With an exhausted sigh, Kirk Traynor unlocked the door to his business office at exactly 8:53 PM to begin another night of work. As he walked through the doorway, he threw his hat in the general direction of his coatrack. It missed, of course, but Traynor didn't bother to pick it up. He carefully walked over the old faded dark-red rug, passing between the two ratty old chairs that he always kept for any customers, and slowly moved around his desk to his own chair. Running his fingers over the scarred and lifeless wood surface, he collapsed into his red leather chair and closed his eyes. He thought: I love this chair. I hate this job.
At 9:02, just a few minutes later than usual, his assistant Mindy Ripley walked in. She immediately looked around for his hat, which she found discarded at the foot of the coatrack. Picking it up and hanging it on its hook with a look of boredom on her face, she slumped down into one of the visitor's chairs and regarded her boss with a lazy brown eye. "You know, Kirk, I am not your cleaning lady."
"I know, Mindy, I know."
They sat there in silence for a few minutes. Then suddenly Mindy leaned forward and spoke, a note of desperation in her voice. “You know what’s wrong with our operation, Kirk?”
“First, it’s my business, not ours. Second, I do know, but I suppose you’ll tell me anyway—again.”
"Customers. We haven't had a customer in a week and a half now, and only three in the last month."
"I keep the records. I know what the situation is."
"Dammit, Kirk," she suddenly exploded, "how can you just sit there and be so nonchalant about not being able to pay your office rent? You have to get cases to stay in business, or have you forgotten that?"
"I will still be able to pay this month's rent, thanks to Mrs. McCarthy."
"Oh, yes, she was so generous, wasn't she? Gave you the $20 you asked for to find her cat and then flipped a silver dollar at you and said, 'As a reward, sonny.' With big spenders like that, I'm sure you'll be able to pay your rent for this month sometime around August five years from now."
Traynor slowly rose from his chair, so slowly that he almost lost his balance and fell back into it again. "I know all this, Mindy," he replied as he paced the room to the side window. He lifted the blinds, peeked out at the bright lights of New York, then shut his window to the world with a sharp downward tug on the string. "I guess I just don't care about being a private eye anymore."
"Why did you even start?"
"You know, when I was a kid, I got hooked on Agatha Christie novels. It got to the point where I became addicted to mysteries of all kinds. Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, I knew them all. I thought that being a gumshoe must be the most exciting thing anyone could ever do for a living. So, as soon as I got out of college with my useless Literature degree, I set up my own PI shop. I solved--"
"You solved two cases in your first three days on the job, and you were headed for greatness."
He turned and gave her a pained smile. "I've told this one before, haven't I?"
"Only every other day, but don't let me stop you."
He turned back to the wall and continued, completely missing the sarcastic roll of her eyes. "Then I didn't get any more cases for a while. And then I finally realized why this was always pictured as such a hard life--it is. The late hours, the long waits between cases...everything just wasn't what I thought it was going to be. It wasn't so glamorous, and there were never any closing credits, and I never got to toss off any ‘Here's looking at you, kid’ dramatic lines. It was boring. But this was all I had to do with my life--"
"So you stuck with it."
"So I stuck with it. Exactly."
"Fabulous story, Kirk. It gets better every time I hear it."
"OK, enough with the sarcasm already."
"Sorry." She didn't sound so sorry to Traynor’s ears. "Anyway, what about that discussion we were having a couple of days ago that you promised to finish yesterday but didn't?"
“Which one was that again?”
“Famous detective strategies. You are supposed to be teaching me, right?”
“Yeah, right. Where did we leave off?”
“You were telling me about some of your favorite novels.”
“Yeah, now I remember. We left off at MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, by Agatha Christie. In this novel, Hercule Poirot is trying to solve a case of murder on board a train. He quickly discovered that everyone had a motive, the means, and an opportunity, or some combination of the three. Therefore, not a person on the train stood out as a suspect. Further, they also all had an alibi that was confirmed by another suspect—hardly a great basis for belief in the alibi. So what was the only answer?”
Mindy thought about it for a few seconds, and then gave up. “Natural causes?”
“Nope. There was a combination of murderers. Everyone on the train had assisted in the actual kill.”
“Interesting. What if a situation like that came up in real life?”
“There’s really no way it could. No average person is hated that much, and all of the circumstances and coincidences would have to be so completely bizarre that there would be little or no chance of that actually occurring. The odds are that there is always one single person or group that you can single out from a range of suspects. That person did it.”
“But what if the circumstances don’t let you single out any one person? What if there are no suspects?”
“Funny you should mention that, because it brings me to my next point. In another Christie novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, you have ten people trapped on this island with no one but each other. One of them is a murderer. The only people you can’t suspect are the ones who are dead. But just before the end of the book, everyone is dead. The last person alive, who by the way was not the murderer, hung herself. So the question every amateur sleuth has to answer before they read the last chapter is, whodunit?”
Traynor had made Mindy really think about this one. “Well, if there was nobody alive, and the last person wasn’t the murderer, who was it?”
“One of the people who was already dead—supposedly dead, I should say. He died during the middle of the book, but it turned out that he enlisted somebody’s help to fake his death, and then that person was the next one to go. There were no witnesses, the man was dead, so everybody thought that the murderer was still alive and with them. And he was…just not the way that they thought.”
“So what lesson am I supposed to learn here?” She pulled out a small notebook and a wooden pen carved to look like a tall, slender Christmas tree. She always took notes from each of his lessons…perhaps that was why they got along so well, he mused.
“One: look for any possible thing that would make the criminal stand out, and then look for someone who has those characteristics. If you can’t find that, then look for the person who has the best reason to commit the crime and examine them closely, but don’t rule out the possibility of a group crime. Two: never accept an alibi unless other people you know couldn’t have committed the crime have confirmed the alibi’s truth. Three: never assume something to be true without close scrutiny, even the things you think you know. Otherwise, something nasty could come back and hit you before you realize it and after you can do something about it. Four, and maybe most important, the oldest detective axiom of them all.”
She repeated the first lesson he’d taught her. “Whenever you have disposed of the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“Well, I’ll keep those in mind for when I get to be a sleuth myself, Kirk. Although I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to decide whether it was the oak tree or the maple tree that kidnapped poor Mrs. McCarthy’s cat. I have a feeling that that’s the only kind of case I’ll be getting.”
Traynor walked back over to his chair and professionally sat down. “And what makes you think that she would ever go to you, when I’ve solved all the cases she ever brought to my attention?”
“All one of them, you mean?”
