By Jennifer Frost
Without blinking one blue eye, Tansy Bishop, seated across from me in my downtown office, merely nodded, urging me to continue.
“You want me to investigate a 20-year-old murder. Is that right?”
“This isn’t just any murder, Detective Jones. I am asking you to look into the death of my mother. I know how strange this sounds, and believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel it was necessary. I was eight years old when my mother died, without any chance for closure. Do you know what that does to a child?” When I said nothing, Tansy shook her head with a rueful laugh. “No, I suppose not. I haven’t met many people who do understand. When you’re small you don’t go to bed thinking that you’ll never see your mother again, but that’s what happened to me. If I had known, I would have asked her for another kiss, hugged her a little longer…” As tears began to roll down her cheeks, Tansy fumbled in her bag for a handkerchief. Pressing it to her face, she said, “I’ve always been silly enough to believe the people who told me that this will get easier with time. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to move beyond March 20, 1954.”
“Why now, Tansy?” I asked. “After so much time has passed? Is it because the twentieth anniversary of your mother’s death is coming?”
She wiped her eyes once more before dropping the soiled handkerchief into her bag. “There’s more to it than just that, Detective Jones. I need closure, and I’ll never have it until my mother’s killer is found.”
“This case was never solved?”
“Oh, it was solved, and my father was arrested for—and later convicted of—the crime. For many years, I believed that he was responsible for Mama’s murder, but things changed last year.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“My father wrote to me from prison, asking me for help. He said he had evidence that would prove his innocence. His letter really made me think, Detective Jones, and I went back to that March night, even though I try never to do that, and I saw my father. At the house. We played Parcheesi together, Chinese checkers, too. He put me to bed that night. I was with him, don’t you see?”
“Then I suggest you begin there, Tansy. Talk to your father, gather the evidence, and--”
She leaned forward in her chair, and her eyes welled with tears that shimmered against the crystal-blue irises, turning them to deep pools. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“My father is dead.”
I opened my desk drawer, removed a yellow legal pad and a pen, and placed them in front of me. “Tell me everything you know.”
“Where should I begin?” she asked.
I shrugged. “How about at the beginning?”
* * *
“My mother was Doe Gillespie. Ever heard of her?”
By this time, Tansy had calmed down considerably, and both she and I were enjoying large paper cups of black coffee. Mist tapped against the front windows and pattered a gentle lullaby overhead.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, no.”
“It’s all right. I didn’t think you would. She was a pin-up girl; she posed for several magazines, a few calendars, performed a burlesque routine at Tahitian Gentlemen’s Club, and gained quite a following--locally, of course, but there was potential for her to expand her brand. Just before she died, she was making plans to fly to California and test for a role in some small budget B-movie. I have no doubt she would have succeeded.” Tansy reached into her bag and removed a folder. Laying it on my desk, she said, “Pictures of my mother.”
Inside the folder I found a stack of professional photos, some shot in color, showing an incredibly beautiful platinum blonde with her hair set in rows of pin curls and her face artfully and dramatically made up with dark cosmetics. She had a remarkably shapely hourglass figure perfectly suited for the period of old Hollywood glamour.
When I looked up from the photographs, Tansy was smiling. “See the red rose? That was her trademark. Even when she was just Mom, she never went anywhere, even if it was to the market or the post office, without wearing a red rose in her hair. The locals called her Beauty.”
“Very fitting. She was beautiful,” I said, closing the folder. “You have her eyes.”
“Thank you. Most people say I resemble my father.” Tansy sighed. “My mother was only 25 years old when she died, Detective Jones. I was a surprise, you might say, and as a result, my parents married when they were teen-agers, which didn’t help to boost my mother’s promising career. She never gave up on her dream, even while she was cooking dinner and folding laundry and taking me to school.”
“What was your parents’ relationship like? From your perspective?”
Tansy thought about that for a moment, and then shook her head. “It’s difficult to say, isn’t it? I was so young; we spent very little time together because my father always seemed to be working and my mother had her own aspirations. I spent time with them, but separately. Does that make sense?”
“Perfect sense,” I replied. “Did they argue? Fight? Was there violence in the home?”
“I remember many arguments, always late at night, when they thought I was sleeping. If there were physical altercations, I never saw them, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors? My parents separated when I was seven, and I always believed there was so much more to that than their age and circumstances. I don’t think my father approved of my mother’s choices. If she had been content to settle into lower middle-class society and simply play housewife and mother, they might have been married to this day. Who knows? I do know this much: my mother was never one to settle for mediocrity or the ordinary, and after my father moved out, I saw her less and less. I loved her, and I think she did the best she could, but I have no grand illusions about my mother. She wanted to be a star. And I was in the way.”
