“There are four kinds of Homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy.” Ambrose Bierce
Palmer used a key to open the front door. He looked around. It was a nice place, marble floor, crystal chandelier up above. He stood in the front foyer with a bunch of roses behind his back—fifteen, to be exact. Palmer always followed orders to the letter.
A wide set of stairs led down to the lower level. A big Golden Retriever barked once, then ambled up, wiggling around Palmer. A television was going downstairs.
“Hey, Georgie,” Palmer said, rubbing the dog’s ears. “How’s my boy?”
A man appeared at the bottom of the stairs, shirt open, showing a hairy chest. Except for a small fringe of hair, he was bald. As soon as he saw Palmer, his eyes darted around. “What the hell do you want?” he said loudly. “Get your hands off my dog.”
“Take it easy, Stanz.”
Stanz came up a few steps and pulled out his cellphone.
“Put that away, Stanz,” Palmer said.
Stanz started punching the keys.
Palmer took out a gun with a silencer and shot him.
Stanz slumped, grabbing the handrail with one hand, holding his chest with the other. A red spot appeared on his shirt, growing slowly, spreading out. He slid down the stairs. Georgie kept wiggling around Palmer.
“Good dog,” Palmer said. “What a good dog.”
A woman’s voice called from the second level, then two beautiful legs appeared on the stairs wearing acrylic high-heeled slippers. She was blonde, still good looking, but her mouth had that slight downturned look, like she was always dissatisfied. She stood between two paintings on the wall. Stanz had paid big bucks for those things. Palmer had seen the bills.
“Who is it, Stanz?” she said. “Who’s down there with you?”
“It’s me,” Palmer replied.
She was wearing a long, silver negligee, her hair up in a towel, no make-up.
“Who are you?” she said. “Where’s Stanz?”
Palmer pocketed the gun and held out the roses.
“These are for you, Lil.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Do you have a vase or something?”
“I asked how you know my name.”
“Lillian Scott, right? Sorry, Lillian Dubinsky now.”
“Where’s my husband? Where’s Stanz?”
“Stanz?” she called out.
“He can’t answer you.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
She stared at him like he was joking.
“Look for yourself.”
She came across the foyer with her back to the wall. Her acrylic heels clicked on the marble floor. She tilted her head around the corner and saw her husband lying there at the bottom of the stairs.
“Oh my god,” she cried. “Stanz.”
She grabbed the stair railing.
“Easy,” Palmer said.
“Did you — ?”
“I had to, Lil.”
He just stood there in his black suit, black-rimmed glasses, looking like an older version of Buddy Holly—except for the gloves, of course. Palmer was still holding the roses.
Lil started to slide down the wall. Palmer reached out to help her.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Take it easy.”
“Just… don’t… touch me.”
“Okay, I’ll stay right here. I won’t move any closer.”
She put her face in her hands and shook her head.
“Why? Why did you shoot him?”
“I had no choice.”
“How could you not have a choice?”
“He took a lot of money from Tony.”
“What money? We’re practically broke.”
“That’s not true, Lil. We figure Stanz got over eight hundred thousand—that we know about, anyway. It could be a lot more if I know Stanz.”
She slid further down the wall. Georgie came up and tried to lick her face. She pushed him away. The towel was coming loose from her head.
Palmer knelt down on the floor in front of her.
“How much more?” she said.
“That’s what we’re still trying to figure out.”
“Couldn’t Tony just ask for it back?”
“He tried, Lil. Stanz kept denying it.”
Georgie kept running up and down the stairs.
“Let’s go out to the kitchen,” Palmer said to Lil. “Do you want some water?”
“Can I at least put the roses in a vase?”
“I don’t care what you do.”
“Look, Lil, everyone’s sorry as hell about this—especially Tony. He liked Stanz a lot. They were together — what? — twenty-five years? He’s willing to be reasonable — “
“By having my husband murdered?”
“Tony gave Stanz every opportunity, believe me.”
Lil’s eyes went back and forth. The shock was wearing off. It took less time than Palmer expected.
“Lil?” he said. “Are you listening?
“How’s Tony going to be reasonable?”
“I’ll explain, if you let me. Can I do that?”
Damp curls stuck out from the edge of Lil’s towel.
“Let’s go in the kitchen,” Palmer said. “I’ll get Georgie something to eat.”
“Why do you call him Georgie? His name is George.”
“Stanz always referred to him as Georgie, didn’t he?”
Palmer helped her up, took her to the kitchen, got some wine out of the fridge.
“There you are,” he said. “Drink that.”
Lil sipped the wine. Then she grabbed her purse off the counter, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. Her hands shook.
Opening one of the bottom cupboards, Palmer took out a bag dry dog food and poured some in Georgie’s bowl. “Here you go,” he said. “Good boy.”
