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Title: Altered Motive
Author: jsblume
Style/Genre Prose / Fiction / Mystery
Description: It's funny how death sneaks up on you.
Notes:

Detective Roberts stood in front of the recliner and pondered the dead body in it. Albert Tenamin was a plump man in his late twenties with fine, blonde hair who wore spectacles. His lips were swollen to three times their usual size, and his pasty-white neck and arms were covered with a rash. Two paramedics stood just outside the doorway, waiting patiently while Roberts studied the scene.

The recliner sat in one corner of a large study. A floor lamp stood behind it, and a small end table stood beside it. There was a tape recorder on the table with a cord leading to a microphone in Albert's hand. In another corner was a small desk with a computer. All available wall space was covered with book-laden shelves. The room was dark except for the floor lamp and a desk lamp.

"Ah, there you are, Detective!"

Robert turned to see Doctor Evans, the coroner, standing in the doorway. She was a small, wiry woman sagging slightly from age, and always spoke in a cheerful, British accent. In comparison, Roberts was nearly twice her size and adopted a more stoic attitude.

"Come in, Doctor. I've finished examining the victim."

Evans entered the room, set her medical bag on the floor beside the recliner, and knelt to examine the body. While she was busy with that, Roberts walked around the room for the umpteenth time looking for clues. The books and shelves were coated with undisturbed dust, the mouse and keyboard looked as if they could use a cleaning, and there was cat fur on the computer chair.

"Well, well, well," Evans exclaimed.

"It was an allergic reaction?" Roberts asked.

"Oh, yes. An anaphylactic reaction as near as I can tell. He's been dead about an hour."

"What caused it?"

"I can't say for sure until I do an autopsy. I don't see any signs of sting or that he's eaten recently. It may have been a medication. You'll want to look for prescriptions or common trigger foods."

"What kind of foods?"

"Oh, peanuts, wheat, fish, milk, eggs."

"Alright. I'd like you to listen to something. I could use your opinion."

Roberts picked up the tape recorder with a gloved hand and pressed the play button with a short, telescoping rod.

"Meow," sounded from the speaker.

"Kitty, kitty, what is it you want?" a male voice said. "You're such a pretty kitty, yes you are."

"Meow."

"Oh, no." A cough sounded. The voice continued, labored and wheezing amid a coughing fit. "Oh... my not so silent... kitten. Funny how... death sneaks up on you. Surprise! Thank... Hugh."

Roberts turned off the recorder.

"Did it sound like he said 'thank you' at the end?"

"Hum. Play it again, would you?"

Roberts rewound the tape and played the last part again.

"Well, it does sound like 'thank you'," Evans said.

Roberts sighed. "Hm. Why would he thank someone? And who did he thank?"

Evans shrugged her shoulders.

"Alright. I'm done here for now. You can take the body to the morgue."

Evans signaled to the paramedics, who wheeled in a gurney. They lifted the body onto it and brought it out to the ambulance.

Roberts crossed the foyer to the sitting room. This room was about the same size as the study, but was well lit, and was furnished with a coffee table, davenport and two chairs placed around a fireplace. The room was occupied by two people. Barry, sitting in one of the chairs, was a thin and fidgety man in his early twenties with the same thin, blonde hair as the victim. Stevie, lying prostrate on the davenport, appeared to be in her late teens and had shoulder-length hair that was also thin and blonde. The hair was clearly a strong trait in this family.

"Barry," Detective Roberts said, "I would like to speak with you first. Follow me to the dining room."

Barry followed Detective Roberts through the foyer, turning left just before the wide staircase. Exiting through a door at the rear of the foyer brought them to the dining room. Roberts sat down at one end of the long table and indicated that Barry should sit in the seat across from him.

"Would you please tell me the name and age of everyone living in the house, including the deceased?"

"Uh, there's um, Albert, who's, eh, dead now, he's 28. His girlfriend Vonda Reardon, 27. There's me, I'm 21, and my girlfriend Tina Farnsworth, also 21. And Stevie, she's 17."

"Are your parents still alive?"

"N-no, uh, no. Mom died in childbirth, with Stevie. Dad died a few months ago. Albert inherited the house and the estate."

"Did you or Stevie inherit anything?"

Barry looked away and whispered, "No."

"Where are Vonda and Tina?"

Barry scowled and clenched his fists. "Vonda took Tina to the hospital."

