I 've Heard That Song Before, page 7
“Maria Valdez is remarried and has three children. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I saw her yesterday. I would suggest that someone authorized to make a deal with her accompany me back to Lancaster tomorrow. By that I mean a guarantee in writing that she would never be prosecuted for lying when she was questioned years ago.”
“She was lying about the shirt!” Krause and Moran shouted at the same time.
Greco smiled. “Let’s say that as a mature woman she can no longer live with the knowledge that her statement twenty-two years ago has kept a murderer from being punished.”
The funeral for Susan Althorp was front-page news around the country. The picture of the flower-covered casket, followed into St. Cecelia’s by her grieving parents, must have sold tons of newspapers and improved the ratings of television stations around the country. Maggie went to the service along with a group of her friends. An alert Channel 2 reporter spotted her and rushed to get an interview.
“Your granddaughter recently married Peter Carrington. Do you believe in his innocence and stand by him now that the body was discovered on his property?”
Maggie’s honest answer was fodder for the press. She looked straight into the camera as she said, “I stand by my granddaughter.”
“I’m sorry,” I told Peter when I heard about it.
“Don’t be,” he said. “I always valued honesty. Besides, if she hadn’t fallen at that reception, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me now.” He smiled that quizzical smile of his, one with warmth but no mirth in it. “Oh, Kay, for heaven’s sake, don’t worry. Your grandmother made it clear from the start that she wanted no part of me and didn’t want me in your life, either. Maybe she was right. Anyhow, we’re doing our best to prove she was wrong, aren’t we?”
We’d had dinner and gone upstairs to the parlor between the bedrooms. The suite had become more and more of a retreat for us. With the media constantly camped at the gates, and grim-faced lawyers coming and going, I felt as if we were in a war zone. To go out without being followed by the press was impossible.
There had been a debate this past week between Peter and Vincent Slater and the lawyers as to whether or not Peter should issue some kind of statement expressing sympathy to Susan’s family. “No matter what is put out in my name, it’s going to be misunderstood,” Peter had said. In the end, his brief statement expressing profound sorrow was scorned and torn apart by both Gladys Althorp and the media.
I had talked to Maggie, but hadn’t seen her since we’d come home from our honeymoon. I was both angry at her and worried about her. Before we were married, she hadn’t budged an inch in her opinion that Peter had killed both Susan and his wife; now she was practically announcing that belief on television.
But there was something else bothering me. The poison that Nicholas Greco had injected into my consciousness by suggesting that my father might have had something to do with Susan’s death had been festering inside me. Then Peter’s revelation the morning we jogged through the grounds had only made it worse. My father hadn’t been fired because he was drinking. He had been let go because he hadn’t responded to Elaine Walker Carrington’s advances. And that begged the question: What had driven him to suicide?
I knew I had to find a way to sneak out and visit Maggie without being hounded by the press. I had to talk to her. I knew with all my heart and soul that Peter was not capable of hurting anyone-it was the kind of primal knowledge that is part of our being. But I also knew with equal certainty that my father would never have vanished willingly, and I was more convinced than ever that he had not committed suicide.
It was incredible to me that Peter and I had known such an idyllic time for two weeks, and now, married only three weeks, had been thrown headlong into this nightmare.
We had been watching the ten o’clock news, and I was about to switch off the television when for some reason I decided to check the headline on the eleven o’clock broadcast.
The anchor began, “A source inside the Bergen County prosecutor’s office tells us that Maria Valdez Cruz, a former maid at the Carrington mansion, has admitted she lied when she stated that she gave the cleaner a formal shirt Peter Carrington was wearing the night he escorted Susan Althorp home twenty-two years ago, a shirt that prosecutors at the time thought was a key to the case.”
“She’s lying,” Peter said flatly, “but she’s just sealed my fate. Kay, there isn’t a chance in hell that I won’t be indicted now.”
At age thirty-eight, Conner Banks was the youngest lawyer in the Carrington dream team of top defense attorneys, but no one, not even his more celebrated-and publicized-peers, could deny his brilliance in criminal court. The son, grandson, and nephew of wealthy corporate lawyers, he had made it clear during his undergraduate years at Yale, to his relatives’ collective horror, that he intended to be a criminal defense attorney. When he graduated from Harvard Law School, he clerked for a criminal court judge in Manhattan, then was hired by Walter Markinson, a renowned defense attorney who had defended all types of accused and was especially famous for keeping high-profile celebrities out of prison.
One of Banks’s earliest court cases for the Markinson firm had required him to convince a jury that the exotic wife of a billionaire had been mentally ill when she shot her husband’s longtime girlfriend. The verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity had been handed down after less than two hours of deliberation, a near-record for any jury deciding a murder case with that defense.
That case had made the reputation of Conner Banks, and in the next ten years that reputation had continued to grow. With his genial manner, large frame, and Celtic good looks, he had become something of a celebrity in his own right, known for his quick wit and for the beautiful women he escorted to high-profile events.
