“I’m in a meeting most of the morning,” Evelyn said as they got out of the car. The movement of her hair was only half as stiff as her posture as they left the parking lot. By the time they arrived at the building, Annabelle became much more her usual self, alert and put-together. Her hair smoothed, her cheeks suddenly gained a pinch of color, and her eyes shone brightly like her mother’s. “Annabelle can introduce you to Chloe. Will you stay the whole day?”
“No,” Annabelle said, straightening the skirt of her sundress. “Adyson’s picking me up for a beach day in a bit, and Mother’s coming by at lunch to pick up Aunt Rose. She’s taking her out for a bite.”
“I won’t see you until after work, then,” Evelyn said, leading them swiftly up to the building, pulling out her ID card. “Don’t cause trouble, Annabelle. I hope you find what you’re looking for, Aunt Rose.”
“I’m sure I will,” Rose said, noticing Evelyn flashing her ID at the security guard. He was a beefy man, with a square jaw and a crew cut that told the world he was born for his job. Evelyn told him something with a gesture to Annabelle and Rose, and then he nodded and waved at Annabelle, gesturing to an elevator. Annabelle waved back and led Rose to the elevator in question.
“That’s Billy,” she said, cheerfully pressing the button. “He doesn’t like me. He thinks I’m too flash. He loves Evelyn.” The doors opened, and Annabelle stuck her hand in front of the door while Rose hurried in. Then Annabelle jammed her finger onto the button for the fifteenth floor. “Warning, though, this thing goes fast.”
The fastest elevator Rose ever encountered: it shot up to the fifteenth floor like a bolt in mere seconds. She grabbed the safety bar as it halted suddenly, and Annabelle led her out again as if such speed could be perfectly natural.
“Good morning, Chloe!” Annabelle said loudly, in a singsong voice Rose smiled at, knowing Evelyn would have snapped at the sound. A woman with smooth, sandy, shoulder-length hair and a slightly pointed chin looked up from a stack of papers on her desk and smiled.
“Annabelle,” she said, standing and crossing to greet them. They kissed each other on the cheek. “If you want more money, the answer’s no. It needs to last you.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes.
“It’d last even if I were asking for more. No, this is my Aunt Rose, my mother’s cousin.”
“Rose McFarland, yes,” Chloe said, shaking Rose’s hand with a very firm, assured grip. “Conrad mentioned you a few times. I’m Chloe Blackburn. Evelyn said you might drop by at some point. You write mysteries?”
“Yes, Samantha wanted me to look into things,” Rose said apologetically. “I know you must be very busy.”
“Not at all,” Chloe said, motioning toward a large office. “We can talk in here. Conrad’s old office, but Evelyn will be moving in as soon as everything’s official. She felt it disrespectful before then.”
Annabelle’s phone buzzed, and she glanced at it.
“I’m going to go, actually,” she said. “My ride is here. Aunt Rose, if you finish and want to leave early, give Sonia a call and she’ll be free to pick you up. But as far as safety, I’d wait and ride with Mother, personally. Good to see you, Chloe!”
Chloe and Annabelle hugged, kissing each other on the cheek once more, and then Chloe led Rose into Conrad’s old office and locked the door behind them.
“It’s certainly large.”
Large proved an understatement, but Rose couldn’t find the right word. Glass walled two sides, a proper corner office. It looked out onto a patch of woods, which Rose thought would look lovely with snow on them, but being in California, they probably hadn’t seen snow since the ice age. The desk loomed large, a dark-stained wood, with a few neat piles of papers and files that obviously hadn’t been moved since Conrad left them there. Despite Evelyn’s superstition about respect, Chloe obviously held no such qualms, dropping herself into what recently served as Conrad Benton’s chair, a high-end, well-cushioned black leather computer chair.
“Thirsty or hungry?” she asked. “There’s drinks or food, whichever you’d like.”
“No, thank you,” Rose said, a little unnerved by the splendor of the cabinet-lined office. “The shelves are all filled with files?”
“Yes,” Chloe said with a small, wistful smile. A little dimple formed on her chin when she smiled, Rose thought perhaps because she lifted her bottom lip in the center, covering her bottom teeth. “Not all work files. A few – only he and I ever knew which – contain things not strictly related to work. Personal files, home staff information, files he kept on his daughters....”
