GARY P. PAVAO - SHORT-STORIES
Murder at the High School Reunion
It was a beautiful, picturesque, New England, fall, Sunday morning. The foliage was at its peak. Everywhere you looked the landscape was dominated by trees whose leaves were changing into vibrant colors of red, yellow and orange. In the town of Lakeview MA, at 357 Riverside Drive, Grant Paxton laid down across the couch in his den, listening to the mellow sound of Marvin Gaye on his headphones. 60’s music, especially Motown music, was his favorite. At 10 a.m. the phone rang. He did not hear it. His wife picked up on the upstairs phone. She came down the stairs and threw open the door. Seeing this, Grant removed the head phones.
“It’s your brother George,” she yelled.
“O.K., “Grant, lifting the receiver, acknowledged. “I’ll pick it up. Hello,” he said, lifting it to his ear.”
“Grant, it’s George, “his brother said. I am at the Captain’s Hotel. There’s been a murder here.
“No way. I was there last night. It was our class 40th reunion.” Grant was referring to the class of Brighton-Pittston High. Not only was he a 9th and 10th grade history teacher there he was also a graduate.
“So I am told by the hotel management. “ George replied. He was a police homicide detective, rank of lieutenant as well as Grant’s younger brother. “The murdered girl was named Juanita Lopez- do you know her?”
“Yes I do, Grant said. “She was very unpopular and disliked by many, I hate to say this but I don’t think you’ll find too many people upset. Just last night there was an incident between her and another faculty member.”
`` ‘‘I know it is Sunday but we could use your help Grant. Could you come down? The captain told me to bring you on as a consultant again.”
In addition to teaching history in school, Grant wrote murder mysteries in his spare time and was sometimes asked to help the police as a consultant.
Grant agreed and promised he’d be there in a few minutes. He got dressed quickly, hopped into his Honda Civic and after a 25 minute ride arrived at the hotel-again. As he had told his brother he was an attendee last night at his 40th high school reunion. As he pulled into the parking lot he lowered the volume on his car radio, which as always was tuned into Sirius XM satellite radio, the 60’s channel. His favorite Beatles song, A Day in the Life, had been playing-loudly. It seemed a bit like déjà vu as he opened the door and went to the function room where he had been not ten hours earlier. The police, including his brother George were all around.
“Grant, thanks for coming down, “George walked toward him with his hand extended. “Sorry to drag you in on an off day from school,” he said.
“No problem, ‘Grant said “get me up to speed on what happened here.”
George removed his trusty notepad from his breast pocket. “Well it seems like the deceased- Juanita Lopez- was killed between11-11: 30 last night. She was murdered in the bathroom stalls. It looks like asphyxiation but we won’t be sure until the autopsy.”
“I see. You know as fate would have it, she was sitting at the table right next to ours. If only I had paid more attention maybe I could have noticed something important. The truth be told I think we were all relieved that she was somewhere else.
“Yes…you had told me earlier how unpopular she was. Why was that?” George asked.
“I don’t know if there is enough time to detail all the reasons. Let’s just say she started annoying people back in high school 40 years ago and she still hasn’t stopped.”
‘Give me some examples,” George said standing at the ready with his notepad.
“For starters, “Grant began “she must have made a play for everyone’s boyfriend senior year. She was a liar and a cheat but she was also one of the two smartest girls in the school. She was from the wrong side of the tracks, the slang term is trailer park trash. She was built like a bathing beauty back in her hay day, and that made certain people overlook a lot of her flaws. Her negative traits continued beyond high school. She came into a lot of money as two of her three husbands died and left her very well off. She went into a partnership with Darla Pitts from Cosmetology, also an alumnus, when she was trying to open her own salon back in the summer of 1990. That summer, Darla caught her making a play for her husband. Irate, Darla started the long process of legally dissolving the partnership. It took time and lots of lawyers’ fees, not to mention a buyout of Juanita, but it was finally dissolved. Today Darla is the sole owner and during the school year the salon is run by one of Darla’s former students. There is still a lot of bad blood between the girls. Darla hates her guts. The two had an altercation last night as I got here and had to be physically separated. Darla was yelling at her: “You never learn, stay away from my husband or I’ll kill you, you bitch!”
“Well there is our first suspect, George said. “ Any other’s that you can think of?”
‘I could tell you about an even better one if not for the fact that she died about 10 years ago.” Grant replied.
“What are you talking about? “George asked.
“It happened 40 years ago, right here at our senior prom in the hotel ballroom,” Grant began. “There was always a contest to determine the prom queen and king. The winners would get scholarships, though everyone figured the winner on the girls side would be Lisa Lobianco. She was smart as a whip and the prettiest girl in school. About a week before the prom, she had a big fight with her longtime boyfriend Tony Pena and they broke up. The rules of the contest said you had to be entered as a couple to be a winner even though the awards were handed out on an individual basis. This became a problem as Lisa was quiet and shy and dateless for the prom. Despite her great looks, she was a kind of a book worm. To make matters worse, Tony showed up at the prom with- you guessed it- Juanita in tow. Juanita was kind of a rival of Lisa’s. Though she was not the student that Lisa was, Juanita was still quite smart in her own right and probably the second best student in the school. Tony was also intelligent so their chances of both winning were excellent. Both Juanita and Lisa were poor and even though academically they were college material, financially the only way they could get to a good school was by winning the scholarship. The school administration was petitioned to let the well liked stu1dent enter as a solo. They relented, which made Juanita furious.”
“When the prom began witnesses reported seeing Juanita and Lisa having a conversation at the punch bowl. A contestant claimed to have seen Juanita helping a stumbling Lisa stay upright. When the contest began Lisa never appeared when her name was called by the judges for the brief question and answer session. The contest continued and Juanita won.”
“The next Monday at school, Lisa claimed to have been slipped a mickey by Juanita and deposited into one of the girl’s room stalls. She remained there unnoticed until after hours. When she came to she got security to let her out of the building. The matter went to court and even though everyone at school believed her, there was no conviction due to a lack of evidence. No one had actually seen her in the bathroom with Lisa. No one could testify that they saw a stall with a closed stall door for any unusual length of time while in the bathroom. It would not take long to deposit a drugged body in the stalls and get out anyway. The case was mostly circumstantial. The testimony was unsubstantiated and so it became Juanita’s word against Lisa’s with no proof. The trial ended in a hung jury. The prosecution’s case was weak and they knew it. They never retried the case. Juanita kept the scholarship and went onto Boston College. Lisa kind of dropped out of sight. It was said she took a year off. Afterwards, she enrolled in a two year state college but dropped out without completing a full year. Someone said they saw her working as a maid at a hotel they were vacationing in, but I don’t know that for sure.”
