August 30
by Hal Hart

Chapter 1

He was in an ugly mood. Driving the last three hours through a torrential downpour had stretched his patience to the limit. Damion Fitzgerald was a control freak and one thing he could not control was the weather. His Scotch-Irish background, his seventy-five years on this earth and his sporadic back problem had nothing to do with his ugly mood. Lack of control had everything to do with it.

Darkness had fallen by the time he reached the security station overhang and the rain drumming on the roof of the Mercedes took a short intermission. Fitzgerald lowered his window part way as he waited for the gate to open. The guard smiled and waved, and Fitzgerald attempted to return the smile, but all he could muster was a sneer.
“Nasty night,” he shouted and flinched as a bolt of lightning lit up the sky. “Anything new here besides this damnable weather?”

“Have you heard about the new locked door policy, sir?” the guard shouted back.
“Did you say lock …?” A crash of thunder interrupted, and he glared angrily at the heavens, powered the window shut and drove through the open gate into Mansfield Manor, a five-star retirement village hidden away in north Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

The first quarter mile was a winding descent to the valley floor with the curves laid out as gentle as possible to accommodate senior citizens, but still requiring a deft touch at the wheel, particularly on a dark, rainy night. The twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit made it a five to ten minute drive from the gate to the various entrances.
Fitzgerald’s nasty disposition had stirred up the bile in his stomach and he swore at himself for having packed his antacid pills. Thank heavens for the beach. The past three weeks at his cottage on the South Carolina coast had been idyllic.
To the right he could make out blankets of water on the fairways of the Manor’s par three golf course. Now I suppose it won’t be playable Saturday. He loved golf, and billiards, and put them in the same category as selling stocks and bonds, his business for forty years. He had dealt with his good and bad decisions on Wall Street and could live with his good and bad golf and billiard shots because he created them. He was responsible for his actions and accepted the results.
The area to the left of the road had been kept in its natural state with birch and oak and maple and dogwood and grasses and wild flowers providing a habitat for birds and animals and a destination for the Manor’s nature lovers. Hikers found their pleasure following the three trails that led up into the mountains .

Beyond the golf course on the right and running parallel was Lake Mansfield, a mile wide in places, with a twenty mile shoreline, fed by mountain streams, stocked with trout, and large enough to support a first-class marina for resident boaters.

Beastly night, more fit for a murder than driving, but murder in our retirement village? Heaven forbid. Most of the residents are content to sit on their butts waiting for the grim reaper. But a locked door policy? For what? It’s condescending to tell multi-millionaires they don’t have enough sense to lock their doors.

He entered a short stretch of the road which had been cut through a growth of mature oaks, forming an overhead arch which caught the rain and temporarily improved visibility. The Mercedes climbed over the last knoll as another lightning bolt lit up the sky, casting an eerie pallor on what would have been, on a clear night, a spectacular view of Mansfield Manor. The self-sufficient life retirement village had been built three years earlier in this remote mountain valley by billionaire Robert E. Mansfield IV. The exterior of the structure and the interior of the Manor House were build of unfinished stones from the mountains, a composite of English and Scottish medieval castles except for the larger windows.

The three wings, each five stories high, branched out north, west and east from the central Manor House, giving residents dazzling views of the lake or the mountains or the golf course, or, in some apartments, all three views. Above the end apartments on each wing were towers two-stories high with green roofs, each housing a pair of apartments with 360 degree views of the surrounding scenery. Fitzgerald occupied the upper tower apartment in North Manor.
He stopped under the North Manor porte-cochere and grunted as he removed a large piece of luggage from the trunk and wheeled it into the lobby. A doorman assisted with luggage and groceries and other weighty burdens from eight to seven daily, but it was nearly an hour later.

The seven-hour drive had drained his energy, even with a leisurely break for dinner, and he was ready to settle back with a Scotch and his Wall Street Journal. He left the luggage in the lobby and muttered to himself about being forced to drive the Mercedes through the rain to his assigned space in the carport. The valet parking service also shut down at seven o’clock.

He tramped back to the entrance with a fold-up umbrella fending off the rain from his five foot seven inch body clothed in a striped dress shirt and slacks. The early October air was still warm despite the rain. He found the lobby deserted, retrieved his luggage and was headed for the elevator when he heard a familiar voice.

“I say, Damion, you’re back,” said Vinn Struthers, a tall gangly octogenarian emerging from the North Manor library, the hint of a British accent still lingering from his years growing up in London. He was in his favorite sleeveless cardigan over a button-down shirt.

“Of course, I’m back,” Fitzgerald snapped, shaking water from his umbrella onto the lobby carpeting. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“So, how was South Carolina?” Struthers asked, unperturbed by the curt remark, used to his friend’s cranky moods, having voluntarily accepted the role as the stabilizing factor in Fitzgerald’s life now that the two long-time friends were reunited.

