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Ironclad PDF Print E-mail
Written by Carter Swart   
Friday, 01 August 2008 00:00

 

A nasty wind rattled the tiny window in my office, drawing my attention away from a particularly seductive daydream.  I yawned, then made myself comfortable again, as comfortable as one can be in an office the size of a coffin.   Now, where was I?

I guess I was pretty far down in the toilet because the next moment I was summoned over the intercom like somebody’s dog: “Watson, come here this instant!”   Aunt Penelope on the prod.  No doubt she was heating up the tongs.

"Coming, Penny,” I mumbled, my tie forming into a noose.

Leaving my cubicle, I slunk down the hall and entered the Royal Chamber.  Brushing aside clouds of carcinogenic cigarette smoke, I crept into a chair, affecting the mantle of a doomed aristocrat in the tumbrel.  Penny snuffed her cigarette, speared me with her arctic glance, and immediately assailed me over my expense report’s alleged lack of candor.

I was saved from further indignity in the person of our aged secretary, and my mortal enemy, Madge Gibson, who poked her mummified face around the corner and snapped, “Watson, will you please keep it down in here?”

As though I’d said anything.

Then her churlish voice softened perceptibly.  “And Penny dear, there’s a lady here to see you.”

One voice for the queen, one for the serf.

Madge and I barely speak.  Her hubris is prompted, says Penny delicately, by cultural differences, which means, I guess, it’s my earring.  When cornered, Penny avers that she merely tolerates the old bat because one just isn't able to find good help these days.  That’s rich.  Madge types at the speed of melting snow, and she couldn’t find a file if her life depended on it.  They’re like two wrinkled peas in a pod, septuagenarian sisters in arms.  And so I’m relegated to insults, a match box sized office, and to handling the rent-a-cop piece of French & Chalmers Investigations.  I'm Chalmers, nicknamed Fido.

“I’ll see the lady now,” murmured Penny, no doubt disappointed at having to stop short of using the “iron maiden” on moi.  “We’ll return to this later, Watson,” she warned, giving me the evil eye.

“Of course,” I responded deferentially.  Maybe she’d forget about it.  Not likely.   She still remembers her last conversation with Susan B. Anthony.

Anyway, a reasonably attractive woman in her mid-thirties inched across the threshold like a Vatican supplicant.  Her looks were deceiving, though, for this little wren was on an eagle’s mission.  Her name was Amanda Kern, and she was seriously pissed off.

Penelope invited her to sit.  Madge then served tea and biscuits to the women.  Of course, I got nothing.

Amanda took a seat, smoothing her skirt over a pair of shapely legs.  I immediately perked up.

“Mrs. French, you’ve just got to help me,” Amanda said.  “I’ve heard that you’re the best criminal investigator In San Francisco.”

My aunt preened like a peacock.  “Oh, I wouldn’t go quite that far,” she said modestly.

Oh, sure.

“Well, that’s why I’ve come,” murmured Amanda.  "I need your help."

“Very well.  Tell me about it."

Amanda shot me a questioning glance.

That damned earring again.

Sensing her discomfiture, my aunt reassured her.  “Oh, he’s all right,” she said, waving a languid hand in my direction.  “He’s, er, sort of a  partner.”

As if!

Obviously amazed at this intelligence, our mark frowned but continued: “Mrs. French, I am going crazy with this.”  She stifled a sob and lifted a hankie from her purse, a leather affair easily large enough to contain a small motorcycle.

During the pregnant pause that followed, I thumbed on the tape recorder.  “Please continue, Ms. Kern,” I prompted, eyeing her legs and thinking lascivious thoughts, being an incurable romantic at heart.

She leaned forward in her chair.  “My sister, Sharon Merlo, was murdered last month.  You might have read about it.  They found her body in a canyon east of Moraga.  I know her husband did it.  I want you to bring that bastard to justice.”