They shared a laugh, and then it was back to business as usual, discussing the works of Doyle.
The two sleuths were deep in conversation about THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES when Mindy looked at her watch. She dropped her notebook and leaped up, suddenly frantic. “Shoot! It’s 10:05, Kirk! I have to be at Royal’s now. Will you stay here till I get back?”
“Sure. Will it be your usual time?”
“Midnight, yeah. I’ll be there if you need me.”
“OK, Mindy, I’ll mind the store while you’re gone. Hope you and your beau have a good time.”
She grinned at him and flamboyantly sauntered out of the room.
Traynor leaned back in his chair with a sigh. This was going to be a lousy night, but at least he had some reading material at hand. Well, OK, it was an adult store magazine, but he still loved the tired old excuse about reading it for the articles. Besides, maybe a case would come up. You never know, he thought as he opened the top drawer and pulled out the magazine. He was soon lost in fantasies worlds apart from the realm of the private investigator.
He was still marveling at the body curves of the centerfold when someone knocked on the door. Traynor almost jumped out of his chair, but banged his knee against the underside of his desk and fell back into a sitting posture grimacing in pain. He quickly opened a random drawer, shoved the magazine into it, and then shouted for his visitor to come in. He was in the act of shutting the drawer when the building’s maintenance man turned the doorknob and walked into Traynor’s office. The short fellow took a quick look around, and grinned.
“Thought I might have interrupted something special.”
“Screw you, Max.” Traynor said it with an affectionate tone. Every person in every office of the building was familiar with the small, competent night shift man who had a knack for remembering everyone’s names and birthdays. He always took the trouble to leave a greeting card and a little gift for each birthday boy or girl in the building. Traynor still had his last gift—a small bottle of whiskey—in his desk, unopened. He pulled it out now, and held it out to Max. “Drink?”
“No thanks, Mr. Traynor. Got to get home and see my family. Almost midnight…m’shift’s up real soon.”
“No kidding?” Mindy would be back in a few minutes.
“Yup. But I thought before I went, I’d drop this by your office.” Max laid a white envelope on the desk. “It came earlier today, maybe about 8 or so. The gentleman who brought it said it wasn’t urgent, but read it when you got around to it, so I didn’t bring it up to your office till now. That OK?”
“Sure, Max. Good night.” Traynor picked up the envelope off his desktop.
“Night, Mr. Traynor. With that girl coming back, I guess I won’t have to wish you a good night, will I?”
“Why, you—” Traynor playfully started around his desk, but Max had already dashed out the wooden door laughing his head off. Giving up the chase as useless, the detective turned back to the envelope. Out of long habit, he neatly tore the top off, pulled out the folded sheet of paper inside, deftly unfolded it, and began to read.
Mister Kirk Traynor, PI:
My name is H. Cornelius Richards. I am sure you have heard of me, so I will dispense with the pleasantries. I have a rather unusual problem. Of late, I have begun to suspect that a member of my household is working for my imminent demise. To put it in colloquial terms that I am sure you will understand, Mister Traynor, I have reason to believe that someone is plotting against my life.
My wife and I are hosting a somewhat large social affair to celebrate our second wedding anniversary tonight, Wednesday, at our mansion outside of New York City. You are on the guest list. I cordially request that you attend so that we may speak more about this matter, but your investigation may commence whenever you wish. In advance, let me say that your base salary for this affair will be $10,000.00, plus any expenses you may incur. If this figure is not acceptable, then I will of course be more than willing to renegotiate. For your information, I will add that in the event there is, in fact, no murderer, the pay is guaranteed.
You may wonder why, out of all the private investigators in the immediate area of New York, I have chosen you. One of my friends, Mrs. Darnell McCarthy, referred me to your services because of some small matter you handled on her behalf. I only hope for my sake, sir, that you are as deft at handling cases of life and death as you are at the smaller affairs. Please contact me as soon as possible.
H. Cornelius Richards
P.S. I believe that the murderer is not a figment of my admittedly vivid imagination, and that he/she may strike soon. So, Mister Traynor, if something has happened to me before your arrival, I would counsel you to remember: These are the times that try men's souls. Do not despair.
Kirk Traynor looked up from the letter with eyes blazing. Finally! After so many petty thefts, after so many lost pets, was this the case he had always been looking for?
Attempted murder—and of the greatest steel tycoon since Carnegie! Even if the old man was senile, then Traynor would still get his cash, and he would be able to save his business for the next two months at least. (He worked days as a waiter in a restaurant, earning barely enough to keep his apartment, let alone his real work.) He could also ask Mr. Richards for some references, and that would buy him more time still. If there was a murderer, on the other hand…Traynor pictured national headlines. Soon after, his business would be flooded with cases. He could hire assistants, and maybe even expand his agency to a larger office. This case could be his salvation.
Just then, Mindy walked in the door to be greeted by one of the strangest sights she had seen in her 24 years: her boss sitting at his desk with a strange letter in his hand and the dawn of new hope on his face. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds before he saw her. When he did, he practically hit the ceiling, leaping out of his chair and over the desk. "Mindy," he cried, waving the letter in the air, "we have a case!" He continued his exultation around the room, knocking over various knickknacks, some of which broke. Traynor didn't notice. Neither did she.
"We actually have a case? You're not just putting me on? We have a case?"
"I would swear on a stack of anything you want! We have a real case--a murder case!"
"You're joking!" She stood in utter horror while he paraded triumphantly around the room. "Somebody got killed, and you're happy about that?"
"No, they haven't gotten killed yet. They might, though. That's why I'm excited. This will do wonders for business; we can save the business! And it's real, a real murder case at last!"
"So, let me in on the details."
Traynor grabbed Mindy's arm and almost broke it while yanking her behind him. "Come on, I'll explain on the way there. We have to see this man tonight. Let's go!" He continued towards what he had always believed to be his destiny, while she, an unwilling animal on a strong and unyielding leash, was drug along for the ride.
There were times when Mindy just didn’t understand her boss. These were the times when he dropped any pretense of being a detective and started acting like a schoolboy. It was most unusual when not even the act of going to the scene of a potential case could snap him into his “sleuth on the prowl” mode. Tonight, he was as wound up as a new watch spring. Nothing she could say would get him to dwell on the particulars of his promised topic…he simply continued about how wonderful his opportunity was. Times? Oh, yes, this was definitely one of those times.
They were just driving out of New York City when Mindy finally changed the subject. “This is the route I usually take going to Grandfather’s house.”
“Really?” It was obvious from his tone that Traynor was concentrating more on the road than on his partner. She decided to impress him, however slightly.
