Part 1 (to start at the beginning)
The Old Flame
I took Bruno down to the ruins of Plumb Orchard Fine Used Books and let him have another sniff of the shoes. He lead me right to the spot out back where the Lexus had been parked, and then up and down the alley a couple of times. Finally, he sat down and howled at the traffic going by on Glendale Road. This, he was telling me, was the end of the line.
I bought Bruno a burger on the way back to Ace Kennels as a reward. A reward for nothing, but that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a trooper, and I had taken a liking to the dog.
Well, I was stumped. I had a notebook full of suspects and motives and not a clue as to who had done old man Jones in. He was dead. Of that I was sure. But who had killed him, and why? I drove down to Mable’s Diner to ponder the dilemma.
Angie was on duty and gave me a friendly wave as I came in. She hustled on over and asked me what she could get.
“Baby, you don’t have what I need,” I told her glumly. “But in the mean time, I’ll have some coffee. What’s the special tonight?”
“Chicken fried steak and American fries.”
I could feel the indigestion starting already. “Screw the coffee,” I reconsidered. “Bring me a beer and some chips. I’ll order dinner in a bit.”
“Sure thing, Max.” She was gone in a flash.
I pulled out my notebook and pondered the facts. The missus was still my best suspect, but she really seemed intent on finding the guy. It just didn’t make sense. Her brother was just as likely, but not unless he had her in cahoots with him. So back to square one. The nerdy kid… I scratched a thick line through his name. Wasn’t even worth considering. Then there was Micky the Hammer. He’d be my number two suspect, if I had to scratch the missus. But then he had gone and hired me too. But, I knew, if Jonesy was making funny with the books, somehow cheating the boss… Well Micky wouldn’t hesitate to set things straight. And of course there was the Giacardo gang – Micky’s competition. Maybe I was witnessing the beginning of a mob war? I didn’t like that idea at all.
I was suddenly aware of someone standing next to the table, looking over my shoulder. I covered the notebook and looked up. Oh joy. Murphy.
“Hello, Max. Been busy?”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Not very friendly tonight, are we? Aren’t you going to ask me to join you?”
He sat down opposite me. “So what’s in the little book?”
“My notes, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh no, I don’t mind. Not at all. Mind if I take a look?”
“Over my dead body.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Listen Murphy, you got something to say, say it, and leave me alone.”
“I heard you were sniffing around the arson site tonight. With a dog.”
“And at the house?”
“No. Listen, Murphy. You want to check for scents, go out and get you a dog. I can tell you a place to go.” I’d like to tell him where to go.
“That’s OK, Max. We have our own dogs. On retainer.”
“So what do you want?” He was becoming annoying.
“Your head on a spike?” He grinned, feigning a joke.
I was getting pretty fed up. Then Angie came back with a cup of coffee. She stumbled just as she approached the table and the coffee sloshed out, splattering on the table in front of Murphy. He jumped back to avoid being burned. Angie gushed with apologies and dabbed frantically at the wet spots on his sleeve. Murphy warded her off as he climbed out his side of the booth, cussing like a sailor. He shot me an evil look and stormed out, ignoring Angie as she trailed after him effusing her regrets. In a minute she was back, plunking a beer down in front of me.
She gave me a wink. “I’ll be right back with those chips.”
I had three beers and two bowls of chips as the evening wore on. I was running out of time and knew it. And if my hunches were right, Mrs. Jones would be off on her cruise the day after tomorrow and I’d be left holding the bag with a $300 bill to Ace Kennels, not to mention the other expenses. I wouldn’t even break even on my $500 retainer. Sometimes life’s just a bitch.
I finally ordered a plate of fettuccine with clam sauce for dinner and switched to coffee. I needed a clear head and more time. More time would give me a clear head, but nothing would give me more time. Hell, Mrs. Jones would be gone as of Wednesday afternoon. Then what would I do? I picked at my fettuccine.
“Not hungry tonight, hon?” Angie looked at the cold plate of pasta and shook her head. She and I both knew that Mable didn’t like it when food came back uneaten. Mable took it sort of personal.
“It was good,” I assured her. “Tell Mable I’m just feeling down tonight.”