My aunt puffed vigorously on a Virginia Slim, and asked for more details.  The room quickly filled with smoke.

Amanda spit it out, her eyes glowing from the heat of some inner flame.  It seems Sharon’s body had been discovered on a Tuesday morning by a jogger, her skull fractured.  The weapon, a heavy volcanic rock, was found nearby.  And though Sharon had been dressed for her bank position, she’d failed to report for work on Monday.  Her husband, Rex Merlo, who owned a downtown general insurance agency, had reported her missing Monday evening.  Considering the coroner’s opinion that death occurred sometime between noon and four o’clock on Monday, Merlo had an ironclad alibi, having worked at his downtown office all that day.  Thus, he was not being held.  Homicide detectives Walsh and Budlong were handling the case.

“We’re familiar with them,” said my aunt, with a dismissive sniff.  “Now, what makes you suspect this man?”

It was an old story, a long-standing case of infidelity and spousal abuse.  Sharon had stuck it out like a trooper, but lately Tyrannosaurus Rex had become even more violent.  Sharon, fed up, had threatened divorce, receiving a beating about the rib cage for her pains.  She’d disclosed this--and her plans to file for divorce--to her sister the Sunday before the murder.

“Why didn’t she just leave him a long time ago?” I interjected innocently.  “I'm sorry, but why stay in such a dangerous relationship?”

Both women whipped around and glared at me.  "Hush, Watson," snapped my aunt.

What’d I say?   Gad.  Women have their own special language.  For me, it’s like reading Sanskrit.

When Amanda finally finished her tale, Penny waggled a bony finger at me.  “Watson, run downtown for me.  Have a chat with Eddie about this, will you?”

Good dog.  Fetch Dog.

“Sure.”  I struggled to my feet, glad to be escaping the smoke-shrouded room.  Why the Tobacco Police haven't cited my aunt before this is a mystery to me.

“Tell him I want all the details, forensic evidence and otherwise.  Now shoo.”

Shoo?

I got up and left, harboring a host of gloomy thoughts.  You know, there’s something really demeaning about a forty-year-old full partner being shooed from the room like the family cat--or dog.

During the short drive to Homicide I pondered how I had gotten here, playing the role of my aunt’s favorite whipping boy.  Now don’t get me wrong, I really love the old bat.  And, in spite of her super-critical nature, I think the feeling is mutual--I think.  It’s really my mother who’s to blame.  She led me to Penny’s door when it looked as though I wasn’t going to catch on anywhere else.  I suspect mom turned to nepotism as a last resort.  Penny says they saved me from a life of debauchery.  Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, I still debauch a lot.

Homicide detective Edward Budlong III, overweight and pressing fifty, sat slumped like a sack of feed in his office chair, just beginning his eight hour shift.  Bad timing.  And because of that, I forgave him his desultory greeting and somewhat snappish tone.  I took a seat and passed on my aunt’s desires.  He waited me out, then raised his hands heavenward, as though beseeching God to witness the sort of crap he had to deal with.  Then he snarled that he had no time to wet nurse that old frump, and that the Merlo case was none of our business.  I begged him not to kill the messenger and told him that we’d been retained by the victim’s sister.  At that, his face gradually assumed normal color.  Only then did I pass along Penny’s specific laundry list.

He snorted and lit a cigarette.  Between them, he and my aunt almost single-handedly support Liggett and Myers.

I politely reminded him of who had pulled his chestnuts out of the fire last year in the Holloway case.  And who solved the Granger girl’s kidnaping for him.  This brief recitation annoyed, then finally pacified him.  Frankly, he owes Penny big time.

He left for a while, then came back with photocopies of the crime file, including the Mobile Crime Unit report, crime scene sketches & photos (in color) forensic and lab reports, even a photocopy of the autopsy report.  “You can borrow this file, Chalmers,” he snapped.  “But you remind America’s Ms. Marple that it’s my ass if anybody finds out.  I want it back intact tomorrow morning.”

