A Halloween Ball Mystery
This is the entire story the Stiletto Gang used for their Hallopalooza Scavenger Hunt. Read it and see if you can figure out who the villain is.
A Halloween Ball Mystery
Cast of Characters
Heroine - Milla Adams – private detective
Sidekick - Fletcher Jones – police detective
Victim - Carla Jordan – deceased, personal assistant to G. Winston Howard
G. Winston Howard – millionaire, host of Halloween Ball
Buffy St. James – librarian, current girlfriend of G. Winston Howard,
Walter Jester – aide to Carla Jordan
Alana Carter – groundskeeper
Liza Barrymore - hired by Diana Trent to do costume makeup for party
Amazing Harry – escape artist hired by G. Winston Howard for Halloween Ball
Mayor Juan Reyes and his wife Sonya – guests at the Halloween Ball
Steven McCall - owner of large construction company, friend of Howard family
Julius and Frieda Rosen - they run Rosen Catering, the company catering event.
Dr. & Mrs. Paul Trent – Diana is the first ex-wife of G. Winston Howard.
* * *
It was a full moon. The man in the mask waited just outside the door, the dim silver light glinting off the metal blade in his hand. He was patient, much more so than the detective chasing him.
The woman inside the house paused, her hand on the doorknob. Fear etched her features. It was obvious that she knew the odds were against her. She was chasing a serial killer. The blood from his last kill was still fresh on her mind … and her shoes.
Milla Adams woke up with a start. Her television was still on. The late night slasher movie was on its third or fourth airing in a row, some kind of a Halloween marathon. It wasn't the screams that had awakened her, or the mixing of reality with fiction in her dreams, it was her very loud telephone.
Time to go to work.
Milla checked her makeup in the lighted mirror on the visor of her red Porsche Boxster convertible. The car, the shoes, the perfect makeup - she had an image to protect, even when it was inconvenient – like when making a 3 a.m. call to one of her wealthier client's mansion.
Ducking under the yellow crime scene tape, she spied a familiar face. "Fletcher? How's Lydia?" With her trade mark red stilettos adding three inches to her tall frame, Milla was almost eye-level with her old friend. They had gone through the police academy together more than twenty years ago. He'd married another recruit and made a career of the police department. He was the lead detective on the murder investigation.
"Sleeping, which is what I was doing before the police chief called and told me I was catching this murder. Who called you?"
"G. Winston Howard, himself. He told me he was about to be arrested for the murder of his personal assistant." Milla had spent ten years working as a police detective before leaving to open her own private high-dollar detective and security business. By the time she'd turned forty last year, she'd established a reputation for discretion and quick results. She'd need both on this job.
"Seems like he'd have been better off calling his lawyers."
"Oh, he's done that too. But he thought if the real murderer could be discovered before Monday, he could avoid some of the adverse publicity. His friend the mayor thinks so too."
"Figures. The mayor was one of the guests at Howard's party. He fancies himself a cop because he played one on TV." Fletcher frowned. "I wish the police chief had mentioned he was being overruled by the mayor on this case. I could have stayed in bed and let you sort it out."
"Not party – ball. Halloween Ball. It’s an annual charity thing. And I'm not taking over. I'm just here to make some inquiries." She gestured towards the doorway. "Will you show me the crime scene? I'm on deadline, no pun intended."
She pulled out her voice recorder and spoke softly into the tiny gadget.
"3:30 a.m. Friday, October 30, 2009. Residence of G. Winston Howard, multi-millionaire, or depending on the time of day and the stock market – billionaire- adventurer, and well-known philanthropist. At approximately 2:10 a.m. Miss Carla Jordan, aged 35, was found dead in Mr. Howard's greenhouse by a groundkeeper … note to self—these are rich people so greenhouse might be called something else. Miss Jordan was Mr. Howard's personal assistant. Detective Fletcher Jones reported that approximately 30 people attended the annual Halloween ball as guests. In addition, the caterers brought a staff of ten to dole out the food and drinks. According to his preliminary report, Detective Jones has eliminated all but thirteen as suspects in the murder. Second note to self—make sure to cross-check their alibis against each other."
Milla leaned over the body for a better look. Clicking on her recorder she added, "The victim is in costume—dressed as a giant sunflower. Brown leotard, yellow petaled headdress. Not a particularly attractive look for her. Her hands are dirty – like she was potting some plants. Several of her fingernails are broken. Blood is pooled on the floor near her chest and right hand. The coroner has yet to determine time of death, but witnesses put her alive and well on the dance floor at 1:30 a.m. The cause of death appears to be the large knife sticking out of her chest."
"I was hoping to speak with Mr. Howard before conducting any other interviews." Milla frowned at the petite man wearing a court jester costume. He'd just informed her that G. Winston Howard was otherwise occupied.
She glanced at her notes. He was Walter Jester, possibly the victim's last dance partner. "How well did you know Miss Jordan?"
He shrugged, the tiny bells sewn on his costume tinkling. "Very well. I facilitated her work for Mr. Howard."
