Sergeant Gunther Wilson had been at the crime scene for over an hour when he finally heard the roar of the antique Bentley pulling up to the small suburban house. “It’s about time,” he yelled out the open front door.
As Sherman Holmes walked up the front path, he couldn’t make out what Wilson was saying, but the growl in the sergeant’s voice told him he’d been expected.
“Sorry,” said Holmes in his best Alabama-English accent. “I was in the middle of a nap when the feeling woke me up. What do we have here, a murder?”
Wilson nodded toward a pool of blood near the rear corner of the living room. “Delia Waterford. Elderly widow. Body’s already been removed. She was hit over the head with a marble statuette. From the missing money and jewelry, we’re thinking a robbery.”
“My aunt was too trusting,” volunteered a young, attractive woman, the only civilian in the room. “She’d let in any salesman or bum off the street. I told her a million times.”
“This is Nan Waterford, the victim’s niece,” said Wilson. “She and a neighbor discovered the body.”
Nan Waterford sighed. “Every Thursday I come and drive Aunt Delia around. I’m her only close relative, so it’s up to me to be her chauffeur. I called from my cell phone just as I was pulling up, around two p.m. Her answering machine picked up, but that wasn’t unusual. Auntie often screened her calls. Mr. Klinger, the next-door neighbor, had just come outside to water his flowers. Auntie didn’t answer my knock. The door was unlocked and … Well, as soon as I saw her, I guess I screamed. Mr. Klinger came in and checked for a pulse while I dialed 911.”
“Have you finished dusting for prints?” said Sergeant Wilson to no one in particular.
A forensics officer popped his head in from the kitchen. “Yeah, living room’s done. No prints on the statuette, the water glass, the drawer knobs, answering machine and jewelry case. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of other prints in the room. Looks like she didn’t dust too often.”
Wilson crossed to the answering machine and pressed the blinking red button. “Aunt Delia.” It was Nan Waterford’s voice. “I’m pulling up in front. I hope you’re ready to go. I only have three hours today.” A mechanical voice set the time at 1:57 p.m.
Sherman had wandered to the table by the front door and picked up a notepad. “Prescriptions. Doctor 2:30. Lawyer 3:30,” he read aloud, then stopped and inspected the remaining surface of the table. “Were there other papers here?”
“Good guess,” said Wilson. “Yes, we found a receipt for a magazine subscription company and a leaflet from the Wetlands Foundation. I sent some officers around the neighborhood…”
The sergeant was interrupted by the return of one of those officers.
“Sergeant Wilson?” He had in tow a short man hugging a large, cheap briefcase. “This is Doug Hilton. He was canvassing the area for Apex Subscription Service.”
“Good job, officer.” Wilson beamed and eased a hand onto Doug Hilton’s shoulder. “Did you sell the owner of this house some magazines today?”
“Yeah,” said Hilton, looking more than a little nervous. “She bought 12 subscriptions. Paid in cash. Terrific old lady. Afterwards, I finished this block and then went to a bar on Tower Street to celebrate.”
“I found him in the bar,” the officer said. “He was celebrating, all right.”
Even Sherman could smell the alcohol. “What time were you here, Mr. Hilton?”
The salesman thought for a second. “Maybe one. Maybe later. I don’t have a watch, so it’s hard to say.”
Wilson cleared his throat. “Mr. Hilton, that terrific old lady was robbed and murdered.”
“Murdered? Oh, no.”
This time the interruption came from a young, thin man with pimply skin and a clipboard, a college student from the look of him. He was standing in the doorway, in the company of another officer.
“I picked this guy up three blocks over,” the officer told his sergeant. “He was just getting into his car.”
Wilson gave the new arrival a cold smile. “Are you from the Wetlands Foundation? Did you knock on this door today?”
“Yes,” the young man gulped. “The old lady signed my petition.” He checked his clipboard. “Delia Waterford. She also made a contribution—a generous contribution. In cash. I wanted to write a receipt but she said it wasn’t necessary.”
“I see,” Wilson said. “A frail, old lady opening her door to anyone and flashing lots of money. I’m surprised she lasted this long. What time were you here, Mr…”
“Abrams. Chuck Abrams. I canvassed this block after lunch. Sometime around one.”
“I see.” Wilson turned and grabbed Sherman by the elbow, pulling him away. “Well, they obviously weren’t here at the same time. The earlier guy is in the clear, of course, but which one was earlier?”
Sherman just smiled one of those smiles that made Wilson want to commit his own murder, right then and there.
Who killed Delia Waterford?
What clue pointed Sherman to the Killer?
“I hate it when you smile like that,” Wilson snarled. “Okay, who was it?”
“It was the niece, Nan Waterford.”
“What?” Wilson scrunched up his face. “And the motive?”
“I don’t know,” Sherman admitted. “She was the victim’s closest relation. Perhaps she inherited. The old lady was going to visit her lawyer. Perhaps she intended to change her will. Have your men check it out.”
“Okay. Forget motive. How did she do it?”
“Nan dropped by earlier, sometime after both door-to-door men had left. Perhaps 1:45. That’s when she killed her aunt. She made it look like a robbery, then drove off and returned a few minutes later, making sure she had a neighbor around this time to witness her discovery of the body.”
“That’s pure conjecture,” Wilson said under his breath.
“Not really,” Sherman said, as irritatingly cool as ever. “There were no prints on the answering machine.”
“So? The killer wiped the machine.”
“Because?” Wilson had to think. “Because the killer’s prints were on the machine.”
“Because the killer erased a message?” Wilson guessed.
“Exactly. None of the other suspects knew the victim’s phone number. If your electronics wizards can do some magic on that machine, they’ll find an earlier message from Nan, very similar to the one that’s on there now.”
“But with an earlier time stamp. Maybe 1:45.”