The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 6

Blake’s choice in eateries proved much more down-to-earth than the places the Bentons took Rose to. He chose little country-style dinner, with rustic wooden walls and tables that looked straight from hewn trees, not processed boards.

“It can be a little loud here,” Blake said apologetically as they sat at a spot underneath a staircase. The shadow of the staircase obscured the tweak of Blake’s nose, the finger-lines in his gelled hair. “But it’s cozy, and they make the best egg salad in the state of California.”

Rose smiled and assured him it would be fine, glancing around at the local newspaper clippings lining the walls, including things about Benton Tech and Adyson’s tennis wins. One directly across from her announced something that startled Rose slightly: a report on the death of Julia Whitney.

The picture looked like a high school yearbook photo, a girl with long, layered, straightened blonde hair and a cheerful, heart-shaped face. She had full cheeks and her eyes smiled brighter than even her dainty mouth, grinning toothily.

“You knew Julia well,” Rose said as she glanced through the menu, mostly containing sandwiches, soups, salads, and burgers. Nothing fancy but a sirloin steak, and no wine list. An extensive selection of beers, though. She found the place refreshingly homespun.

“Yeah, we were all really close,” Blake said sadly, not bothering to look at his menu. He stirred his straw around in his ice water and turned to glance at the clipping across from Rose. “That article won’t tell you anything about her. A token thing, that. The picture’s about three years old, even. Her parents hated it, but they refused to be interviewed, so I don’t really know what they expected.” He took a sip of his water. “Of course, they’ve moved since. Her father applied for a transfer as soon as the funeral happened. I don’t really blame them. If it had been someone in my family, I think I would have left too.” He took another sip of his water. “Of course, Julia was practically family.”

A waitress approached their table with a mint-green dress and apron like something from a fifties diner. She even styled her hair in a small, smooth bouffant. Rose wondered how much hairspray she went through in a week.

“Hello, my name is Jennie and I’ll be your server.” She had a smile that screamed she either spent too much on a cosmetic dentist or too much on tooth-whitening kits. “Ready to go, or would you like a little longer? Starters, maybe?”

“Oh, I’m ready for the entree,” Rose said, looking up at Blake. He nodded. “All right, I’ll try the Benton burger, without the coleslaw, and an ice tea to drink.”

The girl nodded, scribbling this down on a little notepad.

“Sweet or unsweetened?”

“Unsweetened, but do you have sugar packets?”

“I’ll bring them out to you, ma’am. Anything else?” Rose shook her head. “The usual, Blake? Egg salad on wheat?”

“Yeah,” Blake said, stacking Rose’s menu on his own. “But I’ll take an ice tea instead of the lemonade today. Sweetened, please.”

“Yessir,” Jennie said, perkily, taking the menus from Blake. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

When she returned with the two iced teas and the sugar packets, Rose said, “Do you know the Bentons at all?”

“Well, sure, everybody here knows the Bentons,” Jennie said with a laugh. “My cousin works at Benton Tech, for one. He was always the smart grandchild. And I took dance classes with Adyson as a kid.”

“Why offer a burger named for them?”

“Conrad Benton donated the money for us to buy new kitchen equipment after a fire a few years ago,” Jennie said. “Used to come here for his coffee on the way to work every morning. He could have brewed his order at home easily enough, but I think he liked to come out of the mansion sometimes, read the paper in a diner like everybody else.” Jennie wiped a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear and said, “You let me know if there’s anything I can bring you guys, and I’ll bring the food as soon as it’s good to go.”

“Thanks, Jen,” Blake said. He sipped his iced tea and smiled. “You know, the Bentons are local celebrities. Even if all the person’s done is say hi to one on the street once, you won’t meet a soul in town who won’t say they know them somehow.”

Rose tasted her tea and poured in a couple of sugar packets, stirring, and tasting again. Then she asked Blake to tell her about his friendship with the girls. He explained to her how they’d all become friends when Julia moved in from somewhere in Massachusetts in fifth grade. Blake had always been too scared to talk to the Benton girls, but Julia sat next to him for math and played with the Bentons at recess, so she bridged the gap.

