We visit Albert and Bev Smythe on Paradise Court and almost meet our end.
Letitia and I decide to drive out on Sunday when the police will have finished questioning Winsome’s son and when, on the proverbial day of rest, people like her son and daughter-in-law will likely stay in bed until noon sleeping off hangovers. Frances wants to come, but her boss at Walgreen’s needs her to begin organizing Hallmark Halloween cards, a holiday that’s over two months away – but that’s the way retail is today.
I take my time walking over to Letitia’s house where I am certain she’ll be waiting outside watching birds. No one I knew had ever been inside her house, and her housemate Evelyn was someone none of us had ever laid eyes on. “What if she doesn’t exist?” Harriet asked one day. “She’s there,” replied Jeanette. “Some of us have seen her. Not lately. I guess she’s just a recluse, poor thing.”
It’s Letitia I felt sorry for. If there is an Evelyn, and I’m still not sure there is, she never goes anywhere with Letitia. She has no social energy, and so Letitia, who loves small animals, interesting people and motorcycles is pretty much on her own.
“We’ll case the place first,” she suggests as she rises to greet me, leaning on a mahogany cane instead of a walker. The walker would probably make her seem more frail, I think, and besides she’s dressed too neatly. Her cardigan is too expensive and too clean. Her slacks are neatly creased. I’m wearing green jeans and sporting a purple sweat jacket. I just hope we look doddering enough to seem harmless.
“Absolutely,” I respond. “And we still haven’t decided on our cover.”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking. It’s probably a bad idea, you know—to lie. Not morally sound, I mean.”
“It’s for a good cause. We may catch a murderer.” We climb into the car, an easy task for me but a difficult one for her.
“Not likely. I keep worrying, Lily, are you sure we’re not just satisfying some nasty curious itch?”
“I suppose we could be. But you make it sound like one of the seven deadlies and I don’t think it is. We can hardly go out, introduce ourselves, ask for a cup of tea and interview them: ‘We were just curious—did you kill your mother?’ You’re getting cold feet, aren’t you?”
She drives slowly through Garden Path where the speed limit is 15 mph—which gives a driver ample time to think about where they’re headed and whether there’s really any reason to go there. “About our cover—we could be missionaries from a local church,” she suggests, as she exits the Park and heads out on to the busy roadway.
“You think they may want to repent?” I respond.
“Or sellers of cemetery plots.”
“Worse. From my own past experience lying, I think we should make our lies simple so that we don’t have trouble keeping track of them.”
“I had no idea you were an experienced liar.”
I ignore her. “We should just be who we are, friends of Winsome’s, full of sorrow and sympathy for them.”
“Who happen to be nosing about? They’ll like that, won’t they?”
“No, of course they won’t, but it’ll make them slower to tell us to ‘Get lost.’ Look, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Whether or not they had anything to do with the murder, we can assume that they’ll want any money Winsome might have left. Right?”
“You know she didn’t have money. It’s not kind to speak badly of the dead, but she was a whiner, and what she whined about most was having no money. She wanted her children to look after her in her impoverished old age. I think her daughter was even paying her ground rent.”
“Which is why her children will be doubly pleased when we tell them what she told us one day at aquacize—that she planned to leave a substantial sum of money for each of them, and that she thought it would come as a total surprise because they were sure she had nothing.”
“She never said anything of the kind.”
“Of course not. But to get on with it. As I recall, she said she wanted to be remembered kindly. And we, being fond of her, wanted him to know so that the money can be collected and shared, so that no policeman can abscond with it, or sibling run off with it and the other never even know about it.”
“I like that. I knew there was a reason to bring you along on this trip. But if he has any sense at all, won’t he wonder why we didn’t go see his sister first? She hasn’t got tattoos and a criminal history. Wouldn’t a couple of old ladies prefer to alert a sweet daughterly mother of three and not some delinquent who, dollars to doughnuts, would never tell his sister if he found the money first?”
