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Authors: Ann Ripley

Summer Garden Murder (20 page)

BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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“She looks like she's waiting for a taxi.”
Janie said, “We'll never get the car out of the lot in time to follow her.”
“I'm betting there aren't that many taxis around here. Folks out this way must average four cars per family, so why do they need taxis? I think we can make it to the car in time.” They raced out the doorway, avoiding the woman at the curb, and into the adjacent lot. Martha gunned the motor of the PT Cruiser and sped up to the store entrance just as a yellow cab departed with its passenger.
She turned an excited glance at her sister. “Are you havin' fun now, Janie?”
“Oh, God, Martha,” said Janie, “I see you're just like Ma. You love chasing people. I got over that by the time I was sixteen.”
Martha laughed. “You mean last year.” Being a Chicago driver, she had no trouble keeping the cab only one car-length away. They were racing downtown. The cab made a soft right and stopped, dropping Phyllis Hoffman off in front of a restaurant, La Delice. Without waiting to watch her go in, Martha sped away and found a nearby parking lot for the car.
As they sprinted back to the restaurant, Janie breathlessly said, “I hope we guessed right. We're going to feel real funny if she isn't here.”
Entering the dimly lit place, the sisters could hardly see. When Janie whipped off her sunglasses, Martha muttered, “Put them back on. We don't want her to recognize us. And get out from underneath that directional light.”
“I've seen that woman, but that woman's probably never seen me,” grumbled Janie. “And for sure she's never seen you, so why should we worry?”
“Just being cautious, that's all,” said Martha. She stretched her neck and gradually identified the golden-blond head of Phyllis Hoffman in a booth not far from where they stood. With a little prodding she got the maître d' to seat them nearby. With faces averted, they passed Phyllis and settled in the booth across the aisle and down one.
Janie sighed again. “Thank heavens we can relax for a minute. I'm not up to this anymore.”
“Janie! You sound like an old woman.” From behind her menu she surveyed the surroundings. A man had now arrived and seated himself opposite Peter Hoffman's widow. “Can't you get excited about the fact that Phyllis is having lunch with Mort Swanson?”
“Mr. Swanson, our neighbor? I like Mr. Swanson. So what? Is that the end of the world?”
Martha leaned forward confidentially. “I forget you're not up to speed on this. That's what lovesickness can do for you.”
Janie frowned at her sister. “Who says I'm lovesick?”
Martha grinned. “I've known you for seventeen years. I can tell. You're gaga over that Chris Radebaugh. Lovesickness makes you dreamy and distracted. It makes you blind to other people's problems.”
Janie rolled her eyes and listened.
“Jim and I,” continued Martha, “are in a more mature stage of our relationship, and so I'm better able to function and pay attention to things like Ma's problems with the police. I've talked to Nora Radebaugh about the murder. We made a list of potential murder suspects, and Mort Swanson is definitely on the list.” She nodded over to the booth in which the man sat.
Janie bent her head and slanted a glance at her older sister. “For what, pray tell? The way I heard it, Mr. Swanson used to be Peter Hoffman's attorney, but he isn't anymore.”
“Even though Mike Cunningham took over Hoffman's legal matters, who says Mort wasn't in there advising or something? I hear Hoffman and Mort go way back.”
“Too bad we can't eavesdrop,” said Janie.
“No, but we can read their body language. Fortunately, we have a superb view, and between the two of us, we ought to be able to decipher everything that's going on.”
Janie shoved her blond hair away from her face. “Wow,” she said, “are you ever an optimist.”
Martha watched their quarry and noted that Phyllis's entire focus was on her male companion and nowhere else. She felt comfortable enough now to lower the menu from her face and read it. “Hey, they have good food here. While we're spying, let's enjoy lunch.”
Janie wasn't studying the menu, but instead was staring speculatively at Martha. “Look, I approve of what you're doing, checking out the possible neighborhood perps. Phyllis Hoffman is a good place to start.” Janie leaned a little farther in, as if afraid a passing customer or waiter might hear. “And I know for a fact that the killer lives in our neighborhood. Let me tell you what happened last night.”
ouise's friends sat on the patio with her and sipped iced tea. Mary Mougey waved a hand in the air, as if the motion of her slim fingers could relieve the afternoon heat. “We promised we'd try to help you, Louise. And here we are, with a few bits of information.”
She smiled. It was late afternoon, and Mary obviously had just come home from her office downtown, wearing a slightly crushed linen suit in a pale pink shade. Nora and Louise were in shorts and T-shirts. “When have you had time to be a detective?” asked Louise.
“It's as I predicted,” Mary said. “Phyllis phoned again, and it was very interesting. She overheard Peter and Mike Cunningham talking a few days before Peter disappeared. From this, she learned that Peter tattled on his buyer, Lee Downing, to the SEC about some illegal activities of Downing's.” Mary's bright eyes shone with excitement. “I told Phyllis that she had to tell this to the police, and if she didn't, I would.”
“Go, Mary,” said Nora, grinning.
“She also told me that Peter and Mike used subterfuge when arranging the sale of Peter's company.”