“She was the lifeblood of the clique, really,” Blake said sadly. “If we did anything, Julia dreamed it up. Annabelle and Adyson threw the parties, but Julia planned every detail. But she was spontaneous, too, like Adyson. They always came up with some crazy scheme to stave off boredom, and Annabelle and I were dragged along whether we liked it or not.”

A small smile twitched at his lips as he talked about a time when Julia suggested they all drive to Mexico at sixteen. They drove all the way down to the border when they realized they hadn’t brought passports, so they just spent the night in a border town, gave their parents heart attacks, and drove back up in the morning.

“Grounded for a month,” he said as they laughed. “Except for Adyson and Annabelle, of course. I think they could have pulled off just about anything without consequence.”

Not anything, Rose knew. Conrad maintained a zero-tolerance drug policy, if nothing else. But she knew as well as anyone that he’d had a remarkable soft spot for Annabelle, and since he never appeared to favor Annabelle over Adyson, he obviously extended his leniency to the elder daughter as well.

“What is it like at the police station here?” Rose asked when their entrees reached the table. Her burger arrived cooked to perfection, and she appreciated the hand-cut fries on the side. She thought this the sort of place she would have eaten at frequently, had she lived nearby. “I’ve been at a fair few, and they’re all a little bit different.”

“Oh, we don’t see a lot of murders for one,” Blake said with a laugh, scooping a blob of excess egg salad off the crust of his sandwich with a pinky. He licked it off and picked up the sandwich. “Mostly theft, white collar crime, a little bit of civil complaints and teenagers vandalizing things. You know, the phases people go through. I’d say it’s probably a lot quieter than some of the places you’ve been.” He took a few bites of his sandwich, chewing thoughtfully while Rose cut her burger in half.

“You know,” he said when he’d swallowed and taken a drink of iced tea, “it’s really very lucky we managed to pick up Michael when we did.”

“How so?”

“He’s covered a lot of murder investigations. If that turns out to be what we’re dealing with, he’s the only person on staff with any experience with it at all. Even our coroner only saw possible murder cases in his training.”

Rose asked where Michael dealt with murder investigations, and it turned out the man had worked all over: New York, Atlanta, Buffalo, Houston, and at least three different cities in the UK. And that, Blake declared, didn’t count the smaller departments in towns like Vista Del Marina.

“Doesn’t stay any place long?” she remarked, dabbing her face with her napkin. She’d eaten only a quarter of the way through her burger, but he already consumed half his sandwich.

“He’s a roamer,” Blake said, proudly. “But he tells me he likes to train up somebody to handle anything before he moves on, and you know, he picked me? He says I’m easily the most talented in town. He thinks I could find a job in LA if I wanted.”

“And do you?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you want a job in LA?”

Blake shrugged as he took a large bite out of his sandwich. After he swallowed he said, “Maybe someday. Right now I’m pretty happy here, but I guess if circumstances change....”

His voice trailed off as he glanced up at a picture of the Benton family on the wall behind Rose. She took a drink of iced tea to keep from smirking at him. He thought he was discrete, but she’d rarely met a man his age that managed the art of discretion.

“Annabelle thinks you were in love with Julia,” she said slyly, setting down her iced tea slowly to give him something to look at other than her face.

“What?” he said, startled. “No, that’s ridiculous. Julia was my best friend, like a sister to me. I...I can’t believe she would think that.”

He actually turned a bit pale at the thought, poking at his fries instead of eating them.

“But you’re in love with one of them,” Rose said softly, leaning forward a bit, loading one of her fries with the special ketchup-ranch blend house sauce. “Is it Adyson or Annabelle?”

He went from pale to bright red in about a half a second, and he, too, started dipping a fry in his sauce. After he’d eaten three he muttered, “Annabelle.”

It confirmed her suspicions. He followed Annabelle around like a lap dog, looked for excuses to see her, jumped whenever she said, essentially. The sad part, Rose thought, was Annabelle appeared truly and utterly oblivious.

“I’ve been in love with her since I turned eight,” he sighed. “She pushed me into the sandbox when I pulled her hair in reading and it was pretty much love from then on.”

Rose laughed at this, a little guilty for making him blush even more, but she just couldn’t hold in her amusement. She could almost picture younger versions of Annabelle and Blake enacting the story before her eyes.