“Simple. First, there’s no reason we should know that his sister is any better daughter than he is a son. We’ve never seen him until now, and even now his appearance doesn’t ring our alarm bells. We’re decomposing old ladies. Secondly, we don’t like to drive any more—you can’t hear very well and I can’t see—and he lives closer by. That’s why we didn’t go to the sister.”
“They’ll want to be rid of us so they can race to the house and try to find the money, or some notice of it.”
“Yes, but they probably won’t be able to get in. Last I saw, the police had cordoned off the house as well as the murder site.”
“We can let them know that, of course.”
“Maybe. It’s only right that we do.”
“So there will be no reason for them to rush off, but how will we get them to converse with us? Young harum scarums of that kind don’t like to chat with people like us, you know.”
“We have information that they want.”
“Like the location of the money?”
“Not the exact location. Just some clues. A bottom drawer in the basement. Her underwear drawer. But really, where would an old lady like Winsome hide a bundle of cash? Where would you?”
“I flatter myself I’m nothing like Winsome. I wouldn’t give the man a dime.”
“How about the cookie jar?”
“Does she have one?”
“I don’t know; you don’t know. I’ll bet they don’t know either.”
“What do we hope he’ll say?”
“Well, it wouldn’t do us much good to hear his alibi. I’m sure the police are already checking that out.”
“I’d like to get him to say something honest about how he felt about her. We should look for motive.”
“I’ve got my trusty tape recorder in my jacket pocket. All I have to do is click it on.”
“Ohmygod! What if he sees it?”
“He won’t unless he frisks us. Dear god, I hope it won’t come to that. I’ve practiced with it. Don’t worry.”
“Oh, sure. She’s wired and she asks me not to worry.”
Letitia drives like my sister with whom I’ve never liked driving—alternating the accelerator and the brakes in a continual slow—go—slow—go. She must have been traumatized by her accident. Whatever the reason, I’m glad when she spots a makeshift flower stand on the corner of Fulton Road, and says, “Let’s bring flowers.”
Not something your usual detective would do, I think, but something old women might. She pulls up at the stand and we buy a cheap bouquet of carnations: red, white and yellow. Soon we’re following Google’s directions to Paradise Court, turning left on to Angels Smile Road and then right on to Purgatory Lane. The area is only recently country and not yet quite town. There may have been mostly trailers here ten or twenty years ago, but now the land is more expensive and a richer class of tenants have built small houses on large lots of dry scrub. Three heifers, their teats swollen with milk, are hanging out under a willow tree in one yard; in another, horses are swaying lazily in the afternoon sun and thinking about whatever it is horses think about. A black and white cat is patrolling a fruiting vineyard; children are jumping on a trampoline, shooting up into the air like springy-legged young animals. No trailers. We thought Albert Smythe must live in one but perhaps we were wrong. Maybe he hasn’t any tattoos. Maybe he’s a good guy whose mother never understood him. How sad it is, I think, that she’s no longer alive to enjoy a day as beautiful as this one.
Paradise Court is a short loop at the end of Heavenly Lane with two trailers and a bunch of scrub oak. Letitia stops the car short of turning on to it. “I thought there would be houses closer by, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I did.”
“Are we certain we want to do this? What if he did kill his own mother?”
“Then we really have to do it.”
Letitia sighs. “This is crazy. Let’s go be crazy.” She turns on to Paradise Court and drives slowly to where the sun-blanched trailers stand. Something metal is loose on one of them and rattles in a meandering breeze. She pulls up next to a rusted Ford Escort of no particular color. “Someone must be here,” she murmurs. She turns the motor off and we sit there, uncertain of our next move. The place reminds me of a B movie I must have seen. I know there were bodies in it; there were always bodies. In the car trunk, buried out back behind the trailer, down the road in the woods.
“I’ll go see if someone’s here,” I say, and pick up the flowers. No bodies, I remind myself. The body’s already found.
“Yes, please,” she says.
