Excerpt from Death By Drama

Prologue

The phone rang.

Roused from sleep, Asa leaned over and picked up the receiver on her vintage Princess phone. “Hello?”

Somewhere in the back of her groggy mind, Asa understood that phone calls in the middle of the night were not a good thing. The mental sludge disappeared as Asa focused. Someone was calling on her personal line. That could only mean one person. “Hello!”

“Asa?”

“Mother? What’s wrong?” Asa sat up in bed.

“I’m so sorry to call you like this, but you’ve got to come home on the first plane you can.”

“What’s happened? Are you in the hospital?”

“Oh, Asa. It’s been terrible. No one can get to the bottom of this but you. The police have made up their minds, and there is no talking them out of it.”

“Mother, if you don’t tell me what the matter is, I’m going to hang up.”

“It’s Franklin, Asa. He’s been arrested for murder!”

 

Chapter One

Asa was still arguing with me as we sat in the back of the courtroom twelve hours after my phone call. She argued with me the moment she stepped off the plane, in the car, in the hallways of the courthouse, and now in the courtroom where Franklin was being arraigned. “Mother, I am an insurance fraud investigator. I specialize in stolen art objects. This is out of my area of expertise.”

I gave my daughter one of those “mother looks” and said, “Give me a break.”

Asa looked away. “I don’t know why you don’t believe me.”

“Because you are telling a big, fat fib, that’s why. Asa, Franklin is my friend.”

“I know he is, Mother, but this is something Matt can handle, or better yet, have Walter Neff investigate if you don’t think the police are doing their job.”

I made a sound that could only be described as a raspberry. “Walter couldn’t find a cup of water if he was thrown into a lake.”

“Mother!”

“No, you must help Franklin, and that’s all there is to it.”

Asa started to say more when a basso profundo voice filled the cavernous courtroom. “All rise. The honorable Judge Palton Rosenburg presiding.”

We both jumped to attention.

A short, robed figure glided out of a side door, teetered up the steps to the lofty bench, and lowered himself into a sumptuous, high-backed leather chair. Judge Rosenburg was seventy, but still sported a thick head of silver hair.

“You may be seated,” boomed the bailiff.

I looked around the courtroom, but didn’t see anyone I knew. Hmm.

The prisoners were brought in, including Franklin, who was looking the worse for wear. He sat on a bench and waved when he spied us. He looked scared.

I didn’t blame him.

We sat through a mélange of issues—drunk and disorderly, spousal abuse, indecent exposure, and my favorite—urinating in the city’s fountains. Finally they got to Franklin’s case. He was told to stand before the judge.

Franklin got up and shuffled forward. He shot me a pleading look.

I shrugged back, signaling I didn’t know what the holdup was.

“Franklin Wickliffe?”

“Yes, sir.”

The judge looked around the courtroom. “Do you have counsel, Mr. Wickliffe?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know, sir. She was supposed to be here.”

At that moment, Shaneika Mary Todd shot through the courtroom door, followed by Hunter Wickliffe, brother of the accused. Matt slipped in behind them, looking quite natty in a navy blue suit and crisp white shirt with a matching blue-gold handkerchief and tie, while the rest of us looked like hell.

It had been a long twenty-four hours since Franklin was arrested. Between giving a statement to the police, calling Asa, and running home to take care of my animals, I barely had time to change my clothes, let alone shower and put on makeup. At least I had run a comb through my red hair. How did Matt always manage to look so good?

I scooted over to make room for him and noticed his face was drawn. For the first time, I detected worry lines around Matt’s eyes. Seeing those lines gave me a feeling of satisfaction. So, Matt was mortal like the rest of us.

I guess I should explain who everyone is in this tawdry play. That’s how it got started—because of a play. But I’ll get to that later. Let’s start with the cast of characters.

Matthew Garth is my best friend. He is astonishingly beautiful, and looks like Victor Mature, the ’40s movie idol. He is a tax lawyer and lives in a bungalow on my property. He has a new baby girl whom he adores, and the mother is out of the picture for the most part. Think Adonis.

Asa is my daughter. She lives in London, but has an apartment in New York. She has her own company which she insists specializes in insurance fraud, but we all believe she works for the US military, Interpol, CIA or something like that. We’re not sure where or for whom, but none of us buy her cover story. My daughter is basically a coiled spring. Think female Dirty Harry. That’s my Asa.

Shaneika Mary Todd is my criminal lawyer. Don’t curl your nose up at me. Yes, I do need a criminal lawyer from time to time. Doesn’t everyone? She is a descendant of the white Todd family and an African slave. Shaneika refuses to say if the Todd family is the same family as in Mary Todd Lincoln, but she wears vintage Chanel suits, displays letters from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd’s brother, collects Civil War memorabilia, and sits on the board of the Mary Todd Lincoln house. Her office is across from the old slave market in Lexington. Her mother Eunice Todd is my business partner. Shaneika is tough, fierce, and relentless. Think Themis—the goddess of justice who adorns every courthouse holding a sword and scales.

