C ROWE MYERS
[ Edit | View ]
Date Posted: 20:36:49 03/02/04 Tue
A PRICE DENOTTA MYSTERY
© C ROWE MYERS
Vincent Price Denotta folded his newspaper and glanced at his watch—four forty-five. Another day down—four more to go. At this rate, his newly opened detective agency wouldn’t last a month. Two weeks in business and out almost two thousand dollars. He picked up the telephone receiver to make sure it was working. It was. Rats! Feeling hopeless, he was in the process of cleaning his desk when a loud knock shook the office door.
“Come in,” he said, staring at the silhouette of a woman through the textured glass.
The door swung open. “Price Denotta?” she asked, crossing the room in a graceful glide. Her voice sounded low and husky, not what he would have expected from the dark-haired five-foot-four petite woman. She was attractive in an Ivy League sort of way—a businesswoman—mid-forties—self-assured—wealthy.
“At your service,” he answered, standing to meet her extended hand in a firm shake. “Won’t you have a seat?”
She complied, her black stockings making a subtle shushing noise when she crossed her legs.
“How can I help you Ms...?”
“Stedman,” she supplied. “My husband is trying to kill me.”
The words seemed oddly melodramatic in the quiet office with its old oak desk and the late afternoon sun prying through the slatted blinds.
“Have you contacted the police?”
“No, I can’t.”
His words caught her off guard, and she became suddenly defensive. “That’s really none of your concern, Mr. Denotta. I want to hire you to do a job. Everything else is immaterial.”
Her thin aquiline nose jutted out as she said that and her nostrils flared, reminding him of a thoroughbred. He could have easily taken exception to her statement, but curiosity held him back.
“What job did you have in mind, Mrs. Stedman?”
“I want irrefutable proof that my husband is trying to murder me. I’ll pay you five hundred dollars a day plus expenses.”
The job sounded easy enough, except for the part where her husband succeeded, and she ended up dead. “Shouldn’t you be spending your money on a bodyguard or better yet, a divorce?”
“A divorce is out of the question. He would take half of everything I own. As for the bodyguard, I have one already. Can you start tomorrow?”
“I can start today,” he answered in a dry tone.
“Good.” She reached into her purse and placed several stacks of wrapped bills on the desk. “Here is five thousand to start. You are going to play the part of my visiting cousin from Iowa. I’ll put you up in one of the guest rooms tomorrow.”
He eyed the money with longing and a keen sense of regret. “Lady, I don’t work like that. I’m a lousy liar and a worse actor. On the other hand, I’m a pretty decent detective. Let me do my job, and I promise, I’ll get you results.”
She hesitated. “But you’ll need to observe him, and check out the house.”
“I’ll do that, but on my terms, my way.”
She appeared to be unconvinced, and he could tell she was used to having things her own way. After a moment, she nodded. “We’ll try it your way, but if you’re unsuccessful, we’ll do it mine. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” he said.
After she left, he counted the money, wondering why she’d lied to him and what she was really trying to purchase.
End of Installment One.
Price Denotta stood staring at the large Colonial style house with its wide front verandah, its large white columns, and its manicured gardens. All that was missing was Miss Scarlett O’Hara in her long green gown waving her fan and sashaying across the lawn. Who couldn’t be happy in a place like this?
Price moved away from his faded blue Mustang toward the front steps of the stately manor, wondering what would have happened if he had agreed to stay here as Mrs. Stedman’s cousin and for a moment, regretted his decision. His tiny apartment would seem smaller after visiting here. At the first chime of the doorbell, the door opened into a hall large enough for a barbecue, and a starch-capped maid said, “Come in.”
He did, following her into high-ceilinged, gold flocked, drawing room with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace at the end. Mrs. Stedman sat in front of the fireplace like the Queen Mother holding court. He removed his hat in lieu of a bow, wondering if a timely tug at his forelock would be expected.