When I slam the car door shut, a dog begins barking. Undoubtedly vicious. Probably a pit bull. Maybe this is a foolish idea. “Shut up, if you know what’s good for you, you godforsaken mutt!” shouts someone inside the nearest trailer. She sounds more dangerous than the dog. For an instant, I turn on my heel and look back at Letitia whose face has paled to paper white. Visions of knife-wielding, tattooed perps are rushing across my eyes, and I’m ready to fly to the car and be off. But I stop short, walk to the door, and knock before there’s time to conjure up more.
The dog barks louder; the woman yells louder; I knock louder. Finally, a gap-toothed bleached blond with a big face opens the door and scowls at me. She’s put the barking dog in another room but I still have to shout to be heard over the noise. “Mrs. Smythe?” I say and lead with the carnations. I don’t wait for her to say yes or no. “We’re friends of your mother-in-law’s. We wanted to extend our condolences and tell you something we thought you should know.”
“Albert! Hey, Albert, wake up,” she yells towards the back of the trailer. “Somebody’s come with flowers.” She turns to me, grinning now. “That’s so sweet of you, dear,” she gushes and takes the carnations in both hands. “Please come in. I’ll get him up.”
“I have a friend with me,” I murmur.
“The more the merrier,” she says, laughing at her cleverness and, I guess, pleased for the diversion we are about to provide.
Letitia is struggling to get out of the car, and before I get to her succeeds in standing. Leaning into her cane on one side, nearly falling to the other, she waves to and fro like grass in a wind. Smiling tentatively, she says, “She seems friendly. Is the dog okay?”
“I hope she’s gone to throttle it,” I respond. We make our way to the door and tentatively step over the transom into the shadowed, musky interior of the trailer. It smells of cheap whiskey and stale cigarettes, but Letitia and I had come prepared for a stench. We aren’t ready for Albert who stumbles into the living room, pulling his pants up over his white fleshy belly. His thinning hair sticks up like a nimbus around his round stubbly face. His eyes are small; they might be mean too, but they’re hard to make out. His tattoos—there are many of them, mostly of scantily clad women, snakes, swords, eagles—cover his arms and shoulders and trail across his hairy chest like an angora scarf. It’s hard to imagine him giving poor Winsome a hug or laughing at the bad jokes she would sometimes tell. It’s far easier to imagine him killing her. Of course, I think, he didn’t come from the womb this way. Once he was small and his round face was dimpled with childhood. Then he grew. How horrible it must have been for Winsome to watch him grow into a huge sweaty bald man. Even more horrible to watch his skin erupt into the cartoons that make his arms and neck seem warped, the art gallery of a lunatic.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m Smythe. Who’re you?”
“Mr. Smythe,” I begin….
“Nice posies, ladies. Nice of you to bring them. But you must know that me and my old lady weren’t exactly close.”
“Really, Mr. Smythe. We didn’t know that. I’m Lily Barry and this is Letitia Waters.”
“Yeah. Howdayado,” he reaches out his hand, and we take turns shaking it. It’s limp and damp.
“Hey, you idiot,” his wife says, returning from somewhere, I guess the kitchen, “Have them sit down. Can’t you see one of them’s a cripple? Show some manners.”
“Yeah, sit down. My apologies. Sorry we’re not done up for visitors.” He waves in the direction of a yellow couch covered with newspapers on one end and a balled-up shirt nestling like a lost animal in a lair of dog hair on the other. We move some of the newspapers and squinch down into the space.
“Would you ladies like some tea or coffee? Put on your shirt, Albert. You ain’t that handsome.”
Albert grins at us—he has fewer teeth than his wife—retrieves his shirt and pulls it over his head.
“No, thank you,” says Letitia. “We just ate lunch.”
Thinking all the time: “I’ll have something—coffee maybe. I don’t need cream or sugar.” I’m afraid that if we don’t eat or drink, we’ll have to leave before we learn anything.
“Yeah. Good. Coming right up,” she says and starts to head for the kitchen.
I click on the tape recorder. “Mrs. Smythe…”
She stops at the kitchen door.
“No, no. Bev. Call me Bev.”
“Bev. She was so happy, Winsome was, about you and Albert getting married.”
“Her death must have come as a shock even if you didn’t get along with her,” says Letitia.
