Who Killed Michael Douglas? [A Chambers Elliot Mystery]
Click on image to enlarge.
by Michael Paulson
Description: The fake priest doesn't bother lawyer Chambers Elliot, but his story does. Why the sudden interest in a thirty-year-old murder. And why, if the Portello Crime Family really was involved, was there a body at all. Elliot suspects a scam. What he doesn't know is that he'll find himself in the midst of a very new murder.
eBook Publisher: BooksForABuck, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [468 KB]
Reading time: 287-402 min.
Chambers Elliot, a tall man with gray hair and dark smears beneath his blue eyes from habitual lack of sleep, looked up from the brief on his limed-oak desk to focus upon the black-clad figure entering his private, well-appointed office.
"Good morning, Father Zamoyski," Elliot said in his usual, reassuring manner. His deeply-timbered voice resonated from the rosewood walls. He arose from his swivel chair and with a finger indicated one of the brown Harvard chairs fronting his desk. "Please sit down."
The stooped, white-haired Priest took a ragged breath. Then he moved unsteadily across the brown carpeting toward the lawyer's desk, not unlike a sailor on the deck of a ship in heavy seas.
Below the Priest's thinning hairline was a pale, deeply-lined, wet face set off by hollow eyes with constricted pupils, a generous nose, and a heavy jaw. Lodged in one ear was an old-fashioned hearing aid. The wire from the ancient device dangled across the priest's tunic into an inside pocket. His short legs joined large feet encased by scuffed, black shoes. Despite the unusually warm weather for June his hands were sheathed in thin, black leather gloves.
"You're a trial-lawyer?" The priest's voice was ragged, like the sound of tearing canvas.
"Litigator," Elliot corrected, and resumed his seat. Then the lawyer leaned back in his chair and smoothed his gray, pinstriped vest. "What can I do for you?"
The Priest sat down with great reluctance, like a prisoner expecting execution. Then he looked into Elliot's curious eyes. "I talked to your receptionist."
The lawyer crossed his arms. "Maggie Sharp."
"She sent me to see your legal-assistant."
"Neither explained my need?" asked the priest, his voice despairing.
Elliot pursed his lips. "Lydia told me your name is Father Aleksey Ivanovich Zamoyski. You want to speak with me concerning a murder; the details of which you would disclose only to me." The lawyer's voice trailed off slightly upon noticing the erratic vibration of the priest's carotid artery. He quickly tilted forward resting his forearms upon the desk. "Do you need a doctor, Father Zamoyski?"
"Doctor? There's nothing a doctor can do for me once..." The priest left the words hanging as he paused to clear his throat. Then he said, "It's been so many years since the incident that brings me to you. However, I feel I must make an effort to right a terrible wrong." His lips thinned at the end of the last words, as if the statement fouled his tongue.
"Right what wrong?" Elliot's voice rose slightly with his quickened interest.
After taking several choking breaths the priest replied. "The wrong man was charged. He hanged himself while in jail rather than face the humiliation of a public trial." There was another pause for breath. Then Zamoyski added in a worried whisper, "I am concerned, however, that I have waited too long. The murder occurred nearly thirty years ago."
"Thirty years?" Elliot's bushy, gray eyebrows furrowed with sudden disappointment. "There is no statute of limitations on murder," he muttered, making a vague gesture. "However, if the perpetrator is deceased..."
The priest's shaggy head shook. "He isn't."
The lawyer licked his lips with renewed curiosity. "You know who the killer is?"
Elliot splayed his hands in confusion. "Then why have you waited thirty years to right this wrong, as you put it?"
"Rules of my profession, Mr. Elliot." The priest's voice took on a weary tenor. "There are many rules. So many, many rules."
Father Zamoyski glanced around Elliot's office, his eyes pausing as if with purpose or envy at each of the several Joan Miro wall-hangings. "You enjoy abstraction," he eventually remarked.
"I enjoy all sorts of puzzlement." Studying the priest, Elliot concluded that opium-addiction--possibly taken in treatment for chronic pain--explained the man's sickly pallor. "If these rules have kept you silent for thirty years, what has changed?"
The priest jerked toward the attorney's voice with a start, as if having been awakened from a dream. "I'm dying. There are even rules for that. Did you know? We are constricted at every turn, from womb to coffin. I..." His voice faded, again, as if confusion's talons were plucking at the folds in his brain.
"Why don't you tell me about it from the beginning, Father Zamoyski?" Elliot urged. "Take your time."
