Clear as Glass
An Emma Twiggs Mystery
Tamara Arnold’s eyes widened behind her vintage designer glasses. “Nathan will be arrested if he comes out of hiding!”
Emma Twiggs, seated on the sofa to the left of Galveston Investigations’ anxious client, shifted her gaze to her private detective nephew’s cheerless face.
“If you want my help, I need details, not emotional impressions,” James Galveston said, in a voice that held more than a trace of reluctance. “Why do the police think your husband murdered Harold Smythefield?”
Tamara flinched. “Because he was at Harold’s office Sunday—yesterday. And because Harold represented him the last time he was in trouble with the law, and Nathan got convicted.”
While Tamara talked, Emma jotted pertinent impressions in her notebook. Before her vacation, her nephew, with his clients’ consent, had begun filming his interviews. The digital camera system, concealed inside a custom-designed cabinet, was now recording their conversation in both audio and video, but Emma still liked to take written notes. In her opinion, a trained sleuth during a live session could observe body language and listen for nuances in vocal inflection better than any recording.
Jim said, “You mentioned eye witnesses to the murder?”
Emma frowned at the unusual testiness in his tone.
“Harold Smythefield’s wife, Ginger, and his legal assistant, Patricia Ryan.” Tamara’s lashes fluttered behind the glasses, and her gaze shifted from Jim to Emma and back again. “Ginger Smythefield says she saw Nathan kill Harold, but she couldn’t have, because he didn’t.”
“Does he have an alibi?” Jim asked.
“No. That’s why he’s gone into hiding.” Tamara removed her glasses and dabbed at a tear that had spilled onto her cheek. “Nathan’s appointment at Harold’s office was just before noon. The two of them discussed Nathan’s upcoming trial. Late last night we heard on the news that Harold had been murdered. His wife told the police she saw Nathan hit him with an ashtray.” As the tears began to flow unchecked, Tamara lowered her head and added, “Nathan swears Harold was alive when he left.”
Emma said, “Tell Nathan we’ll take the case.”
Tamara let out a huge breath. “Oh, that’s wonderful! Thanks, Emma.”
They went through the story twice more, but Tamara had nothing else to add. When she left, Emma said, “What’s bothering you, Jim?”
He scowled. “I didn’t want to take the case because I assisted the police, behind the scenes of course, in nabbing Nathan Arnold for his last crime.”
Emma said, “You did?”
“You don’t know everything that goes on around here, Aunty. While you were on vacation, Galveston Investigations—meaning me—was not idle.”
“Then it’s fortunate that Galveston Investigations’ Special Assistant—meaning me—is back to help with the work load.” She closed the notebook and tapped the cover with her pencil. “I can hardly wait to get started on this case.”
“That’s good, since it was your idea to take it.” Jim crossed the room and extended a hand to help her from the depths of the sofa. “Let’s go.”
As they walked through the reception area, Nancy Barnes lowered her e-reader. “You two heading out?”
“We’re on the way to Harold Smythefield’s office,” Jim said. “There’s a digital video you can upload and catalog, when you have time.”
“I’ll get to it.” Nancy snapped her chewing gum.
Something very strange is going on around here, Emma thought. She followed Jim onto the penthouse suite’s glass elevator. As the door slid shut, Nancy picked up her e-reader, leaned back in her chair and propped her feet on her desk.
“What’s the deal with Nancy?” Emma asked.
Jim shrugged. As they stepped into the lobby, he said, “It’s odd Harold Smythefield met with Nathan on Sunday. I wonder if the two of them were discussing more than Nathan’s upcoming court appearance.”
“What else would a shady character like Nathan and a lawyer have in common?”
Jim raised an eyebrow, and held the lobby door open for Emma to pass through. “Is that the opening line of a joke, Aunty? Nathan Arnold is an art thief, and Harold had wealthy clients who are looking for what you might call ‘tax free’ investments.”
“You think Harold was a go-between?” Emma asked as they strode along the sidewalk.