"Facilitated?" Milla's pen hovered over the lined page. "You mean your job was to run her errands?"
"Yes." Walter blinked several times. "I didn't mind. It paid well."
She could tell from his tone he was lying; that he had minded. He'd minded very much. "What will you do now?"
He smiled. The bells tinkled again as he answered, "Her job."
"And you are?" Milla was conducting her second interview in the well-appointed kitchen of Millionaire G. Winston Howard. The young twenty-something woman sitting across from her was athletic and over six foot tall. Her long blonde hair hung in a braid down to the middle of her back. She was dressed like an old fashioned zookeeper; beige pit helmet, khaki shorts and vest, black knee socks.
"Alana Carter. I take care of the mansion grounds and the conservatory."
Conservatory! That was the word Milla had been searching for earlier. Carla Jordan had been killed in the Howard conservatory, not a plain old greenhouse.
"You found the body at what time?" Milla had the details in her notes but she wanted to hear about the discovery directly from the gardener.
"Just after 2:00 a.m."
"You make a habit of going into the conservatory at that time of night?"
"No. My date and I had wandered out by the pool. We saw a light. The conservatory was off limits to the guests. Mr. Howard owns some very expensive, fragile specimens. He'd blame me if someone got in there and damaged anything."
"What did you see when you entered the conservatory?"
The gardener looked towards the kitchen door, then lowered her voice. "I saw
Mr. Howard. He was talking with someone."
According to Fletcher's notes, this was information the gardener hadn't disclosed in her first interview with the police. "You saw him with Miss Jordan? The victim?"
"No. I only found Carla, uh Miss Jordan, after they left. When I saw that it was
Mr. Howard in the conservatory, I stepped back outside and waited. When they left, I went in to turn off the lights and lock the doors. That's when I saw the body."
"Who was this other person? The one talking to Mr. Howard?"
The gardener shook her head. "I don't know. He or, I guess it could have been a tall woman…he was wearing a long black, hooded cape with a witch's mask."
Buffy St. James was … Milla thought a moment. The girlfriend of G. Winston Howard was … unexpected. Not a model. Not a socialite. She was a middle-aged librarian at one of the city libraries. Her high cheekbones, copper hued skin, and dark hair more than hinted at her Native American heritage. Her beaded leather costume proudly claimed it. It also proclaimed she spent a lot of time around a smoker. Her clothes reeked of cigar smoke.
"Miss St. James, how long have you known Mr. Howard?"
Buffy St. James smiled. "Two years. He's on our Friends of the Library board. The board raised funds for our new building. Winston was very involved in overseeing the construction. He's a detail person; we have that in common. We've been dating about half that time."
"What did you think of his assistant, Carla Jordan?"
Milla watched the librarian as she fingered an expensive-looking silver cuff bracelet, while considering her answer.
"The old adage that you can't judge a book by its cover was never truer than with Carla. She was bright and sunny on the outside but inside…" Buffy St. James took a breath. "Let's just say, if you were smart, you never turned your back on Carla. It's ironic; she was the one who knew just where to stick the knife. Most of the people at the Halloween Ball had ample cause to want Carla gone. I know I did."
"Why's that? Milla didn't believe the librarian was about to confess to the murder, but perhaps she could help her narrow down the suspects.
"She collected information and sold it."
"Sold it? Sold it to whom?"
Buffy St. James sighed. "To anyone who might be hurt if the information became public."
"Did she have something on you?"
The librarian sighed. "Yes, she knew about my brother's stint in jail for bad checks. But since I'd already told Winston about it, Carla moved on – I'm sure she was tormenting some other poor soul."
Milla flipped open her notebooks and started writing. Little Miss Sunflower was a blackmailer.
Milla paused in the doorway to G. Winston Howard's study. Like the man himself, the study reeked of power, old money and cigars. She'd met him for the first time several months earlier at a political fundraiser. G. Winston Howard had served in the state senate for the last twelve years; a feat that required eating a lot of rubber chicken dinners and glad-handing potential supporters. Milla had heard his party was pushing him to run for Governor. Before the Halloween Ball his biggest liability had been a messy divorce. The murder of his assistant in his home might end his campaign before it ever began.
He motioned for her to enter and sit in the leather chair in front of his antique mahogany desk. "Miss Adams. Thank you for coming."
"Senator Howard." Two thoughts immediately crossed her mind. One, he wasn't wearing a costume, just a dark suit that cost more than her net worth. Two, it was going to be a problem getting paid if she proved he was the murderer. She sat down wondering if she should ask for a non-refundable retainer. "I wish we were meeting again under better circumstances."
"Can't be helped." He leaned back in his chair. "Call me Winston. Have you made any progress in finding out who killed Carla?"
"I'm still conducting interviews." She paused, then added, "You, Carla, and a third person were seen in the Conservatory just prior to the body being discovered. I need to know what you were doing there, who your companion was, and if your assistant was still alive when you left."
