Good Read Mysteries
Buying Murder - Browse

    Regan presented her final argument for buying the cottage to her husband. "The house is the last one on the street, as far back as you can go from where 11th Avenue joins East Cliff Drive at Twin Lakes Beach, so even though it's only steps to the sand, it's quiet and private. Schwan Lake is behind the house; that makes it both a beach house and a lake house. It's got location, location, location," she cited the realtor's mantra.
    She had endeavored to be as logical as Tom was, but now she entreated. "Besides, I really want to do this."
    "Is what you're suggesting even ethical?" Tom asked. "The owner called you to list the house, not buy it. You said she lives back east and hasn't been out here for years. She could say that since she had no knowledge of our market, she relied on you completely and that you manipulated her into selling to us for less than she should have."
    "But she isn't just relying on me for market value. She talked to other agents, too. The owner said we all came up with similar market pricing for the house.
    "She also said getting a quick sale is more important than getting top dollar. Her oldest brother is in financial trouble. He needs cash fast, and she and her other brother want to help him out. They want to be realistic. She asked for a price that would produce a sure sale within a couple of weeks."
    Tom shook his head, "There is no such thing as a sure sale in a couple of weeks in this market. Even a bargain price doesn't guarantee an immediate sale."
    "That's exactly what I told her. She said they would have to think it over and decide which of us to hire, but they would definitely be using one of the lower prices we agents proposed. If we offered them the highest of the low numbers, how could that be unethical?"
    Tom's chuckle was more an expelling of air than a real laugh. "OK, so we can come in and buy ethically and save the owner who needs cash. I don't want to be so charitable that we overpay, though."
    "That's where the true brilliance of my plan comes into play," she offered a triumphant smile. "We take six percent off the high offer we're going to make. The seller's bottom line is the same because they won't be paying commissions, and we get a six percent savings to insure we aren't paying too much. Win-win."
    "You've got an answer for everything, haven't you?"
    Her giggle was mischievous and her eyes danced, "Of course I have. I want this house. I want a little escape pod, you know, somewhere we can go if there's another fire in Bonny Doon. Besides, I'm sure we can make the house really special. It's already quite charming - it just needs a little work - a wall knocked down here and there to open it up inside, maybe a new roof, and some new finishes in the kitchen and bathroom. I've even got an idea where a half bath could go."
    "Sweetheart, what are you getting us into?" Tom's question indicated he already knew he wasn't going to dissuade his wife.
    "The backyard is mostly Schwan Lake. We can keep a canoe there if you like. And the house isn't very far from the Yacht Harbor launch ramp. Maybe we could keep a little boat there, too. You've always wanted a boat, haven't you?" Regan enticed.
    Tom made a sound that fell somewhere between a groan, a sob, and a laugh. "I assume you've already figured out how we're going to pay for this little escape pod that we'll need if there's ever another fire in our neighborhood that coincides with all the hotels and motels in Santa Cruz being full?"
    "Trust me," she cooed, "it's all worked out."
    "Trust me. Those are famous last words if ever I heard any."

    Regan had a cardinal rule for buyers: always have a house inspected before buying it. But she and Tom had owned their little get-away cottage for three days, and she was just meeting Barry Bradford, the home inspector, for a belated look.
    Her reaction to seeing Barry was the same as it always was. When she first spotted him, the opening cords of Hail to the Chief ran through her mind. His voice wasn't anything like his look-alike's, and the startle of recognition never lasted past his outstretched hand and his upbeat greeting, but so incredible was his resemblance to the former president, that from the moment she saw him until he spoke, she was in the presence of George W. Bush. She'd had clients elbow her as soon as he turned his back, or frown and quietly ask, "Doesn't he ... ?" before she stopped them with a nod of her head to acknowledge, yes, he did.
    What amazed her was that Barry didn't see his resemblance to the former president. He was a member in good standing of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, a designation that required the development of excellent observational skills, yet his face seemed to remain a personal blind spot as he looked in the shaving mirror and dismissed the stares of strangers.
    As usual, Barry's greeting of, "How are you on this fine day, Regan?" banished her urge to address him as Mr. President. She smiled back a peer's greeting.
