He looked at the 1952 Willys Jeep, 4wheel drive station wagon. It was a classic right from an African safari operator. First of all, he could have bought one cheaper in the United States if he had added the shipping cost into the equation. Yes, Artie thought, but it wouldn't have the provenance of the monster which sat outside his garage. It looked as though all those years working in his father's auto repair shop might just pay off after all.
The thought of those days usually made him sad, but not that day. On that particular day he smiled. How could he help but smile at the monster of a station wagon. It had been bought brand new from the factory in late 1951 or early 1952. The serial number records were gone, but he had the code. The code told him several things. The serial number told him that the original color was green. When the monster arrived at his home, via boat then car-carrier, it had been painted a zebra stripe design. It remained in the same condition, since Artie wasn't sure just what he would be doing with it. The first thing to do was to get the motor running again, he thought
The jeep had been driven right up until the day that the engine blew, so most of the running gear was intact. Artie's job was to repair the motor with parts from God alone knew where, then to undo the forty years of neglect and poorly completely repairs. Artie had bought the Jeep on Ebay. The seller had sworn that the body was sound with no rust. The small amount of rust on the door panel was going to be easy to repair, since the metal was a lot thicker than that found on modern cars.
"Artie, I hate to drag you from your new toy, but you got a call." The voice belonged to his roommate.
"So who is it, and can't it wait?" Artie knew better, since the roommate had interrupted him it would be business. He had no friends important enough to interrupt him.
"That horrid Amy woman at Great Northern." The look of distaste on his roommate's face made a perfect punctuation to the sentence. Amy was indeed a shark where men were concerned. He was possibly the only investigator at Great Northern who had not slept with Amy. In spite of it or maybe because of it, he tended to get the worst assignments. Those statements probably weren't fair since Great Northern only had two real investigators.
Artie took the wireless phone from his roommate. "Yes Amy," he said gruffly. Might as well let her know that it was Saturday morning and he had things to do.
"I hate to bother you on a Saturday Artie, but I got a problem. By the way I see you have a new roomie."
"Yes I do Amy, and that is none of your business sweets." Artie, since the first day, had given Amy a ration of shit. It went with the independence of being a retired cop. He didn't really have to have her money. He would be hard pressed to replace it, but he could do so. On the downside of that, he might actually have to work.
"Of course it is Artie. It is my Christian duty to try to help you see the light." She giggled at her joke, if it really were a joke.
"So what is the problem?" Amy's banter was tedious even when he didn't have a massive project awaiting him.
"I need someone to run down to Roseboro for a death certificate." She said it as though it was all the explanation he needed. She surely knew that it wasn't.
"Come on Amy, you got a dozen agents who could do it easier, and a damn site cheaper."
"That is true, but they probably couldn't tell me if our insured is in the grave."
"Now you are talking." Artie became interested. Artie loved a whodunit, when nobody was depending on him to solve it. "So what leads you to think you client isn't in the hole?
"I am going to email you the case file now that I have your attention."
"Good enough, I will call when I've read it all." Instead of waiting for the email, Artie went to the shower. He scrubbed off the grease first with a pumas cleaner, then stepped into the only warm shower. The grease remains would have to be scrubbed from the porcelain tub and sink. If he didn't clean it, at least a little, the roommate would have a fit. He thought again that it might be time to ditch the roommate. He enjoyed the company at first but this one was getting possessive much too fast.
Dressed in the polished cotton dress pants, which he favored with the white shirt open at the neck, he sat at the computer to read. The file of several pages told him a lot. Michael Crane had been a small town lawyer in his youth. He hit thirty and began to worry about accumulating wealth. There just wasn't enough money in the rural town for an ambitious lawyer to steal.
Michael bought into a firm in the state capitol. He worked hard enough so that in ten years he had a chunk of change in the bank. It was pretty close to two million according to the records presented at the claims hearing. While flying high, Michael took out an insurance policy for two million naming his wife beneficiary. The wife had been a new acquisition it seemed. Only a couple of years after the wedding Michael died mysteriously.
