Once again SleuthSayers brings you a rare treat, an anthologized story from Jan Grape's CJ and Jenny series. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.
Originally published in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages well.
Whatever Has To Be Done
by Jan Grape
by Jan Grape
A fierce lightening and thunder storm jarred me awake at 5:12 a.m. Autumn storms in Houston, Texas, often give the impression the end of the world is near. The dream I’d been immersed in had been pleasant, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember it. The brilliant streaks flashed a sesquicentennial fireworks display and seeped through the top edge of the mini-blinds as Mother Nature declared a moratorium for sleepers.
It’s not in my emotional make-up to wake up early; neither alert nor cheerful. Maybe it has to do with one of my past lives or blood pressure slow down or something. Anyway, I tossed around trying to will myself back to sleep, knowing all the time it wouldn’t work. But I waited until seven to crawl out to the shower. “Damn Sam,” I said aloud, while dressing and wishing I could have my caffeine intravenously. “Lousy way to start a Friday.”
The pyrotechnics were over, but the rain continued steadily, steaming the interior of my car and making the rush hour drive to the LaGrange building hazardous and hair-raising. Determined to shake off frustration at the lack of sleep and the Gulf Coast monsoon, I paused in front of the fourth floor door and felt a sense of pride as I read the discrete sign - G. & G. Investigations. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, and I could be proud, we’d turned a profit the last three months. No one expected it to last. Sometimes, even we had doubts.
There was a message from C.J., as she was known to all except a few close friends, on the answering machine. “Gone to Dallas for the week-end, Jenny. Work today and play tomorrow. Keep outta trouble, Girlfriend.” She had a legitimate reason to go, a dying client wanted to find a missing niece and a good lead led to “Big D”, but once the work was done, she had a friend playing football for the Cowboys who would show her a fun week-end.
Lucky sister, I thought, ready to feel sorry for myself, “but wait - there’s only a half day’s work here,” I said aloud and it’s rainy - and besides it’s Friday.” It only took two seconds to decide to finish the paperwork and to blow this joint. I put myself in high gear and was ready to leave by noon.
I had straightened up the lounge/storeroom, grabbed my purse and reset the phone machine, when the outer door opened.
“Oh. No. Don’t tell me you’re leaving?” the woman said. “Are you Jenny Gordon?”
She was slender with reddish blonde hair, not really pretty, her eyes were too close together and her mouth too thin, but there was something about her. Vulnerability? She had one of those voices that rise into a whine and grated like fingernails on glass. I hate voices like that. She dropped her dripping umbrella, one of those bubble see-through ones, onto the floor. Her raincoat, after she peeled it off to reveal a blue velour jogging suit, hit the sofa, and slid to the floor. I hate slobs, too. As if your things are not good enough. Maybe people like that just don’t care. Or maybe she was used to someone picking up after her.
“I am Jenny Gordon and I was leaving, but what may. . .?”
“Well, great. That’s the way my whole life has been the past twenty-four hours. All screwed up.” She walked over and sat on one of the customer chairs, rummaged in her purse for a cigarette and pulled out a lighter encased in a silver and turquoise case. “It’s really the shits, you know. Me needing a P.I.,” she burst out laughing in a high-pitched nervous tone.
I tried to figure out what was going on without much luck.
She stopped laughing long enough to say, “And who does he send me to? A woman, for Christ’s sake.” She laughed some more and finished with a cough, then flicked the lighter and lit the cigarette without asking if I minded. I smoke, and didn’t mind, yet it’s nice to be asked.
I’m not the happy homemaker type, but I couldn’t stand the spreading, staining puddles. The woman really was a slob, I thought, picking up her raincoat. I hung it on the coat rack, folded her umbrella and stood it in the wastebasket near the door. There was no sign she noticed what I did and no thanks either. Some people should just stay in their own pig pens and not run around spreading their muck.
I headed across the room, intending to get some paper towels from our lounge/storage room to soak up the mess. “As I started to ask a moment ago, is there something I can do, Miss. . . ?”
“Ms. Loudermilk. Voda Beth Loudermilk.”
“Ms. Loudermilk, why do you need an investigator?” I paused momentarily, in the doorway. Her answer stopped me cold.
“I killed my husband last night. Emptied his own gun into him.” The whine was gone, and the words came out in monotone as if she were describing a grocery list. “He died on me.” She smashed the cigarette into an ashtray. “Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard?” She laughed, but sounded close to tears.
