THE THIRD MURDERER (Richard and Morgana MacKenzie Mysteries Book 1), страница 1
Rhodes was dead. It was about three months since I retired from teaching high school when quite unexpectedly I found myself at my wife‘s old boyfriend‘s funeral service. Could my presence at the service have been a sign of fate or a cosmic metaphor? Who knows? The mind wanders when it‘s bored.
Craving distraction, I watched the visiting priest sway the thurible back and forth over Michael‘s casket. The incense wafted from the censer in rhythmic puffs that matched the device‘s clinking against its chain. In frayed gray ribbons, the ritual smoke gently swirled around the earthbound coffin before it turned into a haze which lazily ascended toward the celestial clouds painted on the ceiling. All the assembled mourners in the white clapboard college chapel quietly resided in their pews and in their thoughts. For me, the heavy pall of loss lightened as the peaceful, sweet smell of newly burnt incense floated by me. I pondered on how such an exotic, haunting fragrance could evoke thoughts of my youth and on the ever presence of the great mystery.
As my tired brain reluctantly tried to grapple the great questions of existence, my roving eyes caught a glimpse of my wife Morgana sitting to my left. Her hair, dark brown, nearly black, drifted from her head in a cascade of large, loose curls and splashed upon her shoulders. She caught my glance and effortlessly slid herself over several inches to lean against my left side. The warmth of her body next to mine and the soft orange herbal fragrance of my wife’s perfume trumped the scent of holy smoke and piloted my lofty musings to more venial thoughts. I struggled to peer above her cleavage, which the scooped neckline of her rose print dress wantonly dismissed, and into her brown eyes. And then in the lowest of whispers, I said, “I love you.”
She allowed a small reticent smile to appear. Her hand reached out for mine; our fingers intertwined and rested on her knee. Pressing still closer to me and in a most hushed tone, she replied, “And I you, Richard.”
My mind flashed back many years to when I first introduced Morgana to my parents, who are now deceased. Their reactions were revealing and predictable. My father was enthralled with Morgana, saying that she reminded him of Ava Gardner with a touch of a young Liz Taylor elegance. My mother, well, she had a different impression of Morgana than my father did. She concluded that Morgana resembled a middle-age Joan Collins with a more than generous dash of tawdriness. But I, on the other hand, just found Morgana to be brilliant, beautiful, and, maybe, a tad blind in choosing me. We married here, at Stark Monument College, in this very same chapel, fifteen years ago.
Regretfully, my musings during the service let some deep-seated insecurities surface. So without thinking, I flippantly asked, “Did you love Michael?” As thought became breath, the better angels inside me shuddered and tried to withdraw the question. But they were too late. Morgana tensed up and pulled away from me, and an all too familiar chasm emerged between us.
When the service ended, six young men carried Michael’s casket down the center aisle of the college chapel. Michael’s wife, Elizabeth, followed. As she walked past our row, she seemed to hesitate. She turned and looked in our direction. For the briefest of moments, a most menacing aspect flashed across her face. Her jaw tightened. Her gentle cheeks became quite angular. Her almond shaped, steely blue eyes pierced through their grief-induced redness with deadly determination and ominous resolve. Did she hear me? Was her threatening gaze aimed at me, or was it aimed at Morgana? Or could it be that Elizabeth was giving both of us the equivalent of the stink eye?
Yet as quick as a flash, Elizabeth’s bloody daggered stare was sheathed. She took a slow, deep breath, looked back to her husband’s casket, which slowly made its way down the narrow aisle and followed it through the stately oak doors into the morning light. Morgana and I stood silently, a little embarrassed, and unnerved.
The entire funeral assembly, numbering about thirty in all, solemnly shuffled from their seats to file out of the multi-faith chapel and into the soft, misty shroud of a New England October morning. When Morgana and I got outside, we stood on the landing of the chapel steps and watched the people mill about. Some folks had that awkward demeanor which clued me in that they were looking for some reason to stay or for some excuse to leave. They wanted to do something, yet they knew not what. I could see that some of these folks looked for any person of importance to the occasion to obtain permission to leave, and in so doing, they would fulfill some unstated rule of protocol. But since Michael and Elizabeth were directly going to their respective cars, these poor people were undoubtedly perplexed about their immediate plans of action.
There were other folks from the service who obviously had their day mapped out. They waited until the guest of honor got stowed away in his car before they went to their vehicles, parked along the wide half-moon driveway in front of the college chapel, to make their escapes. These go-getters apparently prioritized their calendars and would not let any self-imposed and inconvenient protocols get in their way.
Still some other funeral goers collected themselves on the college commons below. They formed into small knots of subdued conversations, which were punctuated sporadically with half earnest attempts to reconnect the threads of their past with the fabric of their present day lives.
From the brick landing of the chapel, we had watched the bearers slowly slide Michael’s coffin into the hearse. My mind wandered to fantasies of my final ride in the long black limousine. Morgana ended my morbid daydream when she came beside me and held my hand. Whether it was for her benefit or mine, her soft hand felt comforting and reassuring.
