The short-barreled pistol slid from the Priority Mail box
amid a jumble of styrofoam peanuts. It landed with a clunk on my desk, where it lay
bristling with switches and sights, its matte black finish absorbing light. “Whoa,”
Brooke said, stopping in the doorway of my office. “You got yourself a gun.”
I looked up. “I didn’t. It came in the mail.”
“Somebody sent you a gun? Who?”
I looked at the flat-rate box the gun had come in. My address was hand-printed in
block letters. There was no return address. “No idea.” I looked inside the box, then
shook out the remaining peanuts. No packing list. The styrofoam peanuts were all there
“Why?” Brooke asked.
“If I knew who, I might know why.”
“I’ll bet Paul ordered it for you for protection. He’s worried about you ever since…
Ever since I’d been shot in the head. I did know.
“This doesn’t seem like Paul,” I said. “And why wouldn’t there be a packing list?”
Paul Soldano—my boyfriend, for lack of a better word—had an unusual knack for
showing up whenever we talked about him, but this time my doorway remained empty. He
did have a job, after all, and as a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of
Richmond, he was often not even in town.
I picked up my trashcan and used the empty box to sweep the styrofoam peanuts from
around the gun and off my desk. The pistol lay by itself on the polished surface.
Brooke leaned over it.
“What?” I said.
“It smells like firecrackers.”
I leaned over it and took a sniff. “Okay,” I said.
“I think that means it’s been fired.”
“I didn’t know you knew guns.”
“I don’t really. Well, I know this one’s a semiautomatic and not a revolver, but
that’s about it. On TV, though, people are always sniffing gun barrels to see if
they’ve been fired.”
“I wonder if Rodney’s in his office. I’ll go check.” The executive suites where
we had our offices took up an entire floor, but Rodney Burns was close. He had the
third office in our cluster of three. A private detective who looked a little like
Don Knotts with a caterpillar stapled to his upper lip, Rodney had always done
good work for me. When he came back with Brooke, he was pulling on a pair of latex
“So that’s the gun,” he said.
“I was hoping for a little more in the way of expert analysis,” I said.
He sniffed it. “What do you want me to do with it?”
“Has it been fired?”
“At some point. You don’t know who sent it?”
I held up the box. “No return address. No packing slip. Just the gun and a bunch
of plastic peanuts.”
He picked up the gun, gingerly, despite his latex gloves, and ejected the magazine.
“Is there an exploded cartridge in there?” Brooke asked.
Rodney smiled at her. “There’s room for another bullet,” he said, pressing down on
them, “so one might have been fired since it was loaded. This isn’t a revolver, though.
It ejects the empty casings as the bullets fire.”
“Oh.” So Brooke really didn’t know more about guns than I did—maybe even less. I had
been forced to read up on them since I’d started representing murder defendants, though
my knowledge was largelyacademic.
“Why would someone send it to me?”
They both looked at me.
“Right,” I said. “How would you know?”
“Let me get the serial number,” Rodney said. “I can find out who the last registered purchaser was.”
The elevator doors were sliding shut as Brooke and I pushed
through the glass doors of the Executive Suites, but they bounced open again without
quite closing. One of the newertenants smiled at us as we got on with him. He was a
small man who looked like Rock Hudson might have looked if he’d been five-six and had
oily hair and a big hooked nose—which I suppose is another way
of saying he didn’t look like Rock Hudson at all.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thank you. It’s not every day I get to share an elevator with two such beautiful women.”
The expression I gave him was about halfway between a grimace and a smile.
“Carter Fox,” he said, holding out a hand.
“You’re the new lawyer who just moved in, aren’t you?” I said as I shook his hand.
“There are three of us now.”
“Then you’re Robin Starling. At least, you don’t look like you could be Dave Johnstone.”
“No. Not very easily.” I retrieved my hand with a small jerk.
“Not without extensive surgery, anyway.” Carter gave a honk of laughter. “Sorry.
Not funny. Are you ladies going to lunch?” The elevator doors opened on the ground floor.
Brooke gave me a hard look over his shoulder as we got out.
“We’re meeting someone,” I said.
“The reason I asked, I’m new to downtown, and I need to find a good place to take on
fuel for the battles of the afternoon.”
