As Art and I rounded the corner of the mansion where Stephen Mack had just been murdered, I saw four women in white bathrobes and white slippers sitting in lawn chairs on a flat stretch of carefully mowed grass near a tennis court, basking in the sun.
Maybe luck was with us. I raced over to them, leaving Art behind. “Hi, I’m Jamie Stern of the Palos Verdes Press. May I have a word with you ladies?”
They looked at me with unreadable expressions. One of them spoke. “You’re a reporter? You must be the first one who was able to break through the police line. Well, if you’re that resourceful, why not? We’re sure to be deluged with questions before this is over. Have you got a camera?”
“So much the better. The paparazzi will be around soon enough. Have a seat.”
The women were sitting roughly in a semi-circle. I pulled over another plastic chair that was nearby and Art did the same. Even the very rich bought lawn furniture from Home Depot. Maybe using Art’s name would help. “This is Arthur Brandon, the mystery writer.”
Art said a general hello. They looked impressed. One of them said she had read some of his books. He beamed. “I hope you liked them.”
“They’re okay, but you need to put more sex in them.”
Several of the ladies laughed. “Don’t mind Emma. She’s a nymphomaniac.” They laughed again.
This struck me as strange behavior for a murder scene. Poised with my notebook and pencil, I asked for their names. I wrote them down in the order they were sitting, knowing that otherwise I would forget who was who. Their bathrobes and slippers were identical, although they were different ages, roughly ten years apart. Each had hair some shade of blond. I was sure they had all given nature an assist.
Art was apparently going to let me do the talking. “May I ask how you know Mr. Mack?”
“We’re his wives.”
Fifteen minutes earlier I had been interviewing Art, as he liked to be called, at his home, nearby, when my cell phone rang. I apologized and glanced at the phone. It was my boss, Peter Framingham, editor of the weekly newspaper of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
I punched the button. “Hello, Chief.” It made me feel more important to call my boss “Chief.” I pictured myself a modern Rosalind Russell, as in the old movie, His Girl Friday, not a cub reporter for a paper just barely hanging on in the age of the Internet.
“Jamie, where are you?” He sounded excited.
“Arthur Brandon’s home. Finishing—”
“Drop it. I just got a police report. Stephen Mack has been murdered. You’re close to his house. Go over there and get the story. You can make the deadline for tomorrow’s paper. There’s probably not another reporter in L.A. who can get there in less than an hour.”
I hated to sound ignorant, but I was still learning my way around Palos Verdes. “Who is Stephen Mack?”
“Billionaire entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, supporter of local causes. Seventy years old. Take down his address. Keep in touch and let me know when you’ve got something.”
I dutifully wrote it down. He disconnected. I looked up at Art in a daze. He asked, “What about Stephen Mack?”
“He’s been murdered. I’m supposed to get a story. Here’s his address. Do you know where it is?”
“Murdered? Damn. Come on outside.”
Art led the way from his living room to the patio behind his house. The sliding glass door was open to the warmth of August. Although his home was modest his view looking down on Los Angeles was worth a million dollars. He pointed to a higher hill to the west of us. I saw a huge tan house with a red tile roof.
“That’s Stephen Mack’s house.”
I didn’t see a road leading to it. “How do I get there?”
Art scratched his head covered with white hair. “You can’t actually get there from here. I mean, of course you can but it isn’t easy. I live in the poor section. We’re ostracized. You have to go most of the way down the hill and then up again. You can actually walk there faster than you can drive.”
I wished I were wearing sturdier shoes. “If you’ll tell me how—”
“I’ll take you there. A mystery writer should get involved with a real murder once in a while. We’ll get the story together.”
That suited me just fine. Since I’d never covered a murder I wouldn’t know where to start. Art was dressed in athletic shoes, khakis, and a Michigan T-shirt. He grabbed a baseball cap and led the way out the front door.
My jeans and short-sleeved top were okay for walking, if not my shoes, and Art was a fast walker, belying his sixty-odd years. I was glad I worked out on a regular schedule. We were soon out of his neighborhood and climbing up the hill that led to Mack’s house through an undeveloped park. He didn’t appear to be breathing hard, like I was, and he even carried on a conversation.
