56. Phil’s Visit

None of them had seemed to notice the man and woman talking outside the elevator as they stepped off. “What is it you wanted to ask me about?” Freddie asked her companion. “Cane is waiting for me. We’re going to take the funi up the mountain and hike back down this afternoon. I’ve got to pick up the lunch first from Priscilla’s.” Funi (which she pronounced “funny”) was a local reference to the funicular that ran from the PRT stop to the top of the mountain, .

Daniel hesitated only a moment at the mention of his favorite local sandwich shop. “Well, you see, there’s this guy I worked with a few years back at The Metro News. He was an editor there, but now he’s an independent writer. Full time! Novels. Long-form journalism. That sort of thing.”

“He’s traveling cross-country to attend some big annual electronics show or something out in Las Vegas that he’s doing a piece on for Wired, and wants to stop by Dare County to see me. He expects to be here Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning next week. He hates flying so my guess is he’s still driving an old wreck of an RV he got with the royalties from his first — actually his only — successful book. He asked if he might attend a meeting of our Thursday evening group. I told him about our gatherings a few years ago. Now he says he might have a helluva story for us. I couldn’t tell if it was fact or fiction, but he said he was sure we’d find it interesting.

“Well, yeah. Okay. I’m fine with that. As long as it’s okay with Art and Gloria. It’s their home. Have you mentioned it to any of the others? I can’t seen why anyone would object. What’s this guy’s name, by the way? Have I heard of him? Maybe read anything he wrote?”

“It’s Phil. Phil Anthropod. He’s been around for years, but he’s never been a big name or celebrity writer of any kind. In fact, I think he’s just been eking out a living most of his adult life. As far as I know, he’s never been on any of the late night talk shows.” At this Daniel laughed; Then coughed, while Freddie just stood there unsmiling.

And so it was that on the following Thursday evening, Art and Gloria Payne welcomed everyone including Phil to the Thursday Evening Salon and invited Daniel to introduce their guest.

“Everyone. If I can have your attention, I’d like you to meeting a former newspaper colleague of mine. This is Phil Anthropod. We used to work together before I came back to Barley Mill. Phil is a writer and that limousine out on the curb is the fruit of his labors.”

There was a quick burst of restrained laughter, with Phil laughing loudest of all. “When they see my home-on-wheels everyone wants to be a writer!” he said.

“Phil stopped by Dare County to see me — and to meet some of my friends — on his way to a tech conference in Las Vegas. I’ve told him before about this group and our Thursday night gatherings and he says he’s got a really good tale to tell us tonight, but he wouldn’t tell me what it’s about. So, Phil, why don’t you tell us your tale.”

“Thank you, Danny. It’s really been good to catch up with you in the last few hours. We had some great times at the old Metro News. Remember the night Charlie Watson fell off the back deck of the local watering hole and straight into the river and we had to fish him out? What was the name of that place, anyway? The Press, wasn’t it?”

Daniel nodded and smiled. Then, laughing, Phil turned to the others and began. “I want to thank you, Art and Gloria, for welcoming me into your home tonight. I’ve heard a great deal about your group from Danny, and I hope you like what I have to say tonight. But first, a slight correction. I’m not on my way to Las Vegas; just passing through there, although I do plan to stop by the LVPD. And I’m not going to that big annual tech conference they have out there. I’m headed to Riverside, California for the annual meeting of the Left Coast mystery writers association.” At this, he paused, sighed and said, “I’m really quite nervous, talking to you like this. Like most writers, I’d rather be at my typewriter, but I figured writing out my tale and doing a reading tonight might strike you as a bit much.” He paused, then added, “I guess most writers my age are now using word processors.”

He paused again, took a deep breath and began again in an altogether serious voice.

“A few weeks ago, I was in Detroit polishing up a few last minute details on a story I’m hoping to sell to Vanity Fair or Esquire. One evening after dinner I was having a drink by myself in the hotel bar, when I met a Michigan State Police lieutenant named Nick Evans. We talked about a number of things, the water in Flint, the empty houses in Detroit, the new quarterback the Lions were hoping to trade up for, that sort of thing.”

“One thing led to another, and he told me he was retired from the State Police. I said he seemed kind of young to be retired. ‘It wasn’t really my choice,’ he said. They had apparently given him an honorary promotion to lieutenant and kicked him upstairs. ‘It was a desk job and I never got outside the building for days at a time. When I did, it was only to attend some meeting or other. I got so bored,’ he said, ‘I had to get out of there.’ He and his partner, some guy named Lt. Tom Horton, had been in the Cold Case unit and had dug into a case that proved to be their downfall. They couldn’t let it go, but they also couldn’t get the evidence they needed for an indictment. While Nick was just given a promotion and kicked upstairs to a desk job, Tom was apparently kicked out of the force completely. Forced into full retirement. As Nick told it, he had become such a nuisance — ‘a real pain in the ass’ is how he put it — to the powers that be in the department that they put him out to pasture.

