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Murder On The Mind
Murder On The Mind 34
Brenda had scheduled another clinic visit, so the two of them were gone before ten o’clock. Meanwhile, I started the day by checking the newspaper to see if Sam Nielsen had made good his threat to write about me. He hadn’t. Yet.
Next I got on the phone, checking with the library, the ever-handy City Directory, a patient library assistant, and the local phone book to find the Walker employee who’d been prosecuted for theft. I found four Theodore Schmidts. I narrowed the field to two. On the last call I hit pay dirt. The woman who answered said Schmidt was her boyfriend and I could find him at his job any time during the day.
After that, I called Rob Sumner’s house. No answer. I’d have to try again later.
I retrieved the piece of paper Charlie Nowak had given me days before, and dialed Big Jim Walker’s secretary’s home number. It rang several times before an older woman answered. “Lucy Kaminski?”
“My name’s Jeffrey Resnick. I’m investigating Matt Sumner’s death. Charles Nowak gave me your name and thought you might be able tell me—”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know the man.”
“But you did work for Sharon Walker.”
“Oh, yes. Sharon was engaged to Mr. Sumner’s son. But that was years ago.”
“Could I come out and talk to you about—?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she interrupted once again.
“Would you speak to me over the phone?”
I pictured her pursing her lips, trying to decide if she should continue the conversation. “I really don’t like discussing such personal matters with strangers.”
“Of course, you’re right,” I admitted, backpedaling. “Mr. Nowak said you worked for Jim Walker for over twenty years.”
“Twenty-five years,” she said with pride.
“Did you retire when the company went under?”
“Yes. It was very sad,” she admitted, and launched into a detailed remembrance—just as I’d hoped she would. I made the appropriate oohs and ahs when necessary, and waited patiently until she was ready to talk about what I wanted to hear.
“Everything must’ve changed when Mr. Walker died.”
“Yes. The company went downhill fast. Sharon just didn’t have the feel for the business end of things.”
“It must’ve been hard for her—caring for her son and all.”
“I know I’m old-fashioned, but if she’d just left running the company to the men, we’d all still be employed. And that poor child. She left him with a babysitter from early morning until quite late in the evening. A mother really needs to be with her baby when he’s that small. Once or twice she brought him to the office when the babysitter was sick.”
“Did she neglect the boy?”
“Who am I to judge?”
I took that as a definite yes. “Did she ever speak about his father?”
“Never.” Her tone changed. “It was very strange. There were four women in the office. We wanted to give her a baby shower, but she refused. She got very angry about it. I think she was embarrassed because she wasn’t married. She knew Big Jim would’ve been disappointed.”
“I take it they were very close.”
“Yes.” She paused. “Oh, dear. I’ve said much more than I intended. And I don’t see what all this has to do with Mr. Sumner’s death.”
“At this point, I’m just looking into his business affairs.”
“I suppose he helped when the company went through bankruptcy, but that didn’t save our jobs.”
I could certainly identify with that. I made a few sympathetic remarks and ended the conversation.
My limousine picked me up at eleven-thirty and the three of us took a lunch break at a local family restaurant before Richard and I dropped off Brenda at home and started off again. Brenda had given me a point-by-point comparison of the clinics they’d already visited, but old Rich was quiet during her recitation. I could tell the clinic they’d visited that day had not met with his approval. Not that he talked about it to me.
We found Ted Schmidt at Mount Olivet cemetery, behind the controls of a backhoe, digging a grave. I watched his precision with the scoop as it gouged the partially-frozen earth, making a hole the exact size of a casket.
It gave me the creeps.
Schmidt was about my age, dressed in work clothes, a heavy jacket, and a yellow hardhat. I waited until he finished the grave before I approached him.
“Who wants to know?”
I handed him one of my cards through the open window on the cab. “I was hoping you’d speak with me about Walker Construction.”
His eyes flashed. “Hey, I did my time. I don’t need to be hassled about it any more.” He shoved the card back at me.
“I’m not here to hassle you. I’m looking into a possible connection between Walker Construction and the murder of Matt Sumner of Bison Bank.”
The anxiety in his face eased. “The guy they found gutted in his garage?”
