The Photos to Die for Case

I stared out the window to ensure I did not get car sick.  Motion sickness was not usually a problem but I had been sitting in the back of this car for close to an hour reading and the driver was not the best and the rain was uneven making the ride, inconsistent.

“Almost there honey.” 

I turned away from the window and looked at Millie’s beautiful blue eyes and simply nodded. She had that look of love she got when she was putting me through the wringer and I was being ‘okay’ with it.  I nodded happily and smiled back at her. “Glad to hear it.” 

Millie turned back around and continued talking to the uneven driver, Sarah. Sarah spoke. “Now that we are over the bridge it is only five more traffic lights and then three stop signs and then past the green gate, to the green gate.”

Millie spoke with a bit of concern. “You sure you do not want me to plug the address into the GPS?” She said holding up her phone to show it was no problem.

Sarah waved a hand dramatically in response and the car took a little swerve to the right, not enough to hit anything but to make it felt, especially in the back seat. “No darling I have been here a couple of times and I have an innate sense of direction.”

The innate sense of direction resulted in three wrong turns, one which was down a dead-end street.  Luckily, there was very little traffic as we happened to be driving into a tropical storm.  Miles believed their arrival at the address was more due to running out of roads to go down then Sarah knowing where they were going.

Sarah dialed a number on her phone and simply stated. “We are here at the gate please open up.”  There was no response back but slowly the massive ornate metal green gate started to open.  “See no problem.”

I so badly wanted to say something sarcastic and biting but one look from Millie showed she agreed with me, and since I did not want to aggravate her on this trip and my comment would not gain back the thirty extra minutes we had just lost wandering around in a tropical storm, I held it in.  As we entered a large van with several people in the back were departing, I silently wished them well getting them to where they were going.

Why was I riding in the back of a Range Rover on the Gulf Coast of Florida going into the teeth of a tropical storm?  I blame Walt Disney and his love of pie. 

Walt Disney was a man of simple tastes, I think this can be attributed to a number of factors: growing up in the Midwest, a not so well-off upbringing in the aforementioned Midwestern States, and then struggling financially for several years as a grown man.  He liked diner food; his daughter Diane described her father as having hash house/lunch wagon appetite. 

So, it would surprise no one when he traveled that he would eat at a diner, and Millie’s Diner was around long before Millie owned it, she bought it from a guy who had ran it into the ground after owning it only a few years. He had bought it from the orginal owner/operator a husband-and-wife team Ian and Sadie Oswald. And just like today the Oswald Diner served fantastic pie.

A few years after Millie bought the diner, she was adding onto the back of the diner, making a space for meetings and parties.  In order to cut some costs, she had me do some labor, that labor being tearing out a wall, which meant climbing into a crawl space which is where I found the reason for our trip today.  In that dusty cardboard package was a framed picture of the Oswald’s sitting with Walter Elias Disney with a fork raised in salute over a plate of half-eaten pie, most likely apple, or it could have been peach.

Millie had hung the picture on the wall behind the cash register, unremarked until Sarah saw it.  Sarah was a rich uber Disney fan and a collector. She had seen it after a late-night pie binge with several of her friends who were richer but ruder than her and called the diner a ‘greasy spoon.’  Eventually Sarah and Millie became friends all the while Sarah was trying to buy the Walt Disney photograph.

Sarah had invited Millie and I to this weekend getaway which Sarah clearly stated was said one more attempt to buy the photograph from Millie.  It was a weekend for a bunch of exclusive collectors of Walt Disney photographs that were not official Walt Disney Company photos.  Sarah had said that no matter what any of these collectors offered she would pay ten thousand dollars more. 

Now my girl Millie is a reasonable businesswoman, but she loved that photograph and I once kidded her if she could save either me or the photograph from a fire, she would save the photo first.  When she did not immediately correct me, I gave her a sideways stare.  She stated brilliant but constantly broke Private Investigators were a dozen for a dime but that Walt Disney photo was priceless.  These weekend would prove if it really was priceless or not.

We entered the estate, the only word that could describe the property. The place had a good hundred yards of shoreline, which in this neighborhood of million-dollar houses that only had twenty feet of oceanfront this place was huge.  I noticed an enclosed boat house, which with these waves coming in, on the typically serene gulf coast, meant that they had either lifted the watercraft up out of the water or the boat and the boathouse would have been smashed to pieces.  There was a person in the classic yellow rain slicker securing the door and walking briskly towards the rear of the house.

We were directed to a covered parking area by a man who Sarah called Maxwell  in similar rain slicker and umbrella near the main house where we could disembark without becoming immediately drenched.  

