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"If you succeed, I'll sell you my half of our jointly owned property," Stanley Kaufman offered. "You'll double your rental income and get rid of me all in one swoop."
Marla Shore gave her ex-spouse a sardonic grin. "Oh joy. All I have to do is solve a murder which you may have committed."
"You've been wanting to get me off your back. Well, this is your chance. Don't make a hasty decision you'll regret later."
Dressed in his high-powered attorney suit, Stan appeared out of his element in the stark confines of the city jail. Marla's gaze traveled from the painted gray concrete floor to the metal sink and toilet unit at the opposite end from where they stood. The room stank of urine and stale sweat. A built-in bench qualified as the sole piece of furniture; residents didn't stay long in a holding cell. Fluorescent lights lit harsh angles on walls that pressed too close. Gray scored as the operative color, coating the solid door with its secured viewport. It seemed the wrong choice in a place where society drew definitive lines of justice.
Stan would have to hire his own partners if he was actually charged with murdering his third wife, Marla thought. "Why do you think I can find Kimberly's killer? You've got money. Engage a private investigator."
"You've solved cases before," Stan replied, his hazel eyes glinting as though he didn't want to admit she'd done something right. "Obviously, you're more on the ball than that detective friend of yours, Lieutenant Vail. He'd like to bust my ass."
"If it weren't for Dalton, I wouldn't have been allowed to see you," she snapped, her glance flickering contemptuously at Stan'sthin black hair brushed off his forehead. It reminded her of how many times he'd brushed off her accomplishments over the years. Ever since their divorce, Stan had never let Marla forget how much he'd done for her. Even now, despite her ability to manage her own hair salon, she couldn't believe the man regarded her capable enough to do him a service.
"Maybe we haven't gotten along in recent years," he said in a half-apologetic tone, "but we had something once. For old times' sake, give me a break."
"Tell me what happened, and then I'll decide," she said, striding to the bench and plopping herself down. She avoided the seat's encrusted crud so it wouldn't soil her khakis.
Hands folded behind his back, Stan paced purposefully like a trial attorney. "I'm a sound sleeper. You remember, don't you? When I fall asleep, I don't even hear the lawn men trimming hedges outside our windows. This morning, I awoke at my regular time, seven o'clock. Kim usually gets up earlier and has a cup of coffee waiting for me. I couldn't smell it like I normally do, but her side of the bed was empty, so I figured she'd be downstairs."
He halted, shoulders slumping. "I should have known something was wrong, because I couldn't hear her moving around the kitchen. Kim was a good wife. A good wife," he repeated in his habitually annoying manner. "She always had my breakfast ready on time." His resentful glare told Marla how she'd never met his expectations when they were married.
"Go on," Marla grated, suppressing her irritation.
"I was still in my pajamas when I reached the foyer. Our stairway is just a few steps from the front door," he explained. "Kim was lying on the floor. I called her name, but she didn't respond, and her body was awfully still. I couldn't imagine what had happened. Did she trip and fall down the stairs? In a terrifying flash, I thought she must have broken her neck until I saw the blood. It had seeped out like fingers of a river."
His eyelids squeezed shut, and a tremor rippled through him. Seconds ticked by while he regained his composure. When he opened his eyes, pain glistened in their depths.
Surprise slashed at her. She hadn't realized Stan could feel so deeply about anyone. Rising, she embraced him in a quick hug, startling both of them. While she cursed Stan for his arrogance, she didn't wish upon him this type of suffering. Grief was a difficult burden to carry alone. "Tell me more," she said encouragingly, stepping back a few paces.
He drew in a shuddering breath. "I-I knelt to see what I could do. I turned her onto her back, but it was too late. Too late. She'd been stabbed in the abdomen. It must've hit a major organ. I'll never forget the look in her eyes--terror mixed with astonishment." His voice faltered. "I-I froze, Marla. For the first time in my life, I didn't know what to do."
"You called the police."
"Yes. Somehow I stumbled into the kitchen. It crossed my mind that I should wash my hands." He turned them palm up as though to show her the stains. "Instead, I grabbed the phone and called the cops."
"What did you do until they arrived?"
"I don't remember." He squinted as though trying to force memories into his brain. "Before I knew it, uniformed officers were pouring into my house."
"So you opened the door for them."
"No, it was unlocked. The officers let themselves in after ringing the bell. I was too numb to respond."
"Where did they find you? In the kitchen?"
"Hovering over Kimberly's body. I'll admit it doesn't look good for me, babe."
"Maybe an intruder entered the house and Kim surprised him. Do you think robbery was a motive? If you could prove things were stolen--"
"Nothing was missing. The cops asked me to check before I got dressed." Stan's gaze held genuine bewilderment. "I can see why they believe I did it. Blood on my pajamas is damning evidence, but I-I touched my wife when I tried to save her. What was I supposed to do, leave her lying there bleeding to death? I don't know how we're going to clean up the mess on the floor."
From his use of the joint pronoun, Marla realized he hadn't come to grips with his loss. "Did the police find signs of forced entry?"
"N-No, that's the peculiar thing. The windows were secure, and our other exterior doors were locked. There weren't any footprints on the ground, either, and the sprinklers had been on earlier."
"So when the cops confronted you, there were no signs anyone else had been in the house, and you had blood on your clothes."
His face darkened. "Hell, Marla, whose side are you on? Things may not have been perfect between us, but I'd never hurt Kimberly. You know how I abhor violence. When you and I were married, I never mishandled you in anger. Never."