If I was surprised because she didn’t throw the butt onto the floor, I was totally wiped out by what she said. I was so intent, I didn’t noticed someone else had opened the outer door and entered. I blurted out, “perhaps you need a lawyer, Mrs. Loudermilk, not a detective.”
“It was time he hurt some instead of me.”
A quiet voice interrupted, “Voda Beth. Shut your mouth and keep it shut.” He spoke in a quiet even tone.
The speaker was a short wiry man I recognized immediately from his many newspaper photos and television appearances. A shock of steel gray hair, brushed back to emphasize the widow’s peak, the piercing blue eyes and everyone of his seventy-eight years etched on his face. I’d never met him, of course, but I knew who he was. Hell, everyone knew who “Bulldog” King Porter was - the best criminal lawyer money could buy.
“Oh shit, Bulldog,” Voda Beth said. “You know a P.I.’s like a priest. They can’t reveal the confidences their clients tell them.”
He was dressed like a lawyer would have dressed forty or fifty years ago. Dark charcoal, pinstripe, three piece suit, white shirt with French cuffs peeking out the prerequisite amount, big gold cufflinks. The tie, a shade lighter than the suit, was not a clip-on and tied with a perfect Windsor knot. A heavy gold link watch chain had a gold Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from one end. “That only applies to p.i.’s in dime store novels.” Bulldog walked over to me and held out his hand. “Ms. Gordon, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m Bulldog Porter.”
His hand was soft, but the grip firm. “I’m honored to meet you sir, I’ve heard a lot about you, too.” Porter had begun his practice in Galveston, during the thirties, when the island city considered itself a free state, allowing drinking, gambling and prostitution. He had even defended members of the “beach gang” who smuggled Canadian booze into the Gulf port and shipped it to places like Chicago and Detroit.
“I’ll just bet you have, Ms. Gordon.” He chuckled, “and let me tell you up front, most of it is true.”
Mrs. Loudermilk stood up. Her curly hair framing the sharp angled face which twisted in anger. “Bulldog. . .”
“Voda Beth, just sit right back down there and keep quiet for a minute.”
She glared, but did as he said.
“Now, Ms. Gordon. . .”
“Please call me Jenny, Mr. Porter.”
“Only if you call me, Bulldog.”
“Deal. Now, I’m assuming you have a special reason to be here.”
“Good. I like that. Cut the crap and right down to brass tacks.” He nodded to our storage/lounge area. “Let’s go in here and have a little chat. Voda Beth, you stay put.” The woman sent him a lethal look, but didn’t get up.
“My client in there,” he said as we sat at the kitchen-style table, “was mouthing off when I came in. Let’s chalk that up to her current emotional state. To her grief, if you will. You see, her husband was shot and killed around 8:00 p.m. last night. She was questioned for hours, eventually charged by the police and locked up in women’s detention over at 61 Reisner, just before dawn. She’s been without food or sleep for over twenty-four hours.”
“Her lack of sleep,” I said, “plus the grief and trauma she’s experienced has rendered her incapable of acting correctly or speaking coherently.”
“Exactly. I heard you were sharp.” He took out a pipe and, within seconds, had asked if I minded and got it lit. Bulldog Porter wasn’t known as the plodding, methodical type. “We have great need of an investigator and you were highly recommended by Lieutenant Hays of HPD homicide department.”
The fact Larry Hays sent Porter to me was a surprise. Larry was a good friend, but he still thought it was laughable, my being a private detective. My background is medical; an x-ray technologist. I worked ten years detecting the mystery of the human body and knew nothing about real mysteries. Luckily, C.J. had police experience and I’d been a willing pupil.
If what Bulldog said about the woman was true, she needed help. Maybe I was wrong to condemn her casual attitude about her wet things. If I’d just spent the night in jail, I sure as hell wouldn’t be worrying about neatness. Besides, the chance to do a job for Porter was worth considering. G. & G. Investigations wasn’t doing so well that we could turn down someone with his clout. “Did she kill her husband?”
He didn’t answer immediately. “Voda Beth says she has been physically, sexually and emotionally abused her whole married life. She says he was hitting on her and couldn’t take it any longer. That she pulled his own gun out from under the mattress and emptied it into him. Her father and I were old school chums and I agreed to take her case because of him. Actually, it shouldn’t be hard to prove diminished-capacity.” He leaned back, and his eyes zeroed on mine like an electron beam. “What I need from you, Jenny,” he smiled, “is to discover if her story of abuse is true.”
“Is there any physical evidence of her being beaten; like bruises or anything?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Has she ever reported to a doctor or to anyone that she was abused?”
“I don’t think so. But I’d like you to find out.”