The autopsy in the state medical center showed that Michael had a badly failing liver. Death though was from a one car traffic accident. The old blunt trauma to the head seemed to be the culprit. He went over a cliff while on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina. His beautiful younger wife was still sleeping when the deputies came to inform her. Younger being by over ten years. Michael was in his early forties while the wife was in her mid twenties.
After the autopsy Michael's remains were returned to the small town of Roseboro, where he was buried in the family plot. The casket was closed for the ceremony, since he was a mess from the accident. Presumably there was more than one piece of Michael still missing.
The car over the cliff accident might not in itself seem so significant. It was a sign of the times that really made the accident seem, just a hair east of dead straight. The file noted that Michael's stock portfolio went from over two million to just about twenty bucks. Michael had done so well in his practice that he got what stockbrokers call the superman syndrome. "I am so smart that I don't need professional advice." That is usually followed by poverty, Artie had been told. His friend Jeff, the stock broker, explained that doctors and lawyers suffer from it equally. Most lose one fortune, then get out of investing and back to what they can really do to make money.
Then to the young wife bought a boat. The boat stayed anchored on the Neuse river while she awaited the insurance money to be paid. She was living on the boat, presumably alone and grief stricken. The flag was simply that women don't usually move onto boats. That is more a guy thing.
The cops in the three jurisdictions did not question the death, because cops don't like crimes that are complicated. Artie should have known, thirty years as a cop qualified him as an expert on their thinking. The cops, where the accident happened had a body so they were happy. The ones where he lived had no reason to investigate, since the coroner gave them the word that it was on the up and up. The report did mention a slight drug presence in the body, but hell everybody with that much money took prescription drugs. Being rich meant to be doped most of the time, or so cops thought.
Since the body came to Roseboro just to be buried, the cops there did no more than direct the traffic, while the hearse and family cars paraded to the small church cemetery. Nobody had all the pieces except Great Northern. They also had the only motive to question the facts surrounding Michael's death. They wouldn't have bothered, if it were simply a matter of whom to pay. If Michael had been murdered, it made no difference to them except that they would not pay off to a murderer. If he faked his own death, they would not ever have to pay, so it was extremely important for them to know that Michael was indeed the Jack in the box, so to speak.
While the printer made a hard copy of the email attachment, Artie packed a bag. He told his roommate that he would be gone a few days. He also hinted strongly that it might be a good time for the roommate to rethink the living arrangements. The roommate was stunned, but seemed to be holding up just fine as Artie walked to his car.
As Artie drove the hundred and fifty seven miles to Roseboro in his red 1957 Chevy Belaire convertible, he thought about the roommate and wondered what he would find in Roseboro. He expected to find nothing and that the roommate would be gone when he called home. After all, the roommate had kept the apartment in town. Artie did not have roommates who were too stupid, or too poor to have a safety valve.
The 283 cubic inches of the V8 engine inside the Chevy made short work of the hundred and fifty seven miles. Artie was stopped at a Roseboro convenience store filling up the chevy less than three hours later. He probably hadn't needed to leave immediately, but he wanted to give the roomie time to get out.
The funeral director in Roseboro had not been the one to embalm the body so he could tell Artie little. The body was indeed not complete, was his only observation. He knew that only because he had received the remains in a body bag. He was the one who had placed them, with great dignity he assured Arty, into the casket. Artie didn't bother to explain that he had been a cop and therefore knew how bodies got handled. It almost never reached the level of humanity, let alone dignity.
Artie spent the remainder of the day checking with Michael's old friends. He spoke to them at home since everything was closed down tight in the small town. People knew Michael all right but no one speaks ill of the dead. At least not in the first ten minutes of conversation. The waitress in the sandwich shop knew Michael. She had even dated Michael. To her way of thinking, the law was a perfect choice for Michael. He had always been the bookish type. Everyone Artie spoke with agreed with that comment. From them Artie got the idea that the boat would be way out of character.
