Scarlet Woman [A Cold Case Mystery]
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by Karen Lewis
Description: An eerie tale about an unsolved murder, and an unlikely killer who strikes again and again?
eBook Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing/Double Dragon eBooks, 2009 Double Dragon Publishing
eBookwise Release Date: February 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [169 KB]
Reading time: 94-131 min.
The car moved slowly up a steep hill through a premature winter twilight. Its progress hampered by a torrent of sleet that hammered down out of a hostile sky.
The windshield wipers screeched at high speed, but were unable to cope with the sheer volume of the deluge. They left the glass greasy and blurred with rain.
At the top it turned right, into a sprawling new subdivision called Wedgewood Estates. Which was, in essence, a hundred half-finished houses clustered on a naked hilltop; a grimly surrealistic landscape devoid of trees or even grass.
The roads were roughly paved and slick with mud, and the car slowed down even more to avoid hitting potholes. It carefully followed the signs, barely visible through the drumming rain and rapidly approaching darkness, which were guiding it towards the Show Home.
Suddenly, there it was, wavering through the watery windshield, a three storey suburban mini-castle rising out of a steep lot. Complete with pillars and a double door, bedecked with banners and clusters of balloons.
An expensive looking car with a real estate sign on top sat in the driveway.
It was the first car, or sign of life for that matter, since the journey had begun. For all was deserted on this gloomy Sunday afternoon.
The driver, wearing a dark hooded parka, got out of the car and made a dash towards the house.
The spacious home, designed to impress, had a cathedral ceiling, wide staircase and massive chandelier. The realtor, chatting on a cell phone, was caught by surprise.
"Well hello there, you're the first person I've seen today," she exclaimed. "I guess the weather must have scared them all away." She had blonde hair, a toothy smile and restless manner. "I'm Shirley Vicker."
But suddenly, her look of welcome turned to one of shock and wide-eyed terror, as she was swiftly knocked to the ground. Then her assailant struck her head brutally and repeatedly with a heavy blunt object, until every ounce of life had been beaten from her body.
Ten years later, the murder still remained unsolved.
"So there you have it." Lieutenant Neil Slater switched off the projector and turned on the lights. "Her husband Roy was the prime suspect. But he appeared to have an iron-clad alibi that we just couldn't shake."
Coffee was brought in, but most of the media people were already filing out.
Scott Preston of the Morning Herald poured himself a cup.
"There isn't the interest in these old unsolved cases that I'd hoped there be," Slater confided.
Scott nodded. "It's understandable, Neil. They figure that if the police couldn't solve the crime when it happened, what chance do they have ten years later?"
"Yet it's amazing what a little publicity can do years afterwards. There are often personal reasons that prevent witnesses from coming forward at the time."
Scott walked over to the window. A harvest moon beamed down from a star-pitted sky.
Rebecca Childs from the Evening Standard sidled up to Slater. "Drop by for a drink tonight," she invited. Her pursuit of the enigmatic detective, with his dark good looks and brooding manner was a standing joke in the newsrooms.
Slater declined the offer.
Rebecca shrugged. "Suit yourself. You know where I live, if you change your mind." She waved at Scott before she left. He had difficulty keeping a straight face.
"If you want to get ahead in your career, avoid close entanglements like the plague." Slater laughed. "And as I'm as good as married to the job, you can see I've taken my own advice."
"Yeah, well I've pretty well gone the same route myself," Scott admitted. "It gets damned lonely though."
Slater joined him by the window. "Any publicity on this case would be much appreciated," he said.
A blanket of fog hovered over Vancouver like a stealthy cat. It made the morning commute that much more difficult. Scott wasted no time in approaching the editor. "I think an article on the unsolved Vicker murder would draw a lot of interest," he said.
"The real estate broad?" Greg Mowatt had jowls like a bulldog.