“Better weather on the coast, that’s for sure,” the diminutive Fitzgerald growled, pushing his linen touring cap higher on his forehead with his thumb.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard the news,” the six-foot-two Struthers said, looking down on his friend.

“About locking us up?”

“Oh, it’s not quite that bizarre, but how did you know about the new policy?”

“The security guard at the gate mentioned something about it, had to shout, actually, over the rain and thunder, but I wasn’t aware we had an old locked door policy. Why do we need a new one?”

Fitzgerald, luggage in tow, started toward the single elevator at the end of the North Manor wing and Struthers joined him. It was the only elevator which reached their apartments directly. The main double elevator near the entrance served only the first five floors.

“The original policy in the resident’s manual mentions locks and keys, but the new one is more forceful, basically urges us to lock up at all times including the dead bolt.” The narrow-faced Struthers ran a finger across his brush mustache. “I always lock my door and I’m sure you do, protect valuables and that sort of thing.”

Fitzgerald stopped, tired and exasperated, put his hands on his hips and looked up into his friend’s pinched eyes with the large bags hanging under them. “Struthers, will you get to the point – what brought on this new locked door policy?”
“A burglary over in West Manor. Let’s see, this is Thursday, so a week ago, on Wednesday night to be precise. Ashley Osmund’s apartment, you know, the really attractive widow, reddish-brown hair, the flirtatious one who has all the men’s hearts a flutter.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve seen her, but if these old gents’ hearts flutter too much, it may do them in.”

“Could be.” Struthers smiled as Fitzgerald continued toward the elevator and he kept pace. “She seems to enjoy charming some of the married men as well as singles. Doubt if it’s serious, but I don’t imagine it endears her to some of the wives.”

“We used to call someone like that a vamp.”

“I guess it applies in Ashley’s case.”

“You think she’s sleeping around?”

“Just a rumor, Damion, you know how older men look at a beautiful woman and imagine what it might be like to sleep with her and assume someone really is.”

“I guess we all fall into that imaginary category. You say this robbery happened a week ago?”

“Yes.” Struthers beamed. “So, I guess this exonerates you.”

Fitzgerald grinned fiendishly, stopped and pointed a finger at his friend. “Ah, hah, but not you, because you’ve been here all the time.”

“Touche.” They continued on their way. “Anyway, management issued the new policy after the break in. You’ll find the announcement in your back mail. I left it at your door.”

“Appreciate your picking it up, Vinn.”

“My pleasure, meantime, the grapevine has been buzzing with rumors, as you can well imagine.”

“And we have a grapevine that’s faster than a speeding bullet.”

“Yes, indeed, especially when it involves someone like Ashley.”

“What was stolen?” Fitzgerald asked.

“According to Beth, her best friend …”

“And your lady friend.”

“Yes, anyway, it seems Ashley is missing a pen and pencil set from her desk.”

Fitzgerald stopped abruptly, laughing out loud. “You’re kidding? That’s it? No diamonds, no pearls, no … no furs?”

“That’s all, according to Beth, but it apparently has sentimental value. Seems it was awarded to Ashley’s late husband as some honor, that sort of thing, has a marble base with a clock in the middle and an inscription.”

“Oh, an inscription and a clock. And someone would risk being arrested for that?” Fitzgerald rubbed his jaw which always indicated to Struthers that the wheels were turning inside his friend’s head. “Unless, of course, it’s valuable for some other reason. But display it? Can’t, it would be recognized. Pawn it? Probably not worth two cents.”

“I agree,” Struthers said, keeping pace as his friend marched onward toward the elevator. They nodded to a security guard making his evening rounds.

“Was anything else disturbed? You know, clothes strewn about or papers messed up on the desk.”

“According to Beth, Ashley suspects the intruder rummaged through her desk drawers, but she couldn’t find anything of value missing. She did find some underwear and other clothing arranged a bit differently in her dresser, and thought some things in her walk-in closet had been moved a bit, but apparently couldn’t put a finger on anything else missing.

Anyway, Beth says Ashley is mostly upset about someone getting into her apartment.”

“So, we have a break-in, the whole place goes bananas and we are directed to keep our doors locked. Against what?

A deranged inmate on the prowl for something to write with? Hide your pens and pencils, everyone.”
Struthers chuckled. “A possible scenario, I suppose.”

“Well, I don’t agree. Good Lord, Vinn, everyone in this place can afford the most expensive pen and pencil set for sale anywhere on earth. Why bother stealing one?”

“As you say, it could be someone who’s a little mixed up in the noggin, or someone who’s sending some kind of signal.”

“Now that makes more sense,” Fitzgerald said. “Does management have any idea who might have done it?”

“Not that I’ve heard.”

“Is management sitting on it, or have they brought in the police?”

