way. Elliot releases the wrought iron bolt and swings open the door.  Wearing a headlamp, he navigates the rickety steps into a black hole. Clinging to each other for support, the three of us wait in silence.

“I’ve got her! She’s still breathing.”

The rest is a blur of tears, hugs, lights, sirens and statements. The ending is bittersweet. A life was lost, but a life was saved. The festering boil was lanced. Our hope is that this broken family can heal. Without hope, what is there?                                                                 

Magic

When I was a child, I thought adults knew everything, especially grandparents. I was wrong. The older I become, the more questions I ask. Magic is everywhere, but we are too blind to see it. I marvel that we are all unique. There are no two snowflakes alike. It has been discovered that trees communicate. Mother trees help seedlings to grow. I marvel at nature’s coding. Seeds contain instructions. With the proper soil, light and water, they flourish.

Humans struggle for balance between freedom and government. Bees and ants have complex societies, which provide food, shelter and protection. Worker bees can carry half their weight of pollen in hairy receptacles on their hind legs. Ants carry loads much larger than themselves.

Look at yourself to see an awesome creation. Think of the complex systems that keep you alive without your direction. Bones mend and antibodies attack illness. Food breaks down to usable nutrients, cells grow, blood flows, waste excretes, oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. The brain is the command center for our ability to think, talk, feel, see, hear, remember, walk, breathing.

Stopping to smell the roses taught me to look beyond what I took for granted. Creation is magic, more mysterious than coincidence, accident or human creation. Explore the unseen, for it is more than the seen. The joy is in the discovery journey.

Westwind Secrets

Hot off the Press and ready for purchase in paperback and Kindle formats. Check it out on Amazon! Enjoy!

Devastated by her husband’s infidelity, romance writer, Mysti Wade, loads her personal possessions into a rented trailer and sets off to claim her unseen inheritance with her rescued hound, Zak. Left by her estranged grandmother, the Second Empire Victorian mansion on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay is thirty years past prime condition. The estate has no money for maintenance and repairs. Stuck, with meager means and no place to go, Mysti stays, despite rumored ghosts. When a drifter, Harry Pearson, shows up during a severe thunderstorm, she agrees to let him live in the carriage house in exchange for work. Soon, the tumbledown, brick fortress, springs back to life with mowed lawns, tended gardens, rebuilt porches and painted trim, but invisible evil shrouds the property. Broke, and heartbroken by her failed marriage, Mysti abandons a romance novel to write a mystery, using reality for inspiration. Oblivious to danger and driven by an unexplainable force, she delves into her grandmother’s accidental death and squandered assets with skeptical eyes. Bodies drop to protect guilty secrets, some buried for generations. Walking a tightrope to stay alive and protect her dog, Mysti Wade exposes deceit, greed and murder. Justice is served!

Sail on, my Captain

Sixteen years ago I wrote the following lighthearted poem in honor of my husband Roger and two friends, Roger and Mike, who raced our sailboat in the 1998 National Catalina Race held in Westbrook, Connecticut.  They took first for the tall rig division in all three races.  Yes, readers, the sailboat’s name was Sloopy, the inspiration for the fictional 36 foot sloop that Liz and Garret live aboard in Murder in Mystic, Murder in Newport and Two Headed Snake of Key West.  Our Sloopy was fast and my husband could make a mighty Margarita.

I am sharing this with you in memory of my husband, who passed away on July 1, 2014.  Sail on, my captain.

 

The pressure was on

To win a glass cup

Each silently prayed

He wouldn’t screw up

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The guy thing, you know

Machismo, at best

The challenge would come

They’d be put to the test

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The good Lord was laughing

As they hoisted the main.

These three would need blessings,

And more, it was plain

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Wine made from water

Was easy for sure,

But Roger, Mike, Roger

Three races endure?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The task was immense

But these were nice guys

He raised His arms up

And Sloopy did rise.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

She raced to the finish

Three bullets to boot

Miracles do happen.

There’s proof in the loot.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The lesson each learned,

To celebrate life

Believe in oneself

Be good to your wife.

Soul Journey

How long I’m here

I do not know

To choose the path

On which to grow

 

One’s steep with rocks

and overgrown

The other flows

to parts unknown

 

My choice to float

the river’s race

Without a care

Or effort placed

 

But soon I find

I’m in a scrape

Rapids, boulders

There’s no escape

 

Learn to paddle

Find the courage

Steer my vessel

Dodge and portage

 

I’m here to learn

Life’s lessons taught

To grow my soul

To give it thought

 

I take the task

Where’er I roam

It’s mine, all mine

‘Til going home

Margarita Recipe

Garret’s Key West Margarita

Fresh squeezed juice of 6 Key Limes

1 jigger of silver tequila

1 jigger of Triple Sec

1 jigger of Rose’s lime juice

Shake vigorously.  Pour over ice.

Float ½ jigger of Grand Marnier on top

Enjoy!  Repeat as needed!