“Yes. Cornelius Richards.”
Traynor slammed on his brakes and rapidly steered the car to the shoulder of the road. He turned and regarded Mindy curiously. “Did you just say your grandfather was Cornelius Richards?”
“Yes,” she replied timidly.
The car pulled back onto the road and sped up, well past the speed limit. In the car, one solitary voice broke the puzzled silence. “Mindy, I think that your grandfather may be in serious danger.”
“WHAT?” Traynor heard outrage and shock in the tone. Poor girl, he thought, she doesn’t realize how cruel the world can be. She doesn’t yet know about the letter I got. Impulsively, he reached across the short space between them and held her hand. Over the next few minutes, he told the story about receiving the letter and briefly explained its contents. He left the magazine out.
"So what you're telling me is that my granddad thinks he's being stalked with intent to kill," Mindy said as they pulled into the open gate of Magnolia Gardens, the private estate belonging to H. Cornelius Richards, founder of the Rialto Steel Company.
"That about sums it up. What do you think?"
"I don't know, Kirk. I mean, he's always had a really overactive imagination--"
"He admitted as much."
"But still, if he thinks somebody's going after him, then I'd be more likely to believe him than not. If you knew him, you'd think the exact same. He always comes up with plots against him, but he never tells them to anybody outside his own family unless he thinks the situation is serious."
"Who does he consider a member of his family?"
“Well, there's me, and of course his wife, Brittany. And then his butler, Henry Ross, who's been with his estate for about 15 years. Also, he considers his family lawyer to be a large part of his life. Invites him almost everywhere. He’s a real friend of the family.”
“What’s the lawyer’s name?”
His eyes never swerved from following the road to meet with hers. “Is there anyone else, besides the people you mentioned? No additional people?”
“No. He never had any siblings, and only one child, a daughter, who married my father. Both of them were killed in a car wreck six years ago, after I was at college. My grandfather would never leave anyone from his wife’s family anything. And my real grandmother died from a heart attack four years ago this June. That leaves us as the only family.”
“He doesn’t consider Noland’s wife to be family?”
“Not really, except when he has to in association with Gerald.”
“How old is Brittany?”
That pulled Traynor up short. He risked a quick glance at Mindy, unconsciously stopping the car.
“I know, Kirk, she’s too young for him. But it makes him feel like he can recapture some of his youth. That is definitely the type of man my grandfather is, always living in the past when he can afford to. Personally, I think he should start acting his age...he turns 74 this August.” Mindy paused, then impatiently gestured towards the road. “Well, keep going, we’re almost there.”
Kirk sighed, and started driving the car again. People with Drama majors were so theatrical, he reflected. So hard to please. Maybe someday, Mindy could just learn to express whatever it was she kept hiding behind that mask of contentment all the time. Until then, he’d keep trying to coax her out.
Just a few seconds after they finished their conversation, Traynor’s old beat-up Dodge rounded the final corner on the long winding drive up to Richards’ mansion. It was hard for the sleuth to suppress a gasp of awe when he saw the beautiful fašade of Magnolia Palace. Of course, everyone had seen it in magazines time and again, but the envy felt seeing it on the front of a national publication wasn’t even close to the wonder experienced from seeing it in person.
A man clad in a white tuxedo with black cummerbund strode out of the house towards the car. His steady gait belied years of walking just so and behaving in the correct manner. Still, Traynor noticed, the eyes shifted about quickly, never focusing on one thing for too long. If I had to live with a man like that, Kirk thought, I’d be seeing conspiracy everywhere I looked too.
“How do you do, sir,” the man said. “My name is Henry Ross, and I am the butler and personal secretary of Mr. Richards. If you would please enter the house…the party is over, but he has been expecting you for some time now.” Ross formally turned to Mindy and made a half bow. “Miss Ripley, it is so nice to see you again. Your grandfather wishes me to convey his personal greetings.”
“Thanks, Henry,” Mindy said sweetly. “Would you park Mr. Traynor’s car while we go inside?”
“Of course, Miss,” answered Ross. He moved around to the driver’s door, opened it carefully, and slipped into the seat as if he had been born there. Traynor turned his back, and so missed the butler quickly opening the glove compartment to check for any items of value (and finding none) before driving the car to the estate’s private parking garage.
From the foyer, Mindy steered her boss into the parlor, where a short and slender woman was sitting at a table. Upon seeing the pair, she immediately waved them over. As soon as they were close enough for her to speak in a normal tone of voice, she spoke. “Mindy, dear! How are you? And this gentleman is…”
“This is my boss, Mr. Traynor. I’m doing well, thank you, Brittany.”
Traynor carefully sized up Richards’ second wife. She looked very elegant in her element, sitting in a very expensive (and short) cocktail dress entertaining guests. Her charm was on full blast; her outfit’s pearl luster set off her jet-black hair to perfection. It was easy to see why Mr. Richards hadn’t remained single more than two years.
“But this is delightful! Your boss, you said? This is the detective?”
For the first time since their arrival, Traynor felt compelled to speak up. “Yes, ma’am, that’s me. I’m afraid that I’m here on a business call, not a social visit.”
For the slightest moment, she looked antagonistic. “But there’s been no call for your services here, Mr. Traynor, so I am afraid that I don’t understand you.”
“Ma’am, there was a request made of me by your husband,” Traynor said in an apologetic voice. He didn’t mean a bit of the feeling he was injecting into his voice. “He needed me to take care of some small matter.”
“Oh, very well.” She sounded almost disappointed at not being able to dismiss him like any other servant. She noticed the butler passing, and called up to him. “Henry, would you kindly tell my husband that his guest is downstairs.” There was no question mark in her tone—she expected to be obeyed.
“Of course, madam. At once.” Ross started up the stairs.
Just as he disappeared at the top of the grand staircase, a very elderly man wandered into the room. He seemed to have no clear idea of where he was going. After a few moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether he was even trying to avoid the many pieces of furniture along his aimless path.
Brittany groaned, a very unladylike groan. “Mindy, dear, that damned lawyer gets worse every day. You can see that as well as anyone except my husband.” She cleared her throat. “Oh, Mr. Noland, how lovely to see you again! Weren’t you at the party tonight?”
The aged man looked up and slowly around. After he finally found the source of the question, he smiled. “Ah, Brittany! It’s not very nice of you to hide from me behind that table, where I can’t see you easily.” His voice was thick with advancing years.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Noland. How clumsy of me.” Brittany carefully lowered her voice. “To try and sneak up on you from a place in plain sight, you doddering old coot.”