“I remember back in middle school days that there was this strange event at your senior prom,” George said. “You said this girl was dead now?”
“Yes, she died before her time on her 51st birthday. She had lived a hard life and it had taken its toll. Had she won that scholarship it might have turned out a lot differently. If she lived she would 1have had the perfect motive but I guess we can scratch her off the list.”
“Did she have any kids? Any brothers or sisters still alive?
“No. I heard that she went into a tailspin after all this and took up with a drug dealer named Tomas. He was arrested and put in prison. He was killed in an altercation with another prisoner. They never had any children. She came from a very small family and they all died young.”
“But, there was another obvious one. Juanita married Tony but he died suddenly in his early thirties. Juanita then had an affair with, and later married her best friend’s (from her college days) husband, the renowned plastic surgeon Niles Jenkins. Her friend’s name was Jayne (with a y-n-e) Hamer and she stopped speaking to Juanita. She had been overheard threatening revenge and bodily harm. Eventually Juanita got tired of him and divorced him and married their gardener. He too died unexpectedly early in the marriage She is currently between husbands.”
“Jayne with a ‘y-n-e’ Hamer “George repeated aloud as he wrote the name of this suspect down. “How do you know all this?”
“Beauty salon gossip. Darla has some clients that know her. She hears it from them, then she tells it to us during hall duty at school. “
“Can you think of anyone else that would want her dead?”
“That’s all I can tell you, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the list is much longer than that. She was pretty much universally hated with good reason. She was an awful person. Not many people are going to shed a tear for her.”
“O.K.,” George said. “What I will need from you is a list of names of anyone you saw last night that knew her. I’d also like the names of the people at her table. I’ll check them out and see if there is reason to suspect them. At this point the only one who actually was heard threatening her with death was Darla Pitts. She’s a Cosmo teacher – that’s at your end of the building.”
“Yes I know the Cosmo teachers well.”
“Good. I’ll come by after school tomorrow and we’ll stop by and question her.
“I’d like to be there, but I have after school homework tomorrow. Come by at 4 o’clock.”
George agreed and then they went their separate ways.
Monday morning at school, the place was abuzz with talk of what happened at the reunion- at least among the faculty. It went by quickly and before you knew it 4 o’clock had arrived. George picked up Grant and off they went to Darla’s.
When they got to Darla’s, Grant rang the doorbell. Grant took a quick glance around and admired the exquisite landscaping- complete with a goldfish pond and beautiful flowers everywhere. Darla answered. Her husband Mitch Pitts, was not at home. He owned a landscaping business, and Grant was sure it was his handiwork on the outside grounds. From the looks of it they had recovered financially from the years of hardship caused by the split with Juanita.
George spoke first. Showing his badge he identified himself and the reason he was there. Having spoken to Darla about it on the phone she was expecting him. Noticing Grant, she commented: “Oh, I didn’t think I’d see you again so soon, Grant. You must be here in your consultant capacity.”
“Yes, that’s right. I didn’t have a chance to tell you at school. You seemed very busy.”
“Lots of supply ordering. We are teaching some new things in the upcoming term and we under estimated the freshmen class size,” she explained. “No matter. Can I get you boys something to drink- ice tea or maybe lemonade? “
“No thank you,” George said. “We just have a few questions about the reunion last night. It won’t take long.”
“The reunion,” she said “let me guess-they’re about Juanita.”
I know you got into an argument with her,” Grant said. “You had to be physically separated and I and others heard you threaten to kill her.”
“That’s right I did, but that’s just something you say when you get hot under the collar. I know I have a bad temper but that bitch was making a play for my husband. She never learns. That’s why our partnership broke up in the first place 20 years ago. I know Grant knows so I’m sure he’s told you all about it George. Dissolving that partnership caused us years of heartbreak. “
“Juanita was murdered about 11:00 to 11:30, according to the coroner,” ‘George jumped in and said. “We have witnesses from your table that say you were not in your seat at around that time. Where were you?”
“I was outside having a cigarette,” Darla replied.
‘I see,’” George said. “Was there anyone else out there with you, anyone who saw you who could corroborate your story?”
“No. Darla said. “I was alone the whole time. Maybe 15-20 minutes.”’
George closed his notebook and got up to go. “We know your anger may have been justified but you still threatened to kill her. I’m afraid I have to ask you to stay in town. Right now you are a suspect.”
‘I suppose I expected that, “Darla said. “For the record, I did not kill her.”
‘We’ll let ourselves out”’ Grant said. “I’m sorry things turned out this way, Darla.”
To George, she said “I hope you know there are lots of people who hate Juanita, who have a reason to want her dead. I hope you’ll be talking with them.”
“I know,” George said turning in the doorway. “I’ve already spoken to some and I have several more I plan to speak to.”
”Goodbye, Darla,” Grant said as the two brothers walked out the door and into George’s car. “I wish circumstances were different, but thank you anyway.”
When they entered the vehicle George turned to Grant and asked: “What do you think?”
“I know what you’re thinking but I have worked with Darla for fifteen years. She has a temper, but she isn’t a murderer.”
‘We still have a long list of people to talk to. Then we should have a better idea.” He switched gears. “Want to join me tomorrow after school. I’ll be questioning from your list. Have you got that by the way?
“Yes here it is, Grant said as he reached into his breast pocket and pulled it out. He handed it to George. Fifteen minutes more and they were back in the school parking lot.
“Call me before you leave to pick me up tomorrow and I’ll meet you outside.” Grant said as he left his brother’s car and got ready to step into his own.
‘Will do,” came the reply and seconds later they were both gone.
