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The Secrets of Sisters
Lu stood on the stoop waiting for Merry Miller to answer the door.
She had no need to be there, no real right to be there, and yet, Lu had questions and she wanted those questions answered. No doubt Josh wouldn’t be thrilled about her snooping, but if Josh could deal with Nico’s inability to put his underwear in a laundry basket, instead throwing it all over the floor (and the man had the gall to criticize her bathroom habits from twenty years ago), then he could surely deal with his devoted and caring sister-in-law following up on a lead and helping him out on a case that meant a whole hell of a lot to both of their careers.
Merry Miller worked from home and Lu should have called ahead to both make sure that Miss Miller was there and to let her know that she was coming, but Lu didn’t have her number and didn’t have the patience at the moment to track it down in such a way that Josh wouldn’t know about it.
Merry Miller opened the door, looking more than a little surprised to see Lu. Miss Miller was dressed much like she had been the first time Lu met her: she wore a brightly printed dress and matching lipstick. Her blonde hair was down today, though, falling in natural waves around her shoulders. Lu wondered why this super cute, bubbly woman was wasting her time with married men when she could have her pick of the singles. But then Lu remembered that it had been only one married man and this woman’s relationship status was none of her damn business.
“Hi, Miss Miller,” Lu said, smiling brightly, hoping that the black polo shirt with the coroner’s office logo on the breast wasn’t too alarming. “I don’t know if you remember me from the other day. I’m Lu Jones. I’m a death investigator. I was here with Detective Carpenter.”
“Oh, yes! Of course,” Miss Miller said and she gave a little laugh that sounded a bit relieved. “I saw the shirt and thought something else awful had happened.”
Lu smiled tightly. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Do you mind if I come in? I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you.”
“About Starla?” Lu nodded and Miss Miller stepped aside. “Of course. Come in, come in.”
She led Lu back into her living room, back to her sofa, and offered her a drink. This time Lu did accept a glass of iced tea. She thought maybe this would make them both more relaxed. It was different without Josh here, leading things. Now it was Lu’s turn to ask all of the right questions. The sudden concern that she might ask the wrong thing or say the wrong thing crawled up Lu’s spine and perched on her shoulder like a gargoyle. If she screwed this up for Josh…
Miss Miller came into the living room carrying two glasses of iced tea and she handed one to Lu before sitting down on the loveseat.
“Have you found anything out about who might have killed Starla?” Miss Miller asked, hopeful.
“The investigation is ongoing,” Lu said, watching Miss Miller’s face fall. She quickly added, “But Detective Carpenter has been working diligently on the case, interviewing people. It’s really only a matter of time.”
Miss Miller nodded and Lu inwardly cringed. The last thing she needed to be doing was giving this woman any kind of false hope. What the hell possessed her to do this again? Lu took a big gulp of her tea before proceeding.
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Detective Josh Carpenter sat across the table from Calvin and Audrey Connolly and the three of them tried to look inconspicuous. The only time that Josh could interview the couple together was during their lunch breaks. Audrey Connolly, of course, worked at the coroner’s office. Calvin Connolly was a high school math teacher and since the beginning of a new school year was looming, he was busy prepping. Josh had considered interviewing them separately, but decided to interview them as a couple first. He wanted to gauge how they interacted during questioning knowing what he knew. So, the meeting at the McDonald’s during the lunch rush on Monday was the best way to go. Well, not the best, but the option Josh decided was best out of the limited, not-so-great options. Thankfully, most of the folks in Munsterville that bothered to get out of their cars to come inside the fast food joint were just grabbing their lunch to-go.
“I did have a date with Starla,” Calvin Connolly said and practically flinched at the sound of the woman’s name coming out of his mouth. Next to him, Audrey Connolly sat stone-faced, a good gap of physical distance between them in the booth. “’For the night she was…was murdered.” He added quickly, emphatically, “But I cancelled it. Days before. I cancelled it.”
“Why did you cancel it?” Josh asked, making a note in his notebook. He’d already known that Calvin Connolly was the cancelled date thanks to Merry Miller’s code key. It was the why that currently eluded him. Starla James made no note of that.
“Because…” Mr. Connolly sighed heavily, “because Audrey found out about it.”
“And how long had you been seeing Miss James?” Josh asked, watching the husband squirm and the wife imitate a statue.
“Only a few months,” he said. “We’d only had sex a couple of times. Honest.”
“I see,” Josh said, making a note of the duration of the affair, but not of the number of times Mr. Connolly claimed to have had sex with the victim. That was clearly meant for his wife to hear. “And when did Mrs. Connolly find out about the affair?”
Now, Audrey Connolly did move, a slight flinch at her name and the word “affair” in the same sentence.