After getting our precious cargo out of the trunk and into the house I took in the place, white on white with some splashes of teal and pinks, in other words basic rich Florida beach decor.  We were called out of the entry way by our host who was at the top of a white wooden staircase.

“Greetings, greetings.”  The older lady said as we entered the huge living room area, she air kissed Sarah and did the same to Millie, she smiled a pleasant hello towards me, but did not attempt to engage me due to my burden.  “And you must be Miles, Sarah has told me so much about you, but please put your package right there.”

I noted the empty easel sitting on long table with a white tablecloth, along with another one and carefully placed the framed piece on the easel carefully, making sure I had not inadvertently flipped it upside down. 

“Perfect sir, if you could cut the strings but not reveal the piece until we are all gathered after dinner.” I nodded; this lady had a bit of showmanship in her.

“Thank you, Miles,” She reached out her manicured hand and I now shook it, her grip was strong unlike some older ladies whom you thought would break if they lifted to heavy a pot of tea.  “My name is Cynthia Dogwood and welcome to my home, I am so sorry about the weather.”

“Not much you can do about it ma’am.”  I said smiling shrugging. “Floridians like me just accept the weather,” I motioned towards the floor to ceiling windows. “these little blows are a way of life.”

“Yes, I have lived here all my life as well,”  She was distracted when a thirty something man came singing down the hall, a Disney song to be exact, Whale of A Tale.  The singer entered the room from deeper within the house. “oh, Samuel there you are.  The last of our guests have arrived. Everyone this is my nephew Samuel, my sister’s son.” 

Samuel greeted Sarah with a kiss on the cheek but when he turned to Millie, I saw a wolf like glance cross his face, as though Millie would be a tasty morsel for him to devour.  I immediately wanted to give him a punch in his good-looking face and dislodge one of his perfect white teeth.  He took Millie’s hand and did a cheesy kiss on it while saying something in French I could not make out.  Not that I speak French.  Millie responded with a curt smile, she did speak a smattering of French but did not reward him with one of her pleasant smiles, she actually gave him one of her patented ‘I am dealing with a difficult customer’ smiles.

He did not notice the look and then turned directly towards me.  I extended my hand and he shook it like he was trying to intimidate me, I simply nodded and reciprocated with simple firmness.  “Ah the Private Eye, Sarah has told us a bit about you, the Disney expert.”

I let the Private Eye thing slide. “Oh, I am no expert, just really familiar with the parks.”  I tried to take the focus off me.  “So, is everything good out in the boat house, are your vessels out of the water?”

Cynthia answered for Samuel. “We don’t currently have any boats, I never really enjoyed them.”  Then she turned to Samuel. “Samuel what were you doing out at the boat house.”

“It wasn’t me Aunt Cynthia, it must have been Maxwell double checking on things.”

Cynthia Dogwood nodded and turned back to us.  “Well, everyone is here, dinner will be in an hour, I will show you to your rooms and you can freshen up before dinner, it will be buffet style as I just sent all the staff home, I hope everyone enjoys it.”

A short while later Millie and I were in our assigned room I was laying on the bed tossing a ball I had in my suitcase for times when I am bored, like I knew I would be this weekend.  Millie came out of the bathroom after doing whatever she did in there for a half hour without taking a shower.  If I spent a half hour in a bathroom ‘freshening up’ I would have shaved, showered and the other thing beginning with an ‘s’ and looking about the same afterwards.

Millie grabbed the ball out of the air mid throw and I sat up.   “Whatever you were doing in there you are more beautiful every time I see you.”

She winked at me and threw the ball back to me and went over to a vanity with a chair and started putting on earrings.   I looked out the window and through the blowing rain I saw another figure a classic yellow rain slicker with hood pulled up tight, leave the boathouse, after fidgeting with the door and walk briskly towards the main house. “Better you than me buddy.” I said. 

“What was that honey?” Millie asked. “Can you help me with this clasp.” Millie added.  I turned from the window and walked over to help put on a necklace.  I did up the clasp and then kissed her on the neck and she shooed me away.  I smiled and with that frustration we went to have dinner. 

We found our way to the dining room and met the other guests to the party.  There was Warren and Noreen, he was a Marketing Executive and she was a Podiatrist, cue a variety of foot jokes from the husband.  Then there was Douglas Overed, I was not sure what he did but he did appear rich and without the social grace of most people.  Then there was Maxwell the major domo to Cynthia Dogwood our host.

Joining us last was Samuel making an apology to his aunt that he had been watching the Weather Channel.  I saw a look of unpleasantness cross her face but it passed quickly as she turned back towards her guests. The meal was pleasant enough and polite conversations were made. 

Douglas talked about his trip to South America retracing some of the steps of Walt Disney during his trip in 1941 and visiting Angel Falls in Venezuela to see what inspired the animated film Up.