"Yes," Zamoyski muttered, uneasily. "The beginning. It's always best to start from the beginning. But beginnings can be very difficult." He composed himself, brought his knees tightly together and then leaned slightly toward the lawyer; his wrists rested upon his lower limbs, his gloved hands gripping his knees.
"As you must realize I am privy to a great many secrets. The majority are trivial matters. But some would blight even the most tarnished of souls." The priest looked around the office for a second time, the lines in his face deepening as if he were having trouble concentrating.
"A few are horrendous tales of violence. Others are infected with loathsome depravity. Then there are..." He made a despairing movement with one hand. "Then there are those so filled with blood-lust I shudder to make recollection."
Elliot said slowly, evenly, "I give you my word that whatever you confide will remain between us."
Zamoyski raised his gloved hands to his face as if in shame. Then between the fingers he gasped, "I feel such despair!" The priest's voice faltered, into a sob. Then his hands fell away and he stared teary-eyed at Chambers Elliot. "Had I broken my vows of the confessional and come forward, that man would be alive."
"Possibly," Elliot said with faint impatience. "But there can be no certainty. Thirty years is a very long time, Father. Illness and accident take their toll. Who was murdered?"
"Who do you suspect killed Mr. Douglas?" probed the lawyer.
"I don't suspect, I know!" The priest's chin fell to his chest, his body quivering with grief.
The lawyer considered the tormented man a moment. Something was not quite right. What it was, Elliot had not yet pinpointed. But something was definitely wrong. He said, "I assume, based upon what you've disclosed that you came by this information through a parishioner's confession?"
Zamoyski nodded, blinking back tears. "In part."
Elliot folded his hands on the desk, still assessing the priest. "What is the killer's name?"
"God help me, I can't break my vows."
The lawyer twisted his mouth sardonically. "Father Zamoyski, unless you are willing to disclose what you know, then nothing can be done."
The priest gave Elliot a small, sad smile. "To speak means the revocation of my ordination. Even at this low point in my life, I could not bear such a disgrace."
Chambers Elliot flipped his arms wide in exasperation. "Father Zamoyski, I am bewildered as to what you expect me to accomplish. Your silence shackles me."
The priest squirmed in the chair as if suddenly feeling the scrutiny of his maker. "All I want you to do is clear the accused man's name based upon information I have gathered outside the confessional."
"To what end? You said the man was dead."
"Surely you realize his family shares this unwarranted shame!" exclaimed Zamoyski. "It is for them, that I come to you."
"Each of us has a predecessor of dubious character, Father," Elliot remarked. "It is the nature of mankind." Then the lawyer stopped, his face darkening with remorse. "I'm sorry for those remarks. They were uncalled for. But my point was well meant. Whatever's been done by our forbearers hardly reflects upon us, good or evil. We are who we are--no more, no less."
Zamoyski seemed mildly amused. "For a man of strength like yourself, perhaps. But for the rest of us..." The priest's unfinished words hung in the air. After taking a ragged breath he said, "Shame is the most powerful of emotions, Mr. Elliot. It tears at our hearts like a ravenous beast whose hunger can never be sated."
Elliot scowled in silence for many seconds. The he said, "I cannot possibly meet your expectations."
"But you can," Zamoyski insisted.
"How?" The attorney's hands flew apart. Then he leveled a long forefinger at the priest. "Without the killer's name, I am stopped before I begin." Chambers Elliot leaned back in his chair. "I'm sorry, Father. But there is nothing I can do."
"At least hear me out?" the priest pleaded. "I beg you."
There was a long pause. Then Chambers Elliot smiled as he suddenly realized what was wrong. The man sitting before him was not a priest. The cassock Zamoyski wore was double-breasted. Therefore it was not of a Catholic priest, but that of an Anglican. Further, in this country, that garment was traditionally worn only in church or at a seminary. In public, Catholic priests were never attired in it.
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure--Father Zamoyski."
The priest's gloved hands became animated, his voice confidential. "You see, I have devised a scheme to get around my obligation to the cloth."
"I don't understand," Elliot said, purposely baiting the man into disclosing as much as possible about his real purpose.
The priest glanced about for a few seconds. Then he tilted confidentially toward Elliot. "You will identify the killer without my disclosing the name."
Elliot chuckled grimly. "Surely you don't take me for a mind-reader?"
The priest wagged his head. "I'm serious, Mr. Elliot. You will know who the killer is--when he kills, again."
"Again?" The lawyer's eyes widened with mock alarm. "Are you saying you've concealed the name of a serial-killer?"
"No," declared the priest.
"Then what are you saying?"
Father Zamoyski's spread his lips into a leering grin, giving Elliot a peak at decay-blackened teeth. "I've set a trap for him."
