Story by Tracy Falenwolfe/ Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
In the five years I wasted tracking Nelson Hadley, it never occurred to me he was right under my nose. In that whole time, Trixie, the dame who claimed to be his old flame, played her part to the T, while I, Sully H. Maguire, played the fool. But that was all about to change.
I asked Trixie to meet me at my office on Friday night at seven. Mentioned I had some news. She showed up at 7:45, dressed to the nines, like I’d asked her to some fancy dinner instead of to my shoebox of an office that sat on top of a dive bar two blocks off the main drag. Most women would have been afraid of the neighborhood, of me, even, but not Trixie.
“Have a seat,” I told her.
She undid her coat and let it drop to the floor, then parked herself on the edge of my desk.
“How’ve you been, Sully?” she asked as her dress rode up her thighs.
I looked, but then she knew I would. I took a bulging manila file folder out of my drawer and slapped it on the blotter. “I’ve been good,” I said. “Better than good. I found Nelson.”
Her face said what she wanted it to, but her body betrayed her. A flush spread across her chest and up her neck. The high heel she’d been dangling from her big toe clattered to the floor, and the way she wrung her hands made it look like she was spinning a bracelet that was no longer there. “You found him?” She managed a smile, but couldn’t hide the strain in her voice. “And you’re sure it’s my Nelson Hadley?”
“I’m sure.” I let her ponder that while I paged through the file, deliberately ignoring the way she worried her bottom lip and fanned her hand out over her throat, studying one uninteresting receipt for a bus ticket to Cincinnati until she slid off my desk and into the chair.
She ran her fingertips over the rip in the Naugahyde, dipping one inside to test the foam. Then she cleared her throat. “Where is he?”
“He’s right where you left him. In an unmarked grave, just outside Bayshore Cemetery. At least until tomorrow morning.” I didn’t know she’d left him there, but she was acting so cagey I wanted to see her reaction to the idea.
She jumped up so fast she tipped the chair. She slapped me across the face with all the indignation I expected, then snatched up her coat and wrapped herself in it. I came around the desk and she slapped me again. “You bastard. I thought you were supposed to be good.” She cinched her belt and darted to the door. “You’re fired.”
She followed up with a window-shaking slam. I leaned against the spot on my desk where she’d been sitting, and waited. Theatrical exit notwithstanding, she wouldn’t get far without her bag. Not in my neighborhood. Probably she’d wait long enough for me to look inside and get an eyeful of whatever was in there. But I was done playing her game. Now we were playing mine.
After giving me sufficient time to inspect the contents of her bag—which I declined to do—she waltzed back through the door. “I’ve left my purse,” she said.
“No kidding,” I quipped.
She pouted. “Really, Sully? After all this time, I can’t believe you think I killed Nelson. All the money I’ve spent looking for him. All the tears I’ve cried.”
“A river full,” I said.
“An ocean,” she countered.
Right. The ocean. It was a theme with her. Had been since the very first day she’d shown up on my doorstep with a sob story about her disappearing lover. She’d claimed they’d gone to the Caribbean together. That he’d been kidnapped by pirates there. She’d seen it with her own eyes, she said. Only something struck her as off from the get go, like it’d been planned.
She said she’d seen Hadley’s wife the very next morning at the airport there in the islands. But the wife told the cops she’d never been there, and they couldn’t find anything to prove her wrong. That was five years ago.
Eventually the cops both at home and in the islands declared Nelson a missing person. But that wasn’t good enough for Trixie. Six months after the doomed trip she hired me to find Nelson.
For eighteen months, I’d turned up bupkis. Then, three years ago Hadley’s wife, Janice, received a mysterious postcard from Brussels. It was postmarked an entire year before that and then squashed in some mail machine and delayed somehow or another. At least that’s what the wife said. Not to me, but to her new squeeze who’d brought the card to my attention with the understanding I wouldn’t rat him out. It was probably more likely she’d received it around the time it was postmarked and then stashed it away and forgot about it until the new guy found it. The message written on it simply said, “I’m sorry.”
