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Authors: Linda Rosencrance

An Act Of Murder

BOOK: An Act Of Murder
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A FIERY FINALE TO THE WEEKEND
Philip Parker grabbed one side of the door and tried sliding it open. It wouldn't budge. He noticed a chaise lounge on the deck and turned to ask his cousin if he should throw it through the glass door. Phillips told him to wait until she got a fire extinguisher in case the flames shot out of the room when he broke the glass. While Phillips went around front to get the fire extinguisher, Parker got down on his hands and knees on the rear deck and looked inside to see if there was anyone in the room. All he could see was the faint outline of someone's feet. Parker jumped up and noticed that the other side of the sliding glass door was open slightly. Smoke was pouring out of the opening. Parker opened the sliding glass door all the way, crawled inside on his hands and knees and made his way to the person in the room.
The smoke was so thick Parker could only see about a foot in front of him . . .
An ACT of MURDER
LINDA ROSENCRANCE
PINNACLE BOOKS
 
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For Jack, Jean, Marie, Ed, Danielle, Al, and, most especially, for Richard Montgomery, my favorite Chinese-language translator.
Acknowledgments
Many thanks to everyone who helped me with this project, including Talbot County court reporter Juanita Kohn, Talbot County Circuit Court clerk Mary Ann Shortall, Maryland State Police sergeant Joe Gamble, Steve's best friend, Mike Miller, and his wife, Maureen O'Toole-Miller, Deputy Fire Marshal Mike Mulligan, prosecutor Bob Dean, Assistant State's Attorney Henry Dove, jury foreman Curt Hutchinson, Kim's attorneys, Harry Trainor Jr. and Bill Brennan, Kim's mother, Lois Wolf, and Kim's biggest supporters, Cathy Rosenberger and Rachelle St. Phard. Thanks also to playwright Bobbi Benitz, who graciously allowed me to use her play
The Bride Who Cried
in this book.
I contacted the Hricko family a number of times, but they declined to be interviewed for this book.
Last, but not least, special thanks to my agent, Janet Benrey of the Hartline Literary Agency—there really is a special place in heaven for agents—and my editor, Miles Lott.
Author's Note
Some of the names in this book have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
 
 
L.R.
There is nothing more dread and more shameless than a woman who plans such deeds in her heart as the foul deed which she plotted when she contrived her husband's murder.
—Homer,
The Odyssey
Chapter 1
It was Saturday, February 14, 1998. Valentine's Day. After dropping off their eight-year-old daughter, Sarah (pseudonym), at a neighbor's house, Stephen and Kimberly Hricko began the seventy-mile drive from their home in Laurel, Maryland, to St. Michaels on the state's Eastern shore. They were planning to spend a romantic weekend at the Harbourtowne Golf Resort & Conference Center. The couple, married for eight years, had been having marital problems and were hoping to rekindle their relationship.
Kim, a hospital surgical technologist, and Steve, a golf-course grounds superintendent, were among one hundred couples who paid $239 for the overnight getaway. Around 3:00
P.M.
on February 14, they checked into cottage 506. When they arrived, they were given a bottle of champagne. A highlight of the weekend was a dinner-theater murder mystery that the dinner guests were invited to solve. The title of the play was
The Bride Who Cried.
The Hrickos and the other couples arrived in the main dining room around 7:30
P.M.
The play began as the wedding party entered the room.
The wedding party consists of the bride and groom, the bride's parents—the groom's father has just been deported to Italy and his mother is deceased—and the best man. However, the maid of honor, the bride's best friend, Muffie, is so angry and confused at the weird wedding that she says she feels ill and leaves before the reception.
As the wedding party enters the hall, the groom, Bernardo Vittorio, puts his arm around Cynthia, his bride. She immediately pulls it away.
“I wouldn't do that, dear,” he says.
“What are you going to do, have a member of my family killed,” she replies.
Pamela Bartlett, Cynthia's mother, overhears the conversation and asks her daughter what she means by that statement.
“Nothing, really. You must have misunderstood me,” Cynthia says.
But Pamela refuses to drop the subject. She turns to Fred, her husband, and repeats Cynthia's comments. Feeling very uncomfortable, Fred, too, tells Pamela she must have misunderstood their daughter.
Pamela now looks around for Muffie. Unable to find her, she asks her daughter where she is.
“Muffie is your dearest friend, I can't imagine your maid of honor not coming to your reception,” Pamela says.
