La Duquesa – Wonder Horse Book Two
By: Victoria Hardesty and Nancy Perez
Writers of Action and Adventure with Arabian Horses
Sam Brown had that prickly feeling along the back of his neck when he left the coroner’s office. That usually raised red flags for him, but he just didn’t get it. The coroner was convinced Reilly Stone was stone-dead before he fell down the steps in front of the cabin in Pinon Hills. If Sam remembered correctly, it would be hard to tell if there was a struggle of any kind at that cabin. The whole place was a mess. He called his friend Charlie. “Hey, Charlie! What are you doing for lunch tomorrow? Could you meet me at our favorite Denny’s about 12:30? I’ve got an interesting case and just wanted to run some things past you.”
Charles Spade met Sam Brown often with either a case of his own or one of Sam’s. They had been partners with the department years earlier, and they’d worked well together. Sam missed working officially with him. They had a loose arrangement where they would get together off the record to discuss cases.
The next day, both men slid into a booth at the back of the restaurant the hostess led them to and took their menus from her, ordering coffees.
“How’s the wife?” Charlie asked.
“Same as always. She’s pushing me to retire soon. Maybe I can hook up with you and your practice then. I can’t imagine staying home 24/7.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. What did you want to talk to me about?” Charlie asked, sipping his coffee.
“I have an interesting case that raises red flags in my mind. I’d like to give you my impressions of an interview I did and see what you think.”
“I was called out on a death in Pinon Hills some time back. A kid out riding his dirt bike called it in to dispatch. He told the operator he’d seen a dead body around a cabin way out in the hills. He had to give us the GPS coordinates to get us there. There was only one little road to that cabin, and you could miss that if you weren’t looking for it. The first deputy to arrive took the kid’s statement and let him go. He went to the cabin and saw the man lying on the steps with his head just off the bottom step, and his legs stretched to the top step. Over and above the smell of death, the man smelled like a brewery. He was definitely dead, so I was called in on the case. I had to use my GPS to get there.”
“Sounds like he got drunk and fell to me,” Charlie mused.
“That’s what I thought when I got there too. The property around the cabin was littered with bottles, beer cans, and trash, so it looked like he’d been there a while. I had the photographer take pictures of the body as we found it. The door to the cabin was open, so I had him take a couple of photos from the deck to the inside as well. The inside of that place was a complete mess with trash, bottles, and cans everywhere. None of us went inside. Didn’t appear we needed to.”
“Okay, what happened next?”
“We called the coroner to pick up the body, and I taped the cabin with crime scene tape and left. I had the guy’s wallet in my evidence bag and looked up his next of kin for notification. I took a deputy with me and went to the address I found for the man’s wife.”
“Sounds pretty much by the book so far.”
“When we got to the house, all the blinds were closed, and the house looked like there was no one home. I rang the bell, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone inside pull the drapery back. She must have seen the Sheriff’s car in the driveway. I knew there was someone inside, so we waited. I had to ring the doorbell a second time to get any response. We heard the deadbolt unlocking and a door chain unhooking before the door opened a tiny crack. A woman asked us what we wanted. I told her we were looking for Anne Stone. She told us Anne Stone had passed away a couple of months earlier. I asked her who she was. She identified herself as Sara Evans, Anne Stone’s niece. I asked her if we could come in to talk to her. She was very reluctant about letting us in. I think our badges must have been our ticket inside. She let us into her living room and sat opposite us in a chair while we sat on her sofa. I have to tell you that woman looked like a mouse with a cat on her tail. She was so nervous and jumpy.”
“How did she react to the death notification?” Charlie asked.
“That was strange. When we got to that part, it was like letting the air out of an overfilled balloon. She just sank into that chair and deflated. It took her a minute or two before she finally sat up straight and got her wits about her again. She was an entirely different person. She answered our questions with complete sentences. I believe she was relieved. I think she was afraid of her uncle and his death released all that anxiety.”
“How was she dressed when you saw her?” Charlie asked.
“That was strange, too,” Sam commented. “She wore a high turtle neck sweater and long pants in 80-degree weather. She also wore dark glasses the entire time we were in her house. That bothered me at the time. She turned her head once, and I thought I could see a bruise on her left cheek. She kept her sleeves down to her wrists. I’m used to my wife wearing short sleeves or no sleeves when it’s hot outside. That house was cold inside like the air conditioning was on full blast. But I must tell you, that place was neat as a pin. I didn’t see a speck of dust on the furniture or the hardwood floors anywhere. It was strange how the house was buttoned up and tightly closed. It seemed to me she was afraid of something or someone, maybe Reilly Stone, until we told her he was dead.”
“She had my phone number and gave me a call, probably the same day you were there,” Charlie told him. “She said you referred her to me, and she made an appointment for the next day, the day after you visited her.”
“Ah, yes, she said she needed a private investigator to help her locate her aunt’s horse. She told me she spoke with her uncle, and he told her he sold the horse. She also told me the horse had been given to her and her aunt’s home in her aunt’s will.”
“She brought the will to my office, and I’ve looked it over. Sara Evans inherited everything her aunt had at the time of her death. She left nothing to her estranged husband, Reilly Stone, at all. And there was a considerable amount of money and property included in that will. Sara Evans will never have to work again, that’s for sure.”