“So far as I know, Damion, they’re sitting on it, leaving it to our own security people to solve.”

“They may be sitting on it for some time. You said it was a break in. Was the door jammed open?”
“Beth says there’s no evidence of forced entry. She lives two floors below Ashley and was the first person Ashley called.”

“A lot of people have pass keys – cleaning people, security, maintenance – and someone could have stolen a key, so there are a bundle of people who could get into any apartment, including yours or mine. But if robbery was the intent, why not take jewelry and fur coats?”

“I agree it is strange, but some residents have locked their valuables in their safes and a few have taken things down to the business office and locked them up there.”

“Including their pen and pencil sets, I hope. Sounds like the inmates are panicking. I assume Ashley was away at the time.”

“As a matter of fact, she was. Didn’t even tell Beth she was leaving, let alone where she was going, but Beth says that’s not unusual. Often doesn’t tell anyone. She’s apparently been making a lot of short trips lately, mostly over night, and Beth assumes it’s to visit her sister in Atlanta who’s ill.”

Fitzgerald rubbed his chin. “So, it has to be someone who knew she would be gone that night, or an enormous coincidence. Maybe we have a scheming kleptomaniac on our hands and, in that case, maybe we will have more robberies.”

“You know, Damion, there are stories about rich people, even famous movie stars, shop lifting, and getting caught. Little things, you know, not expensive items. One reason, they say, is the thrill of trying to get away with it, something psychological. Do you think that’s a possibility?”

“I suppose so, but to my knowledge we don’t have any tottering old movie stars living here, at least not yet.”

“No, indeed.” They heard a clap of thunder. “Maybe this was an outside job.”

“I hardly think so. It would be nearly impossible to get past security, particularly at night when there’s no traffic.”
Struthers punched the elevator button for the fifth and seventh floors. “Anyway, Damion, everyone is in a dither over this.”

“And the Mansfields are trying to solve it in house.”

“I suspect they hope it dies on its own and they don’t have to call in the sheriff who might love to solve a crime with reelection coming up in November. You know, good publicity for him, bad publicity for the Manor.”

“That’s understandable since there are still several apartments for sale. I assume Edith Mansfield issued the new policy.”

“I imagine so, executive director and all.”

“Yes, her husband may be president, but he seems more interested in charming the widows here,” Fitzgerald said sarcastically.

“He has the good looks and knows how to flatter them, that’s for sure, and then there’s the money.”

“I’d say so, the only heir to his old man’s millions, including this place. Young Robert is about sixty, I’d guess, so I’m sure he still has plenty of lead in his pencil. Like turning a fox loose in the hen house.”

“Very good, and I don’t suppose Edith can think of a good reason to stop him from coming on to the widows here,” Struthers said with a smile.

“Sort of ‘it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.’”

“I say, right on,” Struthers chuckled as the elevator door opened and they stepped inside.

“Look, Damion, I’m sorry I detained you, but I thought you’d be interested.”

“I am, Vinn, I am. I see you’ve picked up a couple of books from the library.”

“Yes, detective novels.”

Fitzgerald raised an eyebrow. “Ah, hah, about … sexy women victims?”

Struthers chuckled and stroked his mustache. “Oh, that’s good, very good. No, about police investigations. You’ve interested in law enforcement, went through that police academy program.”

“I dropped out early. The mental part was a piece of cake, but I detested the physical part and military structure. I considered law school and would have made an excellent lawyer, but that’s destiny.”

“But I can’t think of anyone more qualified to investigate the robbery.”

Fitzgerald laughed out loud, his rotund body shaking. “Launch an investigation because I went to a police academy? Come on, Vinn, my business was stocks and bonds. I’m no professional detective.” Fitzgerald reached up and put a hand on Struthers’ shoulder. “And, neither, I might add, is an old CPA like you.”

“I know, Damion, but why not put your mind to it? I’d be happy to run down leads, that sort of thing. How better to occupy that fertile mind of yours?”

Fitzgerald lightened up a bit as Struthers stroked his ego. He also saw the genuine interest in his friend’s face. “You really are wound up, Vinn. Look, if you’re that fascinated with this robbery, why don’t we meet for lunch tomorrow and talk it over. I’m sure we’ll decide we have no business sticking our noses into something that is none of our business.”

“Splendid idea, Damion.” The elevator stopped at the fifth floor and Struthers stepped out. “What about lunch and a beer in the pub?”

The elevator door started to close and Fitzgerald held it back. “No privacy. The Boar’s Head is another Grand Central Station around noon with all that senseless chattering. Let’s meet there at noon, order take-out and eat in my apartment and we can talk about it over a glass of wine instead of a beer. But I warn you,” Fitzgerald said as he freed the sliding door and let it close between them, “I’m really not interested in getting involved in this nonsense.”

end of chapter 1

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