“What do you know about Mr. Loudermilk?”
“Another thing for you to look into. J.W. Loudermilk owned a development and construction company which was doing quite well until Houston’s oil bust. But you’d need to do a through background check on him. I do know he was married before and he has a daughter from that first marriage. The daughter lived with him, until recently, and she’d be the first place to start.”
“And next, the ex-wife?”
“Precisely. Her name is Elwanda Watson. Had a second marriage which also didn’t last. Four children by Watson. I have addresses and phone numbers for you.” He placed the pipe in the ashtray I’d placed near him, reached into his inner coat pocket and held out an index card. “I believe you’ve already decided to work for me?”
I smiled as I took the card, “I have indeed.” I went to get a copy of our standard contract for his signature. Voda Beth didn’t look up when I passed through. When I returned, Porter had written out a check and handed it to me. He’d not inquired about fees. I nearly gasped, it was made out for $5,000.”
“I need to have as much information as possible by next Tuesday morning for the preliminary hearing.” Bulldog said. “That means working through the week-end if necessary. If you can find out the truth about the Loudermilk’s relationship, I might be able to get the charges dropped and we won’t have to go to trial.”
“If the truth is as she says it is.”
“Oh. Naturally. But I believe it is.” Mr. Porter spent a few seconds with our client and left.
It was time to interview the widow. I walked in and sat behind the desk, searching her face. A neon sign flashing “not guilty” did not appear on her forehead.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened Voda Beth?”
Her eyelids were red-rimmed and the pale blue eyes were devoid of life or light. She was holding her body rigid and her mouth tight as if to keep herself from flying apart.
“Look,” I said, “I know you’re exhausted, you need food and rest, how about telling me a few brief details and if I need something else, we can talk later.”
“J.W. and I had been arguing all evening. If I said black, he said white. I can’t remember what started this particular one. Finally, I told him I couldn’t take anymore tonight, that I wanted to go to bed. I went to our bedroom, took a shower and he sat in the den and drank.”
“Did he drink a lot?”
“Sometimes, and even more lately.”
“Things were bad financially, really bad the past few months.” Voda Beth pressed her hands to her temples, then rubbed them slowly. “I remember now. That’s what started the argument. Money. I’d bought two new bras yesterday, the underwire on my last one broke that morning.”
My partner, C.J. had been a policewoman in Pittsburgh for eight years and one thing she’d taught me about interviewing someone, is it’s usually best to not say anything once the person is talking. If you interrupt you can lose them, they’ll clam-up.
“I had just finished brushing my hair and was ready to get into bed when J.W. came in, yelling about how stupid I was for spending money we didn’t have. He was furious. He’d sat in there and drank and got madder and madder.
He got right in my face, screaming and when I tried to ignore him, he got even madder. He slapped me. Twice, at least and the third time he knocked me onto the bed. He kept hitting with his open hand. One blow made me bite my lip, see?”
She showed me a large blood hematoma inside her cheek. I made appropriate noises of sympathy. “What happened next?”
“He straddled me and started punching me in the stomach and breast with his fists. A blackness came over me, slowly, at first. It got darker and redder. Somehow . . .I really don’t know how. I got my hand under the mattress and got hold of his gun. The next thing I knew, he was laying across bed and. . .and I remembered hearing the gun and there was blood everywhere and. . .”
She began crying, great shuddering sobs. I walked around the desk, handed her a box of Kleenex and patted her shoulder, not really knowing what to say or do. She kept trying to say she didn’t mean it, but it was a long time before she got it all out.
When she’d calmed down, and blew her nose, I sat down behind the desk. “This wasn’t the first time your husband beat you?”
“No. He didn’t do it often and he’d always apologize, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again. That he loved me and didn’t want to hurt me. Months would go by and I’d believe everything was fine, then wham.” She was back to her monotone voice.
“Did you ever tell anyone? Your doctor maybe?”
“No. I was too ashamed. Besides, whatever I’d done to set him off was all my fault. I was the one who. . .”
“Voda Beth. Whatever you did was no reason to be battered or beaten. But my telling you won’t help or make any difference to you. You need to get professional help.”
“I will. Bulldog is setting it up.”
I walked around to her again and patted her shoulder once more. “It’s time you went home. You didn’t drive over here did you?”
“Bulldog brought me. He said he’d send someone to pick me up.”
“Come on then, I’ll go downstairs with you.”
A white stretch-limo was waiting in the front circular drive when we reached the lobby and a driver lounging against the front passenger fender saw us and walked over. “Mrs. Loudermilk?” He helped her in and she waved one finger as he closed the door.
