Laughing Heirs

Chapter 1

In my front yard was a man peering through a window. Though it was not yet eight o’clock, it was February and dark but for the streetlight on the other side of the road a couple of houses down. Sleet had fallen for a couple of hours late that afternoon, and the streetlight
glinted on the surface of the road without casting more than vague shadows on my house and lawn. I squatted by the curb, and Deeks ran over to me to see what I had found. I slipped my gloved fingers beneath his collar and gripped it hard.

“We’ve got company, boy,” I said softly.

He gave my face a lick by way of reassurance. I reached into the pocket of my jacket, but my cell phone wasn’t there. In my mind’s eye I could see it on the coffee table inside my house where it wasn’t going to do me a bit of good.

My visitor’s vehicle, some kind of sports car, was parked on the curb, so my visitor wasn’t being particularly surreptitious. Dissatisfied with what little he could see through my front window, he went back to the front stoop. It didn’t help me see him any better: I hadn’t left my porch light on, and he was wearing a hoodie.

Walking bent over so as to keep my hand inside Deeks’s collar, I crossed the street to Dr. McDermott’s house. Dr. McD was one of Deeks’s favorite people, and the wiggle in Deeks’s body tugged at my arm as his tail wagged. The grass was slick, but not as slick as the road, which made walking in my stooped posture a little easier. We went through the gate into Dr. McDermott’s backyard. I let Deeks go and closed the gate as quietly as I could.

A tap on the back door didn’t bring Dr. McDermott. I tried the knob, then knocked harder.

Still no response.

“Dr. McD,” I called in a medium-loud voice.

“Robin?”

The door opened. Dr. McDermott was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and a crest of hair poked up from the back of his head. Deeks poked his nose between Dr. McDermott’s knees, and Dr. McDermott scratched behind his ears with one hand. His other hand held a pistol. “What are you doing at the back door?” he asked.

“Trying to avoid the person at my front door.”

“Who?”

“Don’t know. I saw him peering in my window.”

“You don’t recognize him?”

“No. I can’t see him too well, because I didn’t leave my porch light on, but as near as I can tell, I don’t know him.

“Did you call the police?”

I shook my head. “Left my cell phone in the house, too.”

“That’s not good.”

“You go a few weeks without getting shot at, you get careless,” I said.

“You certainly do.”

We moved to the front of the house, turning out lights as we went. The man was sitting on my front steps, his forearms on his knees, his hands inside his sleeves and his face obscured by the hoodie that he wore under a dark jacket. He looked like he was waiting for something or someone—me, probably. The car by the curb looked like a Corvette.

“You don’t want to take chances with this,” Dr. McDermott said, moving toward his kitchen and his phone, which was a landline. “I’ll call the police.”

“Look.”

A car was coming. It slowed and pulled to the curb behind the sports car.

“It looks like Brooke’s car,” I said.

The door of the CRX opened, and my friend Brooke Marshall got out.

“Crap. She’s gonna walk right into him. You hold onto Deeks.” I pushed Deeks toward him as I pulled open the door. Dr. McDermott bent to reach for his collar, but I hadn’t given him enough time. Deeks surged toward the open door. Dr. McDermott staggered forward a step, losing his still tentative grip, and Deeks was out the door, streaking toward Brooke Marshall on the other side of the street. Brooke was another one of his favorite people. Of course, Deeks was a four-month-old chocolate lab. Everyone he knew was one of his favorite people. As he tore across the lawn, running all out, his head down, Brooke turned toward him. The man on my front steps was standing.

“Good grief.” I leaped down the steps, almost going down when I hit the slick sidewalk, aware of Dr. McDermott coming through the door behind me as I angled across the grass toward my house. I hoped he hadn’t put down his gun.

“Brooke, this way!” I called.

But she was bending to greet my dog. “Hey, Deacon. Good to see you, boy.” The man was halfway down the sidewalk, moving faster. I hit the street, slipped, regained my balance, and shot between the Corvette and Brooke’s car. The man was right there at the end of my sidewalk, and I lowered my shoulder as I plowed into him.

“Hoompf,” he said as the air gusted out of him. We were in the air, then sliding on the icy grass, him on his back and me on top.

“Robin!” Brooke exclaimed.

The man under me was struggling to draw a breath, and I was gasping myself as I grabbed one of his wrists and pushed a forearm under his chin.

“Will you get off my brother?” Brooke said.

The hoodie still shadowed much of his face.

“How do you—” I began.

“I told him to meet me here. He needs to talk to you about a problem.”

“Brian?” I said to the man beneath me. We’d only met once, and I had only a vague memory of what he looked like.

He gurgled, and I eased the pressure on his windpipe.

“Brian Marshall,” he gasped. “Pleased to meet you.”

Deeks shoved his head between us and licked his face. I got off Brian, and he sat up, holding Deeks off with one hand and sucking in the cold air.

“Robin Starling,” I said. “And my dog Deacon. Sorry about the exuberance of our greeting. Did you hit your head?”

“A hug and a kiss,” he said, still sounding breathless. “Quite a greeting.” He had a light brown beard, short and silky, thick on his chin and along his jawline and pretty thin everywhere else.

I looked back at Dr. McDermott, standing at the end his sidewalk. His gun was pointed at the ground, but his left hand was still on the wrist of the hand that held it.

“Brooke’s brother,” I called to him. “False alarm.”

He shook his head. “Good thing I’ve got a strong heart.”

“I am awfully sorry,” I told Brian. “I saw you looking in the window—”

“Brian!” Brooke said. “You weren’t.”

