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Murder On The Mind
Murder On The Mind 23
* * *
I found Richard staring out his study window, sipping a dark Manhattan. Under my arm was the dog-eared manila envelope.
“Is the sun over the yardarm?” I asked.
“It is for me. It’s not every day I find that kind of buried treasure.”
“I can’t wait to see the six o’clock news.” I sat down behind his desk, moving his papers, books, and mementos aside. He watched as I spread out the newspaper clippings, my notes, and everything else I’d collected on the Sumner murder.
“I’ve got some ideas on who the killer is, but I want to bounce them off a neutral party.”
“I don’t know how neutral I can be, after this morning.”
“Well, I figure we’re in this together now, right?” He didn’t say no, so I took that as assent. “You read the newspaper profile of the killer?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t have an opinion.”
I handed him the clipping and he read parts of it aloud. “The assailant is probably between the ages of thirty-five to sixty, strong, an active outdoorsman or hunter. No known motive.”
“I think they’re wrong. I think the killer is little Jackie’s mother.”
“Which little Jackie? Which mother?”
“Sharon Walker. I have this funny feeling . . . and lately my funny feelings have been correct.”
“What do you know about this woman?”
“Virtually nothing. She had a child on January tenth four years ago. I know her father had business dealings with Sumner. I know her father’s company went bankrupt. That’s it.”
“That’s what your friend, Maggie, told you, right?”
“How can you conclude she murdered him with just that?”
“I can’t. That’s why I have to find a way to prove it.” I sat back in his chair. “Obviously there’s no paper trail to lead the police to her.”
“You mean checks, love letters—that kind of thing?”
I nodded. “That invitation I found in Sumner’s office may be the only thing he kept.”
“Are you sure it came from her?”
“Am I positive?” I thought about it for a moment. “No. But it seems likely.”
“So what’s her motive for murder?”
“I have no idea. But I’ll find out.”
Richard took a deep swallow of his drink and pulled up a chair beside me. “Okay. What’ve you got in mind?”
I savored the moment; he was hooked.
“First of all, a trip to the library downtown. They should have all the newspapers on microfilm or CD-ROM for the time when Walker Construction went under. I can lift names and interview the former executives or employees. If I can get a fix on this woman without tipping my hand—”
“But aren’t her former co-workers likely to go straight to her and warn her about you?”
“Not if I can find a disgruntled employee or two. Someone with an ax to grind is likely to tell me the dirt that went on before the company collapsed.”
Richard took another long pull on his drink. “This really is a nasty business you’re in.”
“Murder is a nasty business, and I think Sharon Walker killed Matt Sumner. And she did it in front of her son.”
“You said that before. How do you know?”
“I kept getting all these feelings: fear, triumph, horror. It took me a week to sort it all out. The emotions came from all of them at the time of the murder. Somehow I got caught up in it. What’s weird is I started feeling all this before Sumner was murdered. And, let me tell you, it’s bad enough to have your own fears without experiencing somebody else’s.”
Richard studied me. “I still think this would make a fascinating study. You really should let UB’s Psych Department—”
“No way! I’m not going to be anyone’s guinea pig.”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“What do you have in mind?”
“I keep thinking about my grandmother. What is it you sense upstairs? What is it of her that’s left up there? And why is it in my grandfather’s room?”
“I’ve been wondering about that myself—trying to work up the courage to face it.”
He downed the rest of his drink in one gulp. “Well, I’m fortified. Let’s go.”
This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. But I found myself following in his wake, glad it was still daylight. I didn’t think I could face the old lady in the dark of night.
I started up the stairs, dread closing around my chest. Richard paused at the landing. As I topped the last step, he reached for my elbow to steady me. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” he said.
Panic churned through me. I was tempted, really tempted, to run back down the stairs. But—
“If not now, it’ll still be waiting for me tomorrow or next week.”
My words sounded a whole lot braver than I felt.