“Yes, I—” started Louise.
“You may already know some of this, Louise,” said Mary, barely pausing in her story, “but what you might not know is that she heard Peter saying he was going to flee the country and divorce her!”
“Oh, my,” said Nora, dismay in her voice. “That didn't go over well, I'm sure.”
In a low voice, Mary said, “Then there's the last thing she complained about: Peter's will.”
“What about Peter's will?”
“She wouldn't tell me, damnit, just that something about it didn't suit her. I failed to wring that out of her, Louise.”
“You did well, though,” said Louise. “The police need to know all of this.”
“They will, because I put the fear of God into Phyllis.”
Nora said, “Maybe I'm a cynic, but how handy, how self-serving for Phyllis to tell this to the police. It throws all the suspicion on other people. Why would you trust Phyllis to tell the truth?”
Mary shook her head. “I don't know, Nora. You're quite right. Why should we believe her? She's buttered up to me for no good reason that I know.”
Nora stared off into the woods, where the light was beginning to fade among the tall trees. “Although I've had my mind on other things, I tried to do my small part in this investigation. I deliberately went out and talked to Mike Cunningham this morning as he left for work.” She took a sip of tea. “It was interesting.”
“What was interesting?” asked Louise.
“His demeanor. He was bouncing along, hopping along his front walk like a pleased pubescent boy. The phrase ‘the cat that ate the canary' came to mind. He's very happy and unworried about anything regarding Peter Hoffman's horrible death.”
Louise shrugged her shoulders. “You could interpret that a couple of different ways.”
“Could Cunningham have profited from Peter's death?” suggested Mary.
“Or maybe,” said Nora, “it's just that Mike Cunningham is an insensitive wretch who never gave a care for his so-called friend from whom he earned millions of dollars.”
Louise broke out in a big smile. “You two are good, do you know that? Too bad you don't have more time to give to this.”
“Where are my girls?” asked Bill. “They're missing a decent dinner.”
“Gone for the evening. But they'll be home at a decent hour, they said.”
Another person might have concluded his description of her meal was damning with faint praise, but Louise read her husband's remark as an indication that her cooking was on the upswing. She'd thrown away the twenty-minute-dinner cookbook and was now operating out of
The Joy of Cooking,
a gift from Sandy Stern. Sandy said she'd buy her a more sophisticated one once Louise mastered some basics. Frozen puff pastries filled with chicken à la king had not been that much trouble, especially as Martha had poached the chicken for her early this morning in some complex broth.
Her husband gave her a quick glance. “I can see you're rather pensive. Good day?”
“Not very. Mike Geraghty called and chewed me out for talking to a few people.”
“I heard about that. Morton called me and warned me. Louise—”
“Bill, I took what he said to heart. I spent the rest of the day reading. After a few hours, I have to admit I got very jumpy. Thank heavens my friends dropped over to see me.” She related what Phyllis Hoffman had told to Mary Mougey about her husband informing on Lee Downing to the SEC and also cheating him in the sales deal of Hoffman Arms. “She also said that Peter was ready to flee the country, leaving her behind.” She mentioned what Nora Radebaugh had said about Mike Cunningham's demeanor, but Bill seemed uninterested, as if it were too subjective to be of value.
He thought for a moment. “The police need to know about Hoffman being the one to inform the SEC about Downing. I'll mention it to Dan Trace when I talk to him tomorrow.”
“Do you talk to him every day, Bill?”
“I call him or he calls me. I tell him everything I learn about the case. Maybe I'm wrong, but I figure that the more I can do for him, the less they'll consider you a murder suspect.”
“If they don't find another suspect by Friday, I might be arrested.”
Bill shook his head. “George Morton just won't let go, even though God knows I've given him a strong lead in another direction. If Lee Downing knew that Peter Hoffman outed him to the SEC, that gives him an even stronger reason to kill.”
He turned to her with a warm, blue-eyed smile. “I'm sorry you got chewed out by Geraghty. On the other hand, you are pretty aggressive for one who has so much evidence pointing to her.” He shook his head a little and took another bite of his dinner.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“You must realize that we're limited in what we can do. We can listen. We can talk to friends. But we can hardly charge ahead with the investigation, because it could be that a Chicago hit man did it, and not one of our neighbors.”
“So you want me to cease and desist, just like the police.”
“No, but your direct approach may not be the best. How would you like to do it another way and see what information we can pick up?”
She put her hand on his arm. “You mean surveillance?”
He laughed. “Just a little walk in the neighborhood after dark. We've done it before, haven't we? Not too long ago we found some good information that way.”
“Yes, when Madeleine Doering's killer was out there. So you do mean surveillance. All right!”
“Eat up,” said Bill. “Then we'll change into some clothes that will help us disappear into the night.”
It was ten-thirty, and only night owls were still up in Sylvan Valley on this weeknight, for tomorrow was a work day for most adults. The evening was hot and moist, but a trace of a breeze came and went and relieved the steam room effect. The furtive moon dodged behind a fat lid of clouds. Louise realized the Washington monsoon season would soon be at hand with its big soaking rains. The cloud cover produced utter darkness, so that she and Bill could hardly see their hands in front of them. They walked in the street, lest the aged sidewalks with their jagged edges trip them up and send them flying.