“Mack built the house about ten years ago. He wanted twenty-thousand square feet, but the city fathers and mothers limited him to sixteen. Small by Beverly Hills standards, perhaps, but he does have an underground garage that houses part of his exotic car collection.”
We approached the house on a dirt path bordered with the dead stalks of tall mustard plants that had blossomed in a sea of yellow during the spring. The north-facing view encompassed Santa Monica Bay and the coast from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica, then around where the land curved west to well past Malibu. Beyond the flatland of Los Angeles, heading west to east, were the Santa Monica Mountains, Hollywood Hills, and then the larger mountains. A view to die for.
Mack’s large lot had an iron-barred fence around it. I counted seven chimneys on the house. Was it heated by fireplaces like an ancient castle? It was built of stone and stucco. We walked beside the fence to a cul-de-sac where the street coming up the hill ended. A number of cars were parked on the street, including several police cars.
Art pointed downhill. “They’re already checking traffic. It’s a good thing you didn’t try to drive.”
A couple of uniformed police officers were standing guard. Maybe they would keep out other reporters. I pictured myself scooping the Los Angeles Times. We were at the open gate of the driveway. Another officer held up his hand to stop us. My heart sank. What now?
Art spoke to the officer. “Hi, George. I understand you have quite a mess here.”
Officer George smiled at him. “Hello, Art. Yeah, it’s old man Mack. Stabbed in the neck with some kind of knife. Blood all over the place. Whoever did it knew where the artery is, that’s for sure.”
In an aside to me, Art said, “I’ve done ride-alongs with him.” He addressed the officer again. “So you saw the body?”
“I was the first responder. He’s in his bedroom upstairs. Apparently taking a nap when it happened. No sign of a struggle. I think he was asleep when he got it. He was deader’n shit when I saw him. I checked for a pulse, but I knew it was too late. The physical evidence team just got here and kicked me out. Medical examiner’s on the way.” He grimaced. “They asked me if I’d touched anything. Like I don’t know what to do.”
We’d stumbled on the right person to talk to. I put on my reporter’s hat. “Is the knife still in him?”
“Yeah. Like I said I didn’t touch anything except to check that he was dead. It’s a fancy little knife, kind of silver, with jewels on the handle.”
I was scribbling in my notebook when Art asked the next question. “Who called it in?”
“A woman named Ernesta called 911. She let me in when I got here. She says she’s a live-in employee. The bedroom door was open and she found him when she went in to do some cleaning.”
I wrote down “Ernesta—employee. Found body.” “Was there anyone else here?”
“Yeah, a number of people. Several men, and—strangest thing. Four women, all wearing white bathrobes.”
“Do you know who they are?” Art was obviously intrigued.
“I didn’t have time to question them individually. I gathered everybody into the living room downstairs and asked if they had seen anything or anybody suspicious, a stranger, perhaps. Nobody had. I told them not to leave the grounds. Now I’m out here to enforce that. Big damn deal. I’m working on becoming a detective, though. Then I’ll get to do the fun stuff. By the way, you beat the detectives here.”
I glanced at Art. I suspected we’d gotten everything we could out of Officer George. Apparently, Art felt the same way. “Do you mind if we go in and poke around?”
He looked concerned. “I’m not supposed to let anybody in unless they’re official.”
“We won’t go inside the house. Just walk around the grounds. Jamie is a reporter for the PV Press.”
I took my cue. “May I get your full name, Officer?” I wrote down that Officer George Johnson was first on the scene.
He relaxed a little. “Okay, you can walk around the outside. Don’t destroy any evidence.” He laughed.
Art and I went through the gate and up the driveway before the cop changed his mind. The landscaping was abundant with a profusion of flowers in bloom. The gardeners must get paid a fortune. We followed a concrete walk along the front of the house, past the double doors of the main entrance.
A huge window facing the spectacular view probably marked the living room. A myriad of smaller windows looked out like eyes. That was when we rounded the corner of the house and saw the bathrobed women.
The remark about the four women being Stephen’s wives brought a chuckle. I wondered whether we had stumbled onto a renegade sect of Mormons. My face must have shown my feelings because the oldest of the women, whose name was Gail, according to my notes, spoke.
