Continued from Monday…
“Tom Simms has a girlfriend.” Deanna made this pronouncement while slapping a wad of mashed potatoes onto Vanessa’s plate.
“I saw her,” Roxanne said. “At least I assume I did. Is her name Daliah?”
“How would I know? I only heard from Regina -”
“Can’t anyone keep their privacy in this town?” Vanessa said, stabbing at her pork roast.
Roxanne blushed. “I’m not judging him. I only said I saw him with a blonde woman today.”
“It seems soon,” Deanna said. “His wife’s only been gone a short time. Still, he is a young man.”
“You think Abigail was referring to Tom?”
Vanessa looked confused. “Abigail’s dead.”
“The day she died, Mother heard her make an odd comment.” Roxanne searched Deanna’s face. “You think the comment had something to do with her death.”
“It’s pretty far fetched,” Deanna said. “However, Tom’s been getting perfumed letters at the post office.”
“How in God’s name would you know that?” Vanessa demanded.
“Maybe it’s the same woman,” Roxanne said. “I don’t remember seeing her in Wilton before. One thing that is odd… I saw the couple leave Pepe’s Restaurant, so I went in and asked the hostess about them. They came in together.”
“You spied on them?” Vanessa threw down her fork. “I’d expect that from her,” she said, jabbing a finger in at Deanna.
Roxanne ignored the comment and instead asked Vanessa, “Do you remember a certain smell at Abigail’s house that night? Sweet?”
“I’m going to be sick.” Vanessa pushed her plate away.
“I mean like bad perfume.”
This caught Deanna’s attention. “Abigail Watts never wore perfume. She was allergic.”
“When I walked in, the restaurant had that same smell up by the hostess station. Tom and the Daliah had just passed through. I found out the scent is called Halo. They carry it at Bently’s, where they kept it in stock…for the late Patty Simms.”
“That’s a coincidence.” It was clear from her tone that Deanna did not approve of coincidences.
“Especially when the scent is so…” Roxanne struggled to find the right word, “Unique. Marla, the sales clerk, told me that Tom Simms bought a bottle last week.”
“That’s creepy,” Vanessa said. “If I was his girlfriend, I’d demand my own perfume.”
“The smell connects Tom, or at least his girlfriend, to the murder scene. And Tom was in line that day.” Deanna’s voice trailed off as she considered the possibility.
“But that’s ridiculous,” said Roxanne. “People don’t get murdered because they disapprove of the length of your mourning period.”
Vanessa grabbed the coffee urn off the countertop. “Don’t you think you should share your theory with Detective Grady?”
Roxanne stammered. “It’s hardly a theory.”
Deanna smiled. “I’m sure Detective Grady has his own theories to keep him occupied.”
Grady was stumped. He had an unpleasant, generally disliked dead woman who was celebrating an expected income. There were no recent deposits in her bank account, no recently deceased relative who might have left her money, and little possibility of a sudden career change. If Grady considered Abigail Watts’ character, blackmail seemed likely.
Since she had yet to receive a payment, Grady assumed the target must be recent. Unfortunately, a search of her personal papers left him without any clues. Of course, if the blackmail victim had killed her, he or she would hardly have left the evidence behind. Who in Wilton had undergone a recent change in fortunes? Was there any place he hadn’t looked? Some secret place that Abigail might use to hide information?
On a hunch, Grady grabbed his jacket and headed for the post office.
Regina Potter held the envelope up to the light and gasped. That is a lot of zeros, she thought. The envelope, addressed to Tom Simms, bore the return address of Travelot Insurance Carrier. Regina had an inkling the envelope contained the insurance payout for his wife’s death. Good thing she had peeked. Only a personal delivery would do for a check in this amount.
The envelope was marked return receipt requested, signature required, and she could collect that signature and see the look of pleasure on the young man’s face for herself. How fortuitous of Tom to insure his wife so well, she thought, especially considering they were newlyweds. One hardly thought about the possibility of bad things so early in life. Unless, of course, you were a pragmatist, like Tom Simms.
When asked, Leonard Miles confirmed that employees received a free box as part of their benefits package. He didn’t recall Abigail ever putting hers to use. Fortunately, Leonard was wrong.
Grady dumped the former box contents onto his desktop and studied them. There was a blank sheet of pink paper, scented. His eyes watered from the smell. He slipped this piece of evidence back into the envelope and slid it into a drawer.
