Collateral Damage: A Michaelson and Marjorie Mystery #3

Collateral Damage: A Michaelson and Marjorie Mystery #3

A dead body in a locked room in a affluent Virginia country house. Nine people present in the house. No confessions and no witnesses. And now a very important document ...

About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen, a trial lawyer practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the author of numerous mysteries and non-fiction works. He graduated ...

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One

If you’ve ever heard the Buddy Morrow Orchestra play “Night Train,” you can form a perfect mental image of Cindy Shepherd walking into the living room at Calvert Manor. That at least was the opinion of Richard Michaelson, who had.

Cindy’s heel-clicking strut across sixty-five feet of parquet floor ended at the larger of two Chippendale writing tables, where she parked a derriere shrink-wrapped in DKNY basic black. Tipping over a discreetly tasteful thank you for not smoking sign, she flicked ash from a Cohiba Panatela onto its back. After a delicate puff followed by a languid exhalation over her right shoulder, she surveyed the other four people in the room, whose conversation had pretty much stopped since her entrance.

“Please,” she said innocently, “don’t mind me.”

Marjorie Randolph, who with Richard Michaelson was half of those people, wouldn’t have called Cindy beautiful, though she certainly enjoyed the artless prettiness of youth. Her oval face seemed luminous in the late-morning light, which played capriciously off highlights in her chestnut hair. A yellow, amply cut man’s dress shirt tried without notable success to make the least of her ample breasts, while emphasizing a waist that in someone a few years older might have suggested either anorexia or a serious acquaintance with cocaine. What would turn heads most days on Connecticut Avenue, though, was an in-your-face éclat that she effortlessly projected.

“Trust me, Cindy,” said Catherine Shepherd, who had been showing Marjorie and Michaelson through the house. “You would have had our undivided attention even without the cigar.”

“I know,” Cindy said. Then, turning toward Marjorie and Michaelson, she added, “Valued prospects, right? Has Cathy asked for your earnest money yet? Make her give you a receipt.”

“This is my sister, Cindy,” Catherine explained. Her tone suggested much-put-upon but still indulgently amused patience. “Cindy, Marjorie Randolph and Richard Michaelson. They’re taking a preliminary look at Calvert Manor for someone else.”

“Whoever it is, please make them buy it,” Cindy entreated earnestly. “Whatever the trustee’s asking. Cindy gets a condo in Washington Harbor, Cathy and Preston get married, Preston takes Cathy on a honeymoon someplace where people think steel-gray turtlenecks are a fashion statement, and your friend gets a house Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant could have made a movie in.”

Michaelson glanced reflexively at Preston Demarest, who was wearing a steel-gray turtleneck sweater underneath a teal-blue cotton broadcloth dress shirt. Demarest had accompanied Catherine while she showed the house and was now standing a few feet away from her. He smiled gamely at Cindy’s comment.

“Handsome” didn’t even start to do justice to Demarest. Apparently in his late twenties or early thirties, he was about six feet tall. Hair with the fiery brilliance of brand-new copper wire rolled in perfect waves across his head. Solid but unostentatious muscles rippled with casual power underneath his GQ ensemble. Whatever the adjectival form of “hunk” was, Michaelson reflected, Demarest qualified.

“I’m pretty sure the cigar is a new touch,” Catherine told Marjorie and Michaelson. “You shouldn’t have to worry about carpets and curtains stinking of stale smoke. I have that right, don’t I, Cindy? I don’t think I’ve even seen you with cigarettes since you went on your health Nazi kick in high school.”

“All true,” Cindy sighed as blue-gray smoke wafted toward the ceiling. “It’s like riding a bicycle, though. You never really forget how.”

“On the topic of trustees and offers,” interjected Michaelson, who found the smoking habits of twenty-somethings less than enthralling, “what is the asking price these days?”

“The last number I heard from the trustee is two-six,” Demarest said after Cindy rolled her eyes cluelessly and Catherine hesitated. “That was two months ago, and it may have changed.”

“Go,” Cindy commanded as she hustled over to Demarest and tried to turn him toward the door. “Update. Now. Phone in the den. 555-9113. I’d call myself but Miss Tightass doesn’t take me seriously. For some reason. Just tell her secretary you’ve got the first live one for Calvert Manor in six weeks. She’ll be on the line before the elevator music starts.”

“Coming?” Demarest asked Michaelson as he gave good-natured ground before Cindy’s girlish but insistent shoves.

“I don’t see any civilized alternative,” Michaelson said.

“I apologize for that little performance,” Catherine said to Marjorie as the other three left the room. “Cindy likes to be on.”

“She seems extremely anxious to sell.”

“I can’t blame her,” Catherine said. She patted light brown hair as her café-au-lait eyes darted away from Marjorie’s. “Mom hasn’t set foot in the house since she and Dad divorced twelve years ago. Now that Dad’s dead and Cindy’s finished college, the home just doesn’t make sense as a place for us to live. When Cindy turns twenty-four she comes into her full share of the inheritance under Dad’s will. Half the value of this home makes that a bigger number. And until it’s sold, taxes, upkeep, and utility bills have to be paid out of the income on the legacy.”

Marjorie glanced at the enormous fireplace dominating the far end of the room, its stones hewn eighty years before Jefferson was born and its first ashes swept by slaves when the last Stuart king still ruled both England and America.

“Everything you say makes sense,” Marjorie admitted, “but it’s a beautiful old place with remarkable character. History and modern plumbing is a rare and appealing combination.”

“Agreed,” Catherine said. “But I can’t see Preston and me rattling around in here after we’re married. And this certainly isn’t Cindy or C-Sharp’s idea of an appropriate venue.”