“We were all married to Stephen. Only one of us is now. Julie.”
She indicated the youngest of the four. The light dawned. It appeared that Stephen had traded for a younger model every ten years or so. Julie, in fact, was the only one of the four who looked as if she were grieving. Her eyes were red and her makeup was smeared. All four were in good physical shape. There wasn’t a fatty in the bunch.
I had a million questions, but I wanted to be sure not to concentrate on just one woman to the exclusion of the others. I might not have this chance again. “Uh, why are you all here today?”
Wife number two was named Olive. She uncrossed her legs and then crossed them the other way with the sides of her bathrobe sliding down a bit before she adjusted it. I didn’t detect any clothes underneath. She cleared her throat.
“Today is Stephen’s seventieth birthday. He wanted to do something special. He was feeling his mortality, thinking he might not live to see eighty. How right he was... He invited us all here for a day of revelry.”
I turned to Julie. “You were okay with this?”
She nodded. “Why not? I’ve got him now…had him.” She sniffed. “He wanted to review his life from the standpoint of his loves. They were all before my time. I wanted him to be happy.” She sobbed.
Emma, wife number three, took up the narrative. “When we arrived he gave us all bathrobes, slippers, and white gloves.” She pulled a glove out of the pocket of her robe. “He’s a germaphobe. We wore these at lunch.”
Olive, number two, interrupted. “He had reason to be. He was taken to the emergency room in Torrance something like twenty-eight times. Heart problems, mostly.”
Gail, number one, said, “Olive’s a doctor at the hospital so she should know. Anyway, we had this scrumptious lunch. Then we participated in a number of other planned activities, each one with a gorgeous hunk to help us. We rotated among them.”
I scribbled furiously. “Activities?”
Julie ticked them off. “We had pool lessons, backgammon lessons, a massage, and a spin in the hot tub.”
“Let me see if I understand. Each of you participated in a different activity, then you switched and did the others.”
“The girl’s got brains as well as looks. Too bad she isn’t a blond.”
“I can understand why you’d need somebody to give you pool lessons and backgammon lessons and a massage. Why did you need a man in the hot tub?”
“For company, of course.” Gail smacked her lips. “Oh, yes. You haven’t lived until you’ve been toweled off by Manuel. He makes sure you’re dry all over.”
“Are you wearing bathing suits?” I regretted the naivety of that question as soon as it passed my lips.
In a gesture echoing my thought, Julie pulled her robe open. The answer was no. Art was suddenly paying close attention. I was getting hot, myself, thinking of Manuel and his towel.
I turned to Julie. “Stephen didn’t mind you, uh, being with Manuel?”
“He owed me. Viagra can only do so much.”
Emma sighed. “I didn’t get a chance to have Manuel’s ministrations. I was just about to get in the hot tub when the housekeeper discovered Stephen’s body and screamed her fool head off. We could hear her through the whole house.”
I spoke brightly. “So, did one of you kill Stephen?”
They all looked startled for a moment, which was gratifying. Then they smiled.
Olive spoke for the group. “You should be a detective…Jamie, is it? Sure, one of us killed him. We certainly all had reason to. Would you like to hear our stories?”
Would I. I glanced at Art to see if I was doing the right thing. He was sprawled in his chair with his legs spread in a typically male pose, hugely enjoying the situation. I said I was listening.
Gail, wife number one, led off. “Stephen didn’t have any money when we got married, but he was charming in those days, if a little shy. We were both young. He was an inventor. He worked at a dead-end job and tinkered in the garage at night. I helped support us by working as a nurse. We had been married seven or eight years before one of his inventions paid off and the money started rolling in.”
“It was, until he decided that he wanted to relive his youth. He said he had been too poor and too shy to enjoy his school days.”
I was busily writing it all down. I wondered whether my story would be too long for the paper. Maybe we could run it in installments. Stay tuned for the next scandalous revelation. “So what happened?”
“We lived near a college. He met the cheerleaders under the grandstand at night, gave them hundred dollar bills, and did things with them you can’t print in your newspaper.”
I wanted to tell her to let me be the judge of that, but we could hear the street traffic from where we were and more people had been arriving, perhaps detectives. Art and I might be kicked out soon. I had to hurry things along. “Did you divorce him?”
