Authors: Janis Lane
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #45 Minutes (22-32 Pages), #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
They walked from the kitchen to the front door. Carl paused to take another look at the portrait.
“I’m afraid I won’t have time to do much visiting. I have a deadline to meet. That’s why I came up here where I knew no one. I need to concentrate on my work.” He reached for the door, and then stood smiling down at her.
“I do appreciate your help. Perhaps we can have a cup of coffee sometimes?”
Susan nodded absently.
“You’re a writer, you said. Are you someone I should know?”
He joined in her laughter, understanding the joke.
“Not unless you’re into dry history. I’m writing a textbook. I’m on sabbatical from teaching for the moment. Well, bye. Thank you for the cookies and tea. Have a nice afternoon.” He navigated the steps and with long-legged strides he disappeared down the sidewalk.
Susan stood staring after him pensively.
Wiping her hands on a paint-smeared towel, Susan stood back from her easel and gazed at the painting. This one seemed to have come to an ending very satisfactorily. It always gave her a feeling of peace when she gazed into a view of the back garden with two women sitting at the picnic table enjoying lunch together. The colors in the tablecloth echoed the vibrant hues of the annuals planted in the sloping beds in the background. The blue depicted the sunny skies of mid-June while a few humidity-laden clouds floating lazily overhead. Understanding the personalities of the two women, Susan was elated to be able to capture their contented spirits. It was an exercise she thought would elude her forever, but it had danced in her head just long enough for her to get it on canvas. How she missed her mother!
The friendship between her mom and Miss Harper was long, close, and a thing to be envied. They had gone to school as girls together and the friendship had continued into adulthood. Miss Harper had taught English at the local high school while her mother was the town librarian. Because Susan’s dad was away a lot, the two women became each other’s support system. Nora Michelin never worried about her young daughter when her friend was around, consequently Miss Harper became like a second mother to Susan. She sighed. She was no closer to making a decision about her house than she was two weeks ago.
She stepped forward to pour herself a cup of old coffee, brewed in early morning, when she heard the doorbell ring. She absentmindedly wiped her hands on her paint smock and opened the door expecting to find the mailman with a package of newly ordered acrylic paint tubes.
“Hey! I don’t mean to interrupt,” Carl Wilson said, eying her dirty, paint-smeared smock, “but I need your help. Do you have a minute?” He stood before her wearing a checked, open-throated shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his hair standing on end as if he had been running his fingers through it. Blue eyes held her green ones as he shuffled his feet anxiously on her doorstep.
“Oh, sure. Actually your timing is perfect. I can share the painting with you now.” She stood back as he brushed past her and entered the living room. His gaze searched and found her easel as it stood on the drop clothes near the kitchen door.
The light was perfect there and since she lived alone, she used whichever window provided the best vision, even though it happened to be half in and half out of the living/dining room adjacent to the kitchen.
He walked directly up to her painting and stood gazing into it.
“That’s Miss Harper. Is that your mom? I can see it’s this backyard. You’re very, very good. Will you sell it?” He turned to her.
“No, not this one. I guess you could call it my sentimental journey into the past. My mother and Miss Harper were very close friends, and I often found them just like that.”
“How in the world did you manage to capture the light so well? I think I can feel the summer breeze . . . I’m forgetting I need your help,” he said, interrupting himself, his face turning serious.
“Want a cup of coffee? I’ll make us a fresh pot.” Susan led the way to the kitchen where Carl settled himself familiarly at her table. Aware of him looking around for something, she, with a flash of understanding, reached for the box of cookies on top her refrigerator. She set them down in front of him, watching his face light up. She tried and failed to suppress a chuckle.
He looked up at her sharply.
“Okay, I’m a sucker for cookies,” he admitted, stuffing his mouth with a sugar cookie and shaking his head, causing a lock of hair to flop over his forehead.
“You certainly are. But you don’t seem to suffer much for it,” she said, eyeing his trim figure.
He laughed. “Neither do you,” he returned, giving her own slender frame an up and down, interested appraisal. “You must keep cookies only for your guests.”
She finished filling the coffee pot and joined him at the table.
“Now what can I do for you?” she asked, thinking she had a few secret ideas on that subject. He was one handsome hunk.
