Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Deadly Gamble Chapter Six Steele Cage

The Deadly Gamble Chapter Six 

Chapter #6
Steele cage

Steele was restless; he tossed and turned for most of the night.  At 3:15 he got a call from Stan.  The groggy detective slowly reached for his phone on the nightstand. 
“Dude why do you have a watch when you never use it?”  Stan laughed into the phone.  “Hey Steele do you hear me bitching when you wake me at eight a.m.?  I never thought I would hear myself say these words but Sugar Bear was right.  I found a copy of the updated floor plans for Amber Hill Manor.  A tunnel was not on the original plans but apparently one was added somewhere between 1922 and 1924.  Do you know what that means?” Steele sat up on the edge of the bed and wiped his blurry eyes.  “Yeah, if someone knew about the tunnel they could have by-passed the front gate to get on the grounds and commit the murders. Only two people were unaccounted for during that time, Mr. Matthews and the chauffer who claimed to be at a car show.  Bring the blueprints with you in the morning.  Did you find anything else on Audrey?” 

“No nothing more on her but I found out that before Sam came to Philly three years ago he went to the University of Miami in Florida.  Do you think Audrey and Sam may have crossed paths before they came here?”

“I don’t know Stan, Miami is a big city.  Thanks for the update.  Tara gave me a key card to the front gate, keys to the house and the access code for the security system.   I’ll pick you up at nine.”

It was the morning of the funeral. Mr. Matthews and Tara were the only two who knew the mansion would be searched.  Getting up early usually put Stan in a grouchy mood, but today he was excited about visiting the mansion and helping Steele solve the case. 

Once Steele parked the car, Stan got out, stepped back and put his hands on his hips.  He wanted to take in the grander of the massive building, the pool and the expensive cars.
“Aw yeah Steele, now that’s what I’m talking about dude.  I could sure get use to living like this.”  Steele patted Stan on the shoulder, okay Robin Leach don’t forget two people were murder over there, time to get your head in the game.  I need you to find the security system and check all the key card stamps on the day of the murders.  I need to go through all the rooms while you check out their personal computers, but first I want to get another look at the shed.

Stan followed Steele as he headed towards the shed.  “Stan, I asked you to check the time stamps.”  Stan pointed to the shed.  “I’ve never seen a real crime scene before.  Do you mind?”  The first thing Steele noticed as he and Stan approached the shed where charcoal colored mats at the front doors of the pool house and shed.  Steele pointed them out to Stan.  “Whoa, those weren’t there the morning of the murder.  The men looked around inside the small shed.  It was still fairly early; the morning sun had not risen above the tree line so it was difficult to see. Steele reached for the chain above his head to turn on the light but the blub was out.  After pulling out a penlight from his jacket pocket he methodically searched the shed inch by inch.  Steele seemed intrigued by four grayish white stones on the floor near the airbed.  After examining the stones, he carried them outside to see if they were a match to the stones in the walkway.  Stan watched intently as Steele worked.  The stones on the walkway were newer and larger than the pebble like stones in his hand.  Steele walked completely around the shed then around the pool house.  “Scary smart” he whispered as he looked at the silver ladder leaning against the far side of the pool house.  Stan had no clue as to what was going on. 

“You mind letting me in on your private conversation?”  Steele sprouted a wide grin.  The kind he gets when he’s close to solving a case.  “I’ll do better than clue you in my brother; I’ll show you how the murderer got in and out without leaving any footprints on the soggy ground.   Steele adjusted the metal ladder and climbed to the roof of the pool house.   He walked across the roof until he had a clear view of the shed window.  “Stan catch” Steele threw a handful of stones from the pool house roof as he laid on his stomach facing the shed window.  To further demonstrate his point, Steele tossed one of the small stones inside the opened window.  Steele stood up and looked down to Stan who was beginning to get the picture of what happened that morning.  Steele explained, “The killer could see Mrs. Matthews, the pool boy, also the empty liquor bottle.  He wanted to make sure they were passed out and not just asleep so he tossed in a few stones to see if they would respond.”  Stan wanted to hear more.

“So okay Steele how did he get inside………fly?” 

Steele pointed to the scratch marks on the window ledge.  He pulled the ladder up from the other side of the pool house, drugged it over the roof to the side nearest the shed and lowered it to the ground directly beneath the window ledge.  He demonstrated how someone could drape the bucket of toxic bottles over their shoulder (as if they were carrying a pocket book) walk down the ladder backwards and climb through the window.  The scratches on the window ledge were probably from the bucket or shoes or maybe even both.” 