“Of course. Because of California’s Community Property laws I made out fine. I have a good financial manager. I’m still doing fine. Perhaps you saw my red Porsche.”
“Sounds like fun. Olive, would you like to tell your story?”
“I was an intern at the hospital when he was brought in for the first time—of many, as it turned out. I don’t remember his exact problem, but he was an attractive man and he didn’t mind me working. So we got married. Actually, we worked well together because he was developing medical gizmos. I helped him with one that turned out spectacularly well. Except that he managed to take all the credit for it.”
“I see. It sounds as if that upset you.”
“You sound like my psychologist. Yes, it upset me. Enough so that I divorced him. After that I only saw him when he was brought into emergency.”
I didn’t ask how she was doing financially. After all, she was a doctor. I turned to Emma. “What about you?”
“I’m a paramedic. I helped transport Stephen to the hospital several times. We got to know each other. There’s not much to tell. We got married. We had two kids. Everything would have been fine if she hadn’t come along.”
She was Julie. They glared at each other. Were we going to witness a catfight?
Julie took her eyes off Emma and sought mine, as if I were the impartial judge. “It isn’t my fault. Stephen was realizing that his marriage to Emma had been a mistake.”
“How did you two meet?”
“I’m an actress. Stephen saw me in a production of How I Learned to Drive. We met after the show. I’d like to point out that Emma divorced Stephen; he didn’t divorce her. She’s got the stock portfolio and the Maserati to prove that she came out all right.”
“How are…er, how were you and Stephen getting along?”
“Peachy. Just peachy, thank you.”
Art roused himself from his chair and stood up. “I have been listening attentively to everything you ladies have said. It’s all very instructive. For example, I was wondering which of you might have the anatomical knowledge necessary to stick the knife in exactly the right place to sever the carotid artery, which is what happened, from what I understand. It turns out that three of you do: the nurse, the doctor, and the paramedic.”
“Make that four.” Emma glared at Julie again. “Julie the actress actually made her living as a massage therapist. In order to get a Los Angeles County certificate she had to study anatomy.”
“Aha.” Art smiled shrewdly. “I suspect that Julie is the only one of you who would benefit financially from the death of Stephen.”
“That’s a pile of shit.” Julie’s face was contorted. “You haven’t seen my prenup. Stephen’s lawyers have me boxed in tighter than a virgin. But Emma’s kids—that’s another story.”
“Really.” Art had the look of the detective who gets the witness to say exactly what he wants. “Maybe we’ll come up with another motive for you. We have three or four good suspects. Another interesting question is where the murder weapon came from. The description I heard makes it sound like a stiletto—with jewels on the handle.”
Gail pulled a knife out of the pocket of her bathrobe. It was thin and straight and looked lethal, even though the blade was in a sheath. The handle was encrusted with jewels that sparkled in the sun. Before Art or I could react to this development, the other three women pulled identical knives out of their pockets.
I was speechless and Art was standing with his mouth open.
It was Olive who spoke. “A little present to each of us from Stephen on his seventieth birthday.”
I recovered my voice enough to ask, “Are the jewels real?”
“Stephen’s no piker. He wouldn’t give us fakes. Look. They have rubies, diamonds, and sapphires.”
Art and I each examined one of the knives. The red and green stones set off the beauty of the clear diamonds. I couldn’t begin to calculate the cost of them.
“Why knives? Why not…earrings or pendants or something?”
“Stephen liked to do the unexpected. He was an original.”
I turned to Julie. “How do you feel about Stephen spending this kind of money on his ex-wives?”
She shrugged. “To him this is pocket change. Just as long as I get my share.”
Art snapped his fingers. “But there are five knives. These four and the murder weapon. Who was the fifth knife for?”
There was a round of shrugs.
Art continued. “The forensics guys are going to be very interested in whose fingerprints are on that knife.”
“Fingerprints?” Emma pulled a pair of white gloves out of her pocket. “Surely you know that we would be smart enough to wear our gloves if one of us did it.”
“Then there may be bloodstains on them. Perhaps not visible to the naked eye, but the labs have sophisticated equipment now.”