“Mr. Denotta,” she said, extending her hand, “How good of you to come,” she added, as if he were an invited guest. “I think we’ll start with the top floor and give Mary time to make us a cup of coffee. Did you wipe your feet at the door?”
Her baby blue dress suit fit her like a glove—with high-heeled shoes dyed to match. He halfway expected her to don a white glove and inspect the handrail for dust as he followed her up the winding spiral staircase. Maybe there was a good reason her old man wanted to kill her.
When she stopped at the third floor, he was sure his ragged breathing would return to normal—eventually. “I invented you a cover,” she whispered, unnecessarily, “you’re my new decorator.”
He could smell the subtle scent of her floral perfume as she leaned forward, placing her hand on his arm—a gesture suggesting intimacy. He took a step back.
“What did you want to show me, Mrs. Stedman?” he asked, reminding her of the reason he was there, “besides the house of course, although it would be hard to convince anyone that this house was in need of re-decorating. How long have you and your husband lived here?”
“Fifteen years,” she told him, opening a bedroom door.
Something in his mind yelled a warning, a jarring, discordant note that he filed away for later. The bedroom was green—shades and accents amid bright summer flowers—covered in mounds of expressive pillows. She walked to the bedside table and opened a drawer.
He moved beside her and looked down. A Colt 45 stared back with menace. “Is it loaded?”
“I haven’t touched it. Mary found it last week when she was cleaning. I know it wasn’t here before.”
“How often does she clean?”
“Up here? About once every two weeks.”
“And you’re sure it wasn’t here two weeks ago?”
“Yes, I’m sure. He’s going to kill me, I know it.”
Her voice broke, and he found her distress touching in spite of his better judgment. She was an attractive woman and her fears might be genuine, but she wasn’t telling him the whole truth—of that he was sure. What could she be hiding that meant more to her than her life?
End of Installment Two
Tony Stedman was a powerful man in the Southwest, who some said had his eye on an elected position, perhaps even governor. Because of this aspiring ambition and the fact that he usually traveled with an entourage of yes men and bodyguards, he was highly visible while at the same time, very private. Price Denotta watched him slide into the front seat of his chauffeur-driven limousine as his wife waved from the door.
From a weekend spent at the local library doing research, Denotta had learned that Stedman inherited a vast fortune before the age of twenty-five, was audited twice for tax evasion, investigated for his suspected involvement in the abduction and murder of a local bank president, and rumored to have mob connections. From his photographs Denotta judged him to be about forty-five years old, attractive, athletic, and socially active. Besides being a majority stockholder in a number of different companies, he owned homes in several different states, nineteen automobiles, and a small jet.
The limousine dropped Stedman at his office building where he was met and escorted to the door by two men in dark suits. Two hours later he returned to the limousine and left. Denotta followed at a discreet distance, weaving in and out of traffic until the car stopped at Speedy Car Rentals on the opposite side of town. While Stedman remained inside, the chauffeur left the limousine and entered the office. Ten minutes later he returned with the key to an avocado-green Pinto, and handed it to Stedman. When Stedman drove off in the Pinto, he left in the other direction. Denotta gave the Pinto a five-minute start, and then followed.
Stedman drove almost ten minutes before turning into the driveway of an out-of-the-way motel, where he spent the remainder of the afternoon. Around five o’clock Mr. Stedman left the room, climbed into the Pinto, and drove it back to the rental store, where he was met by his chauffeur and driven home. Maybe Mrs. Stedman was right to be afraid.
Price watched Stedman enter his home around six o’clock and wondered if the day’s excitement had come to an end. He was hungry, tired, and not looking forward to an evening spent watching the house settle. Reaching for the bologna sandwiches he had shoved into the brown paper sack that morning, he wondered if all night surveillance was even necessary. One shake of his coffee thermos told him it was empty and that decided it. He would leave tonight and show back up first thing tomorrow morning.