"What happened to Tina?"

"It's a private matter."

"Barry, I'm investigating a death, possibly a murder. I need to know everything."

"She fell down the stairs," Barry said between gritted teeth.

"To which hospital was she taken?"

"Um, Mercy Hospital."

"Do you know if Albert had any food allergies?"

"Food allergies?" Barry looked startled at the subject change.

"Yes. Or if he was allergic to, say, bee stings."

"Oh, um, peanuts. He's deathly allergic to peanuts."

"Are there any peanut products in the house?"

Barry shook his head.

"Peanuts, peanut butter?"

"No. Anything with peanuts is strictly forbidden in this house. Mom and Dad made that very clear."

"Your mom and dad are dead. And now, so is your brother. Possibly from an allergic reaction to peanuts."

Barry set his mouth. "There are no peanuts in this house."

"Do you know of any reason why someone would want Albert dead?"

"I, I can't think of any."

"Where were you about an hour and half ago?"

"At the hospital! Stevie and I followed Vonda in her car. We came home and found him dead."

"Alright. I'll need you to remain available in case I have more questions. Would you send in your sister Stevie?"

Barry left and, moments later, Stevie dropped into the chair, sitting slouched and with crossed arms.

"Would you please tell me the name and age of everyone living in the house, including the deceased?"

"Dead Albert, who's 28. He has a girlfriend Vonda who's 27. Barry and his girlfriend Tina, both 21. And me, I'm 17."

"Are your parents still alive?"

"Nope. Mom died giving birth to me. Dad died in January."

"I understand Albert inherited the entire estate. Did you or Barry inherit anything?"

"Not one damn thing."

"Where are Vonda and Tina?"

Stevie's eyes blazed. "Tina's at Mercy Hospital. Vonda had to take her."

"What happened to Tina?"

"You're a man. You wouldn't understand."

"Stevie, I'm investigating a death, possibly a murder. I need to know everything."

"She fell down the stairs," Stevie said, shrugging her shoulders.

"Do you know if Albert had any food allergies?"

"Are you kidding me? We could not have peanuts in the house. I bet I was the only kid in kindergarten who didn't have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

"Are there any peanut products in the house?"

"What did I just tell you?"

"Do you know of any reason why someone would want Albert dead?"

"Yeah, just about anyone who knew him. He hated people and people hated him. Especially women!"

"Why especially women?"

"That creep just had it in for women!" Stevie's nostrils flared and she swallowed hard.

Roberts took a closer look at Stevie's throat. "Do you have an Adam's Apple?"

Stevie's hand flew to her throat. "So what if I do?"

"Where were you about an hour and half ago?"

"I was with everyone else at the hospital."

"Alright. I'll need you to remain available in case I have more questions."

Stevie stormed out of the dining room. Detective Roberts stood and walked into the kitchen. After putting on a fresh pair of gloves, he began sorting through the trash. He looked up at the sound of a garbage truck. Through the kitchen window he could see the truck moving down the alley. Roberts hurried out the rear kitchen door, crossed the backyard and stepped into the alley. He pulled off the top of the closest trash can and began digging through the contents.

He didn't have to dig far before hitting pay dirt - a jar of dry roasted peanuts. He pulled it out of the can, holding it gingerly so as not to disturb any fingerprints that might be on it. The jar appeared to be full. He unscrewed the top and discovered that the inner seal had been removed.

By this time, the smell of garbage decomposing in the heat of the day began to overwhelm him. Rotten bananas, soured milk, spoiled poultry; it was an assault on the senses. Roberts backed away and replaced the lid on the peanut jar.

"Meow." A white Persian cat greeted Roberts as he passed through the kitchen. The cat meowed again, and then walked over to a saucer of milk by the refrigerator.

Roberts stopped in the dining room long enough to bag the jar.

* * *

Vonda sat in the waiting area of Mercy's emergency room. The nurse at the intake desk pointed her out to Detective Roberts. Vonda looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine. Her long, chestnut hair had just the right amount of red highlights, her makeup and nails were perfect, and her clothes seemed out of place in such a working-class location as an emergency room.

"Vonda Reardon?" Detective Roberts asked, sitting next to her and pulling out his notebook. "I'm Detective Roberts."

"I did not do anything wrong," Vonda said. "I simply brought this poor girl to the emergency room. That's not a crime, is it?"

