Authors: Lisa Fernow
A TANGO MYSTERY
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2013 by Lisa Fernow
Originally published by Booktrope
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by AmazonEncore, Seattle
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Editor: Cynthia White
Cover Designer: Loretta Matson
This title was previously published by Booktrope; this version has been reproduced from Booktrope archive files.
To My Family
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Atlanta
THE ELEGANTLY SUITED ANTIQUES DEALER
stood on a slab of bedrock jutting out into the Chattahoochee River and gazed out at Devil’s Race Course Shoals. The water level had been unseasonably low that July so he had been able to walk out practically into the middle of the channel without wetting his dress shoes.
In a few minutes the sun would set and the park would officially close. The water enthusiasts would pull their rafts from the rapids and the hikers would turn back on their trails to return to their cars and eventually, reluctantly, to civilization. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Getting out into nature, far removed from his normal milieu, normally helped him to clear his mind but the Argentina business was different. Shameful. What should he do? Calling in the police was out of the question. He tried to play out the alternatives, weighing the consequences of each.
The thunder grew louder.
He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and dialed a number he knew better than to call but the unaccustomed wine he’d drunk at dinner overrode his better judgment. The phone rang five times. Finally a message came on instructing him to leave his name.
He said, “I need to talk to you. It’s important. Pick up. Pick up.”
He rambled into the phone at length as darkness fell, failing to notice that the river had begun to rise.
ANTONIA SETTLED HAPPILY
into Eduardo Sanchez’ arms and closed her eyes, giving her body time to know his again. His freshly shaved cheek felt warm and tacky from the humidity. She took a deep breath and caught the faint notes of bergamot and tobacco from his cologne. Her heartbeat quickened, but he didn’t move. She could tell he wanted to. She wanted him to. But Eduardo always took his slow, sweet Argentine time: it drove her crazy in all the right ways. They took a breath together and he drew her an exquisite millimeter closer.
Calo’s orchestra played the first few melancholy notes to “Que Falta Me Haces,” the violins, piano, and
each contributing their thread of the sad conversation. She and Eduardo stood together for the first introductory bars, allowing their connection to build.
Antonia felt Eduardo inhale, this time more deeply. He shifted his weight, bringing her onto her left foot. On his exhale he took one deliberate sidestep, the quality of his movement expressing the lushness of the music. She went with him, a split second too quickly, although no one but an experienced
She felt the muscles in his cheek flex against hers. Her friend was smiling.
He stepped again, placing his foot softly, and this time she followed to the end of the beat, taking the full intimate, intoxicating moment.
The tenor crooned, looking for the woman who was no longer there, the longing and torment in his voice almost too much to bear.
Eduardo led a compact, unhurried turn, transmitting the music through his body into hers. Sensing her response he replied in kind with another soulful, tender
and she lost track of where he ended and she began and there was nothing but the music and their shared, ecstatic heartbreak—
She flinched and Eduardo relaxed his hold. The spell was broken. She opened her eyes and Eduardo’s features came gradually back into focus: ebony hair flecked with silver, brooding eyes, his lined face bearing witness to a life filled with both great happiness and deep sorrow. Then the room: the black and white publicity stills signed by her favorite tango masters, the DJ station, the vintage Carlos Gardel poster her students had given her for her thirtieth birthday, bistro tables dotting the perimeter. And on the nearest one, the phone, still ringing away.
Eduardo said, “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
She glared at the offending appliance. “No.”
“Then I will. I can’t concentrate with this racket.”
“No you don’t.” Antonia laughed and drew him close again. Eduardo had been called home unexpectedly to Buenos Aires, something to do with a patient, and unless she stowed away in his suitcase it would be her last chance to work with him until Trasnochando, Atlanta’s annual tango festival. Only a week away, it felt like years as far as she was concerned.
“Let’s compromise.” He took her back into the embrace and danced her over to the phone. Still holding her, he picked up the receiver with his free hand. “Velocity Studio.”