“C-Sharp?”

“His real name is Howie Kestrel. C-Sharp is his street name or stage name or something. Guitarist and lead vocalist with a D.C. rock group. Cindy has a kind of thing for naughty boys, and C-Sharp does his best to qualify.”

Again Catherine broke eye contact. Marjorie sensed a current of understanding and empathy passing between her and the younger woman. When Catherine explained how sensible it was to sell the home she’d grown up in, the place where she’d practiced piano and romped with a father she’d never see again, the words sounded hollow.

Catherine struck Marjorie as twenty-five going on forty. She’d swung through the house like a prim apprentice matron, seemingly avid for a suburban life ordered around soccer car pools and Suzuki practice. Her poise and understated elegance could have made her as physically striking as her younger sister, but her no-nonsense hairstyle, Laura Ashley dress, and minimal makeup all screamed sensible! instead.

She was engaged to a guy who could model Jockey briefs, and she was apparently in line for enough money to live comfortably without any heavy lifting. What Marjorie saw in Catherine Shepherd’s eyes when she managed to catch them, however, didn’t suggest the serenity or joie de vivre you’d expect from such happy circumstances. It wasn’t that Catherine seemed miserable or desperate. There was just something superficial and unconvincing about her contentment, like the perkiness of a pledge mistress during rush week.

“The asking price is still two million six hundred thousand,” Michaelson announced when he led the others back into the room roughly two hundred seconds later. “Subject to auction in the event of simultaneous qualified offers, and to approval by all interested parties. Ms. Wilcox, which turns out to be the trustee’s name, was quite emphatic about that. No one’s pinning anything on her.”

“Naturally,” Cindy said. “If she cared as much about closing a sale as she does about covering her oversized butt, we’d have moved this shack months ago.”

“Well,” Marjorie said with a note of finality, “that number has several more digits than my MasterCard limit, but Patrice Helmsing is in an entirely different tax bracket. I’ll report to her and get back to you promptly. Thank you so much for showing us this lovely home.”

“You didn’t turn around for one last look at the place before we got in the car,” Michaelson said a couple of minutes later as Marjorie swung her Buick Regal out of Calvert Manor’s long, sloping driveway.

“I have the image indelibly imprinted on my memory,” she said a little wistfully. “Red brick and white clapboard. Real brick instead of brick facing and real wood instead of aluminum siding. A roofed verandah on all four sides that would go with mint juleps in May and Tom and Jerries in December. An interior full of nooks, paneled basement rooms, and other things realtors dream about. Twenty minutes from the British embassy on a good day, but rural Maryland once you’re through the hedge gate. Even if Patrice doesn’t buy it, I’ll always appreciate your telling me about this place after Avery Phillips mentioned it to you.”

“His description of Calvert Manor made it sound a lot more like you than him.”

“Extra credit for insight. Patrice has been looking for a place like this for years. It would mean the world to her to live here. But aren’t you feeling some pangs of remorse about using Phillips’s own lead against him?”

“Not in the slightest,” Michaelson said. “Phillips told me he had an interest in the house and asked me to be his stalking horse. I said no. He didn’t ask for any promises about keeping things to myself and I didn’t offer him any. He presumably wasn’t expecting me to enter the market on a State Department pension, but he’s a big boy and his expectations are his own responsibility.”

“What a splendidly cold-blooded way to put it. Do you and Phillips go way back or anything gut-wrenching like that?”

“I knew him in the seventies when he was a marine and I was a deputy chief of mission. His title was military attaché, but the CIA station chief always seemed to find out what Phillips learned before I did. Respect, yes; warm and fuzzy, no.”

“How did he go from military intelligence to Washington real estate?” Marjorie asked.

“Something happened that left him with a knee unsuited to marine officer duties. I’m not sure what. The official record discusses the incident without obsessive attention to detail.”

“Phillips can’t be buying the house for himself. Did he tell you whom he’s representing?”

“The European Union,” Michaelson said. “He told me that he’d been approached to buy Calvert Manor for conversion into a trade mission for the bureaucrats in Brussels who run what most Americans still think of as the Common Market.”

“If that got out and the trustee has any brains, it would raise the asking price considerably,” Marjorie said.

“Hence his desire to use me as a cat’s-paw.”

“If I’d had any qualms, that would eliminate them. Calvert Manor is a home to be lived in by human beings who’ll love it and care for it. It’s obscene to think of it being chopped up into a rats’ warren of improvised offices for fonctionnaires.”

“I don’t think there’s much risk of that, for what it’s worth,” Michaelson said. “Calvert Manor is politically impossible for the European Union. I intend to explain that to him and suggest that he stop wasting his time on it.”

“Impossible why?”

“As the protocol officers at State are fond of saying, it’s a matter of appearances but appearances matter. Calvert Manor looks a lot more like an embassy than like any sensible European’s idea of a trade mission.”

“So what?” Marjorie asked.

“Governments have embassies. Trade groups have offices—preferably spartan offices. Every nationalist in Europe is already convinced that the Eurocrats are trying to set themselves up as a sovereign, federal government. If the EU starts doing its U.S. business in something that looks like Government House in India during the British Raj, Tories all over the continent will be yelling bloody murder. Once someone with a liter or two of political judgment over in Brussels sees a picture of Calvert Manor, Phillips’s little deal will be dead in the water.”

“That’s very reassuring,” Marjorie said. “But I wouldn’t stake next month’s payroll on sound political judgment in Brussels or anywhere else. I’m betting Patrice and I are going to have a fight on our hands.”

A prospect so bracing that, as Marjorie realized later, it didn’t occur to her to ask Michaelson why he was going to bother explaining anything to Avery Phillips.

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