"Trap?" Elliot echoed, still baiting.
The priest nodded. "He is going to kill me, Mr. Elliot. At which time, you will deduce his identity. Whereupon, you will have all you need to clear the wronged man."
"Nonsense. You have referred to the killer as 'he' and 'him'. Can I assume this killer is a man? Or are you leading me down the garden path in that respect, as well?"
"As well?" asked Zamoyski, tilting his head askance as if suddenly caught in a lie.
Elliot leaned back and crossed his arms, staring fixedly at Father Zamoyski. "Have you been threatened, after all these years?"
The priest giggled, "It is I who have threatened him--with exposure."
"Then the killer is a man?"
The priest looked down at his gloved hands. "I can admit nothing."
"Father Zamoyski, the best legal advice I can give you is to go to the police." The lawyer once more leaned his arms upon the desk. "Tell them all you know. Including whatever you're planning by way of entrapment..."
"I have the wherewithal to pay your fees, Mr. Elliot," the priest quickly interjected. "I am not here seeking charity."
Chambers Elliot gaped a moment in surprise. "Nevertheless, my point of concern is for your safety."
"But you need not worry, Mr. Elliot. I am not seeking protection. In fact, you must agree not to take any action along those lines. Otherwise my plans may be thwarted."
Elliot got to his feet. "Plans?"
"To entrap the real killer."
"Ah, yes, those plans."
"My passing is of my own choosing, Mr. Elliot. Its timing and method are that of my assassin." The priest's countenance became anxious. "When we complete our arrangements you and I will not see each other, again--at least, for what remains of my life. Your duty is to the wronged man--not me."
"A dead man." The lawyer moved to the front of the desk and took a perch on its edge, facing the priest, still suspicious. "For whom you expect to die?"
"Death is my penance, Mr. Elliot." Father Zamoyski's pinpoint pupils peered desperately up at the lawyer, from beneath craggy white brows. "I beg that you accede to my request?"
Elliot shrugged. "Should I choose not to, what do you propose to do?"
"I had not considered that possibility. You see, what has been set in motion cannot be stopped. Even as we speak, my assassin makes plans. By the close of this week--no later--I shall be with my maker whether you assist, or not."
Elliot elevated his lean height, his eyes studying the priest's ghastly pallor. At this close proximity he could see the makeup being used to create the man's deathly complexion. "Before we march you to your grave, Father, tell me the circumstances of Michael Douglas' death."
"A liquor store," said the priest, leaning back in the chair. One hand went to his chest as his breathing became short and rapid. Then, when his breaths normalized the hand fell away and he said, "The clerk--Michael Douglas--was shot during what the police foolishly believed was a robbery."
"The murder was motivated by other reasons? You are certain?"
The priest nodded. "A woman."
"Indeed? What was the name of the store?"
Father Zamoyski paused, his brows furrowing deeply as if he was searching his deepest memories. "Winston Liquors."
"I don't recall the incident." Elliot returned to his chair, taking a yellow notepad and pen from a desk drawer before making a notation.
"I'm not surprised," Father Zamoyski observed. "Doubtlessly, there have been thousands of liquor-store robberies since that terrible time thirty years ago. We humans are such horrid creatures. Each of us is infested with the promise of violence and avarice."
"And deceit. Did the killing take place inside that store or outside?"
"Inside." The priest cast a sideways glance at Elliot as if testing for a reaction to his tale.
"Is this store still in business?" Elliot asked, still taking notes.
"Yes. It is in Georgetown."
Chambers Elliot nodded as he wrote, recollection pushing at him, fast and hard. Suddenly his eyes widened and he looked over at the priest in genuine surprise. "Douglas was killed execution-style."
"Yes. Exactly." The priest quickly brightened into a smile. "You do remember."
"The man charged with the crime was Jerome Petty," Elliot continued, the incident now becoming clear. "I was working for the Public Defender's Office, at the time. In fact, Petty's defense was assigned to me."
The priest nodded. "Which is why I came to you rather than another attorney."
The lawyer set down his pen, now more curious than before about the man sitting before him. "As I recall there was no mistake as to Jerome Petty's guilt. Petty was a career-criminal. Two eyewitnesses of sound character identified him as the shooter. The Jensens, Mr. and Mrs."
Father Zamoyski shook his head in refute. "Those witnesses lied, Mr. Elliot."
"Why would they?"
Father Zamoyski's eyes narrowed. "We all have our price."
The lawyer shoved the notepad off to one side scoffing, "That robbery, as best I recall, netted less than two hundred dollars. Lies may be bought, Father--yes. But they don't come cheaply--as you are aware."