“Cool,” he said with an eager smile. He turned off the big machine, jumped down from the cab. “What do you want to know?”
“Anything you can tell me.”
He took off his work gloves. “I didn’t work in the office, but I heard what was going on. We all knew the company was going under. Management was hiding assets, so I figured I’d grab my share before there wasn’t anything left to get. Only I got caught.”
“Did you know Sharon Walker?”
“Everybody did. She could handle anything on the site. Run a backhoe, drive the trucks, dump a load of gravel as good as me. But she forgot all that when she went into the office.”
“So she was kind of a tomboy growing up?”
“She was the son old man Walker never had. He even called her Ronnie. First day of trout season, deer season, those two were gone.”
I remembered the reference on Sumner’s calendar on the day of his death: Ron. And she was a born hunter, too.
“Was she good to work with?”
“Before she went in the office, yeah. Just like one of the guys. After her father died and she took over, she started wearing high heels and suits with frilly shirts. She became one of those Feminazis. You know, bossing everybody around. Thinking she was hot shit.”
“I take it she was the one who had you arrested.”
His anger flared anew. “The lousy bitch.” He jabbed his finger in my face to emphasize his words. “Other people were doing the same as me—looking out for themselves—but who did they prosecute? Me!”
Schmidt spewed venom against Sharon and Walker Construction for another ten minutes, giving me his personal opinion on each and every member of management, and the company’s personnel policies. Obviously time in jail had done nothing to cool his hatred toward the company. I was grateful to finally escape.
“You okay?” Richard asked as I got in the car. His tone betrayed his amusement.
“I don’t think I’ll need my ears cleaned for a long time. He reamed them out nicely.”
“You should’ve seen yourself, Jeff. He was shouting in your face and you were bending back so far I thought you’d fall over.”
“But would you have rescued me if he’d really gotten physical?”
The lines around Richard’s eyes crinkled. “I’ve got the cell phone. The police are as near as 911.”
“Thanks for your concern. Hey, can I use this thing to call Rob Sumner’s house?”
I dialed. No answer.
“What now?” he asked.
“I haven’t talked with the guy Sumner fired. If we could stop over there, I could get that out of the way, too.” I took out my notebook and found the address. As it turned out, it was in the neighborhood and minutes later we pulled into the driveway. As usual, Richard had come prepared, and hauled out a bulky medical text to read while I worked.
I rang the doorbell and waited. A rusting Reliant sedan sat in the driveway
, so I figured someone had to be home. Finally the door opened. A harried-looking man of about forty stood before me. Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt with the tails untucked, his bare feet were stuffed into worn slippers. A wet dishtowel adorned his shoulder and a screaming baby straddled his left hip.
“Yeah?” he demanded.
I handed him one of my cards. “Don Feddar? My name’s Jeffrey Resnick. I’m looking into Matt Sumner’s death, and—”
“Too bad he didn’t die sooner. We’d have all been a lot better off!”
I wasn’t sure how to reply.
“Can we talk?”
He nodded at the baby. “If you can stand her crying.”
He gestured for me to enter. I followed him through the house. Toys were strewn about the place. Dust bunnies thrived in the living room, and the kitchen floor looked like it hadn’t been mopped in months. He sat the baby in the high chair and cleared a stack of laundry off a chair for me.
He tossed my card on the table without looking at it. “I’m currently a house husband,” he said, shoving a teething biscuit at the baby. She grabbed it in her chubby hand and stuffed it in her mouth. Her cries faded to whining. “I haven’t worked since December twenty-third. Wasn’t that a nice Christmas present for the wife and kids?”
“I heard. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
“You wanted to know if I murdered him, right? If I was going to do it, I’d have done it months ago. And no, I don’t hunt.”
“I heard the police already grilled you.”
“Grill is right. They had me down at the station in Orchard Park for six hours a couple days after the murder.” He shook his head, sat down, and continued folding laundry. “I told them, the night Matt was murdered I was at Tracy’s dance recital. She’s my oldest. I got over a hundred witnesses. I took the video of all the kids. I’m duping copies for a bunch of the parents. Anyway, it didn’t matter to the cops that I have an alibi. They figured I could’ve had someone else do the deed. Yeah, and how was I supposed to pay for it?”