Lady Elsmere is my next-door neighbor. Her real name is June Webster, and she has more money than you or I will ever see. She’s an old coot who loves to gossip, but I adore her. I would never have made it through the past five years without her. Think naughty Queen Elizabeth II.

Charles Dupuy (Du-pwee) is Lady Elsmere’s butler, and also her heir. Why is her butler an heir to a massive fortune? Well, Charles is not just any old butler. He is the scion of Aaron and Charlotte Dupuy, slaves of Henry Clay. Remember Henry Clay from your history books? He is still considered the greatest statesman the US ever produced, and is often referred to as the Great Compromiser. Just think how powerful and intimidating Henry Clay must have been, but that did not stop Charlotte Dupuy from legally suing Master Henry for her freedom. She lost her lawsuit and was sent into the Deep South as punishment. Later, Henry Clay relented and freed both Aaron and Charlotte. Since Lady Elsmere doesn’t have any children, and she loves Charles and his family, it was a no-brainer. After all, Charles’ family helped build this great nation. Why shouldn’t they have a piece of the money pie? Think James Earl Jones.

Hunter Wickliffe is a forensic psychiatrist and Franklin’s older brother, who moved back from London to take over the family estate. They are from an old, aristocratic Lexingtonian family, and Hunter is trying to save his family home, which is a crumbling antebellum mansion—think Tara from Gone With The Wind after the War of Northern Aggression—that’s Southern code for the Civil War.

He and I have been seeing each other from time to time. I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t think he does either. If I was going to cast Hunter . . . let me think for a moment . . . yes, think Clark Gable.

The last of this casting call is Franklin—the accused. I first met Franklin through Matt when I was in the hospital several years ago. Since then, we have grown close. Franklin is bright, witty, and bodacious. He has an apartment in Lexington, but spends most of his time at Matt’s cottage, helping with the baby. Franklin loves to go through my clothes and throw out my “granny pants” underwear. I’m just glad I haven’t caught him wearing my granny pants underwear. Franklin is like a flower. Yes, Franklin is a sunny yellow flower blooming on a chilly spring day. Think daffodil.

And then there’s me—Josiah Louise Reynolds. I’m a beekeeper, and I live in the Butterfly, a mid-century marvel. I make my living by selling honey at the farmer’s market and renting out my house for events. A few years ago, I was injured falling off a cliff and have serious health problems, but get this—I was about to go under financially until the money I got from a lawsuit due to the fall saved my home. Now try this on for irony. My injuries have resulted in declining health, which means I might not get to enjoy my farm for long. Boo-hoo. Poor me. And another thing—I’ve been stumbling over dead bodies for several years now. I seem to have a knack for it. Think of a wisecracking Jessica Fletcher. She’s sugar. I’m spice.

Let’s see—where did I leave off? Shaneika was standing with Franklin in front of the judge. Hunter was sitting behind them.

“So glad you could join us, Counselor,” the judge said, peering over his glasses.

“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I’m ready to proceed.”

“Mr. District Attorney, I’m waiting,” the judge complained.

“The Commonwealth of Kentucky charges Franklin Wickliffe with murder in the first degree for the death of Madison Smythe.”

I gasped. First-degree murder can mean the death penalty in Kentucky.

Matt grabbed my hand as his face drained of color.

“How does your client plead?” asked the judge, looking at Shaneika.

Shaneika frowned at the prosecutor.

Franklin, in shock, mumbled, “What did he say?”

Recovering, Shaneika said, “We plead not guilty, sir.”

The prosecutor sniffed.

“Very well. Bail is set at $100,000 dollars,” intoned the judge.

“Your Honor. We feel the prisoner should be remanded into custody. He is a serious flight risk,” the prosecutor asserted.

Shaneika interjected, “Your Honor. My client is a respected member of the community. He has never been charged with a crime before—not even a parking ticket. He has deep roots in the community—a job, family, a home.”

“Your Honor. Madison Smythe was viciously murdered, and the Commonwealth will prove that Franklin Wickliffe was the culprit.”

Shaneika grinned at the Prosecutor, as though saying “I’m gonna eat you for dinner, boy.” Throwing shade at the DA, Shaneika complained, “Your Honor. It is not even clear if Madison Smythe was murdered. The DA’s office is jumping the gun here. There’s no witness to this supposed murder. No weapon. There’s no evidence of any kind.”

The judge pushed his glasses back up on his nose and glared at the DA. “Is this true?”

