The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 2

Annabelle smiled at her Aunt Rose, who had all but insisted Annabelle show her around town. Her mother’s cousin stooped slightly coming down the stairs, the veins in her hands bulging somewhat as she grasped at the balustrade she hadn’t needed the day before. Clearly, Aunt Rose was not a morning person. Annabelle hadn’t seen the elderly woman in years, and she couldn’t say for certain if she actually recalled their last meeting or if she merely stitched together some sort of imagined memory from the stories her family had told about their dear Aunt Rose. But she felt fondness for the woman that had led her to agree to showing her around, and she waited at the front door, adjusting her driving gloves.

When her gloves hugged her hands just so, she pulled her loosely curled hair over her shoulder and let the long spirals fall down her back. Then her fingers smoothed the gray silk sheath dress she wore.

Aunt Rose greeted her with a cheery chirp of “good morning” from the top of the staircase. Apart from the holding of the balustrade and her posture, she moved down the stairs with a sprightliness belonging to a woman half her age. “Where will this tour begin?”

“Down Main Street, I think,” Annabelle replied. “I have a few errands to see to as we go, and I can run you by the police station on the way back.”

She led her aunt outside, where a Lamborghini she and her father had restored waited for her, brought out by Miguel, one of the servants in charge of the cars. She ran a gloved finger along the window. This Lamborghini was a Miura P400S, the car of her dreams as a child. Her father had given her every poster of it he could find, and they still lined the walls of her closet. When she became upset or discouraged or even just bored, she would sit in her closet with a flashlight and stare at the beautiful pictures. And when her father finally found just the right model, he bought it and taught her everything he knew about mechanical things. Whatever her sisters wanted to speculate, she knew this passion made her his favorite: she shared his love of beautiful machines, and he’d left her his entire car collection, apart from the boring, practical ones he knew her mother and sisters would be happy using. She relished the original 370 brake horsepower engine and she sighed as she climbed into the driver’s side, half wishing she could run it through its paces in the upwards of 175 miles an hour like she used to. Even without corners, that was taking her life in her hands in this particular model though, and Annabelle had not taken it faster than sixty in some time.

“This car usually goes very fast, yes?” Aunt Rose asked, her nerves written all over the lines of her face.

“Yes,” Annabelle laughed. “But I stick to the speed limit.”

“That’s probably a good idea.”

Annabelle just smiled sadly, murmuring in agreement as she started the car, taking it down the long driveway, driving it through familiar streets. Speed limits were a good thing, especially in a car from the sixties, no matter how exquisitely restored. But still, it always felt like such a waste. She parked in her usual spot in front of the optometrist, and helped her Aunt Rose out of the car.

The shopkeepers all knew Annabelle by name. They had known her since bangs and pigtail braids, hoping for candy at every shop her father entered. Naturally, she had liked the bank best, with its regular promise of lollipops. Sometimes she would buy a sack of those lollipops just to feel like a child again. Annabelle would never forget the day she became too old for lollipops. She had cried all the way home, although she didn’t let her father see.

Instead of candy, which she much preferred, the shopkeepers now doled out their sympathies, condolences, advice, and gossipy questions about the death of her father. Apart from the propriety required of her in public, Annabelle had the added and much needed reign of Aunt Rose’s watchful eye on her at each stop. Thus Annabelle remained pleasant, contained, and appropriately grateful-appearing at all moments, when all she really wanted was to scream.

Errands in town for Annabelle were typically charity missions for her mother or sisters and today was no exception. She met with the florist, Mrs. Martin, about the flowers for her mother’s spring gala for breast cancer research. Rose and Mrs. Martin were both about the same age, but Mrs. Martin looked ten or fifteen years older, with jowls like her face was melting off her skull. Annabelle remembered being terrified of the woman when she ordered flowers for formal dances in high school.