Noreen chimed in and talked about a medical service trip to Columbia where she did some volunteer work.  Cynthia chimed in and added that Samuel had been there recently as well. Douglas decided not to be outdone added that he had spent time in Columbia as well to see some of the sights of Encanto.  
Samuel turned to Millie and asked her about her travels in an attempt to include her in the conversation.  Millie talked about living in Japan as an Air Force brat.  Cynthia being a good host tried to draw me into the conversation and I deflected her questions by bringing up the weather.  Which drew everyone’s attention away from my non-answer about travels.

At the end of the meal Cynthia asked us to join us in the living room for the main event after placing our plates in the kitchen to assist Maxwell as all the other staff were sent home earlier due to the storm.  As we picked up our plates, I was the first to follow Maxwell into the kitchen and I noticed he had a transdermal patch behind his ear, the kind that did a time release medicine, the most common that I knew of was for seasickness.  Millie had stocked up on them before we went on a cruise, luckily, she did not need them.

“Thank you.”  Maxwell said as Millie and I brought a second arm load into the kitchen after everyone else had brough in one load. “But I can get the rest from the Wardroom.”

I raised an eyebrow at the term, wardroom then I made an educated guess.   “Navy?”

“The Silent Service actually.”

“What do you call a priest on a submarine?”

“A holy diver.”

Maxwell laughed at the old joke. “Navy?”

“Coast Guard.” I replied.

We shook hands.

“Helmsman to start then Operations.”

I nodded, submarine driver, pretty prestigious.  Miles returns the information swap pointing a thumb towards himself.  “Gunnery Mate then Intelligence.”

Maxwell nods. “Very good, then I got out and worked private nautical construction company here in Florida in Research and Development.” 

“Very cool.”  I was about to ask how he to be in household service from a job in R and D but Maxwell came back with a joke.  

“Did you hear the Coast Guard recently changed their minimum height requirements to 6′.”

I short circuited his joke by responding with the punch line. “That way if the boat sinks everyone can just walk to shore.”

He laughed at my response then smiled at both of us. “Thanks for the help, but I can finish up here, you should get to the front room.”

We nodded and made our way to the room where the other guests were gathered. The group was seated and Millie and I were split up, I ended up sitting next to Sarah and Millie ended up between Samuel and the awkward Douglas on the couch.  Cynthia nodded and stood. “Well now that we are all here, I would like to thank everyone for coming even through this dreadful weather we are having. I received a call from the Sheriff’s department that the drawbridge to the mainland was damaged but should be repaired by noon tomorrow. This caused a few murmurs but no one seemed overly concerned, the house was solid and the rain while blowing and causing high waves was just an interesting hindrance.

“So, with all the mundane details covered.”  I liked Cynthia she thought a lot like I did, must be a native Floridian thing.

Cynthia continued. “Who would like to reveal their treasure first?”

I saw Millie about to volunteer but Noreen leapt to her feet first. Looking past Sarah, I saw her mouth to Millie. ‘Go last.’  I saw Millie give a covert nod to those instructions.

Noreen talked and uncovered the easel. It was smaller than Millie’s but I was reminded how sometimes good things come in small packages. “What we have here is a picture of the late great Walter Elias Disney on his last trip to the Orlando area.  Everyone leaned forward as the picture was unveiled.  It was Walt Disney in a photograph with three maids in what must have been a hotel hallway as two identical doors were seen over Walt’s right shoulder further down the hall.  Walt was smiling as were the three ladies in typical maid outfits from the 1960’s.  Of course, the photograph was in black and white.

Noreen stated. “We are unable to determine the exact date of this photograph but we suspect it was some time around November 1965. 

As most people in this room knew November 15, 1965, was the date, Walt Disney and the Governor announced the second Disney theme park in the world would be coming to Florida.

The first person out of their seat was Douglas who had pulled out a magnifying glass from somewhere and was examining the photograph in detail.

I simply sat back and watched the group, since I would not even think about buying such an item.  Everyone pointed out different things trying to one up one another on inane trivia. Once everyone had a good look they sat back down and Noreen told about how her and Warren had acquired the photograph and all the details they had about it.  Not much as they had picked it up in a secondhand shop two years ago, in a bundle of family photographs.

I could not help but think they had gotten it cheap as the seller did not realize what was in the bundle.

A few people asked questions about it, including Douglas who asked how much they would be willing to sell it for. Sarah and Cynthia both looked like Douglas’s tasteless question was as welcome as a loud fart in church. Millie, I knew was interested in the answer as it would set the market expectations for her photograph which I knew was not only subjectively better in composition and clarity, but also its authenticity was objectively superior.

