Vineyard stalker, p.21

Vineyard Stalker, page 21


Vineyard Stalker

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  “You’re scum,” she said with contempt. “Scum.”

  As I went out the door, feeling that she might be right, I heard her phone ringing. On Martha’s Vineyard, the real estate business never stops. I walked back to the truck, passing tourists who were enjoying Edgartown’s lovely side streets, then drove to Dom Agganis’s office.

  Olive Otero was there, holding down the fort. I told her about the diamond ring and she said, “Ah, a broken engagement. Love doesn’t seem to last too long these days. We’ll get back up there and see what we can find.”

  Then I gave her the tape recorder and told her the tale that went with it.

  She turned it in her hands. “You know we can’t use this as evidence, don’t you?”

  “I know,” I said, “but if you listen to it, you might find something that will help you. Cabot is very slick. He never really admits that he’s involved in anything or says that he wants me to do anything illegal. He implies it, but he never says it. My impression of him is that he never says anything without a lawyer at his shoulder. The woman is a different matter. She admits that she hit Melissa Carson that night. Maybe you can use the tape to squeeze the truth out of her.”

  Olive nodded. “We’ll listen to this, for what it’s worth.”

  “If you can get Fred or Angie to talk, and if the lab can show that the Mini Cooper was scratched by the bushes across from the murder scene, and if you can spook an admission out of either Cabot or Sally Oliver, maybe you can get a conviction.”

  “That’s a lot of ifs and a big maybe,” said Olive.

  I felt weary and hungry. I walked back to the truck and drove home, wondering how long Alfred and Sally Oliver would wait before they contacted each other and began carefully trying to find out what I had said to each of them, and who was the greater liar, and who had the most to fear.


  Oliver Underfoot wound around my ankles and Velcro lay in my arms and buzzed. I was wearing a loose summer shirt over the old .38 revolver I had stuck in my belt and was sitting in the rocking chair on the screened porch, waiting to see who would show up. The screened porch was often the most comfortable spot in the house during the summer, since the prevailing southwest winds kept it cool even on hot days such as this one. From my chair I could look up the sandy driveway and see arriving visitors long before they could see me.

  Would there be one or two? Would the one feeling most threatened by me, or most anxious to do business with me, show up alone? Which would it be? Sally? Alfred?

  Or would they arrive together, showing strength in numbers, to put me in my place by hanging together rather than hanging separately?

  Or would anyone come at all?

  I ran everything I knew and had heard through my mind, then looked at my suspicions. Some things I seemed to see face to face, others as through a glass darkly. The scheme to vandalize Roland Nunes’s property had certainly been funded and planned by Sally and Alfred, and the DA could probably make a good case for that in court if Nunes decided to press charges. The murder was another matter.

  Both Sally and Alfred had motives and opportunity. Sally had told me she hit Melissa but she couldn’t remember what happened after that. Was she telling the truth? Each of them was physically larger and stronger than Melissa, and the DA could argue that each was jealous and fearful of financial loss, and had been at the murder scene that fatal night. The scratches on Sally’s car might prove useful to him, and if he interviewed the two separately, as he certainly would do, he might get one of them to talk, or even agree to testify against the other.

  But then again, the two of them might be made of sterner stuff. They might stick together like glue, defending themselves with the finest lawyers Alfred’s money could buy, who would be very fine lawyers indeed, denying everything and laughing at the DA’s evidence. All they had to do was create doubt in one member of the jury.

  I put myself in the place of that juror and found that such doubt was already in my mind. Alfred and Sally might get nailed for vandalism, but they had a good chance of walking away from the murder rap. In fact, if Roland Nunes was the monk some took him to be, he might not even bring charges against Al and Sal for vandalism, and they might stay free as birds. Stranger things happen all the time, for justice has ever been elusive in this best of all possible worlds.

  Alfred’s Hummer came down my driveway.

  It stopped beside my Land Cruiser. Beauty and the beast.