“What’s wrong, hon?” Angie slipped onto the bench opposite me.
“Nothing you can help me with,” I said.
“Is it Murphy? Max, are you in trouble?”
I laughed and patted her hand affectionately. “I’m OK, Angie. It’s just this case I’m working on. It’s got me stumped.”
“You mean the old man Jones case?”
I looked up at her, surprised. “You know about that?”
“Oh sure, hon. Mable told me all about it. It’s all the talk over at Betty’s. Mable got her hair done there today. The place smells of smoke!”
“I see,” I said. “So, what all did Mable tell you?”
“Oh, just that old lady Jones killed off another husband and burned down his store to cover the crime.”
“Oh?” I had to grin a little. “And where did she get that idea.”
“The black widow?” Now she patted my hand, as a mother pats the hand of a child that just doesn’t seem to understand. “Everybody knows about the Black Widow. What’s this now, her third husband?”
“Yea, her third husband.” I shook my head. It seemed obvious enough, shoot, even to Mable and Angie. But it just didn’t add up. Something was missing, but what? “I’ve got to admit it does look mighty suspicious for Mrs. Jones, Angie. But it just doesn’t add up.”
“She hired me to find him. And she seems intent on me succeeding.”
Angie chewed on her lip over that one.
“But there’s only one common denominator,” I had to admit, ”And she’s heading for the Caribbean the day after tomorrow.” I sighed.
“Yea. Three husbands, one house,” Angie mused. “Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same. Like the butler, for example.”
I looked up from my coffee, stunned. “What?”
“Huh?” Angie looked confused.
“What did you just say?”
“Oh, about the butler? Yea, Mable tells me that the butler’s been there from the start. Worked for old man Abrams, before they even met.” She gave a little chuckle. “I guess you could say he came with the house. And he’s just devoted to her.”
I jumped up and kissed Angie on the lips. Hard. “Angie, you’re a doll!” I cried as I made for the door. Sometimes it’s just the most obvious thing.
“Betsy! I need Betsy!” I pounded on the door again. The ruckus from the back of the kennel was enough to raise the dead. At last I was gratified to see a light come on down the hall.
“What in tarnation?” Ace opened the door to me despite his reservations. “Do you know what time it is?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Morgan, but this is an emergency. I need to hire Betsy, right away.”
He looked at me with a quizzical eye but turned to lead the way into the kennels. “So, you got a notion, do ya?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Morgan. I’ve got a notion all right.”
I pounded on the door again. Dogs in the neighborhood started barking. A few bedroom lights across the street came on. I tried the doorbell again. And again. At last the light in the hallway came on. I stood so that I could not be seen through the side panel in hopes Robert would not simply turn off the light and go back to bed. It didn’t work.
“Who is it?” A disembodied voice came out over a tiny speaker hidden somewhere in the overhang. It was Robert. He sounded quite annoyed.
“Max Mann. I need to speak to Mrs. Jones right away.”
“Go away! Do you have any idea what time it is? Come back in the morning.”
“No can do, Robert. I need to talk to Mrs. Jones. Now!” I was shouting through the door. More lights came on up and down the street.
“Go away or I’ll call the Police!” Now he was getting angry.
“Who is it Robert?” I recognized her voice.
“Mrs. Jones! I need to talk to you! Max Mann, here. Please, open the door.”
I could tell the intercom was quickly switched off. Damn! I raised my fist to pound on the door again but then heard the sound of fumbling with the lock. The door opened slightly. This time Robert had his foot firmly planted to prevent me from pushing my way in. “This is an outrage!” he snipped.
“I need to see Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones, are you there.”
“Let him in!” Mrs. Jones ordered. Robert reluctantly acquiesced. As he opened the door his eyes fell on Betsy standing calmly at my side and he began to close the door again.
“You cannot bring in that animal!” He looked down his nose at the dog.
“Let them in, let them in.” Mrs. Jones countermanded.
“Oh for God sakes!” I saw Alex approaching from down the hall. “What the hell is he doing here? We’re trying to sleep, man!”
I stepped through the opening door before events could change the situation. Between Robert and Alex, they just may have prevailed upon her to keep me out.
“He’s brought the damned dog back!” Alex sneered.