"One, I was making sure the misters were working properly. They weren't. Everything was soaked. Carla was with me and I told her to take care of it. Two, my companion was someone I met at the greenhouse door. He was dressed as a warlock and we didn't exchange names, just information. He'd had too much to drink and was using the greenhouse as a bathroom. I told him to call a cab and go home. He remarked on my mother." He shook his head. "And three, I didn't kill Carla. I just fired her."
The private detective pivoted on her stiletto heels at the sound of her old friend's voice. "Fletcher, is that the crime scene inventory list in your hand?"
The police detective nodded. "Not sure how helpful it's going to be. A greenhouse isn't the cleanest environment. So far we haven't found any useable prints except for the gardener's, Carla's and Mr. Howard's."
"What about the cigar butt?" She pointed to the third item on the list. "Think we could get DNA off that?"
He shrugged. "Maybe – in about six months. I thought you were on a deadline."
She glanced down the list of items found on or within ten feet of the body.
1. The stiletto knife lodged in her heart.
2. A tiny decorative bell that was caught on one of her large sunflower petals.
3. A cigar butt tossed near her feet.
4. A St. Christopher’s Ride with Me Motorcycle Medal in one of her pockets.
5. A broken champagne glass.
There were also numerous grass clippings, sticks, pebbles, fertilizer pellets, and a garden trowel.
"What's this?" Milla pointed at a rough sketch one of the cops had done of the body position and immediate surroundings. It was similar to traffic accident sketches. "You promote someone recently from patrol to your detective squad?"
Fletcher blushed. "I drew that. Helps me remember when I end up in court years later."
"What's this blob near Carla's right hand?"
"Not a blob – it was two pieces of gravel and a small stick. I think she had them clutched in her fist at some point while she was dying. There was blood on them."
"And here?" Milla tapped a glossy red nail against the paper.
"Part of the broken glass. She had a cut on her hand. Might have been the glass or maybe a defensive wound from the knife."
Milla wondered if all the blood was Carla's.
"That's with a Z, and my last name is Barrymore, like Drew, who's a cousin of mine on my father's side."
Milla would have bet that it was Lisa with an "S." Liza Barrymore swore she was related to Drew, but judging from the accent, the only Barrymore this dame knew was Barry Moore from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Milla guessed that Liza, or whatever she called herself, was about 55, but according to the police report, the woman copped only to 44. She had listed her job title as makeup artiste – although that might also mean she spritzed perfume on unsuspecting shoppers at Bloomingdales. She was wearing a black sweater over a red silk flapper costume.
Liza was hired for the party by Diana Trent, who was the host's ex-wife. "She wanted me to make her look like Cleopatra. Hell, I'd have made her look like the snake just to get in this joint."
"Diana Trent hired you just to do her makeup and provide touchups during the evening?"
"No. She had me do hers and then offered up my services to anyone else at the party who wanted a professional touch. I set up in a room near the ballroom. There were a lot of fancy costumes here tonight, but most people hadn't thought much about their makeup. Diana is very generous. I think she always hired someone for the Halloween Ball when she still lived here, and just continued the tradition. Mr. Howard seemed pleased.”
"Did you do Carla Jordan's makeup?"
"The Sunflower? Sure. I did hers. She didn't give me a tip. Lucky for me others appreciated my efforts. Those tips are going to pay next month's rent. You should have seen them. Not everyone likes masks, you know. I did some of my best work last night. Of course most people have changed out of their costumes now and my hard work's been washed down the drain."
Milla glanced at her watch. It was noon.
According to legend, it only took Harry Houdini 2 minutes and 27 seconds to escape a straightjacket while being suspended from a crane being used to build the New York City Subway. Mattie, Milla's brother, had tried to copy the renowned magician's feats when they were kids. He had Milla tie him up in their Dad's old bathrobe, but it still took Mattie more than 10 minutes to escape. He finally had just wriggled out of the contraption. But Mattie's fighting weight was 97 pounds and he had the hips of a snake. The Amazing Harry, topping 240 pounds and hired by G. Winston Howard to entertain his guests, couldn't have wriggled his way out of a paper bag.
In fact, the most amazing part of Harry was the size of the ketchup stain on his starched white shirt. Milla assumed it was ketchup because the Amazing Harry hadn't missed a bite during the entire interview, sloppily dipping handfuls of French Fries into the condiment bowl on the table.
"Is that what you wore to the party?" Milla still needed to find someone in a warlock costume – even if it was just to eliminate him/her as a suspect.
He nodded. "Black tux. My normal costume."
Milla noticed that the color of the ketchup and the color of the shirt stain weren't the same red, and she didn't think the difference was made by Heinz. She'd have to ask Fletcher to collect the shirt and have the stain analyzed. Whoever stabbed Carla Jordan probably got a splattering of the assistant's blood.