I made a few notes on my legal pad while Tansy sipped her coffee. “What about your father? Did you see him often after the separation?”
“I did,” said Tansy. “Normally, I was cared for by Nan Collins, but when my mother left for the evening, my father would come to the house and stay with Nan and me until bedtime. He always left before my mother came home because things had gotten so unpleasant between them. They actually fought more after the separation than they ever had during their marriage.”
“Possibly because your father didn’t want the marriage to end,” I said.
Tansy nodded. “I think so, too. You saw for yourself how beautiful my mother was. It must have been hard for my father to let her go.”
“I know this is difficult for you, but let’s go forward to March 20. Think back carefully, and tell me everything that you remember about that night.”
Tansy took a deep breath; when she set her cup on the edge of my desk, her hands were trembling. “Mama had arranged for a private photo session; she wanted new pictures for her portfolio, and she left the house right around 4:00. I’ll never forget how she looked. I was outside playing in the front yard, and she came hurrying down the walk with her hair all done up in a fancy upsweep. She was wearing a new dress, the prettiest I had ever seen, patterned all over with big red cherries, and she had a little red cardigan sweater thrown over her shoulders. I ran to tell her good-bye, but she looked so beautiful and smelled so nice that I was almost afraid to touch her. She kissed me, told me to be a good girl, and promised that we’d have a big pancake breakfast together in the morning. I watched her drive off in her old baby blue Chevy…I ran to the gate and watched her until I couldn’t see the car any more. I don’t know why I did that. I was used to my mother leaving. But that time…well, it just seemed different somehow. I never saw her again.”
“But you did see your father that night.”
“It wasn’t long after Mama left that he came by. He wanted to take me out for ice cream, but Nan didn’t think he should; Mama didn’t like me to go off with Daddy. He left to get ice cream and brought it back to the house, and we sat on the front porch and ate it right out of the container. We sat outside for hours, just the two of us, until the sun went down. He stayed long enough to play some games and tuck me in. And then, he left. And I never saw him again until last year.” Tansy was looking out the window, but I thought she was seeing more than the people darting down Main Street, holding newspapers over their heads to keep the rain away and struggling with umbrellas. “When I woke up the next morning, Mama wasn’t home. Nan was still there and so were several police officers. That was when I found out my mother was gone, that she wouldn’t be coming back. My father had already been arrested for the murder. After that, I was raised by my great-aunt. She was a good woman, but we never spoke about my mother, that night, or my father.”
“So you were raised to believe that he had killed your mother.”
“Of course. What else could I believe? Over the years he tried several times to contact me, but I refused to speak to him until last December when his letter came. Daddy explained that he was dying of cancer and needed my help in proving his innocence. I visited him every week until the day he died, and I began to believe him, Detective Jones. He was terminally ill, he’d lost everything, he’d been incarcerated for almost 20 years. What could he have gained by lying at that point? He didn’t want to die knowing that I saw him as a guilty man. I tried very hard to help him, but I ran into dead ends around every corner. Even the police department was no help; nobody seemed interested in opening a 20-year-old case that had been so neatly solved.”
I nodded. “Besides, it’s more than probable that the men who worked that case are no longer on the force.”
“Yes,” said Tansy. She turned to face me. “I could just give up, and try to move forward, but I can’t seem to do that. It’s the only thing I can do for my father’s memory. And I have to know the truth, too.” She removed a small sheaf of papers from her bag and slid them across the desk. “I was able to obtain the police reports. There are newspaper articles clipped beneath it.”
While Tansy sat quietly, I scanned the ancient papers filed so long ago with the Pierce County PD. “Time of death was 11:57 P.M. Do you remember what time your dad put you to bed?”
“It was well after 9:00, much later than my normal eight P.M. bedtime.”
I pushed the reports aside and said, “If your father put you to bed at 9:00 and you heard him leave, what makes you think he couldn’t have killed your mother? There was certainly a window of opportunity.”
“That’s what I thought, too, until I spoke to Daddy. He admitted that he came back to the house right after 10:00. To be with Nan. They were together when my mother phoned sometime after eleven. I remember that, Detective. Something woke me up…I think it was shouting…I remember hearing Daddy’s voice. He admitted that he and my mother had had a very bad fight over the phone; Mama told him she was on her way home, and he better be gone when she got there. But he didn’t go. He decided to wait for her, to be with Nan, but when my mother didn’t come home by 1:00 that morning, he finally left.”