“She and I would have gotten along okay,” says Bev. “It was her and Albert that had the problem. I’ll go get your coffee. You want some, Albert?”
He nods absently. He’s trying to study us but he keeps blurring over with hangover.
“Mr. Smythe, we thought you should know something your mother said to us a few weeks ago,” Letitia announces, smiling sweetly at him. Then, realizing that he doesn’t recognize his name when he’s “Mister,” she tries another approach— “Albert?”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Well, we were in the same aquacize group as her,” she begins.
“Water aerobics. Exercises in the swimming pool.”
Albert begins to chortle, and haphazardly slaps at his knees.
“Is that so funny?” Letitia says, rising to the bait.
“I was just picturing you ladies all half-naked, especially my old lady, bumpin’ and grindin’ together. Good God, what a sight you must be!”
Letitia’s face is reddening. I don’t want either of us to get knifed. “We didn’t come here to amuse you, Mr. Smythe,” I declare. “I can see that we should have gone to your sister with our information.” I stand up. “Come, Letitia.”
Bev appears in the kitchen doorway with two mugs. “Jeezus Christ, Albert. You’re the stupidest bastard. Why did I marry you? Excuse my language, ladies, but he’s such a jerk. Please stay. Albert, apologize, you idiot.”
Albert blinks. “Yeah, sure. I was just kidding. I’m sorry. You ladies don’t have much of a sense of humor,” he adds glumly.
“Please sit down again, ladies. We’re glad to have you here. It was a shock losing Winsome. He’s been drinkin’ ever since he heard. Forgive him. I don’t know why because Winsome was such a lady, but her boy just came up crude.”
Letitia stops struggling to stand up and I sit back down and smile gratefully at Bev.
“You said black, didn’t you, Lily? Can I call you that?” She reaches out to me with a chipped mug decorated by a buxom blond advertising Lucifer’s Garage.
“Yes, of course.” I’m praying silently that the cup isn’t as full of contagion as it seems. Something is growing around on the inside where the handle joins it. When I was young I would have assumed I’d survive it if I’d even noticed, but my constitution has grown more delicate with the years.
“Now, what were you trying to tell us, Lily? Letitia?” Bev says sweetly. “Did I say that name right?”
“Perfectly,” says Letitia cooly. She’s still angry.
“A few weeks ago your mother said aloud to the whole group that she intended to leave a sizable legacy for her two children. She thought they would be surprised since they had no idea she had any money.”
Bev is looking at me quizzically. I can see her trying to think. Why would Winsome have left anything to Albert? Why would we want to tell him about it? Why hadn’t we gone first to his sister?
“That’s what she said, huh,” growls Albert. “A few weeks ago I asked her for money, just a loan, and she said she didn’t have a cent to her name. How come suddenly she’s got something?”
Letitia and I shrug almost in unison. “We wouldn’t know,” Letitia says softly.
“Why would you come here?” asks Bev. “Why not his sister? She was her mom’s baby. Nice clean girl with kids. Why’d you come tell this loser?”
“It’s embarrassing,” says Letitia, “but neither of us really likes to drive anymore. I can’t hear too well and Lily can’t see all that well. You were close by. Winsome’s daughter is a longer drive.”
“And besides we didn’t know anything about either of you,” I add. “Winsome never said much except that none of you got along.”
“She got it right there,” mutters Albert. “And Candy hates my guts almost as much as my old lady did.”
“Where is this money?” asks Bev.
“We don’t know,” says Letitia.
“She never said,” I add. “We thought you would know where she might hide a sum of that kind. We don’t know her house or her habits but we figured you would. Maybe her bank, maybe under a mattress, maybe a cookie jar?”
“Look ladies, I hope the old lady left me something. She owed me. But you gotta understand, she hated me. She let me in her house once, maybe twice. She loved her damn cat more than me. Bev called to tell her when we got married. I guess she was happy about that. But I don’t really give a damn.”
“Mr. Smythe!” exclaims Letitia, horrified. “You make it sound like you’re happy she’s dead!”