On an unscented, white sheet of paper, an eight hundred number was scratched in pencil alongside the name Barnaby. He dialed an outside line.
“Travelot Insurance,” said the perky voice that answered.
“I’d like to speak to Barnaby.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Grady rubbed his temple. “What kind of insurance do you sell at Travelot?”
The receptionist recited the company line. “We service the personal needs of average Americans. We offer life, health, disability –“
“Which department do the Barnaby’s work in?”
“One.” He completed the sentence for her. “Just transfer me to anyone named Barnaby.”
On the second ring, a young man answered the phone. “Barnaby Miller.”
“This is Detective Grady from the Wilton police force.”
“Wilton. As in Wilton, Illinois?”
“Never heard of it. I handle the East Coast.”
Grady had a glimmer of hope. “Is there a Barnaby who handles the Midwest?”
“Barnaby Taylor. I’ll transfer you.”
Barnaby Taylor was a busy man. Grady went directly into his voice mail. He left a message and made sure to add that his enquiry was regarding murder with the hope that this would expedite the return call. By two o’clock, the insurance man had not touched base. Grady left another message, this time including his home phone number, and went in search of a late lunch.
Regina Potter peered through the screen door of Twenty-five Minnow Lane. A woman’s soft laughter drifted through the house from a back room. Regina struggled to hold onto her confidence and push away the voice in her head that berated her.
Interloper. Intruder. You’re a chip off the ol’ Abigail block, aren’t you?
A handsome face, vaguely familiar, appeared in response to her knock. Over his shoulder, Regina saw a dark haired woman wrapped in a towel dart up the stairs. She pulled her eyes back at the sharp tone of his voice.
The grand pronouncement she had practiced on her walk up the driveway abandoned her.
“I’ve come from the post office.” She stuck out the hand holding the check.
Tom Simms opened the screen door and leaned against the frame. He took the envelope, raising a brow after reading the return address.
“Harvey’s already been by,” he said, referring to the mail carrier.
Regina blushed. “This came after the mail had been sorted and it seemed kind of important. It needs a signature.” She stumbled along, unable to stop herself. “I assumed, with the death of your wife and all…a tragedy. You have my heartfelt sympathy.”
Regina relaxed when Tom offered her a boyish smile.
“I hope my sister didn’t shock you. She’s visiting.” He glanced back at the stairway and rolled his eyes. “I told her she should get a robe. It’s not decent, even if I am her brother.”
Regina, emboldened by this confidence, smiled and told Tom not to worry. All girls grow out of it. “How old is she?”
Tom replied, “Teenager,” and the two shared an understanding chuckle. Then he grew serious.
“Thanks. For what you said about my wife. I still miss her.”
Regina jumped at the chance to offer consolation and left him with a few words of advice about mending hearts and life marching on. When she walked away from the Simms house, it was with a light step and Tom Simm’s signature.
The phone rang just as Grady peeled the lid from the top of a microwave dinner. He tossed the hot plastic between his fingers and dumped it in the sink, managing to answer on the fourth ring.
The caller was Barnaby Taylor.
“I was concerned by your message, naturally. Didn’t get it until five minutes ago. So are you saying a client of mine was murdered?”
“Not unless Abigail Watts was a client.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar.” Grady heard typing. “No. Good thing, too. Our policies don’t pay out on murder, as you’d imagine.”
“Mr. Taylor,” Grady asked, “do you have any clients in Wilton?”
Barnaby Traylor paused a moment. “Hard to say. What’s the zip code?”
Grady supplied it and Barnaby typed it into the system.
“I got one hit,” Barnaby said. “And you’re lucky I got it. That policy was purchased seven months ago, but not in Wilton. We’ve only just updated our system search to include a change of address. Tom and Patty Simms.” Barnaby grunted. “Seems there’s been a payout recently.”
Grady waited while Barnaby compiled his information.
“That’s too bad. Looks like the wife died in a car accident a couple of months after they were married. I hate that.”
Barnaby sounded devastated.
“Can you tell me when that check paid out?”
“The check was cut two weeks ago. Then it would have been routed for signature and mailed. We send payouts return receipt requested, and we need a signature as well. Haven’t gotten anything back, so the check is probably in the mail.” Barnaby laughed at his own joke.
Grady thanked him for the information.
“Hold on,” Barnaby said. “What does this have to do with murder?”