“Your Honor. There are witnesses who will testify that Franklin Wickliffe threatened Madison Smythe, saying he wanted her dead. She was a healthy young woman with no medical problems, and then she died in Franklin Wickliffe’s ancestral home after a confrontation with the defendant.”

“Save it for the trial, Counselor, but if the ME’s report states that Mrs. Smythe died of natural causes, the Commonwealth has opened itself up for a lawsuit by the defendant. You’d better have your ducks in a row.”

Hunter stood up. “Your Honor. Franklin is my brother. I will personally take responsibility for him.”

The judge peered over his glasses at Hunter. “I recognize you, Mr. Wickliffe. You have testified in my court.”

“Yes, Your Honor. I am sometimes hired by the local police.”

“I remember.” The judge leaned forward in his chair while perusing the docket. “Very well, then. Franklin Wickliffe is remanded into his brother’s custody pending posting of bail. Mr. Wickliffe, you are to surrender your passport to the court. Trial will be set for September 30th.” He briskly rapped his gavel on the massive oak bench and ordered, “Next case.”

Franklin gave Hunter a bewildered glance as a bailiff led him away. He seemed utterly helpless and confused.

We followed Shaneika into the hallway.

“Where’re you going, Hunter?” I asked, pulling on his jacket.

“To post Franklin’s bail,” he replied over his shoulder as he sped down the hallway to catch up with Shaneika.

I didn’t take offense. Hunter had been under a lot of strain since yesterday. He was bound to be on a short fuse today. What I didn’t expect was for Asa to observe our interaction so closely.

“Is that Franklin’s dad?” Asa asked.

“It’s his brother.”

Asa leaned over and whispered, “I didn’t even know Franklin had a brother.”

“Shush. He always said he had a brother.”

“Yeah, but I thought he had died or something. We never saw him, and Franklin never talked about him.”

In case you’re wondering—no, I hadn’t told Asa about Hunter. Well, there’s no use talking about a new relationship if you’re not sure there is a relationship. If Hunter was just going to be a “friend,” what would be the point of discussing him with her? Hunter’s away so much, consulting as a forensic psychiatrist, that it’s hard to get him revved up. When Hunter comes home, he’s tired and needs to rest, or he wants to work on his house. I can understand that. We’re not kids anymore, but shoot, I want a fire. It doesn’t have to be a blazing fire, but some glowing embers now and then would be nice.

Oh, blah, blah, blah. Yes, I know my health is declining, and I should take it easy. I’ll take it easy when I’m six feet under. Right now I’m still breathing and moving—so let’s get on with it.

But I never mention my feelings to Hunter. Why? Because I don’t think I’m a great catch. Like I said—my health is declining. I’m not much to look at, either. Passable. My daughter scares people. And my friends are eccentric, and that doesn’t include my new hobby—stumbling over dead bodies all the time. I come with a lot of baggage. I’m grateful that any man who has a job and his own teeth wants to spend any time with me at all, so I’m not going to rock the boat.

 

Chapter Two

Hunter unlocked the door to his dilapidated mansion and threw his briefcase on a chair by the door. He had spent a great deal of the day at the bank trying to get a line of credit on the farm so he could bail Franklin out of jail.

The bank said no.

The farm was in sad shape. There were no crops in the fields and no horses in the barns, mainly because the fields were fallow and the barns were falling apart. Tobacco was a thing of the distant past. Heirloom tomatoes were the mainstay crop of Bluegrass landowners now, and Kentucky was the largest producer of beef cattle east of the Mississippi. The only problem was Hunter knew nothing about tomatoes or cows.

Hunter had an emergency account of four thousand dollars plus his salary, which depended upon someone hiring him as a consultant. It could be feast or famine, depending on the needs of law enforcement. That was it. What savings he did have, Hunter had invested in the farm. That had gotten the house up to livable and the driveway drivable—just barely. Blast it! Why hadn’t he saved more?

After the brush-off at the bank, he and Matt went to lunch, trying to figure out a way to spring Franklin from the hoosegow, but Matt was tapped out as well. He had spent his money on recovering from a bullet wound, refurbishing his house, and now, with a new baby, he was broke—also living from paycheck to paycheck. Hunter broached the question. Could Matt ask help from his baby’s mother, Meriah Caldwell, the famous mystery writer?

“Yes, I can, but I know what the answer will be,” Matt replied. “A big fat no. She hates Franklin and thinks he is one of the reasons for our breakup.”

“Oh, I didn’t know the situation was so messy between you and my brother.”

Matt shook his head. “It’s complicated, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter.”

“What about Josiah?”

“She adores Franklin, but she barely has two nickels to rub together after paying her monthly bills. The smart thing to do would be to sell the Butterfly, but Josiah is determined to keep her land out of the hands of developers or die trying. There’s no money there.”

Hunter felt his gut tighten. That left the banks. Circle right back to a dead end.