“The restaurant in the basement of this building’s not half-bad.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll just tag along with you ladies, see where the natives eat,
you know. Don’t worry about me horning in on your lunch party. I wouldn’t do that.
Besides, I brought along my favorite dining companion.” He held up a mini-tablet
with a pebbled black cover, possibly a Kindle.
He walked between us as we went down Main Street toward Twelfth. The sky was blue,
and the sun was beginning to cut through the morning chill.
“It looks like it’s going to be a good day,” I said. “We could have left our jackets.”
“A redhead and a blonde,” Carter said, not to be distracted by talk of the weather. “If my old fraternity brothers could see me now.”
I was the blonde in the mix. Goose bumps broke out on my arm closest to him as the skin
tried to crawl away.
There was a line at our usual burger place almost to the door.
“This is it, huh?” Carter said as he stepped forward to pull open the door for us. “The
favorite eating spot.”
“Well, today,” I said.
“I’m looking forward to it. When the top woman lawyer in the city of Richmond likes a
place, I’m willing to give it a try.”
On the other side of him, Brooke rolled her eyes. There were maybe a dozen people in
front of us, but usually the line moved pretty fast.
Carter turned to Brooke. “What do you do for a living? I mean, beyond gladdening the hearts of men everywhere?”
For a moment I thought she wouldn’t answer, but she said, “I’m an I.T. person. Mostly I help small and medium-sized businesses put together their computer systems.”
“Wow,” he said. I thought he would let it go at that, but he added, “Beautiful and smart. I have to tell you, that dark red hair is really special, and your clothes make the most of it. You have excellent taste.”
By the time we got to the counter, he had us as well oiled as a couple of limp French fries.
I ordered a hamburger with mustard and all the vegetables. Brooke, more virtuous than I, got
a grilled chicken sandwich. As Carter stepped up to order, Brooke led us decisively to a table
in the corner with no empty tables around it. When Carter turned with his own tray, he was
left with the choice of a couple of empty tables on the other side of the restaurant.
“He’s going to see we weren’t really meeting anyone,” I said as he headed away from us.
“Unless Mike is getting back from Farmville.”
She shook her head. “His hearing was at ten. Or maybe ten-thirty. I wasn’t really listening.”
“It’s only an hour drive, an hour fifteen minutes. He could be back any time.”
Neither of us did a very good job of keeping up with our men. Mike had actually asked
Brooke to marry him, but so far she’d avoided giving him an answer. Technically, I guess,
she had agreed to marry him, but had avoided setting a date. Returning to our mistreatment
of the oily Mr. Fox, I said, “He’s a new guy with no one to hang out with, and we’re just as cliquish as they come.”
“You can’t make me feel bad about it.” She bit violently into her sandwich. “I feel like I need a shower.”
“Oh, come on. He likes you. He likes your hair, your taste in clothes, probably your neat little figure and everything else about you.”
She swallowed. “It makes me sick. Surely you’re not falling for all glib flattery, Miss Top-Woman-Lawyer-in-the-city-of-Richmond.”
“You thought that was insincere? I just took it as my due.” I bit into my hamburger
and chewed reflectively. When I’d swallowed, I said, “The woman-lawyer qualification
always gripes me, though. It’s like I don’t compete in the same category as men, as if
trial work were like track or basketball.” In college I’d played basketball on a team
that made it to the Final Four—Division Three, but still. Even so, our team wouldn’t
have beat the men’s, despite its losing season.
“See? You don’t like him either,” Brooke said.
“I never said I liked him. I was just wondering how it would feel to be a more charitable person.”
When we’d finished eating, Carter Fox was only halfway through his hamburger,
reading his Kindle or his iPad mini or whatever it was and glancing at us from
time to time. I took a breath and stood up. “I’m going to buy him an ice cream cone.”
“Don’t argue. I feel myself in danger of becoming the kind of woman I despise.”
Carter looked up as we approached, then nearly knocked over his chair getting to his feet.
“We got stood up,” I said. “Here. We bought you desert.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you very much.” He took the ice cream cone and stood it
on its base beside his tray. “I look forward to eating it.” He seemed uncertain
as to whether to sit or to remain standing, so I put him out of his misery by
pulling out a chair and sitting in it. Brooke sat, too, and to her credit refrained from scowling.