“Can you tell me how much the check was for?”
Barnaby paused. “One million dollars.”
Bingo, thought Grady.
This time, Roxanne accompanied Deanna into the post office. She worried that Regina might not be forthcoming in her presence, but Roxanne wanted to make sure she got the facts directly from the woman. She needn’t have worried.
Regina was bursting to set the record straight.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said to Deanna, with a nod to Roxanne.
“I feel I’ve done a bad thing.” Regina administered her own version of corporal punishment, slapping her left hand with her right. “Shame on me, maligning that young man’s character.”
She explained about her duty to deliver the check from the insurance company in person.
“And then I met his sister, a sweet young thing. She must have been the one writing the letters. So you see? It was all so innocent. I feel terrible for making a fuss.”
“Was she a blonde?” Roxanne asked.
“Brunette.” Regina frowned. “Why?”
“Did you get her name?”
Regina stammered. “I didn’t think to ask. Does it matter?”
“What did she look like?”
Regina blushed. “I didn’t get a good look. You see, she was running up the stairs in a towel and –“
This time Deanna spoke up. “She was running around in front of her brother in a towel?”
“She’s only a teenager and…” Regina frowned. “I believe he gave her a talking to.”
Roxanne asked, “Did you smell anything peculiar?”
Regina gasped. “You mean like drugs?”
“No. Like bad perfume.”
Regina narrowed her eyes and clutched the top of her blouse closed. It was clear she thought Roxanne was making fun of her. For the second time in her short career, Regina put up the closed sign and took an unscheduled break.
Grady held the line for the Dane County Coroner. It took three transfers, but he finally hooked up with a doctor who remembered the accident. Dr. Kohler had been on duty the night that Patty Simms died.
“It’s pretty straight forward, Detective Grady.” Dr. Kohler explained how the body had been burned beyond recognition after the engine caught fire and the gas tank exploded. “It was labeled a freak accident by the fire department. She lost control of the car. Although, come to think of it, they were never sure why. Route Fourteen is a straight shot at that point, and the night was clear. It’s possible a stray deer wandered into her path but there were no skid marks.”
“Who identified the body? And how?”
Dr. Kohler shuffled through his report.
“The husband was forced to do it, poor sod. Identification came from the wedding ring she was wearing.”
“What happened to the ring?”
Dr. Kohler seemed surprised by the question. “It was an accidental death. I suppose it was returned to him with…well, there really wasn’t anything else to return.”
Grady thanked the man and settled down to a luke-warm meal.
“What are we going to do?”
When Deanna spoke, she had a glazed look in her eyes that worried Roxanne.
“Mother, define “do”?”
“About the woman who is obviously not Tom Simms’ sister!” Deanna practically screamed.
Vanessa stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth. “Who cares? So he has a date. Lucky him.”
Roxanne kept her focus on her mother. “I agree that something doesn’t smell right.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes.
“Sorry. It slipped. Anyway, I’m saying that, whatever is going on, it doesn’t mean murder.”
Deanna waived her hands in the air. “Do the math. First, Abigail says someone’s looking better than they have a right to.”
“Tom Simms.” Vanessa snapped open a can of cola and took a long slug. “Because he’s happy?”
“Or was she talking about someone else?” Deanna looked so pleased with herself that Roxanne shivered.
“Who else could she have meant?” Roxanne asked.
Deanna looked back and forth between her daughters, coaxing them to say the right answer. Finally, she shook her fist in the air. “Did I raise a couple of morons?”
Vanessa reached for the chips again. “Obviously, because I have no idea what you’re going on about.”
“I know where you’re headed with this,” Roxanne said. “You think the girlfriend is really Patty Simms. Tom’s wife looks better than she has a right to, because she’s supposed to be dead.”
Vanessa’s jaw dropped.
“I don’t even remember what his wife looked like,” Roxanne said, pointedly. “You would need an old picture of her –“
“I can get that from the news story about her death,” Deanna said. “Or even from their wedding photos. The news office should have something. Then we can compare that photograph to a new picture of this alleged Daliah person.”
Vanessa blustered and then demanded that Deanna take this information to Detective Grady.
“Not without proof.”
“And how do you get proof?” Roxanne asked, edging toward the door.
Deanna pulled out a digital camera.
“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Vanessa asked.
“No,” Deanna answered, as she turned to leer at Roxanne. “But she does.”
To be Continued…