There’s nothing like climbing the steps of a darkened house with a cold moon overhead and a gale nipping one’s nose and cheeks to make one shiver. And on this frigid, December night, I was shivering.
With Aunt Ruth’s key gripped in my naked hand and the metal turning colder with each passing moment, I made my way to Aunt Ruth’s front door with chattering teeth.
I was on a mission of mercy. Mom needed some photos Aunt Ruth had of a mutual friend. Mother was assembling a montage for the said friend’s birthday. Would I mind picking up the photos on my way to Mom’s house for Christmas break?
Well,of course not.
If I arrived too late, Ruth would put the photos in a large envelope on one of the hall tables, after which she’d take herself off to bed. I was to let myself in and help myself to the package.
So here I stood at nearly midnight, on the front porch of my aunt’s home in Wyndale―a tiny, speck of a town at the western edge of Illinois―with not a clue of the approaching disaster.
Such can sometimes be the fate of daughters.
Undeterred, I pulled my coat more tightly about myself. Then I leaned forward to shove the key into the lock—and failed. The latch key clattered to the porch floor. I stooped over and scooped it up, grateful for the moonlight bathing everything around me in an icy, whitish hue. At least I could locate the key by the moon’s frigid glow.
Stubbornly, I bit my lip and tried again. This time the key slipped in, and the lock gave way. I breathed a sigh of relief and offered up a prayer of thanksgiving. It had been a long day.
Still shivering, I swung wide the front door and stepped inside the house. A welcome blast of warm air washed over me. In the distance I heard the comforting hum of the ancient furnace. But I also noticed an odd smell, like something gone off. Uneasily, I turned sideways, reached out, and flipped on the overhead light. Then, I stood there a moment, trying to make sense of the scene before me.
My aunt’s matching mahogany tables, normally lined up along the wall, now lay overturned on the floor. Her antique china vases, which usually adorned those tables, now lay in shards upon the hall floor.
But in the middle of all this, in that horrid spot on which my gaze was now locked, lay Aunt Ruth’s twisted and motionless body.
I pulled a deep, shuddering breath; then I screamed
Aunt Ruth had been murdered. The thought bounded and bounded about in my mind. Who would want to kill this wonderful woman?
At last, when I was able again to breathe normally and to think rationally, I pulled my cell phone from my coat pocket and summoned the police.
* * *
About an hour later, in the warmth of Mom’s kitchen, she, and I, and two Porter County Sheriff’s detectives took our places around her large, old pine table.
I’d spent nearly an hour with police at Ruth’s place, sitting off by myself in the back of a squad car. I’d watched uselessly as a press of police types had prowled Ruth’s grounds and gone into and out of her house. At last, released to come to Mom’s house, I’d done so with two detectives trailing behind me.
Now, my attention fell to Adam Devine, the apparent lead detective of the pair, who sat immediately opposite me. He was a tall man, maybe in his middle thirties, squarely built, wearing a dark sports coat across wide shoulders. A five o’clock shadow dotted his chiseled chin. At a different time, and under different circumstances, I would almost have called him handsome.
But I was more concerned on this night that he be a capable man. More than anything, I wanted my aunt’s killer caught.
“This is the report Deputy Jakes made when he responded to your 911 call,” Devine said. “I’d like to go over these comments of yours. I’d like you to double-check their accuracy with me.”
“Good.” His dark eyes openly studied me for a long moment before he cleared his throat and shifted his gaze back to the paper laid out on the table before him.
Involuntarily, my glance slid to Mother’s snow globe. It sat on her red hutch in the near corner of the kitchen. The glass ball contained a quaint village scene and was identical to one Ruth had displayed on one of her hallway tables. But when I’d last seen my aunt’s, it had been lying next to her lifeless body.
I shivered, again.
“The report says you’re Jessica Chase, 28, of Chicago,” Devine said, dragging my thoughts back to the present.
“Yes, that’s all correct.”
“You teach English composition at a private college up there and are the only child of Harriet Chase, 56, of Wyndale?” He looked up at me.