“—and I’ve been kind of jumpy lately.”

“You don’t have to convince me of that.” He put a hand to the sidewalk, still holding Deeks off with his other hand, and got up. Seen up close, he wasn’t very big, an inch or two shorter than I was, and I was embarrassed for having panicked at the sight of him on my front lawn. “I’m sorry. Brooke told me to meet her, so I was surprised no one answered the door. I rang the bell a couple of times, looked in the window to see if I
could see a light, then sat down to wait.”

I walked back across the street to Dr. McDermott. “You sure you’re all right?”

“Sure I’m sure. Not having to shoot somebody isn’t all that traumatic.”

I put a hand to his arm. “You were there for me, as always. Thanks.”

“I’ll go back inside my house now, so I’ll be ready and available for the next emergency.”

“Since you’re out, would you like to come over for some tea or hot chocolate?”

He shook his head, smiling. “It sounds like you might have business. I know enough about the law to know attorney-client privilege doesn’t cover third wheels.”

“You’d never be a third wheel.”

I left him, though, and crossed back across the street to my house.

 

It turned out that no one wanted tea, hot chocolate, merlot, or even water, frustrating my hostessing instincts, such as they were. We sat around my living room, Brian on the couch, sitting forward with his forearms on his knees, Brooke beside him, and Deeks standing with his chin resting on the couch between them so that Brooke could scratch the top of his head and behind his ears. I sat in the leather club chair, my arms on the armrests, the posture feeling a bit queenly for the occasion, but it was the club chair or the floor.

“It’s not my problem actually,” Brian said. He tossed his head to get a shock of fine, straight hair out of his face. “It’s my girlfriend Whitney’s. Actually, it may not be a problem, but I’m thinking she should talk to a lawyer—and since my sister’s best friends with one…”

“And she’s not really his girlfriend,” Brooke said. “Not in the sense that they’re living together or anything.”

He shot her a pained expression. “The relationship is developing,” he said. “Can I go on?”

The circuitous approach to what Brian was there to talk about may seem unusual to you, but it’s not. When people first come to a lawyer to talk about something, it can take them forever to come to the point.

“Whitney’s uncle died last Saturday,” Brian said. “They found him floating in his nephew’s hot tub.”

“Foul play?” I said, my interest kicking up a notch, but Brian shook his head.

“Evidently, he just passed out from the heat and slid down into the water. He was eighty years old, or close to it.”

I wondered whether it was possible to tell with any certainty that someone had slid down into the water rather than being held down, but I let it go.

“Whitney has two cousins, Jared and Nathan, both older. They’re brothers. Whitney doesn’t have any siblings of her own.”

“Their parents dead?”

“The brothers’ mother is still alive, but their father, the uncle’s brother, died a few years ago. Throat cancer. He had a pension—the mother’s getting it, I think—but no savings. Whitney’s parents are both dead.”

“Nothing suspicious about their deaths, I suppose.”

Brooke fixed me with a stare. “Will you give it up with the foul play?” she said. “People die of natural causes.”

“Sorry. To a hammer everything looks like a nail.”

“Three murder trials under her belt, and she’s a hammer,” Brooke said to Brian. “She’s not a hammer really, though. She’s a very versatile, all-in-one tool.”

“Great. So now I’m a tool.” Noting Brian’s bewildered expression as he looked back and forth between us, I added, “Go on. We’ll be quiet.”

“She’s very experienced in all kinds of business litigation,” Brooke put in, speaking quickly, and I gave her a look.

“I’ll be quiet, too.”

“There may be some kind of monkey business with the estate,” Brian said. “Jared’s the executor. He’s already hired a lawyer and filed the will for probate, but he won’t give Whitney a copy of the will, won’t give her a list of assets, won’t tell her anything about what’s going on. She’s just a cousin, you know. Her uncle was a rich man, but I’m thinking she may come out of this with not very much.”

“You’re thinking, or she’s thinking?” I said.

“I’m thinking. She should be thinking.” He shrugged, tossed his head again. “She’s just too nice, you know? Never thinks bad of anyone.”

“If the will’s probated, there’ll be a list of assets. Who’s the lawyer, do you know?”

“Rupert Propst. Do you know him?”

I shook my head. “I don’t even know how to spell that. P-R-O-P-E-S?”

He corrected me, then gave me the uncle’s name, which was Robert Walsh.

“I’ll ask around about the lawyer,” I said. “I’ve got a friend who does wills and probate.”

“Anyway, I was wondering if you’d talk to Whitney tomorrow, and maybe come to the funeral, get a look at her cousins. It’s at two.”

“I could talk to her in the morning, see where we go from there.”

Brian sat back, and his right knee began to piston up and down. “Well, no. She’s the owner of Carytown Joe, the coffee shop. She’ll be busy right up until time to go.”

“Okay. Funeral first, Whitney after.”

Brooke was watching his leg jiggle. She put a hand on his knee to still it, and he glanced at her. “Whitney’s doing good business, but she’s got a lot of expenses, too,” he said. “She knew more about baking scones than she did about running a business when she bought the place a couple of years ago, probably still does.”

“How did she finance the purchase?”

“Bank loan. Her Uncle Robert cosigned for it.”

“Has he been equally generous with her cousins?”

“More generous. Cosigning a note isn’t the same as giving Whitney money. The boys have gotten direct infusions of cash and as far as I know never paid anything back. He hasn’t been out anything on Whitney’s account. She’s made her payments to the bank.”

“Was the cash for the boys’ own business ventures, or for living expenses?”

“I don’t know. Both, I think.”

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