Richard opened the bedroom door. The sun had disappeared behind the trees, leaving the room gloomy with shadows. Because I was prepared, whatever loomed inside did not reach out for me. I took a steadying breath and entered. The furniture was mahogany, just as I remembered it from glimpses years before. A faint odor of fresh paint still clung to the off-white walls. The new carpet was beige wall-to-wall. The room was pleasant, neutral, with absolutely no soul of its own. I stood in the center and concentrated. Murmuring voices echoed. Something that wasn’t from the here and now?
“Well?” Richard asked.
I cocked my head, listening. “I hear something. Like voices behind a wall.” I walked around the room and paused at a highboy, ran my hand across the top. The dread grew stronger, threatening to choke me.
Bright light flared behind me.
I whirled to find the shadows replaced by morning sunlight flooding through the windows. The rose-colored cabbage-flowered wallpaper was back. Mrs. Alpert stood in the doorway where Richard had been only moments before. Dressed in a drab wool skirt, with a crisp white blouse under a navy sweater, she looked like an ancient, stern librarian. She leaned on the cane in her right hand; in her left she clutched a piece of paper. Her bloodshot eyes bulged in anger; her paper-white skin was wrinkled ten years beyond what I’d ever seen.
“What is this?” she nearly screamed, her thin voice shrill in the virtual silence.
I turned to see what she was looking at. Old Mr. Alpert stood in front of his closet, fastening a cardigan, his skeletal, heavily veined hands fumbling with the buttons.
“None of your business,” he said, and closed the door.
“You bought her flowers, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. It’s the least I can do for her now. Goodness knows I should’ve done more for her in life.”
“How dare you say that to me? She took my boy. She stole him!”
“And you stole her child.”
Dizziness rolled over me as I realized who and what they were arguing about.
The scene wavered, images colliding like a double-exposure. I could just make out Richard standing where I’d left him in the open doorway. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
As Mrs. Alpert stepped between us, the past obliterated him.
She leaned heavily on her cane, spittle flying as she spoke. “I took what was mine. Flesh of my flesh.”
“You destroyed her—drove her insane.”
Furious, she came at him, smacked him on the arm with her cane. “How dare you talk to me like that!”
Old Mr. Alpert glowered at her for a long moment, then without a word turned for the closet. He took out a suitcase, set it on the bed, and opened it. He crossed to the dresser.
“What are you doing?”
“Packing.” He took out shirts, set them in the suitcase, then turned to another drawer, taking out underwear and socks.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“California. To visit Richard.”
br /> Torrents of her anger drilled through me, made my head pound, my pulse race. All these years later, that old, fragile-looking woman still scared the shit out of me.
“Why?” she demanded.
Mr. Alpert turned toward his bathroom. “Because I can’t take being with you any more. I don’t want to be with you any longer.”
Her hand crumpled the paper; then she dropped it onto the floor.
He crossed the marble threshold between the carpeted bedroom and the ceramic tiled bathroom.
I did, too.
Oblivious to her, Mr. Alpert reached into the bathroom cabinet for his shaving gear. Her face twisted as she hauled back and slammed the cane against his skull. He went down as though pole-axed.
I jumped forward to stop his fall, but he passed through my hands. His temple smacked the side of the claw-footed tub and he crumpled on the floor.
Mrs. Alpert glared down at him, watching his scarlet blood pool on the cool white tile. Her smile was thin-lipped, triumphant.
She turned for the bed.
I followed, watched as she returned the old man’s clothes to the highboy, then placed the suitcase back in the closet. Without a backward glance, she headed for the hallway and closed the bedroom door behind her.
Seconds ticked by.
Mr. Alpert lay unmoving in the bathroom.
The emotions tied to that incident still clung to these rooms: the old man’s despair at betraying my mother, his wife’s fury at my mother for stealing the affection of Richard’s father—her only child.