“She always had such beautiful hair,” he said, swirling a fry in his sauce. “The smoothest, silkiest, shiniest.... Always. I just wanted to know if it felt as nice as it looked, and she sat farther away than I thought, and my elbow slipped, and I pulled it by accident.” He looked up at Rose, grinning. “It felt even nicer than I expected.”

Rose listened politely as he ran through all the moments of his youth where he fell in love with Annabelle all over again. The list ran longer than she anticipated, and she amused herself with the thought that he could write a book about it. And she suspected the list included a few more items he didn’t feel comfortable telling her. She’d known enough teenaged boys to know there had to be a moment when he accidentally saw down her shirt, or up her skirt, or walked in on her before she’d fully dressed. But she didn’t blame him for keeping those private. Moments like that, she thought, held more beauty if kept as sort of solemn personal secrets, anyway.

“Have you thought of telling her?” Rose asked politely when Jennie took their plates and brought the dessert menu.

“How could I?” he said, pouting slightly as he glanced at the desserts. “You’ll want the cherry pie with a scoop of ice cream. It’s boss.” He set the menu down again. “Really, though, she’s an heiress. She’s beautiful and brilliant and independently wealthy. And I’m a small-town cop who plays too many video games. I mean she owns an actual Ferrari! And I’ve only driven one on PlayStation.”

Rose conceded the wealth gap must be a bit daunting. Adyson said, and the will confirmed, their father left Annabelle twenty-eight cars. She’d only sold the one, and said only that morning she had no plans to sell the others. But Annabelle wasn’t impressed with wealth, unlike her mother. Rose supposed if Annabelle owned a couple of cars she loved and slaved over, and someone to keep her from boring herself, she would be happy.

“They say love grows from friendship,” Rose suggested after Jennie took their dessert orders. “I’m not saying you need to say anything, but you’ll feel a lot less tortured if you get an answer. And if you say something now and it’s a no, you’ll probably still be friends. If you wait thirty years to try and it’s a no, imagine how much awkwardness would be between you then.”

Blake paled again, and ate silently all through dessert, but when the pie was gone, he walked her outside and said, “I’ll think about it.”

He didn’t have time to say anything more, because Annabelle approached them, grinning, the clicking of her heels on the pavement drawing Blake’s immediate attention. Rose tried not to laugh at the way his eyes went directly to her legs, then to her face – and probably hair – and back to her legs again. He only rested on her face when she stood with them.

“So,” Annabelle said cheerfully, “how was your lunch? Blake didn’t bore you with line-by-line fan talk about your books, I hope?”

“No, he restrained himself quite well,” Rose said with a chuckle. “I think that’s rather a trait of his, actually.”

Blake began to blush, but Annabelle obviously didn’t think much on what Rose said. She just shook her head, smiling.

“Did he point out all the pictures of us inside that place? I feel like my face is staring at me if I eat there. There’s a room upstairs where we’d eat when Daddy wanted to take us there. Mother doesn’t eat anywhere she can’t demand a private room.” She leaned forward slightly, conspiratorially, and Rose almost laughed again when she saw Blake unconsciously mirrored her, leaning in a bit as well. If there existed need for a poster child for someone hopelessly in love, Rose decided Blake would fit the bill perfectly. “I’ve told Mother she’s not a celebrity, but I think she thinks if she starves the market she’ll increase the demand for her face. Like an OPEC of the rich and the famous.”

Blake laughed, and Rose smiled.

“Anyway,” Annabelle said, shifting her stance a little in a way that flexed her legs impressively. “Blake, I need a favor from you.”

“Anything.”

Actually, Annabelle’s utter obliviousness was a bit impressive at this point. After years and years of him eating out of the palm of her hand, how was it possible she didn’t even suspect he might be interested in her?

“If my mother asks you, we spent the night at the cabin for old time’s sake. I took the Volvo because Julia loved it for night trips, and we came back before you had work in the morning.”

Rose now leaned forward slightly, anxious for some sort of information on Annabelle’s real plans, since she obviously wasn’t about to take Blake up to the cabin with her.