She could hear the man’s voice on the other end asking for Ms. Antonia Blakeley. She shook her head miming she was out.
Eduardo just handed her the receiver.
“Ms. Blakeley? This is Donald Porges from the Department of Housing at Georgia Tech. I hope I’m not disturbing you, ma’am, but I’m calling in regards to Christian Cookerly. You’re his guardian?”
“Yes, his aunt.”
“Well ma’am, it seems your nephew’s hacked into the university computer system again and made a few executive decisions.”
She grinned. “Has he?”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am. This time he’s bumped the President’s Scholars out of Caldwell residence hall and reassigned young ladies to the men’s floor.” Mr. Porges sounded almost wistful and Antonia wondered if he’d ever enjoyed a good old-fashioned panty raid. “Also, it would appear he’s given himself a female roommate even though he’s not actually signed up for campus housing this fall.”
Dear Christian, he’s really outdone himself this time. Antonia buried her face in Eduardo’s shirtfront to stifle her laughter. “I see.”
“What we have here, ma’am, is a buddin’ case of nonacademic misconduct. He’ll have to go before the UJC if I report him.”
And we can’t have that, can we, Antonia thought. “How about a deal? I’ll have Christian put everybody back where they belong if you forget this happened. Save you the pain of doing the data entry yourselves, or whatever you have to do. I’m so terrible at computer science, it’s not just a matter of an ‘unsend’ button is it?” She looked up at Eduardo and winked.
“Christian is a very talented young man, Ms. Blakeley, and we like him a lot here but you understand we can’t have him messin’ with our systems.”
“He’d be fixing them,” she countered, knowing she could talk Mr. Porges around as she’d done with all the other Georgia Tech staff who’d called to complain about some antic or other of Christian’s in the year since she’d taken over as his guardian. The last time he’d hacked the online course catalog it had taken the administration three weeks to realize they were offering Game Design for Geeks as a subject. “No harm, no foul—what do you say? Maybe he can throw in a few upgrades.”
The earnest official exhaled noisily into the phone. “Ma’am. This is the last time. Remind him the President’s Scholars are supposed to have priority.”
“Thank you so, so much, Mr. Porges.” She put down the phone and turned back to Eduardo. “It’s funny but it isn’t really. Christian spends all his time on the computer, night and day. I worry about what it’s doing to his social skills. You read about all those Romanian orphans and how they have trouble with attachment.”
“Does he seem alienated? Withdrawn?”
Of course, she should have realized the minute she used a term like attachment to a psychoanalyst it was bound to spark a professional reaction. She considered his question and decided whiz kids were that way by definition. “No more than you’d expect.”
“Does he crave attention?”
“No, just the opposite.”
“Is he sexually promiscuous?”
“Only virtually, that’s what I’m concerned about. He never gets out. The only thing he knows about women he learns from websites and fantasy role-playing games.”
“Has he joined a gang?”
“No, but he had a violent childhood. You know his history.”
Eduardo said, “Not really. And neither do you.”
“His parents managed to do each other in during a domestic disturbance—that’s Child Protective Services’ euphemism, not mine—and he witnessed it.”
“But he doesn’t remember what happened.”
“And why is that? Because he’s traumatized.”
“Antonia, what are we really talking about?”
Antonia walked over to one of the bistro tables and plunked herself down in the nearest chair. “Christian needs a father figure. You’re a man of the world. You could be a good example for him. Stay here for the fall season and help me teach the fundamentals class.”
“I would be delighted, you know that. But my patients need me. At least they think they do.”
“Can’t they lie on the couch and call you in Atlanta to tell you their dreams?”
Eduardo laughed. “Perhaps you should trust Christian to find his own path. He
practically an adult.”
