I shove my envelopes and packages into my briefcase-bag.
“Yes, Maura, I do need some help. I’ve been concerned about Mercy and, honestly, am afraid to hear what the doctors have to say. Would you… do you mind calling them for me?”
There is no lie in that.
“Sure. No problem.” My sister pulls out her phone.
“I don’t want to hear. I’ll just step out…”
She seems to understand and puts her back to me. As soon as her attention is on her screen, I pull the strap over my head and leave.
It’s deceptive. Why am I being deceptive to my own sister?
Because life is on the line. Someone is threatening me, and I can bring no one in on this horrible blackmail.
I hurry to the car and rest my head on the steering wheel.
I’m not myself and feel pulled in thirteen directions. Each step I take, I second guess myself, wondering what to do, wondering how do move and if I will fail. Failure means the death of my daughter, and/or the death of my wife. Who am I to have such control? Who is that guy to threaten me?
Get home, he says; I must comply. I pull the car into reverse and a beeping draws my attention. The rear camera shows a car blocking me. My rear-view mirror says the same.
A body appears next to the passenger door and jiggles the handle, a broad-chested man in a pinstripe suit and designer coat.
I unlock the door and he climbs in. With his large limbs, he has to adjust the seat in order to fit. I say nothing, just watch him taking liberties with my car, my time, my personal space.
Why am I not surprised?
He shifts in the seat, leaning on the door and facing me with a lecture painted on his face. The rear-view mirror tells me I’m not going anywhere till this is over, so I turn off the car.
Inside, I’m screaming.
Outside, I snap, “Yes, Mr. Briggston?”
“You kicked me out so unceremoniously yesterday, I wasn’t able to tell you about Noah’s death.”
I don’t ask him what he means. First, my brain compiles and organizes all I know about Briggston.
He is the Blacks’ banker. Wealthy as all get-out. Isn’t used to his way being blocked—so he blocks others. He owns the mortgage on the Blacks’ home, meaning they are indebted to him. He cared more about speaking to William during the initial crime scene investigation than about bending to protocol, meaning what he had to say may or may not influence William’s testimony.
From what I know about human nature, a lion in a trap will chew off their own paw. This man is worried. The death of Noah Black makes him nervous. Meaning, he knows something that could incriminate him.
Yet here he is, about to give information on Noah’s death. I know very well that his word is likely tainted by this desire for self-preservation.
I pull out my notebook and pen from my breast pocket. “Please, tell me what you know. Anything would be helpful.”
“No. Not here.” He scrutinizes the parking lot camera.
My breath catches in my throat. I’ve got to get out of here; I’ve got to save my Sophie by following the next directive; time is of the essence. Now this man wants to take me somewhere.
“I have evidence. But it’s at my house.” He waves his hand in the space between us. The car behind us pulls away. “Let’s go.”
Haggling with this man will only waste my time. I’ll review what he wants to show me and then get on to my house.
Immediately. Immediately. The words buzz in me like a morning wake-up alarm. I need to get home, tie the scarf around my wrist, then open the package.
“What is this thing?” Briggston pulls my bag from under his feet and rests it on his lap.
I do not want him to handle that. My future is in there.
“You can toss that in the back if you’d like.”
“No. It’s fine here.” He pats it, reassuring me, but his eyebrows pinch. He presses down to feel what it is, then glances at me.
“So you have anyone in custody for the murder of the Blacks’ son?”
He knows I took the Blacks from outside his bank. Why isn’t he asking about that?
“Yes, we do.” Two can play at this game.
Technically, the Blacks are in custody, though for how long, who knows. They might have already been released. If I keep making these pinball actions, I’m gonna lose my job. I need to get in and out of Briggston’s house, and do what the ghost man said to do. Then I’ll get back to analyzing evidence and persuading my sergeant that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth.
He directs me to his home in the Fair Weathers district. Typical. Why William Black chose such an out of the way residence, who’s to know? This is where rich people are supposed to live.
The security guard salutes Briggston and opens a bronze gate. The wide gate creeps open to present a long driveway cutting through a huge but soggy green lawn.
Finally, I pull the car into a roundabout at the front door, and a valet takes my key.
Strapping my bag around my chest again, I follow Briggston into his home.
If I thought the Black mansion was grand, it was only because I’d never seen this place. Why do people need so much stuff? Why do they need such a huge front door?
I step through the threshold into grandeur. Not an entrance hall, as the Blacks have, but a lobby, the size of a hotel lobby. Chairs are arranged around three pillars rising up from marble tile floors. The butler takes my coat and bag and hangs them in a closet.