Milla looked at her barely-touched plate. The hamburger was going cold, the French Fries limp. G. Winston Howard was providing lunch for all of his guests that were still detained on the estate awaiting interviews. Even though it had been more than twelve hours since she'd had any food, she couldn't eat. Sitting at a table with Amazing Harry had killed her appetite.
The mayor and his wife were dressed as a Hispanic version of George and Martha Washington.
Juan Reyes still had the chiseled good looks of the television star he'd been fifteen years earlier. He smelled of musk, fine brandy, and Cuban cigars. Reyes had starred in a popular cop show that ran for four years that still played in reruns in the early morning hours. He prided himself on his realistic portrayal and still talked about the hours he’d spent riding along with LAPD cops, how he’d even been part of some high-profile busts. But when he hadn't made the leap to the big screen, Reyes and Sonya, his high school girlfriend, now wife, returned to their home town. Good looks and residuals helped build a hugely successful car dealership, and then Reyes was elected Mayor.
Local gossip was that he had set his sights higher, much higher. It wouldn't be the first time an actor had made the move to Washington, DC. His biggest drawback was his wife, Sonya. It was common knowledge that Mrs. Reyes had never been happy to leave sunny California, and had no interest in making the move even further east. Unlike her husband, Sonya looked tired and Milla was pretty sure that her bloodshot eyes and runny nose had nothing to do with allergies and everything to do with the white powder residue Milla had found in the large powder room off the ballroom. The same powder room that Liza – the makeup artiste – had set up shop in.
Milla made a note. Find out if Liza Barrymore had a cocaine sideline. If Liza was selling at the party, and Little Miss Sunflower found out … Wonder how much she thought that information was worth? Maybe more than someone was willing to pay?
Judging by their collective girth, G. Winston Howard's caterers were as likely to eat a party spread, as they were to prepare one. Julius Rosen's face, dwarfed by his pudgy chins, pinked up when Milla pulled her eyes away from his paunch. A button was missing there, he knew, but he plowed ahead anyway, summarizing how he and his wife had landed the catering contract for Howard's high dollar ball.
"Frieda had no idea it was his sister." He laid a meaty hand, with fingers like sausages, on his wife's stooped shoulder. Milla noticed that the free end of his watch band was held down with a blue rubber band. "Damn lucky Frieda was having a good day." He chuckled. "My little woman's not always so charitable, even for a good cause. Offered to cut our regular prices in half. Anyway, she must've made a favorable impression 'cause next day we got the call. Old Howard gave us the job."
Frieda's sour look told Milla that either she was having another generally uncharitable day or that Julius' account of how they came to work for Howard wasn't altogether true.
Milla wondered how the Rosens really got on G. Winston Howard's radar and the identity of the woman who negotiated the deal. G. Winston Howard was an only child.
"I told you it was stupid to come to this party, but you wouldn't listen."
Milla stopped outside the library. Standing in the shadows, she could see Dr. Paul Trent towering over his wife, Diana, who was seated in a deep red leather wing chair. The couple was waiting to be interviewed by police detective Fletcher Jones. The Cleopatra makeup was gone, along with their costumes. She hoped Fletcher Jones was collecting all the party clothes for trace evidence analysis.
"You know I've got to be in the operating room in less than three hours." The doctor whined, then began to pace, checking his watch repeatedly. "I'm going to have to postpone Althea Grant's tummy tuck. The woman will find someone else. And with the way you spend money, I need every penny."
"It's not my fault that Carla died." Diana Trent, of seamless face and perky breasts, had clearly been one of her husband's most loyal patients. "You were having a pretty good time up until the body was discovered. I saw you chatting up that St. James woman earlier in the evening. Wouldn't have thought she was your type. Of course I wouldn't have thought she was Winston's type either."
"I don't chat people up. Buffy St. James and I were having a perfectly civilized conversation about the new library. The fund-raising campaign is running short and she was hoping we’d make a generous contribution. She wasn't aware we have our own money problems." Dr. Trent whirled around. "Tell me something! Why did you insist that we come to a party given by your ex-husband?"
"You know why. I did it for you. We need to keep up appearances. Plus, Winston said he might help with the malpractice case. If only Carla hadn't…" Diana stopped short.
"If only Carla hadn't what?" her husband asked.
"Nothing, nothing. It's just that Carla never did like me." Diana stood up. "I think I'll go and see if I can get some coffee."
Dr. Trent grabbed his wife's arm. "Diana, you gave that woman too much credit. She only thought she ran your ex's business."
Milla decided she'd better announce her presence.
Milla had never met Steven McCall, but she drove past Calla Village on her way to work every day. It was still in development, but five of the proposed fifteen McMansions had already been built by McCall's construction company, Sticks & Stones Inc. Milla wasn't sure who had the money in their town to support such lavish homes, but McCall and his old friend G. Winston Howard seemed to believe that "if you build it, they will come."
"Mr. McCall," Milla sat down at the dining room table with the fifty-something McCall. "I'd like to ask you a few questions."
He was wearing a dark suit. His white dress shirt was minus his tie, his collar open.