"No, but I am investigating a crime."

"I don't know anything about it."

"You don't know that Albert was found dead in his study?"

"Oh my God! Are you for real?"

"I understand you and Albert were seeing each other."

"Yes," she hissed. "We were seeing each other."

"You aren't seeing Albert anymore?"

Vonda looked taken aback. "Well, he's like, dead, you know?"

"How long were you and Albert together?"

"Tomorrow would have been our three month anniversary."

"How long have you lived with him?"

"Oh, I moved in after his father passed away."

"Did you know his father?"

"That old geezer? Puh-lease! I knew he was dying the moment we met. Besides, Albert's a lot cuter."

"Albert inherited the entire estate, is that correct?"

"I guess so."

"How well did you get along with the others in the house?"

"You mean his brother and sister? I got along okay."

"Were they jealous that Albert inherited the full estate?"

"I don't think so."

"How well did you get along with Tina?"

"We hung out together."

"Why did you bring her to the hospital?"

"Oh, well, you know, she was in a bad way."

"What kind of bad way?"

Vonda leaned close and talked out of the side of her mouth. "She acted like she'd been, you know..."

"No, I don't know."

"Well, she kinda acted like someone, some guy, had..."

"I think I get the picture. Do you know who it might have been?"

Vonda looked away. "I'm sure I don't know."

"Does Albert or Barry have a history of abusive behavior?"

"How could you ask me such a thing?"

"Stevie mentioned that people hated Albert, especially women."

"Oh, now she would say something like that. Her mind is as mixed up as her body, poor thing. Why, I wouldn't put it past her."

"Put what past her?"

"Why, killing poor Albert, of course! With those hormones raging and not knowing whether she's a he or a she."

"Do you know of any reason why someone other than Stevie would want Albert dead?"

"Well, Barry, maybe. He may look like the meek type, but he was not happy with the will, I can tell you. Maybe he killed Albert to keep me from getting any money."

"Why would you get any of the money?"

Vonda beamed. "Albert and I were engaged to be married."

"I see." Detective Roberts closed his notebook. "That will be all for now. I'll need you to remain available in case I have more questions."

Roberts walked to the intake desk and showed his badge.

"Is Tina Farnsworth well enough to answer a few questions?"

The nurse consulted the computer. "Yes, Detective. You can find her in room 104. Take a right here," he pointed, "and then the next right. It's the second door on the left."

"Thank you."

Tina seemed very small lying in the hospital bed. She was pale and disconsolate; not even looking up when Roberts entered the room. A host of wires and tubes connected her to monitors and an IV drip.

"Tina?"

"Yeah."

"My name is Detective Roberts."

"I already told the police everything."

"I'm here about another matter. Albert is dead."

Tina burst into tears, her reaction causing a monitor alarm to sound. "Serves the bastard right!" she sobbed.

A nurse rushed in and scanned the readings. She turned off the alarm and said, "Tina needs to rest. You'll have to come back later to ask your questions."

* * *

Dr. Evans was removing her gloves and gown when Roberts entered the autopsy room.

"Ah, there you are, Detective! You will be very interested in my findings."

"What did you find?"

"Peanut oil on his lips."

Roberts scratched his chin. "How did it get there?"

"Now that is the interesting part. The peanut oil would have caused an immediate reaction, and there is no sign that he'd eaten recently."

"He wouldn't have eaten it anyway. Unless the oil were on something he normally ate." Roberts paced across the room. "But there was no sign of food in the study. No snack tray, no glass of milk."

"Did you find anything with peanuts at the house?"

"Yes. I just dropped off a jar of peanuts at the lab. I found it buried in the trash can. It appeared to be full, but the seal had been removed. Could the perpetrator have gotten enough oil from the peanuts?"

"Oh, absolutely."

"But how?" He paced again to one side of the room and back again. "Someone could gone into the room when he was sleeping and rubbed it onto his lips."

"Brilliant!"

"Detective?" An officer stepped part-way into the autopsy room. "I have the transcripts from the tape recorder and the 9-1-1 call."

"Thank you." Roberts took the folder and read through the transcripts. "Well, they all seem to have an alibi. Tina was taken to the hospital four hours before the 9-1-1 call. Everyone claims to have gone with her. Vonda stays at the hospital while Barry and Stevie return home and find Albert dead."

"One of them could be lying."

"Yes. Hm, this is interesting."