When Gladys Althorp directly accused Peter Carrington of murdering her daughter, Vincent Slater had called Walter Markinson and asked him to assemble a team of top lawyers to weigh the strategy of suing Mrs. Althorp, and then to handle the case if we decided to do it.
Peter Carrington had decided that he wanted the lawyers to hold their meetings in his home rather than in Manhattan, so that he could be present without having to run the press gauntlet outside his home. Now, a week later, Conner Banks had become a regular visitor to the Carrington estate.
The first time they were driven through the gates and they saw the mansion, Conner’s senior partner had remarked disdainfully, “Who in the name of God would want to cope with anything that big?”
A passionate student of history, Banks replied, “As a matter of fact, I would. It’s magnificent.”
When the lawyers reached the formal dining room where the conferences were to be held, Slater was already there. Coffee, tea, bottles of water, and small pastries were laid out on the sideboard. Pads and pens were in place on the table. The other two defense attorneys, Saul Abramson from Chicago and Arthur Robbins from Boston, both in their early sixties and with formidable track records in criminal cases, arrived minutes after Conner Banks and Markinson.
Then Peter Carrington entered the room. To Banks’s surprise, he was accompanied by his wife.
Banks was not given to trusting first impressions, but it was impossible not to recognize that Peter Carrington had an aura about him. Unlike his defense team and Slater, all dressed in typically conservative suits, he was wearing an open-necked shirt and a cardigan. Introduced to the lawyers, he immediately said, “Forget ‘Mr. Carrington.’ It’s Peter. My wife is Kay. I have a feeling we’re going to be meeting with each other for a long time, so let’s dispense with the formalities.”
Conner Banks hadn’t known what to expect of Carrington’s bride. He had already somewhat prejudged her-the librarian who had married a billionaire after a whirlwind romance-as just another very lucky fortune hunter.
He saw immediately that Kay Lansing Carrington did not fit that profile at all. Like her husband, she was dressed casually in a sweater and slacks. But t
During that first meeting and the ones that followed, she always sat to the right of Peter, who was at the head of the table. Slater’s place was the chair to the left of Peter. By sitting next to Slater, Conner Banks was able to witness the byplay between Peter Carrington and his wife. Their hands often touched tenderly, and the expression of affection in their eyes when they looked at each other made him wonder if it was really all that great to be footloose and fancy-free, as he was.
Out of curiosity, Banks had done some research on the case even before he was hired to help consider the lawsuit. His interest had been piqued because he had met former ambassador Charles Althorp socially on a number of occasions and had noted that he never was accompanied by his wife.
In the first two conferences, which took place prior to Susan Althorp’s body being found, the discussion focused on the need for Peter to file suit for libel and slander against Gladys Althorp. “She’s never going to retract that accusation,” Markinson said. “This is their way to force your hand. You’ll have to answer interrogatories and give a deposition. They’re hoping to trip you up when you’re under oath. As of now, the prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to indict you. Peter, you were dating Susan, casually. You were longtime family friends. You drove her home that night. Unfortunately, by returning home through the side door, you don’t have anyone to support your statement that you went upstairs.”
No one? Conner Banks asked himself. A guy, twenty years old, a little after midnight, a party in full swing, and you go to bed? Our client is innocent, he thought, sarcastically. Of course he is. It’s my job to defend him. But that doesn’t mean I have to believe him.
“I would say that what has helped to keep this case alive is the fact that your dress shirt was missing,” Markinson stated. “The fact that the maid said she took it out of the hamper and gave it to the dry cleaner pickup service means that if they try to use the missing shirt as evidence of guilt, it will backfire on them. You don’t have anything to lose by filing the suit, and, if it comes to trial, to let the public realize that this case is all about baseless accusations.”
The third meeting took place the day after Susan Althorp’s funeral, following also the stunning revelation that Maria Valdez, the maid who had claimed to have given Peter’s dress shirt to the cleaner, was now retracting her story.
This time, when the Carringtons came into the dining room, the strain on both their faces was obvious. Without bothering to greet the lawyers, Peter said, “She’s lying. I can’t prove it, but I know she’s lying. I put that shirt in the hamper. I have no idea why she’s doing this to me.”
“We’ll try to prove she’s lying, Peter,” Markinson told him. “We’ll look into everything she’s been doing for the past twenty-two years. Maybe it will turn out that she’s pulled some stuff that would make her a less than credible witness.”
Conner Banks initially had strongly suspected that Peter Carrington was guilty of the death of Susan Althorp. Now, adding up the evidence, he was virtually certain. No one had seen Carrington return to the house the night of the party. Twenty years old, he goes straight to bed when there are still guests in the house dancing on the terrace. Nobody sees him park the car. Nobody sees him come in. Susan is missing the next morning, and so is the dress shirt Carrington was wearing. Now her body has been found on his property. The prosecutor is bound to arrest him. Peter, I’ll do my best to help get you off, he thought as he looked at the man who was now holding hands with his wife, but I saw some of the footage of that funeral on the news last night. In a way, I wish that I was prosecuting this case. And I know that my colleagues feel the same way.