"No." McCall looked up from his BlackBerry. "Who are you?"
"I'm Milla Adams. Mr. Howard asked me to make a few inquiries into this matter."
"You're not a cop?"
McCall nodded. "Then you don't have to waste your time with me. I'm glad that Carla Jordan is dead, but I didn't kill her. I'm too busy to kill anyone, much less someone like Carla."
"Why would you want her dead?"
"She pushed her nose into matters that weren't her concern. Things she wasn't smart enough to understand."
Milla noticed that he had a habit of clenching and unclenching one hand when he talked. His right hand had a small Band-Aid around the tip of one finger. As much as the guy used his Blackberry, it might be a tiny keyboard-related injury.
"I warned Winston that the girl was trouble, but he wouldn't listen. He wasn't thinking with his brain, but with other body parts, if you get my drift."
Milla made a few notes. "When did you last see Ms. Jordan?"
"Tonight, when I went to Winston's office to fax a sales contract. I found Carla riffling through a file drawer."
"What was she looking for?"
"Probably the project file I had in my briefcase. Winston had given it to me earlier for safekeeping. Someone had been playing fast and loose with some city inspection reports. Winston suspected someone who was working for him was trying to sabotage the project."
"He suspected Carla Jordan?"
"That was my impression when he said he was going to stick a fork in her – she was done."
Milla thought back to the crime scene. She didn't remember any forks. Just one large knife.
It was past seven p.m. by the time she returned to the condo she called home. A recently updated loft unit downtown, the location was usually a plus. But today, it just meant a long, inconvenient drive. She was going to eat, shower, grab a few hours sleep, and then meet Fletcher down at the police station before dawn to share information and bounce around some ideas.
She kicked off her red stilettos; her sore feet had her ruing the day she had decided the uncomfortable shoes would be her trademark.
The light on her answering machine was blinking; the red flashing an annoying reminder that running your own business left you no time to call your own.
She had three messages.
"Miss Adams, this is Sonya Reyes. I'd like to speak with you privately. Please call my cell phone at …"
Milla jotted down the phone number, wondering if Carla Jordan had been blackmailing the mayor's wife or the mayor himself.
The second message and third messages were both from Walter Jester, Carla's facilitator. The man had to have known what Carla was doing. The frightened tone of his voice indicated he'd figured out that if Carla was killed for something she knew, he might be next on someone's list. He wanted to meet with Milla right away. He was waiting at a bar two blocks from her condo.
She pushed her feet back into her shoes. She'd meet with the Jester. The mayor's wife could wait until tomorrow.
Milla almost didn't recognize Walter Jester out of his court jester costume. The small man was ensconced in a booth, several empty beer bottles making wet rings on the table.
He nodded. "I needed to talk to you away from the mansion."
Milla sat down across from him. She was tired and in no mood to drag information out of him. "I’m here. Talk."
He motioned to the waitress to bring him another round. "Carla wasn't what she seemed."
"She wasn't a greedy, disloyal, blackmailing shrew who used everyone she met to get what she wanted?"
He blinked. "Okay, you're good. Most people don't get that about her right away."
The waitress set two beers on the table and scooped up the empties.
The last thing she wanted was a beer. Pushing the bottle towards Jester, Milla asked, "Do you know who killed her?"
"No, but I’m afraid that whoever killed Carla thinks that I do." He took a sip. "Carla had expensive tastes and managed to find ways to fund them. She played on people’s weaknesses.”
"Carla was a busy woman." Milla stared at the little man as he finished off one of the beers. "And now you have her job. Do you also have any proof of her off-the-record jobs?"
"I saw her take a folder from Steven McCall's briefcase." He slowly lifted his eyes to meet her gaze. "I followed her to the conservatory, saw her put the file in a trash bag and bury it. I went back to the party, and then about ten minutes later all hell broke loose. Alana found the body. I didn't tell the police about the folder. I thought I might need it as insurance later. But …"
"I think maybe someone saw me coming back from the conservatory. Someone dressed as a witch. Was that the killer?"
Pathetic fool. She slid out of the booth and stood. "Insurance? The premiums on that insurance were way too high for Carla. You think you're going to fare better?"
It was after midnight before Milla returned to the Howard estate. She saw one patrol car parked near the conservatory – the police's budget cutting policies leaving only one officer to protect the active crime scene.
After her conversation with Walter Jester in the bar, she'd taken the time to return home, shower, and change into black slacks, black leather jacket, and black boots – her standard "sneaking around in the dark" clothes. The red stiletto heels, along with a business suit, were on stand by in the trunk of her convertible.
She wasn't hiding from the police; in fact she'd left a message on Fletcher's cell phone about what she was doing. She'd told him about the file that Jester had seen Carla steal and bury. If he got the message in time, she was sure he'd notify the patrolman she was going to be poking around in the conservatory.
But she didn't want G. Winston Howard or any of the other suspects that might be hanging around to know she was there until she found out if Jester was telling the truth or not. She wanted to find the folder that Walter Jester said was wrapped in plastic and buried near a Bangkok Blue orchid. Jester had described the plant and its general location.