A little girl about three, dressed in a miniature jogging suit with Sesame Street characters marching across her shirt, came into the kitchen. She latched onto Feddar’s leg. “Daddy, I don’t feel good.” He grabbed another teething biscuit from the box on the table and handed it to her.
“I heard you got fired for approving loans without proper documentation.”
Feddar nodded. “Matt disputed that the signatures on the loans to Walker Construction were his.”
“He accused you of faking his signature?”
“It was my word against his, and he was a vice president. Lying bastard.”
“Was that the first time it happened?”
He shrugged “Upper management only cares about their own—and the bottom line.”
It sounded like run-of-the-mill corporate bashing to me, but I didn’t doubt him. I’d seen some pretty ruthless managers in the insurance business, managers who’d denied claims on a whim. It sickened me, but I was a small cog in a big machine. That’s why I was sacrificed when others with less experience were saved.
“Could Sumner have had it in for you?”
The little girl dropped her biscuit on the floor and tried to climb onto his lap. Feddar kept pushing her down, but she wasn’t easily deterred.
“I don’t think so.”
“Was he friendly with others in management?”
“Only to the extent that it involved business. I don’t know what he did in his spare time, other than—” He broke off, looked at his children. “F-U-C-K-ing any woman desperate to get out of the secretarial pool, although it wasn’t so bad the past few years. He was afraid of a sexual harassment lawsuit.”
I thought about Maggie having to work under those conditions.
“He’d gone as far as he was going to go in the company,” Feddar continued. “I got the feeling he was bored. I know he had a younger woman on the side for several years, but he saw other women, too.”
“Did he brag about it?”
“No, but I know she had a child. I heard snatches of conversation. I got the feeling he was fond of the kid. Hard to believe a snake like that could have a heart buried under all that flab. That softness for little kids was one of the reasons he did so much charity work. Katie here is prone to ear infections—she’s got one working now. Matt always asked about her.”
“How old is she, three?”
“Three and a half.”
Jackie was four—only a few months difference.
“I got the impression Sumner didn’t get along with his own children.”
“That’s true. He couldn’t accept teenage rebellion. He was a strange man. He did a lot of good—raised a lot of money for good causes, but he could be such a bastard, too.”
“Daddy, you said a bad word. I’m gonna tell Mommy,” the little girl scolded.
“He did have a certain charm, though,” I pressed.
“Oh, yeah. Never forgot a name or a face. It worked well for him in business and in his charity work. He could remember how much a contributor gave from year to year. That was a big part of his success. He could flatter you and make you believe lies were truth.”
“Could he have been blackmailed?”
“Matt was too smart for that. He would’ve found a way to wheedle out of it.”
The baby’s biscuit was soft and gummy and she methodically smeared it through every inch of her sparse hair. Feddar picked up the child at his knee and draped her over his shoulder. She quieted, wrapping her small fingers around the folds in his shirt.
“Did he drink?” I asked.
Feddar laughed. “He couldn’t handle it. I once saw him fall face-first—drunk—into a plate of linguine. That was at a Christmas lunch, and we’d all had a few. Funniest thing I ever saw, but no one dared laugh. One of the women felt sorry for him and drove him home. He came on to her in her car. Needless to say, that was the last time she played Good Samaritan.”
“I’m getting an uneven picture of this guy.”
“He missed his calling. He should’ve been an actor. He was a sleazebag, but it was amazing to see him charm women. He was good with all the clients, and if he wanted to encourage young talent at the bank, he’d do it. If you went to his alma mater, he practically kissed your ass.”
“Where was that?”
“You didn’t go there?”
“Hell, no. Buff State.”
“Daddy, I don’t feel good,” the little girl murmured.
“I know, sweetie,” he said and patted her back. “The only good thing that’s come out of all this is that I spend more time with my kids. But I’m not much good at housework. My wife is supporting us now, but when my unemployment runs out, I’ll have to find something. We can’t live like this and keep the house.”
I nodded. If Richard hadn’t rescued me, I might’ve become another statistic on the homeless front.
I thanked Feddar for his time, and made a hasty exit.
