Hired to investigate a seemingly accidental death, a PI discovers a perverse secret.
Denver oilman Phillip Townsend is alone in his Jaguar when he drives off the cliff. The police call it an accident, but his widow, half mad with grief, insists it was murder. Her husband was quiet, cautious, boring - so what was he doing on the outskirts of Denver, driving drunk down a lonely mountain road?
The Townsends’ lawyer hires Jacob Lomax to look into the matter, letting him know that it would be best if the official version of the story were quietly confirmed. An ex-cop who became a detective in the wake of his wife’s murder, Lomax is too dedicated to his work to simply parrot a police report. Digging through the dead man’s office, he finds a tape that shows Townsend and an accomplice binding, gagging, and raping a teenage girl. The most boring millionaire in Denver, it seems, had a secret that was worth killing for.
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Death on the Rocks
A Jacob Lomax Mystery
By Michael Allegretto
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Michael Allegretto
All rights reserved.
Phillip Townsend had been dead for six weeks when his attorney called me.
I'd read about Townsend's death. Money makes news and he'd made page three. He'd been a Denver oilman. Not as rich as the ones you see on TV, but rich enough to have everything he wanted, everything you and I could only dream about. He'd driven his Jaguar off a mountain west of the city and ground himself into hamburger.
I remembered the Jaguar part. Nice cars.
I muscled my old Olds through the sweltering downtown traffic, parked in the hot shade of the United Bank Tower, and rode the elevator up to forty. I was wearing my best summer suit. My guns were at home. Maybe I'd make a good impression.
"Mrs. Townsend desires a private investigation into her husband's demise," the attorney said.
His name was Clarence DeWitt. His voice was intimidating, polished. It fit his appearance. Tall and tan, gray-haired, impeccably dressed. He faced me across a desk big enough to land a helicopter on.
"Wasn't Townsend's death officially listed as an accident?"
"That is correct," he said.
"Who handled the case?"
"The Sheriff's Department in Jefferson County. An Inspector Ives."
"I take it you're not satisfied with his investigation."
"Mrs. Townsend is not. She harbors suspicions concerning her husband's demise."
"You may discuss the particulars with Mrs. Townsend."
"You don't share her views on this, do you?"
The corner of his lip rose a few millimeters. "Definitely not. The police were quite thorough in their investigation and they believe, as I do, that Mr. Townsend's demise was accidental. They certainly found no evidence of foul play or self-infliction."
I wondered if DeWitt ever used words like suicide, murder, or death. Probably not.
"Why did you wait until now to call me?" I asked. "Townsend's been in the ground for a month and a half."
"I have been trying for weeks to dissuade Mrs. Townsend from this course of action. She has reached her limit. I assume you can begin at once."
"Probably. Just a few more questions."
DeWitt sighed. He found this whole matter distasteful. Which wasn't surprising, since DeWitt & Associates represented corporate officials, bank presidents, and executives in the oil industry. DeWitt was used to dealing with accountants and tax men, not private investigators.
"Do you believe the county's investigation was complete in every way?"
"I do," he said.
"And that nothing was shoved under the rug?"
"Correct. If I understand your meaning."
"And you agree with their conclusions?"
"Then what do you expect me to find that they didn't?"
"Then what the hell do you want?"
"Precisely what I've previously stated, Mr. Lomax, an investigation into the demise of Phillip Townsend. For the sake of his widow. You see, Maryanne Townsend is upset and confused. Except for her daughter, Jennifer, she is alone in the world. Her husband's demise was—"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Her husband's death."
"Yes. Of course. Her husband's death was a terrible blow. He was abruptly removed from her life, and she feels victimized. She is looking for something or someone to blame. In a word, Mrs. Townsend has become paranoid."
"Then she needs a psychiatrist, not me."
"I could not agree more. On my advice, Mrs. Townsend has secured professional help. Her doctor assures me that she is making progress. However, she remains adamant. She insists on hiring someone such as yourself and throwing away her money on a useless, if not redundant, investigation. No offense intended."
"Oh, none taken."
"Do not misunderstand me. I, too, want this investigation."
"And I fully expect you to confirm the findings of the police."
"Once you have done that, Mrs. Townsend can put this tragedy behind her and carry on with her life. Hers and her daughter's."
"Then you do accept the job?"
He wasn't too thrilled with the idea. Neither was I. Playing detective as therapy for a neurotic widow was not my idea of a good time. But I had to admit I was curious to hear her side of the story. Also, I could use the money. My present bank account would fit in a midget's navel with room left over for the lint. I said okay.
DeWitt opened a desk drawer, withdrew a check, and handed it across his vast desk. The amount was already filled in. It was more than I'd expected.
"Mr. Lomax, my sources assured me that you are a seasoned investigator. You certainly look fit enough."
I tried not to blush.
"However," he said, "this assignment will require more manners than muscle. Phillip Townsend was a respected member of the community. One hopes you will be tactful."
"I promise not to belch."
"Indeed. Please report to me in three days."
