The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 10

Until the case closed, Evelyn’s body would not be released to the family for burial, nor would Conrad’s. Waiting for one funeral was one thing, but Samantha decided waiting for two would not maintain her sanity. So she organized a service for both Evelyn and Conrad, and it served as something of a wake and a funeral, so when the police department released the bodies they could be buried right away.

Rose smoothed the skirt of her black dress a little over her lap as she sat beside Annabelle, who stared blankly at the pictures at the front of the church, her eyes slightly glazed and her hair carefully curled to hide much of her face. The whole of the town attended. Adyson said most of the Benton Tech employees of the area showed up, and some of the higher-level employees flew in from around the world. Many of Conrad’s local friends filled a few pews.

“Evelyn didn’t have too many friends,” Adyson hissed, her own curls cascading down around her neck like bouncy ringlets of gold thread. “She met friends at work. That was all. Even then, I think it resembled more a strategic advantage than actual friendship. But she wanted companions like anyone else, I suppose.”

Samantha didn’t notice anything or anyone, merely dabbing her watery, dull eyes and occasionally blowing her nose in what she probably considered the most dignified way possible. Since they’d found Evelyn’s body, she’d hardly said a word, and since Michael Barron sat her down to discuss possible suspects and take a statement, she’d done little but cry. She wouldn’t have eaten anything if Sonia hadn’t been at her side, forcing spoonfuls of soup into her mouth and all but pouring water down her throat.

In spite of Sonia being the wayward child – and she confessed to Rose that she knew she’d inherited nothing on Evelyn’s will as well – she stepped up to the challenge of caring for her mother and organizing the house beautifully. With a bit of help from Adyson, she ran the servants, and already planned to convince her mother to cut down on the number of servants and events, saving a bit of the annuity for emergencies.

Sonia’s dark eyes darted around the church behind a curtain of smooth, espresso-colored hair, scanning every face, skeptical of everyone. She told Rose she was almost certain the killer would be in the church, but while Rose agreed with her, too many people filled the church for that to be of any use. Almost every face Rose saw since she arrived in town could be seen there, including Blake and Michael, who sat right behind the family, also glancing around the room, perhaps looking for someone acting suspiciously.

About halfway through the pastor’s speech, however, the door opened, and Sonia whipped around. Before Rose could even register who walked into the church so late, Sonia already stood, fury twisting her face.

“You!” she shrieked. “You monster, you killed them!”

“Miss Benton, please calm down,” Michael said, jumping to his feet. He sprang into action with youth and vigor, but Sonia already clambered out into the aisle.

Walking into the church was Luke Hatfield, looming in the doorway with the light of day backlighting him in a strangely angelic way, cutting a menacing silhouette to the eyes adjusting inside the dark church. People began to whisper amongst themselves, horrified.

Whether or not Luke actually killed anyone, Rose admitted to herself that he proved more than tactless to show up to their wake. As a business rival and obviously a personal enemy as well, he hadn’t even bothered wearing black. Whatever else he’d planned, causing a stir certainly topped the list. And he’d achieved it.

“That’s rich coming from you, sweetheart,” Luke said, smirking as he stepped into the church. “Where’s your proof? Maybe you killed them, like you killed my son.”

The buzzing in the room grew louder, more anxious, and Samantha began sobbing uncontrollably into her handkerchief. Adyson and Blake tried to calm her, Annabelle looked sick, and Michael tried to convince Sonia to sit down again, but she obviously lost all sense of propriety, not listening to reason.

“You know perfectly well Peter killed himself,” she snarled. “And he tried to take me with him!”

“He never touched drugs before you started screwing him.”

For a man supposedly upset about the loss of his son, Rose noted Luke Hatfield looked more amused than angry, or even grieved. But the purpose of his presence became clear. He showed up to stir up Sonia, to push her to feel guilty or angry somehow, and clearly it worked. The personal feud between Hatfield and the Bentons only partly consisted of business: Sonia’s dead boyfriend was Luke’s son, not just any random druggie. Each father blamed the other’s child for ruining his own.