When I asked if we could further discuss the case, man-to-man, he just snickered.  I left in a huff, wondering if I’d have gotten more respect working in a car wash.  Me and Rodney Dangerfield.

It was late afternoon when I got back to the office.  Penny and I sat down and reviewed the documents from page one, coming up with the following:

1. The autopsy report:

o Sharon Merlo had died instantly from one vicious frontal blow to the head.

o The bloodstained rock found nearby was the murder weapon.

o The forensic entomologist and the coroner jointly placed the time of death at between eleven and four p.m.      on Monday.

o Traces of the barbiturate seconal were present in the tissues.

2. Physical evidence:

o The sand near the body was scuffed and some spatters of blood were found there.  Nevertheless, it was impossible to tell if she’d been killed in the brushy arroyo or elsewhere.

o Afterward, she’d been dragged into a thicket and covered up.  Some large animal had later pulled the corpse out of the thicket and onto the jogging trail.

o Sharon had been wearing her work clothes, an ice blue two piece suit, lime green frilly round necked blouse, and brown pumps.

3. Witness statements confirmed that the Merlo marriage was on the rocks.

4. Merlo’s business contacts, associates, and close friends were all upstanding citizens.

5. There was a one hundred thousand dollar whole life policy on each marriage partner, but Merlo apparently didn’t need the money.

6. Merlo had no priors, had graduated from Stanford with an MBA, and was a stand-up sort of guy--when not beating his wife.

7. During the past three years the bodies of four women had been dumped in the same general area, the most recent one just a year ago.  There was speculation that this was his work.  The M.O. on Sharon’s killing, however, was dissimilar to the above in some material aspects.

Later, my lean and angular eighty-year-old aunt leaned back in her chair and lit the ubiquitous cigarette.  “Well, what do you think, Watson?”

I’m gonna buy some Liggett & Myers stock.

I shrugged.  “Perhaps a serial killing?”  It seemed a convenient possibility and there’s a lot of that going around these days.

Penny fashioned a string of smoke rings.  “Similar M.O. was there?” she asked.

Uh-oh.  Smelling a trap, I remained mute.

“Are you aware, Watson, that serial killers almost always use the same M.O.?  It’s their trademark, so to speak.”

A rhetorical question.  I adjusted my tie, playing dumb.  According to Madge, my natural state.

Giving up, Penny asked: “Well, what does Eddie think about this, man-to-man?”

We hadn’t been man-to-man, remember?

Embarrassed, I snapped, “You know Eddie.  He was pretty short with me.  I think it’s the earring.  But he agrees that one can’t be in two places at once.  That’s irrefutable.  It’s not the husband.  Amanda Kern is sniffing up the wrong trail.”

“What a quaint way to put it, Watson,” my aunt said dryly.

“If you say so.”  I affected the air of the long-suffering and gazed out the window.

Penny was pensive.  “Merlo could have had an associate.”

“Eddie doesn’t think so.  The guy may be a creep, but he couldn’t find a hit man at the Dapper Don’s place.”

“I see.  Hm, an ironclad alibi.  Any other leads?”

“Nope.”  I shrugged.

“Trail’s cold by now,” she muttered, crushing out her smoke and lighting another.

I silently agreed, trying not to breath while fiddling with my earring.  I know this really annoys her.

She sniffed.  “Well, we need to see the crime scene.  I want you drive me out there, Watson.”

“Sure thing.”  I wouldn’t go to the corner with you driving, not on my life. I thought.  I’ve already written two anonymous letters to the DMV asking them to retire her license.  All her aggressions coalesce when she gets behind the wheel.  Steve McQueen in the movie "Bullitt" comes to mind.

She flashed me a rare smile.  “I know you won’t go if I drive.  You’re such a fraidy cat.”

“Better red than dead,” I mumbled.

“What say, Watson?”

“Er--I said, better plan ahead.  We need gas.”