  Alfred Cabot got out of the driver’s side and Sally Oliver got out of the passenger door. Two men I’d never seen before emerged from the rear doors. The men were wearing neckties and carrying briefcases. Lawyers for sure, since, except for weddings and funerals, only lawyers and Mormon missionaries wear ties on Martha’s Vineyard and these men were a lot older than the youngsters who were usually doing their two-year stints for the Latter Day Saints.

  They all looked at the house, which long ago had been a hunting and fishing camp but now had been roughly modernized into a home for the Jacksons. They exchanged words in low voices, then advanced. When they got near the porch door, I said, “Hello. Come right in.”

  Alfred Cabot led the way. Our porch is furnished with a couch and chairs, all padded with waterproof seats and pillows, and I waved a hand at them.

  “Sit down,” I said. “This is Velcro, and the guy at my ankles is Oliver Underfoot. What can I do for you?”

  They sat. The three men had cool, hooded eyes, but Sally Oliver’s were blazing

  “It’s not what you can do for us,” said Cabot. “It’s what we can do for you. This is Mr. Belltower and this is Mr. Webb. They’re partners in Patt, Carlson, Church, and Connell. Are you familiar with the firm?”

  I stroked Velcro, who was quite uninterested in my guests. “I’ve seen the name in the Globe. You got them down here in no time at all. It’s only been two or three hours since we talked. A corporate jet, I presume. Now, what is it that you can do for me?”

  Mr. Belltower had a gentle voice. “You’ve made an illegal proposition to our clients, and have threatened to involve Mr. Cabot in a murder investigation. You’ve also suggested that Mr. Cabot accuse Ms. Oliver of having committed that murder.”

  “And,” said Mr. Webb, “you similarly threatened Ms. Oliver and suggested that she accuse Mr. Cabot of the crime. You’ve dug a deep hole for yourself, Mr. Jackson, and you’re down in the bottom of it. We’re here to help you out of it before you get buried alive.”

  “Accusations are easy to make,” I said. “Proving them is something else. Do you have any evidence that what you just told me actually happened? Or are you just taking the word of these two possible suspects in vandalism and murder?”

  Mr. Belltower said mildly, “If it comes to testimony, Mr. Jackson, we’re confident that our clients’ reputations will carry more weight than yours. However, we think it best if this matter never gets to court, so we’re here to tell you that if you persist in involving yourself in our clients’ lives and in making these outlandish accusations and propositions, we’re prepared to use all of our firm’s considerable resources to defend them.”

  “That’s your job,” I said. “It’s why you get the big bucks.”

  “Part of that defense, of course, would include discrediting you, should you be involved in the proceedings. We hope you won’t be, and that you’ll not be tempted to pass your incredible accusations along to anyone else.”

  I had already passed them along to the police, so I said, “If you’re through telling me what you’ll do to me if I stay involved in this case, what is it that you came here to do for me if I don’t?”

  “Why,” said Mr. Webb, spreading his very clean hands, “we will let you go on living your carefree life.” He smiled a lawyer’s smile.

  “Nobody lives a carefree life,” I said.

  “Yours could become much more complicated,” he said. “The law can be a heavy burden on an estate. Have you read Bleak House?”

  “A long time ago, but I get your drift.
I returned his smile. “Since we seem to be teetering on the brink of a relationship, may I have your card? And yours, too, if you please, Mr. Belltower.”

  “Of course.”

  I glanced at the cards and put them in my shirt pocket. Then I said, “I think you folks have me outgunned in matters of the law, and that it’s likely that you can tie me up in lawsuits and other difficulties so badly that I could lose everything.”

  “Nothing illegal, of course,” said Belltower in his gentle voice.

  “Of course not,” I said in a matching voice. “But like the song says, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. If you take everything I have, I’m free. Have you ever heard of a man named…well, never mind his name. Just take my word for it that he’s real. He’s an old guy who lives in Oak Bluffs.” Omitting their names, I told them of the time Cousin Henry Bayles had confronted Ben Krane. When I was through with my little tale, they looked at me.