Stan folded his arms and nodded.  “Dude, I’m impressed, so the killer had to be a man right.  I woman couldn’t pull a twelve foot ladder up on the roof, drag it across the roof and lower it down on the other side.”

As he climbed down from the roof Steele explained to Stan that the ladder was made of light weight aluminum.  “If I were to guess I would say it’s probably around twenty to twenty five pounds at the most.  If a woman could pick up a small child she could pick up this ladder so yes it could most definitely have been a woman.” 

Stan had one more question.  “Okay Steele what about the mats, how did they get from the side of the building to there?” Steele took another look at the mats.  “Well I haven’t figured that one out yet.  Come on, I want to find this tunnel and see where it leads to before we search the rooms.”

Using the floor plans Stan brought with him, Steele had no trouble locating the secret tunnel.  An old oak china closet concealed the entrance.  After easily pushing at aside Steele expected to see a dank, dark tunnel with dirt walls.  The tunnel was narrow, but to his surprise it was well lit with six foot high cement floors and walls.   The tunnel was about three hundred feet long.  It dead ended at a red brick wall with a rusty black, iron ladder attached. At the top of the ladder was an oversized manhole cover.  Once Steele climbed outside he found himself standing in the woods outside the mansion roughly fifty feet from a back road.
Once he made it back to the mansion the hunt for evidence was on.  It was obvious that Kitty had been avoiding Steele.  He wanted to know why so he made a beeline to her room. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first but when he searched in the back bottom of her closet there it was, the Phillies baseball cap and blonde wig.  Steele had flashbacks to his run in at the Pool boy’s apartment.  He remembered the manager saying that the woman was blonde with a red Phillies baseball cap.  Kitty was a brunette, finding the cap and wig looked incriminating but what Steele found inside her jewelry box was even worse.  A gold bracelet with the inscription forever yours from Kitty to Sam.
Steele’s mind went into overdrive.  Were Sam and Kitty a couple?  Was he cheating on Kitty with her sister in law?  Was it Kitty who wacked him in the head when she went to retrieve the incriminating evidence from her boyfriends apartment? 

The wig, hat and bracelet took the case in a whole different direction.  Steele’s search turned into a treasure trove of information.  Just as he finished searching Kitty’s room Stan showed up with more news. 

“Man these people are a trip.  I’ve never seen more paranoid people in my life.  Audrey, you know the maid chick, well she got a hold of Mrs. Matthews password which wasn’t hard to do.  She wrote it on the other side of her mouse pad.  Well anyway her and the chef dude have been keeping tabs on Mr. and Mrs. Matthews by reading their emails then coping and pasting them and forwarding them to other staff members.  In the beginning they just wanted inside information on when the couple was moving to Florida, but I guess their curiosity got the better of them.  Some of those e-mails were pretty personal.  How often do you get to know what’s going on with the boss and his private life?

Steele snickered, “no kidding, you find anything incriminating?”
“Not in the e-mails, but I did find out that Mr. Matthews swiped out at the front gate that morning but he never swiped back in which means he probably rode back in with someone else.” 
Steele pointed to the floor.  “Or he came in through the tunnel so that he could catch his wife cheating again and when he did he killed them.  Anything else Stan?”

“Yeah one more thing according to the e-mails Sam had just given his notice to quit.  Looks like the love birds were going to run off together.”

Tara called Steele to give him the heads up on when her Uncle and the staff would be headed back from the funeral and wake.  With only an hour before the staff’s return Steele decided it would be best if he and Stan split up to search the remaining rooms in the living quarters.  Steele found it curious that Kitty had every episode of the TV show CSI on the DVD; however, one episode was missing from the box.  Time was running out.

While staff members had moved down on Steele’s suspect list, Mr. Matthews and Kitty now occupied the number one and two spots.  He needed to wrap this up soon.  Somewhere out there was a lottery ticket worth a fortune and whoever had it in their possession had to be getting a little antsy.  Any day now the culprit could be in the wind.

Torrential rains pounded the city and suburbs around Philly that night.  Steele returned to the mansion unannounced to interview the elusive Kitty.   He was greeted by Audrey who informed him that Kitty would be home around eleven and that Mr. Matthews had been given a sedative and had retired for the evening.  Steele checked his Rolex, he had forty five minutes and decided to use the time to follow up on a few things.  Steele questioned Audrey about her past.  He wanted to know why there were hardly any public records on her.  Audrey was prepared with a perfectly good explanation. 

