Plus One


By Percy Spurlark Parker



Of the stack of mail in the in box on his desk, Homicide Detective Phil Bernardi opened the small square envelope first. Fancy gold lettering invited him to the wedding which would be held in two weeks on the first Sunday of next month. "Well, I'll be damn. My son's getting married."

His partner of four years, detective Anne Watkins looked up from her desk and stopped chewing her gum long enough to ask, "congrats are in order then?"

"I guess."

The fronts of their desks abutted each other, which was convenient when discussing cases, tossing files back and forth, or sharing a tuna sandwich.

"Who's the lucky girl?"

"According to this, someone named Veronica Hopewell."

"You've never met her?" Anne queried, one perfectly arched eyebrow raised.

"Since my ex remarried, my son and I haven't really kept in touch."

Actually it was a little bit more than that. When his marriage fell apart he'd been drinking pretty regular back then. No excuse, the blame fell on his shoulders, he knew he hadn't been much of a husband or a father for that matter. And to bypass a lot of friction, it had been easy just to let them rebuild their lives while he stayed out of their way and threw himself into his work. As his son had gotten older, besides exchanging birthday cards, they had gotten together for lunch maybe once or twice a year. It had never been what could be called a relaxing meal, cordial, with a big dose of tension was a closer description, each measuring their words. Phil knew his son had graduated from college, had been working for the past year at an accounting firm, but that was about it. Nothing about his personal life, until now.

"Well, at least he hasn't forgotten about you," Anne said.

Sort of last minute, he thought, as though they were deciding whether to invite him or not. "Probably just looking for an expensive present."

Anne shook her head, her short dark locks moved gently. "You're a cynical man, Sergeant Bernardi."

"Blame it on the job."

"That's a little too easy."

He was the senior detective but she had a subtle way of chastising him whenever she felt he'd crossed a line. She never got preachy, or nothing that could be considered insubordinate, just a word or two, the way a friend would do.

"Says I can invite a guest, like they expect I'm dating or something. How about you? Free meal, champagne."

"Fine, if I can bring Bob and the kids along." Her smile highlighted a deep dimple in her left cheek.

"Killjoy."

The phone interrupted their conversation. Anne answered it, her brown eyes getting a little wider as she listened. "Gunshot victim at the Diamond Exchange Building," she said, grabbing her purse out of her desk drawer.

He tossed the invitation back into the in box, it was time to go to work.

The Diamond Exchange was the runt of the skyscrapers in the downtown area. A narrow grayish building, it sat in the middle of the block and topped out at thirty stories, the floor above where Huntington Precious Gems had their offices.

The body was that of Chester Woodbury, one of the marketing reps. he first responding officer, a sandy head kid named Noland, whom Phil figured was about his son's age, filled them in on the details.

"The secretary, a Miss Rebecca Taylor," Noland said, referring to his note pad. "Heard a noise that sounded like it came from Woodbury's office. She tried to get in but the door was locked and Woodbury didn't respond to her knocking. She shares her secretarial duties with three other marketing reps, Fred Overmeyer, Sondra Burke, and Ted Ardmore. Miss Burke and Mr. Overmeyer offices are on either side of Mr. Woodbury's office, so her first thought was to go to Mr. Overmeyer for help. After Overmeyer didn't get a response, he kicked the door in. That's when they found Woodbury on the floor behind his desk. Gunshot to his chest, .38 revolver next the body."

Phil examined the door and door frame. Although bent, the dead bolt still protruded from the lock and slivers of wood lay on the floor from the busted door frame, the results of Overmeyer breaking in. No mistaking it, the door had been locked from the inside. There was no other exit from the office, no portion of the floor to ceiling windows that took up one wall of the office and gave a great view of the building next door were made to be opened.

As for Woodbury, he was on the floor behind his desk, an irregular circle of blood spotted his silk white shirt. The nickel-plated .38 lay less than a foot from his right hand.

"Looks like suicide to me," Anne said, with a shrug of her shoulders. "Unless you see something I don't."

"Door locked from the inside, no other means of entry. On the surface, I'd have to agree," Phil replied. "Although it always bothers me when people shoot themselves in the chest. Never seems quite right. In the temple, under the chin, surer way of getting the job done."

