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Authors: Ann Ripley

Summer Garden Murder (10 page)

BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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After taking Hilde on a pleasant though sweltering walk through a riverside park off George Washington Parkway, Charlie had dropped her back at her apartment above the studio. He got a passing glance at a big workroom with lots of identical cat figures sitting on tables, then a quick look at her sparsely furnished apartment. It was dominated by a queen-sized bed with a pure white comforter, tucked in as if by an Army private. He'd raised his eyebrows suggestively and joked,
Nice bed
. She'd colored delightfully, like a maiden should. Then she had eased him out the door. Although he hated to leave, it was just as well. He was desperate for a hot lead for his Saturday story.
He had cruised the two short blocks back to Dogwood Court, then parked and watched a crew of police technicians pack up and depart in their van. There was one major distraction gone from Louise Eldridge's life. Maybe now if he called, she'd pick up the phone. He pressed her number, which was now on his speed dial, and was cheered when she answered. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to punish her. “Damn!” he burst out. “You finally picked up.”
Silence. He'd sounded like the spoiled little boy his mother occasionally reminded him that he was. He decided to soften his approach. “What I mean is, I'm real glad to hear from you, Louise. How ya doin', anyway?”
“Not very well, Charlie. In the first place, the police have told me not to discuss the case. So I should never have answered this call.”
“Why can't you discuss it? I've been talking about it with everybody I can get my hands on. In fact, I have an appointment to drop in on Greg Archer in a few minutes. You know, your neighbor.”
Louise was silent on the other end of the phone line.
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Charlie, finally getting it. “Do the cops suspect you? No, don't tell me!” And he burst into laughter.
“Stop laughing, Charlie. It's not funny. I'm about a week from being thrown in jail. You know the police drill. You find a body buried in a yard, the owner of the yard has a history with the deceased, so naturally the owner must have done it. That's how they think. You're going to talk to that gossipy Greg Archer?”
“Yep, in about fifteen minutes.”
“Then you'll find out I allegedly had a fight with Peter Hoffman. That Greg is nothing but a ... a ...”
“Scumbag?”
“Yes. Somebody who tells tales that aren't true.”
“Someone's already told me some stuff, like the fact that at that neighborhood party you and the newly-sprung-from-the-hospital Peter Hoffman made a date to rendezvous together. So what happened when you met? You didn't kiss and make up?”
“Charlie, when will you stop trying to be funny?” said Louise. “See, that story's part of the lie. Peter Hoffman played out that charade on purpose, talking to me as if we were planning a rendezvous. I spoke hardly a word to him. About forty-five minutes later, he walked into our house, grabbed me and threatened me.” He could hear her pull in a breath. “God, he scared me. He wore dark clothes and a hood. He looked like a killer.”
“Hey, babe, he
was
a killer.”
“That's why he was so frightening. I threw a pitcher at him and a moment later, along came Greg and Sam. Naturally, Hoffman had whipped off his dark sweatshirt and his hood so he looked normal. Greg misinterpreted the whole thing.”
“Heaving a weapon at the guy would make it seem as if you were pissed off at Hoffman—a motive to kill, for sure. When they found him in your garden, there must have been your fingerprints on the plastic used to wrap the body, right?”
“You're good at putting ideas together, Charlie. But you have to verify them with the police. They certainly can't come from me. The good thing is the police haven't arrested me yet. On the other hand, I'm helpless. George Morton's warned me about even talking about the matter.”
“Morton's in charge? That's not good for you.”
“What an understatement, if it turns out to be true.” Louise's voice was glum.
Charlie rested his cell-phone arm on the open window and stared at Louise's low-slung house in the woods. He wondered idly if Louise's two beautiful daughters had gotten back home yet. “Look, don't give up hope. I'm on the case now, and I have lots of ideas on this. I'll be talking with Sam and Greg first. Then I plan to have a go at Phyllis, the wife. And this Hilde who lives in your neighborhood, what a girl! She's smart. She said she might help me check out some of this stuff.”