The evidence Artie needed to convince Great Northern to pay the claim, or to do the DNA test was just not there yet. Artie had a feeling that it was indeed the body of Michael in the grave, but the feeling was all he had. He visited the grave before leaving town.
The drive toward the scene of the accident took Artie near the state capitol so he pulled his list of contacts from the file. He used his state maps laid across the hood of the car to plot his coarse to the houses of Michael's law partners. Ordinarily lawyers won't tell you crap, but then again when it is personal they often will. Both the lawyers and wives dished dirt on Michael. He was to their thinking, arrogant even for a lawyer. His wife was a trailer trash blonde. She was beautiful but had no class at all, but then what could one expect from a small town lawyer come to the city.
The fact that he found the twist in Raleigh didn't seem to impress them at all. Artie left the city with the impression that Michael was capable of faking his death, but the trailer trash wife couldn't pull it off.
Artie pulled the file again just to make sure he didn't need more checks before he left town. It was noted in the police report that Leslie, the trashy wife, had made the identification of the body. The fingerprint ID had not been necessary.
It was far too late to talk to anyone when Artie pulled into the small town twenty miles from the Cherokee reservation. On the reservation he would find the casino which had been the purpose of Michael and Leslie's visit to the area. The casino raised the question of gambling debts, the only way to find out about them was to ask. The local cops and the Casino were the two stops he had planned.
The motel of choice was the same one where Michael had stayed. He would never have chosen it himself, but then he was on an expense account and had a legitimate reason to be in the 'hundred buck a night' motel. He was even able to justify it, since the clerk on the desk remembered the accident. He especially remembered Leslie. The night of the accident Leslie and Michael were in the attached restaurant or so the desk clerk said.
The waitresses did not remember either of them. So Artie had a steak for dinner then retired to his room. The room was quite nice looking even for the price. There seemed to be at least some value to the place. He was about to slip into the large tub when a knock on the door interrupted him.
"He slipped into his pants and wrinkled shirt before he answered. "Yes?" he asked of the woman standing in the interior hallway.
"I am Sharon, I heard from Marty, on the desk, that you were asking about that man who ran off the cliff?"
Since it was a question, Artie answered her. "Yes I am. I am with the insurance company." He didn't feel it necessary to tell her which one. She seemed to be way too interested in him for some reason. She finally noticed his curious look.
She went on in what seemed to be an embarrassed voice. "I am sorry to stare but the other waitresses said you were handsome enough to be a model."
Artie wasn't embarrassed at all. He heard variations of it all the time. "Tell them thanks and not to listen to the people who try to sell them all glasses." Artie smiled his warmest smile for her. He waited just a second then went on. "So come on in," he stepped back to allow her into the room. Once she was inside, he asked, "So, did you know the two of them?"
"Not more than a favorite waitress kind of thing. They would sit in my section when they came down for meals." She said it while staring at him. She seemed to realize that it embarrassed him. "I am sorry but you are just gorgeous."
"Gee, this place would be a gold mine for a pusher of specs." Artie smiled at her. She was waiting for more but he didn't plan to play along.
"So what's a girl got to do to get invited for a drink." She asked it smiling at Artie.
It was time to put an end to it. Artie did it all the time. He had even begun to appreciate their looks. "Well to tell the truth, a girl would have to be a guy." It took her a moment to catch on.
"Oh damn, you don't mean you are gay?" The look on her face told him that she was horrified. They usually were.
"Don't look so surprised, it happens you know. All gay men are not effeminate you know, some are football players."
"But my god what a waste," it just slipped out of her. Artie knew she did not mean any harm. He actually laughed. It took her a moment before she could get to another level in her thinking. "So did you ever try women?" It took her about a second to answer her own question. "You are gorgeous of course you did."
"Honey, I tried them and I can even make love to them but I don't really enjoy it."
"So you are really bisexual with a preference for men." It seemed that somehow the statement made her feel better.