Grant’s cell phone rang about 2: 40 the next day. George was on his way. Grant began the long walk from his room to the front door. A couple of minutes later, George arrived. They visited the homes of the seven others who sat at Juanita’s table and questioned them. They all seemed to be each other’s alibi as they were at the table at the time of the murder. They all reported Juanita going to the bathroom at about 11:00. No one saw her again after that, but everyone assumed she had ditched her table for someplace more to her liking. When they finished with the last one on the list, George looked at his watch. “It’s 7: 45,’ he announced. “‘ I am hungry. Do you want to get a bite to eat?”
“O.K.,” Grant replied. “Just let me call home first.” Grant phoned his wife and told her he’d be a little late returning. As he hung up the phone George pulled his notebook out of his pocket and leaved through it.
“Well, I don’t think we found our murderer tonight” he said “What do you think?”
“I agree” Grant responded.
Still looking at his notebook he said: “The only person so far without an alibi is your friend Darla Pitts. Plus she threatened the victim.’
Annoyed, Grant could not help but comment. “It’s the twenty- first century. Don’t you think it’s high time you turned in your notebook for, say, a tape recorder? You look like Dick Tracy or Sherlock Holmes with that blasted notebook of yours!”
“Hey,” he answered, “don’t tell me how to do my job, big brother. I find it the quickest way to access information.” Looming ahead he saw the restaurant he was looking for coming up. “Grant, would this be O.K. for dinner? I am dying for a nice, juicy steak.”
“Sure, that will do just fine, Mr. Outdated, “he said.
After dinner George dropped him off at his car in the school parking lot. “Hey, Grant,” he said “tomorrow I plan on interviewing the jilted wife of the plastic surgeon, Jayne Hamer. Want to come?”
“O.K,” Grant replied “I can get out on time tomorrow. Just call me before like you did today and I will meet you.”
In school the next day, Grant was giving his classes a test. This made the day go by slowly and his mind wandered to the murder case. If this next suspect wasn’t the one, Grant felt they’d be right back at square one. Darla may not have an alibi, and may have been overheard making threats but that hardly makes her guilty. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the shrill sound of the 2:15 bell, marking the end of the day. Grant stood outside his room for hall duty with the other teachers, then went back inside and performed the same routine that he had done for every one of his sixteen years at the school. He went around the room picking up any papers from the floor and lining the desks up. Then his cell phone rang. It was George –he’d be there shortly. Grant grabbed the tests, put them into his bag and began the long walk toward the front door. George was just pulling up as he got out. He hopped in and off they went.
“The toxicology report came back today.” George informed his brother as he entered the car. “It was death by asphyxiation. There were trace amounts of ammonia and bleach in the victim’s lungs. She probably was forced to inhale this by a cloth or rag soaked with the stuff and then placed over the mouth. They were slight abrasions near the mouth that indicated a struggle.”
“Those two things are common cleaning items .Anyone could easily get access to those,” Grant replied.
‘Yes,” George agreed. “They certainly don’t help us solve this case. “ When they arrived at their destination George announced: “Well, here we are, at Jayne Hamer’s place. I did a little research on her before I picked you up,” he said to his brother. “After losing her husband to Juanita twenty years ago, she never remarried. She gets a hefty amount of alimony, kept the house and has lived here ever since. She even gets plastic surgery touch ups at no charge! Her lawyer really did a number on Mr. Jenkins. About the only thing she didn’t get was his name. She went back to her maiden name. “ By now they were at the front door. George rang the doorbell. Before it was answered he quickly added. : “I also found out something- I don’t want you to be taken aback- Jayne Hamer is in a wheelchair.” Grant had noticed the disability ramp to the deck. The door was opened by the lady of the house.
“Ms. Hamer?’ George said as the door opened. It revealed a very young looking woman in a wheelchair. Though she must have been pushing 60, she did not look a day over 40. The plastic surgery touch ups had been paying off.
“I’m Ms. Hamer,” she said. “Can I help you?” George showed him his badge, identified himself and his brother and then they were invited in. “Oh yes, “she exclaimed “I was expecting you. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Can I get you boys anything?”
“No thank you” the almost simultaneous response came from the two men.
“We just have a few questions for you,” George said.
“Alright,” she responded while maneuvering her wheelchair a bit closer. “Go ahead.”
“Ms. Hamer I am sure you’ve heard about Juanita Lopez, “he began.
“Yes,” she said. “It was on the TV and in all the papers. I guess she finally crossed the wrong person.”
“We are aware of your history with Juanita Lopez” Grant said.
“History,” she chuckled. “I call it betrayal. She was my best friend in college but she stole my husband. He left me for her, got a divorce and the two of them were married. Juanita had done this kind of thing her whole life dating back to high school. Many people hated her. She had a beautiful figure and was oozing with sexuality. She could get any guy she set her sights on and it didn’t matter if they were spoken for or not. She was wicked.”
“You certainly had reason to want revenge” George said.
“You haven’t even heard the whole story yet. After the final meeting with the lawyers at which the divorce was finalized, I was very distraught. Driving home in pouring rain, I was not paying attention like I should have. I crashed my car into a telephone pole and lost the use of my legs. I was paralyzed from the waist down.”
There followed an awkward moment of silence with no one knowing what to say. Finally, Grant spoke up; “I am very sorry, Ms. Hamer.”
“You can see why I hate that woman with a passion,’ she said.
“I still have to ask you…” George chimed in. “I’ve spent all morning talking to your friends and neighbors. Many of them heard you threatening physical harm to Juanita. Is this true?
“Under the circumstances I think most people in my situation would have wanted a piece of her, I did threaten her. No, I never followed through on it, and I certainly did not kill her.”
“Ms. Hamer, I have one more question, “Grant said quietly. “Where were you last Saturday night, October 29, between 11:00 -11:30?”
‘”I was fast asleep in bed,” she replied. “We had a yard sale that day which we had to move into the garage because of rain. This was pretty exhausting work. Everyone involved turned in early. We needed a good night’s rest because we’d have to clean out the garage the next day.”
“Is there any one that can back up your story?” George asked.
‘I can assure you I was quite alone in my bedroom. I’ve gotten used to sleeping that way. Well, that’s not entirely true. It was only me and my dog Trigger.”
With that response George rose to his feet. “Thank you, Ms. Hamer that will be all. Please don’t leave town in case we need to talk you some more.”