“He was convinced — they both were, really — that they had stumbled upon an unsolved triple homicide at least, maybe more. It could even be a serial killer they were after. It just felt that way. But they couldn’t come up with any conclusive evidence to prove it was anything more than a series of coincidental deaths, no matter where they looked.”

Art, Gloria, Freddie and the others present that evening began looking at Daniel periodically, asking with their eyes what does this have to do with us? When Phil noticed these periodic glances, he responded, “I’m sure you are all wondering what any of this might have to do with you. It’s just this: Three of the victims were an Ohio self-made billionaire named Mueller, his first wife Claire and his second wife Rosemary.” With that, everyone in the room including those who had been only half listening, as they later described it, sat up straight and he had their full and complete attention.

“The authorities ruled all but one of the deaths ‘natural causes’, and there was no initial reason for suspicion. It was only later that official doubts began to form. The only reason the Michigan Cold Cases unit even got involved at all was because the first wife, Claire, who was killed in Las Vegas listed a Michigan address on documents found on her body. The list of possible suspects is quite lengthy, and the obvious motive was money — gobs and gobs of money. This Mueller guy was, as you know, a multi-billionaire and his second wife put most of the fortune into a series of charitable trusts just before she developed a fatal illness. Those two Cold Case detectives convinced themselves that all three deaths were probably homicides, but they were never able to find a shred of solid evidence, or to point toward the killer or killers.”

“When this former detective told me all this, my eyes were beginning to glaze over,” Phil continued. “But now, here’s where it gets really interesting. I suspect many of you knew Rosemary Mueller.” He looked around the room as most of those present were shaking their heads affirmatively and mumbling various affirmations. “Two weeks before Ms. Mueller died, a nun who had previously been in touch with her was also found dead in the chapel at her nunnery. Isn’t that what you call those places? When a bunch of nuns live?” Freddie’s nod seemed to satisfy him and he continued.

“Well, whatever it’s called, she was stone cold dead. She had been stabbed in what was ruled a drug-related homicide. But, Lt. Evans — Nick — even though he was already retired learned of the killing from a contact in Ohio. He knew that she had visited Rosemary earlier. Apparently her father was a private investigator and she had returned one of her father’s case files to the Widow Mueller.”

“You know, now that you mention it, one of the young lawyers in our firm died under somewhat mysterious circumstances a few months ago.” The comment came from Jim Harbaugh whose house in Eden had recently been completed and who was now in full charge of the Eden, West Virginia office of the Graham & Graham law firm. Since moving to Dare County and meeting most of the members of the Thursday Evening Salon Jim and his wife Virginia — her friends all called her Ginny — had been invited to join and had been attending Thursday evenings occasionally for the past several months. This was, in fact, their third consecutive Thursday with the group and Jim and Ginny were both already doing research for their own presentations at some future Thursday evening. But this speech tonight by Phil Anthropod really whetted Jim’s curiosity and led him to decide on the spot that he would completely shift his focus.

He had been planning to deal with some of the legal issues raised by the discovery of the whole community of Cibola, people who had been born here and living in Dare County their entire lives, yet were completely “off the books” as far as the entire U.S. legal establishment was concerned. No official birth certificates, no recognized school attendance or graduation records, no driver’s or marriage licenses, no property ownership or credit records. Nothing. He knew that a legislative committee was working on the matter, but he didn’t expect much to come of that. But that whole question would have to wait for a later day.

Although most of his legal work had always been in real estate, Jim was a romantic at heart and the urge to get involved in this apparent legal mystery he was introduced to tonight was proving to be overwhelming. Or so Ginny gathered as she sat next to Jim on the chairs near the doorway leading to the front hall in the Paynes’ living room. After only a couple minutes into the presentation by this tall, lanky midwestern writer, Jim had opened his iPad and began to take notes. Ginny had been vaguely aware of the death of the legal associate Jim mentioned, but she was completely unaware of any mystery surrounding his death.

Phil mentioned two other possibly related deaths the ex-cops had told him about before wrapping up his remarks. As the evening was complete and people were beginning to leave, Phil whispered to Daniel, “I’m sorry that the architect — Ralph Deigh isn’t it? — wasn’t here tonight. I’ve heard a great deal about his ideas on rural architecture and I was looking forward to meeting him.”

“He has never attended our Thursday evenings,” Daniel replied. “This just isn’t his thing. He’s actually pretty much a loner, I guess. Even though the entire Eden project pretty much revolves around him, he’s really not very involved with other people. From what I understand, Amy has a terrible time getting him to attend just about any gathering that isn’t about building Eden where there may be more than 2–3 people present.”

“It’s probably related to his time in the Middle East,” Phil mused, “I understand he had a pretty rough time of it there. It’s too bad. I would have liked to meet him.” He paused briefly. “Lt. Evans — Nick — thinks he’s one of the prime suspects.”

“I seriously doubt that,” Daniel replied. “If you knew him, you’d see why. I’ll give him a call when we get back to the house. He might be free for breakfast tomorrow. I’m assuming you don’t necessarily need to get an early start?”

“Great. But now I’m ready to go back to your place, so I can turn in. I’m really worn out.”

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