Bitter End first appeared in the May, 2016, edition of Mystery Weekly Magazine.
It was two o’clock in the morning on the eleventh of August and no one, except Louise Tellier Hannington Brown, had any idea where I was.
She’d called me out of the blue a week ago, unhappy with her lawyer, her husband’s lawyer and her impending divorce. I should have hung up immediately but we’d known each other since high school and I owed her one.
“If you think Ted’s hiding something on his boat, Louise, why don’t you just go down to the marina and check it out?”
I heard the flick of a lighter on the other end of the line. Louise smoked when she was agitated. I drank coffee. Pouring myself another cup, I walked out onto my back deck. It was going to be a scorcher.
I wiggled my bare feet in the sun. The nail polish might be a little chipped around the edges, but, all in all, I was doing pretty well.
Unlike the rest of us, Louise had been racking up her assets the old-fashioned way. Ted Brown was her third, and wealthiest, husband to date.
Brilliant and ruggedly good-looking, Ted had been at the forefront of the high-tech industry, launching first one company with his partners, and then another. Now he wanted to kick back and cruise the Caribbean. Without Louise.
“His lawyer’s slapped me with a restraining order! Can you believe it?” She exhaled angrily into the phone.
“What’d you do? Beat the guy up?” I watched Marm, my three-year-old ginger cat, chase a black squirrel out of the yard.
“I got tired of leaving messages on his machine so I went down to the marina. The guard wouldn’t let me past the front gate…”
“…and?” The squirrel was back, sneaking along the fence, a kamikaze rodent in black fur, searching for his target.
“What was I supposed to do? Say `thank you very much’ and go home?”
Apparently, she’d torn a strip off the guard, thrown her BMW into reverse and blocked the entrance to the parking lot, refusing to leave until the club manager had threatened her with the police. They’d called Ted. He’d called his lawyer and now Louise was calling me.
I went inside for a notebook. I’d worked off and on for years as a chartered accountant before specializing in the relatively new field of forensic accounting. I learned my trade at one of the biggest firms in the country, tracking “hidden” assets and investigating fraud. Now I was on my own, picking up enough business to pay my rent and my share of raising the kids.
Meagan and Patrick, my fifteen-year-old twins. At the moment, they were vacationing with their father in Cape Cod. Which suited me well. If I was going to get involved with Louise, I’d rather they were safely out of town.
To be honest, I felt a little squeamish about delving into Ted and Louise’s personal affairs, but under the latest family law legislation, she had a claim on half the assets Ted had accumulated during their six-year marriage.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Louise wanted access to the Yellow Goose. Ted’s financial declaration, according to her calculations, was out by a few million dollars. If he was hiding something, it would, in all likelihood, be aboard the Yellow Goose, the one constant in his life.
“I can’t just sail into a strange marina.”
“At the very least, it’s trespassing.”
“It’s not as though you haven’t been there before…” if sarcasm was a liquid, Louise’s phone must be dripping with it.
I picked up a pen and started doodling. “You talking about the Somerset Yacht Club?”
“Don’t play dumb, Stevie. It doesn’t suit you.”
Oh, but it did. When it came to affairs of the heart, I was a total incompetent. Just ask my ex-husband, John Carston.
I’d married him when I was twenty-one, juggling kids and career to put him through law school. Twelve years later, we’d divorced. I’d kept his name and the kids. Since then, I’d had a few serious relationships, but none of them had panned out.
Then a year ago last spring, I’d bumped into Ted at the local boat show. He and Louise had split after a major row, and I was at loose ends having been without a partner for about a year. His offer to go sailing was irresistible. But by the end of the summer, he was back with Louise and I was in dry dock. The next spring I’d bought a boat of my own, the Indigo Blue, a twenty-four-foot Shark with a sweet cut to her jib.
“If I’d thought you and Ted were going to get back together, I never would have gotten involved.”
“Take the case and I’ll forgive you.”
“The guilt I can deal with, Louise. How much are you willing to pay?”
“Five thousand up front and a ten percent finder’s fee.”
Sailing’s an expensive sport. I took the job.
* * *
I set out from my own marina at about six-thirty on the night in question. The wind was light and predicted to wane as the evening progressed. As the Indigo Blue had been rigged to sail single-handedly, I enjoyed a couple of hours tacking back and forth across the bay before dropping anchor about five hundred metres downstream from the Somerset. The plan was to lay low until the heavy drinkers had left the yacht club and gone home.
With Louise’s complicity, I’d spent the last few days going over Ted’s bank statements, his credit card receipts and his tax returns for the last six years.
“How’d you get this stuff?” I’d asked Louise.
