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Authors: Ann Ripley

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BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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What was going on around here? Louise wondered. The mood of these close friends seemed to reflect the brooding, restless nature of the country at large. Instinctively, she reached out and gave her potter friend a hug, and a smile broke out on Sarah's face. She pulled Louise away a step or two, seeming to read her mind. “Forgive us if Mort and I are party poopers,” Sarah said, “but we're going through a hard time just now. We've just gotten Mort's tests back. The liver, you know. It doesn't look good.”
Liver
.
Pancreas
. Louise shuddered to hear of those particular health problems. Torn rotator cuffs, which so many people seemed to suffer, were something one could handle, but liver problems sounded fatal. She felt irrationally obliged to convince Sarah that the worst would not come to be. “I'm so sorry, but I'm sure they will be able to do something. They must be able to do something. He's basically a very strong man. Isn't he accustomed to running three or four miles a day?”
Sarah laughed, desperately. “Yes, and I hope that improves his prospects. They're doing more tests. We're hoping for a magic reprieve, for someone to say, ‘It's all a mistake and he's fine.' ”
“You're so generous, taking on an apprentice at a time like this,” she said, nodding at Hilde. “Maybe it would it be easier if the young woman stayed at our house for a while.”
“Thank you, but no. Hilde is turning out to be wonderful. Even though she's quite tall, Mort calls her his ‘little one.' Isn't that sweet? She's one of the stalwart Swiss, you know: quite learned, and a young activist, something like your lovely daughter Martha. She took a bachelor's degree in European cultural and political history, one of those young people interested in really understanding the Holocaust. And frankly, Louise, it's better to have another person around. It takes my mind off Mort's health.”
“It shows you how well-known your work has become, that you're being sent apprentices from abroad.”
“I guess so,” said Sarah, glancing over to the couch on which Mike Cunningham and Hilde Brunner now sat side by side. “She's a little naive, I fear. I hope the attentions of the dashing Mr. Cunningham are not too much for her to handle. She's met him before, but he's coming on mighty strong tonight. I suppose no one would take a man like him seriously.”
They noted the movement of black-uniformed servers laying food out in the dining room. Sarah said, “Ah, dinner at last. After we eat, I'll whisk Hilde safely home with us. Do come and sit with us.”
Together with the Swansons, Louise and Bill edged toward the dining room, murmuring with pleasure when they saw the elegant repast that Nora, who was a real cook, had prepared. Guests were to serve themselves and sit on the patio.
Nora, looking as mysterious as the mythical goddess Circe, intercepted them. “There's a slight delay in serving dinner.” She looked around self-consciously, then turned to them and pleaded, “And please, dear friends, this party needs your vital presence. Everyone is so somber. I'll admit that Ron and I are not at our best tonight. But don't leave early, Sarah, I implore you. I heard you saying that you would. I'll be heartbroken if you do.” She squeezed Sarah's arm and smiled. “I'm sure we'll all feel more jolly once we've eaten.” Then she swirled away as a worried server beckoned to her. With an imperious tilt of her head, Nora relayed a message, which the server hurriedly passed on to her dutiful husband.
The delay apparently was due to a wine shortage. Ron hurried away to get more from their wine closet.
Over the expectant chatter of a crowd about to sit down to a good meal, they barely heard the front door chimes. Nora went to answer it again. Louise could define an intense baritone voice and an insistent high one. The owners of the voices appeared to be jostling themselves right past the amazed hostess.
Louise pulled in a rasping, noisy gasp of air and fell back a step. Standing in the living room archway was a tall, muscular man with graying blond hair, piercing eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses and a mirthless smile on his face. Next to him stood a woman with sharp features and a blond pageboy.
“Hello, folks. Remember me?” said Peter Hoffman. “I'm back.”
2
L
ouise staggered and almost fell against Bill as a wave of faintness overcame her. She gazed at the man in the doorway. He was a brutal murderer, a person she had never expected to meet again. Peter Hoffman might never have been caught had Louise not discovered his grisly crime. And now he was, free as a bird, back into her life like a very bad dream.