She then went the gallery up the street where Mr. O’Brien was trying to talk her into buying a set of local paintings. Thankfully, having Aunt Rose along distracted him from this effort, and he took the opportunity to show the two women through the gallery, trying to talk Aunt Rose into purchasing every painting he caught her glancing at longer than a few brief moments. He grew so excitable that by the end of the tour the quivering of his body could be discerned from the way his wispy white hair shook on the top of his head. Annabelle left him with details on where to pick up the works Evelyn and Adyson were donating to the gallery and how the sculptures needed to be transported.

They stopped in at the bank for Annabelle to shift some money to her savings. No lollipops, but she expected as much. The final stop was The Laughing Cat, a second-hand shop with proceeds going to the hospice. Kitty Lefler and her blonde friend Annabelle could never remember the name of manned the cash registers, and Annabelle left Kitty with details on when the shop could send someone to pick up the annual Benton donation. On the way back to the car, Annabelle made sure to point out other features on the street, from the diner to the three coffee shops crowding on a single block, to the community house across from the optometrist.

“Love this car, Annabelle,” a local housewife said, walking her child up the street as they returned to the Miura. The woman regularly attended charity functions Annabelle’s mother hosted, but she couldn’t think of the woman’s name. Although she wore Juicy Couture exercise gear, Annabelle recalled a sharp image of the woman in a black, shimmering, Dolce & Gabbana gown at a gala they held for cancer research. Or perhaps the domestic violence campaign? Her husband sold stocks. Probably. A lot of the husbands sold things like stocks. “Which car did you drive last Friday? My husband just adored it, and I thought of buying one for him for his birthday.”

Annabelle smiled at the confused look on her aunt’s face.

“The Lamborghini, the Ferrari, or the Koenigsegg?”

“Ah, probably the last one,” the woman said with a throaty laugh. “The badge didn’t have an animal on it.”

“It’s a CCX. That’s going to run you maybe seven hundred thousand dollars if you find a decent used one. And I wouldn’t if he’s not looking at track days. Because it’s really a racer, not especially practical for daily use. Bites like a rabid badger.” The woman’s face fell a little, her glossed lips drooping slightly. Behind on Botox, no doubt. “Tell you what, buy him a used Ferrari 456GTA. I own one I’m willing to sell you for, say, thirty thousand? It’s in perfect shape, finished restoring it about two months ago. And I haven’t met a man yet who could resist a shiny red car with a Ferrari badge on it.”

She never wanted to see the thing again. The Ferrari in question was the last thing she’d worked on with her father before he died. They meant to start in on a Lamborghini Countach he’d obtained a good price on, but he never found the time to finish the details to acquire it before he died.

Annabelle gave the woman Miguel’s contact information, and typed a note on her phone to give the deed and service history and the like to him that night so the buyer could just pick it up whenever she wanted.

When they sat in the car again, Annabelle released a heavy sigh and tapped her gloved fingers on the steering wheel while her heart rate lowered.

“You’re a bit tense,” Aunt Rose said kindly as Annabelle started the car and put it in gear.

“A little,” Annabelle admitted, pulling out of the parking spot and driving up toward their last stop. “I’m a bit sick of nobody being able to look at me and say something that isn’t about Daddy. Even the cars, although she didn’t know that. Anyway, we’re stopping at the police station. I promised I’d introduce you to the officer in charge of Daddy’s case, and Blake wants to talk to you somewhere my mother can’t hear.”

Aunt Rose laughed, shifting to seek more comfort in her seat.

“Your mother,” she said, with a faraway look in her eyes, “grows ever sillier the longer I don’t see her. Why would she invite me to look into it, but keep a police officer from discussing the case with me?”

“Well,” Annabelle sighed, glancing in the rearview mirror, more out of habit than anything else, since she really couldn’t see anything out the back – the major weakness of Lamborghini, and several other supercars. “You know my mother. Appropriate dinner conversation must be observed. Here we go.”

She pulled into her favorite spot, next to the spaces reserved for patrol cars, and she again helped Aunt Rose out of the car, peeling off her gloves as they walked into the baby-blue station and leading the way to the dispatch desk.

“Is Michael in?” she asked before even looking over the counter. “I’ve brought my aunt to meet him.”