  Webb frowned for the first time. “Are you threatening us, Mr. Jackson? Are you saying that if we take action against you, that you will kill us?”

  I widened my eyes. “Of course not. What a thing to say. What gave you that idea? I assure you that I mean nothing of the kind. I’m shocked at the suggestion.”

  “You don’t look shocked,” said Mr. Belltower, thoughtfully.

  “I repeat that I certainly am. What can I say that will make you believe me? Tell me, and I’ll say it. Now, I admit that I know all of your names and your places of work, and I’m sure that I could find your residences and your family members if I was so inclined, which I assure you I am not because I have no interest at all in using that information in any way at all.” I petted Velcro and got a larger purr for my efforts, and then looked at Mr. Webb. “You seem to be a literary man. Have you read The Brothers Karamazov?”

  “A long time ago,” he said.

  “You’ll recall Ivan saying that if there is no God, all things are lawful, and Smerdyakov taking that as permission to murder his father.”

  “Yes, I remember something like that. What is your point?”

  “It’s a moral perspective different from that in Bleak House.”

  “Not yours, I hope.”

  “No, but I don’t believe in gods.”

  “You won’t be very dangerous if you’re in jail,” said Cabot.

  “I’m not dangerous,” I said. “I’ve got too much to lose.” I looked at Belltower. “Let me get us some lemonade. Then you four will want a few minutes alone, and I have to make a phone call. I’ll join you again after you have your chat. How does that sound?”

  “It’s a warm day,” said Belltower. “Thank you.”

  I put Velcro down and went into the house. There was lemonade in the fridge. I put the pitcher on a tray with four glasses, poured a glass for myself, and went out to the porch. I put the tray on a table, smiled a host’s smile, and went back into the house, shutting the door behind me.

  Using the bedroom phone, I called Brady Coyne’s office in Boston, figuring I had a fifty-fifty chance of finding him there practicing law instead of being off casting flies into some trout stream. I was lucky. Julie, his secretary, said, “You aren’t going to haul him down to the island for some fishing are you? He’s got work to do.” I assured her that I was not, and she put me through to his office. When we finished our opening hellos and how-are-things, I asked him what he knew about Belltower and Webb.

  “Very smart, very tough guys. You don’t want them mad at you.”

  “Are they honest?”

  “What a question! Have you ever heard of a dishonest lawyer?”

  “Well, are they?”

  “Yes. Both of them. They look soft, but they’re hard; but you can trust them if you can afford them. I don’t think you can.”

  “Hell, I can’t even afford you.”

  When we rang off, I took my glass of lemonade out to the porch.

  “Hiring a killer?” asked Alfred Cabot.

  “No,” I said, sitting down. “Checking up on your lawyers.” I looked at them. “Do you really think your clients, here, are innocent as lambs?”

  “I don’t know much about lambs,” said Webb, “but no charges have been brought against Mr. Cabot or Ms. Oliver, and if that should happen we will defend them against all accusations.”

  I said, “I think you’ll have your work cut out for you if Roland Nunes decides to press charges. I’ll probably be asked to testify for the prosecution because I saw Fred McMahan and Angie Vinci, a couple of small-time Charlestown hoods that Alfred may have failed to mention to you, at the scene of the vandalism. And I imagine that Angie or Fred or both will name Alfred, here, as the guy who hired them to do the dirty work. Whether Al, here, will testify that Sal, here, pushed him to hire them I don’t know, although that’s the way I think it worked.”

  “What you think doesn’t make much difference,” said Webb.

  “What I saw does, and the photos I took will, too.”

  Belltower looked at me. “This is the first I’ve heard of photos. We’ll want to see them, of course.”

  “Of course you will. I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think Alfred, here, is capable of murder? Of breaking a woman’s neck?”

  Almost everyone is capable of murder, if the circumstances are right, but Belltower understood what I meant.

  “I think not,” he said. “Physical violence is not his line.” Then he added, “Of course, none of our clients is capable of murder.”