She frowned, letting it slide--but only just.

We piled into her 1999 brick-red Taurus, drove north from Oakland through the Caldicott Tunnel, swerved onto the Moraga Highway, drove east on back roads for twenty miles, and finally found the crime scene amidst the low hills.  Penny took out her little pink notebook, exited the car, and walked gingerly to the yellow-ribboned area.  She peered into the death thicket, checked out some miscellaneous tire tracks, hummed off-key something from Guys and Dolls, squatted down like a pioneer woman, and finally got to her feet with a sigh.  Her thin well worn face hid a riot of shifting emotions.  She’d have made a great poker player.  But the tic under one eye betrayed her.  She was steaming.

“What?” asked I, staring around helplessly, totally baffled as usual.

“It didn’t happen here.”  Her tone was as dry and crisp as a good champagne.

“Ahem, now just how do you know that?”

“No rocks like the murder weapon anywhere around here; it's not indigenous to the location.  Look, just dirt, sand, brush, and poison oak.  And no signs of a real struggle.  And no spray pattern of bloodstains.  Would have to have been one, a blow that vicious.  Ergo, the corpse and the rock were imported.”

“Now why didn’t I see that?”

She gave me a pitying look.

“Well, what now?” I asked humbly.

“We go see the bereaved.”

“At his office?”

“We’ll try there.  But, if I’ve got this right, I don’t expect to find him in.”

“Huh?”

“Forget it.  Come on, I’m ready to go.”  A cold breeze rustling her iron-gray hair.

We retraced our steps, climbed into the Ford, and headed for the City by the Bay.  When we arrived at Merlo’s San Francisco office, it was absolutely frigid downtown.  Winter in the Bay Area is much like winter in Ottawa, without the snow, but they can still find you frozen to the steering wheel just the same.

As Penny had surmised, Merlo was not in, had not been in all week.

How the hell did she know?

She sent me out for cigarettes and grilled Merlo’s staff for twenty minutes.

Later we headed north on 101 to Mill Valley.  It’s a quaint village, long on sophistication and short on space, where the homes of the elite clutch at the hillsides like remoras.  Merlo lived in a swank two bedroom, two bath condo.  A blue norther was blowing in as we exited the car.  My fingers immediately froze up.  By that I mean--I couldn’t feel them.  That’s how you know they’re frozen.  Right?

Merlo met us at the door, but then immediately eyed me askance.

The earring again.

After the introductions, Penny told him that we’d been hired to look into the matter of his wife’s death.  He asked by whom, and when informed that it was by Amanda Kern, he laughed outright, shrugging off her claim as mere sisterly vindictiveness.  He said he wanted to find out who killed his wife as much as anyone, and that he’d loved her, despite their troubles.  If we could help unravel the mystery, he was all for it.  But because he was entertaining a visitor in the living room, he apologetically showed us out onto the patio.  “Be just a moment,” he said.

I was somewhat surprised to see that Merlo wearing leather driving gloves.  But who could blame him?  Out there on that ice flow he called a patio, one would have been forgiven for wearing a Pea coat and mukluks.  I shivered violently, sought a patch of weak sunlight, and pocketed my hands to prevent frostbite.

Merlo went inside for a moment to commune with his guest.  When he came back, I took his measure.  A tall cadaverous man, he was not unhandsome, but his face was somewhat saturnine in expression.  Deep-set black eyes peered from under a thick shelf of brow, reminding me of two tiny chunks of anthracite coal.  Yet despite his slightly sinister looks, he had a pleasant personality and a soft, cultured voice.  And he readily admitted to having had an affair, a troubled marriage, blaming himself for much of the problems.  Very conciliatory, very cordial.  He talked about his marriage for awhile, then invited us back inside, just a few moments before hypothermia set in.