“Unfortunately, that proves nothing, Tansy. It’s all hearsay.” I pointed to the reports. “Nan gave her statement to the arresting officers, but it was obviously dismissed in court.” I picked up the papers and flipped through them. “Here. ‘A male witness leaving Smoky Joe’s saw a tall, dark-haired man wearing a navy blue pea coat exit the alley on North Cumberland just after midnight.’” I laid my pen down. “I have to be honest with you. This doesn’t look good for your father. Did he match the description?”
anyone besides his former lover place him at your mother’s house at
Why would your father pick up the telephone, knowing that he shouldn’t
sharing his wife’s bed with the nanny? There is just too much
evidence, Tansy. I’m sorry.”
“Please. Don’t turn me away. I have to know the truth. Even if I find out my father was lying to me. I don’t care anymore. I just need to know.” Desperation crept into Tansy’s quavering voice. “There are two people who can help, the only two that might know what really happened that night. Just talk to them. Please.” She reached for my hand. “You’re my only hope.”
* * *
“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Phillips.”
“Richard, please. Have a seat.” I did, and he sat down behind his desk. “I was quite surprised when you telephoned, Detective Jones. It’s been a very long time since anyone has spoken about Beauty.”
“Her daughter asked me to speak with you.”
“Tansy?” Richard Phillips blinked. “I haven’t seen her in years. She must be grown now. How is she?”
“She’s 28, Richard, and she isn’t doing well. She’s hoping to re-open her mother’s murder case, and that’s why I’m here.”
“You do know that her father, Frank Bishop, was convicted of the crime, don’t you?”
“I do, and I also know that Mr. Bishop recently passed away at CSP, after serving nearly 20 years for a crime he claimed he didn’t commit.” Phillips’ face remained impassive. “Tansy said you were a local photographer, that you were responsible for launching her mother’s career.”
“Yes, I saw myself as quite an artist back in the day. I was sure that I’d be famous for my photos, but photography ended up being nothing more than a side project, and not a terribly successful one at that. It was Beauty who was going to make me successful, and after she died, so did my passion for photography. Real estate became my calling, as you can see.” He gestured around his office, a rueful smile playing over his face.
“You were more than Doe Gillespie’s photographer, weren’t you, Richard?”
He sighed. “That obvious, huh?”
“Just an observation.”
“I met Doe in September of 1945when I was hired to photograph the annual fall festival, and I had never seen anyone so beautiful. I approached her, asked her if she had ever considered modeling, and made arrangements to photograph her. She was very photogenic, and I began to submit her pictures to various local magazines, circulars, and contests—of which she won many. I fell in love with her, but there was nothing salacious about our relationship.”
“Then she met Frank Bishop.”
“Yes. And I thought we’d part ways, but after Tansy came along, Doe was determined to move forward in her career. At that time, pin-up girls were increasing in popularity, and I began to work with Doe and several other girls who wanted to be stars. Very few had the drive and determination; in the end, only Doe and Bernadette Love remained, and we continued a working relationship until Doe’s death.”
“Which brings us to that night,” I said. “Tansy said her mother was with you. What happened, Richard?”
“Beauty was on her way to Hollywood, and we met on March 20, for a photo shoot. At the time, I had a little studio down on Cumberland. Beauty and I had dinner together and spent most of the evening listening to jazz music. Then, around 9:00, we went back to the studio, and the photo shoot ended just before eleven. She phoned her sitter, to check on Tansy, and--”
“Discovered that Frank was there.”
Richard nodded. “She was very upset. She wanted to leave right then, but it had started to rain very hard, and she was in no condition to drive. I convinced her to stay a while longer, and she agreed.”
“What time did she leave, Richard?”
“Maybe 11:45? It was still raining, but she was much calmer, and said she’d be fine, she didn’t have far to go. She left through the back door, and that’s the last time I saw her alive.” Richard leaned across his desk, his eyes steady. “I understand what you’re trying to do, and I can appreciate it, but what you must understand is that you are working on a 20-year-old murder, guided by the broken memories of an unhappy woman. There were many rumors about my relationship with Beauty, and they didn’t end even after her death.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Phillips?”
“There was nothing between Beauty and me but love and friendship. Frank Bishop thought otherwise… and killed his wife. And, now, Tansy must learn to accept that.”
* * *
“Doe was as beautiful in death as she was in life. Isn’t it odd to remember that about someone? But, honestly, I had never seen a lovelier corpse—or a more lavish funeral service. I think the entire town came to pay their respects to their fallen Beauty.” The tea kettle whistled and Bernadette Love rose from the table in her small kitchen and crossed to the stove. “She was beloved in Pierce County, Ms. Jones. But I’m sure Richard told you all about that.”
“Yes. He said you and Doe helped to keep his fledgling photography career alive.”
“I suppose. We all had big dreams back then; we all wanted to escape the poverty of this place, to live large and exciting lives. But it wasn’t meant to be.” With a shrug, Bernadette brought the teacups to the table and sat across from me once more.
“Doe Gillespie almost made it out, though, didn’t she? From what I’ve learned, she was gaining a lot of national notoriety before she died.”