“His fingerprints covered that needle,” she said. “I fell unconscious by the time he shot up. You read the report. How could I kill him if I was out cold?”

“Sonia, please,” Annabelle said softly, her face turning red as their family secrets went on display for all the town to hear. For a girl who didn’t typically care much for the pomp and circumstance of being a Benton, she appeared to care about saving face enough to be uncomfortable with such a spectacle. “Sit down and let Michael handle this.”

“Go,” Sonia spat, ignoring her sister. “You leave this church right now, and if I ever see your face again, I will kill you.”

Considering everything going on in her family, the words could be only marginally forgivable. The whole church stirred.

“Miss Benton,” Michael said sternly, “I order you to sit down while I remove Mr. Hatfield. If you don’t comply, I will arrest you for disturbance.”

Sonia’s eyes flashed, and she realized what she’d done, what she’d just said. She allowed Rose and Annabelle to pull her back onto a pew, and Rose could feel Sonia’s trembling, strong and violent, as Michael escorted a triumphant Luke Hatfield out of the church. The crowd quieted down again, wide-eyed and pale. The pastor cleared his throat and continued with the service when Michael Barron returned, closing the door behind him.

But the damage was done. If anybody listened to a word of the service after all the chaos, Rose would have been surprised to hear of it. Samantha actually went into shock, and after the service, once the family had been driven home, Sonia took her straight to her room and called a doctor to the house. Annabelle locked herself in her room and Adyson took off muttering something about backhand, leaving Rose alone, exactly as she wanted.

Walking down the wing where most of the family bedrooms could be found, Rose spotted one of the maids polishing a silver vase. She recognized her as the one who gave her directions to the music room on her first night in Casa, so she decided the woman would be a good place to start.

“Excuse me,” Rose said, smiling. “Excuse me, it’s just, I hoped you could help me with something.”

“Yes, Mrs. McFarland?”

“Call me Rose. Now, I just had a thought that might be able to help the police with Evelyn’s case, but I’ll need access to her bedroom and office.”

The maid shifted on her feet nervously, glancing around the hall, her espresso eyes widening. Rose noted the uneasiness, but she couldn’t give up so quickly.

“I meant to ask my cousin,” she explained, “but she’s a bit distressed at the moment, and I really haven’t the time to wait. The killer could be fleeing, or worse, planning their next kill.”

The maid glanced around the hall again and said, “All right, but be careful not to mess things up.” She took out her keychain and took a couple of keys off it and pulled out a pad and pen, scribbling a couple of six-digit numbers onto it. “The bronzy key is for her room. The silvery key is for her office. Top code is her room, bottom office. Destroy the paper when you’re done with it, and return the keys to any servant, say they’re Lupe’s.”

“Of course,” Rose said, “thank you so very much, Lupe.”

The woman shrugged and returned to polishing, but her posture remained tense, obviously uncomfortable with giving away the keys and codes, even though Rose was family.

Rose checked the bedroom first, but the room was immaculately put-together as Evelyn had always been, but nothing of interest inside. Evelyn’s clothes lined closets predictably, and the only thing with words on it in the room was a book on the bedside table, some cheap romance paperback that looked like it had been read a hundred times. Rose locked and armed the room, and went downstairs to Evelyn’s office.

When she opened the door to the office and disarmed the room, she felt overwhelmed by all the things to look at. Shelves upon shelves of files, most of which Rose assumed held business-related materials. Perhaps, if this murder stemmed from the company, she would pay another visit to Chloe Blackburn and discuss the business operations with her.

The coding system on the files was moderately cryptic, and Rose wasn’t sure if personal files hid somewhere in there at all, although she’d found things related to the house and staff in drawers of the desk. A single manila file, however, sat out on the desk, unmarked except with a large blue “A” on it. Some circular scribbles spiraled at the bottom corner as if someone tried to coax a dying pen to work again.