“Good day, Ms. Hamer,” Grant added. Then he followed his brother out.
As the two brother’s rode back they discussed the case.
“This lady certainly had a motive,” George began. ‘”but there are other things that don’t fit. The wheelchair makes it very difficult to pull off. A couple of the neighbors I spoke with told me they recalled seeing her car in the driveway about 11; 00 as they locked up. This
backs up her version. The only person so far with the motive and opportunity – I know you don’t want to hear this –is Darla Pitts.”
“That may be true,” Grant shot back “but that doesn’t mean she did it. I have an idea that might get us some useful information, but I’ve gotta do this one alone.”
“Now, Grant don’t go doing any unauthorized snooping that is going to get you into trouble again. Last time the captain was so angry I almost couldn’t get you for this case. I really had to stick my neck out for you.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll behave. It’s just that if my hunch is correct, I think the people I’ll be talking with would open up more to a high school teacher than a cop.’”
“Alright, Grant, we’ll play it your way but remember no funny stuff, just play it straight.”kDuring an earlier case Grant, acting on his own, had tried to bluff his way into some formation. That did not sit well with the department and almost cost him his consultant’s job. “I promise, little brother”’ Grant said as he left George’s car and got into his own. “Cross my heart.”
Grant got into his Honda Civic and turned on Sirius radio. He knew they needed some kind of a breakthrough on this case and if his hunch played out he was confident they would get it. He drove home to the smooth, self- assured sound of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The clock radio alarm went off at 6: 00 a.m. sharp. It was preset to the oldies station. Sonny and Cher’s Baby Don’t Go was playing. From under the bedcovers, Grant’s outstretched hand reached over and shut it off. He got out of bed and dragged his half-asleep body into the shower. He was not going to school today, having put in for a personal day. Instead, he had decided to attend the funeral of Juanita Lopez. He would probably be one of only a few people there, her parents being dead and having no siblings. Friends of Juanita’s were hard to find, but he was only looking for one. Juanita had only one close friend in high school. A girl from the same trailer park, Maria Garcia. Grant had forgotten completely about her until yesterday. Maria was easily forgettable. She was the exact opposite of Juanita. Quiet as a church mouse, she sort of blended into the woodwork. She was in biology class with Grant one day when their regular lab partners were out, they teamed up and dissected a pig. Grant wondered if she would remember. He hadn’t until just now.
Grant arrived at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church at 9:45 for a 10:00 funeral mass. Just 15 minutes before the start there were only 2 people there. They were sitting at opposite ends of the church, each in the front row. On the left side was someone who looked unfamiliar to Grant, who had a good eye for faces. She was a middle aged woman, possibly a neighbor. He did not know her. Her head was covered by a kerchief. Even though the temperature was in the 40’s, her face was hidden by a purple scarf she had wrapped around it. She also had on dark glasses. Whoever she was, it seemed like she didn’t want to be recognized. On the other side of the church, also in the front seat was someone that looked older but recognizable to Grant. It was Maria Garcia. Grant’s hunch had been correct. He approached her pew.
“Excuse me,” he said “but I think you went to my high school. “Are you Maria Garcia?”
She looked at him but could not quite place the face. “Yes, I am Maria Garcia,” she said. ”Who are you?”
“I am Grant Paxton,” he said.
“Oh Grant,” she said breaking into a smile. “Yes, of course, I see it now. It’s just that you look so different than the last time I saw you.”
“I have changed a lot in the last 40 years,” he said. “May I sit here?” he asked.
“Certainly,’ she said, moving down to make room. “I wish we were meeting under more pleasant circumstances.”
“Yes, this is terrible. I know how close you two used to be .It must be a terrible loss.”
“We sort of drifted apart over the years, but it still hurts a lot.”
Just then the priest came in and started the mass.
“I’ll shut up now. We can talk more later,” Grant said.
They both remained quiet for the rest of the funeral. When it was over, Grant asked Maria: “Are you following the hearse to the cemetery?”
‘I was planning to,” she answered.
“Me too, so why don’t we take my car and go together. Its right outside this side door,” he said, pointing to a nearby door. “I’ll bring you back here afterwards.”
Maria agreed and they both got to Grant’s Civic and went to St. Luke’s Cemetery for the brief gravesite service which ended the funeral.
As the ceremony ended and they began walking to the car, Grant asked: “Maria do you have to run off right away? “
“I was going to, but I don’t have to,” she said.
“I don’t know about you,” Grant said, “but I am hungry. There is a little restaurant right across the street from the church. Let’s have lunch. I’ll treat,” he offered.
Maria hesitated, mulling the offer over. Finally she replied. “O.K.,” she said. “I’ve got no one at home waiting for me, why not? I accept,” she said.
The two spent lunch catching each other up on what had happened to them. Grant told Maria that after graduating from UMass he was hired by the neighboring town of Silver City. He was still teaching at that same vocational high school, their alma-mater, Bedford-Pittston Regional Technical. The name was derived from the two counties that sent students there. Grant was an academic rather than a vocational teacher, teaching 9th and 10th grade history. Shortly after starting his career he met a local girl, Joan Stanton. She worked in the office at the Lakeview High School in their town. They dated for one year and then were married. They had 2 children, a boy and a girl. The boy, Greg is the oldest by three years. He is currently a meteorologist in the Seattle area. The girl, Janine, 27, is a social worker locally. They currently have one boy each, making Grant a proud grandfather.
Maria had less to tell. She did not go to college, never married and still lived in the very same trailer park. Best friends in high school, she and Juanita drifted apart in the years that followed. Eventually a girl from college, Jayne Hamer became her new best friend. Maria gradually developed a close relationship with someone who had been in the very same trailer park all along. She was befriending Lisa Lobianco.
“Really,” Grant asked? “I knew her a little in high school but she changed after the prom incident. We lost touch with her. Whatever became of her?”
Maria paused as if she was about to say something she shouldn’t. She continued. “Lisa didn’t go to college after senior year. She took the year off. She got involved with a guy named Tomas Martinez. He was a bad guy. She never would have gotten involved with a guy like that before the prom incident. It changed her. Martinez was a drug dealer. Eventually he was caught and went to prison. He died there, killed by another prisoner in a fight.”
“I had heard that. The next year I heard she dropped out of a 2 year school but then we don’t know much else.”
