Insure to Murder – Chapter 1

Insure to Murder
A Robert Champion Novel
by Reynold Akison

Chapter 1

I was celebrating my third year as a private investigator in Nordhoff, California. I had my morning latte from nearby Java King, and I was reading the headlines in the sports section of the LA Times, when I heard a knock on my door. An attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long reddish-brown hair, dark red lipstick and a bright yellow dress swept into the room and stretched out her hand towards me.

“I’m Sarah Wittern,” she said “Are you the detective?”

Her green eyes sparkled as I shook her hand.

“Robert Champion,” I said.

When I let go of her hand she stepped back and took a look around the office.

There wasn’t much to see. On the desk sat a computer screen, manila folders, and a blue ceramic cup full of pens, a calendar desk pad, a phone-answering machine, the morning’s newspaper and my latte.

I saw her gaze linger on the large, unframed painting of a female nude that hung on the wall above the couch across from the window.

“Do you collect art?” she asked.

“That was given to me by a painter friend in New York named George Lewis,” I said. “He designed and painted cover art for books for a publishing company I worked for once upon a time.

“You were in publishing?”

“I worked as an editor until three years ago.”

“From book editor to private investigator, that’s a surprising career change.”

“I found a new calling,” I said. “Now won’t you please have a seat?”

She sat down in one of the straight backed chairs and placed her shoulder bag on the other.

“Your coffee smells good,” she said.

“We can get you cup next door at Java King.”

She shook her head and smiled. I wondered if her eyes always sparkled when she smiled.

“So how can I help you, Miss Wittern?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” she said, with a shrug.

“Do you need a private investigator?”

“Maybe, I mean I think so. I was talking to a friend, Sally Fain, do you know her?”

“She’s with the Chamber of Commerce.”

“She recommended you.”

“I’ll thank her for the referral.”

“Sally said you would know what to do, that is, you might be able to give me some advice.”

“And what is it you need advice about?”

“My mother died four months ago,” she said, leaning forward.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“My mother was seventy-one when she died. She was in excellent health until a few weeks before her death. She went to her health club almost every day. She loved to swim. She walked all the time. She’d take Maryann, that’s my daughter, for hikes and bike rides. She watched her diet. To be honest, I thought she would outlive me.”

She relaxed, leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs and gave me another one of her vibrant smiles.

“Go on,” I said.

“My mother’s health was the last thing I worried about.”

“Was your mother involved in an accident?”

Sarah stared at me for a moment.

“Did Sally already tell you what happened?”

I shook my head.

“I haven’t spoken to Sally in months,” I said.

“Well then you guessed it,” she said. “Mother was getting out of her SUV when she fell and broke her hip. Her doctor advised her to have hip replacement surgery. I told Mother I’d hire someone to watch the gallery so I could be with her after her surgery. I probably didn’t mention it, but I own the Wittern Gallery on Jefferson.”

Jefferson Street was the next street over from my office on Adams in the Old Town district.

“But Mother insisted that she didn’t want to be any trouble and she hired a caretaker.”

Tears started to well-up in Sarah’s green eyes.

“Excuse me,” she said. She reached into her bag, took out a tissue and dabbed at her tears.

“If you’d known my mother, you’d know there was no point in arguing with her. She was always independent even when she was married.”

“What about your father?” I said.

“He died ten years ago in a car accident. He was driving back from his office in Santa Barbara one night and there was a big pile up in the fog.”

“What happened to your mother after the surgery?”

“According to Mother’s doctor she was making a remarkable recovery. I’d take Maryann over to see her most days, but once in a while I couldn’t make it. But I did call her every day. Sometimes when I called she was sleeping, and I’d have to talk to the caretaker. The caretaker was living at the house by that time.”

Sarah stopped to wipe away more tears.

“Then Mother had some kind of attack. I still don’t understand what happened. It caused severe vomiting. The caretaker wasn’t there at the time, but when she found Mother she called 911, and Mother ended up back at Nordhoff Community. When I got to the hospital Mother was sedated and no one could tell me very much.”

“What about the caretaker?”

“She said she had taken Mother her dinner and then gone out to run an errand. When she returned Mother had fallen out of bed and there was vomit everywhere.”

Sarah paused and wrung her hands.

“Go on.”

“I found out later that during the vomiting attack some of the food in her stomach had gotten into her lungs. They tried to remove it, but couldn’t. She went into a coma and died a few days later.”

Her shoulders drooped and tears ran down Sarah’s cheeks. I took a box of tissues out of my desk drawer and set it in front of her. I had a strong urge to take her in my arms and hold her.

She took a fresh tissue from the box.

“Sorry to put you through that,” I said, “But I had to ask.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, “I had to tell you, only it still feels like it happened an hour ago. Every time I think about it, I relive it all over again.”

We sat together in silence. I took a sip of my latte. Sarah wiped away her tears and blew her nose. She pulled a bottle of water out of her bag and took a drink. Then she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.

“Nothing about Mother’s death made any sense to me,” she said.

“A sudden unexpected death never does,” I said.

“They did an autopsy. The doctor said she died from pneumonia.”

“Do you have any reason to believe that wasn’t the case?” I said.

She gave me a direct look.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it’s something about the way it happened. That’s why I came to see you, because I’m not sure anymore if it was an accident.”