    "I'm doing well, Barry." She couldn't resist interjecting some reality as she pushed a wind driven strand of hair behind her ear. "How are you on this blustery November day?"
    "I'm ready to work, but I'll put off a look-see at the roof until the end of the inspection and hope the wind dies down in the meantime. I don't want a good gust to blow me off the house."
    She laughed, "Has that happened to you?"
    Barry grinned and the uncanny resemblance grew. "Only once, but I never want a repeat. I landed in some bushes that broke my fall, but it scared the blazes out of me."
    "Tom and I just bought this house; since your inspection is for us, you can skip the cosmetics. Tell me about the plumbing, foundation, electrical, and if we can get along for a while without a new roof. The interior is pretty chopped up; we want to knock down some walls and open it up, so we need to know which walls are bearing and which can come down easily."
    "Sure, no problem. I'll take a good look at the structural members from the attic."
    Regan unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Barry followed, carrying his neat tri-fold ladder and a satchel filled with his inspection tools.
    "Could I ask you a question before you get started?" She led the laden Barry across the living room. "I'm curious why the house is built like this; maybe you'll be able to explain it to me. The fireplace isn't centered on its wall; it's close to being set in the corner, but it isn't quite. There's just this short wall between the fireplace and the side wall; it can't be more than three or four feet long, but see how it angles from the edge of the fireplace? There are conventional straight walls on the kitchen behind here and on the hall to the left. There aren't any openings for a closet or storage of any kind on any of the sides. I've checked. It's seems like there's just a blank triangle of space here. Why doesn't this wall parallel the back wall and make a square corner?"
    Barry put his gear on the floor and tapped on the angled wall. "It sounds hollow. It's plaster like the surrounding walls, not sheetrock like it might be if it was added later. It looks original, like it was built that way. Now you've got me curious. If you don't mind me maybe getting a little insulation or dust in the house when I come back down, I'll start in the attic, take a look at this area and let you know which walls are load bearing before I look at anything else."
    "I don't mind a little dirt - I'm anxious to understand the house's construction."
    She walked Barry to the back bedroom and pointed out the attic access hatch in the closet. Barry set up his ladder and climbed up high enough to push off the hatch door. Then he put his hands on opposite sides of the opening and pulled himself up and through it like a gymnast.
    A moment later his head dropped back down through the opening. "You don't have any insulation up here, Regan. This house is going to bake in the summer and be expensive to heat in the winter."
    "I'll add insulation to my list."
    His head disappeared again. She briefly saw his upper body highlighted by a beam from his flashlight, and then she could hear faint scraping sounds as Barry disappeared from sight and moved along the ceiling joists toward the triangle space.
    "Can you hear me?" he yelled.
    "Yes I can, easily." She followed his movements, walking under him through the house.
    "You're going to have lots of options for opening things up. So far it looks like the only bearing walls are the perimeters and left of center, front to back. Wiring is Romex, not knob and tube. Looks good. Looks nice and clean up here; one or two desiccated mice, but that's normal. No signs of a rodent infestation.
    "OK, I'm to the triangle space. It's open to the attic. I don't see any reason for the construction being the way it is. I'm trying to shine my flashlight into the space for a look, but I can't see anything much ... it's got stuff in it ... I don't know what exactly ... it almost looks like ... like cat litter. And ... there's garbage ... a black plastic garbage bag, at least. Hey, Regan, I know what it is. Somebody hid Jimmy Hoffa in here," he laughed. "You want me to pull the bag out and see what's in it?"
    "Sure. Maybe you'll find pirate treasure - we are near the beach. I like the idea of finding treasure better than your suggestion."
    "This bag is harder to get out than I thought."
    She could hear muffled grunts - Barry trying to pull the bag up to the attic, she assumed.
    "It tore," he said. "There's a piece of material in it ... it's dirty ... it looks rusty." A heartbeat later a guttural cry of, "Uhh ... Ahk!" exploded through the ceiling above her.
    "Barry, are you OK?"
    She heard him scrambling along the ceiling joists back in the direction of the attic hatch, moving recklessly and without concern for the plaster ceiling he would damage if he slipped off the beams. She ran through the house to the closet, arriving just in time to see him lower his head through the opening. He was clearly in distress, coughing and gagging, and pale, even though the blood rushing to his lowered head should have been flushing his cheeks.