“So you've met Hilde Brunner.”
“Yeah, but I also eyeballed your daughter Martha. Looks just like you—not bad. When am I gonna meet her? Your Janie's jailbait, but Martha—wow!”
“Charlie, Martha's engaged. She's about to be married. Hilde Brunner seems like a nice young woman.”
“And very sharp. Swiss, you know.”
“I know. Go for it, Charlie. We all need to live life to the fullest.”
He grinned. His old pal Louise, with whom he'd won some and lost some, whom he'd double-crossed on occasion and at least on one other occasion rescued from certain destruction, understood how it was with Hilde. “She'll be a good helper. You know what they say, two heads are better than one.”
 
 
Louise hung up the phone. She had been going rapidly downhill into a complete funk, a headache forming behind her eyes like a dark cloud gathering energy on a stormy day. But Charlie's call made her feel better. Not that she didn't already have her own husband trying to find out what happened to Peter Hoffman, but it was nice to know Charlie was on the case, too. She respected Charlie's stubbornness. When it came to crime stories, he was like a dog with a bone. And she didn't know Hilde very well, but she'd liked what she saw of her. If Hilde wanted to help, so much the better. Charlie was right—sometimes two heads were better than one.
14
Saturday, August 18
 
“S
linging hash, huh?” wisecracked Bill as he walked into the kitchen.
“It's a lot tastier than hash,” retorted Martha, as she tended two frying pans accommodating, respectively, eggs and blueberry pancakes. Golden brown bacon strips already lay on a paper towel, ready for serving.
“Gee, a new order of things,” he said, staring over her shoulder at the food. “Bagels and lox yesterday, bacon and pancakes today—more breakfast than your mother and I usually eat.” He missed Louise, but he'd noted the pills that his wife took last night and realized she would sleep through breakfast and beyond.
“You need food, Dad,” Martha advised. “Go sit down. You look stressed out.”
“I don't like it that every time I go outdoors, I have to fight off members of the press.”
“It will all be over soon,” said Martha, blithely. “I just tell them, ‘No comment.' In the meantime, these blueberries will be very good for you.”
“They will?”
“Absolutely. You and Ma should eat blueberries on a daily basis. They're especially good for retaining the vision in older people's eyes.”
Bill had to admit he was stressed out. Still, he didn't feel like “older people,” but said nothing to Martha. When the girls called Louise “Ma,” he also put on a few years, it seemed, and it might even be worse if they decided to call him “Pa.” When he and Louise were older people, it would be nice to have someone like Martha around to be pleasantly bossy and call them whatever she chose. At the moment, he knew his daughter had more than blueberries on her mind.
“So what did you and Jim talk about last night?”
She stood at the doorway of the dining room. “Oh, wedding plans. Don't worry, things are shaping up just fine, except for my dress.” She poured a cup of coffee for each of them and then joined him at the table. “But Dad, on to more pressing matters. Jim has a theory about Peter Hoffman that he wants me to tell you about. He thinks the sale of Hoffman's arms business could have motivated someone to murder him. Maybe the wife, maybe the man to whom he sold the business, maybe his partners in the business or people involved in the actual sales deal.”
Bill looked at Martha, and as usual saw in her the image of the woman he'd married twenty-two years ago. Martha and Louise had the same hazel eyes, golden skin and brown hair, though Louise's now possessed a streak of gray. The daughter had turned out to be less tentative and more assertive than her mother, almost bossy at times. But insistently curious and smart, also like her mother.
“Jim might be on the right track,” said Bill, nodding, expressing his approval again of Martha's fiancé. “Today, though it's not the best day to reach people, I'm going to see what I can find out about the sale of that business. Unfortunately, I'll have little time to help your mother out of this fix. If you heard the news, you know the Middle East is in turmoil once more. The IAEA is right in the middle of it. They want me to leave for Vienna within a week. I've tried to tell them I don't want to leave the States until Hoffman's death is resolved, but they're putting a helluva lot of pressure on me.”
