When is a perfect alibi not so perfect? Cody Callahan and defense attorney Travis Longstreet must answer this question to save grandmotherly Lucille Prettyman from murder charges.
“A Perfect Alibi”
"Why did Sherlock Holmes hate women?"
Ignoring the question but not the questioner, Travis Longstreet glanced away from the residential street to his car passenger. Cody Callahan was tucking her paperback copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes into her purse. "Ready to concern yourself with my client's problems? I'm certain defending someone against first degree murder charges is hardly as interesting as a story, but this is what I pay you for."
"A trace of temper, Trav? You act as if you have a personal stake in this case."
"Let's just say something personal's involved. I don't want her in prison."
"Then I have something personal involved, too." Cody examined his face with her miss-nothing eyes. "Actually, I was reading to get myself in the proper frame of mind for our investigation. Into character."
"You as Holmes?"
"No, Conan Doyle."
"Have you bothered to look at my material on the case?"
"All the background material, biographies, police and private investigator reports, and your summation were as thorough and bland as usual. Stick to law. You'd never make it as a dramatist."
"I'll leave writing 'serious' plays to you. I prefer to eat. You have any ideas yet? What about a way to break our best suspect's perfect alibi?"
"Must flesh out the characters first. Hear their stories in their own words. Just facts do not a story make."
His jaw clinching at her nonsense statement, he turned into the Kirby estate and parked in front.
As Cody joined him, he pointed at the house. "As your map shows, the house is shaped as a right angle U, the arms pointed away from the main drive. The base of the U in front of us, the living room. Left wing, bedrooms. Far end, Franklin Kirby's bedroom. Right wing, library, dining room, kitchen, and utility rooms."
"The center of the U?"
"Flower garden, patio, and fountain."
The front door swung open.
"Mr. Longstreet, at last." Her Mrs. Santa Claus face alight with pleasure and anxiety, Lucille Prettyman beamed at him.
His own face a deliberate mask of certainty, competence, and caring, he shook her hand. Her biography flashed across his mental screen in logical precision: Lucille Tuttle Prettyman, client—1st degree murder, 62, live-in R.N. to victim Franklin Kirby for 6 years, widowed 21 years, no children but should have had. "Lucille, this is—"
"Your wife." Lucille studied them both, Cody's dark, boyish figure in contrast to his blond solidity. "What a charming couple you are."
Cody had the grace not to snicker at the absurdity of her comment. "His colleague, Cody Callahan. I'm here to help you."
"Cody has the remarkable intuitive ability to see the true pattern of a crime."
"Not intuition, a rational knowledge of story structure. Premeditated murder is a dramatic structure—beginning, middle, end. Characters with motives. Plot structure which can only follow certain patterns—"
"She's very good. If Cody and I can't save you from this charge, no one can. Have the others arrived?"
"In the kitchen."
"The murder scene first," Cody said.
Lucille ushered them into the house then brought them through the antique-strewn living room into the bedroom wing. "That's Sam's bedroom on the left. Mr. Kirby's kept a live-in valet since he became a complete invalid. This was my bedroom beside Sam's. Jeffie used to live across the hall." She pushed open another door to the small, well-furnished clinic. "My work area and the doctor's, of course."
"The insulin came from here?" Cody's gaze flashed over the room and settled on the tiny refrigerator.
"Yes." Fighting tears, Lucille cleared her throat. "As well as the hypodermic. How could anyone.... He was such a wonderful man."
"Millions of dollars are even more wonderful to most people," Travis said.
Lucille shook her head. "Jeffie couldn't do it. He's a nice boy, and he's really straightened himself out, gone back to college. Mr. Kirby was so relieved."
"Jeffie is the other heir?" Cody asked.
Travis pushed open the door to Kirby's bedroom. "The nephew with the perfect alibi. Minus the small bequests, Lucille and Jeffie split the rest fifty-fifty. If Lucille's found guilty, the whole thing goes to him."
Cody circled the huge bedroom. The waterbed faced a sliding glass door leading out onto the U's garden. Surrounded by dozens of blooming roses, a fountain sparkled in the garden's center. "Lovely. Was this door unlocked, and who had a key?"