Cynthia spoke up  to turn the conversation away from money.   “Thank you, Noreen and Warren, for bringing your piece this weekend,” there were polite nods from the couple “now then Douglas if you could show your piece.”

Douglas looked even more uncomfortable as all eyes now turned towards him, including Maxwell who I noticed had entered the room covertly and was standing just inside the doorway looking very interested in the proceedings. 

“Ah yes, this piece I purchased from and estate sale from a young woman who had lost her aunt, it is her aunt that is in the photograph with Walt Disney and as you will see, this is a rarity.”

Taking the cloth off the covered frame, drew and an immediate gasp from the crowd. There was Walter Elias Disney, the creator of Mickey Mouse and all the goodness that he embodied smoking with a bartender and waitress beside some trash cans in what was most likely a loading dock behind a restaurant.  Walt was frowning as the photographer snapped the picture although it was unclear if it was towards the waitress or the photographer.  But with that glare I whoever was on the receiving end felt it.  The bartender was seemed blissfully unaware of what was going on as he was reading a newspaper.”

“It seems this young lady, had shared a smoke with Walt the night before on the same loading dock while hiding from the press and being the conniving wench she was, had her boyfriend park in the alley the next night hoping to get a shot of Walt unaware.”

There were ohhs and ahhs around the room, including myself the photo was a bit of shock because most of the presentations of Walt were him smiling, or being serious.

While it was no secret Walt Disney was a smoker, some estimate a three pack a day habit, it had been erased from most official Disney Company photos due to it being a bad example to children.  What was shocking in this photograph was the look of anger on Walt’s face.  I thought it was justified, someone Walt trusted the day before would so blatantly betray him with such a setup, catching him in an unguarded moment.

The room was silent for a bit as people studied the photograph, then Douglas spoke again. “I have the names of everyone pictured, including a notarized letter from the niece telling the story of the photograph, thus creating provenance.”

Noreen and Warren had a whispered conversation undoubtedly discussing how this reveal effected the price of their piece. 

All this was ended by a loud thunderclap nearby and everyone’s eyes turned toward the curtained floor to ceiling windows. 

I spoke without thinking.  “Well, that is not good.”

Samuel looked at me dismissively.  “It is just a little lightning, nothing to be worried about.”

Millie came to my rescue immediately, and not being a born and bred Florida gal she asked a smart question. “Why is it not good Miles?”

I shrugged.  “It could mean the storm is strengthening, it is a bit of rarity the tropical storms produce lightning, mostly because they are a warm weather phenomena and lightning needs a mix of cold air and warm air to create the electrical charge.”

People around the room looked at me like I had grown a second head and I could see Millie start to come to my aid again but support came from and unexpected source, Sarah. 

“Its true, I am a bit of weather wonk and Miles is correct.” Sarah said. 

Everyone around the room just nodded their heads, as if my knowledge needed agreement from someone of the same economic level to be verified before it was believed.

Cynthia took charge once again.  “If we could finish up with the lovely Ms. Mauser’s piece.”

Millie stood and walked over to her covered piece which still had the brown wrapping paper draped over it, after carefully pulling the paper away the room was silent until they got a good look at the piece.  From across the room, I heard Sarah exclaim to no one and everyone. “See I told you so, it is a great piece. “

Millie read the room and when everyone calmed down a little, she pulled the letter from the Oswald’s from behind the photo where it rested in a small manila envelope, just like when we found it.  “This was left in my restaurant by the orginal owners The Oswalds.”  She unfolded the letter and read it, although she had read it so many times most of it was probably from memory.

                        “To whom it may concern,
                        The wrapped photograph which you have found was taken on 17 November 1965 at our diner.  The hand you see on Walt’s shoulder is his brother Roy’s who unfortunately was cut out of the photograph by Scott who while a great dishwasher was not a good photographer.

                                    We are putting the photograph in storage like this because when we sold the business to Mr. Silver, we forgot to take the photograph down before signing the contract and it had to remain with the business.  We knew he would not appreciate it, so we hid it away hoping someone with love for both the business and Disney World would find it someday.

                                    Best of luck in running the diner and we hope the diner brings you as much laughter, love, and friends as it has given us and our beloved customers.

Signed Ian and Sadie Oswald.”  Millie said the last of this smiling with a bit of happy tear running down her cheek.

There was silence around the room but it was interrupted by the crass and obtuse Douglas. “How much you want for it?”

I looked to Millie who was a bit shocked and then deflected the question.  “Any other questions from anyone else?”

“I think it is a great representation of Disney.”  Samuel said.

I thought his tone was smarmy.  Unfounded jealousy is not really my thing, I just did not like the guy.

