BY TIM DADSWELL
Copyright is held by the author.
“I DOUBT either of us expected to meet again,” Inspector Julie Nutley said in an interview room at the city police station. “Where did you find these? I’m annoyed we missed them.”
Eric Muller, a junior clerk, glanced at the contents of a steel tray on the desk.
“Well, I was home, going over my bills and bank statements. My wife reminded me about our rented garage. It’s been full of Dad’s stuff since you released it back to me. I’ve not had the heart to go through it. On Saturday, we filled a dozen boxes with junk and charity donations until his brass bed was the only thing left. My wife suggested we sell it, so I asked my mate, Pete Anderson, to help me take it down to the local auction rooms. When he turned up, he looked scruffier than usual. Told me he’d been making love with his boss’s wife . . .”
Nutley’s head twitched like a blackbird flicking away a stone.
“Sorry Inspector, that’s irrelevant. We lifted the bed frame, but I stumbled and collided with the garage door. We heard a clinking noise. I was excited. Dad was a secretive bloke. He might have hidden something valuable, so I unscrewed all four bed knobs. We tipped the frame over and these items dropped out.”
Next to a soiled rag, a silver letter-opener glinted under the artificial lights.
“At first, I stuck them on a shelf,” continued Muller, “But when I got home, they were preying on my mind. I thought they might be important, so for Dad’s sake, here I am.”
“You did the right thing, sir.” Nutley opened the case file. “May I ask your stepmother’s current whereabouts?”
“She remarried. She’s now Mrs. Johnson. They live on Split Spruce Island. We get a Christmas card.”
“I must speak to her. If you could let me have her details.”
Forty-eight hours later, Nutley’s stocky frame leant against a railing on the deck of a ferry. The sun reflecting on the water mesmerized her. Thanks to her ancient Walkman, in her ears played a song of undying love by a girl band known for bubble-gum pop. She wondered if they’d had to fight for the chance to record it.
A giggling couple strolled by, arm-in-arm. Had she ever been that young? She had nothing to show for it. But this was no time for idle thoughts. It had been four months since she’d solved a case. Was she losing her touch?
The breeze thrust chilly fingers into her grey matter. When she’d seen the old photo of Eric Muller’s stepmother, Margot, she’d remembered their interviews two years ago. Maybe it was the calm way the woman had applied lipstick while under pressure.
On sighting the harbour, Nutley tossed away her cigarette butt. After the ferry docked, she took directions from the desk sergeant at the local station and was soon crunching up the gravel drive of a house encircled by pine trees.
Slim, auburn-haired, Margot Johnson met her at the door. Her dress was pitch black, an expensive-looking fabric.
“Good afternoon, Inspector. Do come in. My husband’s out playing golf. I’m going out myself shortly, to meet a friend.”
In her living room, Nutley admired a painting of a three-masted schooner at sea, hanging above the fireplace.
When Margot sat in a high-backed armchair and applied a strawberry lipstick, the Inspector studied her fingers.
“Those are some impressive rings you’re wearing.”
“I worked hard for every single one. But I can tell, you still don’t trust me, do you, Inspector?”
“I’ve got a job to do. In this game, you soon learn anyone can make a mistake.”
“Not me. I’ve always tried to do the right thing.”
“Right for whom?”
They locked eyes, trying to peer into each other’s soul.
“Maybe you should come to the point, Inspector. I can take it.”
“Very well. We’ve had a break in your late husband’s case. By chance, some fresh evidence has come to light. We’ve found fingerprints and traces of blood. I’m afraid I must ask you to accompany me to the station.”
“Why? What’s that got to do with me? You know that when I found him, he was dead. It was a terrible shock. I can still see him, lying on the bedroom floor, covered in blood, surrounded by broken glass. You also know, at the time of the murder, I was with Gabe.”
“Still, I must ask for your cooperation. I’ll be speaking to Mr. Johnson later.”
If Margot was shaken, her face didn’t show it. She replaced the cap on her lipstick, letting it fall into her handbag.
