Corpse with the Key [A Lt. Mark Stoddard Mystery]
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by J. D. Crayne
Description: Thrilling, Light-Hearted Mystery! The residents of the small California town of Pomo are back in full force, with all of their wacky whimsy intact. Antique dealer Warren Legacy went out to appraise the contents of a vacant Victorian house and hasn't been seen since. His clerk is distraught and his friends are concerned. Three days have gone by since lawyer Andrew Moore gave him the keys to the old estate and Detective Mark Stoddard, of the Pomo police department, fears that his old friend has met with foul play. Legacy, meanwhile, is wandering alone and concussed in the snowy wastes of the Mendocino County forest. Stoddard retraces Legacy's steps to the vacant, boarded-up, house, and finds the corpse of a clergyman sprawled at the foot of the cellar stairs. There's a small Bible under the minister's body, with a hole cut into the pages that holds a single menthol cigarette. Stoddard soon discovers that the dead minister wasn't the man that he pretended to be, and that his death is the last link in a chain of crime that reaches nearly two decades into the past. A long-missing teenager, two women in the faith-healing racket, a doting sister, and a man with a grudge against an absent brother-in-law combine to make this one of Mark Stoddard's most fascinating cases. Is Warren Legacy really another victim of the savage unknown killer, or has the antique dealer himself given in to some unsuspected rage and added murder to his repertoire of skills? What is the sinister significance of the antique iron key, and where is the lock that it fits? Stoddard's search for answers takes him to newspaper archives, prison records and the repressed memories of former school chums, as he uncovers a long-buried scandal of betrayal and death.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner,
eBookwise Release Date: October 2006
19 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [175 KB]
Reading time: 116-163 min.
It was Sunday, on a cold day in mid-March. The sky was overcast, the wind was brisk, and a light snowfall from the night before still lingered on some of the sheltered sections along the side of the road. Warren Legacy, owner of Legacy Antiques, which was one of Pomo's most respected commercial enterprises, turned his Buick sedan to the right at the rural mailbox labeled "Gagrin" and headed down the long rutted dirt road to the house at the end, grimacing at the potholes and mud.
The house was one of those wood-framed Victorians so beloved of West Coast builders from the 1890s through the 1920s. It was three stories tall, with a high peaked roof that promised an attic at the top, and had the usual collection of wooden gingerbread decoration. The pale gray paint was peeling, some of the wooden fretwork hung loose, and the ground floor windows had been boarded up. Fields and the remains of a kitchen garden stretched away on both sides to the closest neighbors, a quarter of a mile away.
Despite it's appearance of isolation, the house was only a fifteen minute drive from civic center. Pomo was a small, close knit, friendly, community, if one believed the Chamber of Commerce. If you listened to the west coast trucking companies, it was an uninteresting little speed trap that cut into their schedules. For most tourists it wasn't much better, and the Chamber of Commerce was still looking for something that would lure people into town instead of scurrying for a way out and off to somewhere more interesting.
The tourists and truckers had been waiting for forty years for the transportation authorities to build the promised bypass around Pomo. They were still waiting, and presumably gnashing their teeth as well as their gears as they slowed down to the sedate thirty miles per hour that local regulations demanded.
Safe from the traffic woes of downtown Pomo, Legacy pulled into the Gagrin house drive, parked under the carriage way, and picked up the flashlight and key case that were lying on the passenger seat. He put on his hat, and got out of the car, closing the door carefully behind him. His footsteps on the scattered patches of gravel seemed louder than normal; an indication of how quiet the countryside was on this dreary March day. He stepped lightly up the two steps to the concrete porch and went to the front door.
Legacy was a dapper man of 57, with dark gray hair, blue eyes, and a slight tendency toward plumpness, which he kept in check by working around the yard of his own, much smaller, Victorian house and eating a lot of salads. His wool suits and sober ties were a subject of some amusement in a town where even the Mayor and City Council members came to work in blue jeans and Pendleton plaid wool shirts.
Warmly wrapped up in a dark wool coat over his suit, his throat protected by a gray paisley wool scarf, he was muttering at the key that he was trying to turn while still wearing his fur-lined driving gloves.
The front door lock was stiff and when he finally got the door unlocked, it opened to the sound of torturous squeals from its hinges; an indication of how long the property had been neglected. Without the drying heat of a fireplace or a gas stove, the winter damp seeped into everything.