Before he could start the car, however, a piercing scream shattered the quiet of early evening. Price froze—his mind refusing to believe what his ears told him was true. Just as he was deciding it must have been a screech owl, he heard the scream again. This time he didn’t hesitate. With gun in hand, he leapt from the Mustang and ran to the front door. As he neared, he could hear the shouting from within. A man’s voice, loud and angry, intermingled with the pleading cries of a woman.
Denotta grabbed the doorknob and twisted, surprised to find the door unlocked. What he saw when he entered the house was Stedman, standing over his wife with the Colt 45. The shot sounded almost immediately, its loud blast echoing through the hallway like a bomb. Mrs. Stedman slumped to the ground covered in blood, her face gone. Then Stedman turned the gun on Denotta, and Price smelled his own death. With no time to think he pulled the trigger, and Stedman went down. Before he could react any further, he felt a hard crack on the back of his head, and the world went black.
End of Installment Three
Price became conscious of the cloying odor of antiseptic, and for the space of about five seconds, wondered where he was and what he was doing there. He opened his eyes the merest slit—enough to see that he was lying in a room partitioned off by coarse white curtains. Intermittent moans and groans, interspersed with calm tones of professional detachment, alerted him that he was in a medical facility.
“When can we speak to him?” asked a man standing close to his bed.
As he turned toward the sound of the voice, a stabbing pain shot through his head, closely followed by a wave of dizziness. His last memory returned in colorful flashes, parading through his mind like the previews of an upcoming movie.
“As soon as he regains consciousness,” a voice replied, dismissing the question and the speaker before turning to a more interesting case.
Price listened to the retreating footsteps and the quietly uttered expletive of the man wanting to see him. The voice was beginning to sound familiar, and he was not surprised when Frank Daniels parted the curtains and stepped into the makeshift room.
“Hello, Denotta,” Daniels said, as if they had just run into each other on a busy street.
The acknowledgment had been noncommittal, but the truth was that Price was pleased to see Frank Daniels handling the case. He and Frank had worked together several times in the past when he had run footwork for the McCoddel Agency—before he had received his own license.
“Looks like you have a nasty bump on the head.” The words were flung out in a friendly tone, but the expression on his face was grave.
Price reached up to feel several layers of thick bandages. “Feels like it too,” he quipped, with a small attempt to lighten the tension in the room.
Frank Daniels was a huge bulk of a man, methodically rounded though a combination of too many days spent indoors in studious inactivity and too many nights in the local bar, chasing away demons discovered during the day. A twenty-year detective career on the police force had gained him the reputation for being honest, fair, and thorough. Little escaped his keen observation or eluded his analytical dissection.
“Tell me what happened,” he said, removing a small notepad from his coat pocket. “Were you working on a case?”
Price started at the beginning and ended with the shoot-out at the Stedman home. By the time he had finished, the policeman had stopped taking notes and was looking at him in open disbelief.
“I never figured you for a liar, Denotta, and I certainly didn’t make you out to be a murderer.”
Price flinched at the harsh words and derisive tone, the ache in his head throbbing a rhythmic accompaniment to the racing beat of his heart. What was going on? Daniels was treating him more like a suspect than a witness.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about? I’ve been completely honest with you. I shot Stedman in self-defense right after he shot his wife.”
Daniel’s face resembled granite—his eyes, black holes. “You’re going to have to do better than that. Stedman wasn’t shot. He wasn’t even there. The only person injured last night was Mrs. Stedman—her face blown clean off from a bullet we’ve matched to your gun. Now, start from the beginning, Denotta, and this time, I want the truth.”
End of Installment Four
Price watched the hospital room fade and slip away, tunneling his vision inward, as his body returned to an unconscious state. While the darkness around him thickened, the scene in front of him maturated into images of vivid color. Red and white-stripped umbrellas shaded cloth-covered, round polyurethane tables at a small outdoor restaurant. He, Price, was sitting at one of the tables looking bored. She, Mrs. Stedman, had been late that day he recalled, remembering his irritation at being forced to wait in such a conspicuous location.