“Are you kidding? He’s not even eighteen. He doesn’t have a frontal lobe yet. He needs to meet real, live women in a structured environment where he can develop some social skills.” Antonia reached down to undo the straps of her Comme Il Fauts, the only dance shoes that gave her enough height to embrace Eduardo at anything close to eye level. She slipped out of them and regressed to five foot four. “I know. I’ll bring him to class.”
“Isn’t that throwing him into the deep end? Tango can stir up powerful emotions.”
“You’re afraid it will mess with his head?”
“I am more concerned about his heart.”
“Don’t worry. I have everything under control.”
Eduardo shook his head and his smile faded.
VELOCITY STUDIO HAD ONCE BEEN
a schoolhouse, the kind ruled by teachers who sent girls home for wearing long pants to class. In Antonia’s opinion she’d righted a cosmic wrong when she’d turned the building into a dance studio.
Her Sunday Tango Fundamental series officially started at three thirty but many of her students had arrived early to warm up. Twenty out of thirty-two so far. She’d started with Di Sarli to set the mood. His music presented a clear, steady heartbeat for the beginners but the melodies were still lush and evocative.
Christian slouched against the wall a few feet away, hands thrust into the pockets of his sagging jeans, a lock of curly black hair tumbling over his forehead. He’d worn his favorite Led Zeppelin T-shirt. With his pallor and soulful eyes plenty of girls would find him romantically attractive in a vampire-romance-loving sort of way. Christian caught her looking his way and shot her a twisted smile rolling his eyes in feigned boredom which meant he was having a not-too-terrible time. Just as well since she’d practically press-ganged him into coming to class.
Things were going according to plan. The next move was to get him onto the floor.
Antonia turned to find Shawna Muir in her usual Shakti yoga tank and pants, auburn hair disciplined into a bun, the expression on her freckled face looking suspiciously beatific. She waved discreetly and Antonia spotted the engagement ring on her friend’s left hand.
“Holy moly,” Antonia said. “He actually did it?”
Shawna kissed her cheek, Argentine style: their usual greeting. “Don’t be rude.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t call.”
“I wanted to but Roland thought it would be fun for me to tell you in person. And he has something to ask.”
Right on cue in strode the man himself, Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, sporting twill pants, an Augusta National Golf Club shirt, and a smile, all of which looked like they’d been pressed at the dry cleaner’s. To Antonia’s dismay Roland made straight for her. “So,
, what do you think? Will you do us the honor of being our matron of honor? Not that you’re matronly in any way.”
Oh God. “When is it?”
“We haven’t finalized the date.”
That’s hardly surprising, Antonia thought. Roland never commits to anything. “Shawna’s my best friend, of course I’ll do it. Just don’t throw me the bouquet.”
Roland and Shawna changed into their dance shoes and made their way to the edge of the floor. Shawna draped her arm around his shoulders and settled against his chest. Roland shifted from side to side to get a feel for her weight before taking his first step: the
. He led her around the room, walking slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, punctuating the sprightly beat. When the music turned romantic Roland led a low
causing Shawna’s free foot to trail the floor in a graceful arc. From the expression on Shawna’s face Antonia could tell Roland was sending her to tango heaven which was a miracle considering what was going on around them.
Tango Fundamentals was one of her favorite classes to teach because it mixed all levels of dancers and helped build community. Advanced dancers came for the opportunity to deepen their technique. Newer dancers came for the opportunity to dance with the experienced ones. Many of her students were beginners so they could be forgiven for not understanding how to navigate well yet. Everyone was supposed to be traveling counterclockwise around the room but there was always the rogue couple. Bobby Glass and his partner struggled to stay on course but only succeeded in looking like a horse costume going two places at once.