“It’s not exactly for me. You know how my house is a mirror of yours?” He paused and waited for her nod.
She had been in that house a few times in the past when a family with children lived there. Miss Harper’s house was exactly like hers, but his rental was a mirror image of the two, demonstrating that the early subdivision architects displayed very little creativity.
“Well, my big window opens right across from Miss Harper’s.” He gestured toward her window.
Susan nodded in understanding.
“And . . .?”
“Her cats are squirming around over there all the time. I try to keep my window closed, but occasionally I leave it open. My desk is right up against the window.” He reached for another cookie.
Susan gazed at him skeptically, but said nothing. She refused to get into a verbal altercation over a bunch of darn china cats. She had better things to do than humor a sarcastic man who professed to be a writer of history, but was obviously better suited to science fiction or fantasy.
“Well, today I heard raised voices and I confess I tried to eavesdrop. She had the drapes closed, which is unusual, but I could still clearly hear a man scolding Miss Harper and, listen, I think she was crying.” He eyed her anxiously. “I don’t want to be a nosy neighbor, but she seems to be a very nice—”
“Crying? You heard Miss Harper crying?” Susan leaned forward, paying close attention now. “Are you certain it was Miss Harper? Sometimes she plays the TV loud. Are you sure it was her and not some soap opera character?”
“It didn’t sound like television, but with the drapes closed, I couldn’t be sure. That’s where you come in. Would you go over there and make sure she’s all right? I just can’t get my allergies stirred up again even though I broke down and had my shots.”
“I certainly will. Let me wash up and I’ll be right with you. She’s been having some problems with that idiot nephew of hers. I’m not sure what he’s up to but I know it’s no good,” she said as she scrubbed the acrylic paint from her fingers in the kitchen sink.
Jars of soaking paintbrushes lined the kitchen counter, and she glanced at them regretfully. She should be washing them out with soapy water before the glue loosened on the sable hairs, but people were more important than things. She hurriedly dried her hands and joined Carl. They left the house by the back door and followed the path across the garden to the steps of the house next door.
“Miss Harper?” Susan knocked on the back door firmly and waited. Sometimes the elderly lady was too far away to hear. She knocked again. Hearing nothing she tried the door and finding it unlocked peered around calling out for Miss Harper. Glancing back at Carl Wilson, she saw him shake his head as he made the decision to stay outside on the tiny porch. Susan entered.
There was no one in the kitchen, but she thought she heard a faint moan somewhere in the house. Her stomach did a flip-flop. What could have happened to her beloved neighbor? She moved swiftly toward the stairs, but paused when she saw a man lying motionless adjacent to the front door. She stifled a scream and ran up the short flight of stairs toward the sound of faint moans. Miss Harper was in trouble!
Detective Kevin Fowler sat in his office interviewing a Miss Susan Michelin while a Carl Wilson waited outside on a bench. They had a dead body and he needed to ask a few questions. He sipped from a lukewarm cup of coffee and then began.
“Just tell me what you remember, Miss Michelin, please. Don’t worry if you’ve told this story before.”
“I ran up the stairs and found Miss Harper trying to stand up in the hall next to her bedroom. She was badly hurt, blood running down her face. I was so frightened. Are you certain she’ll recover? I know the doctor said—”
“How long have you known Miss Harper, Miss Michelin?” He wrote something in a notepad he had open on his desk.
“Oh, please call me Susan. I’ve known her all my life. She and my mother were close, you see.” Tears ran down her cheeks and she stifled a sob. “I’m so sorry. She’s like a second mother to me.”
He handed her a tissue. “And then what did you do? I mean, after you found Miss Harper.” He looked up at her expectantly. “I apologize for asking you these questions when I know you’ve already talked to the men in uniform, but just bear with me, please,” he said gently.
“I ran into the bedroom and dialed nine-one-one. I could hear Carl Wilson, our neighbor, calling to me from downstairs so I shouted back to him to come up. He did.”
“Miss . . . Susan, did you know the identity of the deceased found downstairs?” Kevin watched her carefully as she wiped her nose on the tissue. He detected a fleeting expression of distaste flicker across her young face.