Two doors to the left lead to large rooms. One is empty and seems like… could it be a ballroom? Do people even have those anymore?
Briggston leads me into the other room, a vast living room area. Several couches, a fireplace, a piano and a harp next to it. On the wall above the piano are two paintings.
I inspect them with Briggston in tow. One is of a young girl, maybe eight. The other is a young woman, in her mid or late twenties. The two paintings could be the same person at different ages, though the artist differed.
I close-in on the young woman’s picture. Dark thinly braided hair, pulled back from her face, frames an eerie smile. Her dark dress has a rounded deep neckline, her arms are crossed at the wrist. I can’t tell if she’s smirkingly content or contentedly smirky. But there’s something a bit off about her mouth, her long nose, and the odd bags under her eyes.
The girl in the picture next to it poses with similar angle, dress, wrists, and smile. But there’s a modern style to this painting.
“Are these family portraits?” I ask.
Briggston scratches his forehead. “Yes, the girl is my granddaughter, Lisa, when she was eight. The other painting is of Lisa Gherardini.”
“Both are named Lisa.”
“Gherardini? You related to the chocolate company?”
The door has been shut and we are alone in the room. I turn to the banker. “So what is it you wanted to show me?”
“Wasn’t she beautiful?”
I glance at the young woman. Honestly, I’m put off by her enigmatic face. But Briggston is looking at the young girl. And he used past tense.
“Did you lose her?”
He nods, “I guess so.”
“You’re not sure?”
“No. She died the same year they painted this portrait.” He wags his head to shake away the deep feeling. I know about loss and wait until he returns to today. “So, about poor Noah.” He opens the drawer of a side table and motions for me to look inside.
There is a syringe.
My brain clicks clues into place. I won’t fill in the blanks, but this might be the break we were looking for.
“What is this?” I hope he will confirm what Grigory had said.
“Have a seat.” Briggston leaves the drawer open, but sits on the couch next to it, motioning for me to sit across from him. “I realize Nick Black is in the hospital, and I’m very sorry for that. But that young man is a menace and danger to anyone who knows him.”
I jot his words into my notepad. “What makes you say this?”
“He broke into my home several days ago and tried to attack me in here with this syringe. My bodyguard tackled him, but Nick got away, though he dropped the syringe on his way out. You can test it for fingerprints.”
“How’d it get in the drawer?”
“I picked it up with a handkerchief and dropped it into the drawer.”
“Did you report his break in to the police?”
He shakes his head. “The Blacks are family friends. I didn’t want to bring a dark cloud upon their lives, but Noah’s death has already done that. Nick Black was a psychopath.”
“Was? You speak as though he’s dead.”
“No… I mean, he is. He was to me— whenever I saw him. I’m sure he killed his brother.” His eyes are on his granddaughter, which puzzles me. What would be the connection? I wait for him to expound, but he says, instead, “You’re aware Noah was a schizophrenic?”
My eyes widen. Noah? That must have been what Maura wanted to tell me. That is very significant.
Suddenly, the journal entries make sense. A suicide would be consistent, which is what his mother had implied. And his break-up. And a weapon. But not a murder.
Who killed Noah Black?
The ultimate Catch-22 for a schizophrenic is when someone really is after you. Poor kid.
“I’ll need to confirm that with his parents.”
“You do that. But my point is, it runs in the family. Nick assaulted me, probably was undiagnosed crazy, too.”
He used past tense again, making me very concerned for Nick’s safety. Nick is key in this case, and Briggston’s talking as if he’s not around anymore.
Come to think of it, I haven’t checked in on him since… since I was abducted by those Russians. Brooke hadn’t heard about him, either. I need to see Nick and to check up on his security detail.
My brain is working a mile a minute, assessing this banker, assessing the crime. What kind of person was Noah? What kind of person would kill Noah? What kind of person could kill Noah and Jamie like that?
Money, love, revenge.
Did Noah represent money to Briggston? With so much money of his own, and controlling the deed to the Black mansion, money motive is unreasonable here.
Love? Did Briggston love someone and Noah stood in the way? I cannot see that. Revenge? Was Briggston using Noah against Black as leverage for something? Possibly.
Briggston must be involved, and Nick suspected as much. But then there’s Nick.
Psychopath? It matches what Grigory said, and what their cameras caught Nick doing.
Scanning the corners of the room, I see no cameras. “Do you have security cameras showing Nick’s assault?”
“No. I use no security cameras.”