Bernadette smiled. “It’s easy to do so if you’re willing to sleep your way to the top. Beauty enjoyed entertaining gentlemen, and they enjoyed her company. She and I were both in the running for the role of Elena in Jungle Queen, but Richard eventually decided to send Doe’s portfolio to the studio execs in Hollywood, and, of course, she was offered the chance to screen-test for the part. I’m sure she’d have been given the role, but whether the decision was based on talent or something else…” Bernadette lifted her teacup to her lips. “Let’s just say that’s debatable.”
“Richard Phillips claims his relationship with Beauty was strictly platonic.”
“Oh, don’t be naïve, Ms. Jones. Richard and Doe had been having an affair for years. Not that I could fault either of them for their feelings. They were a striking couple, and Richard was very handsome back then – the cliché tall, dark, and handsome type. However, this is a small town, and its residents love to talk, almost as much as they love to drink and attend church revival meetings. Richard’s relationship with Doe was quite scandalous; it was implied that, if certain terms weren’t met, their affair would go public, and Richard had a great deal to lose, including his wife and son. Don’t you think he would have put a stop to such threats in any way he could?”
“Are you saying that Beauty was blackmailing Richard Phillips?”
“Precisely. Doe knew what she wanted—and how to get it. I could almost respect that about her.”
“Implying that Richard killed Doe is a serious accusation.”
“Is it any more serious than convicting Frank Bishop on nothing more than probable cause? Once the police decided he was the killer, all investigation stopped. Think carefully, Ms. Jones. Richard Phillips was the last person to see Doe alive. If you’re hoping to clear the name of a dead man, then I suggest you look more closely at Pierce County’s resident real estate mogul.”
“I don’t know, Ms. Love,” I replied. “If Doe was Richard’s ticket out of here, it doesn’t make sense that he would kill her. I learned that Beauty’s death ended his career – and yours, too.”
“Yes, but I suppose sacrifices have to be made, even deadly ones, if it means protecting your own best interests. When Doe was murdered, it was indeed the end to my burgeoning career, but Richard had his real estate business to rely on. He could have gotten out of Pierce County if he’d wanted to. As for me…well, it was quite different. Even after Doe’s death, I struggled to find success, but I was almost 30 years old, and I didn’t have Richard to help me. I suppose you can guess the rest.” She reached for our empty cups. “I’ll pour us some more tea.”
While Bernadette was replenishing our teacups, I stepped into a narrow galley hallway where the former pin-up girl had created a shrine to herself. Framed photographs, mostly shot in black and white, hung in staggered rows upon the walls. “You have an impressive collection of pictures,” I called.
“Thank you. It’s a bit vain of me to showcase my work, but those photos bring back so many wonderful memories. Growing old is incredibly difficult, Ms. Jones. I don’t recommend it.”
“You certainly were beautiful.” The photos showed a tall, willowy, and aristocratic-looking brunette in various forms of fetish attire, the antithesis of Doe Gillespie’s soft, golden light. “You remind me a lot of Bettie Page.”
“Thank you, Ms. Jones. I take that as a compliment.”
The house fell silent. I studied the photographs.
“Find something particularly interesting?”
I turned; Bernadette was standing behind me. “Yes. This picture, dated February of ’54.”
“That was Richard’s idea. I thought it was a bit silly to salute beneath the brim of a sailor hat, but that photo actually proved to be something of an inspiration to our troops. I think of it as my contribution to the war effort.”
“And the pea coat? Was that also Richard’s idea?”
“As a matter of fact, it was.”
“But it wasn’t his idea for you to put that same coat on and kill Beauty, was it, Ms. Love?”
Bernadette took a step back. Her eyes darted from side to side.
“You wanted Doe Gillespie’s success, her fame, and possibly her lover, too. Did it become more than you could bear when Beauty was chosen to go to Hollywood? Killing her and framing Richard for the murder would mean sacrificing your career; you must have known that, but maybe, in your mind, taking the ultimate revenge was much greater than any success you might have attained.” I slipped my hand into the pocket of my raincoat. “But the plan went awry, and an innocent man lost his life in prison. Because of you. And, now, you have nothing. Your youth and beauty are gone, and you’ll only grow older…behind the bars of a prison cell.”
Those were just the words to incite Bernadette Love’s rage. She lunged. I drew my pistol, leveling the barrel directly at her forehead. And she fell to the floor, weeping.
Jennifer Frost is the author of several works of speculative fiction, including the recently released supernatural mystery series, THE ADVENTURES OF SAFETY BOY. She lives in Ohio with her husband and their three children where she is currently at work on her newest collection of children’s books featuring the magically mysterious little Witchy Sue.
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Frost. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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