Sunlight streamed through Camille Braxton’s dining-room windows and reflected off the mahogany table, casting a glare across her pale, colorless face. Around the table were twelve matching Chippendale chairs with silk cushions that accented the color of the walls and highlighted the rich, dark luster of the tabletop. Camille sat with her chair turned to one side. Her left elbow rested on the table. Her legs were crossed.
She wore a white tennis outfit with green piping on the sleeves of the shirt and the hem of the skirt. Her white leather tennis shoes were spotless. Small round tufts on the back of her socks were perfectly positioned against the tendons behind each ankle. On her left wrist was a Yurman watch with a silver band. On the right, a diamond tennis bracelet. In her left hand she held a cordless telephone.
In her lap, dark brown splotches soaked through the front of her skirt. Drops of coffee dribbled a trail across the table to a cream-colored saucer with a cup tilted at a precarious angle against the handle of a sterling silver spoon that rested there. Coffee filled the saucer to the rim.
A voice called from the phone.
“Camille! Camille! You there?”
Camille’s mouth was open, but her lips were silent. Her eyes were fixed in a blank stare.
Bessie Lawson entered the room through the butler’s pantry.
There was no response. She tried again.
Bessie moved around the table.
“You all right?”
She took the phone from Camille’s hand and switched it off. Camille let her hand drop to the table and laid her head on her arm.
“He did it again.”
Bessie set the phone on the table. A frown wrinkled her forehead.
“Who you talking about?”
Bessie looked concerned.
“Something happen to Mister Perry?”
Camille did not respond. Bessie picked up the cup and saucer.
“You made a mess with your coffee. Let me get a rag and wipe that up.”
Camille raised her head.
“That son of a—”
Bessie cut her off.
“Miss Camille.” Her voice had a parental tone. “Don’t talk like that.”
Camille wiped her eyes with her fingers and sat up. She glanced at the splotches on her skirt. Her face went cold with anger. She slapped the table and shouted.
“How could he do this to me?!”
Bessie jumped at the sound of her voice. The coffee cup rattled against the saucer.
Without warning, Camille flung her arm in a backhand swipe that struck the telephone and sent it sailing across the room. It bounced off the wall at the end of the table and fell to the floor.
Bessie’s eyes were wide. Her mouth gaped open.
“Miss Camille! What is wrong with you?”
Camille pushed herself away from the dining table.
She started across the room toward the front hall. Bessie hesitated.
Camille glared at her from the doorway.
“Don’t just stand there. Set that cup down and come on.”
Bessie set the cup and saucer on the table and followed her out of the dining room. They moved down the hall to the staircase. Camille started upstairs. Once again, Bessie hesitated.
“What’s wrong, Miss Camille? You ain’t acting like yourself.”
Camille was already halfway up the steps.
“That was Mitzi. She saw Perry last night.” She looked down at Bessie from the stairs. “He was coming out of one of those tanning salons on Airline Highway.”
Bessie frowned at her.
“A tanning salon? What’s wrong with that? Maybe he’s just working on his tan.”
Camille gave her a sarcastic look.
“It’s a whorehouse, Bessie.”
Bessie looked perplexed.
“A whorehouse. Hookers. Prostitutes. Sex.” Camille turned away and continued up the steps. “And who knows what else. Come on.”
Camille reached the top of the stairs and turned right. She called to Bessie as she disappeared down the hall.
“Come on, Bessie. I need your help.”
Bessie sighed and started up the steps.
The master bedroom was located on the left side of the hall, facing the back of the house. Camille strode across the room to the dresser and jerked open the top drawer. She stretched her arms wide apart, grabbed the drawer on either side, and slid it from the dresser frame. Holding it against her chest, she wheeled around and started toward the door. Bessie stepped aside to let her pass. Camille scowled at her as she moved into the hall.
“Don’t just stand there. Grab the next one and come on.”
Perry’s study was across the hall on the front side of the house. His desk sat opposite the door. Behind it, two large windows afforded a view of the front yard below. Camille carried the drawer into the study and set it on the desktop. She moved around the desk to the first window and raised it as high as it would go. Bessie entered the room with the second drawer as the window banged against the top of the frame.
“Just set it there.” Camille nodded toward the desk. “Go get the next one.”
She steadied herself against the window frame and kicked the screen with her foot. Bessie gasped as the screen ripped loose on one side.