Standing around the smartly appointed living room, I noticed that Merlo’s alleged guest was nowhere to be seen, though a hint of gardenia remained.  Perhaps this phantom person was his inamorata.  My aunt politely asked to use the facilities.  When she returned she wore a look of discovery second only to Columbus.  I know that look.  She’d found something.

“Did your wife often use Seconal?” she asked.

He stiffened.  “Yes.  She had a sleeping problem.”

“How many did she usually take at night?”

He hesitated.  “Uh, I don’t know.  Why?”

“Just asking.  Question: the ladies at your office said you came in that Monday morning driving your wife’s Eldorado and not your little Geo; it was the first time in their memory.”

Merlo frowned.  “Is that important?”

My aunt smiled.  “Indulge me.”

He colored and snapped, “Hey, look, do I need a lawyer here or something?  You said this was just routine.  I’m trying to cooperate, but now comes this interrogation.”

“It’s hardly that,“ sniffed Penny mildly.  “Now tell me, why didn’t you drive your own car?”

Merlo paused and scratched his ear.  Plainly he was discomfited.  “If you must know, the Caddie had a full tank, the Geo was bone dry.  I was quite late for work.  So she said she’d fill the Geo locally and take it to work herself.”

“But your staff said you arrived early that morning.”

He shrugged.  “I don’t remember.”

“Then you left the house before she did?”

“I just said that.”

Temper, temper.

“Had she dressed yet?”

“Yes.  We had a cup of coffee together.”

Penny frowned.  “Is it true that Sharon was planning to divorce you?”

He backed away, his face reddening.  “Who told you that?  Ridiculous.  As I said, we’d reconciled.”

“Ms. Kern tells it differently.”

He laughed in derision.  “You actually believe that--that avenging angel.  Hell, she’s certifiable.”

Penny examined a spot on her shoe.  There was an uncomfortable pause.

“I would like you both to leave now,” Merlo finally growled.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Penny sighed.  “Very well.  Come along Watson.”

Heel, Spot.

“The police have fully exonerated me,” Merlo grumbled peevishly, tagging along behind us.  “I couldn’t be in two places at once.  Remember?  Now, that’s the bottom line, lady.”

“Whatever,” said Penny, “but you really should have that rash looked at.”

“What?”  He glanced quickly at his gloved hands, then scowled and pointed to the door, his dark eyes anxious.  “Cut a trail, you two.”

We marched stiffly out the front door.  Most of the way home Penny was quiet and preoccupied.  I knew that her gray cells were sorting fact and fancy at flank speed.  Her spidery, liver spotted fingers lay restless in her lap, a sure sign of energetic cerebral activity.

“Watson,” she said at last.  “You know I’ve always asked you not to swear in my presence.  But this Merlo chap is a real sonofabitch.”

“Auntie!”

She shook her head.  “No, it’s true, Watson.  You know where he got that poison oak, don’t you?”

“What poison oak?”

She looked aggrieved.  “Oh, Watson.”  Removing a pinkish cotton swab from her purse, she waved it at me.  The smell of Calamine lotion invaded my sinuses.  “Found this in his bathroom waste paper basket.  That’s why he’s wearing gloves; it’s why he’s not at the office.  He was out there, with her.  That’s where he got the rash.”

“Not a chance, Penny.”

“Cripes, Watson.  You’d have made a perfect Simpson juror.”

That really hurt.  “Well, how did he manage it then, Sherlock?" I grunted.  "How was he in two places at the same time?"

Her lips tightened.  “Ah, and there’s the rub.”  And I knew there’d be a sweater knitted this night.  Spenser punched the heavy bag, Morse had his Mozart, Holmes had his cocaine, and Penny has her needles and yarn.

Momentarily vindicated, I pressed my luck.  “Think about it, Penny.  He could have picked up that poison oak anywhere.”

“Don’t be silly, Watson.  Where else would he get it?  The Fairmont?  No, he’s a city boy.  And everything in his neighborhood--town and country--is neatly clipped and mowed.  His idea of exercise is bedding down a floozy.”  This last part was for my benefit.