“And why is that?”

“Two weeks ago I held a memorial service for Mother. I invited all her old friends. After the service I talked to a woman named Denise Morgan. Her mother died a year ago in a fall. Her mother, Ginger Morgan, and my mother had been best friends. Mother used to talk about Ginger all the time. It was ‘Ginger and I did this,’ and ‘Ginger and I did that.’ I had met Ginger, but I had never met any of her children.”

“What did Denise Morgan have to say?”

“That’s the odd part,” Sarah said. “She called me a couple of days after the memorial service and started asking questions about Nina Smith, Mother’s caregiver. I had invited Nina to come to the memorial. Denise mentioned that Nina Smith had also been her mother’s caregiver. I guess when Denise saw Nina she decided to get in touch with me.”

“And now the two of you think there’s a connection between the caregiver and the two deaths?”

“But there’s more. You see Ginger Morgan hired a full-time caregiver because she was bedridden after her surgery. According to Denise, her mother had to use a walker any time she got out of bed. And she wasn’t supposed to go up to the upper two floors of her house. That’s why Denise doesn’t understand why her mother was on the second floor of the house when she slipped on the stairway and fell. Her mother died in the fall.”

“What did the caregiver say in that case?”

“That she was running a quick errand when Ginger fell.”

“So Ginger Morgan climbed up to the second floor all by herself?”

“According to Denise that’s what everyone thinks. The caregiver said Ginger wanted a photo album that was in one of the rooms upstairs. She told Ginger she’d get it after she came back from her errand, but I guess Ginger couldn’t wait that long.”

Sarah and I gazed at each other across the desk.

“Are there any other details I should know?” I asked.

Sarah nodded.

“Denise said she was sure that she and her sister had gathered up all the photo albums in the house and put them in a bookcase next to the bed in the room on the first floor that her mother was using. Her mother had asked them to do it before she returned home from the hospital.”

“And Denise thinks the caregiver lied about what happened.”

Sarah nodded.

“And now you’re wondering if she lied about what happened to your mother.”

Sarah nodded again.

“What do you know about Nina Smith?”

“Not much. She works for a home care agency in Santa Barbara. My mother found out about her through Ginger. I suppose she met Nina at Ginger’s house. Mother used to go over there two or three times a week. She and Ginger would sit together and Mother would read to her.”

“So when your mother needed a caregiver she naturally called the same agency and asked for Nina Smith.”

“I guess so,” Sarah said, with a nod. “It makes perfect sense, but now my mother is dead when I think she should still be alive.”

I sat back in my chair and Sarah took another drink of water.

“Have you spoken to the police?”

She shook her head.

“That’s why I came to see you. I thought you might give me some advice about what to do next.”

I gazed out my office window. The high gray fog over Nordhoff, Central California’s famous June gloom, had begun to burn off revealing patches of blue sky.

“What does your husband think you should do?”

“There isn’t a husband at present,” she said.

I leaned across the desk towards her.

“Okay here’s my advice,” I said. “If you think a crime has been committed you should talk to the Nordhoff police.”

She lowered her head and gazed at her hands.

“Well from what I’ve told you so far, do you think a crime may have been committed?”

“From what you’ve told me so far it’s hard for me to know what actually took place,” I said. “I’d need a lot more information before I could make a decision. Right now I’d have to say it just sounds like a coincidence that Nina Smith worked as the caregiver for both women, and you’ve already explained how that probably came about in your mother’s case.”

She leaned forward again.

“Would it be worth your time to take me on as a client and find out what really happened?”

I sat back in my chair and smiled.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve taken on clients who’ve provided me with a lot less information.”

I told her what my fee would be and asked her to provide me with a list of the names and phone numbers of anyone she thought might be involved in her Mother’s life at the time of her death.

“If I hire you,” she said, “I want to help. I’d like to be there when you confront Nina Smith.”

I raised my hand for her to stop.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m the private investigator and you’re the client. The last thing I’m going to do is take you along with me when I interview people especially Nina Smith.”

“But I know things about my mother that you couldn’t possibly know.”

“Of course you do,” I said. “But none of that is important right now.”

“I just thought I could be of help.”

I shook my head.

“When I need to know more about your mother I’ll ask you.”

We stared at each other. Sarah frowned and bit her lower lip. I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to decide to hire me or how to make a graceful exit.

“Sally said you were straightforward and honest,” she said. “I came here to hire you, not tell you how to run your business. You’re the expert.”

She reached into her bag and took out a white business envelope.

“I’ve already written down all the names and phone numbers I could think of,” she said, handing me the envelope.

“What’s your mother’s full name?”

“Mary Charmaine Wittern

“There’s one other thing,” I said, as I wrote her mother’s name on the back of the envelope. “I’ll need a recent photo of your mother.”

“A recent photo,” she repeated.

“It will help jog people’s memories.”

“I’ll find one for you and get you a check,” she said. “So once I hire you, do you report to me on a daily basis?”

“When I have something of interest to report I’ll let you know,” I said.

We stood up. She reached out her hand and gave me another sparkling smile.

“Please drop by the Wittern Gallery whenever you want,” she said. “We’ll have a glass of wine together.”

End of Chapter 1

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