“Last week. Monday or Tuesday, I think. Days before I was supposed to see Starla. She found a text from her on my phone and confronted me. I cancelled my date with Starla right then.,” Mr. Connolly said, sounding sullen and remorseful. Josh wondered if it was because he’d hurt his wife by having an affair or because she found out. “That’s why we were out of town this past weekend. We were trying to work on our marriage.”
Mrs. Connolly made a little noise as if to suggest that the weekend hadn’t been all that successful.
“And when did you leave for this weekend retreat of yours?” Josh asked.
“Friday evening,” Mr. Connolly said hurriedly. He looked at his wife for confirmation of that. “Right? Right after you got off of work. You had to work late so we left late. Right?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Connolly said, sounding reluctant to speak at all. “We left Friday after I got off of work. It was around seven-thirty.”
“And you work at the coroner’s office, correct?” Josh asked.
“I work for the coroner’s administration,” Audrey Connolly corrected. “Yes. I work upstairs. I’m their public relations consultant.”
“I see,” Josh said and he made a show of flipping through his notebook as though he were looking for a piece of information that wasn’t already cued up in his head. “So, you would have been at work when Starla James was discovered and brought in for examination and autopsy.”
Audrey Connolly shifted her weight in the booth a little.
“Yes. Like I said. I work upstairs.”
“Why were you working overtime that day?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Mrs. Connolly snapped.
Josh stared at her hard. She managed to stare back with equal intensity for a few seconds before she shifted in her seat again, nervous. That might work on her husband, but Josh was immune to it. Except from his own husband.
“Mrs. Connolly, I’m investigating a homicide,” Josh said, business-like and professional with just a touch of no-nonsense. “I would appreciate your cooperation in answering my questions. Why were you working overtime that day?”
Mrs. Connolly glanced at her husband. “I had to stay late due to a late-breaking development that needed to be addressed.”
Josh nodded at her. “From my understanding, it was due to the results of Miss James’s autopsy.”
Mr. Connolly looked at his wife with wide eyes. She never took her eyes from Josh, her look hardening.
The Mistress’s Men
Lu really wanted to spend her entire shift tagging along with Josh, watching him be a detective, getting elbowed in the ribs for not keeping her word about not asking any questions or saying anything sarcastic, but unfortunately, she did have work to do.
A whole pile of it was waiting on her desk.
“You work weekends now?” Melanie asked as she strolled into the office.
The death investigator’s office was situated down the hall from the autopsy room. It had two desks, two phones, several filing cabinets, a couple of chairs, a police scanner, a coffee pot, and a television. The official break room was on the second floor, but most everyone just hung out in the death investigator’s office because it was closer.
Melanie poured herself a cup of coffee.
“Jerome is off and someone had to cover,” Lu said, sitting down at her desk, looking at the stack of files in the center of it not unlike she might look at pile of dog shit on her lawn. And Lu didn’t own a dog. She gestured at them, careful not to touch them. “Is this my pain?”
“Yep,” Melanie said, reading her look. “Those are the files that upstairs,” Melanie looked up, “wants reviewed. Dr. Pascal was ranting about it last night. I thought his head was going to pop off.”
“He’s got about as much skin in this audit as I do.”
“Neither one of you have anything to worry about,” Melanie said, giving Lu a pat on the shoulder. “You two are the best at your jobs. Upstairs is crazy to think otherwise.”
Melanie sat down at the other desk, turning on the TV, but keeping the volume low.
Lu wanted to believe that Melanie was right, but just the fact that she was working for Jerome on a weekend because the city was too cheap to hire as many death investigators as they needed didn’t boost her confidence any. Lu knew all too well that being good at your job didn’t meant that you weren’t expendable.
With a heavy sigh, Lu pulled the first file from the top of the pile and opened it up, looking for a mistake she knew that she hadn’t made.
Simon Sidney lived in a large house on the lakefront, only a few miles down the road from End Of, on Lake Shore Drive. The house was practically a wall of windows on the side that faced the lake, which was no doubt picturesque most of the time, if you didn’t think about how many cars were probably at the bottom of Lake Munster.
Josh sat on the white couch in the white living room wondering why so many people with money insisted on white living rooms.
Simon Sidney was a handsome man in his sixties, his hair long gone silver, his age starting to show in his golfer’s physique. His wife, Carlotta, was easily twenty years younger than he was and held up to a much different standard. Her hair was bleached an unnatural blonde and it was clear by the lack of movement in her forehead that she’d had a round or twelve of Botox. Her lips looked overly filled and her clothes were a size too small.
They sat on the couch opposite Josh, a low glass coffee table between the detective and the couple. Simon Sidney sat on the couch, looking relaxed in his dress shirt and slacks. Carlotta Sidney was perched next to her husband, right on the edge of the sofa. Josh didn’t think she could relax in the dress she was wearing.
“Mr. Sidney,” Josh began, sparing a glance at his wife, “I need to know about your relationship with Starla James.”