“He kept files on his daughters?”
Rose sat forward, hand half-itching for a pen. This sort of thing birthed good literature, and even better motive if the right – or wrong, depending on who asked – sort of information filled those files.
“Oh, sure,” Chloe said with a laugh. “He was an over-protective father with deep pockets. I’ve been here from the beginning, Mrs. McFarland.”
“Benton Tech is a good company,” Chloe continued. “Pays well, best boss a girl can ask for. Conrad recognized my potential young. He was good at that. We became more than employer and PA. Oh, nothing like that, nothing scandalous. But I took my work very seriously. He started files on each of his daughters when they reached their teen years, and paid very close attention to everything. And let me tell you, there were many things he kept a pulse on where it proved a damn good thing.”
Chloe hesitated, opening a drawer at her knee and flipping through it.
“For example,” Chloe said, “I’m sure you’re aware already he wrote Sonia out of the will.”
“Yes,” Rose said, leaning forward. “Do you have a copy of the will?”
“Yes, there’s one in this drawer, I’m digging for it,” Chloe said. “Anyway, Sonia...well, she went a bit wild, which I’m sure you knew. Samantha spoiled her rotten, mother’s favorite child and all that. Sort of the way Conrad spoiled Annabelle, except I think Sonia was less grounded to begin with. What have they told you about the disinheritance?”
Rose told her the story she knew about Sonia’s winding up in some sort of trouble with the law as a teenager, but Samantha always maintained a vague air about things that would reflect poorly on her family, and especially vague on things that would reflect poorly on Sonia. For something so long in the past, Sonia and Conrad apparently never reconciled, so whatever happened must have been quite bad.
“The law, yes,” Chloe said slowly, still fishing through the drawer. “She dated a boy. He died of a drug overdose. Difficult to say who hooked whom, but if I bet money on it, the boy seduced her into the drugs. Conrad paid a lot of money to send her somewhere to sober once the boy died. But even after she cleaned up, they never could go back to before. He’d disinherited her before he sent her to rehab. He never felt fully comfortable writing her back into the will. Then there’s Evelyn.”
Rose leaned forward, palms on the desk. Evelyn looked to be a favorite of her father, worked for him, inherited the company, everything. How could such a responsible girl end up on her father’s bad side?
Chloe continued, saying, “She grew a bit paranoid, you know, with Adyson earning her degree in computer science. She thought he intended to pass the company to Adyson instead. A rumor flew around, mostly because Adyson’s a bit flashier, more exciting, more creative. Young blood, you know. Evelyn might be physically young, but she’s an old soul. Ah, here it is.” She pulled out a file and laid it on the table between them. “She planned to run a vote of no confidence through with the board, to take over while he lived so it never came to that. You can bet he lost it when he found out.”
“But she inherited anyway?” Rose said, opening the file and glancing at the legalese. She slid on her reading glasses and let her eyes scan the pages.
“Oh, sure. She’s very qualified. And anyway, the fight only happened a few days before he died.” Rose licked her lips lightly and noted this for the future.
“Company to Evelyn,” Rose said, running through the will quickly. “Nothing here for Sonia, of course. I see sizable trusts for the younger girls. Oh, you’re administrating the trusts?”
“Yes,” Chloe said, sighing. “You probably know Samantha’s not...very good with money. You’ll find in there as well that Samantha inherited an annuity to maintain her until she dies, and Evelyn is in charge of adjusting for expense changes and inflation. Samantha can’t touch any extra money unless Evelyn says so, just like the girls can’t touch any of theirs until they’re twenty-five unless I give it to them. But they’re responsible, like their father. It’s a lot of money; they’ll never need to work if they continue to watch it, but I’m sure Adyson will someday anyway, at the very least.”
Rose nodded, running through a list of all sorts of charitable donations and the like.
“There’s something else that might interest you,” Chloe said slowly, and Rose looked up. “Oh, you can keep that copy. I keep another in my desk, and it’s all been divvied anyway. No, this is about the household.”
