I made coffee and Nick and I sat down at my kitchen table together. “So where are we in this investigation?” I asked, bowing to his knowledge of how to investigate stuff. My job as a proposal manager didn’t give me much in the way of criminal investigation experience.
Though some of the people I worked with should definitely be in prison, if only based on their lack of scruples and anything even remotely resembling a sense of right and wrong.
He sipped his coffee and closed his eyes. “Oh. That’s good.”
“Thanks,” I chirped, strangely pleased. “I grind the beans myself.”
He took another sip and settled his mug onto the table. “Let’s talk about what we know.”
“Okay.” I lifted a finger. “Hold on.” I grabbed the small pad I used to write my grocery and to do lists off the island counter, along with the mechanical pencil sitting on top of it. I sat back down and flipped my current grocery list over, giving us a fresh page. “Go.”
“We know Oscar Greenbottom suffered death by Ralph the Gnome by falling or being pushed from Mrs. Mouskawitz’s second-floor window.”
“Billy Mouskawitz’s bedroom,” I added helpfully.
“Right. Which may or may not mean something. His mother admitted he doesn’t always live there. It’s possible, though not probable, he hasn’t been in that room for a while and didn’t know about the stuff.”
I nodded. “But somebody was in that room with Oscar and that someone may have fired that gun you found in the drawer.” I frowned, realizing we’d left the gun behind. “Yikes. We should have brought that with us.”
Nick shook his head. “We need to leave it in place as evidence.”
“But the killer might shoot somebody with it.”
Nick gave me a smile, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a handful of bullets. “Not without these.”
“He probably has more bullets,” I said very reasonably.
“I’m sure he…or she…does. But there won’t be any spur of the moment killings. I checked the rest of the drawer and there were no boxes of ammo in there so if there’s more they’re being kept somewhere else.”
“Okay. That’s good. So, moving on…”
“We know whoever killed Oscar dumped his body on your porch, probably to hide him and/or put distance between his murder and Mrs. M’s house.”
“Which would seem to imply the killer cares about the old woman.”
“Or he…or she…is just protecting the stash in Billy’s room.”
I inclined my head, acceding the point, scribbling furiously on the notepad.
“We also know that the deadly Ralph was hidden in that house behind you, most likely also to put distance between Oscar’s death and Mrs. M.”
I stopped scribbling. “Okay, about that. Why is the killer storing stuff at Mrs. M’s house when they have an entire empty house one street over?”
He shrugged. “Could be lots of reasons. If it’s Billy, he might be hiding his cut at his mom’s house. Or they might have started out using the bedroom and grew out of it, realizing they needed more room to stash their haul.”
“Or they could have reason to believe the house behind me was compromised.”
He grinned. “Look at you speaking cop.”
I twisted my lips to keep from grinning back. “Shut up.”
Nick’s smile slid away. “Moving on. We know Billy M hired the gardener after, in his words, taking over his mother’s finances. To me, looking at a guy like Billy, that means he’s probably using her forgetfulness to make a grab at her money. I wouldn’t doubt at this point he’s put the house and any savings she might have in his name too.”
Alarm flared, making it suddenly hard to breathe. “Poor Mrs. M.”
He nodded. “We’ll make sure he doesn’t get away with it.”
I wasn’t sure how “we” were going to do that but Nick made the statement with such conviction I believed him.
“And we know, according to the gardener, that Billy arrives regularly at the house with a truck bed full of boxes and carries them into the house. That seems like pretty ironclad proof that he’s part of the thievery ring.”
“Yeah,” I said, chewing on the eraser of my mechanical pencil.
He frowned. “Why do I get the feeling you aren’t completely on board with that idea?”
“I don’t know. It just seems too easy, doesn’t it? If we were able to figure it out so quickly, why haven’t the police?”
Nick’s lips compressed around words he seemed reluctant to say. Finally, he shook his head. “Maybe we’re just that good.”