Camille kicked again. The screen tore free. She leaned out the window and watched as it fluttered to the ground below. A smile spread across her face as she took the drawer from Bessie.
“Go get the other one.”
In one quick motion, she turned aside and tossed the drawer out the open window. It crashed to the ground outside and splintered into pieces. She lifted the other drawer from the desktop and shoved it out the window. Bessie leaned around her and watched as it landed on the growing pile in the yard below.
Camille nudged her aside.
“Get the other drawer, now. Hurry up.”
Bessie turned away and started back to the bedroom.
When the last of the dresser drawers was gone, they took all of Perry’s clothes from the closet. Shoes, suits, whatever belonged to him went out the window. Swept up by the relief of finally doing something, of taking control, of hitting back, they tore the mirror from the dresser and threw it out. Somehow, they managed to push the dresser frame out with it. Then they turned to the study.
When they were finished, Perry Braxton’s belongings lay in a heap on the front lawn. As the last of it went out the window, his dark gray Suburban turned into the driveway. Camille rested her hands on the windowsill and watched.
The Suburban moved a few feet up the driveway, then stopped.
From the second floor, she could see him behind the steering wheel, staring at the mess, then looking up at her, his eyes wide with amazement and disbelief. In a defiant gesture, she thrust her fist out the second-story window and pointed with her index finger toward the street. A moment later the truck backed away.
Mike Connolly turned off the television and trudged down the hall toward the bedroom. At fifty-seven, he no longer cared for long days, and this one had been way too long. Mired in a robbery trial that had dragged on all week, he was tired to the bone. Through the door at the end of the hall he could see the bed. Light from a lamp on the nightstand gave the room a soft glow. The bed looked warm and inviting. A few more steps and he’d be there.
Connolly lived alone in the guest quarters behind the Pleiades, a four-story mansion built in 1901 by Elijah Huntley, a broker who made a fortune importing bananas from Costa Rica. Located on Tuttle Street in the better part of midtown Mobile, the house had been an architectural marvel in its day, with elevators, electric lights, and a crude form of air-conditioning. Now owned by Huntley’s great-great-granddaughter, Lois Crump, the house and grounds still evoked wonder and awe, but it was not a practical residence. By the time it passed to Lois, she was living in Birmingham and had little time or money for maintenance.
To make the place more affordable, she rented out the guesthouse. Connolly was the latest in a succession of tenants.
When he reached the end of the hall, he slipped off his house shoes, turned out the light, and fell into bed. There had been a time when he wouldn’t have given a day like this a second thought, but now all he wanted was to close his eyes and think of nothing. He rested his head on the pillow and pulled the cover over his shoulders. Just as he drifted off to sleep, the telephone in the living room rang.
“Go away,” he moaned.
He rolled over, pulled the cover over his head, and buried his face in the pillow. Five rings later the telephone fell silent. He gave a sigh of relief and moved the sheet from over his face. A moment later, the cell phone on the nightstand began to ring. He rolled to one side and took it from the stand. The green glow from the screen illuminated the number. He recognized it immediately. Someone was calling from the police station. He pressed a button to accept the call.
“Mike, this is Perry Braxton.”
Connolly rubbed his eyes and wished he hadn’t answered the phone.
Perry Braxton was the son of Hylton and Charlotte Braxton, who operated a dozen discount shoe stores. Braxton had grown up knowing the good life in Mobile but had chosen to forgo the family business.
Instead, he tried his hand at real estate development, investing his father’s money in waterfront condos. Most of the legal work on the real estate deals went to Hagar, Litton, and Lynch, a large firm in the Tidewater Bank Building. He came to Connolly with DUIs and traffic tickets.
“Yeah,” Connolly sighed. “What’s up?”
“I’m down here at the police. They’re talking to me about Camille. I need you to help me.”
Connolly glanced at his watch on the nightstand but couldn’t read the numbers.
“Who’s asking the questions?”
“Some guy named Hammond, mostly.”
Connolly turned on the lamp and picked up the watch.
“All right. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Tell them I’m on my way.”
“And don’t answer any more questions until I get there.”
Connolly switched off the phone and tossed it on the pillow.
Growling and grumbling, he shuffled across the room to the closet and slipped on the pants to a dark gray suit. He found the shirt he’d worn that day and put it on without a tie. He slid his bare feet in a pair of cordovan loafers, threw on his jacket, and started down the hall toward the door.
