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Murder On The Mind

Murder On The Mind

Murder On The Mind 30


  * * *

  We stopped at a branch of Bison Bank and cashed my check. Having my own money almost made me feel like a contributing member of society. That elation was brief, however, thanks to the headache hovering on my fringe of awareness. It threatened to take center stage until we had chicken sandwiches at a fast-food joint in Niagara Falls. Richard explained the biochemical correlation between headaches and an empty stomach over a second cup of coffee.

  Thanks to my windfall, I was able to pay for our lunch, an extremely small gesture of thanks for all Richard had done for me, but it made me feel better.

  Afterwards, we headed for Keystone Construction. We were a couple of minutes early, but Charles, “just call me Charlie,” Nowak was waiting. A stocky, balding, good-natured man, he looked every one of his sixty-plus years. Richard waited in the reception area while I met with the former Walker Construction V.P. Sitting in one of the two chairs facing his desk, I wondered if my tiny cubicle back at Travelers in Manhattan had been so mundane.

  “Thanks for taking time to see me,” I started after the introductions. “I’m looking into the relationship between Matt Sumner and the demise of Walker Construction, to see if there might be a connection.”

  “I’ve been reading about his murder in the paper.” He shook his head. “It’s terrible. But why do you think the two are connected?”

  “I can’t go into that right now. But I hoped you could shed some light on his connection with Walker.”

  “Sorry. I didn’t know the man personally. Big Jim Walker dealt with him on a one-to-one basis. He died several years ago.”

  “That’s when his daughter took over the business, wasn’t it?”

  He nodded.

  “How long have you known Sharon Walker?”

  “Since she was born. Jim and I started the business together. We were friends since we were kids.”

  “I’m curious. Why didn’t you take over when Jim Walker died?”

  “Jim had the majority interest in the business. He left everything to Sharon. She felt only she could follow in his footsteps, and she’s not one to delegate authority.”

  “I take it that wasn’t in the company’s best interests.”

  “Not when we were hoping to build the Broadway Mall.” He shook his head. “Sharon burned a lot of bridges when the company was in trouble. She tried to keep it from falling apart, but she just didn’t have the experience. And she wouldn’t listen to anyone who did.”

  “Are you still in touch with her?”

  He shook his head. “I don’t think she talks to anyone from the company. She and her son live in that old, rundown house out in East Aurora. It’s all she had left after the bankruptcy. She’s got enough money to make ends meet, thanks to a trust fund, but that’s about all.”

  East Aurora. That confirmed it. I’d definitely spoken with Sharon on Saturday night.

  “Did she have much contact with Matt Sumner at the bank?”

  “Yes. Matt worked closely with Jim and our comptroller. I know he felt as bad as the rest of us when the company failed. He did everything in his power to keep us afloat.”

  “Did you all socialize with Sumner?”

  “Not me. But Sharon did for several years. She was engaged to his son.”

  “Oh?”

  “Five or six years ago.”

  “I understand Rob Sumner married someone else last fall.”

  “I wouldn’t know that. Jim was disappointed when they broke up. He liked Rob. Being an only child, Sharon was used to getting what she wanted, when she wanted it. I don’t think that set right with Rob’s family—particularly his mother.”

  “Was Matt Sumner fond of Sharon?”

  He shrugged. “I really don’t know.”

  “Would you know if Sumner cheated on his wife?”

  Novak blinked, startled by the question, but answered it anyway. “I don’t know for sure. But there were rumors.”

  “Such as . . . ?”

  He shook his head, unwilling to speculate. I tried another question. “I understand Walker Construction had other troubles during the bankruptcy. Do you know where I can find Ted Schmidt?”

  “I suppose he’s out of jail by now. He cost the company a couple hundred grand. Maybe it wouldn’t have saved us, but we wouldn’t have gone under as fast, either.”

  “Getting back to Sharon, was she friendly with anyone in the office?”

  “Not really.”

  I frowned, frustrated. Then it occurred to me; Sharon would never confide her problems to a man she saw as a rival for control of the company. “How about any of the women?”

  “She might have talked with Lucy Kaminski. She was Big Jim’s secretary for over twenty years.”

  “And when Sharon took over—?”

  “She worked for Sharon.”

  “Do you know how I could get in touch with her?”

  He took out the telephone book, flipped through the pages, jotted down a number and address on a piece of paper, and handed it to me.