"What is it?"

"The transcript of the recording. He didn't say 'thank you' at the end. He said 'thank Hugh'."

"Who is Hugh?"

Roberts sighed. "Another suspect."

* * *

Barry opened the door. "Wh-what can I do for you, Detective?"

Roberts pushed past Barry and walked into the foyer.

"Did your brother know anyone named Hugh?"

"Hugh?" Barry shook his head. "I, I don't think so."

"Do you mind if I have a look in the study again?"

"Go ahead."

There were no papers lying around; no filing cabinet. The dust on the books was undisturbed, so there would not likely be anything found in them. Roberts sat at the computer desk and moved the mouse. The screen lit.

"Hm. You should really password-protect your screen saver," he said to himself.

Roberts double-clicked on the "My Computer" icon and then opened the "My Documents" folder. He found a list of folders: Letters, Presentations, Quotes, Stories, and more. Roberts opened each folder one at a time and glanced at the file names, opening any file that had "Hugh" in the name.

"Ah, here it is!" Roberts had opened a file named "Hugh Elliot" in the Quotes folder. There was one quote in the file that read:

"Death can sneak up on you like a silent kitten, surprising you with its touch and you have a right to act surprised. Other times death stomps in the front door, unwanted and unannounced, and makes its noisy way to your seat on the sofa."

"Kitten - cat," Roberts said, talking to himself. "Death surprising you with its touch. He must have picked up his cat, and then he died. Unexpectedly."

Roberts stood up and headed for the kitchen. The saucer of milk was still sitting by the refrigerator. He searched the cupboards for plastic wrap, covered the saucer, and drove back to the station.

"Doctor Evans," he said as he entered the doctor's office. "Would you check this for traces of peanut oil?"

"Happily," Evans replied.

They walked to the lab together, where Evans ran a few tests.

"How ever did you know?" Evans asked when she finished the tests.

"A hunch," Roberts said. He noticed a report sitting on the counter. "This looks like the results of the peanut jar analysis. Hm. Milk residue inside. I think I know what happened. Let's run these fingerprints and see if there's a match."

Evans followed Roberts back to his office, where he scanned the prints into the computer and then logged into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

"Well, don't keep it a secret."

"The perpetrator must have poured milk into the peanut jar. They shook it enough to mix some peanut oil in with the milk, and then poured the milk into the cat's dish. The cat drank from the dish, and Albert must have brought the cat close to his face. The cat licked him, exposing Albert to the peanut oil."

"Oh, brilliant!"

"Brilliant but risky. The perpetrator was counting on a series of uncertain events. They had no guarantee if and when Albert would die."

Several minutes passed before a match appeared on the screen.

"You got lucky," Evans said.

"I'll say. Not everyone has their fingerprints on file, unless they've been arrested."

Roberts rode back to the house in a squad car. Barry answered the door again.

"Oh, when will this ever end?" he asked.

"It ends now. Have Vonda and Tina returned from the hospital?"

"Uh, oh, um, yes. They're in the sitting room."

Roberts and Officer Peterson crossed the foyer and into the room.

"Peterson, place that woman under arrest for the murder of Albert Tenamin."

"What is going on here?" Vonda screeched as Peterson cuffed her.

"Ma'am," Peterson said. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights I have just read to you?"

"What is the meaning of this?"

"Ma'am, do you understand these rights I have just read to you?"

"Of course I do! I'm not an idiot! I demand to see my lawyer."

"You can call your lawyer from the police station," Roberts said.

"D-detective," Barry said, "W-would you mind explaining what's going on?"

"Vonda is what we call a 'black widow.' She marries rich men and then kills them off to inherit their fortune."

"B-but she hadn't married Albert yet. Why would she kill him now?"

"Because of what that bastard did to Tina!" Vonda said.

Barry's face turned white. "But, but, I thought..."

"You thought what? You men are all alike. You treat women like they're play toys. You have your way with them and then discard them like used condoms." She turned to Detective Roberts. "Those men got no more than they gave."

"Take her away, Peterson."

"What happens now?" Barry asked.

"She'll stand trial. There's a good chance you will be called as witnesses. Good day."

Detective Roberts left the house and got into the squad car. Barry watched from the doorway as the car drove off.

Copyright @2012 by jsblume. All rights reserved.
jsblume has granted JS Blume Publishing™ non-exclusive rights to display this work.

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