When Bobby had originally broached the idea of inviting his colleague, Barbara Wolfe, to class, he’d described her as a paleontology professor might, if the woman in question were forty thousand years old. Five foot five, twenty-eight, wiry build, well-defined clavicles, and a chip on her front tooth. Of course he’d failed to mention her most striking features: her vitality, and a glorious mass of hot-chili hair, which at the moment was threatening to burst free from its barrettes. But he had volunteered Barbara’s entire curriculum vitae, unnecessary but interesting. Originally from Tennessee. Visiting Archaeology lecturer on loan to Emory from the University of Maryland specializing in cranial deformation practices of the Inca Empire, which sounded quite bloodthirsty. Basically he’d told Antonia everything except his reason for bringing her but Antonia already knew
People were drawn to tango for many reasons, some healthy, some decidedly less so. After working with Bobby, Antonia had concluded that he, like many intellectuals, had come to find his heart. He was unaware of this, naturally, but she had plans for him.
Bobby tried to lead a side step but he’d put Barbara on the wrong foot and she stumbled.
“Hey! Don’t forget the gal you brung, sugar.”
“Sorry, sorry. Lost the beat.” Bobby smoothed a strand of hair over his bald spot and took Barbara back in his arms.
Antonia turned off the music. “Welcome.” It was always the same dynamic in the beginning. The men checked out the women to see if there were any hot prospects while the women counted the men to see if there were enough to go around. “This isn’t the performance tango you might have seen on Broadway or in the movies. We’ll be dancing the social tango that people dance in Argentina. It’s also known as close embrace because you dance ‘on the body’— sternum to sternum.”
She caught Christian eyeing one of the Emory students. “Sure you don’t want to join us?”
He shook his head,
no way Jose
, but she knew it was only a matter of time before he’d participate. It was all about creating a welcoming climate.
“Social tango is basically a walking dance. The old
will tell you it takes a lifetime to master.” She watched the usual apprehensive looks flash across the beginners’ faces. “For the next few weeks we’re going to concentrate on fundamentals which will be enough to get you out on the floor. Just a bit of housekeeping—don’t forget to buy your tickets for Trasnochando. It starts August 5, that’s just a week from now. We still have a couple of private lessons available with Eduardo Sanchez for those who missed him on his last visit. And if anyone can offer up a spare bedroom for our out-of-town guests, let me know.”
She queued up Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango” and invited Roland to join her in the center of the room. They demonstrated a simple tango. Roland’s clear lead and lighthearted musicality made for a pleasant, if superficial, dance. When they finished the class clapped and Antonia was heartened to see Christian join in the applause.
She led the class through a series of basic exercises on posture, the embrace, and walking, and then asked people to find a partner and walk to the music. Restarting “Champagne Tango” she made the rounds, correcting individual technique and basically encouraging everyone to get comfortable. When the song ended she called the class back.
“Tango can be about many things—seduction, longing, nostalgia, intimacy, tenderness— you get the picture. Whatever the music and the moment inspires. This song isn’t one we normally dance to but I happen to think it’s a beautiful piece, especially if you understand the words. It’s called ‘Uno.’ One.”
Uno, oh yeah
, she thought.
“He gave away his heart to a woman who betrayed him and now he can’t love the way he used to. That’s life and death stuff.” She was pleased to see Christian nodding, solemnly. “For this exercise I want you to move with whatever emotion inspires you. No partners. Walk around the room in the line of dance, counterclockwise, everyone, remember? Don’t worry about steps, the idea is to get used to feeling the music and transmitting it through your bodies.”
Antonia started the track, savoring the instrumental opening. When Sosa finally started to sing the yearning in his voice punctured her heart as it never failed to do. The class shuffled around the room, some self-consciously, others with more abandon. One of the Emory students seemed to be channeling Martha Graham, in a good way.
Something out of the corner of her eye caught her attention: a stranger, not that much taller than she was, standing in the doorway. His military bearing, neatly trimmed mustache, and close-cropped sandy hair would have conveyed unyielding strength if it hadn’t been for the fact that his eyes were pale blue and his nose had been broken at least once. He would have been just her type if she were interested in a relationship.