“She was my mistress,” Simon Sidney said so bluntly that if the words had been an anvil, a cartoon coyote would have been flattened instantly in a comical way.
“One of your mistresses,” his wife patiently corrected and a second anvil dropped on that poor coyote’s head.
Josh nodded and quickly jotted down the unnecessary information into his notebook to hide his wide-eyed shock from the couple.
A Little Family Support
Haskell and Leora Jones were big on family. So big on family that they had five children: Drusilla (Dru), Nicodemus (Nico), Tallulah (Lu), and twins Dashiell (Dash) and Dartagnan (Tag). They ran a successful family business that only their daughter Lu didn’t work in, much to their displeasure. And they had a family dinner most nights of the week even though their three oldest children no longer lived at home and in the case of the two oldest, had families of their own. But that didn’t stop Haskell and Leora from cooking huge dinners nor did it stop any of the children or their husbands or their children from stopping by for the evening meal without invitation nor forewarning.
Lu walked into her parents’ house in a foul mood wanting nothing more than to eat until she reached peak food coma, but without the effort of actually cooking. Her foul mood fled as soon as the door closed behind her, not because of the impending food, but because no foul mood of hers could withstand the cute of her two nephews, Ezra and Roman. Aged five and three respectfully, the two biracial boys were biological half-brothers adopted by Nico and Josh when they were tiny. Their dads got a kick out of people saying that the boys looked like them.
Ezra and Roman barreled into their aunt as soon as they heard the front door slam shut.
“Auntie Luuuuuuuu!” they squealed, crashing into her legs and hugging her around the knees.
“Hello, my minions,” Lu said, giving each a hug in turn, kissing them both on the top of their heads. “What evil have you done on behalf of your overlord today?”
The two boys answered in only giggles.
“Are you heathens here alone or is Nan and Pop around?” Lu asked.
“Inna kitchen makin’ dinner,” Ezra said and then wrinkled his nose in disgust. “It’s gross.”
“Yes, but you also don’t like pancakes,” Lu said. “Your opinion can hardly be trusted.”
Roman giggled while Ezra stuck his tongue out at his aunt.
“Get away from me,” she said, giving her nephews a playful nudge. “Go hassle Pop for quarters or something.”
The two boys tore off through the house. Lu knew they passed through the kitchen because her mother yelled at them to slow down. Lu followed them at a much calmer pace.
Leora was at the kitchen counter. Four different pots were going on the stove, something was in the oven, and it looked like there was something in a bowl that was in the process of being prepared. Her mother moved like a whirlwind amongst all of it.
“Are you here for dinner, Lu?” she asked. “I think I might just have enough to feed you, too.”
“Good God, I hope so,” Lu said, looking at the ensuing feast.
“She started throwing more food into pots as soon as Josh walked through the door,” her brother Nico said. He was sitting on the other side of the kitchen with said Josh at the table.
When it came to Lu and her siblings, an argument could be made that Haskell and Leora took home the wrong baby at some point, only no one was quite sure which one. None of the Jones children looked like their parents. And with the exception of the twins, none of them looked like each other, either. Lu was short with a witch’s nose and hazel eyes that looked like they could see through anything. Nico was tall with gangly limbs and soft blue eyes that looked almost like he was on the verge of crying all the time. The only thing Lu and Nico had in common appearance-wise was they both had brown hair, but Lu’s was much darker than Nico’s.
Lu sat down heavily at the table with Nico and Josh.
“And how was your day, dear?” Nico asked with a sly little smile.
“My cases are being audited,” Lu said bitterly.
Nico’s eyes went wide and Josh’s jaw actually dropped. Lu heard a pot lid rattle harshly across the room.
“Yes, exactly,” she said, pointing at them both.
To Complicate Things
Josh and his partner Vince sat on the couch in the living room of Stella James’s sister, Brandy Everly. Her husband, and Stella’s brother-in-law, Lance sat in a chair opposite them. Mrs. Everly was in the other room, finishing up a phone call.
The search of Starla James’s luxurious apartment quickly revealed that it wasn’t the site of her death, but also revealed little in the way of clues as to who the culprit might be. Everything was neat, tidy, orderly, and there was no sign of any of the men that Starla James might be connected with, either currently or in the past. The most Josh and Vince were able to recover was the name of the victim’s next of kin.
The Everly’s living room was done up tastefully enough in dark wood and white, which let Josh know that this couple didn’t have any children or pets. The white couch he and Vince sat on was spotless. Lance Everly sat nervously on the edge of his chair, waiting for his wife so the couple could receive the bad news that Josh and Vince had brought them. Not that they knew at the moment they’d be receiving bad news, but what good news do two plain clothes detectives ever bring? Mr. Everly was a thin man, young with an older cast, like he worked too hard for too little. Josh watched him fidget as he waited, his hands unable to remain still, the only attempt at small talk to fill the time unsuccessful. Josh wanted to keep this serious and direct.