Outside, the night air was cool and damp. He paused a moment and looked toward the sky. A few stars twinkled through the hazy glare of the city lights. Behind him, a half-moon was rising.
In front of him was his car, a 1959 Chrysler Imperial he had acquired years ago from a lady on Japonica Street who had hired him to settle her husband’s estate. There wasn’t much left after they paid all the bills. She offered him the car for his fee. It had turned out to be a pretty good deal.
He climbed in the car and started the engine.
Police headquarters was located in a three-story building on Government Street that once had been the offices of an insurance company. Only a mile or two from midtown, it took Connolly five minutes to reach it from the guesthouse. He arrived there shortly before eleven. The receptionist’s desk in the lobby was empty. He walked past it to the stairs and made his way to the second floor. At the top of the stairs he entered a large room filled with desks that sat along the walls and in two rows down the center of the room. In between the desks were filing cabinets with papers stacked on top. Anthony Hammond’s desk sat near the stairs. He glanced up as Connolly entered.
“He’s in there.”
Hammond nodded toward an interrogation room to the right of the stairway. Connolly opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was stark and bare with white walls and a tile floor. A plain metal table sat in the middle of the room beneath a fluorescent light. Braxton sat in a chair on the far side of the table.
“What’s this all about?”
“Camille is missing,” Braxton replied.
“Day before yesterday.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You didn’t report it?”
Braxton glanced away.
“I’m not living there now.”
Braxton interrupted him.
“She threw me out.”
“Couple of weeks ago.”
“Where are you living?”
“In an apartment on Louiselle Street.”
Connolly found a chair across the room and brought it to the table.
He took a seat across from Braxton.
“She got a lawyer?”
“Yeah.” Braxton smiled. “Bob Dorsey.”
Connolly smiled too. Dorsey was an attorney who did one thing very well. Most of his clients were women. He had a reputation for making unfaithful husbands pay.
“Who’s representing you?”
“On the divorce?”
“So, who reported her missing?”
“Bessie. Our maid. Bessie Lawson. Camille left the house Tuesday morning. Supposed to be back by lunch.”
“Never came back?”
Braxton shook his head. Connolly continued.
“Where was she going?”
“I don’t know.”
“They find her?”
“Do they think you had something to do with it?”
“I guess. They keep asking me where I was. What I was doing. Who I was with.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I went fishing Tuesday. Gone most of the day.”
“What time did you leave?”
“Not too early. I think I was at the marina around nine.”
“Klinefelter’s. In Pascagoula.”
“Pascagoula? Isn’t it closer to go from Dauphin Island?”
“Not really. I don’t like to put in down there anyway.”
“Anybody with you?”
“Buy anything that morning? Get some money from the ATM?”
“Bought some gas at the marina.”
“Got a receipt?”
“Probably. Not with me. Might be one at the house.”
“What time did you get back?”
“All right.” Connolly stood. “Sit tight. Let me talk to Hammond.”
Connolly left the room and closed the door. Hammond was still seated at his desk.
“You got anything more than a hunch?”
Hammond gave him a sullen look.
“She threw him out. Hired a lawyer. Filed for divorce. He couldn’t
stand the thought of losing all that money. That’s more than a hunch.”
“Losing what money?”
Hammond rested his arms on the desktop and hunched forward.
“She’s one rich lady.” He gave Connolly a knowing smile. “Your man loves that money.”
Connolly had no idea what Hammond was talking about. But that didn’t really matter. He was sure Hammond didn’t know much, either.
“Is he under arrest?”
Hammond sat up straight.
“I’m not sure.”
“Is he free to go?”
“Not right now.”
“Then, he’s under arrest?”
“Technically.” Hammond shrugged. “Maybe.”
Connolly stood with both hands on the desk and leaned forward.
“Look, Anthony, the man says he was fishing. Put in at Pascagoula around nine and spent the day at Horn Island. I’ll get you a receipt where he filled up with gas. You got anything to show he wasn’t where he says he was?”
Hammond gave a heavy sigh.
“I didn’t think so.” Connolly backed away. “We’re going now.”
He walked to the interview room and opened the door. Braxton looked up. Connolly nodded.
Braxton rose and stepped through the door. Connolly turned to Hammond.
“You have any more questions, give me a call.”
Hammond leaned back in the chair and folded his arms behind his head. Connolly turned away and guided Braxton down the stairs.