29
Apr
09

Fate Pays The Rent (Nineteenth Installment)

The room Mari, Clement, and Buzz now sat in was light green. It was otherwise indistinguishable from the blue one the two men had visited the day before. Even the coffee in the cups appeared to be the same.
“Mari, why were you headed for the Oregon coast?”
“Clement told me Jeff wasn’t acting right and I should get out of town.” She looked at Clement who nodded.
“Why the beach? Does that seem like a safe place for you to go?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mari, don’t most people who know you know how much you love the beach?”
“Yeah.”
“So why would you go there?”
“Because I never have time to go to the beach. I’m always working or I have to drag someone like Jeff along who hates being there and gripes the whole time. I figured that this time I had an excuse to be out of town and while I was going on a trip anyway I might as well stop at the beach.”
“You were going to Alabama by way of the Oregon coast?”
“Yes.” She stuck out her bottom lip.
“Mari, did you kill Aaron Whittaker?”
The bottom lip shot in like a spring-loaded cash register drawer. “You can’t just ask me like that.”
Buzz looked confused. “I can’t ask you like what?”
“You can’t just come right out and ask me if I killed Aaron yet. You asked me about the beach and now you have to ask me if I knew Aaron and if we were still seeing each other and if we’d had an argument and if there was any reason for me to want to kill him.”
“I know you were seeing each other and I know you knew each other so why would I ask you that?”
“That’s just how it’s done.”
“How it’s done where?”
“Anywhere. Everywhere. CSI or Matlock or Columbo. You can’t go right to ‘Did you kill him’. You have to ease into it. You know, lead up to it a little more.”
Buzz put his coffee cup on the table and stood up. He was just a little taller than Mari when everyone was on their feet but now he was the only one standing. “We’re not going to do it that way, Mari. Because this is my room and I’m asking the questions so I get to decide how things are done but also because I don’t know just that you and Aaron were still seeing each other. You’re not the first person I’ve talked to so I know a lot of things. I know about the Millennium Prize and that you had your eye on winning it.” Mari looked daggers at Clement but Buzz continued, “I know you’re smart enough to be working on one of the problems and to possibly solve it. Jeff knows too.” Mari put her hands on top of her head. “He doesn’t know you’re seeing Aaron but he does know you’re a lot smarter than you’ve been pretending to be. That’s one scam you won’t be running any more.”
“It wasn’t a scam. Yeah, I’m smart and yeah I hid it but you don’t get it. When people know you’re smart they expect you to act smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes I just didn’t have it. Everybody does stupid things sometimes but once people know you’re smart they don’t let you get away with that.”
“They don’t let you get away with murder either. Even setting people up for murder takes more intelligence than most people have. Agatha Christie couldn’t pull it off so what makes you think you can?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mari was squeezing her Styrofoam cup and nibbling the edge.
“I think you do. You’re looking at Clement and I think that’s a good thing. It’s only right that you finally pay attention to the dumb goat you intended to hang everything on.”
“What?” Mari stood up and she was nearly eye to eye with Buzz.
“Sit down. I’m asking the questions in this room.” Clement, started to intervene but Buzz gave him a hard look and he sank back into his chair. After a moment, Mari sat down as well. “You’re the one who told Jeff that Aaron had nude photos of you. You knew that Jeff would want them back and you knew he was too much of a coward to either confront Aaron or to go in and get them himself. What he would do is pass the job along to his good friend, the supreme gentleman, Clement. But Clement wouldn’t just barge right into the office and toss things around looking for the photos. Clement would be seen in the area a lot while he was researching Aaron’s schedule and determining the best time and the best way to go in. He might even talk with the man himself to get a better feel for how best to do this job for you. You knew all that because you did research yourself and you knew that not only is Clement a good friend but he’s a sucker for anyone in trouble.”
“No. You’re wrong about all of that. Your wife should be the one getting out of town because you’re the one who’s completely irrational.”
“I don’t think so. Why did you call Clement from the party at your friend Allison’s house?”
“I didn’t mean to. I’d been drinking and I guess I got kind of lonely so I called him.”
“If you were lonely, why didn’t you call your boyfriend?”
“Because he didn’t care about me the way Clement did. Clement wanted to know how I was going to get home and whether I had a safe place to be and Jeff asked me none of those things. I wanted to talk to someone who really gave a damn about me.”
