by Claire McNab
Is Carol playing into a killer’s plan?
A series of random deaths suddenly fall into a pattern when reclusive, eccentric billionaire Thurmond Rule dies, leaving an immense estate, but no valid will. With no close relatives—Rule’ s son and only heir vanished mysteriously years before—the search begins to find more distant kin who may have a claim to the Rule billions. And there would be several more applicants vying for the money, but for the disturbing fact that many of them have recently died or been killed. Detective Inspector Carol Ashton speculates that one among the remaining would-be heirs could be responsible for thinning the field so drastically but is baffled that a killer would draw such oblivious attention to themselves. As the authorities contemplate protecting anyone with a blood link to Thurmond Rule, Carol fears she may be unwittingly shielding a killer and playing into a deadly plan…
With another in the phenomenally successful Detective Carol Ashton Mystery series, Claire McNab again proves why she is the most popular writer of lesbian mysteries with this suspenseful story of cat and mouse.
Fifteenth in the Carol Ashton Series.
First Published by Bella Books 2003.
“Looks like a simple accident, Carol,” said Mark Bourke. “Several witnesses, one close by who saw the whole thing, so no suggestion of anything else. The local cop shop should have dealt with it. We wouldn’t be here if she didn’t have a famous dad.”
Clad in tight black jeans and a scarlet shirt darkened by blood, the woman was sprawled face-down near the rear of a fire-red Lamborghini with its boot open. She still wore one high-heeled shoe. The other was lying on its side two meters away. Keys were clenched in the bloodied fingers of her left hand, on the back of which was a small tattoo of a black rose. Brand-name shopping bags lay scattered. One had burst, revealing the lustrous green fabric of some item of clothing. A handbag had spilled most of its contents on the ground—a wallet, gold compact, a Palm with an embossed, custom-made cover, a silver pen.
Skewed at an angle, its driver’s door open, a shabby light truck sat twenty meters away, guarded by a patrol officer. Dark skid marks showed where the driver had violently braked. Broken headlight glass glittered fitfully as the sun broke through.
Carol stood back to survey the larger scene. The sky was full of racing, tattered clouds. The bland beige buildings of the shopping mall sat in a sea of parked cars. A chill wind fluttered the crime-scene tape enclosing the section of the parking area in which they stood. Squad cars sat at each end of this section, preventing entry or exit of vehicles. Shoppers denied access to their cars had bunched together under the wary gaze of another officer, who was noting down their names. Others, drawn by the drama promised by police activity and the presence of an ambulance, lingered on their way to and from the shopping center.
“Set up screens,” said Carol, noting the first of the TV vans pulling into the parking area. “The least we can do is give her some privacy—” She broke off at the mosquito buzz of an approaching helicopter. “Well, there goes that thought, Mark. This is shaping up to be your well-known media frenzy.”
“Inspector Ashton?” A uniformed female officer, seeming to Carol about eighteen, approached, grave with the importance of the moment. “The number plate checks out. The Lamborghini is registered to Ms. Rule.”
“Martina Rule, heir to billions, dies in a parking lot of a suburban mall,” said Bourke, a wry smile on his blunt-featured face. “Who’d have thought it?”
Carol’s mobile phone chirped. “Carol Ashton.” She listened, said, “Yes, everything indicates it’s Martina Rule. Apparently she was walking to her car when she was struck by a vehicle. Death was probably instantaneous.” She paused, then added, “No, I haven’t interviewed the driver yet…Of course, Commissioner. Thank you.”
As she ended the call, Bourke gave a low whistle. “The Commissioner’s involved?”
“He’s a friend of Rule’s, so he’s about to speak to him personally.”
Bourke made a face. “I reckon Rule already has the bad news. The patrol officers first on the scene took one look at her driving license, recognized the name, and wisely kicked the whole problem upstairs, but it was a bit late by then.” He gestured at a second TV news truck entering the parking area. “See what I mean? The word’s well and truly out.”
Carol looked down at the broken body. Thurmond Rule’s daughter had long been a staple of the gossip pages, her long, rather horsy features captured in photographs at every notable movie premiere, art show or society function. The Rule name made her a must-invite, in spite of widely reported accounts of wild behavior, plus her tendency to viciously attack perceived rivals to her social position.
Bourke supervised the placement of canvas screens to conceal the body from the avid stares of both onlookers and the lens of television cameras set up on the roofs of the media vehicles. A couple of on-air reporters, held back by the tape and the presence of the young female constable who’d given Carol the information on the Lamborghini, yelled out questions, and were ignored.
“Here’s Reynolds,” said Carol, observing the police doctor squeezing his considerable self from the embrace of the Mini Cooper he had recently acquired, to the amusement of everyone except himself. Close behind him was the crime-scene van.