“He’s Miss Harper’s nephew, son of her oldest brother. She didn’t like him one bit. She called him Neal. He’d started coming around to visit her recently and it was upsetting her quite a bit.”
“Do you know why he was visiting her? Was he perhaps concerned about her health? Miss Harper is quite elderly, isn’t she?” Detective Fowler frowned and shook his head when a uniformed policeman peeked around the opened door.
The cop nodded his understanding, and exited closing the door.
“I don’t think he cared one bit about her health,” Susan said vehemently. “I think he was checking out her property. Did you know he tried to have her declared incompetent?” she said indignantly. “Thank goodness Miss Harper knew the judge and he threw out the petition.”
“So you think this nephew, Neal, was preying on Miss Harper in some way?”
“Well, he certainly wasn’t concerning himself with her well-being, was he? He hurt her!” Susan said angrily. “She had blood all over her face. How could he hurt a woman that age?” She started weeping again, and Kevin pushed the whole box of tissues toward her.
“Did you see anything that might cause the nephew to fall down the stairs? Was there any obstruction on the stairs when you ran up?”
She shook her head. “I saw Ginger, one of Miss Harper’s china cats, lying sideways on the floor beside the man. But there was nothing at all on the stairs that I noticed. I don’t think the cat was broken. He was probably trying to steal her, though goodness knows why.”
“Was Miss Harper unconscious when you found her?”
Susan shook her head again.
“She was half in and half out, trying to get off the floor. Hurt. Her face . . .”
“I think that will be all for now, Miss Michelin. I might like to chat with you again at a later time, but you can go now. Don’t worry too much about your friend. The doctor predicted a quick recovery. Will you tell Mr. Wilson to please come in?” Kevin stood and walked with her to the door.
“Please come in, Mr. Wilson. I’m sorry to detain you, but we can be finished quickly if you answer a few questions. I know you’ve given a report to our officers, but please bear with me as we go over the information.”
Wilson nodded his understanding.
“Can you tell me once more what happened this morning?” Kevin slid his notepad toward him. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Wilson shook his head. “I was working—I’m writing a book—and I heard a loud voice coming from Miss Harper’s. I’m renting the house next door and my desk is directly across from her big window. It was upsetting to hear that voice—I know what an elderly woman Miss Harper is—so I went over to Miss Michelin’s house and asked her to check on Miss Harper. I would have gone myself but I’m allergic to those cats. They’re all over the house.”
Fowler looked up at him with a disconcerted expression. “You’re allergic to cats?” he asked.
“Yes, but they didn’t bother me today because I had gone for my allergy shots earlier in the week. Still, I don’t like to be around them.” He shook his head with a grimace.
“Anyway, I stayed outside while Susan went inside, but then I got anxious waiting for her to come back so I went in. I found that man stretched out on the floor. I had no idea who he was, but it was obvious he was dead. I felt his pulse just in case there was some hope . . .”
“Did you move the body in any way?” Fowler asked, writing rapidly.
“Well, I picked up his hand, er, wrist, I guess. But I didn’t touch anything else or try to move him. I called Susan and she answered me from upstairs. I went immediately up there and found her with Miss Harper. She had already called nine-one-one.” He paused with a reflective expression on his face.
“Miss Harper was hurt. We weren’t sure how badly, but she was incoherent and bleeding. We stayed with her upstairs until the rescue squad showed up. You know the rest.”
You had never seen the deceased before, never met him or seen him at Miss Harper’s house?” Fowler knew the answer, but felt he had to ask the question just in case.
“Nope. I heard loud voices, one of them male, but I couldn’t have identified this man from that. Susan told me that Miss Harper’s nephew had been causing trouble, so I presume this is the man.” He raised his eyebrows in question.
“Yes, the deceased is Miss Harper’s nephew,” Fowler affirmed briefly.
“Try and remember, think carefully before you answer. When you ran up the stairs, did you see anything that might have caused this man to stumble and fall?”
Carl Wilson shook his head slowly. “I didn’t notice anything. But it might have been one of those cats. They were around because I could feel my nose starting to react even with the shot. You know how they wind around your legs when you’re trying to walk or go up and down stairs?”
“I’m sure that was the problem,” he added. “He probably wasn’t used to walking around a bunch of cats.”
Fowler stared at him, but decided not to comment.