I stared at him a long moment. Finally, I asked him the question that had been tumbling around in my brain almost from the first moment we met over Oscar’s body. “You didn’t just stumble into this when you saw me bending over Oscar, did you?”
He returned my stare for a long moment and then slowly shook his head. “I’ve been watching this ring for a while, trying to figure out who’s behind it.”
“And you already suspected Billy Mouskawitz?”
His gaze slid away and I had my answer. “That’s why you were at the house today. You were questioning Mrs. M about Billy.”
“I was. Lot of good it did me. The woman’s like Dory the fish in Finding Nemo.”
When I looked confused his eyes went wide. “Seriously? You’ve never seen Finding Nemo?”
I shrugged. “I don’t have any kids, or nieces or nephews.”
He was so disgusted it almost made me grin. “We need to fix that ASAP. Suffice it to say, the character of Dory was probably inspired by Mrs. Mouskawitz.”
Nick hesitated for a moment and then stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Nick Bednick.”
I grasped his hand, finding it warm and strong. “Dee Prince. I believe we’re neighbors.” Then it occurred to me he might have lied about that. “We are neighbors, aren’t we?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t have lied about that, Dee.
I just arched a brow.
He sipped his coffee and settled it back onto the table. Then he looked up at me and blinked in surprise. “Hello. Have we met?”
My mouth fell open before I realized what he was telling me. “Dory?”
He nodded. “She never met a friend because ten seconds after she met you she forgot and you became a stranger. Just like Mrs. M.”
I thought about that for a beat, wondering if I should voice my doubts. Then I realized I absolutely should. That was what our current exercise was about. “Have you ever…” I chewed my lip. “I mean. What if she’s not really Dory?”
“You think she’s faking it?”
“I don’t know. She could be, right?”
I got the impression he hadn’t considered the possibility. Probably because she seemed old and frail. People tended to overlook elderly people, assuming they were too weak to do anything illegal.
In my experience, that was a big mistake.
“I guess that’s possible,” Nick said. He thought about it for another minute and then nodded. “You’re right. We need to keep that as a possibility. In the meantime, her son looks really good for the murder and the thievery, so let’s start there.”
“First, we need to get a look at the back of his truck. If we’re lucky he’s got stolen stuff in there.”
I nodded. “Okay. Do you want me to create a distraction?”
He eyed me, looking skeptical. “Like what kind of distraction?”
I chewed on my eraser for another minute, listening to the distant roar of a mower. After a few minutes, I had a lightbulb moment. “I’ve got it.”
“Talk to me.”
Shaking my head, I pushed my chair back. “Just trust me. You go out and wait for the commotion to start and then check out his truck.”
“I’d rather know what you have in mind.”
So would I. “I don’t have the details down in my mind. But I’ve got the outlines of a plan. Just trust me.”
He stood up, glowering at me, clearly unhappy being left in the dark. I had very little sympathy for him since he’d left me feeling my way through a totally unlit experience from the beginning. I flipped my hand toward the door, indicating that he should leave, and then waited for him to exit my house before moving into action.
My laundry room was a jumble of piles and boxes. All the stuff I never bothered to unpack was shoved in there, with only a space big enough for me to squeeze through leading to the washer and dryer. The counters along the sides that had been handily provided for folding laundry, had never seen the backside of a single towel, but there was a much-used box with tape, wire and rope that was battered from my digging around in it. I grabbed the whole box and carried it into my kitchen, looking for the length of thin rope I thought I’d coiled up and left on the bottom. It was where I’d remembered packing it, along with a shoe box filled with clothespins I thought might give my ruse an authentic touch. I threw them both into my battered laundry basket, piled a few clean towels from the dryer on top of the mess, and hurried out the back door just as Tony Marrow sped along the flower bed at the side of Mrs. Mouskawitz’s house.
He smiled and waved as he expertly swung the big mower around the tree shading the front corner of her yard, just over the fence line.
