A Touch of Death Ch. 03byWine_Maker©
After Ty left, I retreated to my office behind the lobby desk. I needed to write down what I'd Seen before all the details blurred. I also needed to let recent events sink in. My life had just taken several turns from where I'd when I woke up.
My office was both a workplace as well as a retreat from the rest of the world. There was a big wooden desk of hand-carved local Jeffrey pine, my dad's work. It supported my computer, telephone, and calendar.
The room was centrally located, so there were no windows, but the pale white walls were covered with paintings and drawings of Lake Tahoe and Kane Lodge done by local artists over the last fifty years. There were a couple of comfortable chairs and a file cabinet to round out the fittings, all sitting on the stone tile floor. The only concession to cold feet was the small throw rug of hand knitted wool that I kept under my desk.
When I sat down it felt like the first normal moment I'd had since dawn. The last couple of hours had flown by and the events were unsettling to say the least.
I grabbed the much used and abused yellow legal pad by my phone and wrote down everything I could remember about the vision and everything I'd seen and been told. It filled two full pages with my neat handwriting.
When I finished, I locked it in my desk. The next thing I needed to do was start asking questions of my own. First up, I needed to know what the Sheriff's Department really thought. If they were going to be serious about this investigation then I needed to do what Ty told me to do; back off and let them do their job. If not, then I had some thinking to do. I knew just who to ask.
* * * * *
City Hall was made out of the same kind of rough stone as the Lodge but somehow managed to look squat and foreboding. My purple Taurus, the Grape, - barely fit into one of the cramped spaces the city provided and I made my way inside. I walked briskly past the judicial offices and up to the second floor, home to the mayor and city council.
The door I wanted was open and Zach Zoboroski was pounding furiously on the keys of a beat up, computer keyboard, his back hunched and his expression focused. Zach was somewhere north of fifty and built like a midget wrestler writ large; short, squat, and heavily muscled. He looked out of place in his well tailored dark gray suit. He'd worked for the city council since before I graduated from high school, and he would hear what wasn't being said publicly. He'd been a close friend of my father and I was happy he was mine, too.
I smiled and knocked on the door frame. "Hey, big man."
He turned his bald head and smiled at me. Then his expression went from professional to concerned, his bristly eyebrows drawing together. "Hey! I was going to call you later. I heard you... you know. Are you okay?" He jumped to his feet and moved a stack of papers off a chair for me to sit in.
I shrugged and gratefully sat down. "It knocked me down - literally! - but I'm back on my feet. I'll sort through it in a couple of days, I hope. Have you heard anything official about it?"
He closed his door and lowered his voice. "You know how it is, gossip spreads pretty fast around this place. Why?" He resumed his seat and clasped his hands on the desk, giving me his full attention.
"Are they leaning toward any probable cause?" I asked. "You know, accident or intentional?"
"You mean it might not be an accident?" His eyebrows shot up. "The guy I talked to seemed pretty confident the guy slipped."
I mentally cursed. I knew it! I tried to not let the dismay bleed onto my face. "Well, not really," I said. "I was just worried the Sheriff's Department has some blinders on. Maybe I'm being paranoid."
He chuckled. "You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you."
"That's reassuring," I said dryly. "If there's some wacko out there I'd like to know to keep my eyes open. I have my guests to think about, not to mention my mom."
"Put your mind to rest, then," he said in a confident tone. "My unnamed source heard it right from the horse's mouth. Deputy Cooper is pretty sure this is an accidental death. Barring anything unexpected turning up at the crime scene or during the autopsy, of course."
I wanted to be mad but they didn't know what I did. How could they? Cooper had only what his eyes and experts told him. I was the only witness. Or was I?
"What about the guests at the LTMA dinner?" I asked. "I heard there was quite a ruckus that night."
"I didn't ask but I'm sure they'll get questioned," he assured me. "That's standard, right? Gossip says Armstrong had more than a couple of stiff ones before he left the party, if you know what I mean."
"I'm probably worrying about nothing. You mentioned an autopsy? That'll probably settle everything. Do you know anyone at the Coroner's office?"
"I know a couple of people, including old Doc Mathews himself," he said. "You want I should give them a call and get the unofficial word, just to ease your mind?"
