Vineyard stalker, p.20

Vineyard Stalker, page 20

 

Vineyard Stalker
 


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  “I was right here.”

  “Can you prove it? Jealousy is a classic motive for murder. Melissa Carson was romancing Roland Nunes. If she married him instead of you, he’d have plenty of money to build a better place on his land, and he might even produce an heir, so it’s possible that the land couldn’t be sold for at least another generation. She was killed as she was leaving his house.” I gestured at his hands. “Her neck was broken, and you’re a big, powerful man.” I raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think that your man Elmer will risk a perjury charge by testifying under oath that you were here when Melissa died? Because I don’t think you were here. I think you were there, with Sally Oliver, in her Mini Cooper, parked in the lane across the road, waiting for Melissa.”

  His eyes flared. Was fear the fuel? “You know a lot of liars! I was here. I don’t have to prove I was!”

  I leaned back in my chair. “Don’t get worked up,” I said. “Personally, I don’t care where you were. I came here looking for work.”

  His hands were claws. “Work? What are you talking about?”

  “Two things,” I said. “First, I can finish the job McMahan started. Nunes and his sister trust me, but I don’t owe them a thing and I don’t care what happens to the land. I took her job because I needed the money. I think you might give me more to burn down his house and his outbuildings. The other thing I can do is give you an alibi for the night Melissa Carson was killed. The DA might not believe Elmer, but I’m not a friend or employee of yours, so if I testify that we were up here together that night, they’ll believe me.”

  He studied me. “This is blackmail.”

  “I’m not threatening you,” I said. “I’m looking for work. If you get caught, I get caught; we’ll be in it together.”

  He put his fingers together. “You’re proposing that I hire you to commit a crime. I can have you arrested.”

  I sat for a moment, then stood up. “There’s a phone on your desk. Make your call to the cops. I’ll let myself out.”

  I was halfway to the door when he said, “Don’t be hasty, Mr. Jackson. Come back and sit down.”

  I went back to my chair.

  “I’m going to make some inquiries about you,” said Cabot. “Presuming that I find you to be a reliable person, what do you think your services are worth?”

  I named a figure that was large to me.

  He didn’t seem to think it was worth a second thought. “You’ll want that in cash, of course.”

  I nodded. “For both our sakes. Fifties and smaller. All old.”

  “When do you plan to do the work?”

  “The sooner the better. Tomorrow morning, after Nunes goes to work. I think it was a mistake to try to do it at night while he was home. I can be in and out of there in a few minutes and no one will see me. I’ll come in by the old path from the far woods. There won’t be any walkers there that early.”

  “It will take me a while to collect your money in old bills.”

  “I’m in no rush. We have to trust one another.”

  His smile was ironic but real. “Yes. Trust is important among businessmen.” He paused. “We must decide why you were here with me the night of Melissa’s murder. As you say, we’re not friends. What was your business?”

  “I was trying to learn whether you knew McMahan and Vinci. You denied it. I was here for half an hour or so before you threw me out. Where was the guard at the gate that night? Where was Elmer? Why didn’t they see me?”

  Cabot thought for a moment, then said, “The guard doesn’t work evenings, and it was Elmer’s night off. I opened the gate from here, when you called on the speaker that’s mounted on the gate post.”

  “Elmer will agree that it was his night off?”

  “He’ll be telling the truth. It actually was his night off. I think he went to a movie. I’ll check and see what was playing that night.” He was looking at me with interest. “You’re not what you seem, are you? You look like an ordinary man with ordinary feelings, but you’re not. You don’t give a damn about anything, do you?”

  “I give a damn about money,” I said. “Not as much as you do, of course.”

  He nodded. “If this business works out, I might have more employment for you in the future.”

  “Somebody’s going to have to take the fall for Melissa Carson’s killing,” I said. “Have you given that any thought?”

  “Some.”

  “I think your girlfriend Sally Oliver would make a good patsy. She had plenty of motive and she was at the scene.”