It wasn’t unusual to have people wander in off the streets, curious to see what tango was about, emotions from embarrassment to titillation writ large on their faces. But this man seemed strangely unfazed. And he was wearing a coat and tie so he probably wasn’t a prospective student. Too bad: the women would have loved him. She went over to find out what he wanted.
“Name’s Morrow, ma’am. Atlanta police.”
Oh swell. Another of our city’s finest. She summoned up her best professional voice, “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for Roland Guest. His assistant said I could find him here.”
What’s the Charming Child been up to? Her initial defensiveness immediately gave way to curiosity.
Roland drifted into range. Antonia caught his eye and tipped her head towards the detective. Roland abandoned the exercise and sauntered over.
“Mr. Guest?” Detective Morrow asked.
“Guilty as charged.” Roland appeared perfectly guilt free, but then again he always did.
The detective politely introduced himself and said, “Miles Rothenberg. Your business partner. When’s the last time you saw him?”
Roland hesitated. “Miles? Why, has he run off with the silver?”
The detective didn’t smile.
Antonia felt her stomach seize up.
CLOSELY WATCHING ROLAND GUEST’S
body language, Morrow explained how a kayaker, ignoring the danger from e coli and looking to shoot the “Hootch,” had spotted Miles Rothenberg’s corpse spit up by the Chattahoochee River onto its rocky shoals. Not that he’d put it that baldly to a civilian.
“Jesus!” Guest glanced away.
Morrow was holding back the fact that a second 9-1-1 had been placed that same morning. This one from New York City. According to the dispatcher a distraught Lauren Weiss Rothenberg reported her ex-husband had left a drunk-dial message on her answering machine rambling about his business partner Roland Guest engaging in some shameful activity and, apparently, saying goodbye for keeps.
It wasn’t clear, yet, how Miles Rothenberg had met his maker and what role Roland Guest might have played. The antiques dealer had gone in fully clothed from his Hermes tie down to his handmade leather-soled shoes, slick in both senses of the word. His body showed effects from being batted about in the river but no obvious signs of an attack. Suicide, accident, or murder—all options were technically still on the table—but in the end, regardless of who was responsible, it would come down to the same cause of death. Stupidity.
Roland Guest clearly came from money. The country club tan gave him away. Six feet tall, about one ninety, mostly health club muscle. Could easily have taken Rothenberg in a fight.
“Poor Miles.” Guest lowered his voice, downshifting from shock to sorrow, although neither emotion seemed genuine. “I can’t believe it.”
Interestingly, Guest didn’t ask the usual question—how did it happen? Maybe he already knew. “I’ll need you to come with me, sir. We’ll need a formal ID.”
The dance instructor, who’d been listening with openmouthed dismay, took Guest’s hesitation as an opportunity to butt in. “Are you positive it’s Miles? The police make mistakes all the time.”
No arguments there, Morrow thought, hiding his amusement. In his twenty years as a cop he’d seen more snafus than he had as a career Marine, which was saying something. In this case the corpse’s face had been eaten away but Rothenberg’s wallet had provided the needed calling card. “We’re pretty sure on this one, ma’am.”
“What happened? What was Miles doing at the Chattahoochee? He’s a strictly urban guy.”
Seems to know him pretty well, Morrow thought. She could be useful. He reached into his jacket pocket for his notebook. “Ma’am, would you mind giving me your full name and phone number?”
The woman sized him up like a wrestler weighing her options to pin him to the mat, which was pretty funny—she couldn’t have topped a hundred and ten soaking wet. Midthirties. A rakish white streak ran through her otherwise brown, nearly waist-long hair, which was pulled back in a severe ponytail as if to downplay her femininity. It wasn’t working. An almost invisible scar on her left cheekbone underscored the determination in her face. He’d seen that type of injury before with battered women. “It’s Antonia Blakeley. Ms.” She rattled off her phone number. “And would you mind giving me your name and contact information, too?”
It never paid to get into a pissing match with a member of the public. He brought out one of his business cards.