He was on the verge of leaving, when she had suddenly appeared in a red polka-dotted blouse, a red, silk suit, and a floppy red hat, leading him to wonder if she had dressed deliberately to match the café’s bright décor.
“Sorry, I’m late,” she had said, giving him a flirtatious smile that told him she wasn’t the least bit sorry she’d kept him waiting. She hesitated for the smallest instant beside her chair, but he was not in the mood to play gentleman to her lady, and so ignored her unspoken invitation.
“You wanted to see me?” he questioned, as she tucked and wiggled into her chair.
Manicured hands sporting red-sculptured nails rested on the table between them, and he was momentarily distracted by the size of the flawless, pear-shaped diamond residing on her third finger. “I think he’s seeing someone,” she said in a stage whisper, her eyes cutting to the waiter approaching the table.
He ordered coffee from the formally attired attendant, while she ordered a slice of strawberry pie and a large Diet Dr. Pepper, oblivious to the irony presented by her selection. Captivated by her, the young man lingered by her side well past the time needed to record the simple order until Price tapped impatiently on the table. Embarrassed, the man scurried off, while Mrs. Stedman’s laugh tinkled across the space between them.
“He was sweet,” she said, as if defending the boy’s actions to a jealous lover.
“You were telling me about your husband.”
She lowered her eyes and returned easily to the role of wounded wife. “I’m sure he’s having an affair.”
“How are you sure?”
She shrugged. “Too many late nights, a whiff of perfume—a woman can always tell.”
“But you don’t have any concrete evidence?”
The waiter was back with their order. This time he didn’t dawdle.
“How long has this been going on?”
Her clearly defined brows puckered as if she were formulating intricate computations. “About eight months. I remember because he stood me up for a dinner party, and we had fight. Mayor Higgins was throwing his annual election dinner, and I had tickets. He doesn’t run every year, but he does collect every year, and this was our first year to receive tickets—a social coup by anyone’s standards.”
Price sat back. “How long did you say you and your husband have been married?”
She looked down at the huge rock on her finger. “I didn’t. We’ve been married almost eighteen years.”
“And this is the first time that you’ve ever suspected him of cheating?”
Several conflicting emotions flickered across her face as she searched for the right response. “Yes, Mr. Denotta,” she said, meeting his eyes in an earnest stare. “He had never cheated on me before; of that, I am sure.”
She was trying hard to convince him—too hard, and he made a mental note to find out why. He took a sip of his coffee as she finished off the strawberry pie and whipped cream. Again, red and white—the stage had been perfectly set. But what was his role? Had he had been cast as one of the actors in her little melodrama? Or was he the audience for which the play had been written?
End of Installment Five
Detective Frank Daniels shifted in the uncomfortable hospital chair as he waited for Denotta to regain consciousness. In his lap was the narrow file of reports and crime scene photographs detailing the known facts concerning the Stedman murder—an open and shut case with all of the facts pointing to Price Denotta as the killer. The only inconsistency was Price—a man Daniels would have thought incapable of cold-blooded murder.
A change in breathing, followed by a weak moan drew his attention to the bed. Denotta had been out for over an hour, missing the doctor’s visit and the transfer to a private room. Frank moved to stand by the silver railing while Price made a valiant attempt to wake up.
“Welcome back,” Daniels said, as the other man’s eyes began to clear and focus.
Denotta frowned by way of greeting. “So, it wasn’t a bad dream, was it?”
“Afraid not. Do you remember our earlier conversation?”
“The one where you called me a liar and accused me of murdering Mrs. Stedman? Vaguely. Am I under arrest?”
“Not officially, but you might want to call a lawyer.”
“And tell him what? You don’t believe me, and you know me. Why would he?”