There was some other questions about the photograph and Millie answered them as best she could having never met the Oswalds.  It was then that the second bolt of lightning hit nearby and that is when the lights went out.  There was the typical exclamations and then the phones came out providing some limited lighting around the room.  I walked to the windows and moved the drapes.  “It appears this whole section of the town is out, but the mainland appears to still be powered up.”

The voice of Cynthia came from the darkness. “Maxwell?”

The former submariners voice came out. “Here.”

“Can you please start the house generator?”

“Momentarily Ma’am.”  There was a movement, then the flick of a lighter and a few candles were lite by Maxwell on the table.

We all stood around the dimly lite room and Millie came to my side and held my hand.  In the meantime, Douglas had gone over to the photograph and with his phone as a flashlight in one hand and his magnifying glass in the other. We only waited a few moments with some lame jokes made by Warren to fill the emptiness. 

The power came on but the generator only powered a few lights around the house, and no plugs.  Cynthia took charge of the group and apologized for any inconvenience and ushered all the guests to their rooms.  Our rooms were lit by only two lights, one in the bathroom, the other near the mirror which provided a sufficient amount of light for us to get ready for bed.

It was at 3 am that the lights came back on.  The lights woke us up as we had forgotten to turn them off before going to bed.  We looked at each groggily and I started to get up to turn off the lights then from somewhere in the house came the sound of a struggle, a man’s scream and a smashing of glass.

Millie grabbed my hand as we ventured out into the hallway, we were joined a few seconds later by Warren.  We all looked at each other confused and I saw that Noreen was not with Warren and no one had come out of Douglas’s room either. 

“I think that came from the big front room.”  Warren offered.

I nodded and slowly made my way towards where we all had been sitting a few hours ago.  It was then that I felt the wind blowing down the hallway, I first thought it was the AC kicking backing on but then I smelled the rain and heard it more clearly then I should have been able to. 

I was the to see into the room and saw that it was different then when we had left it.  The first thing I noticed was the huge sliding glass door was smashed from being slammed open and each of the easels was empty. 

“Where is my picture?”  Warren shrieked from behind me as he looked into the room over my shoulder.

Warren tried to push pass me and enter the room but I held him back and motioned to the glass covering most of the floor and then pointed to his bare feet. Luckily, I had slipped on my sandals and while everyone else waited in the hallway I picked my way into the room.

“The three pictures are laying face down on the couch.”  I said describing what I saw.  “There is also a white powder on the frames.”  I said and saw there was handprints over the frames as well where it had been handled.

“What is going on here?”  The voice of Cynthia said from the hallway from her wing of the house.

I looked up and shrugged as I saw Sarah and Cynthia standing in the doorway.  “Still trying to figure that out.”  I said so that everyone could hear me.  I looked around the room and then slowly approached the broken glass door.  I looked around for a tree branch or a stop sign that had blown through the door but nothing was around, and then I noticed the wind was not that bad, at least not strong enough to pick up and throw something through the window. I peaked outside getting wet in the process and looked over the railing.  “Warren where it Noreen?”  I asked over my shoulder.

“I am here.”  The voice of Noreen came from an unexpected direction, the bottom of the stairs which lead up to the main room.

“Do you got a medical bag with you?”  I yelled coming back inside. I was no medic, but even I could tell at the unnatural angle Maxwell was lying on the pavement below he was most likely dead.

It was an hour later that things calmed down.

The foot doctor had declared Maxwell dead in a few seconds but did a quick examination from underneath her umbrella and declared either blunt force trauma from the fall and or a broken neck had killed him.  I looked over Maxwell as well and noted he had some of the same white powder on his sleeves as had been on the picture frames, but the rain was slowly washing it away.  Maxwell had eventually been covered with a tarp which was weighed down with some  decorative rocks from the nearby landscaping. 

Later I had wrestled one of the hurricane boards into place over the broken sliding glass door.  It had not been put up because it was only supposed to be tropical storm and the windows should have been good enough protection.  I had stationed Millie as a guard in the living room where the incident had taken place to keep anyone from disturbing the possible crime scene. 
I was not sure it was a crime scene, but I firgured better safe then sorry if the police wanted to investigate. After they scene was preserved, I asked Cynthia if everyone could be gathered in the kitchen next to the game room downstairs.  A half an hour later Cynthia returned to the living room where I was taking pictures.  I had discovered two things that no one knew about; the first was a pair of high-end night vision googles was behind the couch.  They didn’t match the décor f the room and I was sure they weren’t there last night during the showing of the photographs.  The second thing was going to upset some people.

I completed my comprehensive set of photographs of the room with my phone and carefully walked out of the room to where Millie and Cynthia were standing.

“Is everyone down there?”

“Yes, and dressed. No one seems to want to go back to sleep after what happened.”  Cynthia said sounding tired.  “I also called the Chief of Police he assured me someone would be here as soon as the drawbridge is fixed.”