She could not stop trembling. Bill took a firm grasp on her elbow and whispered consolingly in her ear, as if soothing a mental patient. “Get a grip, honey. We knew the sonofabitch was leaving that hospital.”
“But to think he'd have the nerve to show up here,” she said. Hoffman, through the efforts of a pricey legal team headed by Mike Cunningham, had gotten off with an insanity plea four years ago. Instead of the harsh realities of the Lorton maximum-security prison near Washington, D.C., he vacationed at the taxpayers' expense at a mental hospital in the Blue Ridge mountains in southern Virginia.
When the sentence was handed down, Louise had been in her own home, having avoided the agony of sitting out both the long trial and the verdict in the Alexandria courtroom. She'd cried out in disbelief when she heard that he'd been declared insane at the time of the murder. After the trial was done, she had decided that to live a sane life herself she would block thoughts of Peter Hoffman from her mind.
And she'd been fairly successful. Even the news of his imminent release from Western State Hospital had only floated vaguely in the back of her mind, like a dark storm cloud that wouldn't come too near. She never believed she would actually see Peter Hoffman again, especially in her own backyard.
Louise and Bill, like the rest of the guests at the party, stood speechless, not knowing what to do. That is, until the feckless Mike Cunningham stepped forward. He sauntered up to Hoffman and gave him a big hug. “Peter! So good to see you.” Cunningham drew his male companion up to Peter and said, “And here's your friend Lee Downing.”
Hoffman boomed, “So good to see you, Lee,” and gave him a businesslike handshake. Then the handsome Cunningham leaned down to embrace the blonde in the expensive cotton knit suit who stood quietly at Peter Hoffman's side—Peter's wife, Phyllis Hoffman. Louise hadn't seen her since the trial, when Phyllis had sat in a front row and supported her husband. She'd gained either weight or muscle. Mike Cunningham greeted Phyllis with a “Hi, sweetie.”
Cunningham turned and stretched out his arms to the crowd, which was frozen in place like a tableau of wax figures. “Folks,” he said, “we all have to remember Peter has served his term, paid his debt and been declared ready to resume his place in society.”
“Oh, no,” grumbled Sarah Swanson, “we don't need a killer in our midst.”
“Now, now, Sarah,” Cunningham said in a rebuking tone. As if he'd just been elevated to the job of party host, he took Peter's arm and escorted him into the midst of the group. A few people including Sarah's husband, Mort, and Roger Kendrick, gave Hoffman a restrained greeting. He responded with a big hug for Mort and an effusive handshake for the reporter. The others remained silent and still.
Louise's thoughts reeled back to that moment when she'd found parts of the body of Kristina Weeren, the woman Hoffman had murdered, in the bags of leaves she'd gathered from neighbors to mulch her yard. Paid his debt? How could a man who'd massacred someone be free to enter normal society after only four years?
Then she heard Nora's quiet voice. She stood in the living room archway, her face pale with shock. “Peter. Mike. Wait. You must go no further until you talk to Ron. Please honor my wishes.”
Hoffman paid Nora no attention, but Mike Cunningham paused, looking ambivalent, probably wondering whether this party-crashing was a good idea. After all, Mike now lived in this neighborhood, in the intimacy of the Dogwood Court cul-de-sac. Would he risk all cachet with his neighbors?
Mike's lawyer's dilemma didn't appear to bother Peter Hoffman an iota, for his attention was elsewhere. His glance darted first to Louise and then to the white sofa.
As Hoffman passed by Louise and Bill, he stopped and stared straight at Louise. Bending his head, he murmured, “You're dismayed to see me, my dear?”
She nodded agreement and looked up at him. “I can't believe you have the nerve.”
