MURDER AT THE OVER 55’S
By James P. Hanley
Former New Jersey detective Gary Rygh started his golf cart in the two car garage attached to the house he’d purchased with his wife Dee several months after retiring. Gary never played golf in his life dismissing the game as a futile effort to whack a little ball into a rabbit hole. But the cart was a popular mode of transportation at the over 55’s housing development in Southern Georgia where Gary barely met the minimum age requirement. That morning, neighbors were about their routine: collecting the morning paper tossed on the front porch, jogging in unflattering outfits, walking a reluctant dog — being regular in a retirement community had several connotations. Gary was on his way to the community center where he’d meet three other men from the development to swim in the chlorine-clouded pool. Brian Walters was a retired investment advisor who lived on one of the cute-name streets, Merry Lane, with his third wife. His paunch hung over the rim of his bathing suit and a thick unlit cigar protruded from his fleshy lips. He was wrapped in a towel with an embossed hotel name. Ralph Bauman was seated on the edge of the pool dangling his feet in the still-chilly water, his head down and his bald dome reflecting light from the overhead fluorescent lights. Bruce Phillips was the third, a trim man with more surgery scars than a roast sliced with a dull knife.
There was a ritual in their greeting: a grunt followed with a brief nod of acknowledgement. As if reacting to a silent starting gun, they all leaped into the pool, Brian being the last to enter after placing his smokeless cigar on a plastic table. The men swam a lap with varying skill and speed. Brian did a back stroke and his protruding stomach gave the appearance of an upended buoy. Bruce dog paddled as if a treat was waiting at the other end. Ralph stopped periodically, looked around, sighed and continued the lap. The others speculated that he was looking for Brenda Cooper, a widow with the figure of a bowling pin and a face so buried under dried creams and powder that the men joked she added concrete to her make-up. This kind of romantic intrigue was common in a development where Cipro and Viagra were the most popular prescriptions.
The four men continued their routine every day except for the weekend, but the following Monday all assembled, except for Brian Walters. In an enclosed community of older residents any absence raised the thought of the three D’s: death, dementia or default (failure to pay the mortgage, homeowners’ association fee, etc.). After a brief, half-hearted lap, the trio decided to go to Brian’s house to check on him. They parked in front of his home — a gray structure in the design repeated throughout the complex with subtle difference in shape and front door color. When they knocked, Brian’s wife Loretta, a former, little-known country singer, answered, her hair piled with so many metal rollers that it could qualify her as a cell tower.
“He left early and said he was going to the community center,” she told them with a faked twang.
The men mentioned that he never showed but as they walked away, Bruce said, “She didn’t seem very concerned.”
Gary headed toward the open garage and saw that Brian’s cart was still inside next to his car.
“He drives everywhere,” Ralph remarked.
The trio decided to search the neighborhood to find their friend. They split up to patrol different streets. Gary was a few blocks from where they started when he heard the loud screech that sounded like the cry of a bantam rooster. Mrs. Webster was shouting, “He’s dead, he’s dead,” an exclamation not uncommon in that community.
Gary knew this was different. Running to where Mrs. Webster stood leaning over a small mound of dirt on the edge of a stretch of trees, he saw the un-breathing body of his friend, a knife protruding from his chest. Gary kept the forming crowd back from the body until the police arrived. In a place where gossip served as the local news source, speculation began immediately, and the detectives sent to investigate were inundated with offered theories and suspects. When Gary mentioned that he was a former cop to a detective who questioned him, the overwhelmed law enforcement official’s eyes widened. The following day, Gary got a call from the precinct and was asked if he would help to sort through all the leads — most groundless — that were pouring in from the over 55 crowd. At dinner, Gary shared with his wife that he didn’t want to get involved, that he’d moved to get away from crime detection, but as she reminded him, the victim was a friend.
The next morning, he met with the chief of detectives, who in a mock ceremony “deputized” Gary Rygh, allowing him to interview folks but required involving a police officer when the need arose to take formal statements. “I’ve assigned men to take the statement from the wife, so you needn’t bother.” Finally, the detective chief also said there were no clues at the scene, or fingerprints and DNA on the knife.
Gary knew about the victim’s background, that he was quick—sometimes too quick, the ex-detective remembered — to give investment advice, and that he was on the autocratic homeowners’ association board as treasurer and whose prime mission seemed to be hunting down and fining violators of the voluminous rules. When Brian would find a culprit, he would send a sharply worded letter with the threatening closing paragraph that he would impose a stiff fine and deny access to the community center.