Then he found a vase, filled it with water, and unwrapped the roses.
“I wasn’t sure about roses,” he said. “A bit melodramatic, don’t you think?”
“Not funny,” Lil said, blowing the smoke out her nose.
She sniffed and tilted her head back.
“Do you want a Kleenex?” Palmer asked.
“Just one of those paper towels.”
He gave a paper towel and she blew her nose.
“Why are you being so nice?” she asked. “Aren’t you supposed to kill me, too? Don’t you kill witnesses?”
“You make it sound like I’m potting birds,” Palmer said. He got some cheese out of the fridge, unfolded the wrapping, found a knife in one of the drawers. “We’re not animals, Lil,” he smiled. “We don’t kill people for no reason.”
“But I’ve seen your face?” she said.
“Have some cheese.”
He put the cheese on a plate and brought it over to her.
“So you’re not worried?” she said.
“Me, for godssake. You can’t just let me walk away?”
“Why not? Stanz stole the money, not you.”
“And Tony wants to be reasonable?”
“That’s what he said. Keep in mind, Stanz stole a lot money.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he could, I guess. Stanz was good, no question. Every time he went to Miami, he put money in a bank. Sometimes a few banks. No transfers. No paper trail. Stanz was one one hell of an accountant.”
“How did you find out?”
“He kept taking larger sums.”
“So what happens now?”
“Like I said, Tony feels bad about this. He’s willing to do a deal.”
“What sort of deal?”
Palmer sat on a stood next to Lil.
“Look, we know this house is paid off. Stanz hated mortgages. We also know he put everything in your name. Tomorrow you list the house — not next week — tomorrow. Sell it as fast as possible. Tony’s going to feel lousy for a while. That allows us some time. We’ll give him something until the place sells. The Mercedes for a start. That’s what Stanz drove, right? You drive the Lexus?”
“Okay, sign over the ownership. I’m sure both cars are in your name. I’ll give Tony the Mercedes. He’ll like that. I’ll tell him you’re a mess. He’ll cut you some slack. Anything else of value? Diamonds? Other jewels?”
“A diamond necklace. A few smaller pieces.”
“Give me those.”
“Tony’s out a lot of money, Lil. If we don’t give him something, he’ll take all your assets. Timing is everything right now.”
Palmer refilled Lil’s glass and popped a piece of cheese in his mouth.
“Once the house is sold, get out. Leave as soon as possible. This place will probably fetch two point five, two point six. Tony’ll definitely want one point six. That’s if we get this done right away.”
“Where am I going to go?”
“Go see your boyfriend in Panama.”
She stared at him. She didn’t look guilty. Why should she? Stanz was always sending her off on vacations by herself. It was Stanz’s own fault.
“How do you know that?” she said.
“Everybody knows, Lil. Look, you’re getting a million. Go see Carlos. I’ll keep Georgie, if you want. I’ve got a nice house. My kids love dogs.”
“You have kids?”
“A boy and a girl. My daughter’s graduating grade school next month. Do you want me to take Georgie?”
Lil rubbed her face.
“I don’t care. He’s Stanz’s dog.”
“How did you know Carlos’ name.”
“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?”
“You’ve make a lot of calls, Lil.”
“Why do you care?”
“We all care, Lil. You didn’t do anything wrong. Tony realizes that. He wants you to do okay. A million goes a long way. Nobody spends a million in Panama.”
Palmer looked at his watch.
“I’d better get moving here.”
“What are you going to do with Stanz?”
“Let me worry about that.” He capped the wine. “Where’s the car ownership?”
“Upstairs in Stanz’s wallet.”
“Go get it. Sign it over to Tony and we’re done. And bring down the necklace.”
“What do I tell the police?”
“There won’t be any police. All of Stanz’s appointments were cleared as of first thing this morning. Tomorrow you’ll get a postcard from Miami saying he’s left you for another woman. He wants you to take the house.”
“How are you going to manage that?”
“He was going to leave you last year. We intercepted the postcard. The postmark has to be altered, but we have professionals.”
“So you kept the postcard to use now?”
“We’re a business of contingencies, Lil.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?” she said.
“It’s what we do.”
“I could turn you in?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m just saying I could.”
“I doubt it would be in your best interest.”
“A lot of people would get involved. Police, forensic accountants, organized crime task forces. I very much doubt they’d show you the same consideration Tony’s showing now. This could stay in the courts for years, Lil.”
“Meaning I’d end up with nothing”
“Exactly,” he said, lifting her to her feet. “Which is why we have to do things this way. Think of it as a new adventure. You like adventures.”
“They’ll figure out he’s missing eventually.”
“What about the neighbours?”
“What about them?”
“They saw Stanz here today.”
“Most deserting husbands don’t get traced.”