“Really?” Sam replied. “Is this the money quotient in this case?”
“If there is something hinky about Reilly Stone’s death, there was a lot of money on the table. Sara Evans is a very rich woman. Her aunt was the Director of Equine Studies at Cal Poly Pomona when she died. She’d been a professor there for more than 30 years. She had a sizeable retirement account, and she’d made some very prudent investments over the years. She wasn’t the spendy type, according to her niece. She invested money instead. Anne Stone was the sole heir to her parents’ fortune. Most of that was a complete surprise to Sara, who had no idea her aunt was a multi-millionaire until her aunt’s attorney read the will. She told me she was dumbfounded.”
“How did Sara Evans appear to you during your interview?” Sam asked him.
“Must have been wearing the same clothes she wore the day before when you saw her. She was dressed in a high turtle neck sweater and long pants in 80+ degree weather, and she wore a pair of dark glasses the whole time she was in my office. I did see some ugly bruises on her arm she covered up quickly. She explained she dropped a heavy box while she was packing up some of her aunt’s things. I also thought I saw a bruise on her cheek that she hadn’t quite covered with make-up.”
“How was her demeanor with you?” Sam questioned.
“She was a lot more relaxed than the Sara Evans you described when you first saw her. She brought in the will and showed me the information on the horse. She told me her aunt loved that horse to distraction, and it was the first horse she’d ever owned. That sounded a little odd from a professor of equine studies. Sara said her aunt always told her she loved horses, but didn’t want to own one because of the expense. Sara really thought her aunt lived exclusively on her own salary and was careful with money. I believe she was telling the truth there. She’s still overwhelmed about her inheritance. I got the impression Sara Evans is a nice young lady who genuinely loved her aunt. She quit her job to care for her when she was diagnosed with cancer. She used her own money getting her to and from doctor appointments and buying food for them. She bought some things for the cabin when her aunt suggested they move there and bring the horse. Sara told me Anne Stone wanted to be able to see the horse every day, and that was the only place she could do that.”
“Okay, so you think she is truthful?” Sam asked.
“I think she told me the truth, and she told you the truth. But I think there might be a few things she is not talking about at all. She’s not lying about it, just not telling us all that she knows,” Charlie said. “I think there may be a little more to the story.”
“Well, let me tell you one more little tidbit about this case,” Sam said. “Reilly Stone did not fall down the steps at the cabin and break his neck and die. His cause of death was blunt force trauma to the left side of his head! How about those apples? He was dead before his neck snapped on the steps.”
“Are you kidding me?” Charlie asked. “Is that what the coroner told you?”
“Sure is.” Sam answered between bites of his sandwich. “The coroner didn’t get around to Reilly Stone for weeks because his case looked like a cut-and-dry accidental death. When he did get started on the autopsy, some things looked strange to him, so he took a few more x-rays. He found a deep, depressed skull fracture on his left temple that was the real cause of death. He was already dead before he collapsed on the stairs. The broken neck happened after that.”
“Any idea what caused the injury?” Charlie asked in surprise.
“Nope. The coroner said there was no trace evidence in the wound, but it looked like something large and flat hit him on the side of his head. The concussion sent bone shards deep into his brain, killing him instantly.”
“Is he reclassifying the case from accidental death to homicide?” Charlie wondered.
“Looks like it at the moment. I’ve been working on this case for a while and getting nowhere. This is about all I know about the guy. He drove a new model Mercedes sedan. I went through the car myself. I found several 36-packs of beer and several bottles of cheap scotch in the trunk. I found the receipt on the passenger seat along with a high-end bottle of scotch he’d already opened and drank part of, maybe on his way home? The receipt was dated a week before we found the body, probably the day he died. Apparently he hadn’t had time to bring the “groceries” inside before someone whacked him. And there was $350.00 in his wallet plus some change in the car. Driver’s license and auto insurance card in the wallet but no credit cards, no photos, nothing else. The only other thing in the car was a nice set of golf clubs.”
“Wow! A new Mercedes sedan? Those are pricey for someone living like a drunk hermit in a cabin in the woods.” Charlie exclaimed.
“Yeah, I called the dealership and talked to the manager there. He told me Reilly Stone called a new order in every year. Always a new sedan with all the bells and whistles. He brings in a deposit of $20,000 in cash, like hundred dollar bills in a suitcase, and waits for his new car. When the car arrives the manager calls his cell phone and gives him the total. He brings it in a suitcase in hundred dollar bills, pays tax, license fees, takes his keys, and they don’t see him again until the next year. They don’t have an address for him, just the cell phone number.”
“So do you know what he does for a living? He has to have a job that pays pretty well to afford a new Mercedes every year.” Charlie asked.
“We can’t find anything on him. He had no visible means of support, no job, no social security payments, no nothing!” Sam told him. “He’s a real mystery.”
“Tell you what, I have some time on my hands. Why don’t you forward over what you have on him and this case, and I’ll put in some time and see what I can dig up. Give me the cell phone number. I have a friend who can help me run his calls down. I’m really curious about this one. Let’s keep in touch and share what we find out. Maybe two heads are better than one,” Charlie suggested.
“Sounds good to me,” Sam agreed.