The house was dark inside, the gray light of day being blocked out by the boards over the downstairs windows. He flicked his flashlight on and moved it over the small entry hall. A large iron door stop, shaped like a Spanish galleon, stood on the floor next to a small table. Both were festooned with cobwebs and covered with dust. The place smelled of mold.
Dust, decay, and damp.
Legacy shook his head, frowning slightly. If any of the furniture in the house was salvageable, it would need a lot of repair work. Veneer would have loosened, and the glue of the furniture joints as well. China, glass, and non-ferrous metal would be easier to salvage; perhaps some linens might be saved if they had been stored in trunks or in cabinets with close-fitting doors.
There were two doors and a staircase leading out of the entry hall, and the door to his right was slightly ajar. He walked over, pushed it open, and the beam of his flashlight caught the shape of a dark-clad corpse lying on the floor.
There was no doubt that it was a corpse, although Legacy could not stop himself from walking over, squatting down, and checking for a pulse in one of the cold marble-white wrists. There was none. He stood up again, and started to return to his car for his cell phone. That was all that he remembered. * * * *
On Monday morning, Sgt. Chris Fuller, a good-natured man with hazel eyes and brown hair aging gracefully to gray, waited calmly in the office doorway until Lt. Mark Stoddard finished his phone call and put down the receiver.
"Okay, Chris," Stoddard said, flexing his cramped shoulders slightly and then brushing back his sandy hair. "What's up?"
"Your friend the antique dealer seems to have gone missing."
"Warren Legacy, you mean?"
"Yeah. I know it's not your department, but no one else is free at the moment, and since you know him..." He held out a slip of paper. "His clerk called. He didn't come to work this morning, and she didn't get any answer when she phoned his house. Of course, he could have just taken off and forgotten to tell her."
Stoddard took the paper, frowning slightly, and shook his head. "No, Legacy is one of those guys whose habits are so regular that they seem to run on tracks. I'll call around, and if I can't turn up anything, I'll drive out to his place and see if there's a problem."
Fuller nodded and sauntered back down the hall.
Stoddard phoned Legacy's home number, in case the antique dealer had returned in the interim, but there was no answer. Having covered that prospect, he stood up and stretched his 5' 10" frame, and then grabbed his coat and hat off of the hook on the back of his office door, and headed for the parking lot.
Normally he would have walked the several blocks from the police building over to the antique shop on School Street, but the weather was chancy and it looked like there might be more snow in the offing. He took his white pickup instead, noting that slush from the last snow fall was still lying in the gutters and on the nearby roofs where trees cast their shadows.
Legacy Antiques was housed in a pleasant old two-story 1890s house, painted white, with yellow trim. There was a smooth sloping lawn which was just starting to hint at green, some flowerbeds that would be colorful with rose blossoms later in the spring, and a cracked concrete walkway leading up to the front porch. A large white sign, with the business name in gold and black, hung from two posts set into the ground. A concession to modern life had been made by converting the porch steps into a handicap-access ramp.
Muriel Hatton, Legacy's diminutive middle-aged clerk, was distraught. Her fluffy white hair was even more fly-away than usual, and her eyes were suspiciously red. She pulled a tissue out of a pack tucked into the side pocket of her wheelchair and daubed at her nose.
"I just keep imagining the most awful things!" she wailed.
"The worst things that we imagine usually aren't true," Stoddard said soothingly. "When did you see Warren last?"
"Friday," she said with a sad little sniff. "I saw him when he came back from lunch."
"What time was that?"
"About one o'clock. I don't remember for sure. He went out around eleven-thirty and said that he was going to the Pomo Business Owners Association lunch. It was just a bit after one when he got back."
"You didn't see him after that?"
"No, but I talked to him. I called him when I was ready to go home." She nodded toward the intercom on the desk. "I always do that. I leave at the same time every night, but I like him to know that I'm on my way out, so he'll know that everything is okay."
"You're the one who locked up down here?"
Muriel nodded vigorously. "Yes, just like I always do."
"That means Warren doesn't leave through the front door, right?"
"That's right. He always goes out through the upstairs door, and down the back stairs. That's where the main alarm controls are, next to the back door, and he sets the alarm when he leaves."
Stoddard frowned, thinking, and rubbed the side of his nose. "Was everything okay when you came in this morning?"