The first time she'd been in the greenhouse the overhead lights had been turned on. Tonight she was stuck with the moonlight filtering through the glass roof and her small flashlight.
She opened the glass door and stepped inside. G. Winston Howard had a lot of plants. And a lot of them had blue flowers.
As she swept the interior with the narrow beam, the odor of cigar smoke drifted towards her.
The conservatory was supposed to be empty, but Milla knew she wasn't alone. Experience, training, or maybe just her "spidy-sense" urged her to take care.
She was glad that she had taken the time to slip her shoulder holster on under her leather jacket. She carried the same Glock 19 she'd used as a police detective. She clicked her flashlight off. Drawing her weapon, she moved away from the door and crouched down.
She sensed movement in the far right corner of the glass enclosure – the corner where Walter Jester had reportedly buried his "insurance." Waiting, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness.
A shuffling sound came from the same corner.
Moving slowly, she made her way down the path between the rows of leafy plants and exotic blooms. If she remembered correctly, the greenhouse was set out in a rectangular grid pattern – like city blocks. Someone was about two blocks south and a block east.
She was quiet, but not quiet enough. Something soft, plastic, dropped over her head, shoulders, and upper arms. Not only did the plastic blind her, but it also trapped her arms against her body.
She still clutched her gun, not that she'd be able to hit whoever was behind her. Of course they wouldn't necessarily know that. "Stop. Or I'll shoot."
There was a sharp pain in her side and all the muscles in her body contracted at once.
Damn. The next to last thought she had as she lay on the wet concrete floor was she was going soft with her cushy private eye job. Twenty years ago as a beat cop no one would have been able to get the drop on her. Her last thought was that she shouldn't have mentioned the gun.
Being shot with a stun gun wasn't much fun. During her time at the police force Milla had volunteered to be shot with one, so she'd know what it felt like. It hurt. A lot. She'd never carried one, but a lot of her fellow officers had. Now even members of the public had them.
She knew it was a stun gun that her attacker had used on her before tying her up and leaving her wedged under a potting bench. The plastic bag the attacker had put over her head and upper body had torn on the wooden structure. She could see the legs of the bench and the bags of potting soil stacked next to her.
Her hands were tied behind her. She started moving her hands, pulling against the light rope that was holding them together. It was only a matter of time until she'd be able to free her hands. She only hoped it happened before anyone found her. Being trussed up like this was not good for business.
As she worked, she heard the sounds of people talking. She couldn't tell if they were in the conservatory or just outside, but she could make out most of the words. There were two voices.
"You owe me money. I'm not running a charity, you know."
"He closed my account. I have to sell some jewelry to pay you."
"Then do it. Meanwhile, I'm cutting you off."
"You can't do that. I need it or I can't function. And you need me to keep quiet."
"Be careful. Carla played that game, look what happened to her."
The voices drifted away.
Milla worked the knots in the ropes around her wrists loose.
Detective Fletcher Jones looked at her like she was some swamp creature who had crawled in the passenger side of his car and squatted on his upholstery.
"Rough night? Got to hand it to you, when you say you're going to do a little digging, you really mean digging."
It was almost dawn. She'd been unconscious longer than she'd thought. After she'd freed herself, she'd looked for the Bangkok Blue orchid. She'd found it and a large hole. The file was gone. Either she'd led the killer to it or he/she had taken it after killing Carla. The police had checked the greenhouse for clues, but holes in a flowerbed didn't make the cut for unusual items.
Milla glanced down at her wet, muddy clothes. The floor of a greenhouse, no matter how expensive, was filthy. Her nails were broken and dirty from scratching around on the floor and in the flowerbed. Her clothes were ruined. Good thing she was staining Fletcher's car seats instead of her own.
"Fletcher, I want to re-interview Liza Barrymore and Sonya Reyes. And I'd like to do it at the police station, if you don't mind." She'd had her fill of playing nice with G. Winston Howard's guests.
"Liza Barrymore, the makeup artiste, no problem. The mayor's wife, well that could be messy." He chuckled, opening his glove box and handing her a package of wet-wipes. "Sure, I'm game. The union will protect me from his Honor's wrath. But you're going to need to hose off first. We just got new furniture in the interrogation rooms."
"Swell." Milla grabbed her extra clothes from the trunk of her car and motioned for Fletcher to open up the trunk on his patrol car. She dropped her bag inside, noting the evidence sacks containing the costumes from the party. The killer's clothes were probably in there. "Let's go."
She glanced at Fletcher as they drove off the property. She still needed to mention to him that her attacker had taken her gun. He wasn't going to be happy.
"So you admit you were providing more than make-up at G. Winston Howard's Halloween Ball?" Milla was feeling a little better. She'd cleaned up in the women's locker room (it paid to have connections) and changed into her power suit and red stilettos. Unfortunately she could have used some of Liza Barrymore's legal wares to cover up the bruises and scratches on her legs and wrists.