"You forget everyone doesn't have your acute knowledge of the human anatomy."

"Yeah, well, some things you just got to chalk up to common sense. Aside from that, it would've been easier all around if he'd left a suicide note."

"I think I may be able to explain why Chester killed himself."

The man standing in the doorway was dapper in a brown three-piece tailored suit. A diamond stick pen stabbed the center of his matching tie. His hair and mustache were equally white and ample, and had the look of a recent trip to the barber.

"Sarge, this is Mr. Huntington, the company owner." Officer Noland informed him.

Phil stepped over and took Huntington's outstretched hand.

"Can we talk in my office," Huntington asked, looking over to Woodbury's desk. "I'd rather not have to stare at poor Chester."

"Sure," Phil said, and he and Anne followed Huntington down a wide hall past a group of small cubicles and the curious glances of several employees.

Huntington's office was easily three times as large as Woodbury's, plusher carpet, more impressive desk, trimmed in dark oak with leather furnishings. His floor to ceiling window offered a view from the front of the building and down to the busy street below.

Huntington seated himself behind his desk and they followed suit taking the chairs across from him. He started, stopped, started and stopped once more, took a long thin cigar out of a humidor, looked at it for a moment then put it back.

"Maybe I can get the ball rolling," Phil said. "Did you know Mr. Woodbury had a gun on the premises?"

"Yes," Huntington said, clearing his throat. "All of the reps are licensed to carry firearms. It's for their protection since they're frequently transporting gems"

"I see. And what exactly is your theory or Mr. Woodbury's death?"

"I'm afraid I precipitated Chester's suicide."

A confession of sorts Phil thought. "And just how did you do that?"

Huntington took a breath. "I had a meeting this morning with my four sales reps. We just concluded an internal audit and discovered approximately a hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds are missing. The theft has been narrowed down to one of the four reps. I'd given the guilty party until the close of business today to confess. Which naturally would've resulted with the loss of their job, plus the forfeiture of any salary and bonus monies they had coming. But no jail time."

"Seems pretty lenient."

"It would've avoided any notoriety and maintained our clients' confidence in the firm, which was the main thing. Otherwise I'd be forced to have a full scale investigation and I promised prosecution for the guilty party."

"So, you're saying Woodbury was responsible for the missing diamonds?" Anne asked. Somewhere between the station house and the diamond exchange she'd gotten rid of her gum.

"It appears that way. Why else would he kill himself?"

"Why indeed," Phil muttered. "Taking your first offer would seem a wiser way of going about things, but I guess that's just me."

"Do you think there's a chance of keeping this out of the press?" Huntington asked.

"We don't control the media," Phil said, looking over to Anne to see if she had anything to add. She'd been writing in her note pad. When she didn't respond he turned back to Huntington. "The best we can do is try wrapping this thing up as quickly as possible. I'd say all we need to do now is get statements from the other reps and the secretary, and that should do it."

"I'll be happy to get this matter behind us," Huntington said. "Feel free to use my office."

Phil opted for meeting in the conference room, it was equally as plush as Huntington's office with a table long enough to accommodate twelve, and high back leather chairs. If he could've figured out a way of getting one of the chairs back to the station house, he would've done it in a heartbeat.

Anne sat on his right and across from him, left to right sat the three reps, Ted Ardmore, Sondra Burke, Fred Overmeyer, and the secretary Rebecca Taylor.

"This whole day has been just awful," Ardmore said. He appeared to be in his late fifties, balding, frameless glasses; just the hint of a mustache. "First Mr. Huntington accuses one of us of stealing, and now this..."

Sondra Burke had been around the block a couple of times herself. She wasn't as old as Ardmore but Phil tagged her as a pro, in the business world that is. Shoulder length auburn hair, a keen nose and impeccable make-up. She sat more poised than the others, perhaps eager for the opportunity to defend herself.

Fred Overmeyer and Rebecca Taylor sat close together, the arms of their chairs touching. Phil pegged him as the flash of the organization, the stud, the charmer. Thick eyebrows, clean shaven, his looks alone probably kept his sales figures in the higher brackets.