“No,” Mrs. Jones said, bending to one knee to scratch Betsy behind the ear. “This is a bitch. The other dog was a male.”
Alex rolled his eyes and thew up his hands in resignation. “What the hell. We’ll never get back to sleep now. And we’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.” He shook his head and turned away. “I’ll put on some coffee.” He turned around and called for Helen.
“So, Mr. Mann, what brings you here at this hour?” She was standing again and had me fixed with steel hard eyes. This had better be good.
“I have a theory I need to test,” I told her.
“I see,” she said, and waited.
“I was wondering if I could go over the house again. With Betsy.”
“To what point!” Robert shot.
I ignored him. “But this time, we’ll be looking for something else.”
“Oh?” She crossed her arms, waiting for me to elucidate.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I know this is going to be difficult for you. But there is no easy way to say this.” I looked down at Betsy. “Betsy here, well, she’s what they call a cadaver dog.”
The blood drained from her face. Robert moved forward, as if to strike me, but she forestalled him with a hand on his forearm. She looked at me, tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips opened for one barely perceptible word, “Rodger?”
“What?” Robert was now quite exasperated with me.
“Please ma’am, bear with me. I was wondering if you had anything from your first husband that we might get a scent from.”
“Are you mad?” Robert was virtually aquiver with rage. Mrs. Jones stepped back and slumped against the wall. Robert jumped to her side to support her. He shot me a hateful look. “You bastard.”
“I need to sit down,” Mrs. Jones murmured. Robert took her down the hall to the study. I followed along, with Betsy at my side.
She sat down at the desk and stared at the mahogany without seeing. Once settled, Robert returned his attention to me. “Let me throw the scoundrel out,” he pleaded to his mistress.
She raised a hand to dismiss the suggestion and looked up at me.
“Mr. Mann. You do have a way of upsetting me.” I apologized again. She dismissed that with a wave too. At that point, Helen came in with a tray with coffee. She went to the desk and poured her mistress a cup. Mrs. Jones ignored it.
“You bring a cadaver dog here and ask for something from my first husband?” Helen’s eyes widened at that news. She too looked at me like I was mad. “Do you know how long ago Jeremy went missing?”
“Yes ma’am. But Betsy is a very good dog.”
“I’m sure she is.” She looked at Betsy as if trying to appraise her worth. At length she gave a sigh, evidently having made her decision. She turned to the maid. “Helen, be a dear and go up to my room and bring down my lock box.”
“What!” Alex, who had come in to join us could not contain himself. She shot him a reproachful look.
“Madame, this is ridiculous,” Robert objected.
“I will decide what is ridiculous here, Robert.”
Helen was soon back with the lock box. Mrs. Jones took a key from her bodice and unlocked the desk. She retrieved another key from the desk and unlocked the box. She opened it and gazed at the contents for some moments, while her eyes teared up again. She reached in and considered several items before at last drawing forth an old leather wallet. She looked up at me with a fey smile. “This was Jerry’s wallet. Will it do?”
Alex banged his cup and saucer down on a side table and stalked out of the room.
“Yes ma’am.” I took the wallet from her with as much respect as possible. I held it to Betsy’s nose and let her smell it for a while. Then I began leading her around the house.
Unlike Bruno, Betsy gave no pull on her lead at all. There was no hot trail to follow, no recent treads to chase. All the scents of the late Mr. Abrams were long worn away. All, I hoped, but one. No, with Betsy, it was I who did the leading.
I took her to the most likely spot. We went to the cellar door. I lead the way down the stairs, followed by Betsy, then Mrs. Jones, and finally Robert. There was no sign of Alex. Robert stood at the bottom of the stairs like a sentinel while I lead Betsy around the basement, strewn with years of clutter. Mrs. Jones followed behind us at a distance, sometimes pausing to consider old items stuck away and long forgotten. There were a lot of them, it being a big basement.
“Madame, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” Robert asked hopefully from his post near the stairs. She shushed him with a wave.
Suddenly, Betsy lunged forward and the lead grew taunt in my grip. She pulled me forward towards a large crate and sniffed at it intently. She circled it several times and began pawing at it. Before I could say anything Mrs. Jones was beside me with a crowbar in her hands. I caught my breath, expecting her to clobber me with it, but she handed it to me and stepped away, clutching her arms to her sides.