I nodded.

“Mr. Mitchell?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“What happened in there?”  She said nodding upstairs toward the living room.

I looked over at Millie who was looking concerned as well.

I let out a long breath and glanced around the doorway leading to the room.  I needed sometime to think now that the scene was preserved but there were more questions in my mind to give a definitive answer before I could say with any certianity.

“How is everyone doing?”  I said turning on my outgoing manner as I entered the kitchen where everyone was drinking coffee and tea.  I had picked the kitchen as a disarming place, people felt safer, more comfortable, in kitchens. Food was prepared in kitchens, food is life, and being close to a source of life made everyone a bit more mellow.  Everyone was watching me, which I was hoping for.

“So Private Eye, what happened up there?” Samuel demanded.

I did not like his tone, but I let it pass as I had a bigger agenda.  Everyone’s eyes were still on me, which was my goal.

“I think Maxwell was trying to steal your photographs, but something else was going on as well.”

There was a few sharp intakes of breath and then everyone seemed to talk at once, some at me, some to each other.  I held up my hand and the room got quiet.  Good I still had the room, but I suspected I would not after my next question, I took a breath and went forward. “There were several people missing or unaccounted for when we found Maxwell, in fact they were missing for a good few minutes after we found him on the pavement.”  I continued quickly. “Samuel, Douglas and Noreen were unaccounted for a good few minutes after the lights came back on.”

Everyone began talking at once, but I watched Cynthia our host to see who she would look at first as she was the one that knew everyone the best and she was pretty sharp. The person who got my attention first was Samuel as he called out my name.

“Mitchell, what are you saying, one of us had something to do with Maxwell falling off the railing.”

This next part I knew would throw the room into utter and total chaos, and I planned on walking away afterward everyone was sufficiently upset.  “Maxwell did not fall, someone pushed him and anyone who goes into the living room at this point might be destroying evidence and I suggest that no one leave the property until the police arrive.”  And with that the room erupted and I took Millie by the hand and we walked outside to the mud room.

Ten minutes later we were outfitted in raincoats and walking around the property.  The rain had lessened and the sun was just below the horizon giving off a cheery glow over the horizon, we ended up at the boat house which I saw was locked, not just with the standard door lock but a new hasp and padlock.  We investigated for the next ten minutes and started walking back to the main house.

“What does that new lock mean?” Millie asked holding my hand.

“It means either Maxwell has the keys in his pocket or whoever killed him does.”

A half and hour later we were back in the house, the kitchen was clear of people except for Cynthia and Sarah who looked at me quizzically as we entered.

Millie made herself busy making both of us some more tea, but I knew she would be listening.  “Is it true that your nephew had some financial problems a while back?”

Cynthia looked at me then at Sarah in a resigned state, as if she knew that no matter what the truth was going to come out. “Yes, but that was over a year ago, the creditors stopped calling the lawyers, and he worked his way out of it somehow.”

I nodded.

“And Noreen and Warren is there marriage as strong as it appears or are there some cracks?”

Sarah answered. “There was talk that Warren staying at a hotel in Tampa for a month, but nothing about money.”

Millie spoke up. “Biggest problem even before infidelity is money, honey.” She said handing me a cup of tea.

“Or money problems due to infidelity.” I nodded a thank you and winked at her for the sound advice.

“And anything in Samuel’s closet?”

Sarah and Cynthia looked at each other, then Cynthia spoke.  “New money, not sure, he invests heavily in new boats and boat building , but word is he might be overextended.”

“And?”  I said, knowing that pause was not just simply because of a bad round of investments.

Sarah spoke up now. “It was said that he got his initial start up money making drug runs but he was never caught in the act.”

Cynthia obviously did not agree. “Samuel worked for him for a while and that was just talk.” 

I nodded and sipped my tea.  The room got quiet as we were all lost in our own thoughts.

A thought crossed my mind and I looked at Cynthia.  “You said boats, do you remember the name of the company?”

Cynthia looked up towards the ceiling trying to remember.  “Triton, I think.”  She looked at me quizzically. “Why?”

I nodded. “I think I know what happened to Maxwell. Could we have everyone meet in the game room in say ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes later everyone was in the game room, only Cynthia and Sarah were sitting on stools at the bar.  Everyone else was leaning against the pool table or standing near a door.  Samuel was nonchalantly bouncing the cue ball around the table.

Noreen and Warren were leaning against the bar and I could tell they were wondering if it was to early to drink, and Douglas was glaring at me from across the room. 

Millie was sitting on the arm of love seat, and every eye was on me.

“I think you know why I called you all hear today.” 