  He didn’t deny it. Instead, he said. “If she’s charged, she’ll say we were together or that I did it.”

  “And I’ll say you didn’t. Or maybe you can figure out a way to keep her from talking,” I said. “Let me know if you think of anything.”

  I got up and went to the door. In the atrium, Elmer was sitting on a bench, sweating lightly in the tropic air. After I passed him, I clicked off the tape recorder in my pocket. He followed me out to the truck, and my rearview mirror told me that he watched me out of sight. Someone had called the gate guard, because the gate was swinging open as I approached it. I took a left and headed for Edgartown.

  26

  It was almost noon when I got to the village, and by the time I found a parking place on School Street, up beyond the historical society museum, I thought that Sally Oliver might have gone to lunch. But when I reached Prada Real Estate, Sally’s Mini Cooper was still in its parking slot. I turned on the tape recorder and went inside. Industrious Sally was, according to her receptionist, in her office, busy with a customer.

  “You’re Mr. Jackson,” she added, smiling a professional smile. “You were here a few days ago.”

  “Yes. Would you please tell Ms. Oliver that I’d like to talk with her about a property in West Tisbury? Another gentleman, a Mr. McMahan, has withdrawn his interest in the place, but I still am very interested.”

  I said I’d wait and she nodded and spoke into her phone. While I sat, I looked at the photos of Sally running, Sally swimming, Sally biking, and Sally holding trophies. She was very fit in every photo, and I remembered her firm handshake when first we’d met.

  In time, her office door opened and a man came out, looking pleased at whatever he’d been told. Sally Oliver had a farewell smile for him but not a welcoming one for me. Still, she waved me into the office and shut the door behind us.

  “What can I do for you today, Mr. Jackson?” She glanced down at a note on her desk. “Who’s this Mr. McMahan you mentioned?”

  “He’s a very mysterious guy, apparently. You never heard of him, and Alfred Cabot never met him, but he’s one of the two guys Cabot hired to trash Roland Nunes’s property.”

  Her pretty face looked carved from ice. “I’ve never heard the name.”

  Clint Eastwood made several spaghetti westerns featuring a man with no name. Fred McMahan was a name with no man.

  “Nobody’s heard of him, lately,” I said. “I just had a chat with your boyfriend and he and I have reached an agreement. I’m here to tell you about it.”

  “He’s not my boyfriend. I told you I only know him casually. And his business is his business, not mine.”

  “I think Cabot is your boyfriend and you should know about his business since you’re the one who talked him into persuading Roland Nunes to sell his land. Fred McMahan, the guy Cabot hired—but you and he both claim you never heard of—has gone back to Boston with his partner, Angie Vinci, to have shotgun pellets removed from their backsides. They’ve gotten out of the vandalizing business on the Vineyard, but the police will be asking them some questions about who hired them, and there’s a good chance Alfred’s name will come up. If it does, yours probably will, too. Am I interesting you?”

  “No.”

  “Part two of my speech is that Alfred and I have made a business deal. Since McMahan has quit the job, Alfred is going to give me some money to burn down Nunes’s house and outbuildings tomorrow morning. That should encourage Nunes to
sell. If you don’t believe me, and you don’t think your line’s been tapped, call Cabot. He should still be at home.”

  She put her hand on her phone, but then hesitated. “Why would my line be tapped?”

  I shrugged. “The police have been thinking serious thoughts about you and Alfred for several days now, but maybe they haven’t tapped your line yet. Go ahead, call Cabot.”

  She took her hand away and brought her purse out of a desk drawer. “I’ll call him on my cell phone.”

  “All right,” I said, “but in case you didn’t know, cell phones aren’t secure at all. People can listen in without any problem, if they know what they’re doing.”

  She seemed surprised and angry. “I use my cell phone all the time for my work!”

  I nodded. “A lot of people do.”

  She glared at me. “Why are you trying to keep me from calling him?”