“It's been a long time, Louise. Maybe we could talk things over and come to a rapprochement. After all, I have done my penance. You might find me a changed person.” Then, in a carrying voice, he continued, “Of course we can get together later and talk. I'd enjoy that immensely.” He'd implied that Louise had made some overture to him, rather than the reverse. She should have sensed at once the significance of his statement. She gasped and raised her hand to her mouth to hide the fact that she was nearly in tears.
Somewhere nearby, Louise could hear Sarah Swanson protesting Hoffman's presence, while her husband tried to quiet her. Meanwhile, Hoffman swept on through the room as if making a royal procession. His wife trailed well behind, eyes downcast. He approached the white couch where Hilde Brunner sat and stood over her as if she were to be his first dinner course.
Louise thought the young woman, lounging there with her long legs extended before her, looked like a scared deer. And it was no wonder. First, Mike Cunningham had monopolized, no, positively enveloped her. Now a new male was demanding her attention. Her perfect oval face with its big green eyes turned and focused on Hoffman. “Hello,” she said quietly.
“Well, who do we have here?” said Hoffman. “Someone new since I left Sylvan Valley.” He reached down and took Hilde's hand, as if no one else in the room existed. There was faint air of perplexity on his face. “You, my dear, are like a dream,” he said, in his deep, resonant voice. “Botticelli comes to mind, or perhaps Titian.”
In this fixed moment, Louise saw Phyllis Hoffman's body stiffen and a blush suffuse her neck and face. Phyllis looked over and met Louise's stare. Even from halfway across the room, Louise could feel the hatred and she trembled despite herself. Perhaps it was natural that Phyllis hated her. She had been the messenger who'd brought the bad news that Peter was the mulch murderer. Louise knew Phyllis no longer lived the life of luxury that she had before Peter's crime was discovered. She had moved from their sleek mansion to a modest house on the edge of the neighborhood a mile away from the Eldridges. She went to work at Saks, selling designer clothing. Louise understood her resentment at the change in her lifestyle.
She exchanged a glance with Bill in which they wordlessly agreed to abandon the party. But then Ron Radebaugh reappeared, and Louise could tell he was sizing up the situation. She told Bill, “Thank God Ron's come back.”
Ron strode into the living room and practically bounded over to Peter. “Well, well, what a surprise,” he said, in a tone that one might use greeting a long-lost friend. But his actions belied his words. With one arm clamped around Hoffman's shoulders and the other gripping his arm, he propelled the uninvited guest back into the entrance hall. “Peter and I need to talk,” he explained to the guests. “You must be hungry. Please help yourselves to the food.”
Afterward, Louise realized that this horrible scene had taken only a matter of minutes. Assured by the noises in the hallway that the Hoffmans were being gently kicked out of the party, she and Bill joined the others to serve themselves, then drifted toward the patio to eat.
The outdoor air was thick with moisture and resounded with the songs of cicadas. Louise, who'd found it chilly in the Radebaughs' living room in her sleeveless gown, now found herself sweating in the almost unbearable heat. The cicadas' love songs, usually beguiling to a nature lover like herself, jarred her nerves. Or was it Peter Hoffman's rude appearance that had caused all her bodily senses to shift out of control?
People began talking all at once. “How dare the man ...” “What nerve ...” “His poor wife, so humiliating. . .” Louise and Bill sat down with the Swansons at a table for six, and Hilde joined them. Louise looked around for Mike Cunningham. Apparently he was busy at the front door, trying to smooth the exit of the unwelcome guests.
“What colossal arrogance,” said Sarah Swanson, a forkful of food poised in midair, “to think he could have committed such a hideous crime and then come back, assuming his old neighbors would accept him as if nothing had happened.”
Mort was picking at his beef tenderloin as if it were unpalatable and not the delicious gourmet treat that Nora had prepared for them. He laid down his fork and said, “You made that quite apparent in there, Sarah. But like it or not, Mike Cunningham's right: the man paid his debt. And no matter what we think, we can only hope that the doctors down there at Western State are bright enough to know whether he is stable enough to be released.”