Reynolds wheezed his way over. Beaming at Carol, he said, “And how’s my favorite blonde-bombshell inspector?”
“I’m fine, Burt. And you?”
“The wife’s got me on a bloody diet—lettuce leaf and celery special.” He patted his rotund stomach. “Be fading away, any day now.” Switching his attention to the body at their feet, he said, “Rule’s profligate daughter, eh?” plunking his medical bag beside the body. He grinned at Carol’s resigned expression. “Hope you weren’t planning to keep a lid on it. I heard Martina Rule had been in a fatal accident on the radio while driving over.”
Liz Carey, her shock of gray hair in its usual disarray, ducked her stocky body under the tape. Behind her, laden with equipment, came three members of her crime-scene team. “Hurry up, Burt,” she said to the police doctor. “Haven’t got all day.” She jerked her head at the wider world. “They’re dying like flies, out there.”
Liz and Reynolds grinned at each other, knowing she was being facetious. For reasons not readily apparent, the current crime rate in New South Wales was at an all-time low in almost all categories, except, oddly, shoplifting.
“The Commissioner’s involved,” said Bourke.
Liz Carey snorted. “Of course the Commissioner’s involved. Rule’s got a billion or two kicking around. His money gives him access to anyone and everyone.”
Reynolds grimaced as he lowered his bulk to kneel beside the body. “Then we’d all better do this one strictly by the book.”
Aggravated by his hard-done-by tone, Carol said, “I’m sure you agree, by the book, should apply to everyone, whoever they are. The victim’s relatives shouldn’t make a difference.”
The police doctor looked up at her with a sour smile. “Oh, yes? Remember the Courtauld case? Daddy certainly threw his weight around there.”
Eight months earlier, Martina Rule had been arrested after a brawl in a nightclub, not the first in which she’d been involved. This time, however, she’d been charged with assault, having ended a heated argument with another patron by smashing a unopened champagne bottle over his head. The victim, Henry Courtauld, had ended up in hospital with severe concussion. Martina had ended up in a cell, screaming police brutality and wrongful arrest.
It had appeared to be an open-and-shut prosecution, but her father had hired experts, used private investigators, and paid for the services of the very best legal brains. Doubt was cast on every shred of evidence, witnesses recanted, the testimony of police officers was impugned. In Carol’s opinion, Rule’s influence and money had bought his daughter an undeserved verdict of not guilty.
Bourke conferred with one of the uniformed officers while Reynolds established that the victim was, indeed, dead. The doctor compared the ambient temperature with that of the body—plunging a thermometer into the liver—certified the time of death as within the last two hours, and packed up his things while Liz Carey’s technicians took charge. Photographs and measurements taken, the body was rolled over. Diamonds glinted in her ears, a thin gold necklace gleamed. The woman has sustained some damage to her face, but the slack, bloodied features were clearly recognizable. She was indubitably Martina Rule.
“Now for the driver,” said Bourke. “The patrol cops gave him a breath test for alcohol. He hadn’t been drinking, and his ID checks out okay. Name’s Hawkins, Sid Hawkins.”
Hawkins slid out of the back seat of the squad car as soon as Carol and Bourke approached. He was a thin man with greasy hair, and an angular, discontented face. He wore grimy jeans and a tight once-white T-shirt that emphasized his incipient paunch. Jerking his thumb at the constable who’d been guarding him, he said to Carol, “This guy says you’re in charge.” Clearly, he wasn’t impressed.
“I’m Inspector Ashton, Mr. Hawkins. Would you tell us what happened?”
“What happened was she stepped out in front of me. Didn’t see her til too late.” He tilted his head, apparently to gauge Carol’s response, then added, “An accident. Her fault, not mine.” Another pause, then, “She’s dead? That right?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Hawkins huffed a breath. “Jesus. This would happen to me.” Bourke said, “We’ll require a written statement.”
“Look, other people saw it happen, you know.” He swung his narrow head around. “Some guy was right there. These other cops talked to him. Dunno where they’ve taken him, but he can back me up.” His attention back on Carol, he said, “How long’s this going to take? I’m sorry, and all that, but I’ve got things to do.”
Carol gave him a cool, official smile. “We’re all very busy, Mr. Hawkins. We’ll try not to keep you too long. Please tell me in as much detail as possible what happened.”
“I done it umpteen times already.” When Carol didn’t respond, he gave an exasperated wriggle of his shoulders. “Okay,” he said in a tone of elaborate patience, “I was here at the mall to get some hardware stuff. You can look, if you don’t believe me—it’s in the back of me truck. So I get what I come for, and go to leave. Just minding my own business, when out of nowhere this lady’s right there, in front of me. Didn’t have no time to brake, or anything, at least not till after.”
“Did the woman step out from between parked cars?”