Inside, she found notes upon notes upon notes, starting in what Rose recognized as Conrad’s handwriting, and in the back of the file half a dozen notes in Evelyn’s handwriting. All of the memos focused on Annabelle, but not in any way Rose could easily tease out. Both Conrad and Evelyn searched for ways to send Annabelle away somewhere, either arranging trips to Europe, or charity missions in Africa, even sending her as a diplomat for the company to Taiwan. They started out more broad and became more focused as Rose reached the back of the folder, and Evelyn looked very close to finalizing some arrangements with a doctor to send Annabelle to the east coast to be contained in a private, quiet grief facility that would both keep her out of the papers and, as Evelyn wrote in large, bold, capital letters, SAFE.

But whatever they thought Annabelle needed to be safe from, there weren’t any hints about it at all. Rose’s mind instantly went to the missing files from Conrad’s study, the ones Evelyn designated personal, because she claimed not to notice any missing work files.

Evelyn’s handwriting wasn’t the genesis of the grief counseling idea. It was one of the last ones Conrad wrote down, before he died. Evelyn picked it up as a possibility and became rather fixated on it close to her own death. If they thought Annabelle needed grief counseling, somewhere to go and clear her head perhaps, maybe they felt that in her grief with Julia Whitney’s death, Annabelle would cause harm to herself.

Rose closed the file, tucking it under her arm, closing and locking the door, and hurrying up to her room, shoving it under her socks in the drawer before finding a servant to return the keys to. She then went to the fireplace in the main hall and burned the note with the access codes on it, watching carefully to ensure it burned completely before she turned away from the fireplace. She just started toward the kitchen to see about dinner when she ran right into a sweaty, flustered Adyson.

“Oh, Aunt Rose, I’m so sorry!” Adyson said, holding out her arms to steady Rose, which proved unnecessary. “I didn’t see you there!”

“That’s fine, dear, really, it’s fine,” Rose said, patting her shoulder, regretting this gesture when she felt the sweat on her hand. Adyson’s hair was even drenched with the stuff. “I was just going to find something to eat. Would you like to join me?”

“That sounds brilliant,” she sighed. “The chef’s gone home by now. I’ll cook some spaghetti, if you’d like.”

Rose agreed, and she sat down, watching Adyson set some water on the stove to boil and gather ingredients from the pantry.

“You’re preparing the sauce from scratch?” Rose said, impressed. “I didn’t know you could cook.”

“Daddy used to teach us after Mother went to bed,” she said with a shrug that bounced her ponytail. “She didn’t like the thought of us congregating in the kitchen. Daddy wanted us to learn some skills, you know, so he would teach us basic things. And I cooked a lot at college. I met friends pretty quickly that way.”

Rose watched as Adyson chopped onions, and formed some meatballs by hand that she then cooked while the noodles boiled on the stove. The tomatoes were taken from the food processor and stewed while Adyson rubbed her watering eyes. A long time had passed since Rose last watched someone else cook for her, not since her husband died, and he cooked for her all the time.

When Adyson strained the noodles and started pouring the finished sauce over them, she poked at the meatballs and said, “Almost there. How’s everybody been?”

“Probably a little better,” Rose said. “Annabelle hasn’t left her room, and Sonia’s been at your mother’s bed.”

Adyson snorted and nodded. She said she guessed as much, and she started plopping the meatballs into the pasta, stirring them in as she went. She set the pasta on the table, and began to serve it onto plates.

“Bon appetit.”

Rose picked up her fork and twirled some pasta around it, waiting to taste it because she could still see the steam rising off the top.

“Where did you run off to, then?”

“Oh, I went to the court, practiced my serve.”

They ate in silence for a while, and Rose complimented the pasta, which tasted quite good, although there was a bit too much onion for her liking. When she’d eaten half her plate she said, “Do you know anything about why your father wanted to send Annabelle away? Perhaps she struggled when Julia died?”

Adyson looked up, startled.

“He planned that?” she said. “No, I don’t know. Maybe. But she’s improved a lot. I guess it probably....” She hesitated, looking down at her pasta again.

