The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 3

As Rose learned, Annabelle held no intention of staying for the tennis match. She dropped Rose off at Adyson’s country club, and Adyson drove Rose the rest of the way in her own car, after forcing Annabelle to promise to meet them for lunch.

“Where’s she off to?” Rose asked, tucking the file into Adyson’s gym bag as directed so nothing happened to it at the match. She felt relieved to be in a far more sensible car, although Adyson said the Aston Martin was still one of Annabelle’s, on loan while her own Lexus was in the shop. Apparently, Annabelle inherited a small fleet of Aston Martins among her father’s cars.

“I suspect she’s out for a drive to clear her head,” Adyson said, her voice just slightly tinged with worry. Sweat already pooled at the nape of her neck, although her brilliantly white tennis uniform didn’t show any signs. The beads dripped down and around her neck, rolling over her collarbone. “She’ll be fine.”

Clearly, she was attempting to convince herself, not Rose, but Rose didn’t want to point this out so soon after reconnecting with her cousin’s daughters. One step at a time, the only way to solve anything, whether people or puzzles or murders.

“How did you like the locals, then?” Adyson asked as they wound down the road past a horse pasture, toward the courts.

Rose noted that while Adyson drove a tiny bit faster than her sister, she achieved nowhere near the smoothness and finesse Annabelle drove with, and Rose gripped the arm rest to help cope with this.

“They appear to be lovely people,” Rose said. “Annabelle looked very tense, though. I think she’s a bit fed up with talking with strangers about your father’s death.”

Adyson laughed, a full-chested laugh reminding Rose of the girl’s father. Conrad had a laugh that would boom through a crowded room, gather everyone’s attention, cause people to wonder what he laughed about so they could join in. Annabelle had it too.

“Strangers wouldn’t be the right word,” Adyson said, tapping her close-cropped, taupe-painted nails on the steering wheel. “We know everybody, and everybody certainly knows us. I don’t think Annabelle ever really bothered to learn the names of people she didn’t care directly about. She’s not like Evelyn, who sees people as business opportunities. Evelyn learns every name and face as quickly as possible in case she’ll need them later. I prefer Annabelle’s methods.”

“Oh?”

“Well, she might not patronize people with a false sense of caring by learning meaningless tidbits about them, like names.” She laughed again. “But I think she genuinely cares about people, even strangers. I’ve never seen her pass a homeless man without giving him something, even if it’s just a pack of tissues from her purse, or a set of mints.”

Rose recalled the way Annabelle, who had been in such a poor mood, not only answered the woman’s questions but offered to sell her a car right on the spot, and went about plans to actually move the sale forward. She supposed that was its own kind of generosity, albeit not one she was personally familiar with.

“Don’t people normally give homeless people change?”

Adyson brimmed full of laughs, full of smiles, and she shook her head.

“Like Daddy always said, Aunt Rose, you don’t feed the birds and you don’t pay the homeless. They tend to multiply and flock if they think there’s something in it for them. I saw a woman once, she’d convince people to buy her food at a fast food place, and then she’d sell the food to another homeless guy and use the money to buy drugs. Clever, if you think about it. I suppose they could sell the tissues or the mints, but not half so easily. Everybody knows they need food.”

They pulled into the tennis club, where the courts resided, and Adyson pulled her racket, an identification card, and a guest pass out of her bag.

“Just one?” Rose asked. “I thought you expected Annabelle to join us.”

“She has her own ID, but she never uses it,” Adyson said with another laugh. “C’mon, we’ll go in through the side. You can sit right up by the court with my coach.”

Rose followed a staffer through the player’s entrance, met so many people her head was spinning a bit, then was seated down court-side with the coach in question, a man named Boris. Unlike what Rose anticipated when she’d heard the name, his accent placed him from Anywhere, USA, not Somewhere, Eastern Europe. With his graying, sculpted blond hair and his kind, nondescriptly handsome features, he could have been a movie star. Although he ventured well into middle age, even through his workout clothes the fact he’d taken care of himself was evident. Still even the bit of forearm Rose could see told her Boris’s current physical condition slipped from his peak years by a massive amount, his skin sagging noticeably in places where muscles once bulged.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. McFarland,” Boris said, shaking her hand with a firm, steady grip. “Adyson’s been chattering about you all week. You play tennis?”