“Oh, she was ill and decided to go home,” Cynthia replies. “And I don't blame her,” she says to herself.
“I just don't understand any of this,” says Pamela, looking rather pale, and leaning on her husband.
The wedding party now forms a receiving line to greet the guests—including the Hrickos. Bernardo is preening. After all, he is now a member of a socially prominent Philadelphia family. Dino Gambino, the best man, is still wearing his dark glasses and the bulge under his coat is obvious. Most of the time he hovers close to Bernardo, except when he is following Cynthia like a lovesick puppy dog.
Pamela is in shock and Fred is extremely nervous. In the middle of the reception Cherie Chardonnay, the groom's jilted girlfriend, arrives to try and embarrass her former lover.
As the Hrickos and the other couples mingled with the wedding party and their invited guests, they learned a number of interesting facts about the main characters—facts designed to help them catch a killer. Here's what they found out:
In 1974 Fred Bartlett, self-made millionaire, met socialite Pamela Keaton Davis. A more unlikely pair you would seldom see. Fred left school at the age of fourteen and went to work for an uncle who owned a junkyard. A hardworking young man, Fred saved some money, bought a couple of antique stores, then some apartment houses. By the time he was twenty-three, when he met Pamela, he was a wealthy man.
Pamela was from an old Philadelphia family. While long on aristocracy, the family was very short on cash. Little by little, the family sold off the land surrounding the old mansion. Now it, too, was in danger of being sold. Always looking for a good deal, Fred decided to take a look at it. It was then that he met Pamela. It was, of course, love at first sight.
Fred married Pamela, and like a good husband, he paid off the mortgage on her family's home, and the couple soon moved in. They were very happy living there with their darling new daughter.
All went well for fifteen years or so. The '80s were good to Fred. He bought more and more real estate and built many office buildings around the country. Then the '90s hit and Fred was in financial trouble and desperate. A rather insecure man, and very aware of his lack of education and family background, Fred was frantic. He felt his life depended on the money he provided to Pamela and her family.
One of Fred's businesses, one of the few that was doing well, was importing tropical plants and birds from South America.
One day Bernardo Vittorio, the son of Mafia boss Gia-nini Vittorio, approached Fred in an attempt to convince him to “broaden” his import business and join the Vittorio organization. Although Fred was frightened of the Vittorio family, he accepted the “offer” in order to recoup his fortune.
Just as Bernardo was about to leave Fred's office, Pamela and Cynthia, the Bartletts' beautiful daughter, dropped by to have lunch with Fred. Cynthia didn't notice Bernardo, but he certainly noticed her. In fact, he called Fred later that day and told Fred he wanted to meet Cynthia.
“Absolutely not,” said Fred, but soon changed his mind when Bernardo explained what happened to people who said no to a Vittorio.
So Fred told Bernardo he would be having lunch with his daughter the next day and arranged for Bernardo to run into Cynthia at the restaurant.
As luck would have it, Cynthia found Bernardo very amusing and charming. And when he invited her to dinner, she accepted immediately, much to her father's consternation and relief.
For the next couple of months Cynthia and Bernardo saw each other several evenings a week. He was unlike any other man she had ever known. He both fascinated and frightened her.
When her father told her that Bernardo wanted to marry her, she laughed. How completely ridiculous, she thought. But she stopped laughing when her father told her that Bernardo said if she didn't marry him, her mother would meet with a very bad accident.
At the wedding reception Fred confronts his son-in-law, saying, “Bernardo, something has to be done to stop this thing. My daughter looks so unhappy. You have to understand, she's my child. I love her. I can't stand seeing her so unhappy. And her mother is on the verge of a heart attack, I'm afraid. She's really not well, Bernardo.”
Bernardo laughs and says, “Oh, come now, Fred, don't you think you're being overly dramatic? I wasn't so bad back when I took you into my import business and saved you from filing bankruptcy.”
Fred is highly indignant.
“Now, just one damn minute. You didn't take me into your business—it was
my
tropical-plant business. And it was an honest business.”
Bernardo looks around and says, “I would be careful what I say, if I were you, Fred. As the old saying goes, ‘The walls have ears.' And I don't think you want your
honest
tropical-plant business to be investigated. As you said, it is
your
business. Just think how little Cynthia would take Daddy going to prison. And dear Pamela—that would knock her off the Social Register in a hurry.
If
, of course, she lived through it.”
Pamela comes over to join the men.
“Have you seen Barbara's prize orchid?” Fred asks his wife, referring to the owner of the inn. “She just sent word that you must see it.”