“Oh, brother this guy thinks he his Hercule Poirot.” Douglas said glaring at me from a corner.

I smiled back at him. “Always been more of a Columbo fan me, but hey Hercule is pretty good too.”  I wished I had an unlit cigar to pull out of my pocket at that point but I did not, so I picked up a cube of pool chalk sitting on side rail of the table and tossed it up in the air a couple of times getting the feel for it.

“Why don’t you leave it up to the cops you wanna be.”  Samuel said with a sneer.

“Because by then Maxwell’s partner would be gone and most likely with the photographs.”

“I thought you said they were lying on the couch and you would not let anyone enter the room.” This was from Warren.

“At first I thought they were, but after I took pictures of the room for prima facia evidence for the police, I lifted up the frames, with gloves I lifted from the good doctors bag.”  I looked towards Noreen. “Sorry Noreen, needs of the moment.”

“It was just a pair of gloves.” She said dismissively.

“Yes, but it was the second pair from a package of three, you took the first pair after you opened the package, which I think lets you off the hook.

“The hook for what?”  Cynthia said.

“Well, when we all came into the living room where Maxwell went over the railing there was three people missing, did anyone beside myself, notice who was missing?”

Sarah spoke up now.  “From our hallway it was Samuel.”

“I use a white noise machine to help me sleep.” He said waving his hand dismissively and went back to bouncing the ball around the table.

Warren spoke up next. “Douglas did not come out of his room for a good ten minutes.”

“I am a heavy sleeper.” Douglas said defensively. “And I was smart enough to remember to turn off the lights in case the power came back on.”

I shrugged at that.  “And Noreen was downstairs.”  I said looking quizzically at the foot doctor.

“I wanted some crackers; my stomach was upset.”  She said shrugging.

I nodded.  “I found it interesting that the three people who were missing have also recently been to Columbia.”  I looked around the room.  “Does anyone know what Scopolamine is?” 

Everyone shook their heads looking confused. One of the three was lying but I needed more at this point. “It is a drug, used in South America, more specifically from Columbia, from a tree, and when used for nefarious purposes it is called Devils Breath.”

“And what does it do?”  Sarah asked.

I smiled at her. “It is and odorless powder can be blown into the victims’ faces, obliterating their free will. Tasteless, it is often slipped into alcoholic drinks. Criminals are quick to exploit its potential to turn victims into puppets who can easily be convinced to hand over their keys or empty their bank accounts.”

“Terrible.” Cynthia said.

“I think if the police run the proper tests on Maxwell, it will be his system.”

“Wait are you saying someone snuck up on Maxwell and blew it in his face. Oh brother.” Samuel said.  “You are watching too much Kojak bub.”

“There are other ways of introducing it into a system, transdermally.”  

“Through the skin.” Noreen said.

“Bingo, you got it in one.”  I said nodding towards the doctor.  “And since it was already in his system that way, it reached full potency very quickly.”

“How do you know it was already in his system Miles.” Samuel asked as he began to pull pool balls out of the pockets and then rack with the triangular rack.

I shrugged.  “He had a patch on right behind his ear, I noticed it last night when we were helping clean the table, and an active ingredient in preventing seasickness is scopolamine, although in a very minor dose.  But with a massive dose introduced later, say from three picture frames, it would lead to all kinds of nasty things like confusion, racing heart rate and sometimes hallucinations.”

“It could have been a nicotine patch or something else.”

I turned towards Noreen again. “Seasick patches go near the ear, don’t they?”

She nodded.

“Also in the living room was a very expensive pair of night vision googles.”  I paused while everyone took it in.  “So, I think Max was working with a partner to steal the photographs, but Max was going to double cross his partner, or his partner was going to double cross him, either way only one was going to get away with the photographs.”  I decided to let everyone in on my theory at this point. “Maxwell went in early to steal the photographs but his partner had already coated the frames with the scopolamine powder.”  I looked around the room at everyone. “I think his partner had just finished coating the frames.  That is when Maxwell with the night vision googles came in. When the lights came on Maxwell freaked out, probably in the midst of a hallucinogenic episode, they struggled and Maxwell went over the rail.”

“How were they going to leave with the photographs, the roads are closed and we do not have any boats, and if there were boats you would be a fool to go out on the water right now with the storm.”  Cynthia declared.

I tossed the pool chalk up in the air and caught it with my other hand. “True very true, but Max and his partner were not going to leave in a boat, they or at least Maxwell’s partner has a submarine locked up in the boathouse.”

Warren sputtered. “That is ridiculous” he waved his hand dismissively “a submarine.”

I shook my head. “Why don’t you ask Douglas, he used to be involved in Triton a private company here in Florida that makes what.” I said looking a Douglas.