“At this point, I couldn’t say. The fact that Nathan convinced his wife of his innocence means nothing. He’s persuasive. I brought up the point because you seemed very sympathetic to Tamara, and I want you to go into this case with your mind open to all possibilities.”
“Do you?” She’d raised him from childhood, and had been working with him at the detective agency for a year. She said, “Or did you intend to distract me from my question about Nancy?”
“Both.” He tipped his chin at her. “No matchmaking, Aunty.”
“I know you hate the fact that I think you and Nancy are meant for each other, but really—”
“You’re missing the lesson here, Aunty.”
“Oh, I get it,” Emma said, scowling at him. “A good detective is always empty-headed.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.” Jim led the way down an alley, and three minutes later they emerged in the private parking lot of a long, low brick building. He pointed at the small sign beside the back door. “Harold’s firm.”
To the right of the door, a plated glass window allowed a clear view into a leather-and-wood furnished room. A tall, every-hair-in-place blonde stared out at them, the mid-morning sunlight glinting off gold jewelry circling both her wrists.
“I wonder if that’s a wig.” Emma said, as the blonde lowered the blinds.
“What?” Jim looked at the window.
“I said, I wonder if that’s the murder scene.”
“It’s his office, so I’d say yes.” When they reached the door, Jim said, “I’ll handle the questioning, Aunty, if you don’t mind.”
Emma stopped short. “All right. That’s it. Tell me exactly what’s going on.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know our working relationship has evolved over the past year, but you’ve never been this nice to me on a case before. So spill it. What happened while I was on vacation?”
“Can we shelve this conversation for now, please?” He yanked the door open, setting off a soft chime, and waved a hand for her to enter.
The broad-shouldered blonde came down the hall, her high heels clacking on the tile. “Can I help you?”
“James Galveston.” Jim extended his hand. “This is my associate, Emma Twiggs. We’re here to investigate the murder of Harold Smythefield.”
“The James Galveston?” She smiled at him, and cradled his hand in hers. “I’m Patricia. Patricia Ryan. I’m Harold’s paralegal. I’ve heard so much about you, James. If you’re working with the police to convict Nathan Arnold, I’m more than happy to help any way I can.”
“We’re not exactly—” Emma broke off as Jim nudged her with a discreetly placed elbow.
“Thank you, Patricia,” he said, extricating his hand and flashing his best movie-star smile. “May we inspect the murder scene?”
“Of course. Follow me.” Patricia led them down the hall. “You already saw it through the window. In fact, Ginger—that’s Harold’s wife—was standing exactly where you were when Harold was murdered. The blinds were up, and she saw the whole horrible thing.”
“Were you in the building at the time?” Jim asked.
“Yes, I heard Ginger’s screams. I don’t know how she had the presence of mind to call emergency.”
Harold Smythefield’s inner office was even more impressive up close. The heavy wood desk faced the window, with a towering bookcase behind it and a matching wall cabinet to the left. Under the window, a couch and coffee table lined the wall. Three fat-cushioned, green and black Parson’s chairs filled in the gaps.
“Do you mind going over what happened one more time?” Jim said.
“Of course not. I was in my office, and I heard Harold and Nathan arguing. Shouting, actually. They were so loud, I got worried. I tapped on the door, and stuck my head inside to ask if Harold needed anything. He was seated at his desk, with his back toward Nathan. I could tell by his posture he was very angry. He said he was fine, and asked me to leave them alone.”
“He was looking at the bookcase?” Emma studied it. Knickknacks and picture frames were tucked between the thick volumes.
“Yes. He never used the books anymore, since everything’s online now, but he always said they wowed the clients,” Patricia said. “I think he wanted to calm himself down, so he spun his chair around and pretended to be studying them.”
“Maybe he was looking at the picture of his son.” Emma pointed at the silver-framed photograph of a little boy in a fringed cowboy outfit. “He’s a cutie. Seeing that smile would calm any parent.”
“That’s my son,” Patricia said. “Ginger and Harold didn’t have kids.”
Jim said, “Where was Nathan when you came into the office?”
“Right here.” Patricia tapped her foot on the carpet in front of the desk. “Standing on this very spot.”