"I told you before; I don't know what you're talking about. I don't do drugs. I don't sell drugs. Drugs give you wrinkles."
"I think that's smoking," Milla responded. "Moving beyond beauty care, I found traces of cocaine in the powder room where you pitched your costume make-up tent in. How do you explain that?"
"You might be right about the smoking thing. But are you sure it was cocaine you found? I use a finishing powder that gives an airbrushed effect on your pores. You should let me try some on you. You could use a makeover. I gave one to Buffy St. James, really covered up her wrinkles."
No, she really wasn't sure it was cocaine. The tests were inconclusive, too much contamination and too small a sample. Plus there might have been upwards of three dozen people passing through that restroom during the event.
"I do manicures, too. Your nails are in rough shape."
The banal chatter from Liza was giving her a headache. Milla wondered if she'd have better luck with Sonya Reyes. Maybe. After all, the woman had certainly wanted to talk to her last night.
"Did you know you have some blue petals stuck to the back of your jacket?"
Great. The greenhouse was following her everywhere. Maybe the killer was wearing petals too? No, she wasn't that lucky. Still …she glanced down at her broken nails and scratched hands. She considered their similarity to Carla's hands. The greenhouse had left its mark on both of them.
Maybe it did the same to whoever dug up that file! She needed to be looking at hands.
"I had thought we might do lunch today," Sonya Reyes said, looking around the small room with the mirrored wall. "But I had in mind asking you to join me at my club, not someplace like this."
Milla stared at the woman in the tailored suit, pearls, and designer shoes. She certainly didn't look like a crazed drug addict wandering around greenhouses in the middle of the night putting detectives in garbage bags. She also had perfectly manicured fingernails.
"What did you want to talk about?"
"Carla Jordan, of course. I needed to talk with you privately about something Carla told me."
"You didn't want to tell me about your cocaine habit?" Milla dropped her little bomb and waited to see Sonya Reyes' reaction.
The woman didn't deny it, Milla had to give her that. She calmly described several failed trips to rehab and how concerned she was that her little habit was going to be the reason her husband would never reach higher office. She also admitted that cocaine was an expensive habit to support.
"Who were you buying drugs from?" Milla was laying odds it was either the "dead Sunflower" Carla or the "it'll give you wrinkles" Liza.
"The caterer? Did Carla know?" Milla supposed that made sense. She hadn't heard any raves about the food, yet the couple was invited to work an "A-list" party?
"I don't think so," Sonya answered. "She was kind of miffed that G. Winston Howard didn't use some caterers she'd picked out."
Milla stood and walked around the room. She knew Fletcher was videoing their conversation. She also knew he'd advised Sonya Reyes of her legal rights.
"What did you want to tell me when you called last night?"
The mayor's wife sighed. "I wanted you to know that Carla had been blackmailing my husband."
"Over your drug use?"
"No." Sonya's eyes met hers. "Over some missing building funds. She thought Juan was padding building contracts and taking kickbacks from Steven McCall."
The woman shook her head vehemently. "No, no. Juan would never do that. He has too much respect for law."
Milla wondered how much old cop show residuals really paid.
"So who killed Carla?" Milla leaned back in her bubble bath and closed her eyes. She only had a few more hours to solve the mystery or she wasn't going to get paid. G. Winston Howard had hired her to discover the killer before the weekend was over.
She reached out her hand and fumbled for the box of chocolates, sitting on the tiled area bordering her jetted tub. Placing one delicate morsel in her mouth, she let the sweetness flow over her tongue.
Why does anyone commit murder?
She ticked off the reasons: love, money, power, rage …
What else? Despite Steven McCall's hint of an affair between G. Winston Howard and Carla Jordan, she hadn't found any evidence of it. The only emotion that seemed to be associated with Carla was anger. She hadn't found anyone who liked the woman. So love probably wasn't the motive.
Milla picked up another chocolate, holding it as she considered the options. It had to be the old stand bys – money and power. Rage was probably just a bonus – nobody was mourning the late Carla Jordan. Who needed money? Who wanted power? Who did Carla threaten to expose?
The chocolate melted on her fingers. She tossed the gooey candy back in the box just as her cell phone rang. Startled she grabbed the side of the tub, her fingers leaving marks. Ignoring the phone she looked at her hand, her scratched fingers, like Carla's, leaving a message.
"You're going to be charged for the drugs we found at your house. And for obstruction of a police investigation. The reason I'm talking to you now is to determine if I'm going to charge you for the murder of Carla Jordan. One last time, who hired you?"
Milla glanced down at her watch. It was almost 3 p.m. She was watching Fletcher Jones interrogate Frieda Rosen. He'd already eliminated the woman's husband as a suspect in the murder. Another guest had come forward and verified a shaky alibi. Apparently the guest had cornered the chef about a veal recipe. The guest verified Mr. Rosen’s whereabouts at the time of Carla Jordan's death. He also offered up the opinion that although serving up bad veal wasn't a crime, it should be.