No cameras? “What about insurance? They must require it.”
“I insure myself.”
Yes, I’ve heard about the concept, but he’d have to be very rich, and foolish, to underwrite his own wealth.
“Besides the syringe, do you have any other evidence that Nick was here?”
“As I said, his fingerprints will be on there. Plus my bodyguard.”
Suspect because he is an employee. Too much to lose. “It’s been days since then, so the crime scene is contaminated, Mr. Briggston.” Whether he likes it or not, this crime is merely hearsay. “Why would he want to kill you?”
“Inheritance trouble. All those boys were at each others’ throats. I got caught in the middle because I own the mortgage.”
Recalling the bank reminds me of the Blacks in custody. They hadn’t had their meeting with him, and Briggston hasn’t brought it up at all. All this makes their meeting very suspect. I test the waters.
“We needed the Blacks at the station. I understand they canceled their meeting with you.”
I wait for more, but nothing comes.
It would be helpful to have more evidence. I walk around the room, hawk-eyed, looking for something else to back up what he’s saying. Along a side wall, I’m drawn to a shelf of picture frames.
Several of them have Briggston with movie stars and politicians. One has him with a woman about his age.
“Are you married, Mr. Briggston?”
He grunts instead of answering. He must have been married since he had a granddaughter. I glance at the harp. Possibly widowed. It’s quite a big house to have no mistress. No wonder he’s obsessed with work. Is loneliness a motive for murder? I hope not, or I’ll soon be in trouble myself.
The final picture is of three people in a fishing boat. There is Briggston, and the little granddaughter Lisa, and at the helm. I look closer. What?
Is that Grigory?
I look at Briggston.
“Lisa was a live-wire,” he says, eyeing the frame. “Everyone else was gone, she was all I had left. So when she died, that was it for me.”
I consider asking about Grigory, but decide against it. First, I need to investigate Nick’s house. For sure, Nick was up to something. Better to know that first. Both Grigory and Briggston are pointing fingers at Nick, so they’re in this together somehow.
But how? I file that away.
“Are you going to take the syringe?” Briggston asks.
I take a picture of its location, and of the room. As evidence, the syringe is tainted. Since Briggston didn’t call in the crime, but brought me here, there is no record. Whatever is inside the syringe could determine cause of death, but I sure don’t want to touch it.
What to do?
“I’ll need you to file a report. Then we can—”
“But that’s why I brought you. To file a report.”
“You didn’t go through proper channels, so there is no crime on the books, Mr. Briggston. We’ll need a full team to come in and process this. Are you pressing charges?”
He studies me for a moment. “Yes, then. I want to press charges.”
“Fine. This is not my jurisdiction, Mr. Briggston. I don’t do break-ins or assault. There’s some business I need to take care of, so you’ll need to contact the police directly. Not 911, since it’s not an emergency.”
I excuse myself into the lobby and wait at the door for the butler to bring me my coat and bag. I hurry out and quickly drive off, arriving home in ten minutes.
Maura still doesn’t have my new number, so she has no way to contact me. I’ve been gone forty minutes now. The directive said to follow those steps immediately.
I’m sure they’ve dismissed the Blacks with a thousand apologies. They’re not in custody anymore, so all these directives are going south.
My job is on the line, and I’m only directly on the case.
Unlocking the door, I run up to my room and grab the scarf the sulfur guy gave me. I tie it around my wrist, then tear open the velcro on my shoulder bag.
I gawk, horrified.
The brown paper-wrapped package is gone. The only thing in my bag is the envelope and note.
Oh no, oh no.
Where did I see it last?
I put it into my bag, right before I left Maura in my office. Briggston patted it in the car. And I gave my bag to the butler. But was Briggston ever out of my sight to take it?
I have so many things I need to do. I need to know who, what, when, where, why, how of these murders. But I’m no closer to knowing than I was the minute I walked into the Black mansion.
Briggston, Grigory, Nick, Benjamin—where is he? William, Brooke. We can’t rule out anyone yet, and the mother and father have alibis for each other.
Maura has new information that can help me decipher the clues I have. Plus, what did she find out about Mercy? They’ve been working on the forensics, I know almost nothing about their discoveries, and I need to tie that all in with everything I know.
Most importantly, our team needs to pull together a profile for the killer based on all this evidence so far, but I cannot do any of this chasing my tail. Everyone’s looking for me. The Blacks will have my badge if I don’t play this right.
But Briggston stole my package. And that package is the one thing keeping Sophie alive.
Copyright 2021, Darlene N. Böcek