I walked to the parking garage. Lowly private investigators have to drive themselves home.
“If that tight-assed bitch thinks she can kill my father and get away with it, she’s crazy.”
J.W. Loudermilk’s daughter was two months over eighteen, but looked twenty-five. Her name was Elizabeth, but she preferred to be called Liz, she said, after inviting me into her condo in far southwest Houston. She mentioned that she was scheduled for a tennis lesson at the nearby YWCA, but said she could spare a few minutes.
I’d been unable to reach her the evening before and had secretly been glad. Voda Beth’s story had unnerved me. With a good night’s sleep, I’d hoped to be able to think more rationally. Silly me. My dreams had been filled with a faceless someone who punched and slapped me half the night. It was three o’clock before I finally slid into a dreamless sleep.
I showered and dressed in my week-end office attire - Wrangler jeans and a t-shirt - but since it was a cool forty-nine degrees this morning, I pulled on a sweater. My hair had been short and curly permed for summer and as I combed through the tangled dark mop, I decided to let it grow for the cooler weather. I checked out a new wrinkle at one corner of my right eye. “Damn Sam. At 33, you shouldn’t be having wrinkles,” I said. “Someday, you’ll have to pay more attention to such things, but not today.”
A tiny smudge of cocoa frost eye shadow added depth to my dark eyes, and a quick swipe of powder was easy and fast and completed my bow to cosmetics. Spending time with creams and moisturizers was not my idea of fun and I intended to fight it, as long as possible.
I’d arrived for my appointment with J.W.’s daughter at 10:30 a.m. on the dot.
She had offered a cold drink. I accepted a Diet Coke and sat down as she bustled around in the kitchen. Her living room was a high-beamed ceiling affair, all mirrors, posters and wicker furniture from Pier One Imports. There wasn’t a sofa, just two chairs, and a lamp table between them, set before a fireplace. As a young woman out on her own, she probably couldn’t afford much.
I studied her as she brought in the drinks. She was lovely, self-assured and poised. She had a heart-shaped face, blue-black hair, cut shoulder length and curly permed. Her eyes were such a deep indigo they looked violet and there was no doubt her resemblance to a young Liz Taylor was often mentioned. She was dressed in a white tennis skirt and top, showing off her golden tan to great advantage. Oh. To be eighteen again, I thought, but only for a brief second.
“Mrs. Gordon?” She seated herself opposite me.
“Okay, Jenny. Let’s get one thing cleared up right now. I never did like Voda Beth. She’s a coke-snorting, greedy slut who married my father for his money.”
“You know all this for a fact?” The violet eyes narrowed briefly, before looking at me head-on. Maybe she was sincere, but her cliched words sounded like the old evil step-mother routine.
“My father owned his own construction and development company. He built office buildings and shopping malls. When his business suffered reverses, she couldn’t stand it.” Liz sat her glass down on the end table next to her chair, picked up a nail file and began filing her nails. “They argued all the time. Mostly about money. She was always wanting this new dress or that new piece of furniture. Now, with Dad dead, I guess she’ll be in high cotton.”
“Were their arguments ever violent? Did you see or hear your father hitting her?”
Liz finished the nail she was working on, put that finger to her mouth and began chewing on the cuticle. She shook her head, “Dad did have a temper, but I don’t think he ever so much as slapped the bitch.”
I sipped on the Diet Coke, “What gave you the idea she’ll be in high cotton now? Insurance?”
“She talked him into taking out a policy for two million, a few months ago. She killed him to get that money, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
I made a mental note to check out the insurance. “How did you find out about this policy?”
“She flaunted it in my face. It’s one of those big companies, something Mutual. I’m sure you can find a record of it someplace.”
“You mentioned she used coke?”
“I’ve known ever since I was sixteen and she offered it to me.” Liz’s face contorted with fury. “That bitch came along, turned my father against me, but it only worked a short time.”
“What else did they argue about besides the money?”
“The drugs and the men she slept with.”
“She slept around?”
“He said she did. I have no knowledge of that personally.”
The picture the girl painted was certainly not something to help Mr. Porter. In fact, it was more likely to hang Voda Beth Loudermilk. But it did strike me strange, the girl didn’t have one kind word to say about her stepmother. “How old were you when they married?”
“Thirteen.” She drained her glass. “My mother couldn’t hold on to Dad. She’s a silly bitch, too. Sometimes she doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose.” She stood. “Sorry, Jenny. I do have to get to the Y for my tennis lesson. My fondest hope is that Voda Beth rots in jail.”