The interview was over. I stood, and DeWitt swiveled his chair to face the window. It offered a dim view of the Rockies through midsummer smog. In here it was cool and quiet and oak-paneled.
"Tell me, DeWitt, what will happen to Mrs. Townsend's delicate condition if her suspicions are confirmed?"
He turned toward me. "I beg your pardon?"
"Suppose I find that her husband's death was something other than an accident?"
"Meaning that when you dig around in the past, you sometimes turn up things you weren't looking for."
He smiled benignly.
"In this instance, Mr. Lomax, that would seem to be a most remote possibility."
"It would seem," I said.CHAPTER 2
I left the downtown denver area and drove south to Cherry Hills.
Back in 1960 Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Open there. He started the final round seven strokes back. Out of contention, they said. But Arnie birdied six of the first seven holes, blew by the field, and never looked back. It ain't over till it's over.
The Townsend residence was a solid three-wood shot from the country club.
You knew you were in a high-class neighborhood because there were no sidewalks and plenty of security cops. The homes spoke quietly of money. The Townsends' was Chateau. It sprawled comfortably amid five manicured acres.
I left the Olds in the street and hoped the private cops wouldn't tow it away. Then I went up the long brick walk and rang the bell.
A Mexican woman of indeterminate age opened the door. She gave me a hard look.
"Jacob Lomax to see Maryanne Townsend."
The woman's look did not soften, but she let me in. I followed her through the spacious home to a room with parquet flooring and floor-to-ceiling windows.
"Mr. Lomax, ma'am."
"Thank you, Rosa, that will be all."
Maryanne Townsend was an attractive woman in her early thirties. She wore a simple white dress with short sleeves. Her arms were tan. The diamond in her wedding ring wasn't much bigger than a golf ball.
We shook hands politely. Hers was soft and cold. It trembled. So did her voice.
"Would you care for coffee?"
We sat on yellow-cushioned white chairs at one end of a table with a glass top. In the center were a blue vase with yellow daffodils, a silver tray and tea set, and two bone-white china cups with delicate blue trim. Everything was color coordinated. Everything was precisely in place. Maryanne Townsend poured exact amounts into our matching cups. I crossed my legs and tried not to kick over the table.
"Did Clarence explain everything to you?" she asked. She hoped. Talking about it would be unpleasant.
"Not in detail. He said you had some questions about your husband's accident."
"Accident." She was not fond of the word. "I cannot believe that my husband's death was simply an accident."
"He was an extremely safe driver."
"No," she said, "I don't think you do. And please do not patronize me. I've had quite enough of that from Clarence and the police."
"My error," I said.
"I—I'm sorry." She was embarrassed by her brief blush of anger, one moment without grief. Now her eyes misted. "Try to understand, Phillip was compulsive about safety. His parents were killed years ago by a drunk driver and he never got over it. He was nervous behind the wheel. Extremely alert. Always wore his seat belt. Never drove above the speed limit...."
Her voice had risen half an octave. DeWitt had been right. Maryanne Townsend was hanging on by her fingernails.
As gently as I could I said, "Do you think your husband may have intentionally driven off the road?"
"If you mean did he commit suicide, no. I'd sooner believe he was forced...."
"Forced. Do you mean forced off the road?"
She said nothing.
"Are you telling me you think your husband was murdered?"
"I—I don't know."
She stared down at her cup and shook her head.
Through the glass tabletop I could see her hand in her lap, clenched in a fist with the thumb tucked in. The knuckles were white with pressure.
"Did your husband have enemies?"
"No. Phillip was a quiet, gentle man."
"Could he have angered someone in a business deal?"
"It's unlikely. Eagle Oil is not exactly a business. We hold oil leases, trust funds, that sort of thing. Phillip was mostly involved with investments."
"Could anyone have profited from his death?"
She looked away as if in guilt. "He left the entire estate to me. And there was the life insurance, of course."
"But other than that?"
"Who manages Eagle Oil now?"
"The lawyers and accountants."
"DeWitt and Associates."
"Besides your husband being a safe driver, what makes you suspicious about his acci—about his death?"
"On the day he died, Phillip called to say he would be home late from work."
"Was that unusual?"
"Rare, not unusual. The point is, he was nowhere near the office when they found ... when he ..."
"I understand it happened west of the city."
"Yes, on Lookout Mountain. And I know of no reason for him to have been on that road."
"Perhaps he had a business meeting."
She shook her head. "Phillip's business rarely took him out of the office and never out of the city."
"Maybe he was visiting a friend."
"None of our friends live near there."
"Phillip was a loyal husband and father. Besides, he was shy about ... sex."
I figured he wasn't the only one.
"You explained all this to the police?"
"Of course. They assured me they could find nothing sinister about my husband's death."
We were back to square one.
"Who did your husband spend time with? Besides you and your daughter."
She gave me the names of his secretary, accountant, and broker. I wrote them all down.
"What about friends?"
"Outside of business, Phillip had no friends. Oh, he would occasionally allow me to drag him to a social affair. But mostly he preferred to stay home. And read."