Sorry about what? I’d wondered over the years. It was no secret Janice didn’t want Nelson back, and since there was no evidence or indication the postcard was from him she could have moved to have him declared dead and collected on his life insurance policy. It wasn’t millions, but she could have gotten a new car out of it. Paid off the house maybe. Instead she’d gotten an absent spouse divorce. She was done with him after finding out about Trixie. Remarried with two kids. She and Nelson hadn’t been able to have kids, so according to her, things worked out for the best even if the cheating schmuck was still alive somewhere. Her words, not mine.
Trixie, on the other hand, was having trouble moving on. She looked inside her bag, then snapped it shut. “Will you walk me down to my cab, Sully?”
My face still stung from where she’d smacked me, but I was a gentleman. I walked her down to the street, but her cab was gone. Tears streamed down her face. “I feel like I’m always getting left somewhere.”
Right. New York, London, Paris …trust fund babies like Trixie were always somewhere. What she did to get left as often as she claimed had nothing to do with location. “Answer me one thing, for old time’s sake.”
She sniffled. “What?”
“If you didn’t kill Nelson, then why were you so worried when I told you I’d found him?”
I didn’t think she’d answer at first, at least not honestly. But finally she shrugged. “I watched those pirates snatch him off that Catamaran and throw him into their speed boat. I heard him call my name. Heard how terrified he was. If he ever does come back, I don’t want to have to explain why I didn’t hire an army of investigators and move heaven and earth to find him.”
That was the third slap in the face of my night. I called another cab and parked Trixie on a barstool to wait for it under the watchful eye of my bartender friend Hank. And then I went back upstairs, because my night wasn’t over yet.
My next appointment was at nine o’clock. At ten till I answered a rap at my door.
Janice Hadley and her new husband Brad were as buttoned-up as Trixie was loose. I offered them seats but they both refused. Janice’s stance told me it was because she didn’t want to get any on her. Brad’s told me he was leaving before I got done talking.
I went through the same deal with the file as I did with Trixie—dug it out, slapped it down, paged through it, this time stalling on a real estate brochure for high-end condos in Maine with Nelson’s face on it. It surfaced three years ago, given to Trixie by an old friend who’d thought they were still together and worried she was getting bilked.
“What’s this about, Maguire?” Brad asked. He had a punchable face. The kind I’d really like to get a crack at, so I took out a pencil and balanced it on my knuckles to keep my hands busy doing something else.
“I found Nelson.”
Janice Hadley, Janice Hoffmeyer now, huffed out a breath. “Whatever he has to say, I’m not interested in hearing it.”
“I didn’t say he was alive.”
Janice sucked in her breath now, along with all the rest of the air in the room. It was so quiet I could hear my watch tick. The pencil rocking back and forth across my knuckles sounded like a galloping horse.
Brad spoke first. “So where is he? Or was he? What happened?”
I closed the file. Played it cool. “Right now, he’s in an unmarked grave just outside of Bayshore Cemetery. The body will be exhumed tomorrow morning.” I looked at Janice. “The detective in charge says you can be present if you wish.”
“Why would I be?” Janice swallowed hard. “We’re divorced.” The faraway look in her eyes said a lot. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak her language.
She turned to me then and I braced myself for another slap. But instead of lashing out, Janice folded her arms in a way that made it look like she was curling in on herself. “Why did you even call?”
“Because I said I would, Mrs. Hoffmeyer.”
“I never asked you to—”
“No,” I said. “You never did.”
Brad finally stepped up and put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “I did,” he said, then nodded at me like we were old friends. “After you got the postcard, I took it to Sully.”
Janice’s eyes widened.
“I still had his card from that time he came to the house,” Brad explained. “I asked him to let me know if he ever found Nelson.”
Janice went three shades of pale. “You hired him?”