“I’m sorry about that,” Mrs. Everly said as she entered the room. “I’m trying to organize a girls’ night out for next weekend and you would not believe how involved it is.”
She smiled at the two detectives as she perched herself on the arm of her husband’s chair, putting an arm around his anxious shoulders. Brandy Everly didn’t quite have the exotic, sexy beauty that her sister had, but she wasn’t unattractive. Instead of black hair, hers was red, and kept about shoulder length in an easy, flattering style. She was thinner, less-curvy than her sister, and whatever bosom she might have had was discreetly concealed beneath a modest dark purple blouse that matched her light purple capris.
“Now, what’s this all about?” Mrs. Everly asked.
Josh felt Vince shift beside him. This was a tough part of the job, informing someone that their loved one had died and not in a natural manner. The reactions to such news varied from person to person and there was no clear predictor of what to expect.
“Mrs. Everly, I’m sorry to inform you that your sister was found deceased early this afternoon,” Josh said.
He waited while the words found their meaning for the couple. Mr. Everly looked up at his wife, reaching back to grasp her hand that rested on his shoulder. Mrs. Everly stared at the two detectives for a moment, her face somewhat neutral, as though the full weight of her sister’s death hadn’t quite hit yet.
“What happened?” she asked softly.
“Your sister was found hanging from a tree at End Of,” Josh said.
“She killed herself?” Mrs. Everly asked.
“Right now we can’t say,” Josh said, watching as Mr. Everly squeezed his wife’s hand hard. Lu called it a homicide, but Josh wanted to be careful with that information for now. It hadn’t been confirmed. “We have to wait for the autopsy results before a cause of death can be conclusively stated. But as an unattended, suspicious death, we have to investigate it. Are you up for answering a few questions?”
Mrs. Everly nodded.
“Do you know of any reason why your sister might have wanted to take her own life?” Josh asked.
Mr. Everly looked down at the white-carpeted floor, considering. Mrs. Everly sighed and looked at Josh.
“Maybe she was finally tired of being a whore.”
A Little Bit Suspicious
Lu Jones looked up at her brother-in-law as he gaped down at her.
“You look like a fish,” she said.
Detective Josh Carpenter’s mouth snapped shut.
“How can you tell she was murdered?” Josh asked, narrowing his eyes at her.
“It’s kind of the whole point of my job to be able to do that,” Lu said.
“Lu.” It was a warning and Lu shrugged it off as easily as if it had come from one of her siblings. The curse of the two of them working together for almost as long as Josh had been with Nico.
“Well, it’s nothing so obvious as the rope done wrong,” Lu said, walking towards the body. Josh followed her. “But, there’s antemortem bruising under the rope inconsistent with hanging. And her face is the wrong color. It’s a little too red. That implies force.”
“So, she wasn’t hung?”
Lu shook her head. “Not by this rope and this tree. Though, if I had to guess, I’d say she was strangled. Dr. Pascal will make the final call on that.”
“What do you mean about the rope being done wrong?” Josh asked, peering as closely at the noose as he could bear to get.
Lu grinned. “The movie The Black Cat? Remember?”
Josh frowned. Lu and Nico were big horror film fans, a fitting favorite genre for their lines of work. They’d often get together to watch them and many of their conversations featured references to them. Lu was a little disappointed that more of this hadn’t rubbed off on Josh.
“Isn’t that the one where Bela Lugosi skins Boris Karloff alive?” Josh asked, squinting the way he did when he was trying to remember something.
Lu heard Vince mutter something under his breath and she was pretty sure it was in response to the mention of skinning, not the overall topic. Vince was green, but he’d been on enough death scenes with Lu and Josh to know how they operated.
“No, this one has Bela Lugosi, but he plays a gardener that gets shot as a scapegoat.”
“I don’t remember that one.”
“That’s a shame,” Lu said with a shrug and went back to business. “I’ll bag the vic’s hands and we’ll see if we can get anything off of her clothes, but she looks pretty clean. There are a couple of smaller bruises on her forearms that could be defensive marks and most people who are strangled put up a fight unless they can’t. I’m not seeing much evidence of a fight around here, though.”
Everyone standing in the little clearing at the end of the path looked at the ground.
“So, this is a dump scene, not a crime scene,” Josh concluded and Lu nodded. “Well, give me whatever you can get as quickly as you can. If this is a homicide, then we’re on the clock.”
Josh walked over to Detective Carthos, the other two uniforms, and the forensic team to hatch a game plan while Lu went on with her work. She picked up her clipboard from the gurney and started making notes about the case. Murderville was living up to its reputation this time. A homicide at the local suicide spot. Dr. Pascal was going to love this twist.