“I do, “Maria said. “ She confided in me about a lot of things. After school she got a job as a maid at a local hotel but it didn’t last long. She died of cancer about 10, 11 years ago.
What a tragedy. She was so smart and had so much promise and look how she ended up. That one night at the prom changed everything.”
“Yes, it’s a shame. Everyone liked Lisa. Had this happened to Juanita, God rest her soul, I am sure nobody would have cared.”
“I know we were friendly once, but she was a wicked person.”
“Maria, I didn’t tell you this but I am a consultant for the police department. I didn’t want you to think I was using you for information. I am working on Juanita’s case. We are almost at a dead end. I wonder if you know of anyone who might want to see her dead?”
Maria paused, surprised by the news. She said nothing for several seconds before answering as if she was deciding whether to answer or not. “If I can be of any help, I will. I would like Juanita’s killer brought to justice,” she finally said. “But Juanita wronged so many people, the list is long.”
“Tell me who’s on your list. We may have already checked them out.”
The four names she gave had indeed already been checked out. Grant was hoping for a new lead. “These people have all given statements and are no longer suspects. Think really hard, Maria,” Grant said. “Can you think of anyone who might be holding a grudge against Juanita?”
She took another long pause and drew in a deep, breath. Exhaling, she said “There is someone, but it is a long story, one I swore to Lisa I would never tell, but there is a murderer to be caught and if this helps catch the killer, I feel I should just tell you.”
“A promise you made to Lisa LoBianco? How does that have anything to do with Juanita’s death?”
‘I will tell you,” Maria said “but you must let me finish.”
“O.K.,” Grant said. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
She did. “You must go back to the time of the senior prom. Lisa never recovered from what happened that night. It changed her completely. She did a 180. She had always been a shy, nice girl. Now she suddenly became flirtatious and started hanging out with a bad crowd. She met Tomas Martinez, a bad person. He was a drug dealer who was eventually arrested, charged and convicted. He went to prison in Wallboro, MA. Before he did though….” She suddenly stopped in mid-sentence.
“What is it?” Grant asked.
“I am about to tell you something I have never told another soul. I am breaking a promise that I have kept all these years. But Lisa is dead now and we must catch Juanita’s killer. “Yes, I will tell you,” she said as if she was struggling to convince herself this was the right thing. “Before going to prison, Tomas got Maria pregnant. But that is not the big secret. Lisa s parents were fanatically religious. They were Roman Catholic and very old fashioned. The thought of their only daughter becoming pregnant was humiliating. Abortion was out of the question, but so too was letting Maria keep this baby, especially when the father was such a low life loser. Lisa’s father had dominated her for her entire life He had a forceful personality. He decided that Lisa would give birth to the baby, but would have to give it up. Having a brother that was a priest, strings were pulled and arrangements made for the baby to go to a Catholic orphanage named St, Bartholomew’s Home, in Pittston Mills. In its’ heyday “St. Bart’s” was the largest Catholic orphanage in Southeastern Massachusetts. Now it was in decline. Lisa objected but what could she do? She had no place to go and she had no job at this time. It was her father who pulled her out of circulation and again with his brother’s help sent Lisa to a convent until she had the baby. That’s what she was doing her year “off” from college.”
“Lisa gave birth to a baby girl. It was adopted by a middle class childless couple soon afterwards. The adoption records were sealed but Lisa learned this by working at the orphanage as a maid and befriending the mother superior who confessed to her that her baby Elizabeth was adopted by a childless couple from the Neto family. They were fairly well off. As fate would have it 20 years later, that very same mother superior was dying of cancer and was taken in by the Neto family that had adopted Elizabeth with mother superior’s help all those years ago. The orphanage closed its doors and was torn down. On her deathbed, she told Elizabeth, whose adopted parents had already told her she was adopted, who her real mother was. By this time Lisa was sick with the cancer that would ultimately take her life. Elizabeth sought out her birth mother and the two had a close relationship for Lisa’s last year. She told me they discussed everything, including how prom night had changed her life. Her daughter hated what Juanita had done to her and blamed her for relegating Lisa to a harsh life. After Lisa’s death she had vowed to make things right. I never met her, but I think this woman would have reason to want to kill Juanita.”
“I can’t believe it,” Grant said, shocked. “Lisa has a daughter. Incredible! This is certainly a person of interest to the police. We’ll definitely want to talk to her. Thank you, Maria.”
“I can only hope that Lisa forgives me for breaking my promise. Juanita did a lot of wicked things but she never killed anyone. She didn’t deserve what happened to her-not like that. If this girl didn’t do it – I’d like it if as few people as possible know of this- especially Lisa’s friends.”
“I give you my word, if she is innocent, no one of Lisa’s friends will hear this from me,” Grant promised.
Grant paid for the check. They left the restaurant, then said their goodbyes as each went to their own car; Grant’s right in front of the restaurant and Maria’s across the street in front of the church. Grant called up his brother before even starting the car. There was a lot to tell.
Grant gave his brother a quick summary of what he had learned. If necessary they would go to the offices of the diocese of Pittston Mills for copies of the adoption records, but for now they knew the name of the adopting family from Maria and they were known in the community. The mother had just recently retired from a catering business, Neto Catering, and turned it over to her adopted daughter Elizabeth. The father had a cleaning business that specialized in cleaning banks and other businesses after hours. It was called Nite-Brite Cleaning. They had both made local commercials which featured their daughter, Elizabeth. It would be easy to find their address and phone number and arrange for Elizabeth to be interviewed. It was agreed-George would set it up and when school was over the next day, he would be joined by Grant. They would question her together. George would phone in the final details to Grant. So there was nothing left to do now but wait. Grant would not find that easy.
The next day at 2:56 on the digital car clock, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was playing on Sirius as Grant pulled his Honda Civic into the police station parking lot. George had told him to meet him here in the interrogation room after school. Grant hurried upstairs and threw open the door. Seated at one side of the table was his brother George. On the other side sat an attractive middle age lady with brown hair and piercing brown eyes. It was Elizabeth. Grant instantly knew this must be Lisa Lobianco’s daughter. There was no denying the resemblance, they both looked up at him and George spoke.