She said "read" the way a nun says "sin."
I sipped my coffee. It had lost its heat. And flavor. She poured me some more without asking. Her hand shook, sloshing some in the saucer.
"Where was your husband's office?"
"It is downtown." She gave me the address.
"It's still open?"
"No, but we haven't vacated. Clarence had the files transferred to his office. The rest of it ..." She gave a tiny shrug. "I suppose I should see about liquidation."
"Would you mind if I had a look?"
"Not at all."
She stood at once and quickly left the room. I made her nervous.
I looked out at the fairway-sized backyard. There was an acre or so of flowers, professionally tended, and a scattering of trees. Also a young girl playing with a golden retriever. She was maybe eleven and even from here resembled her mother. She teased the dog with a slobbery ball. He didn't seem to mind. Behind them, miles away, tiny steel-and-glass towers poked at the sky.
Maryanne Townsend returned. She handed me a key and a photograph.
"This was taken about a year ago," she said.
It was a five-by-seven color print of Phillip Townsend. He wore a business suit and a distant look. He was a few years older than Maryanne, with unremarkable features and dark hair parted on the side.
"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"
She shook her head.
"Okay," I said. "I'll look into things and call you in a few days."
She nodded, then turned to the window as if I had vanished.
I walked alone to the front door. The house was as silent as a mausoleum.CHAPTER 3
The next morning I drove west on U.S. 6 to Golden.
Phillip Townsend had been killed in Jefferson County, and Golden is the county seat. The town is tucked in the folds of the foothills, home to the Colorado School of Mines and the Coors brewery. The brewery predominates. It pumps money into the community and saturates the air with the faint odor of barley and hops.
I parked in a lot near the county buildings, then stretched my legs and filled my lungs with mountain air and the scent of beer.
Lookout Mountain towered behind the buildings, brown and barren. A large white "M" had been painted near the top by the college kids. Below that the road slashed its way up the mountain's rocky sides. Townsend had picked a lousy place to die. Assuming there was a good place.
I went to the sheriff's office and asked for Inspector Ives. A deputy showed me to him.
Ives was a big man, my height but a good fifty pounds heavier. A lot of that was hard gut that hung over his leather belt and hammered silver buckle. He had a military haircut, pockmarked cheeks, and tired eyes. His nose was lumpy and slightly off center. There was a wrinkled brown suit coat on a hall tree behind him and a .38 S & W in a holster on his hip.
"What can I do for you, Mr., uh, Lomax?"
He read my card, then brushed it away from him as if it were a dead insect. He wasn't impressed by private eyes. But then, who was?
"I'm working for the widow of Phillip Townsend," I said. "She has some unanswered questions about her husband's death."
"Like what?" Ives asked. He wasn't going to make this easy. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back, torturing his chair. There were sweat stains under his arms.
"Like what was he doing on that road."
"Taking in the night air?"
"No way. According to Mrs. Townsend, her husband would never drive to relax. He was uptight behind the wheel. And extremely alert."
"So if we assume that he wasn't suddenly struck blind, how could he simply drive off the road?"
"Who said it was simple? It was a downhill curve, no guardrail, and a moonless night. Plus, he'd been drinking."
That was the first I'd heard about drinking. "Still, Mrs. Townsend doubts the official reports."
"I don't blame her," he said. "It was probably PLO terrorists or maybe the Mafia that killed her hubby."
Ives was having his morning fun.
"And since us hick cops are half-asleep, we'd miss all the valuable clues, so she hires an ace investigator to crack the case, some private dick with a four-dollar certificate tacked to the wall who couldn't find his ass with both hands and a flashlight."
I gave him a tight grin. "I'd like to see the reports on Townsend's death."
Ives leaned forward and rested his heavy forearms on the desk. He interlocked his fingers. They looked like a stack of hamsters.
"Why the hell should I show you anything? As far as I know, you're just some clown off the street."
"Call Mrs. Townsend," I said.
"Call Clarence DeWitt, her attorney. DeWitt and Associates."
"Call Lieutenant Patrick MacArthur, Denver Homicide."
His expression didn't change, but something in the air did.
"And you know him how?"
"We worked together for a few years."
Ives punched out a number on his phone, then looked me in the eye.
"Lieutenant MacArthur, please."
It sounded funny to hear him say "please."
Ives said, "Pat, it's Doug Ives. Good. Say, I've got a guy here says he knows you, name of
Jacob Lomax. Uh-huh ... un-huh ... right. Okay, thanks."
He hung up.
"Pat says I can believe anything you say as long as it's backed up by three witnesses and two of them are my parents."
"He also says you used to be a good cop. Why'd you quit?"
"Uh-huh." He punched two digits on his phone. "Gladys, bring me the file on Townsend, Phillip."
He put down the receiver and rubbed his chin.
"Sorry about the rough treatment."
"You wouldn't believe the jerks that parade through here."
Excerpted from Death on the Rocks by Michael Allegretto. Copyright © 1987 Michael Allegretto. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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