If the headline of Wednesday’s June 9th’s edition of the Newport Times were mine to write, it would read Thomas Gallagher ruled innocent of wrongdoing in murder of local contractor Howard Cleave. Instead it read, “Local Contractor Bludgeoned to Death”, and near the end, the article named a person of interest -- my father.
At 6:10 A.M. on Saturday morning my husband’s hazel eyes opened to another serene June morning, and having no choice, I began my day immediately, too. Pleading for ten more minutes of solitude fell on deaf ears. My 115-pound German shepherd jumped from the bottom of the bed to the floor, chased his tail in a circle, and barked twice in my direction.
“I need coffee and the newspaper.” Grumbling I rubbed my eyes and gestured with a limp hand for my husband, Nick, to help me get out of bed. He reached down and pulled me to my feet.
“You’ll to have to let Cooper out,” he said. I have to get showered and meet your dad at the golf course. We tee off at seven thirty.” My head tilted in his direction as his bare butt flashed me before hitting the shower stall.
The provocative moment was fleeting, because I did not feel pleasant and amiable at this early hour. All I could muster was my hand puppet gesturing back. I stumbled through the kitchen and pushed open the back door. Cooper raced out and lifted his leg on the nearest object, Nick’s not so old putter leaning against the porch. I dragged myself back inside and across the tiled floor to the countertop where I flipped on the coffeepot.
Thirty minutes later Nick had left for the course, driving his mother’s not-so-old-hand-me-down Audi, Cooper had completed scrutinizing all lawn smells, and I sat at the kitchen table reading my latest freelance investigative story in the local paper. It’s title: “Animal Hoarding-Loving Animals to Death”. The story read like a pet holocaust. This was only a part-time job, however. My primary position was being owner of Paws For Love, my pet store in Harbor View, Rhode Island.
“Well Cooper, what will we do today while your dad and granddad play eighteen?”
A polite moan was all I received as he plodded into the family room and lay his one hundred and fifteen pounds on the plush throw rug in front of the television set.
“Good idea, Coop.” Flipping on the TV I piled pillows from the couch into a small pyramid on the floor, lay down beside my big mound of fur, and proceeded to catch up on much needed sleep.
The jarring ring of the phone startled us both to a standing position. I jumped to grab the receiver before the machine answered but tripped over Cooper, stubbing my toe on the worn side table.
“Hello,” I screeched.
“Morgan,” came the familiar voice of my spouse. I think your dad may be arrested!”
“What? Dad might be congested?”
“No, you ninny. Arrested. Come to the clubhouse. The police are here and they’re asking your dad about the murder of Howard Cleave, his building contractor.”
My normal unruffled posture, honed from a few years investigating for my writing, dissolved into mush. I was a thoroughly frightened daughter who had lost her head and whose big right toe was throbbing like a croaking toad.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” I slammed down the receiver and rushed out the door, un-brushed teeth, hair, and all.
I screeched to a stop in the parking lot of Harbor View Country Club, dashed up the sloped entryway, and ran smack into Lieutenant Mark Sherman.
“Hey, hey there. Slow down, the fire’s been contained, no need for panic.” Mark placed his hands on my shaking shoulders.
I wasn’t amused. I tried to remind myself the virtue of patience, but as usual, found it difficult as I said,“He didn’t do it. Whatever happened, whatever you think he did, he’s innocent.” At that moment, seeing Nick and Thomas Gallagher come strolling through the pro shop with grins on their faces and I had to assume this was a “you’re on candid camera” joke.
I ran to my dad and squeezed him hard, a gesture of annoyance as much as love. “What is going on here?” I asked, confused. “Your contractor is dead?”
“It seems so, Morgan.” Lieutenant Sherman answered for my father. He stepped between us scratching his ample thirty-eight inch waistline. Mark was a friend and confidant whenever I had questions about police procedure for an article. The fact he was also a member of our church and a dental patient of my husband’s, didn’t hurt. “Your dad found Howard Cleave near the sixteenth green in some tall grass. The ME says he was bludgeoned with a blunt instrument some time yesterday evening.”
“So, why are you arresting Dad for merely making a phone call?”
“We’re not and he didn’t. One of the greenskeepers phoned it in. They were spraying weed control and saw your father leaning over the Cleave’s body early this morning.”
Mark turned as the other half of Cleveland Construction walked in. “Ah, Mr. Landus, glad you’re here. I have a few questions to ask you.”
I took that well-chosen moment to lead both my husband and my father to the rear of the foyer.
A lot of hubbub was going on with workers coming in and out, finishing up last-minute work on a major club renovation. I raised my voice a decibel higher. “Explain to me what happened this morning. You were supposed to be meeting Nick to tee-off at seven thirty. Isn’t the sixteenth green near your new construction?”