Her expression changed. Palmer figured it was only a matter of time.
“I want to keep the diamond necklace,” she said.
“That’s a risk.”
“Tony doesn’t have to know. He’s getting the Mercedes.”
“It’s not enough.”
“Then take the Lexus, too. I don’t need a car in Panama.”
Palmer looked at her.
“The Lexus is worth maybe forty thousand dollars. What was that necklace valued at? Three fifty? Four hundred grand?”
“Take my other jewellery.”
“Ruby necklace, diamond and sapphire earrings. A Cartier watch.”
“My ring,” she said, pulled at her finger. “It has to be worth something.”
“Do you have certificates?”
“Of course I have certificates.”
“Okay, get everything together, ownerships, licenses — oh, and Stanz’s passport. Sign over the titles, no dates, leave everything else blank.”
“Why do you need Stanz’s passport?”
“How could he run away without it?”
Palmer looked at his watch.
“I think that’s it. I’ll put Stanz in my car, then clean up downstairs.”
“Where are you going to put him?”
“Let me worry about that.”
Twenty minutes later, Lil was still getting dressed. She dried her hair, put on some makeup, lit a cigarette. She picked up the phone, started dialling, then hung up again. She went out into the hall.
Palmer appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
“Stanz and Georgie are in the car. Everything’s cleaned up. By the way,” he said, taking out a cell phone, “use this if you’re calling Panama. Dump it when you’re finished. It’s untraceable.”
He put it on the banister and looked at his watch.
“Where are the car ownerships?”
“I’ll get them,” she said.
She went back to the bedroom, got the licenses, signed the backs, then opened the safe behind the painting of Stanz. A safe box inside contained the jewellery and certificates of authenticity. She checked the other papers, then took everything downstairs. Palmer was standing in the kitchen.
“A lawyer will call you in a couple of days,” he said. “Do everything through him, house sale, everything. Don’t ever call Tony directly.”
He looked at the ownerships and put them in his jacket.
“That’s it, then. Good luck in Panama.”
“What if I don’t like Panama?” Lil said.
“Go anywhere you want. Just don’t come back here. Tony’s going to be upset for a while. Especially if he finds out Stanz took more money than we thought.”
“Probably, knowing Stanz. Stay as far away as possible.”
He looked at his watch again.
“Right then, I’m off.”
Out in the car, Georgie jumped around in the back seat. Palmer drove down the street, pulling over by a small parkette. He popped the trunk. Stanz got out, came around to the passenger side, and opened the door.
“I think I put out my back falling down those stairs,” he said to Palmer.
He got in, did up his seat belt, and smiled at Palmer.
“Everything go okay?”
Palmer handed Stanz his passport, the jewellery, the car ownerships. Stanz went through each piece, handing the ownerships back to Palmer.
“Nice work,” Stanz said. “We got time for a drink?”
“I have to get home. Mary’s making lasagna.”
Stanz chuckled to himself.
“Lil kept the necklace, huh? Woman’s got balls. How much for the house?”
“Two point six.”
“Sounds about right.”
“How much will Tony let her keep?”
“Hundred grand, if she’s lucky.”
Stanz looked out the window.
“I’m surprised you didn’t keep the necklace yourself,” he said.
“You paid me enough.”
“It won’t seem like enough. Tony’s going to be pissed.”
“How much is it?”
“I set up an account for you in Georgetown,” Stanz said. “Investment certificates, bonds, gold, a good spread.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They were pulling into the airport at the departure level. Palmer drove past the last entrance, just out of sight of the cameras. Stanz got out, grabbed his bag from the trunk, then leaned in the window and petted Georgie.
“Take good care of him,” he said to Palmer.
“Where am I buried, by the way?”
Stanz went off through the airport doors. Palmer drove over to the new terminal, waited ten minutes, then started for home. Coming up the driveway later, he opened the back passenger door and Georgie jumped out. Palmer was getting his briefcase when he suddenly remembered something. It wasn’t a big thing, but just the same.
He took Georgie inside. Palmer’s wife came out of the kitchen.
“I have to go out again,” he said. “I forgot something.”
“How long will you be?”
“Ten or fifteen minutes. Twenty at the most.”
Back in the car, Palmer imagined Stanz laughing his head off if he knew. Maybe I’m slipping, he thought. Twenty years at this. He drove back to Stanz’s house, parking down the street, then went around to the side door, letting himself into the kitchen. The bottle of wine wasn’t on the counter. He checked the fridge. She must’ve taken it upstairs. Probably fast asleep by now.
He took out the bag of dog food, the dish, the leash, the toys. He kept shaking his head. The most obvious things.
Not a good sign, he thought. Not a good sign at all. Like he told Lil, this is a business of contingencies—even small ones. You have to stay on the ball.