We were in her upscale Rockcliffe kitchen drinking white wine and talking about Ted. She’d leaned across the table and pointed a beautifully manicured finger in my direction. “In my circle, when a guy asks you to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, the odds are you’re not going to make your silver anniversary.”
“You kept records?”
She sat back and delicately touched the corners of her lips with her napkin. “You make me sound so calculating!”
“Consider it an attribute.”
She laughed and raised her glass to mine. “Here’s to Mrs.Shouldice, our grade-eight home economics teacher, who said…”
“…’if you can’t make a good white sauce, you’ll never amount to anything!”
* * *
As near as I could figure it, Ted had taken a hefty chunk of undeclared income and set up an offshore trust. Nothing illegal, but I found cheques made out to a Toronto law firm specializing in international tax planning, two receipts from a local bookstore for self-help books on how to move money out of the country, and evidence of several large cash transactions. Louise could either tip off the feds, which would probably trigger an audit of her own property as well, or convince Ted to release some of the assets she’d signed away in their pre-nupital agreement. For that, she’d need leverage. It was my job to find it.
At about twenty to two, I started the Indigo Blue’s small outboard engine and headed upstream. The wind had died, leaving a calm expanse of water between me and the buoys marking the entrance to the yacht club. It was a beautiful night.
I should have been sharing it with someone special instead of skulking around like a two-bit criminal but I was excited by the chase. I had my alibi all worked out and the money spent. Some for the feds, some for the kids, and the rest for a bareboat charter in the Virgin Islands next winter.
As I slipped through the harbour gates, row after row of aluminium masts rose from the shadows. I was gliding through a shimmering forest of silver trees. I turned and looked over my shoulder. There was nothing behind me but my own wake.
Halfway along the inner passageway, I spotted an empty berth and shifted into neutral. The Indigo Blue slid silently through the open water and bumped gently against the dock. Save for a few hundred crickets singing in the long grass, the place was deserted. I tied off my lines and set out for the Yellow Goose.
After a few minutes of padding along the dock and checking out other boats along the way, I found Ted’s.
She was a beauty. Twenty-nine feet of grace with teak decks and mahogany topsides.
There’s a saying around my marina that “if the boat’s rocking, keep on walking.” Just in case Ted was breaking in a new crew member, I decided to wait a few more minutes, hunkering down alongside his neighbour’s C & C.
A car was travelling very slowly along the gravel access road. I crept from my hiding spot and peered over the hull of Ted’s boat. It was a mid-sized sedan, just the type of car I’d expect a night security guard to drive.
A moment later, his rear lights came into view. He’d followed the road around to the main parking lot and was heading back towards the main gate. I watched him until his rear lights disappeared into the distance. Like most marinas, the Somerset’s security was focussed on keeping people out, not boats.
It was time. I’d brought along a flashlight and a flat piece of metal to jimmy the lock, but when I boarded the Yellow Goose, I was surprised to find her hatch unlocked. Like all good amateur detectives, I sensed something amiss, but while I tried to work through this latest discovery, the wind picked up and sent a loose halyard pinging against the mast of a boat two slips down. Damn near scared me half to death.
I did the logical thing. I opened the hatch and went below.
The interior of the Yellow Goose was exquisite. Ted had had her fittings custom-made and the wood glowed warmly in the light of my torch. Even the drawer pulls were bronze.
Gawking over, I started with the sliding panels in the aft bulkhead. It was full of tools, foul weather gear and extra water, all neatly stored for easy access. Searching it any further would be a waste of time. I replaced the panels and moved on to the quarter berths. Again, I struck out.
According to my watch, I’d been on board twenty-five minutes and so far, I hadn’t turned up anything more interesting than a book of matches and a faint metallic odour.
Either Ted had been eating sushi or he’d left perishables in the bar-sized fridge. I bent down to take a look. Other than a half-dozen beer, the fridge was empty. So were the storage areas left and right. The drawers held the usual assortment of kitchen accessories and the odds and sods boaters collect, like spare batteries and the stub ends of candles, but nothing that pointed to a cache of a half-a-million dollars, and no rotting food. I stood up and eased the pressure on my knees.
The chart table. Ted kept his charts in two mahogany boxes, one for local waterways and one for the charts he’d picked up on his annual trip to the Caribbean.
I found a map detailing the Bahamian waters that had been folded over and tucked inside the second box. A smaller piece of paper was nesting in one of the folds. I spread it out on the chart table. It was a receipt for a piece of equipment from a chandlery in the Caymans.
I slipped it into my back pocket and replaced the charts.