“Poor Dad.” Martha patted his hand. “I figured it was something about that. That's all the more reason that Janie and I want to step in and help.”
“Hold on,” said Bill, putting down his fork. “I don't want you and Janie involved.” He gave his daughter a suspicious look. “What're you trying to do, follow in your mother's footsteps? Why can't we give the police a chance to sort it out? Mike Geraghty doesn't believe your mother killed Peter Hoffman, and I can hardly accept that Morton believes it either, even with those unfortunate pieces of so-called ‘evidence.' They just haven't had time yet to look into all the angles.”
“Dad, it'll be all right. Supposing we just go to Friendship Heights and check out wedding clothes at Saks? Supposing we should run into Phyllis Hoffman? That's no crime.”
Bill leaned toward his daughter. “I'm telling you, Martha, I don't want you to put yourself or Janie in danger, hear me? I feel guilty as it is that I don't have much time to check out the facts. I'm already worried enough about your mother. She's not taking this very well. I think she's depressed.”
Martha patted her father's hand. “All right, Dad. I promise we'll do nothing to upset her, nothing the least bit dangerous. Just a little schmoozing with neighbors, just a little visit to Saks.”
He ignored his pancakes and bacon and the comforting hand that still lay on his. He said, “How can I convince you that you should stay out of it? Just remember that one of the neighbors, or that Hoffman woman herself, could be the murderer.”
His daughter slumped back in her chair and slowly spread her arms, as if she were an unfolding flower. “I give up. You know I'm not a child anymore. I'm about to be a married woman—and I'm very competent—yet you won't let me lift a finger to help my own mother, your wife, who right this minute is in a somnolent, sleeping-pill-induced state because she's so worried about being thrown in jail.”
Bill shook his head and contemplated his abandoned eggs and pancakes. “Damn,” he grumbled, “I hate guilt trips.” He turned and faced his older daughter. “Here's the deal. Give the police a few days to do their thing. Who knows, maybe they'll come up with the murderer. If they don't, well, then we can talk this over again and renegotiate.”
Martha closed her hand in a fist, shook it and cried, “Yes!”
 
 
Louise woke up. The skylight above her head was almost as good as a sundial. It was at least ten o'clock. Thoughts of childhood and her professor father, who never overslept, came back to her. He used to walk back and forth outside her bedroom door until finally she awoke and came downstairs and had breakfast with him in the kitchen of their old house in Wilmette. She smiled at the memory. The old Protestant work ethic had driven both father and daughter, and still did.
A soft knock on the door, and her husband appeared with a tray, like an overly handsome concierge at some fancy foreign hotel.
“I come bearing gifts,” he said, walking over and smiling down at her. “Actually, only coffee, because I know how you hate to get crumbs in the bed.”
She sat up, straightened her twisted silk charmeuse nightgown, then accepted her husband's kiss on the lips and the tray, which included a copy of the
Washington Post.
She groaned when she saw it. Yesterday's story had been brief, with little detail, since the story had broken during the night. This morning, the story occupied the bottom right of the front page and included, next to a head shot of Peter Hoffman, a picture of her house with policemen prowling through the yard. The headline read:
M
ULCH
M
URDERER
K
ILLED
, P
LANTED
IN
G
ARDEN
D
IVA'S
A
ZALEA
B
ED
The subhead was even worse.
LOUISE ELDRIDGE WAS INFORMER WHO LED
TO CAPTURE OF ARMS DEALER PETER HOFFMAN
A feature story was headlined:
W
AS
R
EVENGE
THE
M
OTIVE
I
N
B
IZARRE
G
ARDEN
C
RIME
?
When the main story jumped inside to page five, she saw a picture of herself—a publicity photo from her studio, WTBA-TV. She was holding a houseplant, smiling at the camera and looking outrageously out of sync with the macabre story that accompanied it.
Louise glanced at her husband. “One could expect no less of Charlie Hurd.”