Staring at the empty bed, Lucille wrung her hands. "It was locked, and only Mr. Kirby had a key. The whole house was locked."
"And the sliding glass door on the other side?"
"Dining room. It can be unlocked from the inside without a key. Sam has a key."
"Valet, butler, houseman,” Travis answered. “He kept the place running. He did everything Lucille and Tammy didn't handle. As well as small business details for Kirby."
"Locked house,” Cody said. “Only three people inside plus the victim. Jeffie has keys?"
Lucille dragged her gaze away from the bed and back to Cody. "No. Mr. Kirby had all the locks changed after he threw Jeffie out."
"For stealing Kirby's antiques to finance a drug habit." Travis beamed at that information.
As if unimpressed, Cody fiddled with the door's lock. "It would be tough to jimmy without leaving a mark. The lethal dose was given between 4:15 and 5 in the afternoon?"
"I’m done here," Cody said. "Let's meet the others."
Travis led the way toward the kitchen. The women lagged behind. He could just catch snatches of the conversation. Cody assured Lucille she and Travis were single but made no comment to the leading questions—wasn't he handsome, and so sweet, and wouldn't he make some fine girl a wonderful husband? With a grimace, he walked faster.
The valet rose from the kitchen table as they entered. Travis reexamined his mental biography: Samuel Erath, 65, widowed 2 years, became engaged to Lucille a month before Kirby's death, worked loyally his whole adulthood for large national department store rising to manager, fired by not very loyal company a few months before retirement benefits kicked in. Kirby had been the first decent job Erath had been able to find, and he'd worked here just over a year. Kirby had left him $2000 in his will.
Bulldog attractive with his age showing in paunch, jowls, and gray hair, Sam took Lucille's hand and squeezed. "You okay, sugar?"
"A little rocky, Sam. Coming back here.... It just doesn't seem real. Mr. Kirby dead. Me accused of...."
“We'll do anything to prove you innocent. Won't we, Mr. Longstreet?"
Travis nodded and introduced Cody. "Where's Tammy?"
A country twang answered him from the pantry. "Here I am. I got us some coffee." Her scraggly blonde curls swaying, Tammy waved a can of Folgers and bounced over to the coffee maker. She shoveled coffee and poured water from the pot then punched some buttons.
Tammy's biography was short: Tammy Peters, the cook only two months, single, 27, not a live-in like the others. Kirby left her nothing in his will.
Cody walked to her and introduced herself. "You had a lovely, huge kitchen to work in. All these wonderful gadgets and counter space."
Tammy grinned. "Don't know what half these gizmos is. Didn't use them. A knife and frying pan's good enough for me. That's the way Momma taught me to cook."
"You've got dust all over your back."
Tammy brushed at her navy blue shirt. "This place is filthy. Just six weeks empty without us, and it's a mess."
"You must have leaned against the refrigerator. It's smudged."
"Say, you're right. You're some detective!"
Travis glared at the telltale body print on the refrigerator door, the hand smudges, thumbs touching a bit below waist level. He hated for Cody to show off her powers of observation, especially since she did it just to irritate him.
Tammy glanced at Lucille and Sam who sat at the table, their heads together whispering. "I get so tickled with them two. Holding hands like a couple of kids and blushing when you catch them at it."
Cody grinned. "You're never too old."
"I certainly hope not."
"They get along well?"
"Not a ruffled feather with the lovebirds. Lucille's a nice, nice lady. A good Baptist. Only time I ever heard her fuss was at me when I forgot and put some fatback in Mr. K's greens."
"Just as special. I loved working here. Them so sweet-tempered, and Mr. K such a nice man. Quiet and thankful for what you did for him. It broke my heart when he died and busted us up. You going to pin the rap on that druggie nephew?"
"If he's guilty."
Tammy pulled a coffee cup from the cabinet and slammed it onto the counter. "He's guilty all right. Him or one of his druggie friends. No one else could a done it or would a done it. He's got the reason and the meanness to do it."
"He's not a mean boy," Lucille protested.
"Either he did it, or you did, Lucille." Tammy served the coffee and plopped down at the table between Cody and Travis. She batted her eyes at him. "You got a smile, Mr. Longstreet, that'd make honey dry up in shame."