“Oh, Grant you are right on time .We just got settled in. Mrs. Reichart- did I pronounce that right?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s correct. It sounds out as Ri-kart,” She sounded it out phonetically.
Grant continued. “Mrs. Reichart, meet Mr. Paxton, a police consultant assisting me on this case.”
She instantly remembered that George had the same last name. “Oh, you have the same last name as detective Paxton,” she said. “Are you two related?”
“We are brothers, Mrs. Reichart.” Grant said.
“Yes I can see that you look alike, “she said
“Grant,” George said. “can I talk to you outside in the hall for a second? Excuse me,” he said to Mrs. Reichart.
Once they were in the hall, George closed the door. Out of earshot, he now spoke freely. “Before we get started Grant, I should tell you what I learned this morning. “I spoke to the Netos. They confirmed that this girl was their adopted, not biological daughter. They do not know the mother’s identity. They told me those records were sealed by the orphanage. That means if they still exist, we will have to try the Diocese office as that orphanage closed and burnt down years later. When she reached a certain age they had agreed to tell her this.”
Anyway, because Maria told us who the mother is I looked up her last known address and went by. It was an apartment house. The landlady said that someone paid her weekly visits. I showed her Elizabeth’s picture and she said that was her. At some point, Lisa told her that this was her daughter. With the secret out of the bag that last year there was no more reason for secrecy. Every first day of the new month of that last year, five thousand dollars was deposited into Maria’s bank account. Now where do you think that came from?” he asked mockingly. “Years ago, Elizabeth Neto married Tim Reichart of Reichart Foods. That explains the last name. Between her business and her husband’s, she’s loaded.”
Reichart Foods!” exclaimed Grant, “what a small world! They have the food contract and run the cafeteria at the school! “
‘O.K, O.K., let’s go back inside,” he said. “Remember don’t tip your hand too much, yet”
When they got in the room, George spoke first. “Mrs. Reichart, we are investigating the murder of one Juanita Lopez. She was murdered at the Captain’s Hotel somewhere between 11-11:30 P.M. Your company has the catering contract with this hotel. As the owner, do you ever appear at these functions to sort of oversee things?”
“Never to oversee things. I have an excellent function manager and I have the utmost confidence in her. I let her do her job just as the previous owner had let me do the same job when I was the manager prior to buying the company. Changing the subject, she said “it is so bright in here, I’m recovering from an eye infection and I am very light sensitive. Do you mind if I put on these sunglasses?”
“‘I suppose that’s O.K., “George said. “ Take a look at this picture. It was taken by a photographer who snapped as shot of every table and these photos were available for purchase later. Take a look at this one, table 8. Look at the woman I have circled with a marker. That is Juanita Lopez. Do you recognize her?”
Elizabeth grabbed the picture. “I know I never met this person, but I will look anyway,” she said. She studied it carefully. While she did that, Grant also studied her carefully. The sunglasses had triggered something in his memory. This woman was familiar, he had seen her before-but where? Elizabeth returned the photos claiming she had not seen Juanita before.
“Ms. Reichart, we spoke to your parents, the Netos. They told us that you are aware of your adopted status.”
“Yes that’s right, they were very up front about that. I have known since I was a teenager.”
“Mrs. Reichart,” he continued “do you know who your birth mother is and have you ever tried to contact her?”
“The adoption records were sealed by the Catholic orphanage that took me in as a baby.”
‘Mrs. Reichart,” George said. “we know your record is sealed but we have information that you know who your real mother is and have contacted her. We can seek a court order try to get these records and if that doesn’t work a court ordered DNA test will tell us what we want to know. So you see one way or the other we will find out. It will be so much easier on everyone if you’d just tell us, we would not ask if it weren’t important to the case.”
Elizabeth thought it over for a few seconds. Seeing it was hopeless to deny it, she told the truth. “Yes I do know my real mother’s identity. A nun who used to work at the orphanage told me. At first I was not interested, but later on when I got married and started a family, I thought differently. I had to hire a private detective and it took some time, but I was finally able to track her down. Unfortunately she died of cancer a year later.”
‘‘Did your mother ever speak to you about her high school days?’ Grant continued.
“Yes she told me about many things.”
“Did she ever talk about what happened at the senior prom?”
‘Yes, I know about that night and what Juanita did to her. I never met her though and I know nothing about her murder.’’
“Mrs. Reichart,” George said. “One final question- last Saturday, can you remember where you were between 11- and 11:30 that night. “
“The kids both had sleepovers and my husband was out of town on business. I was alone at home.”
George flipped his note pad closed. “I see,” he replied.
“I have no alibi, does that make me a suspect?” she asked.
“We are still investigating,” George replied. “For now, just don’t leave town and please make yourself available for future questioning should the need arise. You’re free to go.”
“O. K. Lieutenant,” she answered.
Pavao, 31 Grant had been racking his brain trying to figure out where he had seen her before. Suddenly, it dawned on him. This was the waitress at their table, 7, and table 8 last Saturday night. She had the sunglasses on then as well. He remembered thinking how odd that was- sunglasses at night. He could hardly contain himself. As soon as she was out of earshot, he told his brother. His wheels were turning rapidly. Placing her at the crime scene changed everything. Tomorrow, George said he would speak to the caterers. This was a promising lead.
As lunch turned into early Saturday afternoon, Grant was relaxing in his den. He was about to play a Temptations’ album on his CD player when his when his cellphone went off. It was George.
“You were right Grant,” he said. “It seems that Elizabeth Reichart was less than truthful. I am on my way back from the Captain’s Hotel. I just finished talking with the caterers from last Saturday. To a man, or woman as the case may be, the catering staff from the reunion confirmed that Elizabeth actually worked as a waitress that night. They claimed she did this from time to time whenever they were shorthanded, which was the case this night.
“I knew it!” ‘exclaimed an excited Grant.
“Yes,” George said, “she worked despite an eye infection, which is why she wore the sunglasses. But there’s more. The time of the murder; 11:00-11; 30. No one recalls seeing her- not unusual say the staff. Whenever she helped out like this, she never stayed to cleanup, leaving that task to the hired help. The last of the dessert was served at about 10:30, they said.
Then, finally, coffee or tea. That would give her the time to commit the murder. We already know she had the motive. What we still don’t know is how she did it.”