Frieda Rosen began talking about the woman who had come into their shop – the sister.
Fletcher interrupted her. "G. Winston Howard doesn't have a sister. You lied to us in your first statement. Don't lie to me again. Who really got you the catering job at the Halloween Ball?"
'Okay, fine. She didn't pay us nearly enough for the job anyway. Diana Trent recommended me. She didn't want anyone to know she was still involved in her ex-husband's business. Part of the deal was for me to keep my mouth shut about her. Like the drugs, my husband didn't know about that either. Idiot. Even after all these years, he still thinks he's a great cook. If it weren't for me, we'd have been homeless. A woman's got to do, what a woman's got to do."
Fletcher glanced over his shoulder at the mirror.
Milla knew what she had to do next.
"Dr. Trent, thank you for seeing me." Milla had arranged to meet the doctor at a small café near the clinic where he had offices. "I didn't think doctors worked on Sundays."
"Normally I don't, but my schedule was turned upside down with the murder investigation."
"How long have you and your wife been married?"
"Three years – almost."
"And what's your relationship with G. Winston Howard?" She'd asked him this question before at the mansion, but she suspected he'd been holding back.
"He's my wife's ex-husband."
Okay, she'd push a little harder. Time was running out. "I asked what your relationship was with him, not your wife's."
He sighed. "You know about the loan he gave me?"
Milla hadn't, but she nodded anyway. She'd suspected the two men had done business together, but she'd been thinking the doctor was an investor in one of G. Winston Howard's failed property development companies.
"I settled a malpractice case; my insurance didn't cover all of it. Winston loaned me the balance – only condition was I couldn't tell Diana where the money came from."
"Your wife really doesn't know?"
"No. She'd approached Winston through Carla about the matter several weeks ago. Carla passed on his negative response several days before the ball."
"Yet he eventually gave you the loan? Why?"
"I'm not sure. Saturday morning he just walked up and offered."
"Saturday morning? This Saturday?"
He nodded and Milla was left to wonder if that was what G. Winston Howard was doing when she first arrived at the crime scene. Had he called the police, called her, then broke out his checkbook? Why? Maybe Carla had lied to Diana just to yank her chain. Maybe G. Winston Howard had always intended to help his ex-wife.
'One more question – describe your costume – what did you wear to the Halloween Ball?"
"Green hospital scrubs." He blushed. "Not very original, I know."
No. not very original, Milla agreed. But the information was helpful. His scrubs were nothing like a black cape and witches' mask.
It was time. As per her request the group was gathered on the lighted patio area near the pool. In her interview with Alana Carter, the groundskeeper, she'd discovered that the outdoor living area was Diana Trent's personal design. The final touches, the outdoor fireplace and bar, were completed after the divorce. The mansion and grounds were very much Diana's dream. Watching her directing the bartender, Milla understood that the woman still hadn't been able to let go. Maybe she wasn't in love with G. Winston Howard anymore, but she loved that house.
Julius Rosen was sitting at a table off to the side. He seemed to be enjoying the novelty of being waited on. His wife was absent. Her bail hearing wasn't until tomorrow. He was no longer a suspect, but Milla didn't want the others to know that. She needed the killer to feel safe just a little longer.
Milla wasn't sure she believed that Diana Trent had recommended the Rosens to her ex, but if she had, it was probably more to do with thwarting Carla Jordan than anything else.
Walter Jester was in hiding somewhere. After she'd failed to find the all important file folder, he'd left her a message he was sure the murderer would be coming after him next.
Liza Barrymore, the make-up artiste was at a table with Alana Carter. They were sipping wine and watching the Amazing Harry eat his way through a tray of canapés. The sight of Amazing Harry scattering crumbs down his shirt reminded her of the test results Fletcher had emailed her. The stains on the shirt and jacket Harry was wearing the night of the murder were ketchup, not blood. Her identification mistake was due to the ketchup stains being of varying age. Apparently the man liked ketchup. Fletcher was still complaining that his patrol car reeked of it, just from his transporting the clothes to the lab.
The mayor was sipping brandy from a crystal glass. His wife was absent, off to rehab.
Steven McCall was pacing the flagstones on the opposite side of the pool, his cell phone stuck to his ear. His wheeling and dealing never seemed to stop.
Dr. Trent was standing next to G. Winston Howard at the fireplace. Buffy St. James, the librarian and current girlfriend of Winston was standing near the French door leading into the house. Fletcher was next to her waiting for Milla to signal him.
Milla didn't really need to ask any more questions. She knew who attacked her in the greenhouse. The same person had killed Carla. All the clues were there. The killer had been seen. She'd just had to sort the extraneous from the important. And the best part was that her paycheck was going to clear the bank.
It was time for the reveal.
Dear Reader –
Put on Milla's stiletto shoes and solve the mystery. You have all the clues necessary to reveal the killer.
(If you want to make sure you're right, email me for the answer at firstname.lastname@example.org)