Cody chuckled. "One look at those steel blue eyes, chiseled jaw, and smile, and the prosecutor insists on a male jury."
Sam frowned. "Hush now, Tammy. Nothing funny about Lucille's troubles."
Chastened, Tammy nodded. "We'll do anything to get Lucille off."
The honest solidarity of the three bolstered Travis' spirits as it always did.
Lucille offered Cody sugar and creamer for her coffee.
"No, thank you. Tell me about the day he died."
"Nothing unusual happened. Mr. Kirby followed his usual schedule. After lunch he read. At 3:00 exactly, I examined him as usual. All his signs were fine. His blood sugar was right.
“At almost 3:30, he stretched out for a nap, and I left him. I freshened up and rested in my own room until 4:10, and checked him again. He was sleeping peacefully, his color good."
"How long do his naps usually last?"
"Until 4:30 or 5. After I checked on him, I went into the kitchen where Sam was helping Tammy cap some strawberries. We talked a few minutes then I went to take Mr. Kirby's linens from the dryer." She pointed toward the pantry. "It's through there."
"I always put in too much bleach," Tammy added, "so Lucille don't like me to do them."
"Sam followed me and helped me fold the sheets."
Beaming, Sam squeezed her fingers. "Those huge waterbed sheets are a bear to fold by yourself."
Cody hummed to herself in thought. "That was just after 4:15. Is there any way out of the pantry and laundry?"
"Not even a window big enough to get out of," Sam insisted.
"They was in there less than ten minutes. I was in here the whole time working on supper and would'a seen them leave."
Cody asked Lucille, "Are you certain Tammy was in the kitchen the whole time?"
"Oh, yes. We could hear the blender cutting on and off. Tammy was making a congealed cherry salad Mr. Kirby liked, and she was singing. She loves hymns when she's working."
Sam nodded. "That's right."
Cody asked Tammy, "And Sam was with you when?"
"He came back from shopping around 3:30 and stayed with me until Lucille came in."
"And he never left?"
"Not a minute."
"How long were you two in the laundry?"
Lucille exchanged a glance with Sam. "Ten minutes or longer." He nodded.
"Ten minutes just to fold sheets?"
Lucille's pink cheeks turned pinker. "Not just to fold sheets."
Sam cleared his throat. "We are engaged."
"A while after Sam and I came back into the kitchen, I went alone to check on Mr. Kirby. That was around 4:45. His color wasn't right. He was pale and sweating. He was in a hypoglycemic coma. I called an ambulance and did what I could until they came."
"So they believe you killed him then."
"Yes,” Travis answered. “Only Lucille didn't have anyone with her at that critical time as witness or alibi."
"Why was he killed at all? He was an old man dying...."
"He had years left if someone hadn't killed him." Angry sparks flickered in Lucille’s eyes as she spoke.
"Sugar, you keep shoving that pretty neck further into the noose." His face flushed with emotion, Sam said, "I'll tell you why Jeffie killed him then. Two days before, Jeffie came to visit. He acted like he was high on something. They had an awful fight, and he left in a fury. Mr. Kirby asked me to call his attorney to make an appointment. Mr. Kirby was cutting that boy out of his will."
Cody's brown eyes shimmered with interest, and she asked Lucille, "You saw this?"
"Afraid not. I was off that afternoon. Mr. Kirby didn't talk about the visit later."
"Me neither,” Tammy added, “but I saw Jeffie come, and I heard him slam out of the place later."
Travis said, "Reynolds, Kirby's attorney, confirms Sam's call. He would have seen Kirby the day after he was killed."
As Travis and Cody drove off, Cody said nothing, her face serene. Finally, he prompted, "Well?"
"It's obvious you're not passionately involved with Tammy or overly fond of Sam, but your steely eyes turn to mercury every time you look at Lucille."
His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, but he kept his voice even. "I'm not paying you to find out my personal involvement in this case."
"Tell me, or I'll irritate it out of you."
Giving in to the logic of the statement, he sighed. "As a kid, did you ever pretend you'd been kidnapped from the richest family in town, and your dull normal parents weren't your real parents?" After Cody nodded, he asked, "Did you ever wonder what the richest family's kid pretended?"