“You’re right, Hon. I went to check on things,” my father said clearing his throat. “Your Mom was concerned about the wrong size of an island sink, so before I met Nick I stopped by the new house. I glanced out of the kitchen window and noticed a set of clubs lying on the ground beyond the tree line.”
“Really, really Dad. On any other day you would ignore anything and everything to get to the tee on time, but today, of all days, you had to be curious?”
“I know a good set of clubs when I see them.”
“Okay, go on,” I said rolling my eyes.
“Well, it was too early for someone to be playing a round. I walked through the brush towards the bag and practically tripped over Howard. I knew it wasn’t good news when I took a closer look, and that was when the
greenskeepers drove up. They took one look at the body, then at me, and took off like the space shuttle towards the clubhouse. That’s it. I got in the car, dialed nine one one, and drove here to the clubhouse to meet Nick and let him know what happened.”
“There’s nothing else, right? You didn’t touch anything or see the murder weapon or move the bag?”
“Morgan, you can‘t be serious? After all your mom and I have been through with you and your part-time job—of course not.” My parents had an elephant’s-never-forget-syndrome when it came to anything negative happening in my life.
“Just checking. It’s easy to lose your head under these types of circumstances. I should know.”
I was about to render all my knowledge about crime scenes when Lieutenant Sherman showed up behind us and patted Dad on the back. “Well, Tom, you can go for now. But please notify us if you plan to leave the area. We may need to ask you more questions.”
“More questions about what, Mark?” I said disheartened. “I think he’s told you everything he knows.”
Dad squeezed my shoulder. “Morgan, pull yourself together. He’s just doing his job.” Turning to Mark he said, “That’s fine, Lieutenant, I don’t plan on going anywhere but onto the tee to play eighteen, if that’s okay with you?”
“Watch out for the dogleg on the eighth hole. It’s a doozy.” Mark slapped my father on the back again and walked away.
My amazement at how anything and everything in men’s lives could turn to sports, and in this case golf, no matter what the circumstances. “You two astonish me. Dad, how you can know someone was murdered, by your new soon-to-be-home no less, then play a game requiring copious amounts of concentration...well, I’m shocked.”
The response I got was a smile and a shrug from both men. As Nick turned to walk away, he quipped, “No sense wasting a nice day.”
“All right, I’m not going to argue. Did you ever look at the sink for Mom while you were at the house, because I can go check it for you.” My duplicitous question didn’t go unnoticed.
“Maybe you’d better call your mother first. I’m not certain I knew what she was talking about. Thanks Honey.” He kissed me on the cheek and left out the door.
A raised eyebrow from Nick bore into me.
“What? It’s just a sink I’m checking.”
“Hah, a sink is not what you’re checking. No, no, no, stay out of it, away from it; don’t go near it, that’s all I am saying. I’m going golfing now. I’ll see you later for lunch.”
I patted his behind and smirked behind his back. After only three years of marriage he knew me all too well. I got in my Volvo SUV, drove a few holes down, and parked in front of my parent’s house. Though brand new it looked quaint with stucco siding hugging up against the hipped river rock chimney. Police vehicles still sat alongside the road. I stole a furtive glance around the outside of the house before entering through a side door. I watched through a kitchen window, still covered by manufacturer’s stickers, as the police carried bags of debris from the crime scene to a vehicle parked near the backyard. A tarp, I assumed, hid the spot where the body had lain and police tape strung from tree to tree encompassed a large living room sized area. Crime scenes piqued my curiosity. I liked to think I could see things other eyes missed.
Unknowingly, I would be honing my detective skills, but the evidence would point in a direction I didn’t want to go.
“Sweetums, Sweetums,” I said to Nick, waving a heavily buttered cinnamon muffin in his direction.
Nick looked at me, a broad grin spreading over his face. He murmured, “You want to skip church today and sleep in?” He batted his long eyelashes in my direction.
“Shame on you, Nick Langdon. No, we are not missing church. I was trying to get your attention.” I slid an opened green envelope across the breakfast table toward him. It ricocheted off the butter dish and skidded to a stop just short of the edge of the table. “Check it out.”
Lowering the morning paper, Nick peered at me over headlines reporting some innocuous sewer damage. He scanned the envelope and groaned folding the newspaper and dropping it onto a heap on the floor. He removed the filigreed invitation. Dark green lettering read, “You are invited to celebrate the Grand Opening of Harbor View Country Club’s Newly Renovated Clubhouse. Attire – Country Club Chic.”
“Are you really going to make me go to this thing? Dressing up more than twice a year is more than my sad feet can endure.” He placed the invitation back in the envelope.
