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Authors: Medora Sale

Murder in a Good Cause

BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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MURDER IN A GOOD CAUSE
A John Sanders/Harriet Jeffries Mystery
Medora Sale

Dedication

To Anne,
filiae meae dilectissimae

Chapter 1

When Mrs. Martha Wilkinson awoke suddenly in the night, groggy with codeine and sleeping pills, she heard voices whispering above the hum of the air conditioner in a language she could not place. There is nothing odd about that. Toronto is—at least in some senses of the word—a cosmopolitan city. Italian is everyday, Chinese ordinary, Greek more common than French. And although Mrs. Wilkinson might have recognized French or even guessed at Portuguese or Italian (her housekeeper was Portuguese), the language was none of these.

But the question should never have arisen. Martha Wilkinson shouldn't have been there at all, listening to any conversation. She ought to have been sleeping peacefully in an airy summer house on an island in Georgian Bay, except that a stabbing pain in her jaw had forced her to drive back to Toronto to see her dentist. In a day or two she would return to Georgian Bay. Of course, the speakers of the strange language shouldn't have been there, either. They were under the impression the house was empty.

Terror cleared the drug-induced fog from Mrs. Wilkinson's mind, but with the return of rational thought, terror disappeared again. Whoever was in the house felt quite at home. What had sounded at first like whispers were voices in another room speaking at normal volume. And the footsteps on the hall floor were neither furtive nor hesitant. The wild pounding of her heart settled. Christopher. He had come back unexpectedly with some of his friends from McGill. Foreign boys. Dear, soft-hearted Christopher. He had always collected waifs and strays for her to look after. It used to be puppies and kittens; now it was lonely young men from overseas, feeling lost at university. She smiled and climbed out of bed, wincing a little at the pain in her jaw when her feet hit the floor; she put on the light and struggled into her dressing gown. “Christopher, darling, is that you?” she called as she opened the door. The three men who were systematically going through the contents of her husband's study froze, and then moved gingerly out of the room they were in. One of them picked up a small wrought-iron statue from the desk—a triumphant Viking warrior with a crested helmet—and raised it above his head. They met halfway down the corridor. The crested helmet caught Mrs. Wilkinson on the temple, and she fell to the floor. She lay still for a moment; then, lifting her head an inch or two from the floor, she tried to drag herself back to the safety of her bedroom. The second man took two steps nearer to her, pulled a pistol from his jacket, and fired. The one who had hit her leaned over her solicitously, picked up her hand and felt for a pulse, and then shrugged his shoulders. He dropped the hand carelessly back again and returned to the study. The third man remained where he had been, standing inside the study with a box in his hands and watching with grave eyes.

Twenty-five minutes later, a dark-coloured van pulled out of the driveway of the house and drove sedately away in the darkness.

“The pattern is exactly the same as the others, eh, Tom?” said Sergeant Adam Volchek of the Break and Enter squad.

Sergeant Tom Gardiner nodded morosely. “Pretty much,” he said, glancing from the body lying on the strip of Persian rug over to the inspector from Homicide.

“People off at the cottage.” Volchek counted off the items. “They go through the security system like a knife through butter; clean entry, no mess; and only the most expensive, negotiable things gone—silver, jewelry, paintings, cash. Most of the houses had safes, neatly opened. They do their homework, go in and get what they want, and they're out again with a minimum of damage. They have access to a pretty high class fencing operation, too,” he added.

“I wouldn't have thought they'd attack someone like that,” said Gardiner. He sounded disappointed in them, as though they had failed to live up to the high standards expected of them. “I mean, that's downright stupid. But I guess this'd be the first time they've hit a house that wasn't empty.” He looked down at the body on the floor. “I wonder if they knew she was here?”

Inspector John Sanders from Homicide looked down as well. “Who knows?” he said. “Have you spoken to the neighbours? Got anything from the family yet? Any idea who this fence would be?” And the usual routine quietly replaced the futility of speculation.

That evening, a dark brown van backed up to a building in a completely different section of the city. The driver—a tall man with longish dark hair and a matching dark mustache—jumped silently out and eased his door shut, then walked back to the entrance and knocked softly. The door opened instantly, and the tall man disappeared inside.