Louise shook her head and exhaled audibly. Then she looked at Mort and saw the attorney rather than the friend. No wonder Mort could accept the man. He was also with Wilson and Sterritt. And he used to manage affairs related to Peter's armament company in Old Town Alexandria. Though it was Cunningham who had defended Peter in the murder trial, Mort might well have helped devise Hoffman's clever legal escape from hard time.
Louise put her fork down. “Mort,” she said, “that starts with the whole wrong premise, that the insanity defense was justified. To think that a man who deliberately killed and dismembered a woman is insane is just plain wrong.”
Across the table, Hilde raised her head and gasped, her eyes stricken with fright. Louise met her gaze and stopped. What a way for the poor girl to be introduced to the details of Hoffman's crime.
Mort sat back and fussily began to clean his eyeglasses with his handkerchief. He obviously didn't realize the impact his words had on Hilde. “Sounds like an insane act to me. It's far from his normal mode. After all, he was a highly successful businessman.”
“Arms dealer,” his wife interjected in a sarcastic voice.
Mort slid his glasses back on his nose and gave Sarah a patient look. His gaze then turned to Louise. His expression said that neither his wife nor she could fully understand the situation. “He was not only a businessman,” he continued, “but also a candidate for assistant secretary of defense of the United States. And ladies, allow me to go back a tick. Manufacturing and selling arms in this country is perfectly legal. Peter fulfilled many large government contracts. He's now selling Hoffman Arms Company, a perfectly honest business, to the man who's Mike Cunningham's house guest. You've met Lee Downing, haven't you?” He nodded his bald head at the silver-haired man at the next table. “Now, just because Peter flipped his lid a few years ago—”
“Oh, my God,” Louise exclaimed, sitting forward. Her pulse was racing. “This was not just one rash act.”
Bill put his hand on Louise's arm and said, “Honey, calm down. Let's not go over all that old ground. We haven't dwelt on this in years.”
Sarah rushed to Louise's defense, but Louise hardly heard her. Mort Swanson's remarks had awakened a deep anger in her. She loved Sarah Swanson, who was like a saint, had Louise believed in saints. But she had trouble accepting Mort as a good friend. His lawyerly equivocations made him practically a devil in her eyes, had she believed in devils. But being a pragmatic Presbyterian, she refrained from judging either of these extremes.
Hilde, sitting across the table, was eating again, her eyes on the plate. Louise could see why men were attracted to her. Not only was she a handsome young woman with tanned, silky skin, but she used her mane of rosy brown hair like a weapon. It now fell charmingly around her face as if to shroud her from the harsh realities of the conversation. She brushed it aside as she looked up and said, “I would never have guessed when Mr. Hoffman walked in, for he seemed so friendly. An air of the Renaissance man about him, I thought.”
“Renaissance man indeed!” scoffed Sarah. “It takes more than a mention of Botticelli to make a Renaissance man. This man's an utter scoundrel.”
“I see that must be true,” amended the earnest Hilde, “if he killed a woman in such a terrible way.” Her wide shoulders trembled in a little shudder. “I do not think I would like to meet him again.”
Louise nodded. “It would be better for you, Hilde, if you didn't.” Then she glanced at Bill, but he'd already set his napkin beside his plate preparatory to leaving. Suddenly, their hostess appeared. Nora slipped into the empty chair beside Louise and leaned over and hugged her, her eyes wet with tears. “Louise, I'm so sorry. I know how that monster hurt you. I had no idea he would show up here, or even hear about our party.”
Bill, his face grim, said quietly, “He heard it from Cunningham, no doubt. Nora, we don't blame you and Ron in any way. It only shows how brazen Peter Hoffman is. I intend to keep a close eye on the bastard. There's no way I'm going to let him harm my wife again.” He stood up and pulled Louise to her feet. After another round of goodbyes, he swept Louise down the patio steps and took her home.
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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