“Private submarines for personal use.”  Douglas answered flatly.  “Wait you don’t think I was Maxwell’s partner, that is ridiculous, I was just going to buy the photographs from everyone.”

“Why buy when you can steal,  I will admit it crossed my mind it was you, but then someone said something in the kitchen that showed me who the liar was. Little lies to cover up bigger lies but the truth has a way of always coming out.  Isn’t that right Samuel.”  I said.

Everyone in the room got quiet and as I turned towards Samuel.  He had racked the balls but he had gotten strangely quiet and still afterwards.

“What?” He said with a blank look on his face. I looked at him closely, his pupils were pinpoints.

“So did you throw or push Maxwell over the railing.”

“He charged me, I we struggled and he went over.”  Samuel answered calmly.

I thought about it, they were still committing burglary, any death that occurred during the commission of a felony was technically first-degree murder. 

Samuel shook his head

 “So, who put the new hasp and padlock on the boat house.”

“I did, I thought Maxwell might try and leave without me with the photographs and my submarine.”  Samuel answered a bit more forcefully.

“Why do you have a submarine?”  Warren asked. 

I was surprised but it was a question I would have gotten around to eventually.

Douglas answered sounding like he was bragging. “I have been smuggling in meth from ships in the Gulf.” Douglas said shaking his head as if trying to wake up.

I guess the scopolamine I had put on the pool balls and the rack were wearing off.  It was not an exact science dosing someone via pool table paraphernalia.

Samuel lunged at me with a sloppy hay maker and I dodged getting out of his way.  He stumbled but caught himself at the door and spun around.  Unfortunately, Millie was standing right beside the door and he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to him and he put an arm around her throat in a sloppy choke hold.  “Pretty smart P.I. using my own stuff to drug me, your hero Columbo never would have done that.”

I leaned back against the pool table and shook my head.  “You are absolutely right Columbo never would have done that,” I tossed the piece of chalk up in the air catching it again.  “but I am not Columbo.” Tossing the chalk once more. “One thing I did pick up from Columbo you should always pay attention when people are talking about themselves, they are usually telling you the truth.”  I nodded and got a certain look from Millie. “You really weren’t listening to last night; you probably don’t remember where Millie grew up.”

He sneered. “Who cares.”

“You should, she grew up in Japan, where she was the under eighteen judo champion in Okinawa.”

When I said ‘judo’ Millie smiled and with a very deft motion of her hips and a simple step she threw him while holding onto his arm.  He landed badly on the expensive hardwood floor and then I saw her give a sharp twist of his arm, popping the ball joint out of the shoulder.

Samuel screamed and promptly curled up in the fetal position holding his useless arm next to his body.  I looked at his ankle, it had a strange twist, he would not be doing any dancing tonight.

A half an hour later the police and ambulance arrived taking the still crying Samuel away.  They found the padlock keys, more scopolamine, and the missing photographs in Samuels room after searching with Cynthia’s permission of course.

After giving statements to the police Millie and I packed up our bags and got the car keys from Sarah who was staying for a couple of days with Cynthia.  Doreen and Warren left without even a farewell; Douglas left after slipping Millie a piece of paper with a very large number on it. 

As we were saying our goodbyes Sarah asked.  “Where did you get the scopolamine from?”

Millie decided to answer the question.  When we were looking around the property Miles picked the lock on the boathouse, we found it in the submarine.”

“I think Douglas was going to ‘dust’ Maxwell later and leave him behind somewhere.”  I saw Cynthia frown at this and quickly added. “I am sorry your nephew embarrassed you in such a manner.”

Cynthia waved it off. “Not much of a nephew he was my half-sister’s stepson from her second,” Cynthia shook her head. “no, it was actually her third marriage. Truthfully, I have never really been fond or very attached to him.” 

“So why the frown then?” I asked.

Cynthia nodded. “Why did you think there was a submarine in the boat house, that seems like a stretch.” Cynthia asked.

I laughed. “The song he was singing last night when we first met him, Whale of Tale it was from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, so he was thinking about submarines, that along with Maxwell’s background.” I shrugged.  “I got lucky.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it sweety.”  Millie said kissing me on the cheek and got into the Range Rover.

“Just one more thing.” Sarah said smiling as I climbed into the driver’s seat.

I chuckled at the famous Columbo line.

She smiled back. “You said something about little lies covering up bigger lies.”

I rolled down the window and told the two ladies. “Instead of coming out to be with everyone else he was cleaning up after his tussle with Maxwell.”  I shook my head.  “Remember he said he was using a white noise machine last night; he couldn’t have the power was out.” 



Other Miles Mitchell Mysteries

The Case of the Misplaced Ice Thingy

Categories: A Miles Mitchell Story

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