In two or three minutes the driver emerged again, followed by a young man whose boyish good looks were clouded by the frowning concentration of his expression. They both stopped in the doorway and stared gloomily at the van. The young man ran his hand indecisively through his curly brown hair, and then, with a sudden, angry movement, stepped over to the back of the van and wrenched open the door. The driver, one beautiful dark eye twitching nervously, moved a few feet away and leaned against a tree. The young man looked inside the van for several long seconds. “Are you guys crazy? What went wrong last night? And what in hell are you doing here?” he said finally.

The two men sitting inside the back of the van looked up. The one closest to the back door grinned. “Hey,
Buru
. . . No sweat. Last night was great. We brought the new stuff. It's good. Even Carlos says so. And a pile of cash. Safe wasn't worth a pinch of shit.” He was a thin, wiry man somewhere in his twenties, neat, small and clean-cut.

“It is not important—not at all—how good it is, Don. Not anymore. Can you not understand that? You're in every paper in the city.” The buru paused and looked thoughtfully at the two men inside the van.

“You gonna just stand there and gawk at us all night?” said Don defensively. “Or do we bring the shit in?”

“We are alone here tonight. There is no one around. It does not matter how long we stand here. I want to know what happened,” he repeated, his voice quiet, controlled.

“I dunno,” Don said impatiently. “We were pretty sure the place was empty, and so Manu came in to help carry things.” The tall, dark-eyed man leaning on the tree looked up sardonically at the sound of his name. “And this lady came out of nowhere. . . . I dunno what happened. I just gave her a little whack with this statue thing I was carrying, kind of to get her out of the way, and Carlos— Well, you know what Carlos is like.” Don shrugged. The fourth man, who was lounging, relaxed, on an air mattress at the other end of the van, looked up and smiled. “He shot her. But no one heard. The goddamn place is air conditioned; no windows open or nothing like that. No one saw us. There's nothing to worry about.”

The man they called Buru replied with a flood of obscene invective both in English and his native language. Don stayed passively where he was, crouched on the floor of the van, waiting. “You cannot leave that stuff here,” the buru said at last, his voice calmer. “The whole operation will be ruined if it is found here.” Then he shone a powerful flashlight beam into the interior. His quick eye caught the signature on one of the paintings stacked against the wall. He jumped in and picked up a Georgian silver teapot, hefted it, and shone his light on it. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “I will take it, but you have made it much more difficult to move any of this now. It was a very stupid thing to do. It will be impossible to meet for a while, as well. And certainly not here. We will meet at Carlos's place, if necessary. Okay?”

The man lounging toward the front of the van, a dark-haired man with lazy eyes, looked up again, acknowledging his name, yawned, and nodded. “Whatever you say, Buru,” he drawled. In his mouth the epithet was an insult.

The buru's reply was curt. “Move it quickly,” he said, and stepped back. They nodded. Manu strode rapidly to the door, Don jumped to the ground behind the van, and even Carlos moved lightly to his feet, crouching under the van's too-low ceiling. They began transferring last night's haul smoothly and quietly into the building.

On the night of August the fifteenth, a choking pall of damp, hot, and dirty air lay heavily over the city, shortening tempers, shortening breath, and making sleep impossible for all but the efficiently air-conditioned. The dispatcher on duty at the Thirty-third Division stared heavily into the distance. There was a lull, as though the whole area had grown too hot even for thieves and muggers. He yawned and looked over at the constable writing up a report on the other side of the room. “Maybe it's going to be a quiet—” he started, and was interrupted by the telephone. As he wrote, a look of exasperation passed over his face. “Christ! That's the third time since I got on nights that goddamn alarm has gone!” he said to the voice of Mid-City Security Systems on the other end. “Either you guys get that system back in adjustment, or we stop responding.” He cut the connection and turned back to the constable. “Shit. The bleeding poodle has tripped over the burglar alarm at 47 Rosefall Road again. I wish these people would figure out how their systems worked.”

“Maybe the lady of the house gets lonely,” said the constable with a mildly lecherous grin. “And gives it a kick every once in a while.”