The woman, Penelope, looked up at Annabelle with startled eyes through thick lashes and a very thick pair of lenses, but before she could answer, the man himself came around the corner and greeted them with a smile. He barely measured five-ten, his hair a little bit spiky and his brown eyes wild and excitable, like a child looking for an adventure. Annabelle shook his hand, knowing she needed to stay fully professional in front of everyone else, and she took a step back when their hands parted.

“Michael, this is my aunt, Rose McFarland. Aunt Rose, this is Lieutenant Michael Barron.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant,” Aunt Rose said in her earnest way. “You administer to a lovely town.”

“Well, I’m fairly new to it m’self,” Michael said, his hint of Scottish accent just touching on his words. “But I agree, Mrs. McFarland, quite lovely. Mrs. Benton tells me you’re a mystery writer, and something of an expert in murder.”

Before Aunt Rose could be modest about her accomplishments, Annabelle explained her aunt’s importance, letting Michael lead them to one of the interview rooms to talk more privately.

“Blake will be in soon,” Michael said. “He’s out on patrol. I called him back: I know he wanted to be here for this talk.”

“You’re from Scotland?” Aunt Rose asked. “What part?”

“A little town on the very northern end, ma’am, originally,” he said, smiling. “I grew up in Inverness. But I spent a lot of my adult life moving back and forth between various Scottish and American cities. I don’t like staying in one place too long.”

“I took a holiday in Inverness,” Aunt Rose said, forming her faraway look again.

Annabelle tuned out her aunt’s reminisces and Michael’s polite conversation as she sat and watched the door, her gloves causing her hands to sweat slightly as she gripped them. She wanted to get in the car again, craved to take it up the PCH and let it roar around the beautiful curves of the road. Perhaps a good way to die young, but she felt so wondrously alive. The way she needed to be alert on every tiny decision, watch the fuel gauge to keep it from dropping low enough to cause problems with the rest of the car....

She hadn’t realized she was jostling her leg up and down, not until Michael gently placed his fingertips on her knee under the table, brushing over the kneecap a few times. When her leg froze and she glanced at him across the table, she felt a little sheepish, but he didn’t give any indication above the table that anything had happened. Aunt Rose droned on about Loch Ness as Michael slipped his leg against hers under the table, his sockless ankle rubbing against her calf.

He pulled his leg away again, though, not even a moment later when the door opened and Blake burst into the room, panting slightly, his tie off-kilter at an angle that actually complimented the slight side-turn of his nose. He sat down next to Aunt Rose, greeting her with a friendly handshake.

“Sorry it took so long,” he said. “I spent the shift on the far side speed trap. Have you started talking about the case yet?”

“No,” Michael said, pushing a file into the center of the table and frowning a little. “Now, I trust, Mrs. McFarland, you won’t discuss the more sensitive details of this file with unapproved persons?” Her aunt agreed and leaned forward for a better look, slipping on rectangular wire reading spectacles as Michael opened the file.

Annabelle looked at Blake instead of the file, knowing exactly what lay on top: pictures of her father from the morgue and the scene of his death. If she closed her eyes, she could still see them clear as the scene itself, her handsome father with his skin bloated from hours of running water over the corpse, pale and almost blueish. His normally immaculate thick gray hair was a sopping, congealed mess around the wound, and his brilliant hazel eyes glowed glassy and empty, staring up at the camera like some grotesque doll. The morgue photos weren’t much better, with the wound on the back of his head featured, hair shaved away for a better look. Blake gave her a sad, sympathetic smile, if a sort of tightening of the lips only barely turning up at the corners could be called a smile. Michael took her hand under the table again.

Nothing did justice to him in that file. Conrad Benton had been a strong, noble, beloved man. His eyes full of love and kindness when with his family, and when he needed to be hard, even the steel within them contained warmth that softened the blow. His face cut at angles like Evelyn’s, but age softened them, the lines and creases he did have simply complimenting his smile. His hands dexterous and gentle, but large and capable of surprising strength. When she was a little girl learning about guardian angels, Annabelle was believed her father was hers. Even as the naivety faded, part of her still believed, until he died.