  “You wouldn’t happen to have a photograph of Sharon, would you?”

  He looked thoughtful. “As a matter of fact—” He reached behind him into a file drawer. “I used to have this on the shelf over there. Put it away when the glass broke.”

  He handed me a framed eight-by-ten photo—a group shot. Charlie stood with a woman who matched him in age and size, presumably his wife, next to a tall, rugged man and a teenaged girl.

  “Big Jim was my best friend for almost fifty years.”

  “This is Sharon and her father?”

  He nodded. “Maybe ten or twelve years ago.”

  Sharon had been athletic-looking, with long, mousy brown hair. Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, she wasn’t pretty, but her blue eyes sparkled. In the photo, she looked at her father with love and admiration.

  “Were they close?”

  Nowak nodded.

  I traced my finger over the picture of Sharon. Her face seemed familiar to me. An image flashed in my mind—a woman, jogging. My eyes slid shut and the memory came back to me as clearly as when I’d actually experienced it. A woman had jogged in the cemetery the day Sumner was buried: Sharon. She must’ve just left the grave as we approached. No wonder the killer’s vibrations had been so strong.

  I opened my eyes to find Charlie Nowak staring at me. Embarrassed, I handed back the photo, cleared my throat, and asked a few more questions, but I didn’t expect any other revelations. He’d already been more cooperative than I could’ve hoped. Still, I was glad when the secretary interrupted us with an important call. I saw myself out.

  “Well?” Richard asked once we were outside.

  “Definitely worth the trip.” We got in the car and I told him about Sharon’s broken engagement and that she lived in East Aurora, just down the road from Holland where Sumner had been killed. “I’ve got to talk to Sharon’s secretary.”

  “What’s next?” Richard asked.

  “I’m going to see Maggie for lunch tomorrow. I need to talk with Ron Myers at the bank again, too, if you can help me out with that. I don’t think that entry on Sumner’s calendar referred to him, but if the police have questioned him about it, I want to know whatever he told Hayden.” I rubbed at my temples.

  “Still got the headache?”

  “Yeah. They haven’t been so bad for the past couple of days. But today . . . God, I feel rotten.”

  “I told you, you’re pushing yourself too hard. You won’t be happy until you end up in the hospital again.”

  I didn’t want to argue with him, and sank back against the seat and headrest. But I had one more place to go. “I want to stop at the bakery.”

  “What bakery?”

  I hadn’t told him about my friend Sophie. “On Main Street in Snyder. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

  “You sure you’re up to it?”

  “It’s on the way. Just head for home.” I hoped I’d doze off, but no such luck. I opened my eyes a few blocks from the
storefront, got my bearings. “Just up ahead, on the right. It’s the place with the blue sign.”

  Richard pulled into the half-empty lot. “So who am I going to meet?”

  “A cool old lady. She told me to trust this empathic stuff.”

  Richard didn’t roll his eyes, but he looked like he wanted to.

  The place looked different in daylight. More modern. And I didn’t remember all the wedding cake toppers on display on the shelves behind the glass case that served as a counter. A chunky, middle-aged man stood behind the cash register, ringing up a sale as we entered. My head was pounding. It was an effort to stand, to think. But I needed to connect with my new friend and mentor, so I waited until the customer ahead of me started for the door before I stepped forward.

  “Hi. I’m looking for Sophie.”

  “Who?”

  “Sophie Levin. I met her here last week.”

  He shook his head. “Nobody here by that name.”

  “Older lady—with a Polish accent.”

  Again he shook his head. Richard looked at me doubtfully.

  “She lives above the shop.”

  “You must have the wrong place. No one’s lived upstairs in years. We don’t even rent it out. It’s our office space.”

  That funny feeling was back in the pit of my stomach. “Did she ever live here?”

  “No one’s lived upstairs—not since the last tenant died some ten years back.”

  “Was she electrocuted?”

  He shrugged. “I dunno. That was before we bought the property. Can I interest you in some fresh bread? We’ve got a nice rye.”

  “No, thanks.”

  Richard nudged me. “Come on. Maybe the place you’re looking for is in the next block.” He sounded like the placating professional again.

  The man behind the counter merely shrugged.

  We got back in the car.

  I’d met Sophie—spoken with her. She wasn’t a figment of my imagination.

  So where the hell was she, and why was I so confused?