“Open it.” She shuddered as she said it.
I set my crutches aside and began to work on the crate. Soon I had the lid pried off. I threw the lid aside and began digging through the straw packing. I pulled out smaller boxes and opened them to find… books. Books, books, and more books. Before long I had the crate empty and naught to show for it but books.
“Those were Jerry’s books,” Mrs. Jones informed me. “He’s where I first learned the love of fine books.” She picked up one leather bound volume with a wistful look in her eye. Robert stood at the base of the stairs looking rather smug.
I couldn’t believe it. In frustration I hefted the crate onto its side to look at the bottom of it. Could there be a false bottom? I rapped on it with my knuckles, hoping for a hollow sound. Instead I heard a ruckus at the stairs.
“Down here, officers. I think he’s quite mad!” It was Alex. He had called the Police. Robert was now looking quite triumphant. God I hated that man.
We all looked up at the clatter on the stairs. Three uniforms were coming down, double quick. Alex was right behind them. They looked at me while fingering their nightsticks, almost daring me to resist. The lead officer approached and began to fumble for his handcuffs.
We all froze to the sound of a baying hound.
We turned our attention to Betsy. She howled again, a long and mournful wail, as if weeping for the dead, and then began to frantically paw at the dirt where the crate had stood. The officer paused, wondering what was going on. Mrs. Jones sank down to the ground with a groan of, “Oh my God.” The smile on Alex’s face died, replaced by a look of complete confusion.
“What the hell is going on here?” the lead cop demanded.
“Officer, get a shovel!” I exclaimed. “I think we are about to discover a body.”
Suddenly Mrs. Jones looked up, at last understanding. There was fire in her eyes. But she was not looking at me. “You!” She rose and pointed a long accusing finger at Robert. “You!” She grabbed the crowbar with intent to kill. Robert bolted up the stairs. The cops had their hands full trying to restrain her and it looked like Robert was going to make a clean get away. Then I heard him squawk, and heard an old familiar voice up in the kitchen.
“What’s your hurry, bud? Where is everybody?” It was Murphy. It appeared Robert had run smack into him.
They exhumed the body of Jeremy Abrams the next day. Seems Robert was so taken with the beauty of the new Mrs. Abrams that he could not bear the thought of the man despoiling her night after night. At last he could take it no more, and he killed his former master and buried him in the basement. Since there was never any reason to suspect him, or Mrs. Abrams for that matter, the investigating detective (need I say who it was?) decided that they did not need to do more than a cursory search of the house. Then years passed and the grave became virtually indiscernible from the rest of the dirt floor. The crate of books had been a minor stroke of brilliance on the part of Robert. Just the thing to explain the late man’s scent, should anyone have the presence of mind to use a hound. The investigating detective had never bothered.
A couple of happy years passed with no one but Mrs. Jones and her loyal butler to grace the presence of #17 Park Avenue. But then the unthinkable happened. The woman remarried! It gnawed at Robert until he took measures into his own hands to set the world aright. All he had to do was loosen the fitting to the brake fluid reservoir. With the way Mr. Ferguson drove, he knew it was only a matter of time before the slow leak did its deed. Murphy, er I mean the investigating detective, didn’t think it was anything more than a mechanical failure. Mr. Ferguson was well known to tinker under the hood of his cars, after all.
Then, to Robert’s complete consternation, the woman he doted on married again!
The forensics team found some blood that matched Mr. Jones’ shortly after sunrise out in the gravel where Bruno had howled the night before. Seems Robert had been parking there since the Lexus had been impounded. They found blood in his trunk too.
“Yea, that’s the difference between us pros and you amateurs”, Murphy swaggered as I approached. “We’ve got hard evidence on him, and he’s singing like a bird. Buried the poor guy in a steamer trunk out in a corn field. What a nut.”
That Murphy. You gotta love him.
This concludes Max Mann and the Black Widow. Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed this story, please tell your friends to drop by to read and comment. I have seven Max Mann novellas in all, and will consider posting more of them in the future if there appears to be an interest.
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(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.