“That woman is murdering my father,” Violet Zerling said. “We’re sitting here while he’s dying. And you – you’re letting her get away with it.”
Violet Zerling jabbed an accusing finger at attorney Nancie Hays. Violet was no delicate flower. She was twice the size of the slender lawyer and obviously upset.
Nancie wasn’t intimidated by the large woman. The lawyer was barely five feet tall, a hundred pounds, and thirty years old, but tough and adept at handling difficult people. She had faced down – and successfully sued – a slipshod homicide detective and the small South Florida city that employed him. She’d fought to keep an innocent woman out of jail. Now she didn’t back away from Violet.
Nancie was all business, and so was her office. The carpet was a practical dark blue. Her plain white desk was piled with papers and folders. A workstation with a black computer, printer and fax machine was within rolling distance of her desk. Seated next to the workstation were the two partners of Coronado Investigations, Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont. Nancie had called in the husband-and-wife PI team to help her new client.
Helen felt sorry for Violet, sitting rigidly in the lime-green client chair. Her beige pantsuit was the same color as her short hair. The unflattering cut and drab color turned her face into a lump of dough.
Violet’s clothes and shoes said she had money and spent it badly. Despite her sturdy build, she seemed helpless. Helen thought Violet could be pretty. Why did she work to make herself unattractive?
I’m not here to solve that mystery, Helen told herself. We have to save a man’s life.
Nancie did not humor her client. “Violet, we’ve discussed this before,” she said, her voice sharp. “Your father did not leave any medical directives or sign a living will. In fact, he doesn’t have any will at all. Your stepmother –”
“That witch is not my mother,” Violet said. “She is Daddy’s second wife. She married my father for his money and now she’s killing him. She wants his ten million dollars. He’ll be dead soon, unless you do something. I need to save Daddy. Please. Before it’s too late.”
Violet burst into noisy tears. Helen had seen women turn weeping into an art form, shedding dainty droplets as if they were Swarovski crystal. Violet’s tears seemed torn from her heart. Helen would bet her PI license those tears were genuine.
Nancie, Helen and Phil waited out the tear storm until Violet sat sniffling in the client chair. Then Phil handed her his pocket handkerchief. Helen loved her husband for that old-fashioned courtesy.
Violet liked it, too. She dabbed at her reddened eyes, then thanked Phil. “You don’t meet many gentlemen these days,” she said. “I’ll have this laundered and return it to you.”
“Keep it,” Phil said. “That’s why I carry one.”
Violet stuffed Phil’s handkerchief into a leather purse as beige and shapeless as its owner. The ugly bag was well made. It would probably last forever. Unfortunately.
“May I ask a question?” Phil asked.
“How does the rest of your family feel about your fight to keep your father alive?”
“There is no one else,” Violet said. “I’m an only child. Daddy is the last of the Zerling family. He doesn’t even have distant cousins.”
“And you’re not married, I take it?” Phil asked.
“I’m divorced,” Violet said. “My husband married me for my money and the marriage was not happy.” She looked down at her smooth, well-shaped hands. They belonged to a woman who did not work for a living.
“I might as well tell you,” Violet said. “You and Helen are detectives. You’ll find the whole sordid story of my divorce on the Internet. My marriage was miserable. My ex-husband drank and beat me. I had no idea he was like that when I fell in love with him. I was only twenty-one. Daddy opposed the marriage, but I had a trust fund from my grandmother, and I was determined to marry. My ex slapped me around on our honeymoon, and the marriage went downhill from there.
“I tried to hide the bruises, but I couldn’t fool Daddy. He knew why I wore heavy makeup and long sleeves in August. He never said, ‘I told you so.’ But he was there for me. It took me more than a year to walk away from my marriage. After my ex put me in the hospital, I got the courage to leave him.
“He wouldn’t let go of his meal ticket without a fight. He accused me of living a wild life. We were tabloid material for months. I couldn’t have made it without Daddy. I changed my name back to Zerling after the divorce.
“My family’s money never brought me happiness. I can’t trust my judgement about men. I’ve set aside that phase of my life.”
“Oh!” Helen said. She was a new bride and couldn’t imagine life without love, though her first husband had been a disaster.
“It’s better that way,” Violet said. “I can’t make any more mistakes.”
Now Helen understood Violet’s dowdy appearance. It hid a badly wounded woman.
“We aren’t here to talk about me,” Violet said. “I have to save my father.”
“Violet, I wish I could do more,” Nancie said. “Legally, Blossom is Arthur’s next of kin. He’s being given the best possible care, but he had a heart attack and he’s in a coma.”
“No! He was poisoned,” Violet said. “She did it. That’s why he’s in a coma.”
“There’s no proof,” Nancie said. “Your father’s housekeeper, Frances, accused Blossom of poisoning Mr. Zerling. Fran took two samples to the police. They were analyzed. The so-called poison turned out to be harmless spices, turmeric and cumin.”
“Fran was right to be suspicious,” Violet said. “That woman never even scrambled an egg. Suddenly, she decided to fix Daddy a spicy curry dinner. A meat-and-potatoes man like Daddy, eating curry. Guess what? He got deathly ill after he ate it. Fran said she made a big pot of curry, but there wasn’t a crumb left. That woman dumped it down the disposal.”