  “I’m not. But I’m also not anxious to have the world know about the deal I’ve made with Cabot. If you want to talk with him, call him from some other phone. Better yet, talk to him face to face, because his line might be tapped, too.” I pointed at her phone. “It’s probably safe to call him and make arrangements to meet with him somewhere where you can talk.”

  She put her hand on the phone again, then studied me. “There’s something else, isn’t there? I can see it in your face.”

  I was pleased that she’d noticed my eager expression. “Yes, there is a third thing I wanted to talk about with you. It has to do with the murder of Melissa Carson.”

  Her hand lifted from the phone and strayed to her throat.

  “I don’t know anything about that,” she said.

  “If you say so. But the police know a good deal and they’re digging deeper. You’re Alfred Cabot’s mistress, and Cabot hired McMahan to vandalize your cousin’s property. You’re the brains behind the scheme, and when the cops squeeze Cabot, he’ll rat you out.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “He’ll do no such thing. All right. I’ll tell you the truth. We’re going to be married!”

  “My congratulations. Maybe you’re correct. You know him better than I do. Maybe he’s honest and true to the end.” I leaned forward slightly. “Hiring vandals is one thing, but murder is quite another, and in this case the two crimes are linked. Cabot is a prime suspect in the killing, too, and he knows it, but he’s not about to take the fall for that. Guess who he has in mind? You were at the scene when Melissa was murdered, so you’re the one who’s going to take the rap.”

  Her wide eyes grew wild. “What liar told you that?”

  “Who do you think? Cabot can prove he was somewhere else, but you can’t. You had motive and opportunity and you’re a strong, athletic woman, so Melissa was easy prey for you. I don’t know if you intended to kill her when you met her, so the DA might not be able to stick you with murder in the first degree, but he won’t have much trouble with second degree.”

  Those eyes blazed into mine. “I wasn’t there. I was with Alfred. We were at his house.”

  “You were with Alfred, all right, but you weren’t at his house. You were driving your Mini Cooper and Alfred was with you. But he’ll deny it to the police and he’ll have a witness to verify that he was at home with that witness that night. That leaves you alone in your Mini Cooper at the murder scene when Melissa was killed.”

  “I wasn’t there and I wasn’t alone!”

  I leaned forward. “You parked in the lane across the road from the path leading to Nunes’s house, and when Melissa came out you met her. A witness heard the two of you arguing. Melissa laughed at you and you killed her. A man was with you. I think it was Alfred Cabot, but, like I say, he has a credible witness who’ll swear that he was in Chilmark at the time.”

  “Why would I have been there, waiting for her? How would I have known that she’d be down there with Roland Nunes?”

  “Because your sweetie, Alfred Cabot, told you. He knew because Melissa had told him earlier in the day. I was at her house just after they talked. She told him and he told you, and you were both waiting for her. Of course, he’ll swear you were there alone and that he was at home.”

  “He can’t testify that I was there without incriminating himself, the bastard!”

  “He can testify that you confessed to him afterward, and he can have a witness to the call you made. He’ll have to admit to initially withholding that evidence from the police, but he’ll say it was because of the power of love.”

  “He’s never loved anything but money in his life!” Her eyes flicked to the window. “My God! What the hell is going on out there?”

  I followed her gaze and saw Dom Agganis standing beside the Mini Cooper while a hauler tow truck backed into the yard behind the car.

  “That’s my car they’re towing!” She leaped to her feet and raced past me out of the office. I watched through the window as she reappeared and confronted Agganis. Her face was contorted and her mouth was moving but the office’s soundproofing was good and I could barely hear her voice. Agganis produced a paper and gave it to her. A warrant, for sure. She looked at it and raged some more, but Agganis and the truck driver both ignored her as the Mini Cooper was winched onto the truck bed and driven away.

  Sally was in a fury when she came back into the office, waving the paper. “This is a warrant! They’re taking my car! Damn them! They can’t do that! I’m calling my lawyer!” She slammed herself into her chair and snatched up her telephone.

  “I think it’s evidence in the murder case,” I said, mildly.

  She stared at me. “What do you mean?” For the first time I thought I detected an element of fear in her voice.