“Are you hard of hearing, lady? I don’t care. I don’t give a rat’s ass if she’s dead or alive. I just don’t want to have anything to do with her.”
“Poor little boy,” says Bev, mocking him. He glares at her and his eyes get so small they almost disappear. Not a happy marriage, I think, but maybe they deserve each other. “I wanted him to make peace with her,” Bev tells us. “It seemed to me that she had a lot of making up to do since she put him in jail the last time. It was way past pay back time.”
“Winsome put Albert in jail?” I ask.
“Not to wash Albert’s dirty linen in front of you ladies, but you did bother to come and tell us about the money. He’s been in trouble from day one. When she needs something she uses him, and then she throws him away like a snotty kleenex. You’d never think he was her own flesh and blood. Yeah, I don’t think she was exactly a mom. She was a bitch, excuse my language, and I’m glad to see her go, especially if she really did leave him something. If she did, maybe I can begin to get him straightened out.”
I can almost hear Letitia thinking the same thing I am—maybe Albert didn’t do it. On the other hand, Bev….
“She didn’t seem like a bad sort of person,” I say, hoping to egg her on. “She was always very pleasant.”
“Oh, yeah. Real nice. You think Albert’s language is bad. You should have heard her talk to him. Or about him, that was worse.”
“Not to us.”
“No, no, of course not. Not to you. But to me and him. I’m sorry, ladies, I’m sorry to disappoint. But she was not a nice woman. It’s good for Albert she’s gone.”
“If you felt that way about her, why did you call her to tell her about the wedding? She was so, so happy about it.”
“I was hoping that she’d be different now that I’d gone and married her big bad boy. I thought she might have changed for real this time. But then we saw her…some people just don’t change.”
We? When did “we” see her, I wonder. If I can just be clever enough…. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “She seemed so thrilled about the marriage when she talked to us on Wednesday, just before she was killed. So you and she had an argument that day?”
Bev stares at me. I can see it’s occurred to her that we may not be as harmless as we look. “Okay, ladies, that’s enough. Thanks for telling us about the money. Albert and me have things to do.” She gets up and, as I raise my coffee cup to my lips, she takes it. Her fingernails are torn, as if she’s been in a fight.
Letitia decides to take the hint. “Yes, we must be off, too. Mustn’t we, Lilly.”
“Yes. I guess so,” I say. I’m having trouble hiding a grin—I’ve gotten a rise out of Bev. Nevertheless, Letitia is right. Bev and Albert are scary. We must be off. Quickly. Letitia is already at the door, dangling her cane over the door sill, searching for the ground below.
“Here, let me help you,” I say, pushing past her, stepping down onto the ground and taking her by her free hand. “Thank you for the coffee.” I look up. Bev is glaring down at me. She’s a big woman, she could take me in a dimestore minute. Because of Letitia’s condition, we have to move slowly to the car; I can feel her elbow quivering as I take it and guide her over the rubble. Next time, I think, I’ll look for a younger, fitter partner. Bev is still in the doorway, her big face contorted with a frown, watching us. She’s trying to remember exactly what she said. I begin rehearsing what I’ll say to her if she comes after us. “What we heard wasn’t enough to convict you,” I begin. I won’t mention the tape recorder, of course. “We’re every bit as harmless as we look,” I continue. “Don’t worry about us.”
“Well,” said Letitia as we drive away. “You almost got us killed.”
“Not nearly,” I reply. “But I did upset her, didn’t I?”
“Do you think she did it?”
“Chances are good,” I respond, digging out the tape recorder. After a quarter-mile of silence, I rewind a bit of the tape, and play it with the volume on high. “But when we saw her…. some people just don’t change,” plays back. We can hear the dog panting at the door in the background. “That’s good, hey?”
“Yes,” she smiles. “Why don’t we go get a better cup of coffee at Starbucks?”
“I think we should both be careful,” she says. “I mean keep our doors locked. Keep an eye out.”
On our next post: The investigation continues in the hot tub with an examination of the motives of Burridge Fowler!