“What about it?” Rose asked, closing the file and slipping it into the satchel she’d decided to carry around for gathering evidence. At this point, she pulled out a small memo pad and scribbled down a few key words for herself about Evelyn and Sonia. She thought it unlikely Samantha had any connection, since she hadn’t known her financial issues until after Conrad died, and she certainly wouldn’t have called Rose in if she’d killed her husband. Samantha was neurotic, but not stupid.
Chloe closed the drawer and sat back in the chair, her navy-polished fingers resting on the arms of the chair in a graceful but powerful way.
“I don’t know if any of the Bentons mentioned this, but a fairly recent staffing change occurred at the house. The long-time housekeeper, Gwenllian Kerr, he fired her for...corporate espionage.”
Rose scribbled a note, asked for a spelling on the name, and then asked for details.
“Well, the girls don’t know these details, I’d keep it quiet unless it’s relevant to the case,” Chloe said sadly. “I hope it’s not, but it might be. Her father worked for the Bentons. She grew up in the house, worked there when she grew old enough, and after her father died a few years back she actually became Conrad’s mistress.”
Rose nearly dropped her pen. She always thought everything with Samantha and Conrad went well. The idea of Conrad keeping a mistress, much less a woman who Chloe said was about the same age as Evelyn and Sonia, was just unthinkable for Rose. She could see why Chloe hadn’t come forward with this information before. Samantha might have done something stupid, to herself or to the girl.
“He found out she wasn’t just sleeping with him,” Chloe said, looking a bit uncomfortable. “She also slept with Luke Hatfield.”
“Hatfield,” Rose said slowly. “That’s the rival, right?”
“Luke’s been trying to find a way to end Benton Tech for years. She slept with him as well as Conrad, and passed Luke company secrets. I’ve never seen Conrad so upset, but to his credit, he didn’t wallow. He gave her a week to sort out her affairs before kicking her out and replacing her. She moved in with Luke. That’s really all I know about what happened to her. You’d need to talk to her for more of the story. This happened not too long before Conrad died.”
They spent the rest of the time before Samantha called for Rose talking about the business dynamics of the area, particularly the dynamics between Benton Tech and Hatfield’s Cybernetic Solutions and Consulting. Rose never guessed the world of technological industry could be so dirty and dramatic. But when she said goodbye and thank you to Chloe, returning to the parking lot to meet Samantha, Rose knew she wanted to meet Gwenllian Kerr, and to learn a lot more about the details around Evelyn, Sonia, and Luke Hatfield.
The thoughts rushed from her mind as Rose spotted the Mercedes-Benz from the airport in the parking lot, this time with Samantha waving out of it at her. Her wrinkles appeared more pronounced around the nose and eyes when she smiled her large, public smile, but she had Annabelle’s graceful fingers, which draped over the steering wheel leisurely as Rose let herself in to the passenger side and set her satchel down at her feet.
“How was it?” Samantha asked. “Was Chloe very helpful?”
“Immensely,” Rose said, flipping down the visor mirror to fluff up her curls a little. “She let me look at a copy of the will, for one.”
“Ah,” Samantha said, paling slightly.
No use telling Samantha about the copy in her satchel. Her cousin meant well, but Rose suspected it might go missing if she mentioned it. They would have plenty to discuss at lunch, anyway.
They went to a fine dining place where the Bentons must be regulars, because Samantha had a “usual” private room, which she reserved for them.
“So, you’ve seen the will,” Samantha said after ordering for them both – oysters, French onion soup, duck, and crème brulee for dessert – tucking her napkin onto her lap. “So you know of my husband’s legal shaming of me.”
“Samantha, don’t be so harsh.”
“Well, it’s what it is,” she said, picking up her water glass with the elegance of a queen, looking across the uncomfortably long table with an expression of indignation. Rose sensed Samantha practiced not only the look, but whatever speech balanced on the tip of her tongue, so Rose kept her mouth shut, determined to just let her spit it all out. “My daughters’ trusts out of my control and into the power of a woman who isn’t even family. My own funds funneled through an annuity like some...some sort of incompetent eldery person. And with my daughter determining my expenses! It’s as if he doesn’t trust me at all!” She paused, frowning slightly, looking down at her silverware.
“Didn’t,” she said, more to herself than to Rose. “Didn’t trust me at all. As if he...didn’t trust me at all.”