“Oh, not for many years,” Rose said, “and I never managed to be very good. Depth perception was a struggle for me growing up. And please, call me Rose.”

While Adyson went to stretch and warm up, Boris explained to Rose that Adyson was one of the most talented athletes he worked with.

“Possibly the best I ever trained,” he said, tilting his head to the side as she began to stretch her arms. “Her mother wanted me to talk her into going pro. She could, you know, but she just wants to play amateur.”

“Do you know why?”

Boris laughed.

“I’ve never met anyone,” he said, “with less ambition than Adyson. Oh, sure, she pushes herself when she likes something, but she doesn’t commit. Although, by the little bit of work I’ve done with her sister, Annabelle, she’s similar. Both such talented girls. But Adyson finished her degree. She’ll be able to find a job in something, even if she decides not to compete in tennis. I think her father hoped she would join the company. But Annabelle, from what Adyson’s told me, maintains a deplorable lack of training in anything. And I think she likes it that way. They joke she’ll become a mechanic and drive her mother loco.” He frowned as Adyson began dribbling a tennis ball under her racket like a basketball, watching her opponent stretching across the way. “Actually, with everything that’s going on, perhaps I shouldn’t joke. Her mother just might lose it.” He looked up at Rose with a stunned expression. “No offense.”

“No, no,” Rose said with a chuckle. “I know exactly how high-strung my cousin can be. She ran away with Conrad, you know. We all thought it the stupidest decision of her life. But I think, in spite of everything, it ended up the right thing for her. She never would have been happy with small town life, and I think in their way, they were in love.”

They watched Adyson jog in place for a while, her white skirt flapping around her thighs a little.

“Annabelle designed her outfit,” Boris said. “As I said, very talented in many ways, but when her mother tried to talk her into design school, or even starting a boutique, she refused to draw another outfit.”

Rose nodded and smiled, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. She would have given a lot to borrow Adyson’s visor, but she suspected the girl would need it.

“Can you tell me about her opponent?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Anya’s parents came here from the Ukraine, moved around to find a place where they could work and find her quality tennis training. She trained with me for a couple of years, but I fought with her mother over authority. Her parents needed a coach who could follow what they wanted, not push for the best.” He sighed. “Still, a very talented girl, powerful backhand. You don’t want to engage her in a volley because she can go all day, tire you out, force mistakes. But it won’t come to that. She’ll lose relatively quickly; you’ll be out of here with plenty of time for lunch.”

“Oh?”

Boris obviously wanted to tell her exactly why, but he just shook his head, grinned, and said, “You’ll see.”

Indeed. Wispy little Anya with her unsubstantial blonde hair and her thin little arms and legs could hit very well, but the winner became clear before the match even started properly. Not only was Adyson a more imposing figure on the court, but also she proved a brilliant server. She swung with such precision she aced nearly every serve, and clearly this Anya grew frustrated. But the real party piece wasn’t Adyson’s serve, but the way she returned Anya’s serves, very clever, so she only found herself in a single extended volley, and it didn’t last too long. Rose knew enough about tennis to recognize a clever player, and she knew Anya hesitated to come too far forward. Adyson must have played Anya a few times before, because she would let Anya find a rhythm, then casually drop the ball right on the other side of the net, within bounds to earn points, but too far for Anya to reach.

And it could only be reluctance causing Anya to be so slow, because she was clearly very light, quick, and agile. Rose could easily figure out that the very unhappy blonde dressed entirely in beige sitting on the other side of the court, scowling at Adyson, was Anya’s mother. Rose couldn’t blame Boris for not wanting to deal with the sour-faced woman.