The women looked at each other. At some sort of hidden signal they each pulled their gloves out of their pockets and threw them in a pile on the lawn.
Something small and metallic had fallen out of Julie’s pocket into the grass. As she picked it up she smiled. “They’re all the same size. Now let them figure out whose was whose.”
Gail said, “One for all and all for one.”
“What’s going on here?”
We had been so engrossed that we hadn’t seen the two men in suits approaching. They looked us all over and settled on Art. One smiled at him and held out his hand. “Art Brandon, you old son of a bitch.”
“Hello, Jed.” Art pumped the proffered hand. “Long time no see. I’ve been following the Harris case in the papers. You did a good job on that.”
“Thanks. If you’d like to write a book about it, I’m available as a consultant.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’m not sure how you beat us here, but we have to talk to these lovely ladies. We understand they’re related to the deceased.”
The other man joined in the conversation. They weren’t paying any attention to me. I strolled casually toward the rear of the house, keeping their backs toward me. Then I veered around some bushes, so that I was no longer in sight of the detectives. I picked up speed and ran the last few steps to the corner of the building. I peeked around it. Nobody was in the backyard.
I breathed easier as I rounded the corner. My objective was actually on the other side of the house—the garage. I had seen the doors when we went up the driveway earlier. By going this way I hoped to reach the garage without being seen by the cop guarding the entrance.
The house had wings going from front to back with an open space in the middle. I checked this out before venturing across it. Still nobody in sight. I guess they figured nobody could approach the house from this direction because of the iron-barred fence that surrounded the entire property. When I reached the next corner I looked around it and did reconnaissance.
Another wing of the house was blocking a view of the entrance gate. I proceeded cautiously along the wall until I saw the gate. Officer Johnson was still standing there, but he was facing the street, away from me. I calculated the distance to the garage at about fifty feet. If I could cover that without being seen…
I couldn’t run in my slip-on shoes without making a noise, and, besides, they might come off. I removed them. The surface between here and the garage was part lawn and part concrete, not too hard on the feet. I took a deep breath and started running. Johnson was just turning his head when I ducked into the open garage.
I stopped to put on my shoes. The garage was ten degrees cooler than outside and a lot darker. The smell of grease and oil permeated the air. I saw the silhouettes of several cars I didn’t know the names of. I did recognize one—a Rolls Royce. What was I, a small-town girl from New England, doing here? At a minimum, gathering background information for my article about Stephen Mack. Finding out how a rich man lived. The rich are different… At least, as someone said, they have more money—and better lawyers. But they’re made of flesh and blood.
I wandered among the cars, sliding my hands over the shiny surfaces. This was probably the closest I’d ever get to riding in one. Several doors led from the large garage to somewhere. I noticed a dim light that shone between the bottom of one door and the floor. I wasn’t supposed to go into the house. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to see what was on the other side.
The door was unlocked. It swung inward silently on well-oiled hinges, revealing what looked like a small office dominated by a cluttered desk; a light from the desk lamp is what I’d seen. An old swivel chair on wheels and a file cabinet completed the furniture, except for a wooden bookcase containing automotive manuals.
A Playboy playmate calendar hung on the wall over the desk. I compared myself to Miss August. I would need some enhancement to compete with her. This was obviously the office of a man—probably the mechanic who maintained the cars. I was about to exit when I noticed something—a touch of white peeking out from the far end of the desk in the otherwise dingy surroundings.
I took two steps into the room and the white materialized into a bathrobe. Inside the bathrobe was a young woman about my age, only blond. And scared. Cowering in the corner. Cowering from me. Nobody had ever cowered from me before. Startled, I jumped back a step and said hi. Not brilliant, but it broke the ice.
“Who are you?”
“Jamie Stern. I’m a reporter for the Palos Verdes Press. May I ask who you are?”
She didn’t offer any more information about herself, but my new-found detecting skills began to work. She was wearing a white bathrobe, identical to those of the wives. “You know Stephen Mack.” Duh.
She didn’t say anything, so after a moment I continued. “Let me guess. You’re Stephen Mack’s girlfriend. He invited you here today for his birthday party. He gave you the bathrobe, slippers, gloves, and a jeweled knife.”