Father Zamoyski laboriously straightened his body in the chair, his gloved hands gripping the arms. "I'm not lying, Mr. Elliot," he declared, fervently.
Elliot said grimly, "Aren't you?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Jensen were killed in a helicopter crash during their vacation to Samoa, shortly after Douglas' murder. Convenient--at least for Michael Douglas' killer--wouldn't you agree?"
"So it would seem." Chambers Elliot rested his elbows on the desk. "You said Michael Douglas was killed over a woman. Can you tell me her name?"
"I was not able to discover that."
"So, this unnamed killer who you referred to as 'he' and 'him' but could be of either sex, took personal offense to Mr. Douglas' philandering with a particular woman who remains unidentified?"
Zamoyski hesitated. "I realize it must sound a bit odd..."
"That is an understatement. But what makes this incredible is that you expect me to believe this brutal killer sought absolution."
"It was not his confession that I heard."
The lawyer's face fell. "Come, again?"
The priest's very faint smile hardly moved his mouth. "It was another who made the confession."
"Not directly. More along the lines of a confidante."
"Then how can you be certain that what you heard was not just fools-play?"
"My certainty is absolute, Mr. Elliot. I, through subsequent investigation, determined the real killer's identity and, thereby, the motive."
Chambers Elliot leaned back laughing. "I strongly suspect your inquiry was flawed, along with the rest of your portrayal."
"I assure you it was not."
"If you concluded the killer's identity on your own, then you are not barred from disclosing it."
"But I am, Mr. Elliot. You see, the confessor's identity would also disclose that of the killer."
Chambers Elliot chuckled under his breath, for a moment. Then he said, "You're quick. I'll grant you that. But if you are murdered, what makes you think the police won't botch their investigation and charge the wrong man, again? In this state, it is a frightfully common occurrence."
"I have every confidence the authorities will not repeat their mistakes of thirty years ago," Zamoyski declared. "The science of crime is far more advanced."
"So is the sophistication of criminals. Your death may be interpreted as an accident. Or worse, considering your calling, as a suicide. Dare you risk being denied absolution over a man like Jerome Petty? No sacrament of any kind may be administered after such a death."
Suddenly a conflict of emotions was expressed upon the sickly man's face. "I had not considered that."
One eyebrow arched the merest trifle in the direction of the priest, as the flawed statement about sacraments failed to garner a correction from Zamoyski. "Father Zamoyski or whatever your..." Chambers Elliot began. Then he caught himself. "On second thought, I'm willing to pursue this matter inasmuch as you intend to pay my fees. But I want it understood that I cannot guarantee success."
"Thank you, Mr. Elliot!" Father Zamoyski took a brown banker's envelope from within the recesses of his suit, and set it upon the desk. Then he took out a pair of extremely thick eyeglasses and put them on. "Within the envelope are two certified checks. One is for sixty-five thousand dollars, to cover your fees. The other is in the amount of twenty thousand dollars and is to be handed over to my brother, upon my death. It is my hope you will take care of that bequest, as well."
"Acting as executor for your estate is not a problem," Elliot declared. "Did you give Lydia the details on your brother and any other assets?"
"There is only the check. My brother--Daniel--will contact you, in a day or two. Naturally, he will have the appropriate documents to validate his identity." The priest made an embarrassed gesture. "I have been out of the country for a number of years. Therefore, I cannot recall my brother's address."
Chambers Elliot pursed his lips in thought, remaining silent for nearly a minute. Then, with decision written upon his brow he said, "I want to add a codicil to our agreement. The understanding is that I have freedom to pursue this investigation in any fashion I choose."
"To the extent your best-efforts are directed toward the cause of justice, for all concerned."
"You can count on that, Father Zamoyski." Chambers Elliot picked up the envelope and tore it open. Within were two certified checks in the amounts stated by the priest. "I'll have my legal-assistant give you a receipt for these. I will be in court, this afternoon and tomorrow morning. Consequently, I won't have the executorship forms and the contract covering my efforts on your behalf finalized, until late tomorrow. But..."
"I will return tomorrow afternoon, then." The priest glanced at his wristwatch. "I'm late for an appointment."
"Where can I reach you between now and your return tomorrow, should the need arise?"
"St. Michael's Rectory. I gave your receptionist the address and telephone number."
Father Zamoyski struggled to his feet like a newborn calf, turned toward the door and then turned back. "The check for my brother... You do have a safe, I presume?"
"Would you humor me by putting my brother's bequest in there while I am present? Daniel is my only living relation. I know it must sound foolish. However..."