"Would you?" I asked. "That would make me feel so much better."
"Consider it done," he assured me. "I'll call you when I have anything so don't worry yourself over this. I'm sure we don't have a murderer in Angel's Point."
I sighed to myself. I knew he was wrong, and though I appreciated his attempt to reassure me, the memory of being hit and falling into the water was so personal I knew I'd have to do something myself. "I feel better already," I lied. "Thanks, I owe you one."
"No problem." I left him to his work and went in search of someone else who might be able to help me.
I considered my next move as I went back to my car. When Ty had mentioned the LTMA dinner, two names had interested me. I'd heard of one, Edward Stanton. He and his wife had stayed at the Lodge while their house in the hills above Angel's Point was being remodeled. His family was involved in shipping of some kind and he was said to be quite well off. Other than the fact he was in his fifties, and was on his third wife, I hadn't heard any interesting rumors about him.
His wife, on the other hand, was an easier target, in more ways than one. Alison Stanton was my age and local gossip had it that she flirted shamelessly with men other than her husband. Okay, the rumors were that she did more than flirt, but no one had anything substantial. It was, however, a good place to start digging. I wondered if Armstrong had been on the receiving end of any of that flirting.
The trick was going to be cornering them for questioning without making them suspicious. Ty had said Stanton was dead set against raising the S. S. Tahoe so maybe I could make them think that was where my true interest lay.
* * * * *
Stanton's house, more of a mansion really, was at the end of a winding uphill road on the wooded crest of a hill about a thousand feet above Angel's Point. It wasn't alone; there were four other expensive homes staggered along the circumference of the hilltop.
I parked in the wide cul-de-sac that fed all five estates and took a moment to admire the view of Angel's Point and Lake Tahoe. The sky was an inverted bowl of the deepest blue with only a single cloud in the sky. It was being driven across the lake at a rapid clip, though. There was a nice, stiff breeze coming from the south that would've set my hair to blowing if it hadn't been in a ponytail. It had warmed up nicely so I tossed my jacket into the backseat before I locked up.
Angel's Point was spread out below me like a toy city nestled against the variegated blue of Lake Tahoe. The Lodge Pole, Jeffrey, Sugar, and Ponderosa pines dominated and concealed much of the town, providing the rustic flavor that I loved. Here and there I could see cars, bicycles and people moving through the gaps in the foliage. The sharp scent of pine mingled with the fresh air and invigorated me.
I focused past the highway along the shore to the lake itself. The relatively shallow areas off the coast were awash in motor boats and skiers. Numerous jet skis zipped around them like terriers playing between the feet of bigger dogs. As the water deepened to over a thousand feet the water darkened to a deep blue, and the number of boats dropped off to just a few that were mostly too far out to distinguish clearly. Except one.
The Tahoe Queen. She was moving across the water on a stately course to the south, her paddle wheel turning grandly. There were a couple of paddle wheel boats running tourists around the lake but I thought she was the grandest. I made a mental note to see about taking another trip on her while the summer was still on us.
When my eyes had drunk their fill, I turned and made my way up the drive toward the Stanton's front door. There wasn't a sidewalk per say. A mortared shale path meandered its way to a wide porch with the obligatory Doric columns and a beveled glass front door that sparkled in the bright sunlight.
A deep tolling bell rang out when I pressed the button. I stood there, eying the distorted view of the entryway through the thick glass of the door while the echoes died away. Quicker than I'd expected, I saw what looked like a woman striding toward the door. At least I hoped it was a woman, because a man would look like Santa Claus in that bright red set of clothes.
The front door opened and a blonde woman in an arterial red skirt suit stared down at me with a confused look on her artfully made up face. She was about average height and weight which meant she had half a foot and twenty five pounds on me. I put her at about my own age.
Her confused look cleared before I could say anything and she smiled. "Oh! It's that time, isn't it? Perfect! Come on in."
I blinked in confusion and watched her head back into the house, her red heels clacking on the pale green marble of the foyer. I shrugged and started after her. I'd find out what was going on faster this way.