Thirteen is a difficult age. I knew from losing my own mother when I was twelve that I would have resented it tremendously if my father had remarried. Her remarks about her own mother seemed strangely out of place. Didn’t this girl like anyone? I wondered. Placing the unfinished Coke on the table, I got up. “Appreciate your talking to me, Liz.” I handed her one of my cards. “If you think of anything else I should know, please call.”
Liz preceded me to the door and opened it. “If it’s something that’ll help convict her, you’ll hear from me.”
It would be easier to make notes of my interview at my office. When I arrived I was surprised to find C.J. at the front desk, hacking away at the computer. “It’s good to see you, but weren’t you supposed to stay in Dallas all week-end?”
“Yes, but don’t ask any questions, okay?” she said and her tone indicated she wasn’t kidding. C.J.’s face, which always reminded me of a darker-skinned Nichelle Nichols, the Star Trek actress, was marred by a deep frown of concentration. The new computer we’d recently bought, was giving her fits. She continued hitting the buttons and keys like she was working out on a punching bag.
The fun with the football player, obviously didn’t work out. “Ooo. . .kay,” I said and told her about our new client, Voda Beth Loudermilk, brought in by Mr. Bulldog Porter himself. She nodded without comment and I began telling of my interview of Liz Loudermilk. “Liz tried to look and sound sincere, but I’m having a hard time believing her. The hate this girl had was so thick in the room it nearly smothered me.”
She paused, and turned to listen. “Sounds like she’s definitely jealous of the second wife.”
“I’ve tried to imagine how I would feel, in that situation. I’m sure I would have resented any woman my father brought in to take my mother’s place.”
“Five years is a long time to nurse a grudge. Didn’t Voda Beth ever do anything nice for Liz?” C.J. looked down at herself and tried to brush off a minute piece of something white from her bright green sweater, gave up and plucked it with her fingernails and tossed it away. The sweater, trimmed in brown and gold leather, was worn over a slim dark brown skirt and she’d added a bright green leather belt. She was also wearing green tinted pantyhose and dark brown boots. At her six foot height, she looks great in whatever she wears, but a couple of years as a model in Manhattan had set her style forever into the high fashion look.
My taste usually runs to levis or sweats. Of course, no matter what I wore, I still looked just like me, Jenny Gordon, of Houston, Texas. “Liz Loudermilk will cheerfully push the plunger on the syringe if her step-mother is sentenced to die by injection. She ain’t too crazy about her own mother, either.”
“Maybe she’s got a fixation on her father and anyone else is just a big zero in her mind.”
“You’re probably right, I was madly in love with my father when I was fourteen.” I said, thinking back, “About six months later, I hated him.”
“That was a normal growing-up process. I did about the same thing.” She smiled and leaned the chair back, folding her hands across her stomach. “Girlfriend, you know what strikes me about your conversation with that girl?”
“That insurance policy?”
“Yes. But besides that. She called Voda Beth a tight-assed bitch. That describes someone uptight or morally rigid. It’s not something I normally would associate with a woman who used drugs and slept around.”
“You’re right. It’s total contradiction, isn’t it?” I lit a cigarette, forgetting for a moment how much C.J. disliked my smoking.
She fanned the smoke with an exaggerated flip of her black hand, “Get out of here with that thing.” She turned back to the computer. “Besides, until I figure out how to trace that insurance policy, I don’t need you in my hair.” She picked up the telephone receiver, “I guess I’d better call the ‘old pro’ over at Intertect first and find out where to start.”
C.J. had a good working relationship with the private investigators over at Intertect, an office which specialized in computers and data bases. Good thing. Computers blow my mind completely. I’d probably never figure this one out.
I went into the lounge and turned on the air purifier and thought about my client. Bulldog Porter had wanted me to find “something” to prove wife abuse. Unfortunately, the talk with Liz Loudermilk had only tightened the noose.
I’d felt sorry for Voda Beth when she told of being beaten. She might even be a greedy slut, but I doubted she was as bad as the girl had tried to make her sound. It’s easy to use pop psychology to categorize people, yet the girl did sound like the classic example of a jealous daughter.
I walked back through to the back office to my desk, taking care not to disturb C.J. as she punched keys on the computer and numbers on the telephone. I called to make a late afternoon appointment with the ex-wife, Elwanda Watson. She worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant out in the Heights area and said we could meet there. I typed up notes of the “Liz” interview on my old IBM Selectric and placed them in the Loudermilk file. I’d never let that machine go, even if I did learn things like Word Perfect programs and networking with modems.
See you tomorrow for Part 2!