Gary met with the homeowners’ association president and asked about residents who were most upset about rules violations detected by the deceased treasurer. The most infamous case of rules violation involved Lucinda Meyers, who most residents called Luke, although not to her face. Lucinda, a beefy woman with thick arms and a face of whiskers that were abnormally thick, created whispers about her original anatomy. She was married to a skittish, diminutive man who was an aficionado of romance novels. Brian had once remarked of the masculine Lucinda and her effete spouse, “I’m glad someone in that house has balls.” The Meyers had stealthily arranged for a porch to be added at the back of their house — a clear exception to the rules requiring authorization before any action could be taken. Their house was nearly surrounded by trees and the closest homes were at an angle and couldn’t see the rear of the Meyers’ house to report the unauthorized construction. When asked by nosy neighbors about the planks of wood being delivered, they explained they were having some changes made to the interior building — not a rule breaker. As Brian once told his swimming buddies, he discovered the illegal addition and threatened to file in court to require them to remove the add-on structure. The cost of construction and subsequent demolition would have been astronomical, Lucinda explained during her interview with Gary, her already deep voice lowered by a cold. She denied anything to do with Brian’s death but clearly had no liking for the former treasurer.
Another couple who had a deep hatred for Brian was the Tonorows. In their late fifties but with healthy, trim bodies, they were practicing nudist, frequently lounging in the buff in their backyard. The sale of binoculars went up considerably in the local sporting goods store but most residents thought them harmless — except for Brian. Initially limited by a lack of mention in the rules about naked bodies, he pushed through an amendment which forbad exposure outside the house. The Tonorows complained that many un-curtained windows offered views of unclothed residents, as apparent in any walk through the neighborhood. The board was unconvinced, especially Brian who claimed credit for the rule change. A for-sale sign was in front of the Tonorows home but the newly constructed houses in the development drew buyers away from the older homes. The Tonorows were cordial to Gary, and thankfully, dressed, he thought, but their ire toward Brian ignited when the deceased man’s name was mentioned. “Serves the bastard right,” the missus said. A statement Gary recognized as not likely to come from a killer hiding their crime.
The next morning, Gary went to the police station to talk to the investigators assigned to case. The ex-detective shared his findings — which were none — and the cops revealed what they’d discovered. Brian had a reasonable balance in his checking account but had been withdrawing about one thousand a month in cash and there was no indication of what he was doing with the money. In addition, they spoke to the widow who between tearful interruptions had an alibi; she was on the phone for the period the coroner estimated the time of death. She was speaking to a woman named Sabina who lives in Pennsylvania. Neighbors claimed that the relationship between the couple seemed good even though, as one woman claimed, “Brian had an eye for the ladies.”
“How about former clients? He could have given bad advice and the bankrupt investor could have taken revenge?” Gary asked.
“We’ll check that out but he worked in Minneapolis and has been out of the business for over six years, so why wait until now and travel so far?”
“I have another resident to contact; I’ll let you know the outcome,” Gary said.
“The McHenry’s were an unusual couple, which is saying something,” Gary explained to his wife Dee.
“Don’t they own motorcycles?” she asked.
“Yes. I spoke to Phil McHenry. He wears clothes from the 50’s: jeans rolled up at the bottom to form cuffs, a t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, a black belt with a silver buckle, sneakers and white socks. He keeps his hair in the style of that era: crew cut on top, the sides long and slicked back into what he calls a duck’s ass. He said that Brian was after him because he claimed the bikes — his and his wife’s — were too noisy and leaking oil, streaking the unmarred concrete streets. He explained that the bikes were the couple’s main enjoyment but Brian threatened to ban two wheel vehicles.”
“Does that include walkers?” Dee teased.
“Phil’s wife came out and she’s got more tattoos than a circus sideshow act. They both swear they were on the road. I’ll ask the detective to check credit card receipts but I have a feeling they’re telling the truth.”
For the next week, there were no leads but one morning, Gary got a call to go to the station house. The chief of detectives was frowning when Rygh came in. “We went over his finances some more. He’s been stealing from the homeowners’ association bank account. From what we can tell, he’s been taking money out, investing it, cashing in the securities, replacing the money and keeping the earnings for himself. We don’t know what he did with those earnings. The scheme worked for a while but as you probably know, the market hasn’t been doing well the last few months, so he started losing money. Like a gambler he kept throwing money from the association’s deposits into the investments hoping for a turnaround that never came.”
“Who else would know about this?”