Hawkins frowned at Carol’s question. “No idea. Told you, I didn’t see her.” His hands made a sharp sound as he slapped them together. “Whack! I hit her—same time I saw her.” He gave a quick, satisfied nod. “Accident, pure and simple.”
Raising her eyebrows at Hawkins’ insouciant attitude, Carol said, “Were you upset when you realized what had happened?”
“Upset? Of course I was bloody upset. What would you expect?” Seeking solidarity, Hawkins directed a can-you-believe-this-dumb-question glance at Bourke.
Bourke inquired, “How fast were you going?”
Hawkins narrowed his eyes. “Not speeding, if that’s what you’re getting at. Sure, I admit I was in a bit of a hurry, but there was no one around, see, as far as I was concerned.” He sighed impatiently. “I told you, the other guy saw it all. Why don’t you ask him? He’ll back me up. I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
“So you stopped as soon as you struck the victim?”
“Look, I’m the victim here, being treated like a criminal for no reason.” Hawkins put on an air of righteousness as he continued, “And no way was I a hit and run. I slam on the brakes, jump out and run over. Straightway I could see she was a goner.”
“Have you ever seen the woman before?”
Hawkins favored Carol with an incredulous look. “You mean do I know her? Someone like that with a fancy I-tie car? Why would I?” He folded his skinny arms. “Never saw her before in me life.”
A few minutes later, the principal witness to the accident, a fidgety little man in a rumpled brown suit and creased blue shirt, confirmed Sid Hawkins’ story. “I was a bit along the row, going to open my car, when this man in the truck came tooling along, not fast, mind, then this woman doesn’t look, but steps right out in front of him. And he hits her.”
“You didn’t call out a warning, Mr. Doherty?” Bourke asked.
“No time. It was over in a second.” He shook his head. “Awful. Just awful.”
Carol said, “What sounds did you hear, Mr. Doherty?”
He looked confused. “Sounds?”
“When the accident happened, did you notice any sounds?”
Appearing nonplussed, he stared at her. At last he said, “Like, did she scream, you mean?”
Bourke said helpfully, “The vehicle hit the victim hard enough to kill her.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember. There was a sort of thump. I don’t think there was a scream.” His face contorted. “Christ, it was horrible. But I saw it all, and it was an accident. I want you to know that. The driver did nothing wrong.”
After she had sent both Doherty and Hawkins to the nearest police station in separate patrol cars, Carol said to Bourke before he followed to supervise their statements, “What do you think, Mark?”
“I think Martina Rule died because she was careless, and didn’t look.” He smiled sardonically. “Pity she couldn’t have been killed by someone who at least gave a ghost of a damn, but that’s the way it is.”
Two days later, after Carol and Bourke had made a concentrated effort to cover all aspects of the accident, the Commissioner dispatched them to Thurmond Rule’s harbor- side mansion to report in person on his daughter’s death. Carol went with reluctance, knowing the Commissioner had made sure Rule got copies of all the paperwork on the case. This was simply a matter of PR.
Carol’s team had a backlog of cases demanding attention. This public relations exercise would take precious time both she and Bourke could put to much better use. Resigned to the fact she would have to go, Carol had pointed out that Bourke’s presence wasn’t necessary. The Commissioner had insisted, saying, “Thurmond Rule may want to question your sergeant.”
As Bourke drove through moderate morning traffic, Carol considered how she could reallocate duties in her team. Recently the State Coroner had publicly expressed his concern that the lack of human resources in the homicide squad was leading to a number of inadequate investigations. Carol privately agreed there was some truth in his pointed comments.
The newly reformed homicide squad was suffering from serious budgetary restraints, and although there should be seven detectives on each of the squad’s seven murder teams, most were short at least one officer. In Carol’s case, her team had only five members, as Terry Roham had been off on sick leave after sustaining serious injuries. She’d expected his return this week. But only this morning he’d had an unexpected relapse and been readmitted to hospital. Apart from Bourke and herself, there were only three other operational members of her team—Anne Newsome, Miles Li and Maureen Oatland. Maureen Oatland was the most experienced of the three, a large woman with a penetrating voice who had spent many years in juvenile and rape squads before coming to homicide. She was in the team temporarily, filling in for Dennis Earl, who had been accepted for special training in computer crime.
Bourke broke into her thoughts with the comment, “Looks like a fortress,” as he pulled up to the huge cast-iron gates of the Rule estate. Surrounded on three sides by high sandstone walls—the fourth side was a minuscule private harbor beach—Rule’s domain had two bouncer-size men guarding the entrance. Both wore extraordinarily well-tailored gray uniforms and forbidding expressions. Carol and Bourke’s credentials were thoroughly checked, then they were directed to park the car just inside the wall and walk the rest of the way on a driveway that curved out of sight over a slight rise.