He studied me a moment, before pulling his gaze back to the report. “And the victim is Ruth Wyndom, 58 lifelong resident of Wyndale. She was employed as a librarian at Crayworth College?”
“She was unmarried?”
“You’re single, too?”
He underlined a couple of words on the report.
Beside him, his partner, Carl Sturn, scribbled my answers into a small notebook. Sturn was a narrowly built man, probably in his late twenties, with a long face and pointed chin. He, too had dark eyes, but they carried with them an uncomfortable nature, something both penetrating and judgmental.
“Can either of you think of anyone who would have wanted this woman dead?” Devine asked.
Round eyed, Mom shook her head. “No one could have hated Ruth that much. It must have been a stranger. Everyone who knew Ruth loved her.”
“I appreciate your feelings,” Devine said. “But there aren’t any signs of forced entry to back them up. Nothing was taken. Her TV’s still there. So is her computer. Her jewelry case was untouched. We think she knew her killer. It’s probable that she let the murderer into her home. If not, then the killer must have had a key.”
Mom’s face collapsed into fresh grief. I wrapped my arms about her and pulled her toward me.
“I don’t mean to be cruel, here,” Devine hastily added. “But you need to understand this. There is a killer on the loose. We need your help, your information, to help track this murderer down. Okay?”
Wordlessly, Mom and I nodded.
“So if anything occurs to you, call us. It doesn’t have to be something big. Sometimes it’s the littlest, oddest thing that can pull a case together. Don’t worry about its importance, just call us. Give us the information. Let us sort it out. Understand?”
Mom and I nodded, again.
Devine refolded my original report and slid it into his breast pocket; then he sat a moment studying us quietly.
“What I’m coming to now won’t be comfortable for you. But I assure you, it is strictly routine. Everybody has to be checked. I need to know your movements today . . . where you went, what you did. You won’t be the only people to face our questions. So don’t take them personally. It’s our job.”
Mom looked at him in disbelief. “Are you asking us for an alibi?”
“That’s part of it, yes. But it’s not all there is to it. Do you want to begin?” he asked, looking at Mom.
Her face drained of color. “I was here. I’ve been here all day, cleaning and preparing things, getting ready for Jessica’s visit and for Christmas. One of my friends has a birthday coming up. I spent some of my time working on her present. Then I did some Christmas baking.”
“Yes, well, except for a brief while this afternoon. Sarah Clark, a neighbor, came over for coffee.”
“What time was that?”
Mom’s brows drew together. “I don’t know. About four, I’d guess.”
Devine nodded, while his partner scratched the time into his notebook.
Mom and I exchanged worried glances. This was not going as I’d expected it to. We were the victims in some sense. We’d lost a loved one. What was this?
“What time did your visitor leave?” Devine asked.
“Sarah was here maybe an hour.”
“And you went no place?”
“No. Not today.”
“And you,” the detective shifted hi gaze my way, “you had a key to your aunt’s house with you tonight. Was that normal for you?”
Mom blinked and straightened. “Officer, Jessica’s bounced back and forth between Ruth’s house and mine all her life. She has always carried a key to Ruth’s place. It’s just the way we’ve always been.”
“Okay,” Devine answered.
“Jessica only stopped at Ruth’s home tonight as a favor to me,” Mom added.
“Yes. She told us that.”
“Aunt Ruth was dead when I found her,” I said, blinking back tears. I’d never forget the terrifying sight of my aunt’s lifeless body.
“We know that.” Devine answered. “The coroner thinks your aunt was killed long before you got here. That’s not an issue.”
I slumped in my seat. I hadn’t known when Ruth had died. Did that mean that if I’d come down earlier, Ruth might still be alive? I nearly swayed under the impact of that thought.
“The coroner,” Devine said, “will have a better estimate of the time of death after the autopsy, but for now, please, fill us in on your day. We know you arrived later than you’d planned. Let’s start there. What happened to delay you?”
So I told him about the traffic jam on my way out of Chicago. And I filled him in on the sleet and slick roads I’d encountered halfway to Wyndale.
“Under normal circumstances, the drive would take you, what, about four hours?” Devine asked.