“If you don’t mind my asking, who would stand up two such beautiful women as yourselves?”
“My boyfriend’s out of town. Brooke’s fiancé was supposed to be here, but evidently he’s still on his way back from Farmville.”
“Who’s the lucky man?” Carter asked her, and Brooke looked at me inquiringly.
“Lawyer named Mike McMillan,” I said.
“He practice here in Richmond?”
“He does. Has his own practice.”
“So when’s the big date?”
I looked at Brooke, who now looked annoyed.
“We haven’t set it,” she said. “We…” She broke off, shrugged.
“Every man needs a wife, especially a lawyer,” Carter said, sounding wistful. “When you go out into the world, you need someone tending the home fires, someone to be there when they carry you home on your shield.”
“I never thought of it that way,” Brooke said, standing. “I guess if I’m going to be there to tend the home fires for Mike this evening, I’d better get some work done.”
“Especially since no one’s with him to carry him home on his shield,” I said, standing too.
Carter picked up his ice cream cone. “I’ll walk back with you,” he said, picking up his tray with his other hand. “If I’d realized how big the burger was, I wouldn’t have gotten fries.”
“Well, that was a bust,” Brooke said when we were back
in our office cluster and Carter Fox had gone back to his lair deeper in the
labyrinth of the Executive Suites. “Mr. Oily walks us to and from lunch, and
all the time we’re not having to talk to him, you’re feeling guilty about not talking to him.”
“That last reference to my long legs went a long way toward curing me,” I said, reaching into my purse for my keys.
“Don’t forget your athletic physique.”
“Don’t remind me.” Carter had also wanted to know about my lucky man,
which I somehow found more intrusive than his questions about Brooke’s. I looked
down into my purse, which I held open with both hands. I had a wallet in there,
my cell phone, a comb, a pen, some ChapStick, a PocketPak of Listerine breath strips…but no keys.
Rodney came out of his office. “Have a good lunch?” he said.
I opened my mouth to tell him not to ask, saw Brooke with her mouth open, evidently to tell him the same thing, and burst out laughing. She closed her mouth, smiled, and started laughing, too. Rodney looked back and forth between us.
“What?” he said. “Did I say something funny?”
He hadn’t, of course. What he had done was get a name, address, and phone number for the purchaser of the Smith & Wesson semiautomatic that was in my desk drawer.
“I left my keys on my desk,” I said. “Let me get Carly to let me in, and I’ll come see what you have.”
I went to find Carly, and Brooke went down the hall to off-load the tea she’d had with lunch.
“I always put my keys in my purse,” Carly said virtuously. “That way I don’t forget them.”
I sometimes did that. Other times I dropped them on my desk or the credenza behind it…or sometimes on a bookshelf.
“This is only the second time you’ve had to unlock the door for me,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows.
“Or third,” I amended.
She pushed my door open and stepped back. “It’s okay. All part of the service,” she said.
I intended to put my keys in my purse immediately, but I didn’t see them.
I opened the drawer to put my purse away, saw the automatic, and closed it again. I left my purse on the floor in the desk’s kneehole and headed for Rodney’s office, glancing into Brooke’s on the way to see if I had left my keys on her desk. No such luck.
When I dropped into one of Rodney’s client chairs, he tore the top page off a yellow note pad and slid it across the desk to me. On it he’d written the name Christopher Woodruff along with a Richmond address on West Seminary Avenue and a phone number. I thanked Rodney for being so quick to get the information for me.
“Well,” he said.
“Oh, I know. It’ll be on my bill.”
“And the phone number is no longer in service,” he said.
“So the address may not be good either?”
“According to the Richmond Real Estate Assessor, he still owns the house.”
I went back to my office to pack my briefcase, and while I was doing it Brooke stuck her head in.
“You haven’t seen my keys, have you?” I asked, looking up. “I can’t find them.”
“I thought I saw them on your credenza this morning. Where are you going?”
“In search of the person who sent me the handgun.”
“Maybe you swept your keys into the trashcan with all the styrofoam peanuts,” Brooke suggested.