As Boris predicted, a very quick match. Adyson won all points but one, where she grew a bit tired toward the end and missed a serve, and she graciously shook a pouting Anya’s hand before long. She came back to Boris and Rose, who stood to greet her. She wiped her face off with a snowy white towel and grinned.

“How about that, Aunt Rose?”

“You know you were excellent,” Rose said, hugging the girl gingerly, not wanting to wind up covered in sweat. Adyson gave Boris a much firmer hug, laughing.

“Really, that’s the best match to be seen in this tournament,” she sighed. “We should have been on opposite sides of the bracket. Anya and I happen to be the only ranked players at the club. But some idiot messed up the draw, so it’s smooth sailing to the trophy, and that’s the last one I need to qualify for the Amateur’s Open in two months.” She licked a bit of sweat off her lips and said, “Let me go shower, Aunt Rose. I’ll meet you at the player’s entrance so we can go grab lunch.”

Boris walked Rose out toward the player’s entrance, where a nice little garden and a set of benches with roses all around them could be found.

“Your namesake,” he said, touching a white rose beginning to shed petals. His fingers were thick, but touched the flower with surprising tenderness. “My mother loved flowers, but she had a black thumb. We could give her cacti to grow and she’d somehow find a way to kill them.” They laughed. “So you see why Samantha Benton wanted Adyson to become a professional.”

“Certainly,” Rose said, thinking briefly of the file in Adyson’s bag. “Does she always win so easily?”

“At all the local tournaments, yeah,” Boris said, running a hand through graying hair. “There’s a large one in LA that gives her some competition, but the ones on the east coast and internationally really define her workout.”

“Do you travel often?”

“Yeah, almost every month, sometimes a month and a half,” Boris said, picking at a splitting thumbnail absently. “In fact, when her father died, she’d only just arrived back from a trip to Germany.”

Rose frowned. Nobody mentioned that. No one appeared to think the death connected to the lives of his daughters, though. Everyone looked at his business ventures and personal life, from her brief glance at the file.

Of course, that could mean everyone was looking in the wrong places, but she would dutifully check every possible avenue.

“Found you at last!” Adyson said happily. She had changed into a heather-gray designer sweat set. “Thanks for looking after her, Boris.” She kissed his cheek, leaving a tiny lipstick mark on the salt stubbled skin. “Annabelle just texted. She snagged a table at the seaside place we love.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Boris,” Rose said, shaking the man’s hand once more. “Best of luck in the rest of the tournament.”

“If you’d like to stay to watch,” he said, wiping at his cheek where the lipstick remained, “you’re welcome to, when this madness ends. But we’ll let you know if we’re in a tournament with more...excitement in your part of the country.”

The ladies got into the Aston Martin once more, Rose clutching at the armrest before Adyson even started the car, not even noticing she’d done it.

Driving to the seaside restaurant of Captain Green’s Sea and Surf went much quicker than the jaunt from the gym, and Rose thought the place incredibly charming. Understated for what she expected out of people with as much money and flash as Adyson and Annabelle, but the parking lot burst with BMWs and Mercedes-Benz, so perhaps the wealthy liked the understated in this part of the country. The yellow Lamborghini stood out, though, in the sea of white, black, and silver businessman cars.

Annabelle sat at a table for four out back, with a view overlooking the ocean. Her hair flowed over the back of the chair and a few stray flyaway tendrils floated up into the breeze lazily. She gazed out at the cliffs to the north with a bored expression as the baby-faced waitress brought over her sister and Rose, and set menus down in front of them as they settled in.

“What a beautiful view,” Rose said.

The eastern ocean housed a very different sort of seaside to that of the California coast, and she understood why so many people thought of this as the quintessential coastal atmosphere: the air warm, the beach full of beautiful, pale, fine sand that looked like it wanted toes to be dragged through it. Even the cliffs with their tan-and-red protrusions into the sea were colorful and rugged, a Wild West butte in the wrong place. Everything was a living oil painting.

“If you like that sort of thing,” Annabelle said airily. “Did darling Anya take it any better this time, Adyson?”