She inspected it. “Detective S. Morrow.” That seemed to satisfy her because her expression softened. She looked up at Guest and said, “Roland, I’m sorry. Miles was a good man.”
“One of the best.” Guest pulled out a handkerchief and blotted his forehead. “Excuse the heat. We’re in the middle of a tango lesson.”
Could’ve fooled me, Morrow thought. One woman in an Indian shirt was spinning and waving her arms like some underwater Hindu goddess, eyeing Guest and pretending not to. “When did you see him last, sir?”
“I spoke with him on the phone Tuesday night. Miles was supposed to help me manage the store on Friday but he never made it.”
The dance instructor turned on Guest. “And you didn’t call or go look for him?”
Witnesses were often more frank talking to each other. And Ms. Blakeley was asking good questions. Morrow decided to let her run.
“Now Antonia,” Guest said in a patronizing tone. “Just because a guy fails to show for work doesn’t mean it’s a police matter.”
Blakeley didn’t give an inch. Atta girl. She planted her hands on her hips and shot back, “Maybe not, but you and I both know that wasn’t like him.”
Guest said, “I never thought Miles was the type to kill himself.”
“He wasn’t,” Blakeley countered flatly.
Morrow said, “Any reason to believe your business partner was thinking of suicide, sir?”
Guest shook his head. “I wouldn’t know. Miles was a very private person.”
Blakeley asked, “Did he leave a note?”
The dead man hadn’t left one at his home, which made suicide less likely, but there was no value in sharing that news. “It’s early days, ma’am.”
Guest hadn’t shown any unusual signs of nervousness over cause of death so Morrow switched topics, watching for any betraying signs of self-grooming. “Did he have any financial troubles?”
The antiques dealer brushed a nonexistent bead of sweat from his upper lip. “The business is running well in the black. I can’t speak for his personal finances.” Guest refolded his handkerchief and slipped it back into his pocket. “As I’m his business partner I imagine it will fall to me to make the necessary … ah … arrangements. And you’ll want my help with his personal effects.”
Morrow pretended to consult his notes but he was really just letting Guest dangle, hoping he’d volunteer something else, but Guest kept his cool. “I understand there’s an ex-wife. Lauren Weiss Rothenberg. Cell phone record shows he called her.” Technically true; Guest couldn’t know they didn’t talk.
“Oh. Of course.” Guest gazed longingly at the exit. “I know this sounds callous but Miles would understand. I’m supposed to leave for BA—Buenos Aires. I have pressing business there.”
What’s this big dog got to do in Argentina that’s so important, Morrow thought. “Afraid you’ll have to wait.”
“Just a few days for the autopsy.”
“You can’t cut him up,” Ms. Blakeley interrupted. “Miles was Jewish. It’s a violation or a humiliation, I forget which.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Morrow said, neatly cutting her off, but his next comment, the one he’d been waiting to make all along, was really directed at Guest. “We have to eliminate the possibility of homicide. Rest assured, there will be a full investigation.”
Morrow smiled to himself.
AS MORROW EXPECTED
the preliminary report showed Miles Rothenberg had drowned. The stretch of water where he’d gone in had been too shallow for anyone to reliably kill themselves or anyone else, and there had been reports of flash flooding that night. The tox exam would establish whether drugs or alcohol had helped him along, but unless it revealed evidence of poisoning the death would be ruled an accident.
That just left the unexplained call Rothenberg made to his ex-wife. Guest was clearly up to something. Hopefully the dead man’s last words would give them reason to continue investigating.
Morrow had arranged to meet Jackson, the new partner he was breaking in, half an hour before Rothenberg’s funeral. The plan was to observe how Guest handled himself at the service, assuming he hadn’t already left for Argentina. Then Morrow would interview Lauren Weiss Rothenberg and take custody of the answering machine tape, as arranged, and Jackson would follow Guest. It wasn’t clear where that might lead but it was good practice for the recently promoted detective, and if Guest spotted an eager young greenhorn trailing him, that could have its good points, too.
Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Oakland Cemetery represented a Who’s Who of Atlanta’s dead.
Gone with the Wind
author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones were buried there, as well as governors, Confederate soldiers, and even slaves—buried under both their own names and the names of their owners. A section had been set aside in antebellum times for what the guidebooks called “people of the Jewish faith.” Miles Rothenberg’s forebears had managed to snag a plot.
Morrow decided to take up observation thirty feet from the grave where a stand of oaks would provide cover. If the funeral party turned out to be large enough he’d slip into the crowd to observe at closer range. If not, he’d pretend to be calling on another of the honored dead. A mockingbird trilled, cheeped and warbled on one of the carefully tended lawns.
Morrow spotted Jackson trotting down the brick path, beige raincoat open and flapping behind him. The younger man drew up, slightly out of breath, earnest face contorted in an expression of apology. “Sorry, sir. Traffic on Martin Luther King, sir. But I secured the information you requested.”
“You’re right on time and knock off the ‘sirs,’ son.”
Jackson brought out his notes. “Miles Rothenberg and Roland Guest jointly owned an art and antiques shop called Rothenberg Guest European and Asian Acquisitions. Real fancy setup. Paintings, oriental rugs and carpets, sculpture, antique furniture. At that location for twelve years. According to Rothenberg’s lawyer, his share of the business passes directly to Guest and most of his personal assets will go to Lauren Weiss Rothenberg, his ex-wife.”
“That’s good work.”
“Guest had dinner at Aria with Shawna Muir on Thursday night. The staff remembers because he proposed over dessert. If he had anything to do with the deceased’s, uh, unfortunate accident, sir, we’ll have to be real careful, sir. You know who his family is, don’t you?”
Whoa Bessie. Not
Guests. One of the most over-privileged families in Atlanta. “I do now.”
“Mrs. Rothenberg hadn’t left New York so her alibi checks.”
“Good. What about Rothenberg’s last movements?”
“Looks like he ate dinner at home on Thursday. Last credit card purchase was at Publix. Rotisserie chicken, salad stuff, bottle of wine. We’re fixin’ to get the phone records.”
A hearse pulled into view on the winding path. A fair size crowd followed on foot. Miles Rothenberg had been loved or at least respected. The vehicle halted periodically and the mourners recited a prayer at each stop. Morrow spotted Guest in the middle of the pack with his arm around the woman who’d watched him in class. Antonia Blakeley had turned up with two other people he’d seen at the dance studio: a thin red-haired woman and a portly man with a comb-over. The mourners chatted among themselves with more animation than he usually saw at Christian funerals.
Jackson said, “The lady in the blue raincoat, that’s his fiancée. Shawna Muir. Flight attendant.”
“She was at the dance class. Seemed concerned to see me questioning Guest. Any link to Rothenberg?”
“Not so far, sir. Who’s the lady with the long brown hair waving her umbrella?”
“Ms. Antonia Blakeley to you. Dance teacher.”
“What the heck’s she doing, landing a plane?”
“Organizing the mourners, probably.” Morrow chuckled. “You should have seen her the other day. Ordering the class around like a drill instructor. Tried to horn in on the investigation.”
The hearse stopped and six pallbearers shifted the simple pine coffin onto their shoulders and bore it to the grave. The mourners gathered. One woman stood alone. She wore a black ribbon on her trench coat, which made her a member of the family. Lauren Weiss Rothenberg.
Morrow signaled to Jackson. They left their observation post and joined the group, keeping close to Guest but out of his sight line.
The rabbi spoke in Hebrew, then in English: “O thou that dwellest in the covert of the Most High and abidest in the shadow of the Almighty …” He did full justice to the psalm, but in Morrow’s experience, evil
touch people who said their prayers.
Just as the rabbi finished it began to drizzle.