“I do so want to see it, but first I want to check on Cynthia. She just isn't looking all that happy,” Pamela says, directing her last remark at Bernardo.
“Come. I'll go with you,” Fred says.
Bernardo looks around and says to no one in particular, “Hmm, where is my lovely bride? Well, isn't that interesting?” he says upon seeing Cynthia and Dino with their heads together.
Bernardo walks over to them, and gets there at the same time as Pamela and Fred.
Not wanting to talk to Bernardo, Pamela excuses herself to go to the greenhouse.
Dinner was now served. The guests took their seats. Seated at the Hrickos' table were five couples, including Henry Dove, a Maryland assistant state's attorney, and his date. What the other guests didn't know was that on this night Dove was one of the actors in the play. In fact, he was playing a detective.
At the table with Dove and his date and the Hrickos was a couple from Gaithersburg, Maryland, who were probably in their thirties; another, somewhat older couple, from Preston, Maryland, in their sixties or seventies; and another couple, in their fifties, from Pennsylvania. Unlike the other couples at the table that were pretending to be friends of the bride, this couple acted as if they knew the groom and his family.
“The receiving line was pretty normal,” Dove said later. “But the cast had to go around from table to table so people could hear about the story because most of the people were just not getting up from their tables—it works better that way. But Kimberly and another woman—the woman from Gaithersburg—went from table to table and really got into it. I just pretended I was there to enjoy it, like everyone else. That went pretty well, and then we got to the dinner, and while we're all seated, we talked about what we did for a living. I told them I was a state's attorney. I had a badge with me and I passed it around the table and Kim asked me some questions about it. It wasn't something you would notice at first, but in retrospect you'd think that she was a little more interested than normal.”
At dinner Kim continued talking to Dove about herself. She told him about her work as a child advocate for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Stephen Hricko, however, hardly spoke a word. Most of the time all he did was stare at the head table. And he didn't seem to be drinking all that much.
“I couldn't even swear he had one beer, but maybe he did, but he certainly wasn't drinking heavily,” Dove said. “The thing I remember most was that someone at the table brought their own bottle of wine, but it wasn't the Hrickos. As the show went on, Kim and the other woman did a lot of walking around and questioning—they'd go to the other tables and talk to the bride and groom and try to get more into it.”
As the guests continue talking and eating, the wedding party is seated at the head table. Everyone is there, except Dino, who arrives several minutes later. Bernardo chastises Dino for being late.
“I'm so sorry,” Dino says sarcastically.
Bernardo turns to Cynthia and asks why she's not eating.
“I'm not hungry,” she replies, then excuses herself and leaves the table.
She soon returns and whispers something in her father's ear.
“Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me, my dear,” Fred says, then gets up and walks away.
“Where is he going?” Pamela asks her daughter.
“Oh, everything was done so quickly that no one selected the champagne. Daddy's going to check on it.”
The guests continue to talk amongst themselves. Fred soon returns. Shortly a waiter wheels a bottle of champagne and some glasses over to the head table on a cart. The waiter begins pouring the champagne and passing the glasses around. Pamela knocks her glass over. There is confusion as everyone tries to mop up the spilled champagne. The waiter brings another glass for Pamela.
When things calm down, Bernardo asks Dino if he's going to make the traditional toast.
“I'm not too good at that sort of thing,” Dino responds.
So Bernardo rises and toasts his beautiful bride. He sips his champagne, grabs his throat, and falls to the floor—dead.
In character, Dove, the detective, rushes over and puts his fingers to Bernardo's neck to see if he can get a pulse. Unable to do so, he looks up and says, “This man is dead. Don't anyone touch anything. Someone please call an ambulance. Will the people at this table please move to the side,” he says, directing the members of the head table away from Bernardo's body.
“We finally get to the end of dinner, which is when [the] murder happens,” Dove said. “At that point I'm trying to get the victim out so he can get away from everything and not just have to lie on the floor while we do the next hour of the show. But Kim followed me out of the dining room and asked if she could do anything to revive him and I said no and basically told her to go away. So she did go back in the room and I get the actor playing Bernardo out of the way on a gurney and I go back in and start doing the questioning.”
“There is no doubt that Mr. Vittorio has been poisoned,” Dove says, speaking to the dinner-theater guests. “The grabbing of the throat and the convulsions that followed tell us that. The medical examiner will tell us more, but what we are concerned with right now is who put the poison in Mr. Vittorio's champagne. It had to be one of the people sitting in front of me, since they were the only ones who had access to the champagne. If the poison is strychnine, and I think it is, then anyone could have gotten it at the greenhouse.”