“As a child I grew up on a small farm owned by my parents.  They were Cuban exiles and because they were her illegally they stayed off the gird.   I was home schooled.  The only job I had was working on the farm.  One night the farm and our house burned to the ground.  Both of my parents were killed in the fire.  I had nothing, no family, no money; no skills so I worked cleaning houses, then eventually I got a job working at a small motel called the Sea Breeze and eventually ended up here.”

It was a heart wrenching story but there was a problem.  According to Stan’s research Audrey’s parents died in a car accident not in a fire. Steele wondered, why would she lie about something like that?  He asked her about her relationship with Sam the pool boy.

“Did you know Sam before you moved here?  How did you feel about him?” 
“No Mr. Steele, he started cleaning the Matthews’ pool about one year ago.  That was the first time I ever saw him.  He was a nice guy; we were friendly but not friends do you know what I mean.”  During their brief conversation the storm had intensified.  Steele couldn’t decide whether he wanted to wait for Kitty to show up or to leave before a fallen tree that would block the road leading out would keep him stranded there for the night.  The last thing he wanted was to be trapped in a mansion with a killer on the loose. 

He caught a glimpse of Chris the chauffer as he entered the great room.  It was unlikely that the chauffer committed the murders but with the revelation of the secret entrance Steele couldn’t rule him out.

During Steele’s conversation with the maid Antonio entered the foyer carrying a dinner tray with a silver dome on top.  Antonio carefully handed the tray off to Audrey. 
“The master’s supper” Antonio’s attempt at humor was lost on Audrey.  Her blank facial expression said it all. 

Steele thanked Audrey for her time.  He wanted to pick the chef’s brain for more information but just as he turned away from Audrey there was a flash of lighting followed by the deafening crackle of a thunder boom so intense it rattled windows in the den off the main entrance.  The storm had continued to intensify.  As Audrey ascended up the winding staircase the front door flew open.  Strong winds along with rain and a few leaves swirled around inside as Pablo entered the room.  Steele was more than a little unhappy to see the long silver machete in his hand.  Pablo and Steele exchanged icy stares before Steele turned his attention to the glistening, wet, steel blade dripping water onto the carpet. 

Pablo was soaked to the skin.  He motioned to the door behind him.  “A tree toppled over into the driveway.  I needed to chop it up so that Miss Kitty could get through whenever she gets here.  Steele folded his arms and smiled at Pablo.  “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to stand around trees while it’s lightning?

Pablo smirked at Steele then proceeded to examine his machete.  He had a little factoid of his own to drop on the wise cracking detective.  “Didn’t you know that 77 percent of all accidents occur inside the house?”  Pablo continued looking down at the machete as if he was trying to send Steele a message.  He left without waiting for Steele’s response.

For Steele it was decision time.  There was only one road leading in and out of the house.  If a large tree fell across the road he would be stranded.  Steele pondered his choices, leave now and take his chances with the storm or continue to wait for Kitty and risk having to spend the night in the mansion with a murderer lurking about.  Unfortunately for Steele seconds later the decision was made for him.  The foyer Chandelier flickered like disco lights over a dance floor in a night club.  Seconds later they flickered again and the entire mansion went dark.  With storm clouds obscuring the moon the night skies were pitch black.  Steele turned in Antonio’s direction.  “Please tell me you guys have a generator” A voice from the darkness replied, “Yes Mr. Steele, we do.  After the last storm Mr. Matthews told Pablo to have it serviced and refilled.  Well apparently he never got around to it.  The front gate is operated by an electric motor and since we have no power it looks like you will be Mr. Matthews’ house guest for the night.”  Antonio pulled out a cigarette lighter.  The bright orange and yellow flame provided just enough light for him to see a few feet in front of him. 

“Wait here Mr. Steele; I have a flashlight and some candles in the kitchen.”  Steele backed up slowly.  Using his left hand to find the wall Steele used his other hand to firmly grim his Glock.  Now would be a good time for Pablo to make good on his threat, he thought. 

Before Antonio returned with the candles Steele noticed a dim light descending down the spiral staircase.  Was it friend or foe?  Steele drew his weapon and pointed it in the direction of the light as it grew closer.  The hand attached to the flashlight was Mr. Matthews.  Matthews was clearly startled when he came close enough to see the gun pointed at him.  “Sorry about that Mr. Matthews.  You can’t be too careful, you know.”