After the coffin was lowered into the ground Lauren Weiss Rothenberg picked up a shovel, turned the blade face down and jabbed it into the soil. Morrow heard the scrape of metal against stones. She turned towards the grave and flicked the shovel. Dirt and pebbles rained down onto the box. She placed the shovel on the ground and turned back towards the other mourners.
Morrow watched Blakeley go up to her and offer condolences. He got the impression they’d not met before. He waited to see if Guest would do the same.
Guest had been standing at the fringes looking off into the distance. He took his hands out of his pockets and approached the grieving woman. “Lauren.”
She whipped around. “You! Don’t speak to me.”
Guest stepped back, astonished. “Lauren—”
“You’re responsible for this.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You have some nerve, you slick son of a bitch.” Lauren reached for the shovel but before she could put it to use Ms. Blakeley stepped between them.
“Time to go.” Blakeley grabbed Guest by the arm and hauled him out of reach, no mean feat considering their height and weight differences.
The Rabbi did his best to rise above the commotion. He made it through the memorial prayer and bade the non–family members to form two lines. As the mourners passed Rothenberg’s widow, those who knew it recited the traditional condolence, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Lauren pulled a tissue out of her purse and wiped her hands.
Morrow helped settle Rothenberg’s ex-wife on one of the benches that lined the main path through Oakland Cemetery. She gathered her trench coat around her and lit up a menthol cigarette. Jackson was off on his mission and the other mourners had dispersed, leaving only the honored dead, and they weren’t about to complain of secondhand smoke.
She took a drag and exhaled. “He kept saying into the machine ‘pick up, pick up,’ that he needed to talk to me about something. He was rambling. I thought he was drunk and that wasn’t like him. If I hadn’t been out of town I’d have been there for him.” Her voice faltered as she pulled out a cassette tape and handed it over. “I didn’t check my messages until I got home. How was I supposed to know it would be the last time I heard his voice? I could just kill him.”
Morrow offered her his handkerchief and she used it to touch up the area under her eyes where her mascara had run. They sat in silence for a while. He wondered what had caused the marriage to break up. Money. Infidelity. The so-called growing apart which really meant the sex had dried up. None of the obvious explanations seemed to fit. “You said he accused his business partner of something. Did he say anything specific?”
“He’d found something out about Roland’s activities in Argentina. Something that brought shame to his reputation, that he had to atone for.” She waved her hand, trailing smoke in her wake. “Listen to the tape.” She fought back her tears and stubbed her cigarette out on the brick path. She inspected the butt and flicked it away. “We hadn’t spoken in years. That’s the point. Miles wouldn’t have called unless it was important.”
She rummaged around in her enormous handbag, came up with a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, extracted one and tried to light it but her fingers shook so badly she couldn’t get the match to work. He relieved her of the matchbook and did the honors. She nodded her thanks. “But, mind you, if there was any funny business Miles had no part of it. He was a real mensch. I warned him not to go into business with that louse. Roland Guest is responsible for this, I just know it.”
“Guest was nowhere near the Chattahoochee that night,” Morrow said gently, knowing from experience she wouldn’t listen.
“Maybe Roland didn’t push Miles into the river, but just the same, he killed my husband. Roland has it all. Smarts, looks, breeding. But everything always came too easily to him and the schmuck’s got no moral compass. None.”
“Who else might know about Roland’s activities?”
“There was some Argentine aristocrat who helped introduce Miles and Roland around when they first started going to Latin America. Don’t remember his name, it’s too long ago. He’s in Buenos Aires somewhere. Talk to him.”
The drizzle had changed to rain. Morrow closed his notebook. “I’ll call and see what I can find out.”
Lauren rose to her feet and hoisted her purse strap over her head and across her shoulder, bandolier style. “That’s it? You’re not going down there?” Her black-limned eyes shone with hurt and fury. “Do you really think anyone will talk to you on the phone? I have to know what happened.”