Jeweled knife. That must be the murder weapon. I eyed her as if I were an Assistant DA. “Where is your knife?”
She was shaking. “Let me explain.”
Lori unfolded herself and stood up from her cramped position. She was an inch or two taller than I was and very pretty. If I were a man… Then I saw the blood stain on her sleeve. She followed my look.
“It’s not what you think.”
“That’s Stephen’s blood.”
“Yes, but…” Her eyes darted past me toward the doorway. She must have decided that wasn’t a viable option. “All right, I’ll tell you everything.”
I didn’t want to intimidate her by writing, but I was all ears. Lori sat on the edge of the desk with some of her weight on her arms, as if she were going to use them to propel herself out of there. I stood between her and the entrance. She looked at the floor.
“Stephen asked me to come to his party. He wanted to introduce me to his wives.”
Based on what I’d heard so far, that sounded almost logical. “What was he going to introduce you as, his fifth wife?”
Lori had a pleading look in her eyes. “You make it sound so…dirty. He found out that Julie—his current wife—has a boyfriend in Redondo Beach.”
I could see the cycle repeating itself. “So when was he going to introduce you to them?”
“At dinner. I was supposed to stay hidden until then. You see, I have a room here.”
Of course. How many other girlfriends did Stephen have stashed away? “You can’t mean that you live here.”
“No, nothing like that. There’s a room I stay in, sometimes. The only door to it is from Stephen’s bedroom—”
“Do Stephen and Julie have separate bedrooms?”
“How do you get in and out without being seen?”
Lori gave a little smile. “I’ll show you. Close that door.”
I closed the door to the office. She went to the bookcase and slid her fingers into a small slot on the side of it. It started rotating out from its position flush against the wall on what must be hinges. Behind it was a hole in the wall. As the light penetrated it I could see steps behind the hole.
“That’s a secret stairway.”
Lori nodded. “It leads up to my room. I can come and go without anyone knowing. Julio, the mechanic, is usually at Stephen’s garage in Lomita where he keeps most of his cars.”
Stephen had built this house, so the hidden stairway was obviously his idea. He had planned for the future. I was trying to put together what had happened. “When did you get here today?”
“While the others were eating lunch. I stayed in touch with Ernesta by cell phone so I wouldn’t arrive at an inconvenient time. She’s worked for Stephen forever.”
Meaning that the housekeeper was on his side. “What if someone saw you drive up?”
“I’m driving Stephen’s Lotus. It has tinted windows so nobody can see from the house who’s inside. If somebody asked, Stephen would have told them it was Julio, his mechanic. Julie stays out of this garage. She has her own smaller garage.”
How convenient. “So you went up to your room.”
“Yes. I put on the bathrobe and slippers. There was also the pair of white gloves. Stephen’s fussy about germs.”
“I know. You got a jeweled knife, right?”
Lori looked scared again and shook her head. “No, there wasn’t any knife.”
I was skeptical, but we’d come back to that. “What were you going to do all afternoon while the others were engaged in their activities?”
“Run my business. The room has a computer and my cell phone works there. It’s soundproof.”
“And your business is…?”
“Matchmaking for rich clients.”
Apparently she’d made a match for herself. “Were you there when Stephen was killed?”
“I heard Ernesta’s scream. The room isn’t that soundproof. I opened the door between the rooms just as Ernesta raced out. Stephen was lying on the bed covered with blood…” Lori broke down at this point and started crying. She recovered enough to continue talking, haltingly. “I ran over to the bed to see if I could help him, but it was too late. He had lost too much blood.”
“That’s when you got blood on your sleeve.”
“What did you do then?”
“There was nothing I could do for Stephen. I heard people coming so I went back into my room and closed the door. It was locked from the other side. I sat there shaking. From my window I can see the gate. I saw the police officer arrive. I knew more would be coming. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. They would get into my room sooner or later. I came down the passage to this room. I couldn’t leave the garage without being seen.”
“So you hid here. Where are your clothes?”
“In the room. I was so shook up I didn’t take time to put them on. Then I was afraid to go back.”
“You were afraid you’d be accused of murdering Stephen. He was killed with your knife.”
Lori didn’t say anything.