“After her husband took sick?” Nancie asked. “You couldn’t expect her to eat it.”
“It disappeared before Daddy was sick.”
“Blossom ate the same meal as your father,” Nancie said.
“She poisoned Daddy’s dinner,” Violet said. “That’s what I told the police. They didn’t listen.”
“They can’t,” Nancie said. “Not after Fran. The doctors said he had a heart attack. They didn’t see any symptoms of poison.”
“They didn’t look. That woman’s got a boyfriend,” Violet said. “She left Daddy’s house to meet a man. Fran saw her.”
“Fran never actually saw Blossom with a man,” Nancy said.
“That woman left at midnight,” Violet said.
“She could have been going for a drive,” Nancie said.
“Dressed in a short skirt and a low-cut blouse?” Violet asked. “Fran reported that woman’s suspicious behavior to the police. She fired my father’s housekeeper. Threw poor Fran out of her home.”
“Can you blame her?” Nancie asked. “Let’s look at the facts: Mr. Zerling has a heart condition. He uses nitroglycerin pills. He also took Viagra. That’s not recommended for a man with his health issues. I’m surprised his doctor prescribed it.”
“He didn’t,” Violet said. “His Fort Lauderdale doctor refused. Daddy got the blue pills from India. That woman told him he was a stud and he believed her.”
“It’s not illegal to encourage your husband to take Viagra,” Nancie said.
“You didn’t see the way she flaunted herself at him,” Violet said. “I did. Daddy was taking twice the recommended dose. I know he’ll pull through if I take care of him. Daddy is a fighter.”
“What else could you do for him?” Nancie asked. “The doctors are doing everything they can. They say there’s almost no chance of recovery. According to Blossom, your father said, ‘If anything happens to me, pull the plug. I don’t want to be a vegetable.’ She wants him to die with dignity. Your father is an old man who’s had a massive heart attack.”
“He’s only eighty-four,” Violet said. “That’s not old, not in our family. His father, my grandpapa, lived to be ninety-seven. His mother passed away at a hundred and two. Daddy could go on for another ten, twenty years, if he hadn’t married that woman. She murdered him.”
“Mr. Zerling is still alive,” Nancie said gently.
“Not for long,” Violet said. “He’s on a ventilator. My father is unconscious, wrapped like a mummy in tubes and wires. That machine makes the most horrible sound. I tried to see Daddy in the ICU, but that woman won’t let me in his room. She says I give off bad vibes.”
Helen saw tears welling up in Violet’s eyes again.
“That’s her right,” Nancie said. “Unfortunately, the law is on Blossom’s side. The judge denied your petition for guardianship.”
“If I may interrupt,” Phil said, “I find it hard to believe that a businessman like your father didn’t have a will or a medical directive.”
“Daddy hated lawyers,” Violet said. “After my divorce, he set up a trust to run his companies if anything happened to him, and settled half his personal wealth on me. Then he made even more money. Daddy said he’d make a will when he was old.”
“But he was eighty-four,” Phil said.
“That’s not as strange as it sounds, Phil,” the lawyer said. “Even smart people aren’t rational about wills. They’re afraid if they sign one, they’re signing their death warrant. They put it off until it’s too late. Mr. Zerling is an amazing man, but he is old.”
“Daddy is strong,” Violet said. “He will get better.”
He will recover – he won’t. Helen rode that same seesaw during her mother’s last illness. Her heart couldn’t accept what her mind knew.
Nancie turned toward Violet and her voice softened. “Violet, dear, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you must prepare yourself for the worst. Your father may not recover.”
From the depths of her beige purse, Violet pulled out a photo of a white-haired man on a glossy black stallion and handed it to Helen. She saw a square-jawed older man with a straight back and strong hands gripping the reins. He looked fit and muscular. Helen handed the photo to Phil.
“Look at him! Is this the photo of a man who would give up?” Violet’s eyes burned with fanatic fire and her pale skin was tinged with pink. For a moment, Helen got a glimpse of the vital woman she could be.
“That’s my father on his eighty-fourth birthday, three months before he met her,” Violet said. “He barely looks sixty. Blossom has reduced him to a thing on a machine. Soon Daddy will be nothing at all. He’ll be dead and she’ll have his millions and spend them on her boyfriend.”
“Violet,” Nancie soothed, “you must be careful what you say. That statement is actionable.”
“I’m saying it to you in your office,” Violet said. “These detectives work for you, right?”
“Yes,” Nancie said. “When Helen and Phil work for my firm, their investigation is protected by attorney-client privilege. Also, under Florida law, client communications with private investigators are protected. They can lose their licenses if they breach confidentiality.”
“Good,” Violet said. “That means I’m doubly protected. I want to prove she’s killing Daddy. Then I can be in charge of his care.”
“Violet,” Nancie said, “your father may not live long enough for that to happen.”
“If you can’t save my father, I want her in jail for murder. I have the money to get what I want.
“His millions may kill my father,” she said. “I want my money to save him.”