“We grilled the homeowners’ association president and he said he discovered it recently and had confronted Brian who swore to replace the money. The president, Tim Wyer, was frightened because he thought he’d be liable now that Brian was dead since they didn’t have liability coverage for theft.”
“That would seem to eliminate him as a suspect since Brian’s death put him at risk for the stolen money,” Gary said.
“Unless he killed him in a fit of anger.”
“Did you find anything in Brian’s cell and phone records?”
“Nothing, maybe he had a throw-away cell phone,” the detective answered. “The wife wasn’t much help. She claims he left very early that day and said he was going to get some laps in before the rest of you arrived. No one saw him walking that morning.”
Gary said. “What puzzles me is why he was at the spot where his body was found. That area is not on the way to the community center.”
“A rendezvous?” the detective suggested.
“Maybe; I’ll talk to folks in that area and ask if they saw anything,” Gary said.
When Gary questioned the homeowners nearest to where Brian’s body was found, most didn’t see anything, although one man said he thought he saw a man and woman near the spot, arguing as apparent by their gestures. The last house to visit was owned by the Margolins, a couple rumored to be having troubles as the gossip’s euphemism declared. Laura Margolin was a moderately attractive woman but relied on carefully placed make-up to create her looks. Gary envisioned she would be unrecognizable when bare-faced. When Gary arrived, she stepped outside the front door closing it behind her — an uncommon action as compared to the others in the area who invited him in largely to pump him for information. Laura’s answers were short, barely beyond yes or no. When Gary, a bit suspicious of her behavior, asked a question already answered with the beginning phrase: “Are you sure —,” she became irritated. The interview left Gary Rygh unsettled.
At dinner, Gary shared his thoughts with his wife. Dee had also been a police officer and had good instincts. Explaining Laura Margolin’s unusual behavior, he asked, “Could she have been having an affair with Brian and killed him when he tried to break it off?”
“I wouldn’t put it past both of them to be fooling around. And Reggie Margolin is always going on fishing trips, which provides opportunities for Laura. Did the detective tell you the direction of the blade that killed Brian?”
“Yes, the knife penetrated at an angle that indicated the killer was right handed. Why?”
“A few months ago, a group of women gathered to play golf and someone had invited Laura,” Dee said. “She doesn’t play much and she was missing a few clubs in her bag, so she asked to borrow one of mine a few times during the round.”
“Ah,” Gary exclaimed, “and you’re left-handed.”
Dee added, “I did see her make a phone call out of earshot and I sensed she didn’t want anyone to know who was on the other end, but I read the last few words on her lips and she was telling the person she was speaking to that she loved him. I doubt it was Reggie.”
Frustrated at the lack of a tangible lead, Gary, nonetheless, was still bothered by Laura Margolin’s behavior when he questioned her. When he met again with the detectives, who were also disturbed by their own lack of progress, Gary asked them to check the phone records for Laura to see if she’d been contacting Brian. The answer came back quickly on Laura’s phone and Gary headed straight for the Margolins. Reggie answered to door and unlike his wife, invited Gary inside. His friendliness cooled at Gary’s question.
“Do you have access to the current records for your wife’s two cell phones?”
“I don’t understand. Laura lost her cell phone months ago and bought a replacement. She has had only one phone at a time.”
“Have you looked at your phone bill?”
“No, Laura pays the bills.”
“I think your wife will be getting a visit from police detectives soon, Gary warned. As the ex-detective predicted, the surprised Laura Margolin was visited by two plain-clothes cops. Gary sat in his car a distance away wondering if they were going to arrest her. When the police left without her in handcuffs, Gary followed their car to the precinct. The chief waved Gary into his office for the debriefing.
Ed Brennan, one of the detectives, was a burly man who spoke plainly and directly. “She admitted to an affair with the deceased and she gave him one of the cell phones so they could communicate. He gave her the money each month, telling her to set up a separate bank account and deposit the funds. When there was enough, they would run off together. She swears she didn’t know where the money came from. She also said she met with him that morning near where his body was found. Of course, she denied killing him, said they argued a bit but made up. She added she was deeply in love. Her poor husband listened to his wife detail an affair. I felt sorry for the guy.”
“Well that gives us two more suspects,” Gary said, “the Margolins. Maybe Reggie discovered his wife was screwing Brian before today.”
The other detective involved in the interview with Laura, said, “I’d be surprised. I had the same thought at first so I looked at the husband and he seemed genuinely shocked and upset as if learning about his wife’s affair for the first time. On the other hand, she seemed distraught over the death. Either they’re good actors or they’re telling the truth. I vote the latter.”