"If I had a mother like Drucilla Worthington Longstreet who was born with a silver spoon for a heart, I'd pretend I had a real mother exactly like Lucille Prettyman."
"Down to the twinkling blue eyes, pink cheeks, and the way she smiles when she offers you a plate of cookies. I dropped my briefcase on my foot the first time I saw her."
"There's hope for the heart beneath that three-piece strait jacket after all." Cody rested her hand on his shoulder. "I'll get Mom off, Travis."
"Do you know who?"
"Possibilities. Possibilities. The cast and plot aren't complete."
"On to Jeffie the druggie, with the best motive and the disgustingly perfect alibi."
Just as he'd promised, Jeffie was waiting at the park a block down from his shabby apartment. He sprawled back on a bench, his arms against its top, and nodded to them both. His overly bright eyes framed by a ratty beard, he stared at Cody's face, figure, and dramatic blue silk pantsuit then mumbled, "Nice," and waved them down beside him.
Cody introduced herself.
"Jefferson Kirby, but call me Jeffie. Everyone else does." He beamed as if extremely pleased with himself.
Travis cleared his throat. "Nice of you to see us."
"It is, me being a useful scapegoat for you."
"Then why?" Cody asked.
"Even someone with his brains burned out on the hard stuff, and mine weren't, wouldn't believe Lucille killed Uncle Frank. Lucille? I sure as hell didn't either. She doesn't deserve being railroaded any more than I do."
"Tell us about your last visit to your uncle,” Cody said.
"Two days before he died. We had a nice talk about my college work. I showed him my grades for spring semester. He'd promised to pay my way next year if I kept a 3.0." Jeffie smirked, shark's teeth gleaming through his beard. "Got a 3.2."
"Why was he angry then? Sam said he was furious."
"He wasn't angry. Sam lied or was wrong. I even had to listen to Uncle Frank's chip-off-the-old-block praise, and thirty minutes of how proud my dad would have been. He would have, too."
"Do you have any idea why your uncle called his lawyer after your visit?" Cody asked.
"School money?" Jeffie's gaze zoomed in on Cody's breasts and stayed there.
Travis clutched the bench's arm rather than the other man's throat.
"Want to hear the famous alibi? I got this note on my uncle's personal stationery—it was in my mail that morning." Jeffie pulled out a white paper. "This is a copy. The cops have the original."
Cody examined the letter then handed it to Travis. It was dated the day of Kirby's death and read, "Come see me today at 4:30 P.M. Urgent I speak with you. F.K."
"It's completely typewritten,” Cody said. “He didn't even sign it. Was that usual?"
"Don't know. First note I ever got from him. The cops said it was written on the typewriter in the library."
Travis added dryly, "A typewriter anyone in the house, including you, had access to. And Sam, Lucille, and Tammy all said they didn't deliver the note or help him type it, and Kirby couldn't."
Cody smiled and leaned closer to Jeffie. "What happened then?"
"I got in my car around 4, I'd just got off my job at the pizza place, and I started toward Uncle Frank's. Then the wonderful moment came. A speeding police car rear ended me at a stop sign three miles away from the house." Jeffie gave another shark smirk. "I was surrounded by cops the whole time Uncle Frank could have been killed."
"How convenient," Travis said with a sneer.
"How inconvenient for someone else,” Cody replied. “Jeffie was being set up for his uncle’s murder.”
As Travis opened the car door for Cody then got in himself, discrete steam still blew out of his ears. He slammed his door closed. "You are supposed to help our client, not the prime suspect."
"I'm supposed to discover the truth." With a sigh, Cody settled back in her seat. "Your detectives haven't been able to tie Jeffie to a murder conspiracy?"
"No murderer for hire. No forced entry. But there must be."
"And the death injection had to be from 4:15 to 5?"
"Yes, the police pathologists and mine agree. The old man went fast. The bad heart, diabetes, and a few other problems didn't let him linger."
"Let me think about this."
He remained silent until he parked his car in front of Cody's apartment.
She blinked as if coming out of a trance and straightened. "I know who killed him. Tammy the cook."
"No motive. She'd been there two months, and Kirby wasn't leaving her a cent."
"But he was leaving Lucille a great deal of money."