“Well, she didn’t cry, if that’s what you mean,” Adyson said, closing the menu she hadn’t even read. “And her racket remained in one piece when I left her.”

“She probably waited to be in private before pulling that one again,” Annabelle said with a smirk. “Aunt Rose, you like fish?” Rose said yes, glancing down at the menu. “You should order the mussels. They’re easily the best item on the menu. I recommend them with a white wine, if you like white wine. If not, go for the house rosé. It’s quite good.”

She’d taken the liberty of ordering them all clam chowder to start with, and not quite the hearty clam chowder Rose was accustomed to in New England, but still surprisingly good. The clams were larger than she’d expected, for one, and that, to her, marked good chowder.

“How was your drive?” Adyson asked as she watched her sister eat soup.

“Fine.”

Annabelle still gazed up at the cliffs. She’d not looked at either her sister or Rose since they’d arrived, and Rose could feel the tension building in the air around them with Adyson’s question. It felt an innocent, friendly think to ask, but Annabelle took it differently, although Adyson had asked with remarkable delicacy.

“Annie....”

“I’m fine, and I drove the speed limit, took the corners slow, so leave it,” Annabelle snapped. She looked at them then, with tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Rose only quickly glimpsed of pain on the girl’s face before she turned away again, looking determinedly down at her chowder instead of the scenery.

Rose cleared her throat.

“I hate to ask,” she said gently, “but...were you in some sort of accident, Annabelle? The way you talk about speed limits....”

“No,” Adyson said, reaching to touch her sister’s hand across the table, but Annabelle jerked her hand out of reach and placed it in her lap. Adyson sighed. “No, our best friend died in a car crash when she studied abroad. Julia Whitney. She’d been our friend for as long as I can remember.”

Rose glanced up at the cliffs.

“Where was she studying?”

“St. Andrews,” Annabelle croaked in a strained, blank voice. “She went on a break, went up to the lakes. Lost control. We hadn’t heard from her in three weeks, any of us, and the next thing we know, her mother calls me, says there’s been an accident and Julia won’t come home.”

Rose lost the first person close to her when much older than Annabelle, but she’d met many people Annabelle’s age and younger who lost parents, siblings, children even, and she could see from the twist of Annabelle’s face that Julia might have been Adyson’s friend, but to Annabelle she’d been much more. Sisters of a sort, perhaps. Best friends, at the least.

“When did this happen?”

“Oh, what, a year ago?” Adyson asked. “Maybe a little bit longer. A couple of months before Blake joined the force, maybe four months before Lieutenant Barron moved here.”

Annabelle jumped slightly at the mention of Lieutenant Barron, and then she looked up at the cliffs again.

“Julia loved speed,” she said. “She never drove as well as me, but she would beg me to take her out for drives on mountain roads and we would twist through the highways in one of Daddy’s cars.... We’d go up to the cabin sometimes, the three of us, in the Audi, and when Daddy didn’t know sometimes Blake would come too. That’s a beautiful road, and not too many bends.”

Before Rose could ask more about the cabin, though, the waitress came over to take their orders.

“Three mussels,” Adyson said. “And I’ll have water, thanks. Water for Annabelle as well. Aunt Rose, what would you like to drink?”

Rose glanced at the wine list quickly before saying, “I’ll have your Zinfandel, please.”

“Glass or bottle, ma’am?”

“Glass.”

What did this girl think, that a woman Rose’s age would drink a whole bottle of wine at lunch, by herself?

“We’ve all been different since Julia,” Adyson said softly when the waitress left again, menus in hand. “Annabelle drives like a square. I actually started studying, if you can believe it. And Blake....”

Whatever she meant to say, she shook her head and swallowed a bit of soup instead. Rose leaned forward, hoping she would expound on that thought, very curious what changed in Blake.

“He’s quieter than he used to be,” Annabelle said thoughtfully. “I’ve wondered sometimes if he wasn’t maybe a bit in love with her. He always tried to be with the three of us, and she was so pretty. And you know how boys feel about blondes.”