"I guess you might say that, but I am not a practicing bisexual, I am gay."
"I see, should I leave?" She asked it with a confused look
"Well Sharon, I was about to take a shower."
"How about I wait and you buy me that drink. I will tell you all about the couple. Besides we are going to make one beautiful pair." She was right about that, she was a beautiful woman in her own right.
The two of them would make an attractive couple. She got almost everything she wanted, Artie drew the line at sleeping with her. He did kiss her a few times. She hinted all night that she loved a challenge and felt she was more than a match for any man.
The one thing he learned about the Crane family was that they seemed to be snappish over meals. Sharon did not know if that held for other times as well, but they definitely were not the loving couple in public. It didn't speak well for the theory that Michael and Leslie were planning a caper. One does not wish to draw that kind of attention to themselves, if they are planning a caper like faking a death. If they indeed had faked his death, there would be a murder involved as well. Somebody went over that cliff. The somebody was alive until the end according to the doctor who did the autopsy.
The casino was a washout. The manager directed him to the lady in charge of collections. She informed Artie that Michael Crane did not owe the casino anything. They would not want to be on the suspect list, but he still believed her.
It was Sunday evening, when Artie arrived in the little coastal town. He found Leslie's boat without too much trouble. He even found a motel overlooking the marina. Artie checked out several rooms before he found just the right one.
People often wonder why Artie felt the need for such a large cars as the Chevy convertible. Besides his love of classics, they all shared a common feature. They each had a very large, very secure trunk. From the Red Chevy he removed a couple of well worn, well padded cases, as well as the soft suitcase.
In the room he assembled the telescope, then set it just inside the patio door. From the sixth floor room he could easily see Leslie's boat. He could even make out the name quite clearly. On the transom someone had written, "Heaven's Gate." Artie wasn't sure of the significance to the owner, but it did have a ring to it. Later he saw what was presumably Leslie come and go a couple of times. The man, who drove up to the dock in the black town car, did not look a thing like the picture of Michael. They did not seem to be lovers, even though he held the door for her.
Artie wrote down, then checked his license plate number on the internet. The car was owned by an executive car company. Those kinds of places were also known as executive taxi services. Leslie could have been going shopping, Artie did not know her well enough to know how she would have dressed to shop. She didn't seem to be dressed to match the executive taxi service standards. She wore cut off jeans and a sloppy sweat shirt.
Artie hurried down the stairs in time to pick up the baby limo as it pulled from the marina entrance. He followed along behind at a distance of about a block. The car drove from the marina to a motel in a seamier part of town. The car dropped her in middle of the row of units. After he drove away, she looked around but didn't notice Artie. She went to one of the lower floor rooms. The door was opened to her knock by a woman who appeared to be several years older at least. The two women kissed as the older woman closed the door.
At that point all Artie's theories switched. It appeared that it might be a love triangle murder. Two women offing an insurance heavy hubby was not an unheard of event. He wondered if Amy had an inkling and chose him for that reason. Artie figured he was probably having a minor attack of paranoia at that point. While Leslie rolled around in the other woman's bed, he checked with the manager of the motel. It cost him fifty bucks to get the manager's word that he would not warn the woman in 112. For the money he also got a look at the registration card. The woman was driving a rental car, she had guaranteed her bill with a Visa card. He took down the name on the registration as well as the license plate numbers.
Artie waited in the parking lot for the next executive town car. When the woman said goodbye to Leslie, he noted that her hair was perfect. Possibly they weren't rolling around. But then Leslie was a mess. Her hair had that patched up look about it. Since he was a man, even a gay man, he had no idea what it meant. At least not till he got back to the motel and began to think about it. The answer came to him sometime in the night. In his sleep. Proving it didn't take long on Monday morning. He called Amy since she was paying the bill.
Artie couldn't help confronting Leslie and her 'friend'. It was an ego thing and he knew it. He went to the motel to wait for Leslie's visit. When the door opened. he rushed it. He pushed them both inside the room.