“And the murder—the ashtray?”
“The police took it. If you mean where was it—” Patricia pointed at the corner of the desk. “Right there. It’s a solid hunk of crystal. Harold smoked—a horrible habit, but one he refused to break. I tried to get him to light up outside, but he said this was his office, he paid the bills, and he’d smoke in here whenever he wanted.”
Emma glanced across the room. “Nathan’s back would have been toward the window, right? I mean, when you saw him.”
“Was Ginger absolutely certain the man she saw was Nathan? Had she seen him before?”
“Who else would it be?” Patricia asked. “Nathan was the only appointment on the calendar. There was no time for anyone else to come into the building between when I heard him arguing with Harold and when Ginger saw the murder.”
“Did you go back to your office when Harold told you to?” Jim asked.
“I did. I wasn’t sure what else to do. I shut the door to block out the argument. The next thing I knew, Ginger ran in, shouting Harold’s name. When we opened the door to his office, he was on the floor, the ashtray beside him, and Nathan was gone. He’d apparently run out the front door. Ginger tried to resuscitate Harold until the paramedics arrived, but he never revived.”
“Was it Harold’s usual practice to schedule appointments on Sunday afternoons?”
Patricia nodded at Jim. “He used to say Sunday was the best day for getting work done. He always came into the office at eight and worked until one, when he had a standing lunch date with Ginger.”
“What are you doing in Harold’s office?” The voice from the doorway was cold enough to freeze mercury.
“James Galveston.” Jim moved toward the new arrival, his hand extended. “And you are?”
She crossed her arms, ignoring his hand. “Ginger Smythefield. And I know who you are. What I want to know is what business you have here.”
“He’s helping the police make sure Nathan gets convicted,” Patricia said.
“Can you tell us what you saw, Ginger?” Jim said.
“I already told the police. I won’t—I refuse to go through it again. Can’t you read the reports?”
Emma put a hand on Ginger’s arm. “We could. And we understand how difficult it is for you. We’re sorry to ask, but it’s always better to hear things firsthand.”
Tears filled Ginger’s eyes. She walked to the window and opened the blinds. Sunlight flooded into the room. For a long, silent moment, she looked through the glass at the small parking lot.
“I was sitting out there, in my car. I saw Harold and Nathan in here, shouting at each other. I couldn’t hear them through the glass, of course, but both of their faces were red, and they were waving their arms. When Harold turned away, Nathan picked up the ashtray, and bashed it down on the back of Harold’s head.” She paused. “I screamed. I don’t know how many times. Then I called emergency, and ran into the building. It was already too late to save Harold.”
“Had you met Nathan Arnold before?” Emma asked.
“No. The police asked the same question, except they phrased it differently.” She lowered her voice. “‘How can you be sure it was Nathan Arnold you saw, Mrs. Smythefield?’” Her voice rose again. “Well, I’m positive. Harold told me Nathan was his only appointment for the day. Patricia had met Nathan before, and she let him in for his appointment, so I know he was here.”
“Enough.” Patricia put an arm around Ginger’s shoulders. “Can’t you see she’s devastated?”
“Perhaps we can ask the last of our questions somewhere else,” Jim said.
“There’s a break room down the hall.” Patricia guided Ginger out of the room.
Emma lingered behind. Jim paused in the doorway. “Coming, Aunty?”
She tipped her head toward the cabinet, and said in a low voice, “I’d like to see what’s in there.”
“Okay. I’ll cover for you. Don’t take too long.” And to her astonishment, he winked at her and closed the door.
There is definitely something very strange going on with him, she thought.
The cabinet had the same fast release catch as the one in Jim’s office, and the door opened easily when Emma touched the spring, revealing a drop-down desktop, and a workspace with a laptop computer, a lamp, a clock, and a small white fan.
She’d been expecting a camera. Disappointed, she pushed aside the fan to get a better look, and the face frame fell off. The dark eye of a concealed video recorder gaped at her. She snatched the recorder from its hiding place, pried out the tiny memory chip, then turned on the computer and slid the chip into the slot. A folder of videos opened on the screen, and she selected the last one, with Sunday’s date.