“We need to go for Frank’s sake. He’s trying to get his new company, Parties-for-a-Pence, off the ground. Besides, you’ve got two weeks to prepare.” Frank Brower was a darling of a man with a dreadful millionaire for a mother. Despite his Elmer Fudd speech impediment he had opened his own business and even managed to get his new girlfriend, Carol, to help out, but under the guise of employee. If his mother ever found out Carol was so close to her Frankie, she’d not only cut the purse strings in two, but also tie the ends in a knot.
Nick harrumphed at my small guilt trip and pushed the invitation back in my direction.
“How about after the party I give you a thirty-minute foot rub. Fair enough?”
“If you throw in the new putter I was admiring we have a deal.”
“You’re a tough negotiator. Now get ready for Sunday service and don’t forget, my parents are joining us today.”
It was noon as our family strolled out onto the walkway of First Baptist Church. “Have you heard any news about Mr. Cleave’s case?” I could tell Mom was nervous by the small sheepish voice she used. I’d heard it enough times. When I called her after my first teenage fender bender, I sensed the fearful tension whenever I asked to borrow the car.
“No news is good news,” I said touching her arm. “Why do you sound so concerned? Dad’s been cleared of any wrong-doing.”
“I’m not concerned for your father. I’m concerned about your taking on a story for the paper. You remember
the problems you had before. I’m not sure I could go through another episode like that again.” Her arm reached out and hooked Dad’s in hers.
She was speaking of an incident in which my investigative intuition had gotten me into a sticky and scary situation. “Oh, Mom. How many more stories have I done before and since where nothing went wrong? Focus on those.” Her sincerity touched me, but not enough to warrant my dropping a story I thought had merit. “Besides, I don’t know if I’m interested in a dead contractor.”
“You say that with such nonchalance,” Dad chimed in, “as if dead contractors are a dime a dozen.”
“Well, aren’t they?”
“Oh, honey.” My mother was always mortified at my frankness. One of my many personality flaws I was still working on.
“Stop worrying. The store is keeping me too busy this month, anyway. That should make you happy.” Mom pursed her lips and said goodbye. Nick and I headed home for a long lazy afternoon of fetch with the dog and grilled burgers and beans for us.
The workweek began for me on Tuesday at Paws for Love. I pondered ideas out loud to Cooper on how to celebrate my two-year anniversary of ownership. I gobbled down another blueberry muffin in my office at the back of the store when I heard a customer tap the bell on the front counter.
I jumped to attention and Cooper barked. Pushing open the saloon-style doors I found Mark Sherman standing behind the bead-board counter. His eyes averted mine as he took a deep breath and looked down at the floor. My heart sank. My woman’s intuition was knocking at my brain telling me the reason he was here was not a good one. I was found right the moment his lips began to move.
“I wanted to let you know we found the murder weapon.”
I swallowed hard. “That’s good. Where?”
“Now take a deep breath, Morgan. I don’t want you hyperventilating, but a workman found a three iron with blood on it lying behind a stack of tile inside your folk’s new house late Saturday. It matches the set found at the crime scene. The worker knew enough not to touch anything, knowing of his employer’s murder, and called us immediately. We believe the blood to be Mr. Cleave’s, but the lab results are pending.”
“Anyone could have put it there. The house isn’t locked.”
“You’re right about that, however....” He paused deflecting my stare. “The problem is we found prints on it,
your dad’s prints, to be specific. We just matched them today.”
I felt my legs giving out on me. I pulled the counter stool behind me and sat on it. “How is that possible? Why didn’t they call me? Dad said he never touched anything.” My mind reeled with probabilities. “There has to be a rational explanation for this. You know Dad would never murder anyone. Right? Besides, he was with Mom the night Cleave was killed.”
“Apparently not.” Mark reached out and touched my arm. “Cleave’s watch crystal was busted and the hands were frozen at eight thirty three. We’re assuming, for now, that’s the time of death. Your mom had a Bunco game and your dad was home alone. Listen, I know this is hard. I came here to give you a heads up. Your parents’ new construction is now a crime scene and your dad has been brought in for questioning. More than likely he’ll be charged. I’m assuming he has a lawyer.”
“Not that kind of lawyer.”
“You’d better suggest he find one and soon. This type of evidence is hard to refute.” He reached up from my arm to squeeze my shoulder and grinned through tightened lips. He tipped his head towards mine leaving behind an odor of stale coffee.
All I could think about was my mother, who I was certain was having a coronary while Dad, in his usual laid-back way, was doing nothing to help matters. He truly did have the faith of a mustard seed.
I taped a “we’re closed due to a family emergency” sign on the front door, left a message with Nick’s secretary, and drove to the police station in a half psychotic state of mind.