“How about a camping trip?  Hunting?  Fishing some brushy creek?”

She gazed at me in utter disbelief.  “What is this, Watson?  Some latent chauvinism cropping up?  Merlo offer you employment?”

“Not at all.  I just think you’re jumping to wild conclusions.”

"Wild?"  She made her prune-face.  “You know, Watson, maybe Madge is right about you after all.”

Now this really steamed me.  “Just what the hell did she say about me now?”

“Never mind. We can talk about it later.  Now will you please put a sock in it and don’t talk to me again until we get to the office.”

Bad dog!

The following morning Penny withdrew to her cave, leaving word not to disturb her for anything.  That afternoon, though, she invited me in to join her.  She had created a crude crayon drawing of the victim at the crime scene.  “What can you tell me about this picture, Watson.”

“It’s not a Rembrandt?”

Her steely blues narrowed into slits, the Penelope French fly-eradication look.

“Just kidding, Penny, just kidding.”  I leaned over and inspected the drawing.  “Okay, the colors sort of clash.  Pale blue suit and lime green blouse with brown pumps?  Uh-uh, inappropriate at best.  Even these days.”

“Good Watson.  Very good.”

Good dog. I felt like sitting up and asking for a bone.   “And something else,” I continued.  “Isn’t her blouse on backwards?”

“What?”

“It’s just that I know a charming young lady who wears something similar, but it buttons in back.”

“Why Watson, I’m truly impressed at your level of discernment.”

There is a God!

She studied the picture.  “Yes, who but a man would dress someone like this?”

“Merlo?  Not likely, Penny.  She would have fought him tooth-and-nail.”

“Not if she were comatose.”

“Huh?”

“The Seconal, of course.  I checked the prescription bottle while I was in the bathroom.   It was filled on Saturday and was already one-quarter empty the day she died."

"I see."

“So here’s the deal, Watson.  Merlo probably served her coffee with a Seconal punch, enough to keep her out cold for awhile.  After she passed out, he dressed her.  Wasn’t easy, but he could have handled it.”

“Hm.”  I idly tugged at my earring.

“Watson!  Will you stop that?”

“Oops, sorry.”

Win some, lose some.

“But why would he do that?” she murmured to herself.  “Why dope her up, I mean?”

“You’re asking moi?” I said.

She laughed out loud.  “Silly me.”

“But Penny, what about the two-places-at-once scenario?  He was in his office all day, took a half-hour lunch.  No way he could have done this.  It’s an hour each way to where her body was found.”

“Yes.  That’s the key, that’s the trick, you see.  And it’s certainly Lamont Cranstoned the cops.”

“Beg pardon?”

“It has clouded their minds.”

“Oh.”

“Now go out and play, Watson.  I have some thinking to do.”

Silly dog. I huffed my way out of there and sulked all the way to my cubicle.  Later I spitefully added two more phantom cash items to my expense account--which could now qualify for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.  So there, prune face.

A couple of days went by and still Penny remained in hibernation, knitting up a storm and wracking her brain over the Merlo question.  Personally, I thought she was trying to push sand uphill.  But she’s a stubborn old bat.  Anyway, I was too busy shuffling my rent-a-cops around and clearing a backlog of work to notice.

Then one morning she buzzed me.  “Watson!  You’re needed.”

Fat chance.

I entered her cave and found mama bear glowing, her claws retracted, all sweetness and light.  She graciously bid me be seated, and I immediately assumed the worst.  “Watson, what would you say if I told you that Rex Merlo is presently housed in the county jail awaiting arraignment for murder.”

“I’d say he goes into the Guinness Book of Records.  Man in two places at once.  You can’t be serious.”

“But I am.”

“Dammit, Penny, how could he kill his wife when he was fifty miles from the murder site the entire day?”

“He wasn’t.”