“May I?” Aunt Rose asked. Michael nodded and Annabelle watched her aunt pick up the photographs and look through them carefully. “Well, he certainly took a head wound from the fall.”

Michael hummed his agreement.

“And he certainly looks like he fell in the shower,” Aunt Rose said slowly. “And you think that’s what happened?”

“Probably,” Michael said deliberately, exchanging a glance with Blake. “You’re right, it would be an open-and-shut case, except Samantha Benton insists we take it as a full investigation, and the coroner deemed it inconclusive. You can’t see it in the pictures, but you’ll see in his report, he can’t be certain there’s just one site of blunt force trauma. Or...there’s one site, but he thinks it possible – can’t say for certain – but possible he’s been hit by someone before he hit the floor, on virtually the same spot. Says the region is too large for comfort.”

Aunt Rose pursed her lips, and Annabelle shuffled her feet under the table. She’d read the coroner’s report, and while she wanted to believe in most ways that her father’s death was an accident, that her mother was being silly and things happened, she also couldn’t just believe her father died for no good reason. How could that bring closure? Accidents happened because something went wrong, maybe the water ran too hot, maybe the floor waxed too slippery, maybe...maybe....

“I see,” Aunt Rose said softly. “That’s very hard to prove.”

“Indeed,” Michael said. “Indeed. So you can see our dilemma. Samantha Benton won’t let us close it until it’s been fully investigated, because there’s even a speck of doubt, and the coroner can’t be certain. So we must vet every possibility, and I’m telling you, Mrs. McFarland, so many people might have wanted to kill Conrad Benton that this could take longer than it would take him to rot in the morgue.”

“Actually, sir,” Blake piped up, “he’s not going to rot in the morgue; he’s very well preserved.”

Annabelle felt a bit queasy, and she must have winced because Blake gave her an apologetic look as Michael said, “Hyperbole, Blake, but thank you.”

“I see your dilemma,” Aunt Rose said, frowning and flipping through the pictures again. “I hope you don’t feel like I would be stepping on your toes if I looked into this on behalf of my cousin?”

“Not at all, ma’am,” Michael said, smiling his brilliant smile again and squeezing Annabelle’s hand. “Feel free to drop by the station or give us a call at any time and I’ll give strict orders that people help you with whatever you need. If you’re as good as Mrs. Benton claims, you may lighten our load!”

Annabelle laughed nervously, and they thanked Michael and Blake, and Michael even let Aunt Rose take the file with her, to be returned eventually, to familiarize herself with the specifics of where to start and what to look for. Then Annabelle led her aunt back out to the car, Blake following them.

“Mrs. McFarland,” Blake said as Annabelle pulled on her gloves.

“Please, call me Rose, Blake.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “I want you to take my card; keep it with you in case you’re out and about and need a ride or someone to ask for something. I’d be happy to assist you personally in whatever you need, and after Lieutenant Barron I’m the best versed in this case. He pulled me onto it personally.” Annabelle stifled a giggle as she opened Aunt Rose’s door, trying not to look at the way his chest puffed up with pride. Blake could be so ridiculous.

“Thank you, I certainly will,” Aunt Rose said happily, slipping the card into her purse and getting into the car. Annabelle closed the door and Blake touched her arm before she could cross to the driver’s side.

“Annabelle,” he said softly, “I know you’re going to help her, but promise me you don’t go anywhere alone until we sort this out, all right?”

She raised a challenging eyebrow and said, “If he slipped in the shower, what’s the big deal?”

Blake licked his lips and said, “And if he didn’t? Just...don’t risk it until it’s over, okay?”

Annabelle pinched his cheek and watched him blush and roll his dark eyes.

“I’ll promise nothing,” she told him, twirling her keys a single rotation on her gloved finger. “We need to head out. Adyson wanted us at her tennis match, and we’re already running late. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around, Blake. As always.”

He watched her get into the car, starting it up, and she knew from experience more than looking – because even if she tried to look she couldn’t have seen in the Miura – that he still stood there, watching her when they turned out of the parking lot.

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