Not physically, no. But you're skilled in throwing verbal darts that can wound.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked him, intending to speak to Detective Vail to get his viewpoint.
"Help me, Marla." He spread his hands toward her. "The police don't believe me. Find out who killed Kimberly, and I'll sell you my half of our rental property at a reasonable price."
"Are you willing to put that in writing?"
"Why? You don't trust me?"
Her lip curled in a cynical smile. "Well, Stanley, let's just say I like to protect my investments."
His spine stiffened. "If that's what it takes. Will you do it?"
His voice echoed in the high-ceilinged room, and it struck a chord within her heart. When they'd first met, Stan had pulled her out of a morass so deep, Marla feared she'd never emerge into the light again. Didn't she owe him the same favor?
"I'm surprised you have such faith in me, but yes, I'll check things out," she replied. Her nature wouldn't allow an innocent man to be convicted. No matter how much she loathed Stan, injustice wasn't tolerable.
On the other hand, she didn't discount the possibility that he might be guilty. In that case, this could be a ploy to distract attention from himself. She'd look for evidence, and if it pointed toward Stan, he'd lose her sympathy pretty quickly. But that possibility was later down the road. Marla knew quite well she enjoyed solving mysteries because they provided spice in an otherwise routine life. She sought the challenge, despite Detective Vail's warnings to steer clear of his domain. Maybe it was the challenge of matching wits with him that entertained her.
Several paths opened in front of her, and she leapt at the nearest one.
"What did you mean, things weren't perfect between you and Kimberly?" she demanded.
Stan shrugged. "I set her spending limits, but Kim always exceeded them with her credit card. We had our minor disagreements, that's all. When she behaved herself, we were as close as glue to paper. Why did she have to get herself killed?"
Anger is a natural part of the grieving process, Marla reminded herself, biting her tongue. "Would you like me to contact your partners?"
"I've already phoned them, thanks. Your detective friend made an exception by allowing me to call you, too."
"Really? How kind of him."
Stan cleared his throat. "So tell me how you'll proceed." His gruff tone belied the imploring look in his eyes.
Despite her sympathy, it amused Marla to hold the upper hand. "I suppose I could attend the funeral. I've never met any of Kim's relatives. How are you going to make arrangements if you're in jail?"
"I'll get out on bail as soon as I have an arraignment. But I don't think it's a good idea for you to attend the funeral. I have a better plan. An intruder isn't the only possibility. Kim's murderer might have been someone she knew. You can start with her family."
Marla knew little about Kim's background. Why would she? Kimberly had been Stan's secretary when he'd been married to wife number two, Leah Kaufman. Marla had believed Stan would finally be happy with Leah since they had two lovely children. But he was a man who'd never be satisfied, because Kim had seduced him right under his wife's nose. Leah had been the one who'd initiated their divorce. Now Kimberly was dead. Stan had achieved a brilliant career, but he'd been unsuccessful in the marital arena. At least he couldn't be accused of lacking a taste for variety, Marla thought spitefully. She fingered her chestnut hair, curled inward at chin length, musing over the differences in his choices of wives. At five feet six, she didn't quite match Stan's height. Leah's short auburn layers suited her petite figure, while Kim had been a busty, blue-eyed blonde with a model's long legs. Marla's eyes were cocoa brown; Leah's were almost black. Maybe Stan would go for a green-eyed, raven-haired beauty next.
The grid over the viewport slid open. "Ma'am?" said the attending officer.
"I just need a few more minutes," she pleaded. Relieved when the woman nodded, Marla returned her attention to Stan.
"Kimberly's family lives in an exclusive compound in East Fort Lauderdale," Stan explained, plowing a hand through his hair. "They're rich, you know. Their investments involve coffee plantations in Costa Rica and South America. Miriam Pearl, Kimberly's grandmother, requires a daily nurse. They've been advertising for an aide so the nurse can take Sundays off. You're free on that day of the week. You'll apply for the job so you can check things out from an insider's viewpoint. Her family has never met you, so you won't be recognized."
Marla's spine stiffened. "What? You want me to apply as a health aide? I have no background for that kind of job."
Even as the words left her mouth, she imagined herself undercover investigating Kim's murder and a thrill of excitement spiraled through her. If she really wanted to play the part, she could consult her friend Jillian, a seasoned actress. Jill had plenty of experience pretending to be someone else.
"You can do it," Stan said encouragingly. "Kim's mother, Stella, and her aunt Florence live on the grounds. So does her uncle Morris and his family, plus assorted servants."
"Any sisters or brothers?"
"He passed away, leaving the bulk of his wealth to Stella."
"What about the old lady's nurse? She'll see right through me. I'll have to ask her for instructions on what to do."
"In all likelihood, Agnes will be gone by the time you arrive on Sunday morning. Don't worry so much, babe. You're good about caring for people." Just not about me, his sour expression implied. "It can't be so difficult to watch over an old woman for a day."
"I don't understand why you suspect one of Kimberly's family members."
He shifted his feet. "First of all, Kim may have opened the door for someone she knew. Secondly, who stands to gain from her death? One of her relatives, that's who." He lowered his voice. "Kim is ... was due to receive an inheritance from Grandpa Harris when she reached the age of thirty. She'd just turned twenty-six last month on January tenth, meaning she still had four years to go. With her out of the way, one of her relatives gets her share."
"So you think she was murdered for her money."
"I can think of other reasons," Marla muttered, recalling the blonde's nasty attitude the few times they'd met. Marla wasn't the only one who'd resented the woman. Another person came to mind immediately, but she didn't mention her theory to Stan.