“What?”

“He was right where he wanted to be.  Oh, Watson, think a little.  Look here.”  She deftly drew something on a steno pad and passed it over.  On the top of the page was a pathetic drawing of Merlo’s tiny Geo, on the bottom, an equally pitiful, but much larger depiction of Sharon’s Caddie.   “Now what does this suggest to you?”

“Art lessons?”

She threw me a withering glance.  “I’ll ignore that.  Now, Watson, why do you think Merlo took the big car to work instead of the little one?”

Can we read Dick & Jane next?   “Why?  Well, it was gassed up I guess; the Geo wasn’t.”

“That’s what he said.”

“Sure, I know that."

"Watson, surely you don't believe everything a suspect tells you."

I shrugged.

“Anyway, Watson, at my suggestion, Eddie Budlong wrangled a search warrant from an adventuresome judge and impounded Sharon’s Caddie at five o’clock this morning.  We’ve got blood and serology matches, fiber evidence galore, and some other incriminating stuff as well.  They’re going over his condo even as we speak.”

“Whoa, Nellie!  Slow down.  What are you saying?”

“I worked it out, Watson.  I figured out how he did it.”

“Well, how did he do it?”

“Watson, think.”

Too late to start now.

“Come on boy, concentrate.”

I folded my arms and glared at her.  This was partner abuse.

“My, my,” she cackled.  “Look, Watson, Why does a spider first paralyze its prey, then wrap it up tight?”

“We playing a `riddle me this’ game now?”

“Watson!”

“Oh, all right.  The black widow stores the bug to eat later.”

“Just so.  Like our friend Merlo.  He drugged Sharon early on Monday morning.  Then he dressed her--inappropriately, because he didn’t know any better.  Even you figured that out.”

Ouch!

Afterward, he stuffed her into the trunk of the Caddie--which was large enough to carry sleeping beauty.  Then he drove to--”

“Okay, okay,” I interjected, “but how did he get her out to Moraga to bump her off that afternoon.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.  Elementary.”

Now she’s Jeremy Brett?

“Gad Penny, cut to the chase, will ya?”

"Oh, Watson.  It’s so simple.  Yes, simple, yet so wickedly cold-blooded.  On Merlo's way back from lunch he detoured to the parking garage beneath the building.  He went to the Caddie, opened the trunk, hit poor trussed-up and gagged Sharon with the rock, closed the trunk lid, then went back to the office.  Time of death: 2:00 p.m.  That night he took the corpse out to Moraga, hoping the cops would figure her for another serial killing.”

I shivered.  “Cripes!  When did you know?”

“Yesterday afternoon.”

“How did you know?”

She preened.  “First, I’d already figured him for the perp; that narrowed the field of inquiry.  Then I wondered why he’d brought the larger car to work?  There could have been only one reason, he needed the larger trunk space.  Why?  For Sharon’s body.  That’s when I knew she’d been killed at the parking garage.  Given my assumption that he was the murderer, there was no other explanation.”

I nodded.  “I hope the swine gets the San Quentin Cocktail one day.”

She sniffed.  "In California?"

We sat in silence for a moment, considering Merlo's cruelty and Sharon's hideous suffering.

“Why did he do it?” I asked finally.

“Who knows?  The girlfriend?  Fear of divorce and a large settlement?  This is a community property state.  I guess he didn’t want to share."

We grimly pondering man’s inhumanity to man, or woman, as the case may be.  And as time passed, I began to nurture a feeble hope that this horror might have brought us closer together.  The benign look on Penny’s face gave me a faint reason to think that it might have mellowed her.  Alas, it was but illusion, for when I got up to leave, she stopped me cold.

“Watson!   Sit down.”

“Yes Auntie?”

She briskly snapped open a manila folder; it contained my expense report.  “Now, Watson, about this abortion . . . ”

Alas, she hadn’t mellowed at all.

 

The End

 

 
 

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