  “I mean your car got scratched when you parked in the path across from the lane to Nunes’s house that night. The police lab will verify that, and your story about being somewhere else will go up in smoke.”

  “How did they know about…?” She put brakes on her mouth.

  “How do you think?” I asked, with my best cynical smile. “Someone told them.”

  “Alfred!” Her anger made the name into a curse.

  I looked at my nails. “You can’t be sure. Maybe there’s another witness. Some people like to walk at night. Maybe one of them came by and saw you and Alfred park there. Maybe it was a couple of kids planning to sneak in there to have some sex or to smoke some dope. Maybe when they heard about the murder they got nervous, so they called the cops.”

  “I’m being set up!”

  “Could be,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean you need help, and I may be able to give it to you.”

  Her face became calculating. “How? Why?”

  “For money. I don’t have a regular job, so I have to find work where I can. Maybe I can find it with you.” I met her gaze. “Alfred Cabot has hired me to give him an alibi for the night of the murder. I’m his witness. If they charge him with the crime, I’m to swear that I was with him at his house that night. That leaves you alone at the scene.”

  “But he was with me!”

  “You know that and so do I, but you can’t prove it. If they try to stick him with the killing, he’ll swear that you confessed and offer me as his witness that he was home that night. You’ll be the one who’s nailed.” I paused, then said, “Unless you and I can make a better deal.”

  Her eyes became thoughtful. “What sort of deal?”

  “I think you probably killed the woman,” I said. “Alfred doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who does his own dirty work. I think it was a spur of the moment thing. You meant to show your lover what a double dealer she was, but she went you one better and told him she’d decided to marry Nunes. You saw your hopes for the land disappearing and you lost your temper and killed her.” She opened her mouth, but I held up my hand before she could speak. “I don’t care who killed her. She meant nothing to me, and neither does Alfred Cabot. Neither do you, for that matter. I’m here because I can get you off the hook.”
<
br />   “How?”

  “It’s simple. You need an alibi that you don’t have. I’ll give it to you. It’ll cost you your boyfriend and some money, but it’ll keep you out of jail.” I sat back. “Here’s what I’ll do. You’ll swear in court that Cabot borrowed your car that night. Your lawyer will ask why and you can say that you guessed later that it was because his Hummer was too big to hide. His lawyer will object on grounds that that’s speculation and the judge will sustain him, but the jury will remember. Cabot will deny that he borrowed the car and will offer me as a witness willing to swear he was at home when the killing took place. But when they put me on the stand I’ll testify that I wasn’t with him; I was with you at my house. I’ll say that my wife was away and that we were alone. I’ll say that we were there all night. It would be nice if you have a tattoo in some forbidden place that I would only know about if you were naked, but I suppose that’s too much to hope for.”

  There was a silence in the room. Then she said, “What do you want in exchange for this little deception?”

  I named my price. Because she had less money than Alfred, it was lower than the one I’d asked of him, but it was still substantial by my standards.

  She thought awhile, then nodded, and said in an arctic voice, “I can manage that, but if you’re willing to double-cross Alfred, why should I think you won’t double-cross me?”

  “Maybe I’m just sentimental about beautiful women in trouble.”

  “You don’t have any more feelings than a worm.”

  “Such a cynic. How about this deal—you don’t have to pay me until after the trial, if there is a trial. Maybe there won’t be. In that case you won’t owe me a thing. If there is, and if I testify, and if you get away with it, you’ll owe me the money. Am I fair, or what?”

  “The little bitch laughed at both of us,” she said suddenly. “Then she threw her engagement ring into the bushes and stuck her face up into mine and said she was never going to marry Alfred. I hit her, but I don’t remember much after that.”

  “You might make that story stick,” I said. “Maybe you don’t need my deal. It depends on how good your lawyer is. You’d better call him right now.” I got up. “Let me know if we have a deal. I’m going to make some money out of this one way or another, either from you or from Cabot. I don’t care which.”

 
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