"Yeah, Shirley Vicker was holding an Open House at the Wedgewood Estates." Scott pulled up a chair beside Greg's cluttered desk. "It was a brand new subdivision at that time and no-one lived there." And oh how lonely and bleak it looked in the re-enactment of the crime, he recalled with a shiver. "She was found by another realtor the following morning."
"Had she been raped?"
"There were some signs of a sexual assault." Scott consulted the file. "Her panties had been ripped off and there may have been penetration. However, no male semen was found in her body."
"So either the guy got scared that he would be caught, or he just couldn't cut the mustard," Greg suggested with a lewd wink.
"Or someone wanted it to appear that way. Her husband was the prime suspect in the case and he always insisted that she had been attacked by some passing nutcase."
"It's unlikely that a sexual pervert just happened to stumble upon the Wedgewood Estates." Greg looked incredulous.
Scott nodded. "Although someone like that might have been stalking her for some time prior to the crime."
"So why were the police so sure that the husband did it?"
"Well Roy wasn't only the prime suspect, he was the only one," Scott explained. "He was a weird sort of a guy, the type that's bound to raise suspicions. Besides, they just couldn't come up with any other likely candidates."
"He was heard threatening his wife though, wasn't he, shortly before she was murdered?"
"That's right, they hadn't been getting along for a while. Their neighbours reported hearing them argue."
"Why wouldn't he just divorce her?" Greg, a survivor of three broken marriages, looked puzzled. "Why follow her out to an Open House on a miserable Sunday afternoon and bash her brains out?"
"Money," Scott responded without hesitation. "With Shirley out of the way, he ended up with all the property."
"Okay, let's suppose for a minute Roy is innocent. What I don't understand is why Shirley lay there all night, and wasn't discovered until the following morning? Why didn't he go looking for her when she didn't come home?"
"He admitted they had a falling out, and assumed she was spending the night at a friend's place. Apparently, this had happened before."
"What did they argue about?" Greg snapped his knuckles.
"Money. According to Roy, Shirley was always on his back about his failure to produce."
"I wonder why he stayed on at a job that he couldn't make a decent living at?" "Pride, I suppose." Scott shrugged. "His wife was one of the top earning salespeople and he was determined to succeed as well."
Blair Park blazed with autumn's finery. Leaves of rust, orange and flame crunched underfoot with green horse chestnuts.
"It was a terrible tragedy." Scott's Aunt Violet stopped to admire some late blooming fleabane. "A woman murdered like that when most people were sitting down to their Sunday dinner."
"It sure was." Scott threw a ball to Gemma, Violet's German shepherd.
They were taking a break from Granny's Attic, a small antique shop that had been in the family for decades. Scott helped out there on Saturdays. Located in affluent Ambleside, it was within easy walking distance of parks, sands and sea.
"Yet," Violet reasoned. "One cannot help but question the wisdom of a woman alone like that in such a deserted place?"
"Well, I guess it just goes with the territory." Scott craned his neck to watch the flight of a heron as it soared towards the marshes. "Even if a realtor avoided Open Houses, she would still have to show properties and that can be just as lonely. In fact, usually more so than at an Open."
"I never thought of that," Violet admitted. "But danger of personal injury when at work is not exclusive to the real estate business. I often feel nervous when I'm alone in the store."
"Even with the alarm button right behind the cash register and Gemma panting at your side?" Scott made light of his Aunt's concern, although he had often worried about her alone in the store, with so much valuable stock.
The article about the Vicker case appeared in the weekend edition of the Morning Herald. Shirley Vicker had been forty-two years old at the time of her death. Apart from her husband and a Yorkshire terrier named Muff, she appeared to be quite alone in the world.
The Vickers had owned a smart townhouse in Lamplighter Square, which Roy sold shortly after his wife's brutal murder. "I just couldn't bear to live there by myself," he confided when Scott interviewed him. "The pain and shock of having something as horrible as that happen to my wife..." His pale eyes squinted fiercely.
Roy's condo was sparsely furnished and untidy. It had an unlived in feel. A shaft of lemony sunlight fell on the tabletop.