Kay was blinking back tears. She’ll stand by her man, Banks thought. That’s good. But if he’s responsible for Susan Althorp’s death, then maybe everyone is right to be suspicious about his first wife’s drowning. Is he a psychopath, and, if so, will his new bride get in his way?
Why did he also feel that there was something odd-and perhaps oddly suspicious-about Carrington’s rush to the altar with a woman he’d known for such a short time?
He’s nervous, Pat Jennings decided, as she looked at her boss, Richard Walker. I’ll bet anything he’s been playing the horses again. For all the money he makes on this place-or doesn’t make on this place-he might just at well try his luck on the ponies.
Pat had been working six months as receptionist and secretary at the Walker Art Gallery. When she took the job, it seemed like the perfect part-time situation for a woman with two kids in elementary school. Her hours were from nine until three, with the understanding that if a cocktail party was given for a new exhibit, she would come back later. There had been only one such event since she’d been working there, and it had been poorly attended.
The problem was that the gallery wasn’t selling enough to even cover the overhead. Richard would be sunk without his mother, Pat thought, as she watched him go restlessly from one painting to another, straightening them.
He’s really jumpy today, she decided. I heard him placing bets these last few days; he must have lost a lot of money. Of course, the business of that girl’s body being found on his stepbrother’s property is pretty upsetting. Yesterday, Richard had turned on the TV to watch live coverage of Susan Althorp’s funeral. He knew her, too, Pat thought. Even though it’s been a long time, seeing her casket carried into church must bring back a lot of painful memories.
That morning she asked Walker how his stepbrother was reacting to all the publicity.
“I haven’t seen Peter,” he told her. “I did call and let him know I was thinking about him. All this is happening with him just back from his honeymoon. It’s got to be difficult.”
Later it had been so quiet in the gallery that when the phone rang, Pat jumped. This place is getting on my nerves, she thought as she reached for the receiver.
“Walker Art Gallery. Good afternoon.”
She looked up to see Richard Walker running toward her, waving his arms. She could read his lips: “I’m not here. I’m not here.”
“Put Walker on.” It was a command not a request.
“I’m afraid he’s out on an appointment. I don’t expect him back this afternoon.”
“Give me his cell phone number.”
Pat knew what to say: “When he’s at a meeting, he won’t turn it on. If you give me your name and number, I’ll-”
The slamming of the phone at the other end of the connection made her yank the receiver from her ear. Walker was standing next to her desk, perspiration on his forehead, his hands trembling. Before he asked, Pat volunteered, “He didn’t give a name, but I can tell you this, Richard. He sounds awfully angry.” Then, because she felt sorry for him, she offered some unsolicited advice: “Richard, your mother has a lot of money. If I were you, I’d tell her to give you what you need. That guy was scary. And then, a final piece of advice-quit playing the ponies.”
Two hours later, Richard Walker was in his mother’s home at the Carrington estate. “You’ve got to help me,” he pleaded. “They’ll kill me if I don’t pay. You know they will. This is the last time, I swear it.”
Elaine Carrington looked at her son, fury in her eyes. “Richard, you’ve drained me dry. I get one million dollars a year from the estate. Last year, between your gambling and the expense of the gallery, you got nearly half of it.”
“Mother, I’m begging you.”
She looked away. He knows I have to give it to him, Elaine thought. And he knows where, if I’m desperate, I can get whatever amount I need.
Former ambassador Charles Althorp knocked at the door of his wife’s bedroom. Yesterday, after the funeral, she had come home and gone straight to bed. He did not yet know whether or not she had heard that Maria Valdez, the form
He found her propped up in bed. Even though it was nearly noon, Gladys Althorp had clearly not attempted to get up. Her breakfast tray, virtually untouched, was on the bedside table. The television was on, although the sound was turned down so low it was only a murmur.
Looking at the emaciated woman from whom he had been estranged for years, Althorp felt an unexpected and overwhelming wave of tenderness toward her. At the funeral parlor, the casket had been surrounded by pictures showing moments from Susan’s nearly nineteen years. I traveled so much, he thought. So many of the pictures, especially the later ones, were just of Gladys and Susan.
He pointed to the television. “You’ve obviously heard about Maria Valdez.”
“Nicholas Greco phoned me, and then I saw it on CNN. He said that her testimony could be the key to convict Peter Carrington of Susan’s death. I only wish I could be in court to see him led away in handcuffs.”
“I hope you are there, my dear. And I can assure you that I will be.”
Gladys Althorp shook her head. “You know perfectly well that I am dying, Charles, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Now that I know where Susan is, and that I’ll be with her soon, I have to confess something. I’ve always believed that Peter took Susan’s life, but there’s also been one tiny doubt in my mind. Did you hear her go out that night? Did you follow her? You were very angry with her. Had the two of you quarreled because she learned that you were involved with Elaine? Susan was so protective of me.”
MARY HIGGINS CLARK SERIES:
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