It wasn’t much, but one small receipt often lead to a much larger purchase which, in turn, could reveal what Ted was really trying to keep under wraps. With his money, I suspected a numbered company was involved. The company would buy whatever it was Ted wanted, and then rent it back to him for a nominal fee.
As I bent over the table, my foot connected with something hard and kicked it out of sight. I fished it out from beneath the bench. It was the lock from the companionway hatch. I sat back on my haunches and pondered the possibilities. Either Ted had been in a hurry and forgot to lock up or somebody had been here before me. I got up and carefully put the lock on the chart table.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t having fun anymore. It was almost three, my bladder was full to bursting, and I wanted to be back across the river before dawn.
I should never have used the head on the Yellow Goose, but I remembered it as a lot nicer than my makeshift toilet.
I set the tiny flashlight on the edge of the sink facing the head and undid my pants before I opened the door.
When I turned the latch, the door to the head practically came off at the hinges.
I gasped and staggered backwards. Ted Brown stared back at me, his eyes bulging hideously from their sockets. He teetered in the doorway and then suddenly, he fell forward. I threw out my arms to catch him. The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor with Ted on top of me, wedged between the galley and the head.
My heart went into overdrive. I yelled at him to get off me. I even pounded him on the back. I was in such frenzy that it was a few moments before I realized that my hands were wet and sticky. It was blood. Ted’s blood.
* * *
“Tell me again. From the top.”
I tried to focus on what Detective Seguin was saying but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the companionway hatch. The ambulance attendants were bringing Ted out in a body bag. Rigor mortis had begun to set in and they had to wrestle him through the narrow passageway. I sniffled. My sweatshirt was caked with his blood.
It’d only been an hour since an old sailor had heard my screams and come running, but it seemed like half-a-lifetime. God knows what he’d thought when he first flashed his torch over the interior of the Yellow Goose. I’d smeared blood everywhere. On me, on the floor and all over Ted.
“Do you always sail alone this late at night?” Seguin prompted.
I hugged my knees to my chest. “No.”
“So why tonight?”
I explained how I’d sailed into the wind to keep from interfering with the club races. By the time they’d run the last course, it was dark. That’s when I’d discovered my running lights weren’t working.
“Why didn’t you use your radio? Call for help?”
“Play helpless female, you mean,” I paused and tried again. “The weather was calm. I was close to the Somerset. Seemed logical to me.”
Seguin gave me the look, the one guys use when they think a woman has acted in a rash or irresponsible manner. As if he would have called for help. An uniformed policeman stood on the dock. Seguin beckoned him over. “Know anything about boats?”
The man shrugged. “Some.”
“The Indigo Blue. She’s moored at the next dock. Go over and check her wiring,” Seguin paused to stare at me, “specifically her running lights.”
“Wait!” I called.
Mike Seguin halted the constable with an upraised hand. If he thought I was about to confess, he was badly mistaken.
“You’d better take these.” I tossed the keys to the uniformed officer, then turned back to Seguin. “Just to show you how cooperative I can be. Because without a warrant, you have no business searching my boat.”
Seguin took a pack of gum from his pocket and offered me a piece.
I’d seen enough good cop, bad cop routines in on television to know the drill, but I took it anyway. My mouth was sour. He waited until I’d had a few good chews before asking his next question.
“And the boat was unlocked when you came aboard?”
“Didn’t you think that was a bit strange?”
“Not at the time,” I told him, but of course, I had. And now that nagging little suspicion was turning into a full-blown theory.
Seguin changed tack.
“What was your relationship with the deceased?”
“His wife and I are old friends.” So old we could almost predict how each other would react in a given situation.
“And she doesn’t mind you dropping in on her husband from time to time?”
“Ah, so you were looking for a little action with the ex?”
I grit my teeth. The little action I had had with the ex was probably why I was sitting here with his blood all over me.
“You know I wouldn’t put it past an independent woman like you to sabotage your own running lights,” Seguin hypothesized. “What’d he do? Turn you down?”
I’d had enough. “Let’s get one thing straight, detective. If I’d been a man, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. I would have pissed into the harbour and gone back to my own boat. Ted would still be stuffed inside the head and you’d be passing time with a couple of jelly donuts.”
I was burning mad now. I think he would have slapped the cuffs on me right then and there had the other officer not returned to confirm my story.
“No lights. Her connections are corroded.”
At least that news was good. Fixing my running lights had been one of those jobs I’d put off and put off, hoping one of my sailing buddies would sort it out for me. Now I was almost giddy with relief that they hadn’t.
“We’ll be dredging the harbour at first light. You could save us the trouble and tell us where the knife is.”
I willed myself to stand up. I knew exactly where it was. It was in my back. Right where Louise had left it, fingerprints and all.