‘We’ll have to put our nose to the grindstone on this,” Grant said.”
“Yeah,” George agreed. “and two noses are better than one. I know its Saturday but can you come down to the police station and we can kick this around together?”
“I am on my way,” Grant answered. “I’ll be there shortly.”
It was 11:00a.m, when Grant walked into police headquarters and met his brother. George suggested they talk in one of the empty interrogation rooms. Once there, they sat down and George spoke.
“We have a suspect that had the motive- revenge for the ruining of her mother’s life- and the opportunity- she was at the hotel and no one can vouch for her whereabouts at the time of the murder. Plus she told us an apparent lie as to where she was.”
“We know what the murder weapon was, even though we don’t possess it. Still, how did she attack the victim sight unseen?” Grant added.
“Let’s put a timeline together. “ George suggested. “The last time Elizabeth was seen was about 10: 45 when they served the coffee and tea after dessert.”
Grant thought for a moment. “George,” he said” look through that trusty notebook of yours. About 11:00, when Juanita excused herself to go to the bathroom-what did she say?”
George leafed through his notebook. “This is strange, everyone reports her saying the same thing. She is complaining about a stomachache and that she has to go at once. A couple of people claim she said her eyes were rolling.”
“O.K., stay with me for a moment,” asked Grant. “Suppose Elizabeth slipped something into Juanita’s final drink-maybe a diuretic. That would ensure she would go to the bathroom, which is exactly where Elizabeth wanted her.”
“Wait a minute ,” George said, “ let me check something in this notebook- yes here it is- two people tried to go to the women’s bathroom at 11:15 only to have to come back because the yellow sign saying the floor was wet was outside a closed bathroom door.. They assumed the cleaners were in there cleaning and came back to the table. What if it wasn’t them? What if that was Elizabeth in there committing the murder?”
“O.K’ Grant responded, “but where did that sign come from? Plus there is still the matter of how she disposed of the ammonia and bleach, not to mention the soaked rag.”
“Yeah, that’s a puzzler, Grant. Our forensic guys went through the place with a fine tooth comb and didn’t find anything- no ammonia or bleach bottles, no soaked rag, nothing.”
“If she had access to the yellow sign, maybe she had access to where the cleaning staff stored their supplies. These items are common, I’m sure they were in there. Maybe she used theirs and replaced them when she was done. Assuming she had gloves, dusting for prints won’t help. Maybe we can find out which of the cleaners has a key to the storage room. Maybe one of them noticed something out of place. It’s a long shot but it’s worth a try.”
“What about the rag?” George asked. ‘’She obviously disposed of the soaked rag, the murder weapon, but how? It was not left behind.”
“Well if I was the murderer, and I was a woman, I would have stuffed it in my purse and then discarded it at home. There would probably be trace elements left behind, not to mention a terrific odor. A smart person would have thrown that pocketbook away. If she cannot produce it that may be another tell.”
‘I’ll talk to the cleaners who were on duty that night,” George said. “Then our next step should be obvious.”
“Yes,” Grant agreed. “We may have to make a move. I’ve got to go, George. Call me after you’ve spoken to the cleaners. If you bring Elizabeth in, I’d like to be here.
“O.K.,” George said. “I’ll be in touch.”
Grant left with a feeling that it would not be long now.
The next day at 2; 30, Grant headed back to the police station. George had spent the morning speaking with the cleaning staff at the Captain’s Hotel. He had found out some new and important information to the case. He had asked that his brother get there one-half hour before Elizabeth Reichart’s scheduled second round of questioning at 3:00. When Grant arrived, he was updated by his brother.
Just as they were finishing their talk, Elizabeth strode in. She sat down on one side of the table, while the brothers sat on the other side.
Both stood up as she entered the room. George spoke. “Thank you for coming down on a Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Reichart,” he said. ”We have a few more questions to ask you.”
“Anything I can do to help,” she said.
‘Please sit down, “George said. “Mr. Paxton is assisting again,” he said pointing to his brother. Grant smiled and nodded. “Mrs. Reichart,” George began “the last time you were here you told us you were at home the night of the murders. It is easily checked. The catering staff all said you worked that night. The pay records for your company will show that in writing.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “I remembered after I left. I have a notoriously bad memory. I believe I told you that the children both had sleepovers and I was home alone. That was the Saturday before. I apologize. I’m afraid I have a poor memory. Just ask anyone.”
“I’d call it epically bad, “Grant chimed in “When we asked you it was only the week before!”
“Let’s move forward. “George said. ‘You didn’t tell us that on the night in question, Saturday Oct 29th, you were in charge of both the catering and the cleaning staffs. Your husband’s company has the cleaning contract with the very same hotel and he did not appear there.”
“That’s correct.” Elizabeth replied. “To be fair, lieutenant, you never asked me.”
‘Touché” George said. “You have a point.”
“Sometimes when both our companies are working at the same place, only one of us will come in, but not both. The one who comes in is responsible for both companies.”
,‘” I see, “Grant cut in. “ when you do this , like you did on the evening of Oct.29,I assume you have access to the rooms which the Nite- Brite people normally use for their cleaning supplies.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Reichart said. “I have a key to the storage room on those nights” she confirmed. But I usually don’t go into that room. There is no need.”
“Does that house the utility carts with the cleaning supplies on them?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Reichart. ‘I thought we were here to talk about the caterers.”
“Patience. We are here to discuss what happened at the reunion. Both companies interacted with it,” Grant said. “Mrs. .Reichart,” he continued, “do you know what happens when you mix ammonia and bleach?” he asked.”
“I am a caterer, not a chemist,” she answered sarcastically.
“‘The interaction between the two causes a toxic reaction,” Grant explained. If inhaled in sufficient quantity the fumes from this blend can be fatal. It is what the coroner says killed Juanita Lopez.”
“I see, “Elizabeth said.
“Mrs. Reichart,” George piped up, “do the cleaners utility carts carry ammonia and bleach on them?’
“My husband would be a better person to ask, but these are common cleaning items. I have seen these utility carts enough over the years to say that the answer is yes.”
“I spoke to the cleaning staff earlier today and you are correct,” George said. “I had the opportunity to speak to the head custodian, a Mr. Morelli. He told me he has had this job for the last six years. Do you know him?”