“Ah hah!” I lifted the trashcan onto the desk. It was nearly half-full of peanuts, but no keys were buried in them.
I sat down.
“What are you going to do?” Brooke asked.
“I have a spare key to my Beetle at home.”
“I don’t guess you’re ready to leave for the day,” I said.
She looked at her watch. “I’ve got someone coming in at two,” she said, sounding regretful. “I don’t know how long it’ll take.” Brooke had started her business about the same time I had, but her business was exploding. Within the year she’d have to hire someone, or she’d be turning away work.
“Maybe I could borrow your car,” I suggested.
“Sure. I’m stuck here all afternoon.”
Seminary Avenue ran north and south out of the campus of the Union Presbyterian Seminary. West Seminary proved to be a mile or so north of the seminary, where the road split into east and west and the houses got smaller and less majestic. I took the left fork. Christopher Woodruff lived on the left in another half a block. I drew Brooke’s Honda CR-V up against the curb opposite the house and got out.
If I had to describe the house, and I guess I do, I would call it a cape cod with Tudor pretensions. Instead of two small dormers, it had a cross-gable on one side with exposed half-timbers. I walked up the flagstone sidewalk. Though it was early afternoon, the sky had clouded up again and already the day was turning brisk.
I rang the bell and waited, hugging myself against the chill. There was no answer. I looked at my watch. It was really too early for anyone to be home from work. I rang again, not hoping for much, then retreated to Brooke’s car. I wasn’t going to get to talk to Christopher Woodruff, but there were compensations. I had time to go home for my spare car key before heading back downtown.
For a minute or so, though, I sat in Brooke’s car, looking at the house and thinking. No point in looking in a window, I told myself, and going through the gate in the chain-link fence to check out the back was probably an equally bad idea. Leave a note. I got a pen and a business card from my purse and wrote, “I have something of yours. Call me.”
I looked at it, chewing at the inside of my mouth and wondering if that didn’t sound threatening. “I have your gun” wouldn’t be any better. I got out another business card and tried again. “Have you been trying to reach me? Robin Starling.” Better, though it might look to the state bar as if I were soliciting clients. Certainly I could use a client or two.
I strode back up the walk, my head bent against the freshening wind, opened the storm door, and stuck the card into the crack between the door and jamb. I was halfway down the sidewalk when a small Ford slid up against the curb.
The woman who got out was wearing a bright yellow puff-jacket. She looked at me over the roof of her car, then opened her rear door and leaned into the car. When she straightened, she had a small boy on her hip, a purse on her shoulder, and a couple of grocery bags in one hand.
“Anything I can help with?” I said, approaching her.
“I doubt it.” Her voice had a hoarse quality to it, was almost a smoker’s voice. She closed the car door with her knee and came around the vehicle.
“I’m Robin Starling.”
“Reporter or police?” She barely glanced at me as she passed me on the sidewalk, but her little boy held out a pudgy hand, opening and closing his fingers.
“Hey, there, buddy,” I said, waving back at him. “What’s your name?”
“Caden Wooruff,” he said. “Two burfdays.” He indicated the number by extending his index and little fingers.
“Reporter or police?” the woman said more sharply, trying to shift the boy away from me, but hampered by her groceries.
“I’m looking for Christopher Woodruff.”
“That’s a new one.” She stepped onto the stoop and pulled open the storm door, stepping into it and putting down her shopping bags to fumble one-handed in her purse for her keys. I stepped up beside her and held the storm door off her. She glanced again at me as she fitted a key to the lock. The skin around her eyes had a bruised look.
“Why would I be a reporter or police?” I asked.
“Why are you here then?” She pushed open the door and bent for her packages, still balancing the toddler on her hip.
“I guess it wouldn’t do any good to repeat that I was looking for Christopher Woodruff.” I took the plastic bags from her, and she let me.
“Chris is dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t begin to cover it.”
“Was he ill?”
“He killed himself.”
“The police say it’s murder, unfortunately. They couldn’t find a gun, and they seem to think I should be able to produce one. Why should I be able to find a gun if they can’t?”