She nodded again. "Just fine. There's another alarm control panel next to the front door--he had it put in down low, where I can reach it--and I put in the code and everything was fine ... except that Warren never came in." Her face crumpled up and she looked like she might cry.
"Okay!" Stoddard said hurriedly. "I'm going to take a drive out to his house, and see if he's there. He might have gotten himself locked in the basement or something like that, and couldn't get to the phone."
It took Stoddard just over twenty minutes to reach Legacy's pleasant Victorian home, with its neatly graveled driveway and nearby gazebo. The doors were locked, the lights were off, and when he walked along the driveway to where it ended in back of the house, he found the garage doors open and Legacy's blue Buick missing.
A frantic clamor hit his ears, and he looked over toward the small hen house and run, where Legacy's three elderly hens were squawking for attention. The hen house door was hooked open, but the birds had no food or water. They might have already eaten whatever food he had tossed them, but Legacy would never have left them without water.
The detective, who was familiar with the property from several years friendship with the antique dealer, strolled over to the creek and across the narrow footbridge to the outhouse that Legacy used as a storage building. He dipped up a scoop of scratch from the large metal barrel; took it back to the hen house; and tossed it through the fence onto the ground of the run. The hens leaped on it thankfully, and were soon making contented clucking sounds. It was amazing how fast the three old biddies could clear up a ration of grain. He filled their water trough, returned the grain scoop to the outhouse, and dusted off his hands, thinking.
Legacy had been home in the morning--some morning--because he had let the hens out. Like most householders in the area he kept the birds penned up at night because of the local foxes, coyotes, and raccoons; all of whom would consider even a tough old chicken a welcome dinner. Legacy must not have been home this morning, however, or the hens would still have had water, and they wouldn't have been so obviously hungry. Therefore, the antique dealer had vanished sometime after Saturday or Sunday morning.
The most likely event was that he'd had car trouble out on one of the less traveled roads. But still, the man had a phone in his car. Stoddard's brow furrowed. The implications were not good.
On his way back to town, he called the California Highway Patrol and asked about road accidents during the past two days.
Three teenagers with too much beer on board had taken a wrong turn and gotten stuck in a drainage ditch two miles north of town. An overly aggressive octogenarian in a late model Chevvy took a trip down a hillside off of Hwy 20 and had been transferred to a psychiatric ward for observation. That was all.
Stoddard returned to Legacy Antiques. The weather, which had been overcast and threatening all day had turned into a sloppy mixture of sleet and rain; making the streets slick and producing a dank cold that he noticed even through his fleece-lined coat.
Muriel Hatton was still teary-eyed and became even more distraught when Stoddard told her that Legacy was not home and had apparently gone out in his car either Saturday or Sunday.
"Did he have any plans for the weekend that you know of, any appointments?"
Muriel shook her head. "He didn't mention any."
"I think I'd better look around his office. Maybe he left some kind of note. Are the rest of the staff here?"
"Padraic and Stephanie are, but Michelle is on vacation down in San Diego."
"Lucky girl!" Stoddard said with feeling.
Muriel smiled wanly. "I'll get you the key to Warren's office." She rolled her chair in a smart U-turn, got a ring of keys from her desk drawer, and brought it to him. "The little ones are for the desk and the display cabinets."
"Thanks," Stoddard said. "I'll bring them back when I'm done."
He trotted briskly up the stairs, and decided to talk to Legacy's two antique restorers before tackling the office.
Padraic Moran was an easy-going, thick-set man with a shock of dark unruly hair. His specialty was wood repairs, and his workroom was fitted with a wood lathe, sander, joiner, drill press, and a wall rack with a whole collection of gouges, saws, and planes.
"Nope," he said, wiping the sawdust off of his glasses with the corner of a shop towel. "I haven't seen the boss since this past Friday. He looked in to ask a couple of questions. He usually makes a point of coming in once a day to see how we're doing, if we need anything, that sort of stuff. Real nice guy, although you wouldn't think it with those fancy suits and ties of his."
"What time did he come in, do you remember?"
"Yeah, sure. I was just cleaning up, so it would be about quarter to five. He wanted to know how the repairs on that Chippendale cabinet were coming along." He jerked a thumb at a rather fussy piece of furniture sitting in the corner.
"Was he leaving then?"
"No, he's always the last one out. Anyway, he wasn't wearing his overcoat or hat."