    He fought retching. "No joke!" He poured out his words rapidly, like he didn't want what they described to linger in his mouth. "Somebody's in there. Maybe not Jimmy Hoffa - but somebody. He was looking up at me with empty eyes."

 

    Regan knew she should call Dave. Her friend's official job title was Santa Cruz Police Department Ombudsman. He'd accepted that designation and the career adjustment that came with it after the loss of an eye in a shoot-out ended his more conventional policing career. Dave would know what to do. But she needed the comfort of Tom's presence and the reassurance she would find in his deep blue eyes. Need trumped judgment; it was her husband's number she hit on her cell phone speed dial.
    "Tom, Barry found ..." her voice choked.
    "Uh-oh. Does the foundation need replacing?"
    "Barry found ..." she hesitated. Then her words tumbled out swiftly. "There's a dead body in the house."
    "What? You mean like a dead raccoon in the crawl space? Oh, not a dog under the house?"
    "No. A dead body. A person."
    Tom said nothing during the moment it took him to absorb not only what Regan told him, but the way she said it. "It shouldn't take me more than twenty minutes to get there, sweetheart. I'll call Dave - then I'm on my way."
    "I'll sit with Barry in his truck until you get here. He's pretty shaken up." She didn't say any more.
    "That sounds like a good idea. Keep one another company," he worked on sounding reassuring. "Twenty minutes," he said again and hung up.
    Within a few minutes, a patrol car pulled across the driveway blocking both Barry's truck and Regan's car. An officer got out, gave his holster a quick adjustment as he walked toward the truck, tapped on Barry's window, and made little counter-clockwise circles with his hand in a signal Regan recognized as "roll down your window."
    "Officer Jamison, sir. Are you the one who found the deceased?" Barry attempted to speak, swallowed instead and nodded in the affirmative. Officer Jamison took a small notepad and a pen out of his shirt pocket and started asking the still-queasy home inspector how he spelled his name.
    Officer Jamison's arrival was quickly followed by the appearance of another police cruiser, this one carrying a compact female officer who got out, adjusted not only her holster but also her no-nonsense bun hairdo, and after the slightest heads-up acknowledgement to Officer Jamison, went into the house.
    Next on the scene was the County Coroner. He and his crime scene crew, bedecked with cameras and loaded down with tool boxes, snapped on latex gloves, and acting like the very epitome of efficiency and professional procedure, also went into the house. Moments later two of the crew returned for a stretcher and took it inside. Regan focused on the arrivals intently in an attempt to not listen as Barry told Officer Jamison the details of his discovery.
    Tom pulled his car into the one remaining parking space before his promised twenty minutes were up and strode at a double-time clip to the passenger side of Barry's truck. Regan's composure abandoned her the moment she saw him. She jumped out of the truck and huddled in his arms until she felt well comforted.
    When Dave arrived, Regan was standing with her head downcast, running through the morning's trauma with Tom. She had been so successful in avoiding the grimmest details of Barry's narration that her tale required her own imagined gore. Making it up required her full attention; she didn't notice Dave go into the house or his quiet approach minutes later.
    His greeting of, "God, Regan, not again," abruptly brought her head up and her eyes level with his. "How many times can you get your name in the news because you were on-site when a body turns up before it starts hurting your business?" He was bemused and grinning, obviously not sharing her agitation. "What are we going to do with her, Tom? This is three bodies for her, isn't it?"
    "Four, if you count the Native-American burial," Tom replied.
    "Nah, I say only three," Dave corrected. "I only count murders."
    "Are you sure this is murder?" She realized the moment the words were out of her mouth how absurd the question was. She had just handed Dave, who never missed an opportunity to tease, ammunition he was about to gleefully aim at her.
    "Whadda-ya think, Regan? The guy climbed up there, slipped on a plastic bag, fell into it, and starved to death? Of course it's murder." His mouth turned up further on one side, exaggerating his amused enjoyment of her question.
    Dave may have intended his mockery as part of their ongoing needling sport, but Regan found it reassuring. They were verbal jousters, constantly teasing one another, but Dave was too much of a professional to indulge in the game during a crisis. His taunting signaled he wasn't particularly alarmed by the morning's events.