Fortunately, Gerald hadn’t noticed the childish aspersion on his person. “Ah well, no harm done, my dear. Now where can I find my favorite client? I believe that tonight, we were to open a bottle of cognac and toast old times together.”
“I think you’ve been hitting the cognac a little too hard tonight already,” said Mindy as Noland drew ever nearer. It was then that Traynor, who had been feeling like the outsider he was, noticed the reek of alcohol off the approaching lawyer. He thought: My word, the man is drunk. How can he be drunk at his age?
Just then, the dignified demeanor was broken by the sight of a man in a tuxedo running down the stairs at a treacherous pace. It was Ross, looking as though he would very much like to break his own neck if the dash down the stairs didn’t do it first. Panting, he ran into the parlor. “Don’t worry…called 911…they’ll be here…shortly.”
“What?” Brittany’s voice was ice-cold. “What are you talking about, Henry?”
“Mr. Rich…Richards…he’s fast asleep…can’t wake him up.”
Traynor watched as the coroner’s team hauled away the richest industrialist in America. All that money and fame, Traynor said to himself, and he still goes out like that. A wave of sadness washed over him for the man he had been charged to protect.
“Time of death was approximately 10:30 PM. Subject was murdered, some kind of poison. We don’t know what. Can you check these observations?” Traynor stood with Mindy and her family as the police officer in charge at the scene read off the effects of the poison to the dispatcher.
Finally the officer received his answer. He looked grim as he said goodbye and hung up. A moment later, his partner came down the staircase. “I checked out the scene, Carl. It’s fine, except for the papers strewn all over his desk. No order to anything in there. Must have been a messy man.”
“He was,” Brittany said quietly.
“Have you got a line on what killed him?”
“It sure was a quiet job,” Carl said. “The description tallies with a conium alkaloid. Nobody would have known he was going.”
“What’s a conium alkaloid?” Traynor queried.
“It’s a more scientific name for an extract from the hemlock plant. It could have been either the roots or seeds…the juice is stronger in those parts. Death would have occurred within an hour without proper treatment, if it was a heavy dose. What was he drinking again, Fred?”
“Decaf coffee,” Fred replied.
“Well, then, no wonder. If the coffee had been caffeinated, he probably would have lived.” Carl turned toward the family and gave them a small grimace. “I spent three years attached to the Forensics Department. I’ve dealt with three other hemlock cases…it’s not an uncommon idea. You pick up stuff.”
“So, what’ll you do now?” Mindy asked.
“Well, I suppose we’ll have to file a report at the station. We’ve checked the grounds, we know how he died, and we know that someone who attended the party tonight probably did it. May I have a copy of the guest list, ma’am?” He directed this last towards Brittany.
“Of course, Sergeant. Henry, kindly bring the sergeant what he wants.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Henry exited the room in search of an attendance sheet.
“Sir, if it isn’t too much trouble…” Traynor began.
“One second, please.” The sergeant turned to his partner. “Fred, keep an eye on these folks, and get them anything they need.” He faced Traynor again. “All right, let’s go out on the balcony.”
They stepped through the parlor doors and out onto the marble balcony that overlooked the gardens. It was there that Traynor spoke. “Sir, I believe I’m required to stay and wrap this up. I’m a private detective, you see, and I was hired by the deceased man to guard against an attempt on his life. Unfortunately, by the time I got his letter and got over here, it was already too late.”
“I can see that, Mister...”
“Traynor. Kirk Traynor.”
“Mr. Traynor, we are the police force of the New York City metropolitan area. We handle cases like this every day of the year. From the looks of you, you haven’t done anything more complicated than a petty theft case.” The sergeant’s eyes bore into Traynor.
“Sir, that may be the case, but I was still hired and I have a right to insist on completing my job. I do have a letter, written by the deceased, that states the conditions of my employment.” Traynor pulled the letter out of the pocket of his coat. The officer seized it and read it in a cursory manner.
“Very well, Mr. Traynor. You do have a contract of sorts here with the dead man, and it is your decision whether or not to fulfill it. As long as you work in cooperation with and not at odds with our force, we’re powerless to stop your investigation, if you choose to pursue one.” The sergeant handed the letter back to the sleuth. “But try and remember that this is a murder case, and any evidence you find must be reported to us.”
“Yes, sir. I will do my best.”
“All right, then. You may begin your investigation, and I can guarantee you full police cooperation. We will be back in the morning with a bigger team. In the meantime, work to your heart’s content.” The sergeant turned around and walked back inside. Traynor wasn’t quite sure, but for a moment he thought the sergeant made a nasty comment under his breath about amateurs underfoot.
Traynor resolved then that he would crack this case—without the help of the police force.
After asking Mindy to watch over his subjects and get them anything they needed, Traynor invited the first target of his investigation out on the balcony. Henry Ross stood blinking and squinting under the moonlight, a rat trying to find a place to hide. Before he could speak, Traynor began.
“Mr. Ross, may I ask you about your personal feelings for Mr. Richards?”
Ross remained silent for a brief instant. As Traynor was about to repeat the question, he answered with one of his own. “Are my comments to be repeated, with myself as the source, in a court of law or any other form of sworn testimony?”
Traynor spoke carefully. “Not if I can help it. I won’t disobey the law, but I won’t volunteer information, either. That’s all I can promise you.”
Ross seemed to be weighing something before he spoke. When at last his voice came out, it was filled with decision and loathing. “To be honest, I had not expected that much. I will tell you the truth, Mr. Traynor…I hated my employer. The man was a pompous, arrogant bully, who allowed no one under his thumb the smallest scrap of pure freedom. He once gave us—I mean his employees—these idiotic word puzzles, to find small things like books that he needed but was too damned lazy to get for himself. That only stopped after we complained about them. He installed a video surveillance system to watch us so that whenever we made a mistake, he could find out about it—at least that was the rumor. And those two occurrences are simply the tip of a very large iceberg. I mean every word I say. He was the most rotten person I have ever had the displeasure of knowing.”
Traynor, somewhat taken aback by this onslaught, had to wet his lips before asking his next question. His mind had recognized something as familiar, but he couldn’t place it yet. “Did you hate him enough to—”
“To kill? That is perhaps the worst insult I have ever been subjected to…no, definitely the worst. I have never committed a crime in my life. Besides, the pay was good.”
To facilitate his becoming a detective, Traynor had mastered the art of reading body language. At the exact time he started saying that he had never committed a crime, his eyes slid ever so quickly to the left. It was an almost sure sign of a lie. But over the rest of his reply, every mannerism he possessed was straightforward and honest. For most of the time, Ross had been telling the truth—and he certainly had been when he indignantly protested the suggestion that he was the murderer.