Bill pointed a finger down at her. “Or at the editors. They're the ones who write the headlines.”
She bowed her head. “You know our lives will not be normal again until they find the person who killed Peter. And what will Marty Corbin think of that ‘revenge' headline? This could even affect my job.”
Bill smiled. “I think your producer knows you're incapable of murder, Louise; don't worry about Marty. Just call him Monday morning and let him in on the details. Now drink your coffee, or it'll get cold.”
She took a taste. “Delicious, honey. Sorry to sleep so late.”
“You needed it. And now we need to talk.” He sat on the bed beside her, and she could tell by the frown lines around his mouth that he wasn't happy.
“What's the bad news?” She touched his arm, which was resting nearby.
“I'm sure the man can measure up and be fair.”
“Bill, I can't follow you. Who are you talking about?”
“I'm talking about Morton, of course,” he said impatiently, as if even a child would know who he was referring to. “You were right, Louise. Lieutenant Dan Trace over at the sheriff's headquarters in Fairfax City called. Though Trace is in charge of the overall investigation, George Morton has taken over as lead detective.”
“Poor Mike Geraghty,” she said. “They probably thought that he was too good a friend of ours. Do you think this will hurt his career?”
Bill shook his head. “I doubt it. Who knows if Morton even has smarts enough to find this killer? I personally think the man is ... well, never mind what I think about Morton. I've just finished a few phone calls, and then I promptly passed the information on to our new lead detective.”
“What could you learn on a Saturday?”
“Two things that the police didn't know yet,” said Bill. “One is that within the past week, which means immediately before he disappeared, Hoffman completed the sale of his arms business to Lee Downing. It may be just a coincidence, but the timing is damned suspicious. And number two, Hoffman apparently still owed his attorney, Mike Cunningham, over a million dollars.” He grimaced. “That's only part of what Hoffman paid to save his ass and avoid prison.”
“That gives us at least two suspects. But why would Lee Downing kill the man whose company he just bought? Or why would Mike Cunningham get rid of a man who still owed him a huge amount of money?”
Her husband shrugged. “Beats me. It's a starting point. There could be lots more behind both of those stories. Downing's Texas arms manufacturing company also needs to be looked at. I have some feelers out on him that are promising. In the meantime, I'm hoping the police get right on this line of inquiry. I'm trying to speed up the process.”
Standing up suddenly, he bent down to take Louise's coffee tray from her.
“Wait,” she said, grabbing the mug. “I have a swallow left. Bill, why are you so fretty?”
He slumped down next to her again, set the tray on the bedside table and put an arm around her. “Leave it to the women in this family to read my mind. Louise, I told Martha and I'll tell you. Things are in terrible shape in the Middle East. The IAEA wants me to go overseas within the week and help. How the hell am I going to be able to help you when all this is coming down at the same time?”
She rested her head on her husband's shoulder for a moment, then turned and looked at him. Her voice was firm. “Go do your work. They need you badly and you know it. Go downtown or wherever you need to go today. I'll be all right. I'm convinced the police will never arrest me. They're going to get to the bottom of this and find out who murdered Peter Hoffman. And then George Morton is going to come over here and personally apologize to me.”
He looked into her eyes, and she gazed back at him confidently, a touch of perverse excitement in her eyes.
Louise had just told her husband a big lie. She was sure of nothing regarding George Morton, but Bill needed to be lied to. As for herself, she was tired of being a woman with trembling hands who was so upset at false charges that she resorted to knockout pills to put herself to sleep.
In a vigorous move, she pushed the covers aside and swung her legs over the side of the bed, impatiently pulling the charmeuse nightie straight again. So much for George Morton's warning not to investigate. She intended to pull out all the stops. Nobody was going to frame her for murder and get away with it!
Taking her cue, Bill was already at the bedroom door. She noticed he'd forgotten the tray on the table. He paused before leaving and stared intently at her across the room. “If you say you're going to be all right, honey, I believe you. Now, I've got to head downtown. They're already in a meeting there.”
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
2.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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