“Oh my, yes,” Elizabeth said. “Mario‘s quite a character. He is an excellent worker. My husband thinks very highly of him.”
“It sounds like you know what I am going to say about him. In speaking with everyone about him, and he says this too, he is known for being extremely meticulous --almost excessively compulsive.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said with a chuckle. “He has the nickname ‘Meticulous Mario’ because of his behavior.”
“Well. I talked with Mr. Morelli and he was adamant that someone had used his utility cart that night after he put it away. He had to leave at about 11:00 to pick up his daughter at the airport, so he returned his cart early. When he picked it up the next day, the ammonia and bleach bottles had been switched around. The ammonia was always on the top shelf of the cart and the bleach underneath but the next day, it was the other way around.”
‘Oh, really?” Elizabeth said sheepishly.
“Mrs. Reichart,” George said. “I have a tape I’d like you to watch. It’s the front door security tape from the night of the murder. He grabbed the tape from the table, where it hand been lying inconspicuously. He popped it into the VCR and pressed play ‘It’s an old taping system but it will serve our purpose, “he said. “Here” he stopped the tape. “Here you are entering the building. You are wearing a lovely flowered dress complete with a matching purse. Very nice. Look at the timestamp, Mrs. Reichart, in the upper right hand corner of the screen. You arrived at 6:38. Now let me advance this.’’ He fast forwarded it until he found her leaving the building and then paused on that frame. “Here you are leaving the building, Mrs. Reichart. Notice the time stamp, 11:55. Your catering staff-- they all told me--that whenever you helped out by serving, you never clean up and left on this night right after the final coffee was served. That was about 10:45 which means it should have been done by 11:00 at the latest. You left almost one hour later. What were you doing all that time, Mrs. Reichart?”
“I don’t recall,” she said, “there are always things to do at the end.”
“Not for you. According to your staff, you just throw your apron in the dirty clothes and leave. On nights like this, your manager settles up with the client. There is nothing for you to do. The staff does the clean-up.”
“I don’t think I like your tone, lieutenant.”
“Mrs. Reichart,” Grant said. “I only have a couple of more questions. Those folding yellow signs that all cleaners have-they say wet floor on one side in English and in Spanish on the other. Were these signs also kept in the storage room?”
“Yes, they are.”
“I’d like you to take a look at the security tape of you exiting the building. Mrs. Reichart, the killer would have to dispose of the murder weapon- most likely a rag or cloth soaked with bleach and ammonia. None was ever found inside. The killer must have brought it out and then disposed of it-maybe in a purse? Do you have the purse from this video?”
“I did not kill Juanita Lopez. I resent the implication! As fate would have it I have misplaced that purse. That night was the last time I saw it. If you have any more questions they will have to wait until I can get my attorney in here.”
“O.K., but let me tell you how we think it happened’ “George said. “At 11:00 you stole away to the storage room and brought the cart and the wet floor sign to the bathroom where Juanita was dealing with the effects of the diuretic you slipped in her coffee. You mixed the ammonia and bleach on a rag and killed Juanita. You surprised her and suffocated her while she sat in the bathroom stall. Then you returned the yellow sign which you had placed outside the door to keep people away from the bathroom. You also returned the cart but switched the shelves for the ammonia and bleach. Maybe that wouldn’t have been such a big deal but this cart belonged to Mr. Morelli and he certainly would notice. Then you had to deal with the murder weapon. You stuffed the rag into your purse and got rid of purse and rag when you got home. Am I right?”
‘‘I told you, I am not saying another word without my attorney present.’’
“That’s advisable because,” George got up and clamped his handcuffs on her, “you are under arrest for the murder of Juanita Lopez.” He proceeded to read her her Miranda rights. Then he took her downstairs to book her. Grant waited there for him to return, then the two brothers went out for a well-deserved steak dinner.
Grant sat alone in his room correcting papers, the following day after school. He chuckled as he came across multiple choice question 22. It said: What was the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion? What he was laughing at was the gag choice he had put down for option c. It read: Wade v Boggs. The correct answer was option a: Roe v Wade. Wade Boggs was one of the great Red Sox hitters of all time, but c. was not the answer. It never ceased to amaze and amuse him how many students opted for this answer.
After finishing that paper, Grant took a break. The clock on the wall read 3:30. Most of the teachers would be gone by now. He walked over to his computer and turned on the smart board. He felt like hearing some Otis Redding. He punched in Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay video. He blanked out the screen so all you could do was hear the sound. He locked the door to his room and returned to his desk. No sooner had he sat down than he heard a knock on the door. Opening it revealed his brother George on the other side.
“Hello, Grant,” George said. “I know I promised to call but I’ve been busy all day. I finally had some free time so I thought I’d come by and surprise you with an update on the case.”
“I thought you had forgotten about me,” Grant said. “What have you got?”
“Well the DA says we have a good case. We can show motive and opportunity. We don’t have a murder weapon but we have test results that determine what killed her. She had access to the closet housing the items in question, and we’ve got a reliable witness to show that someone moved a utility cart with the murder weapons on them. The fact that she cannot produce the purse, which could exonerate her if she was innocent, hurts her. He thinks he can get a conviction.”
“That’s great,” Grant said. “I guess you can chalk up another case solved by the Paxton brothers.”
“All kidding aside, Grant, I think we make a good team. I think you may have found a niche to occupy you in your retirement years. By the way, what are your plans for retirement?”
“I figure another year or two of teaching. Then I’d like to write full time. But that remains to be seen. Am I good enough? So far I I’ve had only one novel accepted. We’ll have to see how that goes before I commit to any police work.”
“Well, we could sure use the help down at the station. When it comes to solving crime, you are a real natural. Whether you write murder mysteries or solve them I ‘m sure you will do fine. I’ve gotta go now. Goodbye, Grant.” he said, and slipped out the door.
Grant got back to his corrections. It looked like another hour’s work. It would definitely be a late one tonight. As he finished the next paper he paused and let his mind wander ahead. What would the future hold for him? Time would tell. As he started the next student’s paper he noticed that the song A Day in the Life by the Beatles, his favorite, was playing on the smart board. Maybe that was a good omen.
Grant Paxton Mysteries: