“Excuse me,” she said as she slipped past his aisle seat and settled next to him. Blond hair, clearly styled by one of the best. Expensive looking “little black dress.” Pearls. Light make-up. A hint of attractive perfume. Someone who belonged at Severance Hall, not the Maasdam College recital hall.
Hugh Jackson was short and fat with a cheap haircut. He was dressed in a cheap brown suit. Only his eyes betrayed his intense, critical intelligence. He wondered that she chose the seat next to him when others were free. Not that he minded. He said, “Mrs. Vander Kooi?”
“Right the first time.” She frowned. “I’m trying to place where I know you from.”
“Hugh Jackson,” he said. “Private investigator.” He accepted that a woman like her would not remember him.
“Oh, yeah. You investigated Karl’s death for the insurance company.” That had been six months ago. “It’s ‘Carla,’ by the way.”
They chatted a bit and she asked some questions about the evening’s program. The lights dimmed. He inhaled her aroma along with the music. Afterwards they walked together to the reception. After about ten minutes, Hugh said, “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head home.”
“It’s been good talking with you.” She paused and bit her lip. “Do you think maybe I could bum a ride? I came by taxi.”
“Eh, sure,” he said.
“You don’t have to, you know.”
“No, that’s fine.”
Walking to the car, he watched as a soft breeze ruffled her hair and dropped it back to its appointed place.
A very attractive woman. If she invites me in, I won’t object. Strange, though — her showing up at this recital, sitting next to me. She acted like she didn’t recognize me but then seemed almost primed to talk with me. Now the ride — sure feels like a pick up. We’ll see if she invites me in. He smiled up at the moon.
Her house was a meandering Tudor on five acres of prime agricultural land, landscaped into lawns and a formal garden. She invited him in. The front door was heavy oak with large, black hinges, surrounded by elaborate brickwork. They entered a granite-paved entry hall. Oriental carpets, rich wood trim, expensive-looking paintings.
Is this a Gothic novel?
A maid materialized, a small Latina with short hair, black dress, stockings and shoes, and a little white apron.
“Hello, Mrs. Vander Kooi,” she said, with a slight trace of accent.
“Hi, Maria,” said Carla. “This is Hugh. How are the children?”
“Hello, Mr. Jackson. The children are sleeping, no problems tonight.”
“Good. I won’t need anything more tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am. Have a good night.”
“Thank you, Maria. Good night.”
Hugh stared after her. She had not been here when he visited during the investigation, but her face was somehow familiar.
Carla took his hand. They started up the ornate staircase. He eyed it critically.
A bit over the top. The music’s nice, though — built-in speakers everywhere. Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concert. One of my favorites.
Her bedroom pleased him. Restrained and elegant. Warmth came from off-white walls, trim, bedding and upholstery. Energy came from the reds, golds and dark blues in the Persian rug, from the cubistic painting of a male nude, from the black frames of the easy chairs. And from one red and gold throw pillow on the bed. Carla turned the music down and started undressing him . . .
They had breakfast on the bedroom balcony. Marie served a cheddar and spinach soufflé along with espresso, a meal Hugh recorded as a new high in his culinary experience. They chatted some about Carla’s children. Hugh asked how the company was doing.
“Great. Karl wasn’t a good business man. He got most of his ideas from me, but insisted on trying to implement them himself. Now I can actually get some things done right.”
So what does she want with me? And exactly how eager was she to take over the company?
At 8:30 he gave her a kiss and thanked her.
She smiled. “Will you give me a call?”
“You bet,” he said, a pro forma exchange that did not bind either to anything.
He chain-smoked Pall Malls during his drive to Akron, squinting into the morning sun. Why would a woman like her hook up with a schlub like me. What’s she really after?
Ohio Life had hired him to investigate the death benefit claim. Although Karl’s death seemed natural, the million-dollar benefit, coming on a life insurance policy that was only six months old, mandated a close look.
Hugh had checked the death certificate, interviewed Vander Kooi’s attending physician and Mrs. Vander Kooi, reviewed the medical information on the insurance application, and learned everything he could about Vander Kooi’s business, which involved export-import relations with automotive parts suppliers in Mexico. He found no red flags, and Ohio Life paid the claim.
He pondered the night’s adventure.
Carla’s definitely an alpha female. It’s possible things are just as they appear — she happened to sit next to me and the rest was whim.
OK. Maybe she brings strange men home. That’s why Maria wasn’t surprised. But how had she known to call me “Mr. Jackson”? It’s like she knew who it was going to be.
He spent the day studying Hansen Art Gallery documents for Phil Cantor, who was defending the firm against charges of tax fraud and money laundering. Late in the day, a document reminded Hugh how he knew Maria’s face. A certain Jack Anderson had been convicted of drug and illegal immigrant smuggling a year ago. One of his illegals had worked for Hansen.
Of course. She’s Anderson’s wife. I saw her with him on TV clips. He started to wonder whether there was some connection between Anderson and Vander Kooi Industries’ export-import business.
Carla called that night.
A pattern started. He’d get a call, sometimes the next night, sometimes two, three or four days later. “Hi, big boy. You up for some fun tonight?” She was actually upset the night he couldn’t leave a stake-out.
He always arrived after the children were asleep. He and Carla did their conversing over breakfast, after Carla saw the kids off to school. She asked about his cases and drew him out on music and art. He didn’t learn much about her business, but was entertained with stories about her travel adventures.
One morning, having learned he was working on the Hansen case, she drilled in with pointed questions. At the time, that didn’t seemed strange. The case had been prominent in the local papers. A few days later, though, his work revealed that the Gallery regularly sold costly original art to Vander Kooi Industries. That made him wonder about her interest in the case.
Late in the third week, when she hadn’t called for a couple of days, he found himself checking that his phone was charged and on. The little inner voice piped up. “She’s got to have an ulterior motive, you know.”
And what might that motive be? . . . Some discovery about Karl’s death that she wants to head off? Something about the Hansen case that she needs to control? If she’s trying to use me, she won’t succeed. Two can play this game. I’m just along for the ride . . . Remember, though, you’re on this train without a ticket.
Monday morning a week later. Sun streaming through the balcony doors, open despite the cool October air. Carla emerged from the shower, dropped the towel and smiled as Hugh watched from the bed. She dressed slowly, entertaining him. As she left for breakfast with the kids she said, “There’s a birthday present for you, in the bottom right-hand drawer.”
Hugh lay in bed a few minutes, savoring the memory of her little show and listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” yearning and pleading from the hidden speakers. Then he rolled to his feet, went to the hand-crafted walnut dresser and pulled open the drawer. He saw a jumble of pale stockings and vibrant scarves.
“Oh, shit. When will I ever get ‘left’ and ‘right’ straightened out?”
He yanked the other drawer. A silk robe, royal purple, monogrammed with his initials, lay neatly folded. Cute. He put it on. It fit well. He looked in the full-length mirror and laughed. “Silly little fat man.” He ignored the little voice that murmured, “What’s she after?”
He bent over to shut the drawers and recognized some of the scarves. He liked what she did with scarves. Then he noticed a black Moleskin notebook, just visible under the jumble. Nothing like a hidden notebook to fire a detective’s snoop-instinct. He had twenty minutes till Carla saw the kids off on the school bus.
He glanced at a few pages. “Holy shit,” he muttered. He slapped the notebook shut and shoved it into the drawer. With anxious glances toward the door, he carefully arranged the stockings and scarves to their appointed places.
The notebook held a lover’s passionate accounts of her times with him.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at the silly little fat man in the mirror. Whatcha gonna do now, silly little fat man? he muttered.