Scott could see why Slater had referred to Roy as an oddball. And why the police had pursued him as their prime suspect. He was the type of person who did not make a good impression. Short and tubby with a pasty complexion and heavy lens spectacles, he avoided direct eye contact and literally squirmed under close scrutiny.
Scott broached the touchy subject of the arguments overheard by their neighbours.
"That was exaggerated out of all proportion." Roy was immediately on the defensive. "Every couple has their ups and downs, Shirley and I no more than most. Besides, I have an absolutely airtight alibi."
And indeed he had, or at least appeared to have. For Roy had been holding an Open House of his own, on the other side of the city, at the time his wife was murdered.
Lynda Makovitch's expression was bitter. "It was me that Shirley was talking to on her cell phone right before she was murdered." She lit a fresh cigarette from the stub of an old one. "Her last words were: 'Someone has just come in, I'll call you right back, Lynn...' But of course she never did poor girl ... she couldn't."
If only she had left the connection open, Scott thought with a sort of morbid nostalgia, there might have been some clue as to the killer's identity, and whether it was someone known to the murdered woman, or not.
"You know I had a strange premonition about it." Lynda flicked cigarette ash into her cup saucer. "There was just a weird, creepy feeling emanating from that phone line ... it was terrifying."
Lynda's office at Coronet Realty was tiny. A power saw squealed from the construction site next door. "We're expanding and it's not before time." She indicated the lack of space, while raising her voice above the din.
"So are you saying that you weren't surprised when you heard the news about Shirley's murder?"
"Of course, I was shocked," she retorted. "Yet I was expecting it at the same time. It's weird isn't it?"
She topped up their cups with fresh coffee, her long fingernails like the talons of a hawk.
"Who do you think killed her, Lynda?"
When Scott asked Roy the same question, he had replied. "If I knew that, I would have killed the bastard myself."
"I think it was Roy," she replied without hesitation. "But please, don't quote me on it. That sicko gives me the creeps."
In the poky windowless room, the bitter scent of Lynda's perfume combined with the smoke from her cigarette made Scott's eyes water. He had an uncontrollable urge to sneeze.
"Might I ask why?" He blew his nose discreetly.
"Shirley wasn't happy with him. God only knows why she got mixed up with him in the first place? The guy was a real loser."
"In what way?"
Lynda rolled her eyes contemptuously, before launching into a tirade about the shortcomings of Roy Vicker.
"He failed miserably at everything he tried. Now take his foray into real estate, for instance, that was an utter and total disaster."
"Well, he wasn't able to make sales!" She tapped her outrageous fingernails on the desk to illustrate the point. "A realtor must have a good personality, which leaves Roy out. Shirley deserved a lot better than him."
Before Scott could comment, she embarked on a diatribe against Roy Vicker, ending with: "He is a moody, sarcastic bastard and he made Shirley's life a living hell."
"Then why didn't she leave him?" Scott blew his nose again.
"Well that's the million dollar question, now isn't it?" She blew another cloud of smoke towards the pockmarked ceiling.
"Is there anyway Roy could have left his Open House, driven over to the Wedgewood Estates, murdered his wife, then returned without being missed?" asked Ben, the Morning Herald photographer.
"It's practically impossible." Scott spooned sugar into his coffee. The Copper Kettle bustled with the lunchtime crowd. He had to raise his voice to be heard. "It's about a thirty minute drive, in good weather, providing the traffic is light.
"Which means, given the conditions that day, he would have been absent from his Open for at least an hour," Ben speculated. "Would he have been missed though, that's the question?"
"Well, Roy's Open, unlike his wife's, took place on a well-established street surrounded by occupied houses. The police, of course, interviewed the immediate neighbours, who verified that Roy's car was parked in front of the house the whole time. Or, they thought it was. Of course, no-one actually watched the car and looked at his wrist watch at the same time."
"So, in order to have committed the murder, he would have to have driven another car?"