The crumpled paper the old woman had discarded lay at my feet. I bent down, picked it up. Smoothing it out on my knee, I read the typed script, an invoice from Mankowski’s Florist Shop: $35 for flowers, placed on Plot 58975, Elizabeth O. A. Resnick.
The room shimmered back into the present.
I stood upright again—back where I started. The overhead light blazed. Richard gripped my shoulders, gently shaking me. I took in a sharp breath, staring into his worried blue eyes.
“Jeff? Jeff, snap out of it!”
Brenda appeared in the doorway. “Richard Alpert, what have you done?” Then she was between us, her arms wrapped around me. I let her steady me. “It’s okay now,” she soothed. “It’s over now.”
I took a ragged breath and suddenly realized I was okay. No residual anger, fear, or hatred remained. The room was just like any other in the house. I wiped at my eyes and coughed.
“Are you all right?” Richard asked. “Christ, Jeff, what the hell happened? You were practically catatonic.”
I cleared my throat, pulling away from Brenda. “Got any Irish whiskey?”
Ashen-faced, Richard nodded, then disappeared.
I collapsed onto the edge of the bed.
Brenda joined me. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I ran a hand through my sweat-dampened hair. “She killed him, Brenda. Old lady Alpert whacked the old man over the head—killed him right in the bathroom.”
She rubbed my back like a mother comforting a child. “I knew something bad happened here.”
I looked at her, confused.
“I always got bad vibes in this room,” she explained. “But not like you. My grandma would’ve said you’ve got the second sight.”
She shook her head. “Not like you.” She rose from the bed and opened a drawer in the dresser, took out a yellowed piece of paper. “I found this while we were redecorating. I don’t know why, but I never showed it to Richard.”
A cold shadow darkened my soul. The same florist bill I’d seen only minutes before.
“I can’t tell Richard. He loved the old hag.”
“He’s already asking—”
“He doesn’t have to know everything.”
She was right.
Richard arrived with a highball glass filled to the brim with ice and good sipping whiskey. I wondered how he’d managed to get all the way upstairs without losing half the glass’s contents.
I tasted it and coughed. “Damn fine.”
“What the hell did you see?” he demanded.
I glanced at Brenda. Her nod encouraged me to explain.
“The day your grandfather died, he had an argument with your grandmother. About this.” I handed him the aged invoice.
He studied it. “She found out.”
“Found out what?” Brenda asked.
“Grandfather always bought Betty flowers on the anniversary of her death. Before his arthritis got too bad, he used to go to the cemetery. I drove him a couple of times.” He looked wistful. “He was a good man, Jeff. The only father I ever knew.”
“At least you had a father figure.” That came out sounding a lot worse than I’d meant, but Richard had the grace to ignore it. As a kid, I’d had none of the privileges Richard had. But for all the advantages of wealth, I bet he was nearly as miserable as me. We had more in common than I thought.
The light outside continued to fade, the shadows growing more dense.
“Anyway,” I continued, “they argued and she . . . she went off in a huff. He . . . uh . . . slipped in the bathroom.”
Brenda gave me a comforting smile, but Richard was looking at me, not her, and didn’t see.
“You going to be all right?” he asked.
I took another sip of that damn fine whiskey. “Sure.”
“Then let’s get out of here,” Brenda said. “It’s close to dinner time and I can use some help in the kitchen.” She rose from the bed and left us. I heard her soft footfalls on the stairs.
Richard looked around the room, apparently caught up in his memories. He seemed content with the shorthand account I’d given, which satisfied me. I had no desire to destroy whatever illusions he had of his little old grandmother.
I took another sip of my drink.
“Aren’t you still on medication? You’re not supposed to be drinking,” Richard admonished.
“You going to report me to my doctor?” I stood. “Come on. Brenda wants help in the kitchen. Think we got any cheese and crackers?”
“I expect so.” Richard led the way.
I took one last look around the room. I’d faced and conquered my fear. I felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon: one small step—and one giant leap toward getting my life back.