I waved back and headed for the poles at the side of my yard. The poles had stood sentinel just inside the boundary line where my backyard met Mrs. M’s backyard since I moved into the house. I’d always meant to string some line between them and hand my towels outside rather than flinging them into the energy-guzzling clothes dryer. Unfortunately, efficiency and laziness always seemed to win out over economy and eco-friendly.
It was as good a time as any to become a better citizen.
I stretched to my tippy toes and did a sloppy knot tying the rope to the first pole. Then huffing and puffing from the effort, I walked it to the second pole. I couldn’t quite reach the top of the second pole to loop the rope around it so I could feed it back, to form two lines for hanging.
I jumped, trying over and over again to loop the rope and missing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tony watching me with interest.
After a moment, I heard the mower stop and the soft sound of Tony’s boots heading toward me. I knew when he’d crossed from Mrs. M’s yard to mine because the gentle shush of boots sinking into dense grass became the harsh crunch of rubber meeting hard-pack dirt and stony dirt. “Need some help?” He asked kindly.
“Oh, yes! Please!” I gushed happily. “I need to be about three inches taller.”
While Tony was barely taller than I was, it didn’t stop him from puffing up his chest. “I’ll do it. I have a laundry line in my yard too. The towels smell so fresh when they come inside.”
I nodded, eyeing the mower. It was one of those zero turn things that looked complicated to use. “Nice mower.”
Tony tied the second line off for me and turned to his resting equipment. “Commercial grade. It works great.”
“I’ve been thinking about getting a zero turn. Do you recommend them?”
He shrugged. “It might be better just to hire me.”
His entrepreneurial aggressiveness aside, I really needed Tony to go with my ploy. “I’m considering that as an option. But if it’s not too hard to use one of those, maybe I’ll just do it myself. It’ll force me to get outside once in a while.” I gave him a weak laugh and his gaze turned shrewd. “You ever driven one of these?”
“Oh sure. My…” I thought fast. “My, um cousin has one. He let me drive it a few times.” I walked over and eyed the mower as if I were sizing it up. It was a little smaller than this one. Without asking for permission, I climbed onto the seat. My calf touched the metal side of the mower bed and I jumped. “Yikes! That’s hot.” Of course it wasn’t, but I needed to keep Tony off balance.
Tony’s gaze was riveted to my hand as I rubbed my bare calf. His eyes were glazing.
I decided it was a good time to go for the kill. “Would you mind if I tried driving it. Just for a minute?”
He flinched and then frowned. “Oh, I…”
“I promise I’ll be careful with it.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Nick peeking around the corner of the house. I put my hand behind my back and flicked my fingers to tell him to get moving. I was pretty sure I could keep Tony occupied for a few more minutes. But short of crashing his mower, I wasn’t going to be able to distract him much longer than that.
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. This is a very expensive piece of equipment.”
I sighed sadly. “Okay. Well, I guess I’ll just finish up over there, then.”
I plodded unhappily past Tony. He stepped toward me as I went to pass by. “I’d be happy to mow your lawn for you today, though. As a free sample. So you can decide if it would be worth it to hire me.”
Now he was talking. “Really? You’d do that?”
The smile he gave me was slightly disturbing. “For you? Of course.”
Inspiration struck. “It’s a deal. But if I’m going to hire you to mow my lawn from now on, I won’t need the mower I have. I’ll probably sell it. Since you’re an expert in this kind of thing. Do you think you could look at my mower and let me know how much it’s worth?”
The leering smile widened. “Sure. I could do that.”
“Good. Come on then. It’s in that shed at the back of my property.”
Fifteen minutes later, Nick walked up as Tony stood staring down at my mower, struggling to come up with an appropriate response.
Nick had no such problem. “You’re kidding me, right?”
I bristled. “What’s your deal?”
“Is that a toy?”
“It’s a mower.”
“No,” Nick said, “That’s not a mower. A mower runs on gasoline. There are no extension cords on mowers. You don’t plug them into the wall. That’s a kid’s toy.”
Color filled my face. “It’s eco-friendly.”