Dove continues questioning the quests, “First, did anyone at the table see anything suspicious?”
No one answers.
“If anyone did see anything, would you tell me? Probably not—it doesn't seem to me that Mr. Bernardo Vittorio was very well-liked by you people,” Dove says. “What about it, Dino, did you like your boss?”
“He was okay.”
“Come now, Dino, you paid more attention to the new bride than you did to your boss,” Dove says.
Turning his attention to the guests, Dove says, “Did anyone here notice anything suspicious about Mr. Gambino's behavior this evening?”
“Well, he certainly seemed to like Cynthia,” a guest replies.
“I saw them whispering together a couple of times,” says another guest.
“Saw who whispering?” Dove asks.
“Mr. Gambino and Cynthia,” the guest says.
“That's very interesting,” Dove says. “What were you whispering about, Dino?”
“I don't remember.”
“C'mon, Dino, admit it. You paid more attention to the new Mrs. Vittorio . . .”
“Please don't call her that,” Pamela says, interrupting Dove.
“Sorry, ma'am, but that is her name,” Dove replies. “Now, Dino, tell us how you felt about your boss marrying the former Cynthia Bartlett. Did it make you angry?”
“It didn't look like it made her very happy,” Dino responds.
“And that made you unhappy, right?” Dove asks.
When Dino doesn't answer, Dove continues.
“How long have you worked for the late Mr. Vittorio?”
“He's my cousin—I mean, was my cousin. I've known him all my life, but I've only worked for him for a year or so,” Dino says.
“Who hired you?”
“The Don—Bernardo's father.”
“How long have you know Cynthia Bartlett?”
“About three or four months,” Dino says.
“As long as Bernardo knew her?”
“Yeah.”
“Did you go on dates with them?” Dove asks.
“They usually met at restaurants or theaters, and, yeah, I was along. I'm a bodyguard,” Dino says.
“So you spent a lot of time with Cynthia and you became fond of her, right?”
“She's a nice kid.”
“How far would you go to protect her?”
“Whaddya mean?”
“How many people have you killed in your life, Dino?” Dove asks. “And isn't that a gun in your belt?”
“Hey, I'm getting me a lawyer. You can't accuse me of nothing.”
“Calm down, Dino. I'll talk to you again later. Now, Mr. Bartlett, how well did you know Mr. Vittorio?”
“Oh, hardly at all,” Fred replies. “I saw him at the house a few times when he came to pick up Cynthia.”
“I thought Dino just said they always met at restaurants or theaters,” Dove says.
“Oh, well, maybe I'm confused. There's so much happening,” Fred says.
“Come now, Mr. Bartlett, where did you meet Mr. Vittorio? You obviously knew him,” Dove says.
Turning his attention to the guests again, Dove says, “Did anyone overhear Mr. Bartlett talking to Mr. Vittorio?”
“I saw them talking, but I couldn't hear what they were saying,” a guest says. “Fred seemed very serious, though, and Mr. Vittorio just smiled.”
“Is that right?” Dove says. “What were you talking about, Mr. Bartlett?”
“Well, Cynthia told me that Bernardo was taking her to Italy for an extended stay and I was trying to convince him that they shouldn't stay too long,” Fred says. “Cynthia's mother is not well and she would be very unhappy if Cynthia were away too long.”
“I see. What did he say to that?” Dove asks.
“Well, he, um, he said he would think about it.”
“Dino, where did you first meet Mr. Bartlett?” Dove asks.
“In his office with Bernardo.”
“Whose office?”
“Mr. Bartlett's.”
“Mr. Bartlett, what was a well-known Mafia figure doing in your office?” Dove says, putting Fred on the spot.
“Well, he asked me to include him in my tropical-plant import business, but, of course, I said absolutely not.”
“Oh, you expect me to believe you refused to go into business with this man, yet you allowed your only daughter to marry him,” Dove says. “It just doesn't make any sense, Mr. Bartlett.”
“All right, all right. I had lost a great deal of money in real estate. In fact, I was in real trouble. The Vittorio family heard about it and came to offer me a great deal of money if I would have my plant exporters in South America turn their heads, so to speak, when my cargo was being shipped here. I did it. I was afraid I would lose everything—my wife and my daughter—everything,” Fred says, crying.