When Antonio came from the kitchen with more light the two men showed Steele to the den.  “Make yourself comfortable Mr. Steele.  I need to find Audrey so that she can put some fresh linen on the bed in one of the guest rooms.”  Steele watched as his host disappears into the darkness.  Antonio wasted no time raiding the boss’ liquor cabinet.  Steele’s misfortune was Antonio’s opportunity to indulge in a bottle of the good stuff.  The two men sat and talked for nearly an hour before Mr. Matthews returned.

Steele took little solace in the fact that the staff’s quarters were on the opposite side of the mansion.  After making their way to the guest room Antonio lit three of the orange candles that were already in the room.  Before the men left, Mr. Matthews apologized for the inconvenience and assured Steele that the power would be back on by morning. 

Steele noticed a strange, sweet order coming from the candles but shrugged it off.  Must be either old or scented he thought.  Steele carried one of the candles around the room to make sure it was secure.  Once he was satisfied he settled down in an old comfortable chair facing the only door to the room.  Steele laid his weapon on the small table next to the lamp and took out his cellphone.  No signal, just what he had expected.  “Well it was worth a try” he said out loud.  Steele began thumbing through photos from the crime scene.  Twenty minutes later he noticed something unusual about the time stamps at the bottom of each photo. 

Steele began feeling woozy.  At first he chalked it up to fatigue.  He decided to stretch and crack open a window but found it hard to balance himself once he got up from the chair.  “What the hell’s going on here?”  Steele stumbled to the window and tried opening it but it was shut tight.  In fact none of the windows would budge.  By now the room was engulfed with the strange, intoxicating, sweet, fruity smell.  At the window there was a more familiar odor, glue.  Someone had supper glued all the windows shut.  The murder had finally made his move to take Steele out.  As he stumbled toward the bedroom door he tripped on the brown, oriental carpet and fell to his knees.  Steele began coughing and wheezing.   The air closer to the floor was a bit more breathable.  Steele crawled back to where he had left his gun.  The time it took to cross the room seamed like hours but had only taken a few minutes.  Expecting the culprit to come in and finish the job any minute now Steele reached up and grabbed his Glock.  He crawled to the door and jiggled the handle.  The door had been locked from the outside with a skeleton key.   Steele cursed under his breath as he struggled to stand.  It wouldn’t be long before the gas would completely overtake him.  Steele was close to passing out.  He took aim at the lock on the door but the door looked blurry and the room had begun to spin.  In the dim light there was little chance of hitting the lock.  In an act of desperation Steele turned and fired three rounds at the center window across the room.  Second’s after the pap, pap, pap, was heard broken glass came crashing down to the floor as the cold, wet, swirling winds rushed in from the storm.

Steele held his head up for as long as he could inhaling several deep, breaths of the fresh,  clean, air before collapsing to the floor.  He could hear footsteps approaching.  Crouched down on his knees Steele turned his weapon in the direction of the bedroom door.   Mr. Matthews was the first to enter followed by Audrey, and Antonio.  

“I heard gunshots what happened Mr. Steele?” Mr. Matthew seemed genuinely concerned.  Steele was helped to a chair.  As he explained what happened he noticed a couple of dark blue towels laid across the doorway.  Someone had obviously stuffed them under the door during the time it was locked.

As the curtains fluttered in the wind the flickering candle flames danced creating shadows that loomed large along the walls.  The wind, rain and candlelight made for an eerie setting.

Antonio took a whiff of the candle on the night stand and recoiled.  He looked at his boss then at Steele before sharing his assessment.  Antonio spoke one word, “Oleander.” The room fell silent.  All eyes were on the cook.  Realized he was the only botanist in the room Antonio knew that an explanation was in order. 

“Oleander is a very poisonous flower especially when it comes in contact with heat.  Someone tampered or most likely replaced the regular candles with these toxic ones. 
My guess is that all of these candles are laced with the deadly poison.   We should not be breathing this stuff.  We need to leave now.   Come to the kitchen with me Mr. Steele, 
let me fix you a cup of ginger tea.  It will help relax your lungs.”

Steele’s head as well as his vision was starting to clear.  He knew that the chauffeur and grounds keeper Pablo were both on the premises at the time he fired the shots but neither of the two showed up.   Making sure he wouldn’t be poisoned twice in the same night Steele watched carefully as Antonio prepared the brew of fresh ginger, green tea and honey.  Antonio carefully handed Steele the cup of steaming, hot, herbal tea.