Rose sat in silence for a moment while Samantha recomposed herself. Instead of looking at her cousin, she looked around at the oil paintings on the walls. They weren’t famous that she knew of, so she suspected they were local artwork. Very nice, but a bit dark for the already-dark room. Perhaps if they’d opened the heavy brocade curtains, or lit the room with more than dim false candlelight. But as it happened, the room felt like some sort of lavish pseudo-Victorian suffocation.
When the bread and oysters arrived, Samantha quickly pulled herself back together.
“So,” she said, a little too cheerfully for the newly-returned waiter’s benefit, “what else did you learn?”
The skinny man in tux-and-tails ignored them, turning the top of his shiny, hard, gelled hair to them as he set the starter items on the table. He exited again a moment later without a word.
Rose buttered a chunk of roll and considered her options. She could discuss everything candidly with her cousin and give her time to really think about the truths of Conrad’s life, or she would only tell her what she must and perhaps miss out on insights into the situations that could help with the case.
“Samantha,” she said gently, “I found out a good deal. About your daughters, about your staff, your marriage...about Luke Hatfield.”
“Luke,” Samantha said, clinging to something she could talk about with some measure of grace, spitting out his name as she picked up an oyster. “That man is absolute slime, Rose. I recommend you look into him very closely. He ruins people for fun. Runs in his blood. I wouldn’t put it past him at all to murder Conrad.”
Rose watched her cousin. Of course, if that theory were true, he needed a key, but if he slept with Gwenllian Kerr it wouldn’t be an impossibility that he could order a copy of one of her keys cast, and learn the layout of the house from her as well. So many ifs, though, so many ways for such a plan to go wrong. Occam’s razor and Murphy’s law both made such a situation unlikely, and Rose decided not to let her imagination get ahead of her, creating intricate solutions before she had looked properly at all angles of the problem to eliminate the simple ones.
“That’s a very heavy accusation, Samantha,” Rose said, setting down one of her own empty oyster shells before picking up the next. “I will be following up on him, though. And...and his lover. You know Gwenllian Kerr?”
“That ungrateful chit who used to work for us?” Samantha said, her face flushing a bit red. Possibly she knew Gwenllian had been sleeping with Conrad, but equally likely he’d fed her some other story of incrimination she believed easily enough. “She used company secrets to weasel up close to Luke Hatfield. Conrad fired her. The girls don’t know about her.... Well, except for Evelyn. I expect she knows everything, you know. She keeps all of Conrad’s papers, work and private. His journals, his files. She’s already started going through the ones in his study at home, and I think she’s meant to go through the ones at the office starting next week.”
Samantha finished the rest of her oysters in near silence before she said, “What did you learn about the girls?”
“Well, apparently Evelyn planned to run a vote of no confidence on your husband to take over the company while he lived, and he thwarted her,” Rose said.
“You don’t think one of my girls did this, do you?” Samantha said, laughing a forced, nervous laugh. “That’s ridiculous! I don’t think any of them is strong enough!”
“Perhaps,” Rose said slowly. “But it’s something to keep an eye on. Sonia and Evelyn both had motive, after all.” Samantha stiffened at the mention of Sonia’s motive. Everyone knew she’d been cut from the will. It hadn’t exactly been fresh news. But Rose decided she must ask something certain to upset her cousin. No way around it. “I don’t know what Sonia used,” Rose said in a soft voice, “but a lot of drugs make people much stronger while they’re on them. Enhanced adrenaline does things to you. Can you be absolutely positive—?”
“Sonia’s been clean for years,” Samantha said sharply. “You can check her medical records, if you’d like. We keep a file. A condition of her living with us is regular blood testing, taken privately, at home, with our family doctor. She’s not even registered a false positive.” Rose weighed her options on whether or not to point out that plenty of ways existed to fool a blood test, but Samantha looked at the hair-helmet waiter as he came in with the soup and she said, “Let’s just stick to enjoying lunch, now, shall we?”
Rose agreed, watching Samantha’s tight posture as the two women picked up their soupspoons. If she wanted answers, family or not, Rose decided she wouldn’t hear them from Samantha. She would just need to choose who would be able to help her gather them, someone completely non-suspect – and she leaned toward Annabelle for the moment.