“No. That’s a pretty story but I don’t buy it and I hope Clement doesn’t buy it either. You called to thank him for going after the pictures because you knew that, if he hadn’t retrieved them yet, your call would be just the spur to get him moving. You called him to help alleviate any doubts he might be having about the whole thing.”
“No. I was lonely.”
“You weren’t lonely; You set him up right from the beginning. He knows that now. He also knows there never were any pictures.”
Mari stuck her bottom lip out again and looked at Clement. “You must think I’m awfully silly to be asking you to get pictures when there weren’t even any pictures to get.”
“No, I think I was silly. Silly and stupid and pathetic. Only somebody who was all of those things would have been an attractive target for you. Jeff was in love with you and you didn’t pick him. He wasn’t desperate enough for your attention, I guess.”
Mari stood and walked to the wastebasket. She dropped the half-full cup into the can and a little of the coffee splashed up onto the wall. “You’re not so innocent in all this. You were always hanging around us waiting to see what would happen. Maybe you were hoping Jeff and I would split up and you’d get a chance with me or maybe you just got your jollies imagining what went on after Jeff and I left you in the living room at the end of the night. You’re not just pathetic; You’re also a voyeur.”
“This is entertaining as well as educational,” Buzz broke in, “but you still didn’t answer the original question of whether or not you killed Aaron Whittaker. You might as well have after all the work you went to covering your butt. You set Clement up and then he gave you an excellent alibi by telling you to get out of town. So, did you do it?”
Mari sat down at the table again. She leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. She looked at the two men. Low, muffled voices came through the wall from the room on their right. A phone rang five times before it was answered. “Did I kill Aaron Whittaker?” She smiled and shrugged. “The honest answer? Not really.”
“All right, now I’m the one feeling blonde,” Buzz said. “How does one not really kill someone?”
“It’s easy. Aaron was decapitated with a shovel, right?”
“That’s been established.”
“I didn’t do that.”
“You didn’t cut off his head with a shovel?”
“No, I didn’t. So if that was the cause of death then I didn’t kill him and whatever I may or may not have done before that is irrelevant. Right?” She uncrossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and smiled again.
“Technically, that’s true. I’d still like to know what you did before that. Just for my own peace of mind.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. I probably shouldn’t have told you I might have done anything except I was trying to be clear.”
Clement placed his hand beside Mari’s but didn’t take it. “Mari, I’m sorry for what I said before but I was really hurt when I found out you were just using me as a cover for Aaron’s murder. Don’t you want to help us find out who killed him?”
Mari slipped her hand into Clement’s. She squeezed it and looked at him with soft eyes. Clement squeezed back. She increased the pressure and her gentle smile became a sneer. She dropped Clement’s hand. “Why no, Clement, I don’t particularly want to help you find out who killed my ex-boyfriend. Why the hell should I care who killed him? He was my ex-boyfriend, emphasis on the word ‘ex’. Yeah, we still saw each other now and then and he was okay to talk to about math or science or gadgets but I didn’t love him, I didn’t like him and I don’t give a rat’s hindquarters who killed him as long as everyone is clear on the fact that it wasn’t me.”
“But we’re not clear on that. A million dollars is a lot of money and you’ve already told us you were in his office last night.”
“No, I didn’t.” She stood and walked to the wall and back. “All right, maybe I did tell you that in a roundabout way but I didn’t have any reason to kill him. All right, maybe that’s not entirely true either but I didn’t kill him. Look at me! Do I look big enough to be able to sever someone’s spinal cord with a shovel? Especially somebody who was fighting with me?”
“You can do anything if you get enough leverage. Buzz, isn’t that what you told me when we were in Aaron’s office?” Buzz nodded. “And I don’t believe Aaron was fighting with you when he was killed. They found his body in almost the same spot he’d been in when I left him earlier that night.”
“Yeah? So maybe you killed him and it wasn’t a set-up at all.” She was smiling.
“Absolutely out of character and no motive. No, Mari, you are suspect number one right now.”
“Well, I didn’t do it. I didn’t cut off anybody’s head with a shovel whether you think I could or not. Maybe I did something else and maybe I didn’t but you’re not gonna find out either way unless I get some promises.”
“You’ve gotten a lot smarter since you came in and sat down.”
“Maybe I had to. Maybe a girl has to get smart when you’re talking about swinging at the end of rope.”

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