“So that's how he married your daughter—he blackmailed you. But then he would have to incriminate himself,” Dove says.
“Just how did Bernardo force you to marry him?” Dove asks Cynthia.
“He was going to have my mother murdered.”
“Just when did you get this bit of information, Mr. Bartlett?” Dove asks Fred.
“He told me he wanted to marry my daughter about a month ago,” Fred replies. “I told him he was crazy. That's when he said my wife could meet with a fatal accident. He knew all about her schedules—when she went to the beauty shop, when she went to the garden club. Everything. He said it would probably be a hit-and-run accident, or maybe faulty brakes on her car. I knew he wasn't kidding, so I told Cynthia. You see my wife has a bad heart, so even a slight accident could cause her serious problems. He was an evil man,” Fred says, putting his arm around Pamela, who begins to cry.
“I don't think anyone would argue that point, but you don't go around taking the law into your own hands, Mr. Bartlett,” Dove says. “Did you murder Mr. Vittorio?”
“No, but I wish I had.”
“Oh, Fred, poor Fred. You were always afraid that we would lose everything. I've always been able to depend on you,” Pamela says.
Dove turns his attention to Cynthia again.
“When did you hear about Mr. Vittorio's threat on your mother's life, Miss Bartlett?”
“Father told me right away. Bernardo had mentioned marriage to me and I just laughed at him. Then he told me I should ask my father what he thought about it,” Cynthia says.
“You know, I can't think of anything much worse for a parent, or a would-be suitor, than having a girl you love forced to marry scum like Bernardo Vittorio and know he was taking her away to a foreign country so you would not even be able to help her if she needed you,” Dove says.
“The only thing I can think of that would be worse, is to be that girl; to have to put up with his slimy hands on you; to be taken away to a foreign country—away from your family and friends. That would drive you to do almost anything to keep out of his clutches, wouldn't it, Miss Bartlett? We would all understand why you killed your husband. You did kill him, didn't you, Miss Bartlett?” Dove asks.
Before Cynthia has a chance to answer, Pamela speaks up.
“Just a minute, sir. I know that horrible person had threatened to kill me—I overheard Cynthia saying something about killing a member of her family and I quickly put two and two together. I figured that would be the only thing that would make my baby marry that monster.”
Dove considers Pamela's comments for a minute, then speaks.
“That puts a different slant on matters. So you knew that Bernardo was threatening you, but you didn't find out until today, so you couldn't have planned to poison him ahead of time. But your husband could have, your daughter could have, and certainly Dino could have. It pains me to say this, but I just don't see Dino knocking Bernardo off with poison. That just wouldn't be his style. As much motivation as you had, Mr. Bartlett, you just don't fit the killer stereotype. But Cynthia—Cynthia has always had everything she wanted,” Dove says.
At this point someone comes into the room and whispers something to the detective.
“Don't anyone leave,” Dove tells the guests. “I have to go to outside for a minute. I'll be right back.”
Soon Dove comes back into the dining room.
“Well, now we know what the poison was—it was a poison found in insecticides. Mrs. Henry, the owner here, said she has a container of the insecticide inside her greenhouse. Now, who went to that greenhouse to see an orchid? We know Mrs. Bartlett went. Who else had the opportunity to slip around the building and go to the greenhouse?” Dove asks the guests.
“Everyone at the head table left at some point during dinner,” a guest says.
“Yes, I saw each of them leave, myself,” Dove replies. “So we have opportunity and motive. They all had the opportunity, so the motive has to point to the killer. Everyone had a strong motive to want Mr. Vittorio dead. But the question is, who had the strongest motive? I still feel that Cynthia Bartlett Vittorio had the strongest motive. Cynthia, I'm arresting you for the murder of your husband.”
Pamela quickly speaks up.
“Oh, you are so wrong—don't you know a mother's love is stronger than anything? You must arrest me, too, because my motive was as strong as hers,” she tells Dove.
“Well, now, isn't that interesting,” Dove says. “I have one murder and two killers. There is one thing missing—someone should have a container with the remnants of the poison in it. Could I see your purse, Mrs. Bartlett?”
Pamela pulls the purse away from Dove and a brief scuffle ensues, but Dove wins out. He takes her purse, opens it, and discovers a vial that smells of poison.
“You were wrong about one thing, Mrs. Bartlett. I did know a mother's love was stronger than anything. I just had to let you prove it.”
Then Pamela is handcuffed and led out with Fred and Cynthia following close behind, trying to comfort her.
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