"So Lucille paid Tammy to kill him. Ha! But Sam gave Tammy an alibi through the entire time."
"Tammy was alone in the kitchen at least ten minutes while Lucille and Sam folded sheets in the laundry. The noises were easy enough to fake. That kitchen looks like the flight deck of a jet. Put the blenders on timers. A cassette of Tammy singing hymns. Any of a number of ways to fake her presence. Pathetically easy. She trotted around the house, injected the old man, and popped back around into the kitchen. Less than five minutes. No one any the wiser."
"I can see how Tammy could, but.... Lucille wouldn't hire her to kill him. She wouldn't."
"I didn't say she did. Beyond it being totally out of character.... Lucille was the only suspect without an alibi. If she'd paid Tammy, she'd have made an airtight one. Her true perfect alibi is her lack of an alibi.
“That leaves only Sam and Jeffie as Tammy’s possible partner in murder. Jeffie was set up as scapegoat. The note was a fake luring him to the murder scene. He was to be there at 4:30. That meant the insulin was injected between 4:15 and that time. Only Tammy had a flimsy alibi then. Lucille and Sam were together.
“If Jeffie had come, he'd be the one with the murder charge on his head. That leaves only Sam as Tammy’s partner."
"Sam! But why?"
"Money. He might have been left a few thousand, but Lucille was to inherit millions. Jeffie's half of the millions too if he were charged with murder."
"The law does prevent someone from profiting from murder. So Sam wanted to marry her for her money so he hired Tammy to kill Kirby."
"Not exactly. I imagine Lucille wouldn't have lived long after marrying him."
"The pig! But Tammy?"
"Would have been the next Mrs. Samuel Erath."
"Sam and Tammy? She's young enough to be his...."
"You're never too old, Trav. You're never too old. Didn't you understand that smudge left on the refrigerator? Tammy was pressed against the refrigerator, probably in a passionate kiss, while Lucille was meeting us at the door."
"That's stretching it even with your wild imagination."
"The hand prints weren't Tammy's, but Sam's. The thumbs were together, an uncomfortable and unlikely hand position for a woman leaning against a refrigerator, but not so unlikely for a man pressing a woman against a refrigerator with his hands on her buttocks. The hand size was also too big for Tammy."
"You're still pushing it. Sam and Tammy as lovers?"
"I don't know about your friends, but mine don't put their hands there during a friendly peck on the cheek."
Travis shook his head in disbelief. "How can we prove this nonsense?"
"Put a tail on Tammy. I imagine she and Sam will meet for some heavy breathing sooner or later. They obviously can't keep their hands off each other. Money and murder are powerful aphrodisiacs. You should find enough to give a reasonable doubt in Lucille's trial."
He nodded. "I can see Tammy as killer, but Sam? You're wrong, Cody. It had to be Jeffie who paid or wooed Tammy. Your intuition's jumped a sprocket."
"A pound of Godiva chocolates says my logical reasoning is right."
Six days later, Travis knocked on Cody's apartment door. When she opened it, he shoved a box of chocolates into her hands.
"Thank you. You have enough evidence?"
Travis smiled happily. "And then some. Incriminating pictures of Sam and Tammy. When I grilled her with them and your theories—I made it seem we had more than theories—she confessed. The cops have her and Sam now. Lucille's free of all charges."
"Hurrah for Mom!"
"Hurrah. Her heart is broken though. The pig!"
“That's what a son's love is for. To cure such heartbreak."
"She's dumped me for Jeffie." Travis sighed.
"Very bad taste on her part."
He nodded. "I apologize for insulting your intuition. You were right."
"Logical reasoning, Trav. Like a story. Character motivation, beginning, middle, end. Plot structure. It was a classic detective plot."
"I used logical reasoning and couldn't come up with the same solution. Therefore, it couldn't have been logical reasoning."
She shook her head with disgust and motioned him into the apartment.
"Oh, I figured out why Sherlock Holmes hated women." He stepped inside.
"He was a logical thinker who went from A to Z, letter by logical letter. Most women think intuitively and skip bunches of letters at a time, like you always do. That irritated the hell out of him."
Cody rewarded him for the excellent logical answer by hitting him on the head with a pound of chocolates.