“Yes?”

“Well,” she said, sighing, “I guess I should probably tell you. I’m the one who told Daddy. So Annabelle’s been seeing an older man, and I don’t think Daddy liked it too much, and Annabelle never knew that he knew.” She sniffed. “She didn’t know that I knew either, until about a week before Daddy died. And she swore me to secrecy, but I’d already hinted at Daddy, hoping he’d stop it.” She smirked. “I’m notoriously incapable of keeping my mouth shut.”

“Why did you want him to stop it?” Rose asked, leaning forward.

Adyson shrugged. Her hair bounced more now that some of the sweat dried.

“Partly because.... Well, you must know by now that Blake’s madly in love with her.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her fingers the way her mother used to as a girl. “They’d pretty much be the cutest thing in the world, but she’s utterly clueless. But there’s also something really...off about Annabelle seeing this guy. He’s...he’s nice enough, but the fact she’s keeping it quiet feels wrong. It’s like she knew Daddy wouldn’t approve, and she never does anything Daddy wouldn’t approve of.” She rolled a meatball around on her plate.

Rose didn’t like the sound of this, the word SAFE flashing in her mind as she thought about the arrangements Evelyn nearly finished. Just who was this man, if Conrad so disapproved that he would literally consider sending his favorite daughter to a foreign country?

“Do you think he’s dangerous, this man?” Rose pressed. “Do you think he would hurt her?”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Adyson laughed. “But Daddy’s very...particular about our love lives, especially after what happened to Sonia.” She frowned. “Well, you know that little secret now as well. We’ve been keeping it very quiet, but you should have seen the look on Mom’s face when we found out Sonia went with Hatfield’s druggie son.” She popped half a meatball in her mouth and chewed it, with a very determined, angry look on her face.

If Annabelle’s lover wasn’t dangerous, then why would they move her across the country? Or even more, across an ocean? Even for a man who experienced a scare like he did with Sonia. Perhaps especially for a man who experienced something like that, where he felt he lost his daughter, and when her life actually proved to be endangered. Annabelle seeing an older man hardly appeared problematic to Rose. Perhaps less than ideal, but....

“Does your mother know?”

“Hmm?”

“About Annabelle’s lover.”

“Oh, no, she hasn’t a clue. Sonia maybe figured it out, and I think Evelyn knew. I’ve kept it pretty well shielded from Blake. I imagine Chloe knows, if Daddy looked into things like sending Annabelle away.”

Rose tapped her fingers on the table. If Annabelle were in danger, wouldn’t he have told his wife? Samantha obviously knew the details of Sonia’s situation, but given how she handled thinking about that, she wouldn’t necessarily handle this sort of news well. Perhaps, even if Annabelle were in any danger, they wouldn’t want to tell Samantha about it.

“May I ask,” Rose said slowly, “who the man is? If it’s someone I’ve met?”

Because if it were someone they didn’t approve of, like, say, Luke Hatfield, Rose could certainly understand sending Annabelle away. But unlikely, given how Annabelle behaved when they ran into him in the street.

Adyson cleared her throat, glancing out at the hall, obviously wondering if a servant would overhear. Then she leaned forward and said, “Yeah, it’s Lieutenant Barron.”

Rose dropped her fork, stunned. She’d spent so much time around Michael Barron, and even some time around Michael Barron with Annabelle there, and she’d never suspected a thing. And even more, Blake didn’t suspect, either.

She couldn’t understand what either Conrad or Adyson felt against Annabelle seeing Michael. From what she’d seen, he was a charming, respectable man, attractive and self-supporting. He mentioned being relatively new to town, but Conrad would never have come so far in life if he’d been suspicious of new ideas and people. But perhaps she didn’t know something about Michael. After all, she was merely visiting; she’d only known him a short period of time.

And when she went up to her room that night and flipped through the file from Evelyn’s desk again, that ink-blue word popped right back out at her, taunting her, leaving her feeling very uneasy.

SAFE.

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