“Why would you want to kill him? He was probably financing your business.”
I considered. “You know you can’t hide forever. Why don’t you put on your own clothes? You don’t want to look too much like the other women, because they’re all suspects.”
“I don’t want to go back to the room.”
“I’ll go with you.”
As we entered the hole in the wall leading to the stairway, Lori flipped a switch and a light came on. Another switch closed the bookcase door. It felt eerie going up the enclosed stairway. At the top there were two more switches. One rotated a bookcase like the one in the garage office, uncovering a hole into the room. The other turned off the light.
In addition to the bookcase, the room contained a bed, a desk, a chair, and a dresser. An open doorway led to a small bathroom. The other door, which was closed, must lead to Stephen’s room. The window, covered with a semi-transparent white curtain, would make it difficult for anyone to look in from the outside. I heard faint noises from the other side of the wall. The physical evidence folks were working in Stephen’s room. They would figure out how to get in here soon.
While Lori put on her clothes in the bathroom, I looked for clues. That’s what the police would be doing. I started opening drawers of the desk. Nothing. More nothing. Then I found a handwritten note in a drawer. I picked it up and read it.
“Lori— I have decided to stay with Julie. I don’t want to see you again. Please leave. Julio will pick up the Lotus from your place. I’ll have my lawyers make a final settlement with you. S”
Lori was looking over my shoulder. I was frozen to the spot. I heard her sharp intake of breath.
“I didn’t see that before.”
The way she said it made me believe her.
“Is that Stephen’s handwriting?”
“Close. It’s a pretty good imitation. Stephen wouldn’t write that.”
Suddenly I knew what to do. “Stay here. I think I can get this sorted out.”
Taking the note, I went through the hole in the wall and back down the stairs. I opened the hole into the office and raced out of the garage toward the front gate. Art was talking to Officer Johnson. Stroke of luck. I needed his credibility. I rushed up to them. They turned and looked at me in surprise. I took a second to catch my breath.
“I think I know who did it. Are the detectives still talking to the wives?”
Both men nodded.
“Good. Art, please come with me.”
As we walked rapidly toward the side of the house where the wives were, Art said, “What’s up?”
“You’ll know in a minute. Just make the detectives listen to me.”
We rounded the corner of the house. The wives were still sitting in the same chairs; the detectives occupied the chairs that Art and I had used. They hadn’t separated the women for individual questioning yet. All looked up as we approached. Art told them I had some information about the case. All eyes were on me. If I was wrong I pictured myself on the next plane back to New England.
“We need to see what Julie has in the pocket of her bathrobe.”
“Nothing.” Julie shook her head. “Just the knife and the gloves were there. Our handsome detectives have taken them.”
The knives and gloves had been bagged and were sitting on a glass-topped table.
“There’s something else.”
Julie laughed, derisively. I appealed to Art with my eyes. He looked at the detectives. One of them walked over to her. “May I take a look?”
“What are you going to do, strip-search me?” Suddenly she had become Ms. Squeamish.
“No, just look in your pocket.”
She reluctantly held it slightly open for him. With a quick movement he dove his hand deep into the pocket and pulled something out. It was a key. I almost cheered out loud. Then I spoke in a rush.
“That’s the key to the room that goes off Stephen’s room. Julie found out about Lori, the wife who was going to replace her. She killed Stephen with Lori’s knife and left a note that implicates Lori in his murder.” I handed them the note.
One of the detectives said, “We don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss. For starters, who’s Lori?”
“Come with me to Stephen’s room and I’ll show you.”
“Jamie, you’d make a great detective.”
High praise from a mystery writer. “Thanks.”
“I’m interested that you suspected Julie, even though she was the only one of the wives who had been crying.”
“That bothered me until she said she’s an actress. Actresses cry on cue.”
We were walking back to Art’s home the short way after proving that the key fit the door to Lori’s room and introducing the detectives to her. And explaining why I was running wild all over a crime scene.
He smiled at me. “This might make a good book. Or at least a short story.”
“May I write it with you?”
He thought. “Why not? Patterson has co-authors. Ludlum does and he’s dead. Fleming ditto. Maybe this is the start of a profitable collaboration.”