“Price, the DA will file for murder one and ask for the death penalty. A good lawyer might be able to get the charge reduced to man-slaughter.”
Price shook his head, and then groaned. “I didn’t kill her, Frank. He did. There has to be some evidence proving what really happened. What happened to the second bullet? And what about the distance? She was shot point-blank while my bullet was fired from across the room. And who cracked open my skull? Whoever did must have seen what happened or at least, spotted Stedman at the scene.”
Daniels retrieved the manila file folder and flipped through the reports until he came to the deposition taken from the chauffeur. “I entered the house when I heard the shot. Price Denotta was standing over Mrs. Stedman’s body, holding a gun. He didn’t hear me come in. I grabbed the poker from the fireplace and hit him hard. He fell, and I saw Mrs. Stedman lying on the floor—dead. Her face was gone. I called 911.”
Price muttered something unpleasant under his breath. “That didn’t happen. Why would he say that it did? Was he the only witness?”
“As far as we know. You see our problem, Denotta. All evidence points to you.”
Price was quiet for a moment, his fingers pleating the white sheet absently as he considered his options. “I suppose Mr. Stedman has an iron-clad alibi for the time of the murder.”
“He was attending a gala given by the mayor and his wife.”
“Of course, he was. And I suppose he can produce dozens of witnesses placing him at the party.”
“All eager to come to his defense.”
“So, why wasn’t Mrs. Stedman with him at the party?”
Daniels gave him a strange look before answering. “She had complained of a headache and begged off. The DA will try to establish that she was feigning the illness in order to rendezvous with you.”
Denotta’s face crinkled into lines of overt consternation, the information obviously taking him by surprise. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would she be wanting to meet with me?”
Daniels smiled. “Your reaction is convincing, Denotta, but it’ll never play in court. We have evidence of your affair with Mrs. Stedman including eyewitness reports as well as the numbers of the hotel rooms you visited. And that completes the three components of a successful conviction—method, motive, and opportunity. Unless you can come up with something soon, son, you’re as good as dead.”
End of Installment 6
“Frank, I’ve got to get out of here. How long before the DA brings formal charges?”
Daniels had hoped to avoid that question for a while longer, but didn’t hesitate to answer. After all, a man deserved to hear the truth. “Not long. I’d say as soon as the doctor releases you, and you can be hauled down to the station for a formal inquiry.”
Denotta pushed himself to a sitting position, while trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his head. The room tilted lightly and then straightened. “Let me help you up,” Frank said, standing to his feet. “I can raise the bed.”
Price waved him away. “No, I’ve got to know my own weakness. I didn’t kill her, Frank, and I don’t have much time to prove who did.”
Daniels studied him for a moment. “You’re not planning on just walking out of here, are you?”
“You said it yourself,” he answered, managing a weak smile. “If I wait for the doctor’s release, I’ll go straight to jail.”
“You could let the police handle this, you know.”
“Is that what you would do in my place?”
Frank started to give him the expected response—the one he had been taught in the academy, and then stopped. This man’s life was in jeopardy, and the odds were not in his favor. He cleared his throat. “No, I guess I’d try to find out for myself. How’s your head?”
“Fine,” Price lied. “I think my biggest problem is the pain killers that they keep giving me. My brain feels like it’s been wrapped in cotton.”
Daniels shifted in his seat, the plastic cover creaking under his weight. “How do I know that you won’t leave here and flee the country?”
Price made a snorting noise that Frank took to be a laugh. “With what? I’m a starving PI remember, and using a credit card would be an instant giveaway. I couldn’t flee the country if I wanted to. I’m not sure I could afford to flee the state.”
Frank nodded and tried again. “Even if you make it out of here, you won’t have long, you know. Every policeman in the city will be looking for you.”
Price knew that the officer believed he was innocent and would give him what leeway he could—that he was only playing devil’s advocate as a token protest to ease his own conscience. “Someone has gone to a lot of trouble creating this frame.”
“You think it’s Mr. Stedman.”
“Who else? He had the most to gain, and I saw him kill her.”
“But you didn’t see who hit you over the head?”
“All right. Let’s say I believe you. Where will you start?”
Price reached up to touch his wound gingerly. The pain had lessened, and his thoughts were becoming increasingly clear. “First, I will re-examine my own notes on the case, and then I will take apart the DA’s case, point by point.”
Daniels was quiet for a moment, and Denotta mentally prepared for an argument. What could he do if Daniels refused give him the break he needed? He had practically admitted that he was going to run from the police. A telephone call would speed the DA’s actions and kill any hope he might have to exonerate himself.
“All right. Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m hungry, and as soon as we’re done talking, I’m going to lunch. When I return—let’s say in about an hour—we’re going to go over your case point by point. Is that agreeable to you?”
Daniels’s face was solemn as he passed through the hospital door.
End of Installment 7
Price walked through the outside doors of the hospital as quickly as possibly without drawing undue attention. His escape from the private room had been tedious and nerve-racking, using up a precious thirty-two minutes of his allotted one-hour timetable while Daniels enjoyed a quiet lunch. The worst part was the seemingly interminable walk past the nurses’s station, but once in the elevator his chances of being caught diminished dramatically.
Now, moving down the crowded sidewalk, he felt anonymous, almost invisible, but not quite safe. He knew his foray into freedom was an illusion at best, a transitory state with an uncertain timeline and an inevitable end. He paused to look down at his watch and gauged the probable distance to his apartment. Could he make it there, pack some essentials, and get away before the police arrived to lock him up?
He felt a bump on his arm and frowned at the smartly dressed lady in the green hat elbowing her way to the stoplight. She was followed by a string of nuns in religious dress, two men in black, and a frustrated mother dragging two screaming children. Thinking he would make better time in their wake than on his own, he stepped quickly in line with the entourage.
They had traveled a little over three blocks before coming to the bus stop. The nuns boarded immediately, right behind the bouncing green hat, while the two men and the bedraggled mother walked on. Price followed the nuns, sliding into an empty seat without misadventure. For the moment, he was safe.
“Mind if I join you?”
The question bypassed the dull ache in his head and bounced around his brain for an answer. “Of course not,” he said, minding very much. The large woman’s face wrinkled into smile lines while her body spread over the bench like melted butter. He hugged the end, trying to ignore the solid press of warm flesh against hip and thigh. She talked all the way to his stop, accepting his head nodding as active participation in the conversation, for which he was grateful.
Walking into his apartment was a relief. Never had the watermelon colored walls and olive green trim looked so welcoming, and for once, he forgot to cuss the insane decorator who had designed the offending color scheme. Home, sweet home. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in his bed for a week and let the world pass him by. Then again, being confined to a jail cell would give him plenty of time to rest and reflect. Right now, he needed to grab his things and get out.
Fifty-five minutes had passed since Daniels left for lunch. His time was running out. Moving quickly, he threw some things into a bag and reached under the bed for the safe. Perhaps storing Mrs. Stedman’s cash payments in a portable fireproof box wasn’t his wisest choice, but right now, he was very glad he had made that decision. The money would be more than enough to keep him out of sight for the next few days and hopefully, a few days were all he would need.
Back on the street, Price hailed a cab and headed downtown. His first stop would be the coroner’s office. He had been across the room when Stedman had shot his wife at close range—a fact that should be easily confirmed by the autopsy. Next, he would visit the chauffeur and find out why the man had lied. Without the incriminating testimony of the driver, he would have a chance to prove his case. Suddenly, everything seemed so simple—too simple.
Information he would discover at the corner’s office would send him back to square one and two steps beyond. What had happened to him in the last forty-eight hours had him standing firmly on the edge of the abyss. The facts he would learn in the next few minutes would send him tumbling over.
End of Installment 8