"When did the party start?"
"About 8:20, or 8:30. I don’t know exactly."
“What did you do tonight, at the party? Where were you?”
“I was outside for most of the night, serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Occasionally, I went to the kitchen to fix more drinks and to refill my trays.”
“You were the only one on duty?”
“Yes. Richards was always careful with a dollar. One person out serving drinks means fewer drinks get served, means less money is spent.”
“Did anyone notice you in the kitchen?”
“No, I’m afraid not. I don’t believe anyone was observing me while I was in the kitchen.”
“Approximately what times were you out of sight?”
“My trips outside serving drinks were roughly fifteen minutes in duration. I stayed in the kitchen for about five minutes each time.”
“I don’t mean to insult you this time, Mr. Ross, but knowing the layout of the house as you do, would that have been enough time for you to slip something into a cup of coffee and carry it upstairs to Mr. Richards?”
Ross’ nostrils flared ever so slightly. “Yes. That would have been possible, if you consider the fact that his bedroom is extremely close to the stairway. In addition, I did take him his coffee at about ten past ten this evening. However, I still maintain that I did not kill him.”
“I believe you. Thank you for your time, Mr. Ross.”
“That short a questioning?”
“I have already found out all the things I needed to know about you.”
Ross shivered. Traynor hoped it was from fear.
“What did you think about your husband, Mrs. Richards?”
Brittany was shivering on the open-air balcony in her short dress, but she still managed to regard him with a hot stare. “I loved him, of course. How do you have the impudence to ask me that question?”
Traynor didn’t say anything. He merely waited.
Finally Brittany decided that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with the lies she was spouting. "All right, Mister Traynor, you win. I never cared for him. I suppose he was courteous to me, but that was the extent of our relationship. My father is a giant in the California computer industry, so you might say it was more of a social marriage. We never even consummated it."
"Did you marry him for the money?"
She laughed, a low soft laugh that sent chills up the detective's spine. "Oh, yes. You couldn't possibly have imagined that his personal qualities were the reason I was attracted to him. No, the man was an utter slob, and he cared almost nothing for anyone except himself. I thought that with the way he ate and drank at his age, I would be a millionaire 200 times over by age 35. I hadn't expected this…it was a lovely windfall."
Traynor filed that comment in the back of his mind, and continued. "Mrs. Richards, where were you at the party this evening? Can you give me a rough account of your movements for that time?"
"Certainly. I was outside at 8:30, just as the sun was setting, to greet the first arrivals. I was there on the patio until about 10:15, talking with my friends and trying to encourage Henry to do a better job handling the drinks. The man is a good butler, I suppose, but he is very slow. Our gardener is much better at his work, though I will miss the poor man deeply on his vacation. He left this afternoon for St. Louis, you know." She paused expectantly, waiting for the new line of conversation to be pursued. When her audience maintained his silence, she haughtily sniffed and then continued.
"At 10:15, I went inside for about half an hour to take care of some personal matters--writing letters and other things of that nature. Then I went back outside, and helped usher out the guests at midnight. I was about to retire for the night when you and your assistant entered."
She didn't say anything about Mindy's relationship to the family, Traynor noticed. "Tell me, Mrs. Richards, did you care for your husband as a friend? Even a little bit? Or was he more of a potential financial gain to you?"
"The former, definitely. He never seemed to need me much, so we weren't that close." Then she realized what he was driving at. Standing up quickly, she advanced until she was immediately under his nose. The fact that he was a good eight inches taller than her, even with three-inch heels on, didn't seem to distract her. "I resent your implication, sir," she said in a biting tone.
Traynor didn't flinch. Mindy had been worse than this many times before. "What exactly was I implying, Mrs. Richards?"
"Why…that I murdered my husband, of course."
"I didn't mean anything of the sort. Now if you had a guilty conscience…" Traynor was deliberately lying, trying to drive her temper over the edge so that he could get a good look at her true feelings. He succeeded.
"I DIDN'T KILL HIM, DAMMIT! I may have despised him with every breath I took, I may have wanted to kill him, but I never would have actually done it! I couldn't have…don't you see? He was more than a husband to me, more than a spouse. He was my ticket to the kind of life I wanted, the kind of life I only used to be able to dream about! To think that I would have thrown all that away for a few seconds' worth of pleasure…" She stopped. Her face took on a horrified expression, the face of someone who realizes that they have said something they never should have and knows that it can never be taken back.
"I believe you completely, Mrs. Richards." Traynor was telling the truth. He had seen her soul, and though it wasn't beautiful, it was innocent of this crime at least. "You can leave."
She pulled together what few shreds of her dignity were left and marched off the balcony into another room, glaring at Traynor. As Traynor went to the parlor door to call out his last suspect, he heard the unmistakable sound of soft weeping coming from the portal through which she had passed. He ignored it. He still had a job to do.
Gerald Noland nervously shoved his glasses into the pocket of his shabby suit. “Yes, I will answer any questions you may have, as long as they do not compromise my professional integrity.”
“Thank you,” Traynor replied. “What was your personal opinion of Mr. Richards?”
“Henry?” Noland smiled. “Oh, he was the most wonderful person I have ever known. A heart of gold, with nerves made out of his own steel. He hasn’t quite been himself the last few years, though. Ever since Lily died, he has been irritable and perfunctory. But I think—” Noland leaned in confidentially “—he always had a soft heart. I think his behavior was just his way of covering up the pain. He always behaved rudely when he was hurt.”
Traynor scratched his head. This was certainly the most sober drunk he had ever met. “Maybe you could tell me something about his estate.”
“Magnolia Gardens was his first purchase after he bought Rialto Steel. It was a plot of undeveloped land. He designed the house and gardens himself…he always had a talent with architecture, but it was only a hobby to him. His real love was in steel. He determined that he would make a fortune, and he did. Today, I would be very much surprised if his estate didn’t total over $850 million.”
Traynor whistled. “That’s a great deal of personal wealth.”
“And that’s not counting what he gave away to charity. I told you, he had a good heart.”
“So, who was to get this wealth?”
“Well, he only had two people he really cared about…Mindy and me. He loved Mindy so very dearly. She was the light of his life, the only thing he lived for after Lily died. And as to me, well, when two men go as many places together as we did, there’s always a certain comradeship that develops. We both graduated in the top five percent from Pennsylvania, 1948. I knew he was destined for great things.”
