The Secret Keeper (a Dick Hardesty Mystery) by Dorien Grey
P.I. Dick Hardesty listens with polite interest to his partner Jonathan’s stories of his days working for 90-year-old multimillionaire Clarence Bement, helping the old man tend his garden. But when Bement is found dead, an apparent suicide, Jonathan is adamant that the old man would never have killed himself, a theory also held by Bement’s grandson, Mel Fowler.
Jonathan and Joshua left a little early Thursday morning so Jonathan could tell the Bronson sisters of the trip. I took the bus to work so I could pick up Jonathan’s truck on my way home.
Promptly at ten o’clock, a knock at the door pulled my eyes up to the silhouette of a male figure on the opaque glass. I got up from my desk and walked over to open it.
I try not to think in stereotypes, but if the stereotype of a male flight attendant was of a strikingly handsome hunk all but radiating gay vibes, Mel Fowler was it. Not nelly, not fem, but unmistakably gay.
Jonathan’s brief but glowing physical description hadn’t done Mel justice. If he ever decided to hang up his airline steward’s uniform, he could instantly get a job as resident hunk on any soap opera on TV.
He was about Jonathan’s height and build, with a cover-model face and the kind of light-blue eyes that, in my single days, would have made me melt. (Okay, so they still made me thaw a little.) He was wearing a bright-blue sport shirt, white chinos, and dark brown loafers, all of which did nothing to lessen his overall sex appeal. I also caught the slight scent of a cologne I’d given Jonathan for our anniversary and which always drove me to distraction. It took quite a bit of will power to push my libido back into its little box and close the lid.
“Come in,” I said, a little unnecessarily, extending my hand.
His grip was strong and warm, and the thaw factor rose by several degrees. Whatever American was paying him wasn’t enough. But then I realized that, as Clarence Bement’s grandson, he probably didn’t need the money.
I showed him to a chair in front of my desk.
“Coffee?” I asked, having just made a fresh pot in anticipation.
“No, thanks,” he said. His voice would make a great topping for an ice-cream sundae, I decided. “I had a late breakfast.” And again, while most straights probably wouldn’t immediately pick up on it, if I had my eyes closed and heard his voice across a crowded room, I’d have known he was gay. It’s a gift we have.
I moved around to my chair and sat down.
“So what can I do for you, Mr. Fowler?” I always used a client’s last name until otherwise advised.
“It’s Mel…Mr. Hardesty,” he said, grinning. Nice grin.
“Fair enough,” I replied, returning the grin and noticing the lid had come off of my libido box. I forced it back in. “And it’s Dick.”
“See? We’re making progress already.”
“I must admit I was a little surprised to get your call.”
He sat back in his chair. “You shouldn’t be. Grandpa B became really very fond of Jonathan in the short time he knew him, and Jonathan talked about you several times. He’s very proud of you, and you’re really lucky to have him.”
“Believe me, I know,” I said. “But why do you suppose your grandfather would have mentioned all this to you?”
“Well, at first I thought it was just his casual way of letting me know he knew I’m gay—we’d never talked about it, but how could he not know? Anyway, because he knew Jonathan was, he was probably just letting me know he was okay with it.”
He smiled, and I realized I’d been staring at him. He was truly hot.
Hardesty! a chorus of my mind-voices cautioned in unison.
“Your grandfather sounds like he was pretty sharp, even at ninety,” I said, pulling myself back to the moment.
“Oh, he was! Which is one of the reasons I’m here.”
“So, what can I do for you, Mel?” I repeated.
“You can find who killed him.”
“Have you talked to the police?”
“Briefly. They seem pretty convinced it was suicide. When I tried to tell them Grandpa B would never do that, they were very nice but pointed out that reaction is pretty standard in families of people who kill themselves.”
“Okay,” I said, as conversationally as I could manage. “And what makes you think his death was not a suicide?” I did not want to tell him that I’d already checked with the police regarding Jonathan’s theory.
“Because I know my grandfather, and I know he simply would not willingly cut his life short by so much as a minute.”
“But being confined to a wheelchair after his fall must have been really hard on him. And I understand a close friend had just died. Perhaps he was more depressed than he let you know?”
“Of course he was depressed; who wouldn’t be? But it was precisely because he knew his time was limited that made every day even more precious to him. He read, he loved music and his garden and his other hobbies—none of that changed after his fall.”
“Do you have any idea who would have wanted to kill him, or why?” Again, I knew full well that whenever a millionaire dies under suspicious circumstances, the why is often obvious.
He gave me a wry smile. “We can start with my family,” he said. “Or, more specifically, my uncle Richard’s side of the family. They define the term ‘money-grubbers.’ They were constantly hounding Grandpa B for money for one thing or another. They never let up, until toward the end he’d finally had enough and turned off the tap.”
“And how did they react to that?”
“I think you can guess. They were furious but didn’t dare let it show because they were afraid they’d be cut out of his will.”
I thought for a moment before saying, “And are they that demanding with your grandmother? She’s still alive, I assume?”
He shook his head. “Oh, yes, very much so. But it wouldn’t have done them any good. They all inherited the spending gene from her. She’s been living in Europe—she has a little pièd-a-terre, as she calls it, in San Remo on the Italian Riviera—for years, and hasn’t been back to the States in ages, so I’m the only one in the family who has a chance to see her every now and then.
“She’s had four wealthy husbands since she divorced Grandpa B, and ran through every penny she got from them. Her fourth husband left her the villa she lives in, and an annuity that allows her to live comfortably but not lavishly. She guards it carefully. And when she dies, the annuity stops. So, there is no reason to try to dun her for money she doesn’t have. At least, that’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.
“She’s in her mid-eighties now, and when I have a flight to Europe; she’ll sometimes come up to Paris or down to Rome for dinner with me, but I generally try to avoid it since the only thing she talks about is how Grandpa B did her wrong. She didn’t come to his funeral.”
“Interesting,” I said. “So tell me more about your family.” I already had gathered they were not the Cleavers.
“Think The Psychiatrists’ Handbook of Dysfunctions,” he said. “We’re all in there somewhere, on both sides of the family. But I’m worried that if anyone were looking for suspects, the first person they’d zoom in on is my mother. She’s schizophrenic and has been in and out of hospitals for years. We’re pretty close when she’s on her meds, but like a lot of schizophrenics, as soon as she starts feeling better she thinks she doesn’t need them anymore and ends up back in the hospital.
“Whenever she was off her meds, she was convinced Grandpa B hated her and was hiring people to kill her. I suppose that’s a leftover reaction from the garbage my grandmother fed her after she and Grandpa B got divorced.”
“And was she on her medication at the time your grandfather died?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve been working a lot lately, so I hadn’t talked to her for several days before it happened, and I was in London when I heard he’d died.”
“So you don’t know where your mother was at the time?”
He shook his head. “No. She usually locks herself in her apartment and won’t answer the door or the phone. But her word alone wouldn’t tend to hold much weight as an alibi if she needed one. Anyway, I know she could never kill anyone no matter what her mental state was.” He paused, looked at me, and grinned. “See what I mean about dysfunctions?”