“No.” Brad was quick to correct. “I simply asked him to do me a courtesy.” He looked at me all accusatory-like. “I didn’t even know he was still on the case.”
If that was the way he wanted to play it, fine. I got paid the same either way.
At ten-thirty, Brad came into the bar. Alone. Hank pulled him a pint of Guinness. I closed the Nelson Hadley file and raised my glass. “Slainte.”
“Yeah,” Brad said. “Look, I’m in the dog house with Janice.”
“Tough break,” I said.
“She’ll get over it.” Brad drank half his beer then slid a folded-up slice of paper across the bar. He kept two fingers on it as he held it in front of me. “But you’re wrong about Nelson. She got this two days ago, so whoever you found in that cemetery can’t be him.” He let go of the paper.
I nursed my club soda and took my time unfolding this latest clue. It was a ransom note; the first in five years. Each letter was cut and pasted onto a single sheet of white typing paper. I have Nelson Hadley. Send the detective with one million US dollars. “This was with it.” Brad reached into his jacket pocket and produced an airline ticket. One way to Rio, with my name on it. “The money’s in my car.”
Hank gave me the eye. I went with Brad out to his Coupe De Ville. He reached behind the seat and handed me a small leather satchel. A million big ones took up a lot less room than I’d expected, but it had enough heft that you didn’t want to be carrying it around on your person. “Does Janice know about this?”
“No.” Brad closed the car door. “The only thing she knows I gave you is that first postcard. I’ve intercepted everything else since I get home from work before her.”
I tested the weight of the bag. “Where’d you get the money?”
Brad wiped his hand across his mouth. For the first time since I met him he looked like he needed a shave. “Don’t ask.” He gave me one last look and slid behind the wheel. “Your flight leaves at three am.”
Hank closed the bar to the public at midnight on Fridays so us retired cops could play poker and smoke cigars and talk shop. We all had cases we’d never been able to clear; our demons, our white whales, and after a couple rounds of Jameson one of us always pulled out a case file to look for that one little thing we missed.
Tonight it was my turn. No one cared that the Nelson Hadley case wasn’t a police matter. They cared that I hadn’t been able to solve it. Until tonight.
I laid out all the seemingly unrelated leads I’d chased down over the past five years. “On the day Trixie Ludington hired me, she brought me this receipt.”
Hank held out his hand for the piece of paper. He slipped on his reading glasses. “For a bus ticket to Cincinnati.” He passed it to the next guy while I pontificated.
“Trixie said she found it in the pocket of a jacket Nelson left at her apartment. It’s dated two weeks before their trip, but she said Nelson never traveled to Cincinnati. I asked the wife about it when I interviewed her, and she concurred. Did a little digging and found out the new husband’s company has an office in Cincinnati.”
Hank’s ex-partner, Gillette, frowned at the receipt. “Was he there at this time?”
“They’re not saying. Brad says no.”
“You think he’s lying?” Hank went behind the bar and got himself a boilermaker.
“Has to be,” Gillette said. “Too much of a coincidence to be one. But how did the receipt get in Hadley’s pocket?” He was an ex-smoker and always patted his chest pocket looking for one when he was puzzling something through. It’s why he always lost at poker, but none of us pointed it out.
“You know how.” Hank dropped his shot into his beer. “The new husband was diddling the wife while Hadley was still around.”
The rest of the guys concurred. And they were right. I’d figured that one out on my first trip to the Hoffmeyer house. But whether Hadley found the receipt and pocketed it, or Brad or Janice stuffed it in the wrong jacket while tidying up was still a mystery.
The receipt made the rounds while I laid out the next item, the postcard from Brussels, and told its story, and then did the same with the real estate brochure. “This is Nelson Hadley’s face, but the name listed is Pierce McIntyre. By the time I caught up with the outfit running this scam they were long gone.”
Next up I laid a water damaged Polaroid picture on the table. “This came a year later. May be Nelson, may not be.” It was impossible to tell who was in the picture. “I know a guy who knows a guy. He said the shot was taken in Bermuda. Said he can tell on account of how the sand looks pink.”