“What about his wife? His butler?”
“He was going to leave a part of his estate to Ross, simply as gratitude for long years of service. But he never liked the man. Too shifty for Henry’s tastes. As for Brittany, it was simply a marriage of convenience. She was to get something as well. He willed large shares of his property to both his wife and butler--he never wanted to be accused of, if you'll pardon the expression, playing a favorite.”
“Did he consult you as to his will? I mean, the division of property?”
“Oh, of course.”
“What was everyone to get?”
“Upon his death and after taxes, the assets, both liquid and solid, were to be divided up equally between the four of us—25 percent to everyone. That excepts his personal stocks, which were to be sold and the money given to a charity for the poor. Even so, each of us will get in excess of $100 million.” It was then that Noland’s voice cracked. “I wish I had never gotten it this way.”
Traynor sat quietly and let Noland remember his friend for a few minutes. Then, very gently, "Do you happen to have a copy of the will with you?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. We were to have discussed it tonight, after the party. It should be in my coat pocket." Noland reached inside his coat and reached for a few sheets of paper, stapled together. As he pulled out the will, a small vial that had been caught on the top edge of the sheets fell to the marble surface of the balcony. Traynor picked it up and looked at it. It was made of plastic, with a small amount of clear liquid inside. The label on the bottle read: CONIUM ALKALOID EXTRACT.
Their eyes met, locked. Noland was the first to speak, in a quavering voice that held no hint of guilt. "How did that find its way into my pocket?"
Traynor picked up the will, put it in his pocket. "Maybe you could tell me, Mr. Noland."
Noland looked up, frightened. "You don't honestly think that I--"
"I don't know what to believe. Everything I heard you say sounded like the truth. Now, with this bottle in my hand and your innocence in serious doubt, maybe I'll be a little more objective. Be honest with me…did you kill Cornelius Richards?"
Gerald Noland pulled himself up. He stood straight and tall, a man preparing himself for a firing squad. Then he looked his interrogator in the eye, and answered. "Mister Traynor, I don't know. I haven't a clue whether I did or not. And it frightens me."
Traynor was surprised to realize that this was the most truthful thing Noland had yet said.
"You probably thought that I was inebriated when we met tonight in the parlor."
The stupefied detective nodded.
"Well, I was not. I have never been drunk once in my life. At least, not after I turned thirty." A fleeting smile passed over Noland's lips. "It is a careful act I have put on over the last few years to hide a horrible illness. I saturate the inside of my mouth with liquor periodically, and then blow through tightly compressed lips whenever the effect is needed. The fumes are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I pride myself on that--if I ever make a serious mistake, no one will attribute it to a disease, just a bottle." Another smile, this one somehow morose. "The life of a man must be a miserable and lonely one when he has to get his pleasure from fooling honest people."
Traynor visibly started.
"Yes…now you see why I can't answer your question." Noland's face was full of pain, pain that his soft brown eyes were finally letting someone else see. "I don't know exactly how much the disease has progressed, but it's far enough advanced that I have to doubt my memory. And the fact is that for two hours tonight, including in that span the time that my friend was murdered, I have no memory whatsoever of what I did or where I went."
Noland looked up. "But I don't think I really could have done it, could I? You don't either, do you? How could I just murder my friend, even if I don't remember doing it? How could I have killed someone that I loved?" The lawyer put his head in his hands and began to sob.
Traynor stood where he was, letting Noland recover his self-composure. Then, after promising not to reveal Noland's secret to anyone else, he led him off the balcony back into the parlor. He thought to himself: Ross didn't do it, Brittany didn't do it, and here was a man who could have, but at the same time couldn't have. I'm fresh out of leads.
"Tell me about the grounds here on the estate, Mindy."
"What do you want to know?"
Traynor and his assistant were walking through the famous gardens that had given Richards' estate its name. The quiet, peaceful cobblestone path on which they were walking was slowly meandering its way through shrubs and flowers and trees, inviting the tourists who walked its surface to admire the fragrances and sights around them in every direction.
"Is there any way anyone could get in?"
Mindy turned towards him. "Do you think it's an outside murder?"
"I don't see how else it could be. Your step-grandmother and Mr. Ross are guilty of one or two things, but I am almost sure that murder isn't among them. And while your friend Mr. Noland had the means and no alibi, he didn't have a motive to kill."
"But remember what you told me once, Kirk? Just because there's no motive apparent doesn't mean that there is no motive. You might have looked in the wrong place."
"Somehow, with him, I doubt that saying holds. I don't think he could have murdered a friend."
"Could he be a really good actor?"
Traynor paused, considering the idea. "No, I don't think so. Not him."
“You sure, Kirk?”
“You’re forgetting another thing I told you. Nothing is ever one hundred percent sure. Still, in this case, I’m about ninety-nine percent sure. I mean, I just don’t see how he could have done it. Is that gate always open?”
This last remark addressed to Mindy was about a beautifully wrought iron gate standing near a turn in the path. It took Traynor a second to notice that his partner wasn’t responding. She was standing there, mouth agape as she looked at the gate.
“No, Kirk, it never is.”
Traynor felt something unlocked inside him. This was the method of entry—through the gardens into the house. “Is there any way onto the property? Not the gardens itself, but the property?”
“No…yes. There’s a large oak tree on the outside of the brick wall around Granddad’s estate. He’s been meaning to have it cut down for a couple of months, ever since some photographer used it to sneak over and get shots of his house and gardens. If you were careful and made your way through all the ivy, you could probably get as far as this fence. But the only ways through the fence are the three gates—the fence is electrically charged at night and carefully watched during the day.”
Mentally, Traynor flipped through his interview list. Something Brittany had said now came back and hit him with full force. “Where’s the gardener?”
“Gardener? Oh, I think he left for somewhere this evening.”
“That’s right. No…this afternoon. Brittany said this afternoon.”
“Well, she runs the place. She would know more about it than I would. But, Kirk, why are you asking about the gardener of all people?”
Traynor didn’t answer at first. He walked over to the gate, careful not to touch it for fear of being shocked. “Who better, Mindy,” he said quietly, “to leave a gate open in a private garden?”
“So you’re saying it was an outside job, probably assisted by the gardener?” Brittany asked. For some reason, she looked very pale.
“That’s the best I can figure. I can’t think of anything else. No one of you people did it, so I’m forced to conclude that it was probably someone from somewhere else who had some design against your husband.” Traynor grimaced. “I hate to be so vague with words, but I haven’t a clue who would have done this or why.”