“I should leave those bastards at Mid-City to do their own investigating,” the dispatcher muttered, shaking his head. “Next time . . .” And with a sigh he began to relay the message out to the nearest patrol car.

When Constable Jim Underhill got the call to proceed to 47 Rosefall Road, he was parked only a block away. “Shit,” he muttered; luck had sent him there only three nights before, and he had not enjoyed dealing with the irritable and defensive owner of the premises that time. He started up the car, glumly wheeling it around and turning down the street. Rosefall Road was a celebration of excessive wealth: six vast houses squatting in privacy on million-dollar lots. At its dead end, the world plunged off into a ravine. Tonight the area was dark and very still. The street lighting had become strangled in the lush growth of summer, and the road was deserted. All the residents appeared to be off at summer cottages, abandoning their city properties to the raccoons and the house breakers.

As he pulled his cruiser smoothly up to the turning circle at the end, he could hear the muted buzzing of the alarm. The house looked dark and empty. He wondered what had set the alarm off this time; three nights ago it had been a teenaged daughter forgetting about the existence of the new system and casually opening a door. The time before that it had been the humidity. It would be something just as stupid tonight, he thought philosophically. He got out, flashlight in hand, and started up the front walk. As he reached the halfway point, Mid-City Security Systems finally deactivated the alarm from their end. He paused uneasily. The silence, as menacing and oppressive as the heat, was suddenly broken by a low thumping sound. His uneasiness vanished; now every sense was agonizingly alert. He stepped onto the lawn in the shadow of a large shrub and listened. Another muted thump. He slipped around the corner of the house, very quietly. There was a window wide open. Inside he caught the suggestion of a fluttering movement. Jesus! he thought, his heart pumping with mounting excitement. I've caught those bastards right in the act, hands in the goddamn cookie jar. They're getting sloppy, he reflected happily. This time they hadn't even worried about the alarm. He reached down to unfasten the flap on his holster, keeping his eyes fixed on the almost-silent figure edging over the sill. The man behind him—the one he hadn't seen in the darkness—didn't give Underhill a half second to respond before the bullets crashed through his spine.

Inspector John Sanders stood in the cemetery, stiff and uncomfortable. By some malignant trick of fate, if he raised his eyes from the ground, they would fall directly on the smooth dark hair and bowed and trembling shoulders of Jim Underhill's young widow. Then his guilt—for as he saw it, he was responsible for her widowhood—compounded itself with his private misery. Heather Underhill's dark hair and slender body reminded him painfully of Harriet; the sight of her inevitably summoned Harriet up from the deep recess in his brain where he had hidden her all summer. Harriet, who had so mysteriously and maddeningly made herself unavailable. Every time he telephoned, no matter what the hour, her answering machine repeated the same monotonous message. No human being could be out that much, he had concluded, and tormented himself with visions of her wandering restlessly about in her apartment, listening to her phone ring and not answering it—to avoid him. And every time, he obstinately refused to confide his loneliness and heartbreak to a piece of magnetic tape.

Five minutes of this and he eased himself out of the crowd, trying to placate his conscience by getting a good look at each one of the people he edged by. Not that it was necessary. There wasn't a face that hadn't been videotaped at least once since the funeral began and wouldn't be studied, analyzed, and if possible, identified. But the murderer of Jim Underhill had better things to do than titillate himself with morbid thrills by attending the funerals of his victims, Sanders suspected. The only faces here that had been at Mrs. Wilkinson's funeral would be his, and Dubinsky's, and the other members of the team from Homicide. He backed farther away until he was out of the crowd, away from the reproach of those thin shoulders in black. If he had tracked down the men who had put a bullet in Mrs. Wilkinson's back, they couldn't have just as casually murdered Heather Underhill's husband. “Dammit! What do they think I am? A goddamn magician?” he muttered. He turned and walked quickly away.

He paused at the sound of longer strides behind him and waited for his partner to catch up. “It's no use, John,” said Dubinsky. “We're not going to get anything solid until they start fencing the stuff. Then we'll get them. Come on. Let's have some lunch.”

BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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