If he’d died of a gunshot wound, the absence of a gun at the scene did seem to put the kibosh on her suicide theory, though I didn’t like to say so. “I’m Robin Starling,” I said again, following her through a living room and dining room with worn wood floors into a kitchen bright with new black-and-white linoleum.
“Yes, you said that. I’m sorry, the name doesn’t mean anything to me.” She put down her boy, and he clung to her leg.
“You didn’t send me a package?”
“I did not.” She squared off to face me, her hands on her hips. She was a head shorter than I was and slender, with very pale skin and black hair that swept down over one eye. “What package?” she said, looking up at me. “What’s this about?”
I took a breath. “I got a gun in the mail this morning, a small Smith & Wesson semiautomatic. It was purchased by Christopher Woodruff, who listed this address on his registration form.”
She continued to look at me, but now her expression was blank.
“Did your husband have a gun?”
“I seem to have it now,” I said. “It came in a Priority Mail flat-rate box.”
I nodded. “It came in the mail.”
“How well do you know Chris?”
“I never heard the name before today. I’m a lawyer.”
“Who sent you Chris’s gun?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why did they send you Chris’s gun?”
I shrugged. “No idea.”
The fire in her face faded abruptly. She swayed and caught herself on the jamb of the kitchen door. Her boy, looking up at her, had the fabric of her pants leg twisted in his two small fists. I put a hand to her elbow. “Let’s go sit down. Can I get you a glass of water?”
She shook her head, but let me lead her into the living room, where she dropped onto the couch and her son clambered onto her lap. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“You could tell me your name,” I suggested. “Are you Mrs. Woodruff?”
“Willow Woodruff.” She had a tiny mole just off the corner of her mouth, a Marilyn-Monroe-style beauty mark
“Alliterative,” I said.
“It’s a terrible name. Willow Wendell was bad enough. Willow Woodruff is terrible. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“What happened to your husband?”
“He shot himself in our bed Friday morning. Shot himself or was shot.”
“Where were you?”
“At work. I’m a COTA at Sheltering Arms. Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant.”
“Where was Caden?” I gestured at her son. “Did I get that right? Is your name Caden?”
He nodded. “Caden Wooruff. Two burfdays,” he said again.
“Caden was at daycare,” Willow said. “I left the house right at seven, dropped him off on my way to work. Chris was still in bed.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“Teaches economics at J. Sargeant Reynolds. He’d had a night class the night before, didn’t have a class until eleven on Friday. He often sleeps late on Fridays.” We were both talking about him in the present tense.
“When did you find out something was wrong?” I asked.
“His dean called me just before noon, his dean’s secretary. Chris hadn’t shown up for class, and he wasn’t answering his cell. He’d given them my cell as a contact for emergencies, evidently. I tried to call him myself, but of course there was no answer. I thought…” She swallowed. “I went home at lunch. The Sheltering Arms is on the Southside, and the drive back and forth was going to take most of my lunch hour, but I thought…” Again she broke off without articulating her thought.
“Chris had some health problems?” I prompted. “You were concerned?”
She shook her head. “He’d been having an affair. I was concerned, yes.”
When she didn’t go on, I said, “You were thinking that he might have resumed the affair? Or might not have broken it off in the first place?”
No response, just a stricken, far-away look.
“Who had he been having the affair with?”
Her tongue appeared between her lips. She swallowed and started to speak, but had to stop to clear her throat. “Peyton,” she said finally. “Peyton Shilling.” She sat breathing. “She was in his night class last fall, I think. One morning he ran into her in the weight room at Gold’s Gym, and things developed from there. He moved in with her just before the Thanksgiving holiday. It got ugly.”
“But he’d moved back home? When?”
“About a month ago. Right after Spring Break, I think. A day or two after.”
Sometime in the middle of March then.
“So you went home for lunch and found him in the bed?”
She nodded, miserably. “He was cold. And there was blood, so much…”
I was calculating. Seven to noon might have dropped the body temperature only six or seven degrees, but compared to what you’d expect when you touch someone, the difference would be shocking. “How long had he been dead? Did the police say?”
“About five hours. I got home just before twelve-thirty. They think he died sometime between seven and eight.”
“How many times had he been shot?”
“Just the once.” She flared briefly. “Nobody shoots himself in the head multiple times.”