“So it’s a matter for the police and you’re done. Is that what you’re telling us?” Ross sounded indignant. “You barge in here and disrupt our lives, making us distrust and suspect one another, and now you’re just leaving without a thought towards us? Thank you very much, sir.”
“I apologize if I did anything that offended you, Mister Ross. That is, I apologize for not remembering what it was—I wish I could do it again. You all can go…you too, Mindy. I believe I’ll just swing once more through the rest of the house and look for anything I might have missed, and then I’ll leave. Ma’am…Mister Noland.” Ignoring Ross’ outraged expression and Noland’s courteous nod, Traynor walked out of the parlor.
He entered the library of the house, stacked high with books written by a Who’s Who of academicians and authors. Traynor whistled…this was a very good collection. Idly, he picked up a volume of Dickens on the table and started to flip through it. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” he read aloud from its first page. Setting down THE TALE OF TWO CITIES, he turned to go. Tonight was not the best of times.
Some random title caught his eye. He whirled and looked at the shelves of tomes. Nothing out of place or missing that he could see, although he admitted to himself that he was hardly an expert on this library. The bookshelf in front of him was filled with books written by authors of the French language. Slowly he scanned the titles. LES MISERABLES, AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, MADAME BOVARY, CANDIDE…
Wait a minute!
Traynor tore his letter in the frantic act of trying to get it out of his pocket. He quickly reread the P.S. at the bottom. Sure enough, plain as day, there was the opening line of MADAME BOVARY. “These are the times that try men’s souls.” For once, his Literature degree had paid off.
Ross had said that Richards loved to play word games. The man was also quite probably fearful that whoever was plotting against his life would notice any clues he left to his possible fate. So he had concealed his clues in the book!
Traynor tried to lift the volume off the shelf, but noted to his dismay that it was not a real volume at all. In fact, it was made of wood and attached to the shelf. He looked around the book for anything that might help him in his search. Sure enough, at the very bottom of the book spine, he found a tiny indentation and a small switch that could only be seen by one who was looking hard for it, or who knew it was there. Traynor smiled. The old man must have been a fellow romantic who had read one too many mystery novels. There was probably a trapdoor in the bookshelf, Traynor reasoned, which would open if he flipped the switch. So, quite carelessly, Traynor flipped it.
A trapdoor opened under his feet and a surprised Traynor fell down into the opening in the floor.
Kirk Traynor ruefully picked himself up off the floor and closed the trap door, pushing it up until it latched. His head nearly brushed against the low ceiling. There was a concrete wall facing him; he turned around to see a small corridor that headed towards a room. There were lights along the wall, which emitted a dim glow.
Traynor thought to himself: That’s the last damn time I’ll trust my instincts on any switch. Just because somebody’s a romantic, you bozo, does not mean they have to follow convention on where to place a secret passage.
Ignoring the intense pain in his rear end (which had supported the lion’s share of his body weight when it hit the floor right after his feet), he slowly crept down the corridor. He moved towards a room that, in contrast with the passageway, was heavily lit. Carefully, Traynor stepped inside, ready to find the clue that would crack the case.
All he saw was a television screen and a complicated control panel. The television screen was currently showing the bedroom of Cornelius Richards.
Traynor looked carefully at the control panel. It contained a variety of buttons, each meticulously labeled. One read REWIND, one FORWARD, one PAUSE. There were zoom controls and buttons labeled with the various rooms of the house. Suddenly, Traynor understood. Ross’ rumor had been right—this was the surveillance system!
Laughter overcame him, and he collapsed into the chair that sat before the control panel. After all his work, was it really this simple to prove guilt and innocence? Just rewind a tape and find the murderer? The job of sleuthing, he reminded himself as his laughter wound down, was quite different these days. So why not use the system to help him?
He clicked the button marked KITCHEN, and rewound the viewing log to 8:30. Sure enough, he had to wait less than three minutes before Ross appeared. Carefully refilling his tray with champagne, he walked out the door towards the guests. Ross was only rarely out of view from the kitchen camera, even on the patio, so Traynor kept fast-forwarding.
Finally, the clock hit ten. Ross came back into the room just long enough to pour a cup of coffee. He left it on the counter for a moment and left the room. Traynor tracked him, by trial and error, to the library. Ross gazed around with watchful eyes, to make sure no one was spying on him. He must have been satisfied, for he picked a volume off the shelf, opened it, extracted a large sum of money from inside, and walked away. He went back to the kitchen, picked up the coffee, and started up the stairs. Traynor watched carefully, but Ross never slipped anything into his burden, just delivered it to Richards and left.
Suddenly it occurred to the detective: While Ross was off stealing cash, what had happened to the coffee? He quickly switched the surveillance system back to the kitchen, and rewound. His efforts were rewarded. At about 10:03, a figure dressed in loose-fitting garments and a ski mask crept into the room, slipped some liquid into the coffee from a vial he or she was carrying, and quietly walked out of the room.
Traynor swore violently. This was the murderer…and there wasn’t any other clue!
Then he remembered where the vial had been found. He quickly looked around the house to find Gerald Noland. A smile curled Traynor’s lips when he discovered why Noland had no memory of the time of the murder. He was sound asleep in one of the guest bedrooms.
At almost 11 on the system log, the figure in black opened the door. Carefully sliding the vial inside the coat pocket of the lawyer, whoever it was checked to make sure that no one was watching, glanced up at the hidden video camera, gave it a thumbs-up, and sauntered out the door. The murderer had been prepared for the system, and had found an old-fashioned means of dealing with it. Smart, thought Traynor.
He followed the movements of the figure as it walked down the hallway. It must have been startled by a noise coming from one of the doors, for it suddenly flattened itself against the wall next to the doorframe. What it heard apparently pleased it, for it put its hand to its mouth and doubled up, presumably in amusement instead of nausea. Quietly, the figure slipped further down the hallway towards the bedroom of the murder victim.
On a whim, Traynor decided to take a peek into the guest bedroom and see just what was so funny. He saw a scene that would have done any X-rated movie proud. Brittany was locked in the arms of an unknown man, and both were being very passionate. On the table, there was an airline ticket. Traynor zoomed in. The destination strip was hard to make out, but at last he accomplished the task. It read ST LOUIS INTL.
Traynor’s head reeled. The missing gardener!
Apparently, the gardener had indeed left that day, but in the evening instead of the afternoon. It explained the gate in the garden, and thus the method of entry. It also explained why Brittany had been so worried earlier. She may have been guilty of adultery, but not murder. That much was sure. The gardener was certainly the killer’s accomplice, probably witting, possibly not. However, he wasn’t the killer either, unless he could be in two places at the same time.