“I know what you are thinking my friend.  With my knowledge about plants it makes perfect sense that I was the one who tried to kill you.   Rest assured Mr.  Steele if I wanted you dead you would not be sitting here in my kitchen.  It’s clear that the killer wanted you to believe it was me but this was a strictly amateur move.  Don’t forget I was with you the entire time your room was being prepared.”

Steele took a whiff of the tea then asked, “How would you have done it?”
The cook laughed.  “Cicuta douglasii better know as Western Water Hemlock.  You can mix it with food or I could have added it to your tea.” 

Antonio laughed as he watched Steele sip the beverage.  He went on to explain the gruesome details.  “First you have a seizure, not an ordinary one; a gran-mal seizure followed by a loss of consciousness but before you died you would have violent muscle contractions. 

Steele agreed with Antonio’s assertion that he probably was not the killer since he could not have possibly been the one who attempted to poison him with the candles.  He decided to tell Antonio about the lottery ticket because after all if he was the killer he would have already known about the winning ticket.

Antonio didn’t seem all that surprised by Steele’s revelation. “I figure the murderer is someone with means, someone who could afford to wait until the heat is off before cashing the lottery ticket.”

Steele was intrigued by Antonio’s theory. “So since we’re on the subject, who do you think killed Mrs. Matthews and the pool boy?”  Antonio reached inside the upper cabinet and pulled out a bottle of wine.  He pointed the bottle at Steele. “Mr. Matthews or his sister Kitty, anyone else would have cashed in the ticked and have been long gone by now.  How do you think the rich get richer Mr. Steele?  Between the life insurance policy and the winning lottery ticket I would say his net worth just jumped another fifty million dollars.

I tell you what Mr. Steele; if I had that kind of money I would travel the world and visit the great monuments and landmarks.  Yes, I would retire and take lots of photos of all the great sights of the planet.”

Steele sipped his tea and looked up at Antonio.  “I say live your dreams.  You aren’t getting any younger.”

Steele was still a bit light headed but Antonio’s mention of photos jogged his memory.  “Antonio speaking of photos how was it possible for you to know exactly when Mrs. Matthews and her boyfriend would be in the storage shed?”

Antonio poured himself a drink as he pondered Steele’s question.   “A few years ago someone had been stealing jewelry and money from guest near the pool so Mr. Matthews had a couple of cameras installed in the trees behind the house.  Turns out it was one of the workers, anyway once the culprit was apprehended, isn’t that the term you PI’s use?   Anyway the cameras were turned off, forgotten about until Mrs. Matthews went into business with Pablo.  He turned the cameras to his coca fields to keep an eye on his product.  It works just like a mom watching her kid at daycare.  One day I turned one of the cameras in the direction of the shed. I couldn’t quite turn it all the way but I was able to direct it to the path leading to the shed.  Mrs. Matthews would never risk entering their little love nest when Kitty or Mr. Matthews was on the grounds so that narrowed down the time I had to monitor them.  Everyday Mr. Matthews had breakfast with his wife then he would go to work.  Since Mrs. Matthews was a vegan it only took about twenty minutes to make her lunch so I had plenty of time in between to monitor the camera through my cellphone.  The pool boy’s van was the tipoff.  Whenever I saw that van I knew what was coming next.”

Steele was impressed at how clever the cook was.  Maybe he was a little too clever.   Just as he took another sip of tea Steele saw the shadow of someone approaching the kitchen door.  He drew his gun and pointed it at the entrance.  Both he and Antonio were surprised to see Kitty standing in the doorway.  In her left hand she held a flashlight but it was the gun she held in her right hand that got Steele’s full attention. 

Kitty stepped closer, “Mr. Steele I have a confession to make.”

Chapter #7


Alexander Steele Murder Mystery Trilogy
Author Larry J
Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.

The Alexander Steele Murder Mystery series consist of the first three short stories set in Philadelphia. Philly native Lawrence Johnson aka Larry J. takes you into Philly's neighborhoods by way of his fictional,suave,detective Alexander Steele. The semi retired PI is the proud owner of the Mount Airy hot spot known as the Inner Sanctum. Steele has a problem. He just can't seem to put his past life of crime solving behind him. A seemly endless stream of new clients come to his club each with tempting new cases for the ever inquisitive private investigator.
Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.

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