"Did he say anything about his plans for the weekend?"
"Not really. I think he was going to look at some stuff he might buy, but that's usually what he does on weekends anyway."
Stoddard thanked him and walked down the upstairs hall to the room where Stephanie Mayburn worked in ceramics. That had been Reiko Masaki's specialty, he remember, until she quit her job to act as her late cousin's executor and the business manager of his estate.
Ms. Mayburn hadn't seen Legacy anywhere close to five o'clock on Friday; she had taken the afternoon off for a visit to the dentist and a root canal job. No, Warren hadn't said anything about his weekend plans. Ms. Mayburn was about 45, blonde, and still attractive. Stoddard thought that there was a tinge of regret in her voice when she had to say no. He thanked her, with condolences on the dental problems, and walked back along the hall to Legacy's office door.
He had never seen the office vacant before. Pale cream drapes were closed in front of the windows, and the soapstone fireplace was swept and clean. Not that the state of the fireplace meant anything. The building had central heating and Legacy only used a fire for the sake of atmosphere. The top of the mahogany desk was clear except for the telephone, a china statue of a bird which Stoddard had always thought was rather repulsive, the desk blotter, a leather pencil cup, and a leather-covered memo pad--all neatly centered and positioned.
He walked around to the back of the desk and flipped open the memo pad. There were several notations in Legacy's small precise handwriting, and one phone number. He picked up the phone receiver and pressed the buttons.
A pleasant female voice answered. "Nial and Moore." * * * *
Warren Legacy shivered and opened his eyes to a scattering of white. After a moment's thought he decided that the white was snow, or sleet, or something like that. He should not be lying out in it, he thought vaguely, not with the cold wetness settling on his face. The problem was that the situation seemed somehow removed from him, as if he was viewing it from a distance, or as if it was affecting someone else. His head was not working right. Dimly, he knew that he ought to get out of the weather, into some sheltered place. He could not remember just why that was, but he knew that it was important.
He pushed himself up, managed to stagger to his feet, and nearly fell again when he tried to walk, only catching himself by grabbing at a tree branch with one gloved hand. He looked around, trying to get his eyes to focus properly. Dark green conifers, and skeletal oaks hung with gray moss; a gray-white sky and that feeling of cold on his face. He blundered forward and stumbled into the low snow-covered branches of a large Douglas fir tree.
More by instinct than design, he bent low and staggered in beneath the branches, the lowest of which swept the ground. Half falling, he moved in next to the thick trunk of the tree and sat on the bare ground under the sheltering boughs, his back against the bole and his heavy wool coat pulled tightly around him. He reached up automatically to adjust his hat, but found that he was bare-headed. He sighed, leaned his head back against the tree trunk, and closed his eyes.
The snow had stopped falling by the time that Legacy opened his eyes again. He still felt dazed and unwell, but his mind seemed to be functioning a little better. When he touched the back of his head, he found a spongy spot that was extremely sore, and his hand came away sticky with blood. Either he had fallen, or he had been coshed. He tried to remember what had happened before he found himself out in the middle of this desolate snowy forest, but his memory didn't seem to work like it should.
Padraic needs more mahogany veneer, he remember suddenly, but he could not recall just when he had learned that. He started to shake his head, but it hurt too much and he stopped.
He crawled out from under the branches of the fir tree and stood up, swaying slightly. He looked at his wrist watch, but trying to focus on the small numbers was difficult. A little after five o'clock, he thought. Morning or evening? The sky was dark gray, and he deduced that sunset was not far off. That being the case, he had to find some better shelter than a snow-laden fir, especially since the next bout of precipitation might easily be rain instead of snow. Legacy remembered reading some excerpts from the diary of two women who had died of exposure in a forest like this one. The last entry in the diary had been, "We are soaked through." Wool holds heat even when it is wet, and he probably owed his life to his wool suit and wool overcoat. Even so, it would not do to stretch their capabilities much further.
He did not know where he was, or where the nearest town was. He didn't even know where there might be a road or a house. Grimly, he started trudging through the trees, forcing himself to plant his feet firmly on the snow-dusted ground, and always looking down for obstacles that might catch his steps. The hills around Pomo--and he devoutly hoped he was in the hills somewhere near town--were notorious for their chunks of cast-off logging equipment and stray strands of barbed wire. The last thing that he needed was to trip and fall. He might not be able to get up again.