Deadly Heirs Excerpt #2

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      I gazed upon the enormous marble fortress as I carefully inched up the brick walkway. It was mid-morning and I was making my first visit to the Kiddering residence - or should I say castle? From the front gate to the mansion, the driveway I had just ventured up with my car must have had its own street name. Billionaire Boulevard.
      I started doubting the possibility that some passer-by could have quickly hopped the fence and pushed Kiddering in the pool. The man actually had razor wire atop a ten-foot high brick wall that seemed to encircle the entire estate. There was about an acre and a half of manicured land with neatly trimmed trees along the drive before you even got to the mansion. I looked off the sides of the front porch and realized that if I had wanted to get a neighbor's attention I would need a foghorn. This was Kiddering's island all to himself.
      I had placed my name at the intercom down by the front gate so they knew I had arrived. I waited at the door with the persistent question in my head, "What am I doing here?" I was a disgrace to society compared to the grub in this family's flower garden. At least I felt I was.
      I cautiously stepped back as the door finally eased open and a tall, highbrow, tight-nosed butler stood before me. He glared down at me from his six-foot-three perch and snooted, "What are you?"
      Fighting back my urge to cold-cock him, I simply stated my business, "I'm Chase Michael DeBarlo, Private Investigator. Miss Genelle Starr hired me to investigate the disappearance of Earl Kiddering's will."
      "A magician?" the butler mocked. "I'm sure you'll find the searching as useless as all the others did."
      All the others? Perhaps I wasn't the family's first choice of investigators. On the other hand, maybe I could quickly get the case over with and just say the butler did it. Nah, that would be too easy. "May I speak with Mrs. Kiddering, please?"
      The butler straightened and allowed me in. "She's in the solarium. Follow me."
      As I stepped in, a cold chill ran up my spine. Before me was a giant hall with black and white tiled marble floors and a solitary fountain in the center. Carved stone pillars with arches were used as doorways to other rooms and a marble staircase loomed at the other side of the hall. It felt more like I was in a museum than somebody's home. In step behind the butler, I quickly glanced into other rooms and found the same cold, hard atmosphere.
      We brisked through a doorway just before the staircase at the far end of the hall, and I was taken by surprise. The solarium was a warm room, lush with deep green carpeting. The two sofas in the center of the room were a modest beige with cherry wood arms, and matched two arm chairs that sat against the back wall of the room. Potted plants were scattered about as well as family photos and old paintings of countrysides from long ago. The far end of the room was completely windowed and had a set of old-style French doors that led out into a flowered courtyard.
     "Sit here," the butler ordered and wheeled an about-face out of the room.
      I, of course, elected to satisfy my curiosity and stretched open the doors to the outside. A heavy floral aroma struck me instantly and I had to step back for a moment. The whole yard was quite rich with plant-life, exotic flowers and bushes in full bloom. Strange for this time of year. I discovered a stone walkway weaving through the shrubbery, and I almost began to venture down it when my hostess startled me from behind.
      "Mr. DeBarlo?" an elderly woman's voice called. I eased the doors shut and turned around to greet Earl Kiddering's widow, Josephine. "Good morning, Mrs. Kiddering. I hope I haven't disturbed you."
"Not at all," she chuckled. "I always enjoy company, but I was hoping to expect you a bit earlier."
Indeed, I had wanted to arrive a little earlier, but I had been waiting for the fax from Len. I never did receive it and I finally gave up, figuring that there must have been a long line at the doughnut shop the police detective had probably stopped at.
      Josephine gingerly meandered her way to the couch in the center of the room and sat down. She was silver-haired, thin, and appeared to be somewhere in her seventies. Of course, I could have been wrong. The Golden Years have always been the hardest for me to judge when trying to approximate an age. She moved slowly, although she didn't need any walking aids and seemed to have quite a bit of spirit within her.
      "I like this room," I complimented. "It has a very warm feeling to it."