At noon, the next day, Nutley was re-reading her notebook at the police station when she was informed of a visitor — a smartly dressed septuagenarian by the name of Gabriel Johnson.
“I can’t abide scandal, Inspector, but since you have my wife in a cell, I suppose it’s inevitable.”
Nutley listened intently as Johnson unburdened himself about his marriage and revealed his wife’s affair with Zach Ludlow, who worked at a yacht chandlery.
“At first, I believed Margot when she claimed the affair was over. I was a fool. She forgets that our town’s small and I’ve made many friends here. I heard tell of one of their obscene assignations. Now I’ve discovered 50,000 pounds is missing. Apart from me, only Margot knows the combination to the safe. I suppose the two of them are planning to run away together. It’s the last straw. And it’s made me think back. As you know, when Muller was killed, I provided Margot’s alibi. It’s true we were together for part of that evening, but to my shame, I think my recollection of events was mistaken.”
Nutley felt a surge of energy. Once she had taken a revised statement from Johnson, she commandeered a police constable and went to find Zach Ludlow. Just how long had he and Margot known each other?
That night, at home, Gabriel Johnson had retired early. At around two in the morning, he woke with a jolt. He could hear cupboards and drawers being ransacked.
To arm himself against the intruder, Johnson fumbled under his bed for a spare golf club. Before he could find it, he heard boots pounding up the stairs.
Johnson moved to the end of his landing. He stood paralyzed in a doorway as two newcomers faced the intruder. Were they policemen?
The intruder lunged at them with a knife. They backed away. He tried to make a run for it, but in a pincer movement, they subdued him.
Johnson recovered his presence of mind and switched on the light. He was face to face with Nutley for the second time. A police constable had pinned Zach Ludlow to the floor.
“Hello again, Mr. Johnson,” said Nutley, “When we couldn’t find Ludlow at his usual haunts, I guessed he’d turn up here.”
The following morning, Nutley and Ludlow were the sole occupants in a police interview room, yet the humidity was rising faster than a Turkish bath in high season.
“Why the carving knife?” asked Nutley.
“I wanted it to look like a robbery gone wrong. With Gabe dead, Margot and I could be together.”
“Lucky I arrived when I did then! She’s been using you. Can’t you see that?”
“No, she loves me, and I love her.” Tired and edgy, Ludlow applied a medical balm to his chapped lips.
Nutley leaned towards him, her eyes on stalks. “Your mouth’s been getting a lot of action, has it? I can imagine what a yarn your darling Margot’s spun — it’ll have more holes than the Titanic. Listen, do yourself a favour and feast your eyes on this. It’s a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. We found it in her bureau. There was none for you. Why don’t you admit your plan was all her idea, brought on by her arrest? I’m willing to believe you first met when she moved here, but she’s got form, in case you didn’t know. Her last husband was murdered. We’re sure she was responsible or had an accomplice — another soft lad, I’ll bet, but she’s protecting him. Now will you change your story?”
Ludlow stared blankly at the ticket. He shrank in his chair. “OK, OK . . .”
Nutley sat down to supervise his work.
The next evening, Nutley shared a drink with an old friend. She’d charged Margot Johnson with murder, but the thought that her accomplice was still at large troubled her stomach like an indigestible pork chop. Still, the murderess was bound to crack. Why would she want to take all the blame?
Meanwhile, Margot Johnson was in a telephone booth at the police station on the Island, her hair dishevelled after spending the night in a cell. Lines and blemishes, normally concealed, had re-emerged on her face, which was stained by angry tears.
With a call to directory enquiries, she took down the number for Bagshot Handyman Services. Although Pete Anderson was the same age as Eric Muller, they couldn’t be more different. It had been a while — would he still know her voice?
“Yes? Who’s that?”
“Thank goodness! It’s Margot. Good to hear your voice. Sorry to call you out of the blue. I’m in a spot of bother. I’m being held by the police. They’re transferring me to a prison on the mainland. Will you come and visit me? I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’ve never stopped thinking about you. You were my hero once. We should never have parted. My greatest mistake. Remember what we had together. The excitement, the passion. It can be like that again!”
Margot held her breath.
The line went dead.