  “How about Sally Oliver? She looks murderous enough right now.”

  Sally Oliver insulted my mother and suggested that I perform an impossible sexual act.

  “Ms. Oliver is our newest client,” said Belltower, “so, of course, she too is incapable of violence.”

  “She told me that she hit Melissa Carson and can’t remember what happened next. That sounds like violence to me.”

  “Our position is that no blow was struck and nothing happened next. Ms. Oliver has told us that she and Ms. Carson argued, and that Ms. Carson slipped and fell. Mr. Cabot led Ms. Oliver away and they drove to her home. If need be, our clients will swear to that under oath.”

  “Leaving Melissa Carson unconscious on the ground with a bruise on her jaw.”

  “Perhaps she hit her head when she fell. In any case, she was very much alive and conscious when our clients left. They murdered no one.”

  “Why were they there, if they meant no harm?”

  “Mr. Cabot’s fiancée was said to be involved with Roland Nunes. They were there to see if it was true. And it was. They exchanged words with her and left.”

  I thought Belltower seemed very good at his work. There was nothing bombastic about him. His mild voice was very persuasive. If he said his clients were innocent, a jury would be inclined to believe him.

  As for me, I was more persuaded by the fact that neither Al nor Sal had been seriously tempted to toss the other to the wolves. I’d given them every chance, but instead they had formed a united front.

  “Tell me,” I said to Belltower, “after these supposed conversations I had with your clients, which of them phoned the other? Did he call her, or did she call him?”

  Webb leaned forward. “Are you acknowledging that you encouraged each of them to accuse the other of murder and promised to provide each an alibi?”

  “No. I’ll admit I had a chat with each of them, but I’ll swear on the Bible that I never encouraged them to do anything or promised that I’d do anything.”

  “That would be a lie.”

  “I don’t think you can prove it. Who called who?”

  “I believe that should be ‘who called whom,’ Mr. Jackson. In any case, Mr. Cabot called me, then called Ms. Oliver,” said Belltower. “I believe you were just leaving her office at the time.”

  I remembered the phone ringing as I’d gone out the door.

  “If your pure-as-driven-snow clients here didn’t kill Melissa Carson,” I said to Belltower, “who did?”

I’m not a prosecuting attorney. Our concern is defending our clients.”

  I looked at Cabot. “Did you see anyone else there?”


  I looked at Sally Oliver. “Did you?”


  But if they were telling the truth someone else had been there.

  “You can go home,” I said to the lawyers. “I may be asked to testify about Fred and Angie if there’s a trial, but otherwise your clients are safe from me.”

  “I’m gratified to hear it,” said Webb, rising with the others. “But you’ll understand if we keep you in our thoughts until this matter is concluded.”

  “I understand. Are you a churchgoing man, Mr. Webb?”

  “Yes, I am.”

  “Just remember that I’m not.”

  He actually smiled. “I’ll remember, Mr. Jackson.”

  I watched them drive away. It was past mid-afternoon. I got in the Land Cruiser and drove up-island, feeling bad.


  The new house was crawling with workers. Roland Nunes was using his air-powered nail gun to build a railing on the wide deck that reached out toward Menemsha Pond from the living room. Beyond and below him, some small sailboats were racing between markers on the pond, their captains and crews paying no attention to the latest mansion being erected on the shoreline. Maybe they had seen photos of the stone cities of Malta, an island nation almost exactly the size of the Vineyard but having four hundred thousand permanent residents, and were not impressed by a single giant wooden house. As I watched, bright spinnakers flowered as the boats rounded a mark and fell away downwind.

  Below the deck, the land dropped away fifty feet or so, in a sharp decline, to a beach covered with rocks that had once been in New Hampshire but had ended up here when the last glacier had stopped and then had begun its slow retreat to the north, leaving behind the mounds of stone and dirt that it had pushed south and that later, as the seas rose, became Nantucket, the Vineyard, Block Island, and the other islands on New England’s south coast.

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