Elizabeth Rhodes was escorted and helped into a black four-door Mercedes that was parked behind Michael’s hearse by an athletic guy who, I would say, was in his mid to late forties. I later learned that Elizabeth’s supportive friend at the funeral was Chris Howard, chairman of the English department of the college, whose interests went far beyond literary classics.
The newly widowed Mrs. Rhodes was about to close the car door, a well-dressed fellow in a dark blue blazer, and a light blue shirt with a gold colored ascot walked up to her. The approaching stranger looked to have wanted to speak with Elizabeth, but her escort would have none of it. Howard gave the ascot wearing interloper a mighty shove, almost sending him to the ground.
“Did you see that, Richard? What was that all about?” Morgana remarked.
The fellow with the ascot kept his head down and averted eye contact with nearby onlookers and quickly vanished among the general population of funeral-goers. With his running interference accomplished, Howard slipped into the car and sat next to Elizabeth and put his arm around her shoulders in a move that had Elizabeth huddled by his side. Within several minutes, about five or six cars of various makes, models, and years began their line up behind the Mercedes along the chapel’s horseshoe shaped driveway that intersected the main road. Without any fanfare, Michael’s car soon pulled gently away, and in solemn procession, a motorized entourage followed it through the campus gates.
My attention left the vanishing funeral cortege in the distance to a sheriff’s patrol car which stopped a few yards away from the bottom of the chapel step
Seeing Kyle for the first time in his rumpled dark green sheriff’s uniform conjured up an image of a giant avocado waddling through lingering mourners and bustling packs of students who were on their way to classes. He huffed and puffed his way up the steps toward us and declared, “I assume that you two aren’t going to the final send off.”
“Hello, Kyle. It’s good to see you again.” Morgana greeted my younger brother in her sweet disarming way that would be charming and welcoming to Kyle’s ear, but amusingly sarcastic to mine.
“Hi, Kyle.” I put out my hand. He grabbed it with a big damp grip. His hand was softer than expected. Guacamole came to mind. Morgana gave him an embrace and a peck on the cheek. But her warm hello inadvertently cocked his campaign hat to the back of his head, revealing his graying auburn colored hair that dangled in wispy short strands over the very top of his forehead. “No, we’re not going to the gravesite.”
“He’s being cremated,” added Kyle as he readjusted his hat.
“Michael is being cremated?” Morgana said with some surprise.
“Ayuh, what’s left of him anyway. Murdered in his own office at the college here.... Simply terrible, terrible. It makes you think how dangerous just working in an office has become these days.” Then Kyle blurted without thinking about his listeners’ sensibilities, “The shot was fired at close range and was powerful enough that it blew off a large piece of his head off.” Morgana softly gasped, and Kyle still fiddled with his hat. No matter what he did, the campaign hat was too small for his large head. “You were close to Michael Rhodes back in your college days, weren’t you, Morgana?”
“How did you come to that conclusion?” Morgana sweetly asked with a smile as she leaned against me.
“Why one of the professors and Rhodes’s wife, Elizabeth, said that you and he — ”
“Michael and I teamed together for a class project in our senior year.” Morgana’s cheeks began to flush red betraying the calmness of her smile.
“The Moral Pitfalls In The Plays of Shakespeare, I think it was,” I suddenly chimed in to push the conversation momentarily in a different direction. “Did they catch the guy?”
“Not yet.” Kyle left his hat cocked to the right side of his head. “We’re still questioning people around the college.”
I wasn’t at all at ease talking to my younger brother as any type of an authority figure. He was about eight years my junior. I kept thinking of him as that annoying kid who constantly tagged along after me when I was a teenager. Consciously, and probably unconsciously, I thought of him as someone who didn’t know his knee from his elbow. And now, beyond all my expectations, Kyle has proven himself politically savvy enough to get himself elected county sheriff. Plus, he has at least three inches on my six-foot frame, and I don’t know by how many pounds he exceeds my hefty weight. Without a doubt, he was no longer the little tyke whom I knew from years back. No, Kyle wasn’t little in any sense of the word.
“Kyle, would you have some time later on? We would like to speak with you,” asked Morgana not waiting for me to get things going.
“Sure, you two haven’t been up here in Vermont in years, and I haven’t been down to Long Island to visit since... I don’t know. How long has it been?”
“We haven’t actually seen each other in about thirteen years,” I said. “Why don’t the three of us go out to dinner? Morgana and I would like to catch up on what’s going on with you, and... we would like to show you something that Morgana got in the mail from Michael Rhodes.”
Hesitating before he spoke, Kyle gave me an all too familiar look from bygone days. “Dinner you say?”
I acquiesced, “Yes, we’ll pay.”
Then Morgana shot me that particular look of hers that meant, ‘Think again, buster.’
“Dinner will be on me, my treat,” I said.