The soundless movie showed Nathan Arnold, tall and dark-haired, standing before the camera, apparently oblivious to its presence. He shoved the ashtray aside, and pounded his fist on the desktop. Harold, a mocking smile playing at the corners of his mouth, pointed to the door. The video ended as Nathan left.
Emma frowned. Though the date and time were superimposed, the visual record did not conclusively prove Nathan’s innocence. Even if it had, he could have come back.
But why would he? He didn’t appear to know the camera was running. If he’d wanted to kill Harold, he could have done the deed before leaving.
She clicked on the video from the prior day, then realized she was probably violating attorney-client privilege. As she reached for the mouse pad to close the movie, a picture of Patricia’s son popped up on the screen. A moment later, Harold entered the frame, and the images that began playing made Emma’s blood run cold. Her hands shaking with revulsion, she shut down the program, ejected the chip and hurried out of the office.
“What happened to you?” Patricia asked when she burst into the break room.
“I—” she swallowed. “Do you wear a wig?”
Patricia stared at her. “What?”
Emma held up the chip. “Did you know Harold made…movies?”
Patricia’s face paled.
“Oh, yes,” Ginger said. “He recorded his jury summations so he could make sure he presented the right image in court.”
Patricia looked at the chip. “Is the murder—is Nathan on there?”
“Nathan’s on here,” Emma said. “But I don’t think he killed Harold.”
“Of course he did,” Patricia said.
Ginger nodded. “I saw him hit my husband with the ashtray.”
“I don’t think so.” Emma reached out and yanked on Patricia’s platinum locks. The perfectly coiffed wig slid sideways, revealing short, dark hair, cut in a smooth cap.
“So without her wig, Patricia Ryan could pass for Nathan Arnold, from a distance and if you didn’t get a close look at her face,” Nancy said, an hour later, when Emma and Jim returned to the Galveston Investigations’ office. “And she took advantage of that to murder Harold and frame Nathan.”
“I don’t blame her,” Emma said. “That tape…”
“Do you think a jury will convict her once they learn Harold was abusing her son, and filming everything he did?”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “If it hadn’t been for the fact that an innocent man would have gone to jail, I might have considered letting her get away with it.”
“You did good work, Aunty,” Jim said.
“Thanks.” Emma let out a breath. “And thanks for your advice about going into this case with an open mind. Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, even when viewed through a clear pane of glass.”
“Spoken like a true detective,” Jim said. “I’d like to take the two of you out to lunch to celebrate the successful conclusion to our case.”
“Your treat?” Emma asked.
“That’s it. You never pay for anything.” She plopped her hands on her hips. “Would someone please tell me what happened around here while I was on vacation? Did aliens replace my two favorite people with look-a-likes?”
“No. Something worse.” Nancy glanced at Jim. “I guess we should tell her.”
Emma sank into a chair. “Tell me what?”
Jim said, “While you were gone, Nancy and I went on a date—”
“—and I decided it was something we should never do again—”
“—so she’s doing her best to be as annoying as possible.”
“Is it working?” Nancy asked.
“Almost too well.”
“Then I can stop being obnoxious, and get back to business as usual…after I refuse to have lunch with you, of course.”
Emma said, “The date was a flop?”
Jim shook his head. “The date proved you’ve been right all along, Aunty. Nancy and I are made for each other.”
Emma stared at him. “I must have missed the ferry, because I’m not understanding this.”
Jim said, “Nancy believes a personal relationship would jeopardize our professional one.”
And you need my help to change her mind, Emma thought, as things finally became clear.
“I don’t just think so,” Nancy said. “I know so. Sorry if your massive ego got dented, Jim, but some things aren’t meant to be.”
“Women,” Jim said. “Who can understand them?”
“Ah, the time honored lament of a man whose charisma has failed him.” Emma rose from the chair and kissed him on the cheek. “You still have my heart, Jimbo. So stop sulking, and take me to lunch. We have a few things to discuss.”