When Detective Brennan nodded, the chief said, “Let’s keep the pressure on her but we don’t have a reason to arrest the adulterous Mrs. Margolin.”
The following day, Gary decided to get back into the morning swim and met with Ralph Bauman and Bruce Phillips. After their laps and while they were dressing in the locker room, Ralph, having heard, as did the whole development, that Gary was helping the detectives, asked about the investigation. Gary was deliberately vague in answering.
Bruce chimed in, “I think his wife did it. Loretta comes across as southern belle but she’s as hard as nails and if Brian was cheating on her, look out.”
“I can’t talk about the investigation but she had an alibi; she was on the phone with another woman with an uncommon name — Sabrina, I think,” Gary said.
“Sabina?” Ralph asked.
Gary recognizing that he was incorrect, said, “That’s right.”
Bruce jumped in, “Don’t you remember where you heard that name before?”
Gary shook his head in confusion.
Ralph said, “That’s the name of Brian’s first wife. That marriage ended badly, mostly about money. Brian was cheating on her with the woman who became his second wife. Don’t you recall Brian talking about Sabina, although he usually referred to her as the bitch.”
Bruce added, “Don’t think there are many women with that name.”
After getting dressed, Gary called a detective and asked that he contact Brian’s ex-wife. The cop said he would get on it right away but before hanging up added, “We found out that his current wife has a record for assault and battery, mostly against an ex-husband and a few boyfriends.”
Gary raced to see the widow. Loretta Walters was dressed in dark clothes, put on a sorrowful face as she opened the door, and invited him in.
“Loretta, do you know Brian’s former wife, Sabina?” he asked as he sat.
The widow’s expression turned hard. “Why?” She asked in a way that conveyed anger.
“She was your alibi; that’s a strange coincidence.”
“So,” her tone was defensive. “What’s wrong with an ex-wife and wife sharing stories about the man in common.”
“I think it was more than stories. I bet you told her you thought Brian was cheating on you and she told you what the signs were, like money disappearing from your bank account.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about and Sabina confirmed that we were on the phone when Brian was killed.”
“Maybe she’ll change her story. I bet right about now the Pennsylvania police are knocking on her door. They’ll tell her she could be arrested for accessory to murder and she’ll say she didn’t know you were going to kill Brian.”
“But phone records show we were talking for a long time when Brian was stabbed, she can’t deny that,” Loretta said, panic forming in her voice.
“If the two of you planned this, you could call her, put the phone down and keep the line active, follow Brian, stab him, go back home and pick up the fake conversation. I bet she’ll confirm that.”
Loretta flew into a rage. “You bastard. You knew my husband was cheating on me and you said nothing, you and the other two.”
Gary started to deny that he knew of the affair when Loretta charged at him, her nails pointed toward him like ten small knives. The retired detective, with still good reflexes, dove out of the chair as she pounced and pushed the top of the flower-patterned seat back. She fell with the chair and Gary got up to defend himself against another charge. The move wasn’t necessary as the sound of sirens stilled the raging woman and she sat on the floor awaiting her fate.
Anxious to tell his wife about what had happened, Gary was met with an icy stare rather than congratulations. “You’re retired, remember. It’s not your job to question the chief suspect with the damning evidence. She could have had a gun or another knife.”
Gary, trying to calm his wife, said, “I didn’t have much proof for the police, only a hunch, and was bluffing about the Pennsylvania cops questioning the ex-wife. She did get pretty angry but I could and did handle her. Would you murder me if I cheated?” he asked as a joke.
“Yes, and remember I’m an ex-cop. If I kill you, I won’t leave a trail.” Her smile reflected her diminishing ire.
“Solving a murder made me hungry,” Gary said cheerfully; “let’s go out to eat.”
“Are you sure you trust me with a restaurant knife?” Dee answered, swatting his arm.
James P. Hanley has had articles published in professional journals but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. His stories have been accepted by mystery magazines such as Crimespree, Futures, Detective Mystery Stories, Savage Kick and others, as well as in mainstream/literary periodicals: MacGuffin, South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Center, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and Westerns: Western Online. His first novel, THE CALLING, was published in November, 2014 by 5 Prince Publishing.
Five of the author's short stories were previously published on the omdb! website — "The Retiring Type" (October, 2014), "Murder at First Sight" (May, 2014), "The Murder of a Fund Manager" ( September, 2012), "The Tuna Mystery" (March, 2012), and "End Times" (October, 2011).
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