The interior of the house was subdued and elegant with high ceilings and a light, subtle blue color to the walls. A wide set of stairs with a dark, highly polished banister swept up to the second floor. The large room just off the foyer was carpeted in a tasteful green and was deep enough to mow. The furniture of wood, leather, and glass looked both comfortable and stylish without being a statement. It actually looked like someone lived here instead of being some avant-garde show piece.
Alison, if it was Alison, went straight to a spindly-legged stand next to the stairs and pulled out her checkbook. She tapped her lips with a pen and considered something. "I think I'll go with a case of those peanut butter ones this year. Eddie will want a case of the thin mints, though."
While most fourteen year-old girls were taller than me, my well-developed figure usually clued people in that I was an adult. I got carded at bars but I'd never been mistaken for a Girl Scout before. It was definitely a new personal low. In spite of the annoyance I felt, I had to admit it was a bit amusing. At least it would be in a moment, I thought. I fought to keep the conflicting emotions off my face and allowed myself a dry smile. "I'm not selling cookies and I'm not with the Girl Scouts, Mrs. Stanton."
She blinked in confusion. "You're not?"
"No," I assured her. "I'm Candice Kane, manager of Kane Lodge. I was hoping to speak to your husband."
I doubt I could've dumbfounded her more if I'd claimed to be a Martian. I had to fight to keep from laughing out loud.
She belatedly focused her attention on me and gave me a close look. She flushed and slid the checkbook and pen back into the drawer.
"Well, I've made an idiot out of myself this time, haven't I?" she said with a wry twist to her lips. "I can think of all kinds of inane things I could say to excuse myself but I think I'll just stick with 'I'm sorry.'" She gestured toward the living room. "Please come in and join me. Would you like some tea?"
My opinion of her took a sudden upturn and I gave her a more genuine smile. "Tea sounds wonderful. Thank you."
She led me to the living room and I sank down into a comfortable leather chair while she pressed an intercom button next to the door and ordered iced tea. That done, she sat in a seat that let us have a good view of each other and crossed her legs at the ankle. Her expression was a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
"Eddie's not here, I'm afraid," she said. "He's giving a statement to the Sheriff's Department about the awards dinner last night."
"That's actually what I'm here about. I wanted to get more details about what happened."
She raised an eyebrow. "Not to seem rude, but why?"
I shrugged. "I found Steven Armstrong on the beach this morning. I've discovered that finding a dead body gives one a burning thirst to know what happened."
Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped. "Oh, you poor thing! That must've been horrible!" A shadow of pain and other indefinable emotions raced across her face before she once again schooled her expression.
"It wasn't pleasant," I agreed.
A plump older woman in some kind of maid's outfit walked in, carrying a tray with tea, glasses, and side items. If my presence surprised her, it didn't show. She set the tray on the table between us and departed without a word.
Alison poured for both of us and I sweetened mine to taste. It was sharp and crisp on my tongue.
"I guess I can see why that might make you curious," She admitted. "Maybe I could answer your questions. I was there, you know."
That made sense. People took wives and girlfriends to formal dinners, after all.
"Did you know Armstrong very well?"
She shrugged and looked at the tea pitcher for a moment. "We moved in the same circles for the last few years. He and Eddie didn't always see eye-to-eye, and I... kept a little distance. They weren't close."
And I could believe what I wanted to about that. "Who were his friends?"
"He was always kind of standoffish so he didn't have a lot of close friends. The LTMA Vice President, Damien Manchester, and his wife Elsa are the only two that leap to mind."
"I hear he made some kind of announcement last night that didn't set to well with some folks. What was that all about?"
Alison scowled. "He's hired and outfitted an expedition to raise the S.S. Tahoe without telling hardly anyone about it. Eddie was furious. He thinks that ship is an historic treasure and should be left alone." She sipped her tea and regained her composure. "He wasn't alone, either. I think plenty of people thought Armstrong was being a jerk. He flat out called Eddie an ass and tried to humiliate him in front of everybody: called him an obstructionist and a Philistine. Eddie tried to get the Association to stop the project but they were too scared of Armstrong to stand up to him."
I set my tea glass on the tray and straightened, not having to feign interest at her last statement. "They were scared of him? Why?"
"Dear Steven had a reputation," she said coldly. "He was a bully."
"Oh, I heard he had a reputation," I said lightly, "but I thought it was with the ladies."