    Tom's comforting arm around her shoulders and Dave's joking went a long way to restore Regan's mettle. Her distress at finding a body in their cottage was replaced by curiosity to know how it came to be secreted there.
    Dave worked his mouth into a serious pose. "You've got to stop meddling like this, though. I thought after your last little adventure you decided not to play detective anymore."
    "Umm, I don't think so. As I recall, we left it that I was going to keep you in the loop whenever I was preparing to solve a murder."
    "Ha!" Dave's hoot of laughter was explosive.
    "It seems we own this house, Dave. You might say we bought this murder," Tom explained. "That makes me as involved as Regan is, and technically, she wasn't looking for this one. You could say this murder found her."
    "So I'm not meddling ... am I? And isn't it going to be part of your public relations job to keep us informed about this investigation, since we're home-owning principals?"
    Dave's mouth reformed once more, this time into a serious turned-down-at-the-corners pout. "Well, maybe. I might keep you up to date with our investigation if you, and I am talking to you, Regan, promise not to get," he ran his tongue along the inside of his lower lip, "involved."

    Barry's questioning was completed for the time being and he had calmed down sufficiently that Officer Jamison no longer considered him a hazard to himself or to other drivers. The officer moved his patrol car enough that Barry could leave.
    Officer Lizzie Perez, the female cop on the scene, finished a brief interview with Regan, collected contact information, and told her she was free to leave whenever she wanted.
    The Coroner's crew wheeled out the stretcher. There was something on it, something covered with a black drape. It seemed too compressed and trivial for a body, yet everyone knew that's exactly what it was. The crime scene team made several trips between the house and their van to carry out their equipment and plastic containers and bags. Officer Perez began taking down the yellow crime scene tape from around the house. Once those tasks were completed, the only passersby, a couple taking their dog for a walk, who had paused to watch the activity, left as well.
    Dave had disappeared during Regan's questioning and returned with coffee from Black's Beach Café for the three of them. It seemed all of the activities inside their new house had taken only moments, but when Regan checked her watch, she realized it had been a little more than three-and-a-half hours since she had called her husband.
    "What happens now?" Tom asked as he sipped his coffee.
    "Well, first I make sure the colors in my Hawaiian shirt are flattering for when the cameras start rolling. Then I do my job as police spokesman and explain to the KSBW and KION reporters how Regan here's found another body." He laughed and dodged the slap she aimed at his arm. "And then we get down to the serious stuff: we figure out who your houseguest was, when he died, and how he died. After that, we try to figure out who put him in your new house." In his usual manner of speaking, Dave made himself central to the police investigation.
    "I want to go inside," Regan said. "Is that OK?"
    "Tape's down, I don't see why not. It's your place. Let me go in with you just to double-check nobody left anything behind that you and Tom shouldn't disturb." Dave led the way toward the open front door.
    The plaster and studs of the angled wall in the living room had been removed. A few tiny remnants of plaster still clung to the ceiling where the angled wall had attached, and the top and bottom plates where the studs had been nailed remained. Other than that, the triangle wall was gone.
    "That wall definitely wasn't load bearing," Regan breathed the words too softly to be heard. Not load- bearing: what a strange first thought to have. Yet, they certainly had borne a weight ... for how many years?
    She expected there to be more disruption to the house - a filmy coating of plaster dust clinging to the fireplace mantel, bits of chipped-away wall lying on the floor, maybe even discarded bits of a black plastic bag and whatever material had surrounded the body - but the coroner's crew had meticulously taken away every last trace of the triangle and what it held. It had all become evidence to be carefully inspected and analyzed.
    But, though only the outline of the triangle space remained, Regan's always vivid imagination created an invisible vestige. She imagined she could smell a slight, lingering odor where the triangle had been, the unmistakable odor of death.
    Dave was right, of course - she shouldn't get involved. The body hidden in the triangle had nothing to do with them. She should let the police do their work and determine the who, when, and why of the remains. There was no need for her to poke around or ask questions. Leave everything to the authorities. That was what she should do; that was exactly what she planned to do. That, and work hard to squelch the annoying little voice in her head that kept connecting two thoughts in such an irksome way: Your house, Regan. Your murder.