TKnC welcomes John...
Climate of Fear
The barometric pressure was dropping faster than watermelon seeds at an Independence Day picnic. Hurricane warnings were out for the Gulf coast, but I was in my office as usual. I felt safe there. If in fact a category-five storm was headed my way, the boarding house I call home had about as much chance of remaining intact as a toothpick at a termite convention.
I expected it would be a slow day with no new clients. Maybe I could catch up on my paperwork.
Then she walked in.
When you’re an experienced private investigator like me, you can tell a lot about a person by the way she walks. My prospective client moved with an air of quiet dignity. I motioned for her to be seated. She sat on the front edge of the chair with her knees together and her back straight.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I refuse to evacuate. I’ve filled my kitchen cabinets with bottled water and non-perishable food items. I’ve also filled my bathtub with water.”
“Sensible precautions, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“I want to show you something,” she said. She stood up and turned her back to me. I could see her elbows were raised and surmised she was unbuttoning her blouse. When she turned back around, she was blushing. I couldn’t help but stare.
“They’re real,” she said.
I was momentarily speechless.
“They’re neither paste, nor glass,” she continued. “Every stone in this necklace is genuine.”
I was convinced she was telling me the truth. What I couldn’t figure out was what a well-to-do, refined woman like her needed from a plodding private eye like me.
“Shouldn’t jewelry that valuable be kept in a bank vault?”
“That’s where it’s been for years,” she said. “I took it out just today to use as bait to catch a thief. To do that, I’ll need your help.”
“Why not go to the police?”
“I know who’s guilty, but I have no proof.”
“Who do you suspect?” I asked.
“Jeffrey Lytton. He does routine maintenance at the Mayflower Condominium where I live. Two of my elderly neighbors died recently after taking the wrong dosage of their prescription medicines. Jeffrey could easily have gotten into their living quarters. He has a master key.”
“You think he switched your neighbors’ meds so he could steal from them?”
“I’m sure of it. That’s why I take precautions.” She opened her purse to show me nearly a dozen pill bottles. She was a walking pharmacy.
“Do those have any serious side effects?”
“Like what? Hallucinations? Chemically-induced paranoia? Being afraid of my own shadow?”
I held up my hand. “Sorry. I had to ask.”
“I may be crazy,” she said, “but if I am, it has nothing to do with my prescriptions.”
“I believe you,” I told her. And I did. “What you’re planning could be exceedingly dangerous. If your suspicions are correct, the man is already responsible for two deaths.”
“I’m willing to take the risk. My medical problem is inoperable.”
“Do you want a bodyguard?”
“No,” she said. “If I don’t survive the storm, I want you to convince the police my death was a homicide. I won’t surrender my necklace without a fight.”
She paid me in advance.
It was a dark and stormy night. I don’t know how else to describe it.
The next morning I went to see my client. Her lifeless body, clad only in a nightgown, was lying face down in the sand outside her condo. Her necklace was missing.
I recognized one of the policemen at the scene. “Has the medical examiner determined a cause of death?” I asked him.
“Accidental drowning,” he said. “She was caught in the storm surge.”
I needed to know just one more detail. “Were there any contusions that could have knocked her unconscious?”
“No. Just bruises. Why?”
“She was murdered,” I said. “You already know when. I can tell you the why, the how and the where, and probably even whodunit.”
The detective was a good listener. I told him all I knew about the case and also what I suspected, based on what my client had told me.
“The missing necklace points to a robbery gone bad—the why. Since my client’s modesty would have prevented her from leaving the condo in her nightclothes, that means she was carried out either unconscious or dead. With no indication of blunt force trauma, I suspect she was drowned in her own bathtub—the how and the where—and then her body was moved in an effort to conceal the crime. She accused the maintenance man of being a thief, and in my judgment he’s very likely the ‘who.’”
A subsequent investigation proved I was right. An autopsy revealed no salt water in my client’s lungs and Jeffrey Litton’s DNA was found under her fingernails.
My late client hadn’t needed someone with the deductive powers of a Sherlock Holmes, or the dogged determination of a Marlowe or a Sam Spade. She just wanted a workaday PI who was willing to follow instructions. Sometimes you get what you pay for. Sometimes that’s enough. That’s what I tell myself anyway on nights when I have trouble sleeping.
John H. Dromey was born in northeast Missouri. He’s had a byline in over one-hundred different publications with short stories published in several anthologies, including The Four Horsemen: An Anthology of Conquest, War, Famine & Death (Pill Hill Press, 2010).