Buxom was the polite word for the secretary, blonde, cute with just the slightest upturned chin. She'd been crying off and on through the whole procedure, dabbing at her redden eyes with a tissue as a tear escaped down her right cheek.

Phil had them repeat their accounts of what transpired as Anne filled her note pad.

"I heard a muffled noise, a bang or something like that," the secretary said, folding her hands on the table as she composed herself. "I wasn't sure at first but I thought it came from Mr. Woodbury's office. I knocked, then tried the door knob. When I couldn't get in I alerted Fred...Mr. Overmeyer."

"I tried the door myself," Overmeyer said, reaching out and putting his hand on top of Miss Taylor's, patting gently. "When he didn't answer I broke in."

"Right away?" Phil asked.

Overmeyer nodded, "pretty much."

"Were you thinking Mr. Woodbury might've done some harm to himself?"

"He was really bummed out after our meeting with Mr. Huntington. Knowing Chester, well, he wasn't the type to stand up to challenges."

"He was the weakest rep in our group," Sondra Burke added. "He did a lot of grumbling to himself on the way back from the meeting. If this missing diamonds thing hadn't come up, I'm guessing the ol' man would've gotten rid of him anyway."

"Is that the general consensus?"

"I'd say Sondra was right on target," Ardmore agreed.

There were other questions Phil could've asked, but he reminded himself he wasn't conducting a murder investigation. This was a suicide. He could ask questions all day long but it wouldn't change the facts. The door had been locked from the inside, and there was no other way in or out of the office.

* * *

Back at the station house Phil got himself a cup of black coffee and plopped down at his desk. Landing on the stiff cushion he thought again of the comfortable chair in Huntington's conference room. Maybe if he was ever able to save up a month's pay he could afford one.

"Nice to have an easy one, hey, Sarge?" Anne said, working on a fresh stick of gum.

He nodded absentmindedly. "The rewards of living a good clean life," he said. But he was thinking of Woodbury. Faced with being exposed as a thief and facing jail time, he had taken his own life. Phil could understand being in that position, having everything cave in on you until it seemed that was the only way out. He'd reached that point himself once, when he knew his drinking had made a shambles of his life. But he hadn't been able to do it. With his revolver to his temple, he hadn't been able to pull the trigger. It was his turning point, when he'd realized living was more important than boozing it up all day.

A few more letters had been dropped on top of the wedding invitation. He dug it out of the pile giving it a fresh read. Staying off the booze hadn't been easy at first, but he'd made it, gotten his personal life more or less in order. Other women, sure, but nothing that lasted for any significant period. He figured he was just one of those people who were meant to be alone. But with all this self awareness, there was something he'd been putting off, something he knew he should've done years ago. He'd never apologized to his ex or his son for the ass he'd been. Maybe it wasn't too late.

Anne dropped her note pad on her desk. "Give any more thought on who your plus one is going to be?"

"What?"

"Your plus one. You know, the one you're taking with you to your son's wedding?"

Phil dwelled on the phrase a bit. On the job for over twenty years, and it still amazed him how one thing could trigger something else. "I think our suicide just became a murder."

Anne frowned. "How'd you figure that? The guy was in a locked room."

"Right. And from all indications he was the perfect patsy. No one at the firm seemed to think too highly of him. So if he killed himself it had to be an admission of guilt. But suppose the real thief, our killer, had a plus one? A helping hand. He kills Woodbury, then the plus one locks herself in the office so when he breaks in all the evidence will fit their story."

Anne smiled slightly. "Cute. So, you're saying the killer and his Plus one are..."

"Overmeyer and the secretary. I'm sure you noticed how touchy-feely they were. I'm guessing there's been a little office mumbo going on for some time. Plus, we've been going along with their concocted story as fact. I think my version makes a better fit." He stood, tucking the invitation into his jacket pocket. "Looks like we've got a couple of arrests to make."


Percy Spurlark Parker is a published mystery writer (since 1972), a former MWA V.P. and a current member of PWA. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Woman's World, and several anthologies.


Copyright 2012 Percy Spurlark Parker. 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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