The day was winding down, and I was tired. I used Richard’s cell phone and finally got hold of Linda Sumner, Rob’s wife. When I explained I was looking into her father-in-law’s death, she suggested I come over about six-thirty, after Rob came home from his job as assistant manager of a pizza parlor.
With nothing else to do, Richard and I headed for home to kill an hour before going out one last time. It gave me time to write up my interviews with Kaminski, Schmidt, and Feddar. I missed my computer. I had writer’s cramp by the time I snagged my chauffeur to leave.
At precisely six-thirty we arrived at the little duplex on the fringes of Kenmore. I pressed the doorbell and waited. Finally Rob Sumner jerked open the door. While I’d seen a picture of him in his father’s office, it had obviously been taken several years earlier. He looked about twenty-eight, with a beer gut years in the making. His close-set eyes and sullen expression reminded me of a schoolyard bully.
I introduced myself, but he didn’t invite me in
side. Despite the cold, he stood in his shirtsleeves—his hands jammed into his jeans pockets.
“My mother warned me you might be by to badger me.”
“That’s not my intent. I’m looking into your father’s death. I hoped you could clarify a few things.”
He scowled. “What do you want to know?”
“When did your relationship with Sharon Walker end?”
“What difference does that make?”
“I’m looking into the connection between the Walker Construction firm and your father.”
“You think someone at Walker could have murdered Dad?”
He thought about it for a moment, then answered. “Sharon and I went together for a couple of years. I met her at a party my dad threw for some of his clients. She came with her father. We got to be friends. We went out for about two years.”
“When was this?”
“Six, seven years ago.”
“Did you have her added to the list of those allowed in the church?”
“Why would you need to know that?”
“Do you know who the father of her child is?”
“No, I don’t! And what’s more, I don’t care. Look, what’s this got to do with my father’s murder?”
“Do you still have a relationship with her?”
He took a step forward, forcing me back. “Hey, I don’t need you coming around here saying things to upset my wife.”
I kept my voice level. “I only told your wife I was looking into your father’s murder.”
His eyes flashed in outrage. “I don’t need any more trouble.”
So, there was trouble in newlywed paradise.
“What kind of trouble, Rob? Do you know something you haven’t told the police? Did someone threaten you?”
“No,” he shouted, but his furtive glance convinced me he was lying. “Look, don’t bother us again. Or next time—!” He raised a fist, shook it at me, then stormed into the house.
I stared at the closed door for long seconds before I turned and walked down the driveway and climbed into the car.
“I was ready to call 911 that time,” Richard said. “What was he so steamed about?”
“I’m not sure. But you know, I got a funny feeling he was covering up something about his father’s death. He knows—or suspects—something. And I swear he lied to me about the timing of his relationship with Sharon Walker.” I let out a long breath, leaning back in the seat. My conversation with Rob had shaken me more than I cared to admit.
Richard backed the car out of the driveway. “You look beat.”
“I feel beat—like I put in a whole day.”
“You did.” He headed for home, down streets that, despite the gathering gloom, were beginning to look familiar again.
“Look, tomorrow’s Good Friday—a holiday for most of the city. Why don’t you take the day off, too?” Richard said. “Relax—have some fun. Is there something you’d like to see or do now that you’re home? Niagara Falls? Toronto maybe?”
I thought about it for a moment, remembering Maggie’s suggestion. “Well, I would like to go to the Broadway Market.”
Richard shrugged. “Sure.” He looked puzzled. “Why?”
I looked at him, incredulous. “You mean you’ve never been there on Good Friday?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been there.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It is a working-class haven.”
“Now let’s not get nasty,” he said, his amused tone making me smile. “Seriously, Jeff. Take a day off. Will it really make a difference?”
“Probably not. And from everything I’ve found out, the victim deserved what he got.”
“It’s not your place to judge.”
I made no comment. But if what he said was true, why had God, or the fates, dragged me into this whole mess? Sumner’s small act of kindness—buying that crummy vase for my mother’s birthday—had indebted me to him. An out-of-proportion debt, but a debt nonetheless. I suppose no cosmic rule said I had to like the truth I uncovered. And deep down I knew this little mystery had kept me going. Without it, I might’ve given up entirely.
“A day off?” I repeated, the idea beginning to appeal to me. “Okay, Rich. You’ve got a deal.”