They headed first to Phyllis Hoffman's house, which lay almost a mile down the road at the edge of the neighborhood. Here, trees were not the soaring, 110-footers as in the central part of the neighborhood, but sparse and small.
“Do these houses remind you of something?” asked Louise.
“No,” said Bill. “What are they supposed to remind me of?”
“The outlying slave houses near a plantation.”
“Huh,” said Bill, chuckling. “That's a bit of a stretch, considering that people have to pay a few hundred thousand for them.”
“They're so much plainer than the houses closer in.”
“It's the relative lack of trees. Sylvan Valley is a strange place. It's not every neighborhood where prestige is measured by how many trees crowd your yard.”
She gave his arm a gentle tug. “We turn down this cul-de-sac. Phyllis lives in the third house on the left, I hear.”
“Let's be careful now,” murmured Bill. “Peter Hoffman lived here after leaving the mental hospital. He could have put in an alarm system. And keep your scarf ready to pull up over your face in case anyone approaches.” She'd worn the only dark scarf she owned, a silk one embroidered with her initials. Her husband wore a jaunty visored dark cap.
As they entered the yard, Bill used a pinpoint flashlight in short bursts, so its light could have been mistaken for a firefly's. He whispered in Louise's ear, “I think we can approach the house without fear. Just don't touch anything.”
They eased up to the side of the house, where a light was shining, and pushed their way cautiously through a row of hemlocks that Phyllis must have planted for privacy, or to get more into the original spirit of Sylvan Valley. Peeking through open blinds, they saw a small study lined with file cabinets. Standing in front of an open file cabinet were two harried-looking people.
“Bingo,” whispered Louise.
Bill grabbed her arm and pulled her back a few steps. “We don't want them to hear us. There they are—Phyllis and Mort Swanson.” Phyllis, in shorts and sleeveless blouse, was busy rummaging through the files. The tall, slim Mort stood beside her. On a desk near them was a ring containing a dozen or more keys. “God, Bill, Mort looks so tired.”
“Yes, he does, but the search is on nevertheless. What do you suppose they're looking for?”
“Maybe an alternative will,” she said. “Mary mentioned that Phyllis was grumbling about the will—”
“Phyllis undoubtedly knows now how it reads. Maybe they're looking for one that gives her a better deal.”
“Wow,” said Louise, taking another step back. “That would be something.” Her foot landed on a branch, and to their horror they heard its loud crack as it broke from her weight. Nearly losing her balance, she started to fall into the scratchy arms of the hemlock, until Bill pulled her straight. They saw Phyllis and Mort start at the noise and approach the window.
Bill held her close to him in the hemlocks. Louise pulled her black scarf over her face. “Hold still and they won't see us,” he said. They froze in place while Phyllis and Mort stared out the window straight at them. When they turned away, Bill hissed, “Let's get the hell out of here.” He guided her carefully away from the house and across the yard. They sprinted out of the cul-de-sac and onto the main road. Not until they were blocks away and under the safe cover of the deep woods did Bill slow down.
“Louise,” he said, “we've got to be more careful than that if we're going to case the neighborhood.”
“Sorry, darling.”
“Maybe it wasn't enough noise to make them deeply suspicious. I hope not, because that scene inside Phyllis's house could be significant.”
“How so?”
“Maybe Mort is more than a legal counselor... .”
“Could Mort have helped Phyllis arrange to have her husband killed?” finished Louise. “He's always been one of the most unreadable men I've ever met.”
“He bears watching. What's our next destination, the Swansons'?”
“Yes,” said Louise. “Let's see what Sarah, and for that matter her visiting intern Hilde, does when Mort's out spending his time with Phyllis Hoffman.”
Avoiding the tentacles of the pricklier trees and shrubs, they made their way through the thick plantings until they reached the house. Though they peeked in several windows, they saw no sign of Sarah or Hilde. “I bet Sarah's reading in bed,” said Louise. “Hilde could be anywhere.”
Bill sighed, and she sensed her husband had had enough window peeping. He said, “Now where to?”
“Back to our own Dogwood Court. We'll see what the locals are up to.”
Once they'd breached a thick cluster of scrub trees, it was easy to see into Sam Rosen's house. A wall of windows would reveal the domestic scene within, but set in front of it was an array of cedars, not a difficult barrier to get around. “Isn't it strange,” said Louise, “that Sylvan Valley folks think a clump of trees is as good as a drawn blind?”
Bill laughed. “How wrong they are.” They stood and looked at their neighbors. Sam and Greg were sitting on separate couches in the dimly lit living room watching a large high-definition TV screen. Each held a drink in his hand and was studiously drinking it. Greg Archer was a man of considerable beauty, with his chiseled features and his blond hair glinting in the lamplight. Louise realized then why he was so attractive. He looked the way Bill had looked ten years ago. Sam and Greg exchanged only the most desultory conversation. It was as if they had been forced to sit there together.
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
6.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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