"That's about it," Scott agreed. "Although, there were several people who came forward that had attended his Open. So it would seem that at least most of the time was accounted for. Shirley was believed to have been murdered shortly after four p.m."
"Yet ... that still doesn't give him a cast iron alibi, now does it? Did anyone actually see him inside the Open House between four and five p.m.?"
"No, although, one couple thought that they stayed there until shortly after four, but they weren't certain."
"Which, if they were correct, would have given Roy less than an hour to drive all the way across town and back again, in order to do his dirty deed. And, in a car that would have to have been parked some distance away to boot!"
Scott nodded. "It doesn't seem very likely, does it?"
A vigorous wind that had been gusting since dawn hurled itself at the trees, sending swirls of russet leaves against the windows.
"Yet, as we said before, it's not impossible," Ben insisted. "Unless Shirley was killed by some pervert, Roy is the only person with a motive."
"Have you clocked the distance between the two points of interest?" Greg swept a pile of papers into his out tray.
"The police did that at the time," Scott replied. "I didn't see how it would serve any useful purpose."
"Oh you didn't did you? Well I don't agree. That's what separates good reporters from middling ones. A good one never takes anybody else's word for anything. He always tries it out for himself."
A group of seagulls congregated on a nearby roof, flapping their wings against the backdrop of a fitful sky.
"Very well then..." Scott answered testily. But before he could finish Greg cut in, wagging an impatient finger as he spoke.
"I want an immediate re-enactment of the crime," he demanded. "So get over to ... where is it...?"
"Of course, Cottonwood Avenue, it was right on the tip of my tongue. And from there ... well surely I don't have to spell it out for you, do I?"
"An immediate re-enactment of the crime." Ben laughed. "Well isn't he assuming a bit too much? I mean there is no solid evidence that poor old Roy is the murderer, now is there?"
"Perhaps, it was just a poor choice of words," Scott suggested with a wry wink. "When it comes to that, Greg is an expert. But either way, I'll play Roy Vicker and you can be my accomplice."
Ben rolled his window down and peered up at the grey clouds drifting towards a crimson horizon. "Looks like rain and I have to do a photo shoot today of Blair Park in autumn."
Roy Vicker had held his all-important Open House at 514 Cottonwood Avenue at the time of his wife's murder.
"If it hadn't been for the Open, he'd likely be sitting in prison right now." Scott eyed the smart looking bungalow that had provided Roy Vicker with his all-important alibi. Painted grey with black shutters and door, it had a glowing round beacon of a light in its drive and a small monkey-puzzle tree in its front yard.
"Get ready ... its time to synchronize our watches prior to take-off." Ben did a good imitation of Greg Mowatt. "Our destination is the Wedgewood Estates."
The traffic was lighter on their way back towards the city, and as they approached the subdivision where Shirley Vicker had kept her date with destiny, Scott noted that it had taken them just slightly less than the expected thirty minutes to make the trip.
"If Roy had been travelling faster," Ben suggested. "He could probably have done it in even less time."
"I doubt that he would have taken that risk. The last thing he would have wanted is to be stopped for speeding."
Wedgewood Estates was now heavily wooded, with cedar, maple, hemlock and spruce trees. Opulent houses with wide driveways and spacious yards were the pictures of suburban affluence. Several small children cycled around on bikes, and a group of teenage boys were playing basketball. It was a far cry from what it had looked like at the time of the murder.
The house where Shirley Vicker had held the Open, and breathed her last breath, was now flanked on both sides by a tall laurel hedge. The double doors that her murderer had walked through freshly painted a dark shade of green.
"If houses could only talk," Ben mused. He stared up at the stately façade. The windows on the upper level looked, uncannily, like two all-seeing eyes.
Scott felt an involuntary shiver ripple down his spine and he quickly started up the car. He caught his last glimpse of the ill-fated house through his rear-view mirror. It shimmered ethereally in the strange light cast by a pale sun.
* * * *