Chambers Elliot got up without remark, turned and pulled aside the Joan Miro painting hanging on the wall behind his desk. A cylinder-safe came into view, which he quickly opened. After putting the envelope given by the priest within, Elliot shut the safe and gave the dial a spin. Then the lawyer turned to face Zamoyski. The priest nodded his approval, removed his glasses and stuffed them into a pocket. Then he hobbled away.
Elliot watched his client's departure with special interest. "Why," he reflected, "was that man willing to spend so much money to retain my services under false pretenses?"
Seconds later, Lydia Marshall, Elliot's legal-assistant, entered his private office.
"Was that priest on the level, Chambers?" she asked, with dubious grin. Lydia was tall, blonde, slender, mid-twenties and attired in a pink suit.
"You obviously think otherwise, Lydia."
She shrugged. "For a priest, he didn't ring true to me."
"You're a Baptist. Why should he?" Elliot went around to the front of his desk. There he stopped; legs splayed, hands balled at the bottoms of his trousers-pockets, eyes on Lydia. "I must admit, however, you are quite correct. He is not a priest."
"Then who is he?"
"I don't know. But I intend to find out."
"Why didn't you confront him with it?"
"I nearly did. But my curiosity got the better of me."
She pointed at the exposed safe. "I hope you demanded an advance for services?"
"That is what makes it all the more curious. He supplied eighty-five grand in certified monies," Elliot said, thoughtfully. "At least the checks appeared to be genuine. He'll return tomorrow to sign the executorship documents and the contract covering our efforts on his behalf. Sixty-five thousand is our fee. The remainder is a bequest to his brother. I'll give you the details later. In the meantime get in touch with the Taggart Detective Agency. Tell Jason Taggart to drop whatever he's doing and come to my office."
"No can-do, Chambers," she said. "You have an ex-parte hearing before Judge Kereru on the Simpson case in less than an hour, remember? You'll be lucky to get to the courthouse before it convenes."
"Then after that." Elliot studied her blue eyes, rubbing his chin with one paw. "Say four o'clock?"
"Okay." Then Lydia wrinkled her high forehead. "Zamoyski talked to me about a murder. In fact, the man was in tears when he spoke with me."
Elliot gave out a lazy laugh. "The murder was a teaser, along with his role. Zamoyski's purpose for seeing me, or so he claimed, is to hire me to find his killer. In so doing, I would be able to clear the name of the man blamed in that thirty-year-old murder. Do you see why I became so curious as to his real purpose?"
Lydia blinked rapidly in confusion. "For a dead guy he talks pretty good."
The lawyer's face darkened. "That's the part of this game that worries me." Elliot returned to his chair. "I don't think Zamoyski was lying about having a killer on his tail."
"I'm not kicking about the chunk of change he dropped off. We can use that. But if Zamoyski's playing us, we could be in for more trouble that it's worth. What is that old saying about curiosity and cats?"
"Zamoyski claims he's dying," said Elliot, ignoring her. "Based solely upon his appearance, I would agree. If my recollection of medical jurisprudence is accurate, constricted pupils and clammy skin are symptomatic of opium-addiction. But he was made-up to have that appearance. Why?"
"Maybe he's an actor hired by someone else?"
Elliot rocked her question back and forth in his mind before slowly saying, "I would agree that he is an actor. But you're missing the point. Why pose as a sickly priest? Why not a healthy dentist? It would've been a role easier to succeed at."
"Who did he say was murdered?"
"Michael Douglas." Elliot waggled a finger. "That's another part of his ploy that I found so curious. You see, I was assigned as defense-counsel for the man charged in the killing Michael Douglas--Jerome Petty."
"So whoever this guy is, he knows a great deal about you."
Chambers Elliot nodded.
"Perhaps Petty put him up to it?"
"Petty committed suicide not many days after his arrest."
Lydia rested her weight on one leg. Then, she put her hands akimbo at her hips. "Is it possible Petty's relatives are taking revenge on you?"
"What for? I wasn't responsible for Petty's suicide. No. I'm more inclined to think that Zamoyski's purpose has nothing to do with Douglas or Petty. But I'll be damned if I can figure out what he actually intends."
She went over to the desk and leaned her hands upon it, staring into her boss' face. "Chambers, you're just asking for trouble with this. Let me send the checks back to him. I'll tell Zamoyski that your schedule simply won't allow you to accept another case."
The lawyer shook his head. "Why not play his game?"
Lydia folded her arms defiantly. "Good, old fashioned common sense comes to mind."
Elliot smiled. "Something dramatic is about to occur, Lydia. Something very dramatic. I want to be in on it."