Two places…something tickled the back of Traynor’s mind, but he brushed it away.
He quickly hit the controls for the master bedroom. The murderer walked in and saw Richards passed out on the desk. Quietly the figure slipped over to the desk and checked the body, being scrupulously careful not to touch it. As the killer turned to go, something feel out of a pocket in its shirt and hit the desk, staying among the clutter and debris on the desktop. Before the murderer had even left the room, Traynor had zoomed in on the object. His heart stopped.
He quickly exited the video room, ran down the corridor, and pulled on the handle on the bottom of the trap door. It gave way, and Traynor leaped out, careful to shut it after him. Running past a startled Brittany and a flabbergasted Ross, he leaped up the stairs and tore into the master bedroom, looking for the murderer’s item. He found it exactly where it had fallen…no reason for the police to suspect it, after all, especially since it had probably been wiped clean of prints. He picked up the pen carved like a Christmas tree and slipped it into his coat pocket. Then he walked out of the room. He had one more alibi to check.
Driving down the road toward Royal’s, the coffee-and-donut shop near his office, Traynor mentally kicked himself. How could he have missed it? Mindy had a real motive (even though money was an age-old excuse), she had no credible alibi as of yet, and the opportunity was there. If he was interpreting the video correctly, she even had the means. She had certainly learned how to hide her crime, he grudgingly admitted to himself. Get somebody to trust you and say you’re going somewhere, and they’ll probably believe you if you do it every night but one. It was not her fault that Traynor had been hired for the case. In fact, considering her conflict of interest, she had done remarkably well in adhering to his lessons…except that she had turned his lessons inside out, and was playing the detective’s reverse, the criminal.
Unlike her, he hadn’t followed his lessons very well. He had taken her at her word, accepting her alibi blindly when she told him that she was going to Royal’s. He had never thought to check, just assumed it to be true. Why, he had broken the second and third lessons he had given her just that day! Of all the times not to follow his advice! In defense of himself, he argued silently that no sleuth in his right mind would suspect their own assistant of having the audacity to commit a crime. It didn’t make him feel much better.
As he pulled up to Royal’s, a thought struck him. He hadn’t even read the will. There might be a clue to her motive in there. Of course it was all for money, but murdering for a quarter of an estate didn’t make sense. He quickly took the will out of his coat pocket and scanned it for anything useful. Near the bottom, he came upon a most interesting clause:
“If any one of my beneficiaries is under suspicion of having committed a crime against either the civil or criminal law codes at the time of my death, or is serving a sentence for a crime that they might or might not have committed, I hereby expel them from my will and decree that their property shall be evenly divided up among the other beneficiaries.”
Traynor’s head snapped up. He quickly ran through the available evidence (assuming that the police would find the surveillance system, which they probably would after a thorough search. The tape implied that Ross was guilty of theft, and almost certainly more evidence would turn up to support that claim. Brittany was shown in the position of adultery (not to mention another, entirely different position), which was a civil crime. Noland had the murder weapon on him, and the police might or might not see that section of the tape. Even if they did, Mindy would still be one of only two heirs, and would have increased her fortune twofold.
Still, Mindy was the only one who was not under suspicion of murder or some other crime. That would have singled her out. Traynor smiled a grim smile. She would have been hoist by her own petard in any event, without laying a hand on her grandfather’s fortune. The most amusing thing about this perfect crime was that it wasn’t even perfect…the criminal was well on her way to getting caught.
Traynor opened his car door, got out, and walked into Royal’s. He slowly “cased the joint.” (He had always loved that phrase.) There was what appeared to be a married couple sitting at the counter, plus an employee behind. Two women were sitting at adjoining booths. One of the women was hidden behind a newspaper; the other was reading a magazine spread out on the table.
“What can I get ya, Mister Traynor?” asked the employee. He was more than a little surprised; Traynor more often visited the bar next door to Royal’s.
“Nothing, thanks,” Traynor said politely. “I was just wondering if you saw my assistant tonight. She didn’t come in, and I got a little worried.”
“Well, no, Mister Traynor. I been here since about 9:30, and I ain’t seen her.”
“Thanks…Mike,” Traynor said, quickly checking the badge of identification. He turned and walked out. Mike, the couple at the bar, and the magazine-reading woman all watched him go.
Traynor barged into his office, completely forgetting the third thing he had taught Mindy: Check behind corners and doors, always. No self-respecting detective, he reasoned, would dare to walk into a possible trap. He paid for his lack of self-respect.
The gun went off, its silencer dampening the noise. Traynor fell, shot through the center of the back.
Mindy Ripley stepped out from behind the door, newspaper under her arm, and knelt down on the carpet beside Traynor. She quickly and expertly went though his pockets. First, she found the copy of her grandfather’s will, which she left—quite frankly, she wasn’t interested. She knew she’d blown the crime. She did find Traynor’s wallet, which she emptied of the forty dollars in cash and Visa credit card that it housed. Finally, she came across her pen hidden in Traynor’s pocket. She retrieved it, walked over to where she had dropped her notebook earlier in the evening, and picked that up too. She carefully turned to a blank page and read out loud as she wrote.
“Always leave more than one suspect. Watch out for greed, and don’t go for too much money. Be careful in getting rid of your accomplices, even if they’re unwitting accomplices. Stay as close as possible to the detective so that you can cloak yourself more effectively. Always have a legitimate alibi ready. Follow the rules you have set down here, and never forget them, unless you want to get caught.” She stood, and calmly regarded the figure on the floor. “Thanks, Kirk. I don’t think I’ll be needing another lesson…you’ve taught me everything I need to know.”
With a smile on her face at being able to escape with her life, Mindy walked out the door of her former employer’s office. It had almost been the perfect crime, but a few matters of circumstance had slipped her up. Still, she had learned from her mistakes and would be better in the future. Besides, some of it was beyond her direct control. Oh well, it was finished now, and there was no use worrying about it. Even though she wouldn’t be able to be Mindy Ripley any more, there was still another chance to do it right. She would plot again.
She had no idea that Max the night maintenance man had forgotten something at work that day, and that he would be back in the building in just a few minutes to retrieve it. As a result, he would find her victim much earlier than she had planned. Even if she had known, she wouldn’t have thought it much mattered. All she cared about was that her days of being an amateur criminal were over, and that no one and nothing would be able to stop her now. Behind her retreating footsteps, Kirk Traynor lay on the rug, his life slowly slipping away while blood from his bullet wound stained at least a portion of his carpet back to its original color.