“Great, and I know just the place, The Shafton Glen Station. It’s quiet. It has great food and keeps a great wine cellar.... It’s highly rated by local food critics — ”
“Hey, I’m not made of money. I’m retired now!”
“Don’t worry. It has great early bird specials for seniors starting at 5 p.m. It’s a really nice place. Besides, I know the owners. I’ll make reservations for 5:30. I’ll pick you two up at 5:15. Where are you staying?”
“We are staying at The Old Covered Bridge Inn.”
“Great, the restaurant is just north of you, on the same road, in fact, only five minutes away.” Kyle made his goodbyes and lumbered down the steps to his car. After a brief struggle stuffing himself into the driver’s seat, we watched Kyle drive off to do God knows whatever county sheriffs do in Vermont.
“Why do you think Kyle needed to tell me about the senior citizen early bird specials?” I asked.
“Because you’re retired, almost sixty, and cheap,” quipped Morgana.
Having been cooped up in a plane, a car, and, a chapel pew for the last forty-eight hours, I had a nagging desire for some physical activity. I turned to Morgana, “Would you like to stroll about the old campus of ours? I need to stretch my muscles a bit. Or would you like to go to the inn and try to check in now and go for a walk later?” Before she could reply, a distant female voice called out our names from a disbanding knot of mourners.
“Richard, it’s Barbara,” said Morgana as an aside to me.
Now Barbara Boyd is one of Morgana’s oldest friends. I hear tell that the two of them were like a pair of binoculars, always together and always on the watch for each other ever since high school. Their lucky stars even fated them to enter here at Stark Monument College together. Both came on scholarships. Morgana received the college’s Bentham and Mill scholarship. And if I remember correctly, Barbara came to college on some type of Afro-American women’s scholarship to study international finance, a scholarship that was very prestigious, very selective, and very generous.
After graduation, the duet broke up, but not the friendship. Morgana went to Harvard and Oxford on grants to pursue her studies in British literature while Barbara went Columbia for grad school on several scholarships, and she finished her studies overseas in international finance. In recent years, Barbara has made herself quite indispensable to some highly prominent banking elites who determine the paths of many national economies. And, in the process, she has procured a decidedly sizable fortune for herself — something that rarely happens in the wonderful worlds of education and academia.
Though I have only met Barbara a half dozen times, I have found her to be intelligent, witty, and strong willed. I also found her to be quite striking. Her mocha colored skin was still unblemished and unlined which concealed from the casually roving eye her actual age. If anything, the years have only added to her physical attractiveness. A flattering business chic midnight blue pants suit complemented Barbara’s Junoesque figure, adding an extra soupcon of elegance to the aura of sophistication that engulfed her as she walked to the bottom of the stairs to meet us.
“Morgana.” Barbara embraced my wife and kissed her cheek. “Richard,” she embraced me in turn, pressing me closer than I expected her to do, then kissed me too, twice. I noticed that her perfume had the same citrusy scent that Morgana’s had. “I’m glad you could make it. I know that you and Michael were close. How was your trip to the Caribbean...and your drive up here?”
Ah yes, our trip. Morgana and I were away to enjoy a long overdue five-day vacation in Puerto Rico, which was, in fact, a partial celebration of my retirement from teaching high school. For the first time in thirty-five years, I had the chance to travel to some exotic location during a time of year when adults can vacation without children.
When in Puerto Rico, Morgana and I eagerly took in the historical sights. We carelessly lounged upon the beaches, flagrantly engaged in San Juan’s nightlife, and I might add, we unabashedly participated in some very private nightlife of our own. Yes, I was initiated into retired teacher heaven. Finally, after more than three decades and a half of teaching teenagers how to read, write, speak, and think with some clarity, I was free. And it felt marvelous.
The afterglow of our little island excursion was abruptly snuffed out just as we were about to board the plane to come home. Morgana received Barbara’s text reading, “Michael R is dead Call me.” We were both taken aback by the news. Naturally, Morgana took the news harder than I. She didn’t initiate any conversation throughout the entire flight home. Her lack of enthusiasm resulted in my inept attempts at small talk. For most of our journey, she sat in her seat, leaned against the plane’s cabin’s wall, and silently stared out the window at the elusive clouds on the horizon.
When our plane touched down back on Long Island and taxied its way to the terminal, Morgana cell-phoned Barbara to learn the few particulars that Barbara knew — which were sketchy at best.
Michael was found dead in his college office under “unsavory circumstances,” and his funeral service would be held at the college chapel in about twelve hours, at 8 a.m.
Leave it to Barbara Boyd to pluck information from the grapevine. Barbara has been the vice chairwoman for the college’s alumni association for the last ten years and has been a conduit of all sorts information about Stark Monument College alumni. How she finds the time and energy to keep track of this type of stuff and do her real job, I’ll never know.
When Morgana and I got back home, we didn’t unpack. We just threw our travel bags, including swimsuits and sunscreens, into the car. Morgana informed me that we should immediately ready ourselves for the four-hour drive to Vermont to make Rhodes’ service at the college chapel.