The group spent less time on that tidbit because since you couldn’t make out the face of whoever was grinning at the camera, it added nothing in the grand scheme of things.
“Then another year later, the new husband says he got a collect call. Said he had a two-minute conversation with Nelson, but said the guy sounded delirious and mostly gave Brad and his ex his blessing.”
Hank snorted. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s what he said.”
Everyone nodded, and murmured.
“My gal at Ma Bell says there was an overseas call at the time he claims, but she couldn’t tell me much more.”
I broke out the ransom note. “Tonight the new husband gave me this. Says it came for the wife two days ago.”
The guys passed it around. Faces were crinkled. Doubtful. We all had another round.
Hank said, “Before this ransom letter, you’ve got zero proof the guy is still alive. Why should you believe it now?”
“There’s no pattern here,” Gillette pointed out. “Nowhere to grab hold.”
“But there is.” I smiled now. “Observe.” I laid out Wednesday’s Bayshore Gazette. The lead story was about the expansion of Bayshore Cemetery finally getting approved. The eager beaver reporter even included a timeline mapping the long road the project took from proposal to approval.
The guys were reading, but none of them made the connection yet. Then I took the front page of my file and laid it next to the article. On it I’d logged every time Trixie or Brad brought me a lead to follow.
Hank was the first to see it. “These dates line up.”
I slapped the back of my hand across my log sheet. “They sure do. I got handed a new lead every time the borough council voted down the cemetery expansion.”
“So, you’re thinking what?” Hank took off his readers and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Guilty conscience?”
“Bingo,” I said. “I think old Nelson’s been rotting in the empty field behind Bayshore Cemetery for the past five years, and every time his murderer is reminded of that, he or she does something they think proves he’s still alive. I’ve been on a wild goose chase because someone thinks they’re creating an alibi.”
“Someone wants you to tell the jury, if it comes to that, that they behaved as if Nelson was alive for all this time, ergo, they must be innocent.” Hank followed up his supposition with a chortle and another snort of whiskey.
“People are stupid,” I said.
“You’ve got the mistress who’s never given up hope,” one of the old-timers said around the cigar in his mouth. “The wife who reacts as if she’s afraid he’ll show up alive one day, and the new husband who what? Just wants some closure for the wife?”
“Or he thinks she offed the guy,” Hank said.
Gillette downed another shot of Jameson and blew air out through his teeth. He patted his breast pocket. “The scary part is all they need is reasonable doubt. You got anything solid against any one of them?”
“No,” I admitted. “But I told them all I found Nelson in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery. I said he was getting exhumed tomorrow morning.”
“Bold strategy,” the old-timer said. “Any bites?”
I showed the plane ticket. “All I know is that someone wants me way out of town at three o’clock tonight.”
Bayshore Cemetery was the oldest in the county. Poorly lit to begin with, it was surrounded on three sides by tall Hemlock trees, creating shadows where there shouldn’t have been. All the trees were to be removed before the expansion could begin, as the new acreage was in the shape of a semi-circle. A quick call to the crack reporter from the gazette verified the land was gifted by the Ludington Foundation a.k.a. Trixie’s dear old dad.
I came in from the north on a hunch, and walked right up behind old Trixie knee deep in freshly overturned dirt. “So this is how it is?” I said.
Trixie shrieked and dropped her shovel. She spun toward me. Her skin was dewy with sweat, her eyes bright. “Oh, Sully, is he really here? I just had to see for myself. Who killed him, do you know?”
“Save it, Doll.” I whistled. “She’s right where I said she would be,” I called out.
Hank’s successor, Chief of Detectives Ollie Lorah, signaled his team who lit up the klieg lights and made us all squint. Trixie was cuffed before she knew what hit her, and the whole cemetery was crawling with personnel.