“Obviously,” Adyson teased. “No, I don’t think Blake ever really liked blondes. And Julia was like a sister to him. I’m sure that’s all.”

Rose thought she hinted at something, but Annabelle didn’t appear to understand it either, and Adyson didn’t appear willing to come out with it, so Rose decided to ask sometime when she caught Adyson alone again. Depending on how long it took to close the case, she surely would find another opportunity at some point.

After lunch, Adyson said she’d made plans with some girls from the tennis club, so Annabelle took Rose back to Casa, where Rose spent the rest of the day perusing the file on Conrad Benton’s death.

It puzzled her most that if someone broke in from the outside, they’d done it entirely unnoticed. This logically would be someone with some sort of access to the house, either because they knew someone who lived or worked there, or because they lived or worked there. She needed to track down a list of people with keys, access of any kind, and start looking into their various relationships with Conrad.

The main problem was, Annabelle mentioned they maintained an incredible number of servants, so if a servant killed Conrad, going through all of them would take quite some time. Perhaps she would find some way to narrow the field a bit if she kept digging through the file. She pondered over the pictures when someone knocked at the door.

“Aunt Rose? It’s Evelyn. May I come in for a moment?”

Rose let her in and wrapped her robe more tightly over her pajamas. She closed the file. Evelyn entered wearing a pantsuit perfectly tailored to her figure. Her eyes were tired, so they looked smaller on her face, and her lips looked thin without lipstick.

“Sorry to disturb you,” she said with a sigh. “Annabelle said that after you looked at Dad’s file, you expressed an interest in seeing the office and meeting Dad’s assistant.”

“She still works there?”

“She’s my assistant now,” Evelyn said. “People of that quality can’t be easily found. I couldn’t let a good one pass me by. Chloe Blackburn is her name. She’s actually a very important part of my father’s will and knows more about his affairs than anyone, so I must agree with Annabelle, she’s the person to talk to.”

“Well, yes, I would like that very much.”

“I’ll bring you with me tomorrow morning, if you don’t mind waking up at five.”

Rose laughed.

“My parents began waking me up at five every day since I turned ten, dear,” she told Evelyn. “I don’t like mornings, but I’ll be there.”

The following morning, bright and early, although Rose felt perfectly alert and full with the breakfast one of the servants prepared for her on Evelyn’s orders, she saw Annabelle stumbling down the staircase, yawning, combing her fingers through her hair. She cut almost a comical contrast with the version of herself in the large portrait in the entryway. Her face turned a little bit too pale and her eyes surprisingly puffy. She worked typically graceful fingers clumsily through a knot in her hair.

“It’s a good thing I’m driving,” Evelyn said with a sigh, throwing a coat over her thin arm and picking up her keys. She shoved a thermos into her sister’s hands. “Coffee, dear. Don’t fall asleep in the car. I don’t want you spilling it on my seats.”

“Might improve their look,” Annabelle mumbled, but Evelyn pretended not to hear her, leading them out to the BMW 6 series Miguel brought around. Annabelle stuck out her tongue at the car before opening the front door for Rose. She got into the back, letting a servant close the doors as she noisily slurped at her coffee. Rose could see her pulling face in the rearview mirror as Evelyn started the car. “You infected this with Splenda.”

“We’re out of sugar.”

“Liar. I’m not fat, Evelyn. Stop giving me fat people things. It tastes gross.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and began to drive. Her immaculately groomed hair shifted as they went over a bump at the bottom of the driveway, all of it moving together as if all connected.

“I hope,” she said to Rose, turning down NPR just a little bit, “that you find what you need on this visit. I don’t like my sisters hanging around the office. They’re a disruption.”

“Thank you,” Annabelle said in a childish, teasing voice. “And I’m not the disruption, Evie, thank my cars for that. Just because your coworkers can appreciate a supercar....”

Rose suspected the cars represented only part of the problem from the way Evelyn’s lips tightened at her sister’s loopy, drowsy antics, but she just said, “I hope so too, Evelyn. The sooner I gather all the information I need, the sooner we can figure out what happened, for certain this time.”

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