Finally, Tony, who’d been trying oh so hard to be diplomatic to that point, snorted out a laugh. “You do know where electricity comes from, right?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at them both. “Never mind. I’ll figure out what to charge for it myself.”
Tony turned away, shaking his head, his laughter trailed him all the way across my yard. “Better yet, I’ll just keep using my real mower to cut my own lawn,” I shouted after him.
He threw back his head and guffawed.
Possibly not the response I’d been going for.
I turned a petulant glare on Nick. “Thanks bunches.”
He shook his head. “No problem. By the way, Billy M has a box of real silverware in the back of his pickup, along with two expensive looking vases wrapped in rugs and a TV that has to be at least sixty inches.”
I whistled, forgetting the mower-shaming episode. “Odd assortment of things to have in the back of a pickup truck.”
“Right?” Nick agreed. “I think it’s time to talk to Billy again.”
Billy Mouskawitz was heading for his truck when Nick and I rounded the corner. He opened the driver’s side door and started to climb inside. Nick called his name and the man stopped with one leg inside. Watching his facial expression, I saw the moment when he considered jumping into the truck and squealing out of there.
“I need to talk to you about your mother!” I shouted out.
He hesitated a beat. Just long enough for Nick, who had much longer legs than mine, to make it to the truck.
“What’s going on?” Billy asked.
Nick put a hand on the frame of the truck’s open door. “I want to talk to you about what you have hidden under those rugs in the back of your truck.”
Billy’s face lost color. He turned to me. “You said you wanted to ask about my mom.”
I shrugged. “I’m worried about her. What if your partners decide she knows too much about that stolen stuff in your room?”
He tensed. “She doesn’t have a clue…” He stopped, appearing to realize he’d forgotten to deny that the stuff was stolen. “I gotta go.”
Nick pressed on the truck door, trapping Billy between the door and the frame. “Just a couple more questions.”
“Hey, man!” Billy used his body to try to wrench himself free. Nick stepped back. “If you don’t answer our questions we’ll have to take your mother into the station.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Yeah, I can.”
Billy narrowed his gaze on Nick. “What are you, some kind of cop?”
Nick nodded. “Yeah, I’m some kind of cop.”
He neglected to mention he was the kind of cop that really wasn’t a cop. But I wasn’t going to be the one to spill the beans on that. Not with Billy quivering on the razor edge of telling us he was part of a thievery ring.
Billy leaned a forearm on the top of the window frame, expelling a long breath. “Look, man. I didn’t steal that stuff.”
“You expect us to believe that? You have all the evidence piled up in your room and in your truck.”
“I do have some of the stuff. But I didn’t steal it.”
“Gonna be hard to convince the police you didn’t steal it,” I said.
Billy shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
“Okay, then tell us why you have it,” Nick prompted.
“They’re payin’ me to keep it for ’em,” Billy said.
“The thieves?” Nick clarified. “Why would they do that?”
“Don’t ask me, man. I don’t look a gift horse in the teeth. I needed cash and they offered me a lot of it.”
“You needed cash?” I asked. “Why?” The real question was, how desperate was Billy Mouskawitz. According to the gardener, he’d suddenly been throwing around a lot of money where, before he’d complained about not having enough of it. But were we talkin’ large sums borrowed from the kind of people who’d think nothing of breaking a few legs if he didn’t pay them back? Or just a power bill that was a month late.
Billy glanced toward his truck. “I had some bills, okay. It’s none of your business.”
“Okay, tell us who’s paying you?”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can and you will, or your mom’s going to pay the price.”
Billy snorted out a laugh. “You ain’t gonna charge her with this. She’s just a feeble old woman. Nobody’ll give her a second look.”
Unfortunately, I knew he was right. But it would have been useful for our purposes if he’d taken a little longer to realize it. “It could all be an act,” I told him.
“If you’d lived with her for longer than five minutes you wouldn’t even suggest that. She could make a Saint commit murder, that woman.” He shook his head, appearing sincere.