That garnered a more natural laugh from her. "Oh, he had that kind of reputation, too. And it was well deserved. He was very skilled at making lady friends and showing them a good time, whether they were married or not." She smiled. "Or so I've heard."
I kept my face bland. "I'm sure. Why is your husband so dead set against this project?"
"What does it matter?" she asked with a toss of her head. "Armstrong's dead and that's it for that. It's a shame he had to die to stop it but it's over now."
"What makes you so sure of that? If his death wasn't an accident then this will take on a life of its own."
She looked up sharply, her nostrils tightening. "Not an accident? What do you mean? Of course it was an accident. What else could it have been?"
"Let's see, the opposite of accidental would be intentional."
Her eyes widened incredulously. "Murder? Are you saying he was murdered?" Then she paled. "Oh, God! You found the body. Of course you'd know if someone shot him or something." She surged to her feet, starting to walk back and forth. "The deputy was so smooth when he called. I never suspected a thing."
She stopped pacing and put her hands on her hips. "And they're grilling Eddie right now. Oh, my God. They think he killed Steven!"
I could see her winding herself tighter and tighter. That might be good, up to a point, but I didn't want her to get too carried away. "I'm not saying Armstrong was murdered, but it didn't look like a clear cut accident to me. I don't know what the police think," I lied, "but I know what I'd think in their shoes."
"Look," she said, taking a deep breath, "Eddie didn't like this plan, but he wasn't nearly as pissed about it as that environmentalist whack job. That guy flat out threatened Steven. I heard him say that he'd do whatever it took to stop him. The Sheriff's Department needs to be talking to him, not Eddie."
"I'm sure they will," I said, trying a soothing tone. "Do you know his name?"
She pinched the bridge of her nose and I could feel her concentration. "I don't know his name but he was shouting 'Save Tahoe Basin' so I bet that's who he's with. He looked like a drug addict."
"I'm sure the police will talk with him. Don't worry about it. I'm sorry if I upset you. That certainly wasn't my intention."
Alison took a few deep breaths and nodded, relaxing a little. She sat back down abruptly. "This is just so sudden. I don't know what to think." Her gaze sharpened on my face. "I think I need to lie down for a while. If you don't mind."
I nodded and stood up. "I'm sorry to have worried you like this. Just one more question. Was Armstrong alone at the dinner?"
She levered herself slowly to her feet. "That depends on how you define 'alone'. He didn't have a date but he's always been good about scaring up company."
"Did he slip off with someone last night?" I let her lead me to the front door.
She smiled tightly. "Let's just say I'm good at reading men and he was sharing glances with a woman. A woman I'd bet was more than a casual acquaintance."
I stepped outside. "Anyone I'd know?"
She considered the question and slowly nodded. "You didn't hear this from me. I don't want to cause her any problems but knowing her husband I can see part of the reason she'd be interested." She glanced behind her to make sure we were alone. "He was making goo-goo eyes at a woman that night and she was giving the vibe back in spades. Ask Dora Fletcher where he might have gone after the dinner," she said as she closed the door.
* * * * *
The drive back to town gave me time to think about what I'd learned. The information about Dora, whether true or not, didn't surprise me for obvious reasons. In fact, the irony of her possible marital infidelity to my ex was sweet. A lesser woman would've been on the phone taking advantage of the situation before her car was warmed up.
For whatever reason I wasn't in a rush to cash in on what I'd learned. Like the ancient Klingon proverb said, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold.' I smiled at my reflection in the mirror. It wasn't nice but it was fair.
A quick call on my cell phone netted me the address and phone number for an environmental group called 'Save Tahoe Basin'. If memory served, the address was in one of the older residential areas.
After a couple of wrong turns I found Graham Street and followed it into the hills at the base of the mountains towering over Angel's Point. The houses I drove past looked to have been made in the late sixties or early seventies. They were in good repair, for the most part, but age sat heavily on them. It was like looking at a herd of swayback horses that were long past their prime. At least there weren't many cars on blocks in the yards.
The offices of Save Tahoe Basin also turned out to have a mailbox outside that announced Wallace as the name of the resident. I pulled to the curb and looked the place over carefully.