The butler brought her a cup of tea and she took a quick sip. "Oh, I guess it's not so bad." As her servant was about to exit himself from the room she stopped him. "Charles! Are you not going to offer our guest something?"
      He abruptly stopped, turned to her, and apologized, "I'm sorry, Madame," then turned to me and scowled, "May I get you something, sir?"
      I had to restrain myself from laughing. This butler's arrogance was just too much for me. "No thanks, Charles. I grabbed a bagel and coffee on the way."
      "Very well," he huffed and finally made the exit he had so much desired.
Josephine smirked and stirred her tea. "Please don't mind Charles. This extravagant lifestyle is all he's known. He grew up as the son of a butler, trapped in this environment, and, unfortunately, learned to look down on those without castles for homes." She let out a small giggle. "It makes me wonder how I haven't gone crazy in all this high-falooting mess. Anyway, what were we talking about?"
      I adjusted myself slightly. "We were talking about the room. It's your room, isn't it?"
      She put her tea down and looked up at me, realizing that I had looked deeper than the walls. "Yes, this is my one hideaway in the whole estate -- this and the courtyard. Earl enveloped himself in all the luxuries, but I was always a simple girl, at least at heart. He let me do what I wished with this one room and I've spent quite a lot of time here over the years." She paused for a moment, probably realizing she had revealed a little too much. "Now, Mr. DeBarlo, Genelle tells me that she has hired you to try to find my husband's will. How do you think you will be able to help us?"
      I'll find the will was my gut reaction, but I couldn't just state the obvious. Was she testing me? I needed to sound wise to gain her approval - for Miss Starr's sake, of course. "Naturally, I'll need to look around. But first I'd like to know more about Earl. What were his passions? What did like to do? Where did he like to go? The more I know about him, the better the chance I'll have of finding the will."
      She studied a painting to her left for a moment and took another sip of her tea. Her eyes turned to the garden beyond the windows and she began to speak slowly, "As I said before, my husband had engulfed himself in all the luxuries we had acquired. He wasn't always that way, but he was always very active. He always needed something to drive him. I met him when he was a young sailor in the Navy. He was very dashing and, of course, swept me off my feet."
      I nodded. Why were the old G.I.'s always so dashing? I remember the old World War II movies and how the women couldn't wait to pick up some sailor at the USO. I had spent six years in the Air Force and not one woman was ever turned on by my uniform. Of course, seeing me in a muscle shirt was a different story.
      Josephine continued. "When we were in Hong Kong during one of his assignments, he became infatuated with these richly designed ancient terra cotta vases. As he collected them he made quite a few contacts within the vase market and when he left his position in the Navy he moved right in to dealing. The market became his life. He researched the history of the vases and what made them so valuable, bought and sold the right ones, and made us very wealthy in the process. With all the money he made, he naturally invested in stocks, bought out companies--"
      She stopped for just a moment, almost seeming as if what Earl had done was not to her approval. She sighed, "He continued to compound his wealth. His only refuge was a small cottage he had bought for us at Fallsburg Lake. It's very cozy, and we enjoyed going there very much."
      "Mrs. Kiddering, I have to ask. Is the Fallsburg Lake cottage really the only personal real estate you own other than this house? I just find it hard to believe that with your wealth this cottage would be your only other piece of property."
      "I understand why you would think that, but we were travelers. Well, my husband, for the most part, was. It just didn't make sense for us to invest in expensive summer homes across the world if we only used them sporadically."
      Personal note: How to Build Wealth 101: Don't blow money all over the world if you're not going to use what you purchase. Save and invest the money you would have used into something that will just make you more money. That Ted Williams autographed baseball I was going to buy with the money from this case was now out of the picture.
      Josephine glanced around the room for a moment. I could tell she was looking at various pictures of Earl and she sighed again. "I'm not sure what else I could tell you. I could show you a few of the things that my husband cherished, but they've all been completely searched." She stood up, as did I to render the courtesy. "Come with me, Mr. DeBarlo. Let me show you a few things."