“We’ve got another one, Chief.” One of the patrolmen walked up with Janice Hoffmeyer in his custody. “She was sitting in her car at the south entrance.”
“You told me they said I could be here,” she yelled at Sully.
“That I did.” I nodded at Lorah, but he wasn’t going to let Janice go until he had the whole thing sorted out.
“I have one too, Chief.” Another officer produced Brad Hoffmeyer. “He was half a block down the street from his wife.”
Janice’s mouth dropped open. “Brad, what are you doing here?”
He looked at me, panicked. And then, because he was a putz, he blurted out the truth. “I followed you. I thought you—”
“You thought I killed him? No.” Janice shook her head. “I just wanted to make sure the bastard was really dead,” she said.
Brad started crying. I probably should have felt sympathy, but for some reason I wanted to punch the guy even more.
“I have remains here,” the crime scene tech who’d converged on the spot where Trixie had been digging announced. “I need everyone to step back.”
The rest of her team taped off the area while Lorah and his men herded Trixie, Janice, and Brad to the patrol cars they’d called. Janice was smiling, touched that Brad thought she’d committed murder and tried to cover for her. She’d think about that in lock up and change her mind, I bet. The man spent a lot of time fabricating evidence and passing it along to me, proof that he hadn’t had a fleeting suspicion, but a full-fledged fear that he was living with a murdering bitch.
But he wasn’t. The murdering bitch clammed up as soon as she’d asked for her lawyer.
I stood next to the cruiser and talked to her through the vent at the top of the window. She tried not to look at me, so I started telling her what she wanted to hear. “I fell for you, Trixie. I believed every word.” I waited until she looked at me. “Brad must have too.”
She looked over at the other car.
“You convinced him Janice killed Nelson, didn’t you?”
“He’ll never admit that.”
“He doesn’t have to. You never told him where Nelson was buried. If you had, he would have moved the body before now. Because he loves his wife.”
Trixie rolled her eyes. She had no idea what love was.
“Don’t you want to know what gave you away?”
“No.” She raised her chin in the air.
That was too bad, because she wasn’t going anywhere and I wanted to gloat. “The only time you or Brad fabricated any evidence was when you were afraid Nelson might be dug up. If you were human you might have thought about him now and again. Set out another piece of cheese for me to sniff out.”
She tried hard to ignore me.
“If you had done that you would have gotten away with it. I never would have put it together then, because I wanted to believe you.”
She saw her opening and batted her eyelashes. “You have to believe me,” she said.
“Oh, I do. I believe you told the truth tonight,” I said. “When you told me you saw the pirates grab Nelson; when you said you heard him call your name. You were terrified thinking about that, weren’t you?”
A big fat crocodile tear ran down her cheek. “It was supposed to be me,” she whispered. “He arranged for me to be kidnapped. But I have friends in a lot of places. A lot of low places. And I heard about it.”
“So you turned the tables,” I said.
“You would have done the same thing, Sully.”
She’d underestimated my intelligence enough already, hired me because she thought I was a boob who would fall for her feminine wiles and forget about doing my job. Then, when I got too close to the truth she thought she could send me packing. Maybe she thought I’d be too embarrassed to admit that. But she also overestimated how much I cared what anyone thought of me. “No, I wouldn’t have,” I said. “I just wouldn’t have gone on the trip.”
I walked away while she was still trying to redeem herself. “I didn’t kill him,” she was saying. “He was already half dead when they brought him here. Sully! Sully! Where are you going, Sully?”
Where was I going? I really didn’t know. My case was closed. I had a million bucks and a ticket to Rio. But for now, I was going back to Hank’s to finish my drink.
— ♦♦♦ —
It was supposed to be an easy heist. At least that’s what the “Old Man” had told each of them. None of them were supposed to know each other. They all wore those silly Rat Pack masks and referred to themselves by Rat Pack names like Sammy, Dean and Frank. Trouble was, each one of them carried a secret and things quickly unraveled. Be sure to catch it next week.