Blake grinned and said, “I’ll take a night in with my Cheetos and a new game I’ve been wanting to try out. It’s another racing one. Maybe next week you could play it with me.”

“You know I’m hopeless on those gaming console things,” Annabelle said, scrunching her nose slightly. “Tell you what, tell me what it features and if there’s anything interesting, maybe I’ll bring Adyson and watch.”

“Perfect,” Blake said happily, like he’d been given an early Christmas present. “I need to go back to the station now. But nice seeing you, Mrs. McFarland. Remember, just come by the station any time, or give me a call. We’d be more than happy to help you in your search.”

Rose thanked him, gave him a hug, and walked back to the Aston Martin with Annabelle, who looked to be in an especially jolly mood as she sauntered up the sidewalk.

“How was lunch with Sonia?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, good. Really nice shrimp scampi.” She grinned as she let Rose into the car and hummed to herself as she got in on her own side.

“So, what are you really doing tonight?”

“What?” she asked, buckling her seatbelt. “Oh, tonight? I’m going up to the cabin.”

“Then why ask Blake to lie and say he went with you?”

“Because Mother doesn’t like me to go alone at night,” Annabelle said with an unconvincing casual shrug. “The road can be foggy this time of year, and deer like to run out into it.”

Rose normally wouldn’t push the matter any further, but something about the scenario felt a bit unnatural to her. So she poked as they pulled off Main Street.

“Maybe I should go with you. I’ve not seen your cabin.”

“Oh, you’d be better off seeing it in the daytime,” Annabelle said, a little too quickly. “The drive up is beautiful as well. You don’t want to miss that. Maybe Adyson and I could take you this weekend, if you don’t find things for the case to suck up all your time. She loves running the trails in the woods.”

Rose shifted in her seat, trying to think of a way to press Annabelle further on the matter. But she didn’t know enough about Annabelle’s life to find the right pressure points, and for all she knew Annabelle kept some sort of ritual related to Julia’s death, something personal and special for the girl. The tragedy outwardly affected Annabelle more than the other two, and perhaps tonight was something where she needed a bit of space.

But while Rose appreciated the peculiarity of personal grieving, and the ability of Samantha to be overbearing and not at all understanding, she also didn’t like the sound of this dangerous drive in the middle of the night alone, with a car Rose was almost certain was one of the classics in the collection, and probably with no intention of answering her cell phone, if the cabin had reception.

Well, that was a thought.

“Do you have reception up there?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, Daddy ordered a cell tower specially constructed so we could get reception.”

“Well, perhaps you can call when you arrive,” Rose said. “So I know you’re safe.”

Annabelle laughed as she turned toward the house.

“Sure, Auntie Rose, if you’ll feel better, I’ll call. But I promise you: I’ll be fine. I could drive that road with one headlamp and squinting. And the cabin’s brilliant. It’s fitted with a security system like the house. There’s not a safer place in the county.”

From what Rose learned that morning with the man who installed their security system and handled all their locksmithery, she would be more or less inclined to agree with Annabelle on that point. Conrad Benton took the safety of his family very seriously indeed, with special alarm systems on each family bedroom, including his own. The only people with access included the family, the staff, and the police in case of a rare incident where a false alarm happened with no one home. In such a case, only the police could disarm and reset the system.

The security man assured Rose that the Benton mansion remained as safe as could be. No one could break in unnoticed, unless they already had access.

But as Rose wanted to point out to the man, and to Annabelle, and to anyone who thought the system perfect, a security system was only as good as the people with access codes, just as the world’s best set of locks was only as good as the people with access to the keys. And thus Rose’s worst suspicions stood confirmed. All the Benton family, anyone they gave spare codes and keys to, their staff and anyone they gave codes to, the police, and even the security system man.... All suspects, and that didn’t even count people who perhaps obtained the codes and keys through less...consensual means.

While Annabelle spent the night she felt she needed at the cabin, Rose would be sitting down with Adyson and Sonia, drawing up a shortlist of people with access to those keys and codes, going through the list one by one, until Rose possessed a working list of suspects. Even if that list included Evelyn and Sonia and even Samantha.

Even, Rose thought with a sinking stomach, Blake Donaldson-Shepard.

Rule number one: everyone with means was a suspect to start with.

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