“Yes, about that. Maybe a little longer. I don’t know. I’ve never timed myself.”
“Okay, so you got out of Chicago at what . . . around seven or eight?”
My gaze flew to the digital display on Mom’s microwave. It read just after one.
“Yes, probably around that. Sorry, but by the time I finally got on the road, I didn’t think to check the clock. Why would I? But with all the delays figured in that sounds about right.”
“And you’d hoped to start out when”
“Around three this afternoon. Even earlier if I could have managed it.”
“Why did you leave your departure until so late in the day?”
“I had to give a final exam this morning. It’s the end of the semester. It’s a busy time at a college.”
“What time did the final start?”
“At eight o’clock.”
“And what did you do after that?”
“I took the essays home and graded them. But the grading used up more time than I’d planned.”
“Why was that?”
“I was tired. Halfway through I gave in and took a nap.”
“And why were you tired?”
None of your business, I thought. But I answered, “There’s lots of pressure at the end of the semester. I hadn’t slept well the past several nights.”
Not quite the truth, perhaps, but even with that it was still more information than he needed to know.
“So apart from your aunt and your mother, was anyone else aware of your intention to stop at your aunt’s place tonight?”
“Not from me. Whether Aunt Ruth had mentioned it to anyone, I don’t know.”
My eyes burned from the long drive. My head throbbed from the tension of the last hour. My energy level had plunged as well. I felt I was coming to the end of my patience. I worried that I might say or do something stupid, something that might increase this detective’s suspicion of me.
But luckily for me, at that moment, Devine turned his questions back to Mom. “Who were the important people in your sister’s life?”
“there was her tenant farmer, Dwight Akers, and her attorney, Julius Trent. They were active in my sister’s business affairs. Then, there were the people who worked with her at the college.”
Mom rattled of a list of names. Sturn scribbled them down in his notebook.
“What about the man in her life?” Devine asked. “You haven’t mentioned anything about him yet.”
“Are you asking me about a lover?” Mom asked, blinking.
Mom shook her head. “Ruth wasn’t involved with a man.”
“You’re sure about that?” Devine asked, doubt clearly resonating in his voice.
Mom stared at the detective for a moment as though he were somehow feeble minded. “Yes, I’m sure. There hadn’t been a lover in Ruth’s life for years, or, probably, more like decades.”
“Again, I ask you if you’re certain about that?”
“Sir, my sister lived an open, respectable life. Had she been involved with a man, she would have shared that information with me.”
“And you?” Devine turned my way.
“Did I know about a lover? Absolutely not. That’s not the Aunt Ruth that I knew.”
Devine shared a glance with his fellow detective. Somehow, I wondered if they knew something about Aunt Ruth which Mom and I didn’t. The look passing between them seemed to tell me that they did.
“Of all those names you’ve given me,” Devine asked, “who would you say was her best friend?”
“Betsey Fielding,” Mom and I immediately responded nearly in unison.
“And was everything okay between them? No shifts in patterns? No falling out?”
Mom pulled a puzzled look for a moment, then said, “I’m not sure she’d mentioned Betsey’s name quite as often in recent days.”
“Betsey’s in London,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “She could hardly have strangled anyone from there.”
Devine shot me a murderous glance, which I returned without flinching.
Looking back down at his notes, the detective asked, “The addresses and phone numbers you’ve given me for home and work are both current, right?”
I assured him they were. Then, appearing to have come to his end of questions, he and his partner gathered their coats and scarves, made their farewells, and headed for the door.
As much as I wanted them to solve Aunt Ruth’s murder, I couldn’t believe how relieved I felt at their departure. I also wondered what the coming days held in store for Mom and me. More of this?
Thank you Ms Drake for an excellent read. B&N – mbcrandell
I love (Murderous Relations). iTunes — Henshin2289
This one had me guessing to the last few pages. . . . Loved it. B&N – 9973360
It kept me in suspense the whole time I was reading it. B&N – JOSHYSLITTLEDEBBIE
I enjoyed the twists and turns. Good murder mystery. Sony – Bo
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