“No, they don’t,” I agreed. Most people didn’t kill themselves and dispose of the gun afterwards. “Did you see anyone when you left the house that morning?”
“A car idling across the street maybe?”
“Nothing like that.”
“Did Chris have any enemies that you know of?”
She shook her head. “Everybody likes Chris. Liked him.” She gave a bitter laugh. “It’s me they usually can’t stand.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did.”
“Do the police have any suspects, other than you?”
“Not that I know of. I told them about Peyton Shilling, of course, but if they followed up on it, they didn’t tell me.”
“Even if he killed himself, it wasn’t just a suicide. Someone was here. Someone picked up the gun and mailed it to me, either after discovering the body or …” I shrugged.
“Or after killing him. So you’re thinking you’ve got the murder weapon.”
“I have no way of knowing. It’s a heck of a coincidence, if it isn’t.”
“Nothing coincidental about it. Someone’s set this up deliberately.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Any idea who?”
“You’d almost think it had to be someone who knows both of us—you and me, or maybe Chris and me.”
“I sure don’t know you.”
“No. I guess you do Facebook?”
“I don’t, much,” I said. “I think I’ve got fourteen friends.”
She snorted. “Fourteen friends. I don’t believe that.”
“You have more than that?”
“If I send you a friend request, will you accept it? I’d like to scroll through your Facebook friends, see if anyone jumps out at me. If I don’t recognize anyone, maybe we could try Twitter or Instagram or whatever other social media you keep up with.”
“You said you’re a lawyer, didn’t you?”
“Do you…help people in situations like this?”
“I can’t pay you.”
“Did your husband have life insurance?”
“Then you can pay me. You may not need me, though. Maybe the police will find whoever did this and leave you alone.”
I saw in her face that she didn’t think so. “Someone told me…” She cleared her throat and started again. “Someone told me that if I’m convicted of killing Chris, I can’t…”
“Can’t collect anything on the insurance? That’s true, but Caden could collect. His finances would be managed by a conservator until he’s eighteen—and you’re a long way from being convicted of anything.”
She took a big breath and let it out slowly. “We’ll see.”
Caden, activated perhaps by the mention of his name, tugged at his mother’s sleeve, and she bent her head toward him.
“Have ’nana?” he whispered in a clearly audible voice.
Willow smiled down into his questioning face. “Sure, honey. You can have a banana.”
I followed them into the kitchen, and we talked about who might have a key to their house. There didn’t seem to be anyone. As far as she knew, there were just the two keys, Chris’s and the one she carried.
“Could I see the bedroom where you found your husband?”
“I guess.” She moved toward the door, but Caden squealed and held up his hands to her, one of them clutching the half-peeled banana. She picked him up.
There was a short hall off the living room, at one end of it a bedroom with a full-size bed and a bare mattress.
“This is your bedroom?”
“Where do you sleep now?”
She turned and I followed her past a bathroom that might not have been renovated since the house was built in the 1940’s or 50’s. In a room with a Noah’s-ark border around the ceiling, on the floor in the corner opposite a crib, was a twin-sized mattress neatly made up with pin-striped sheets and a navy comforter.
“I see,” I said.
“I couldn’t bear to sleep in the other room after…” She moved her head, and I nodded.
Before I left, she showed me the only room in the house I hadn’t seen, the closed-in porch on the opposite end of the house. Chris had used it as his study. He had a V-shaped computer table in the corner with a computer on it and a two-drawer filing cabinet at one end.
“Maybe at some point I should come back and look through things,” I suggested.
“But I guess that’s everything right now.”
“What are you going to do with the gun?”
“I have to turn it over to the police,” I said apologetically. “Does it have your fingerprints on it, do you think?”
“Maybe. When we went to the shooting range, we weren’t always particular about who was using whose gun. How long do fingerprints last?”
“Wait. What do you mean, ‘who was using whose gun’? Is there another gun?”
“We got matching guns several years ago and went through some kind of course and everything. That was before Caden was born.”
“Could I see your gun?”
She shook her head. “I seem to have lost track of it somehow. The police searched the place, and they couldn’t find it either.”
She shook her head. “I seem to have lost track of it somehow. The police searched the place, and they couldn’t find it either.”