“Have to hand you off to the next post,” rasped the larger of the two men. His companion spoke into a phone, apparently alerting the next ring of security they were on their way. He walked close behind them until a neat guard house came into view, then halted to make sure they reached it before turning and retracing his steps.
“Too much money has too many strings attached,” Bourke remarked to Carol as the second two-guard team looked narrowly at their police IDs. “I mean, you couldn’t do any of the ordinary things, could you? There’d always be the worry you’d be kidnapped, or stalked by someone desperate for money.”
Overhearing this, one of the guards, who wore a badge on the pocket of his gray uniform declaring his name to be Ledmark, grinned. “Reckon I could put up with the inconvenience myself,” he said. “Like they say, money mightn’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery more bearable.”
“You armed?” said the other man, his flat face expressionless. His name tag read Gallagher.
Bourke spread his arms. “Not today, Mr. Gallagher. Going to search me?”
Bourke’s tone was bantering, and Carol had to smile at his surprise when the second guard patted him down.
“I’m wearing a sub-compact Glock,” she said. Her well-cut jacket hid the outlines of the weapon nestled in its concealed waist holster.
Gallagher seemed about the run his hands over her, too, but Ledmark gave a quick shake of his head. “Inspector Ashton won’t be surrendering her gun.”
Gallagher accompanied them to the front door of the graceless sandstone house, which had apparently been designed by an architect who valued substance over style. There they were met by yet another guard, this time a woman with a flinty face. “I’ll take you through to Mr. Rule’s assistant.”
In a dourly-furnished drawing room, Thurmond Rule’s assistant greeted them with a flicker of a smile. “My name is Hector Paz. I’m delighted to meet you, Inspector Ashton.” He shook hands briefly with Carol, then Bourke. “Sergeant Bourke,” he said, “I’m afraid you won’t be able to accompany the Inspector when she meets Mr. Rule, but I’m sure you’ll be comfortable waiting here. I’ll arrange for refreshments.”
Paz spoke with a slight foreign accent that gave his words an exotic flavor. He was slightly shorter than Carol, and dressed in an undoubtedly expensive beige suit, crisp white shirt and red tie. He had lustrous dark eyes and black hair slicked back over a finely boned skull. Physically he was well-covered, but not fat. Something about him reminded Carol of a cat. Perhaps it was the way he watched them closely with a calm, uninvolved gaze—or maybe it was the impression she had that underneath his cool, unhurried manner lay taut purpose.
A woman in a pale green nurse’s uniform entered the room so silently she was almost beside them before Carol was aware of her presence. She quickly looked at each of them, then, hands clasped, said to Paz, “Mr. Rule has had his medication. He will see his visitor now.”
“My wife, Juanita,” Paz said. “Juanita, meet Inspector Ashton and Sergeant Bourke.”
“Welcome,” she said with a nervous smile. She spoke with a cadence similar to Paz, and had the same dark hair and deep brown eyes as her husband, but she was slightly built, and his manner of cool watchfulness was absent, being replaced with an anxious attentiveness.
Leaving his wife to attend to Bourke, Hector Paz led Carol down a wide corridor hung with oil paintings in heavy, dark frames. “All originals, of course,” he said with pride. “There are galleries that would kill to get a chance to select from this collection.” He spoke as if he were the owner of these particular works of art himself.
Paz ushered her through double doors into what appeared to be a library. The walls were lined with enclosed shelves holding countless leather-bound volumes. Heavy furniture sat stolidly on a thick maroon carpet. Sun poured through French windows, heating the room. Even so, a substantial fire crackled in the huge fireplace dominating one wall.
Carol’s attention went immediately to the man seated by the fire. The last time she’d seen him was on television six months before. It was a shock to contrast that dynamic figure to the shrunken man before her. She recalled he’d been making appearances in selected programs to refute persistent rumors of serious illness, laughing scornfully at any suggestions that he was losing his grip and his companies’ share prices were being affected by any perception that Rule’s steady hand on the corporate tiller was failing.
Then it had seemed a ridiculous concept—Rule’s ruddy face, thick, iron-gray hair, strong, muscular body, plus the confident tone of his bass voice, had painted a picture of vibrant health.
Now she could see there must have been truth in the rumors. Thurmond Rule had lost considerable weight. His face was haggard, his eyes sunken. His hair seemed thinner, grayer, and his previous vigor entirely dissipated. He was propped up in a black leather armchair, a tartan blanket across his knees, looking more like an invalid than a powerful captain of business.
He waved away Paz’s attempts to introduce Carol. “I know who she is. Now leave us.”
After Paz had shut the doors behind him, Rule indicated a heavy lounge chair matching the one in which he was slumped. “Sit down over there, opposite me.”
It was unpleasantly hot in the room, and Carol would have preferred to be farther from the fire, but courtesy demanded she comply. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said, seating herself. “Please accept my condolences.” He ducked his head in acknowledgment.
Carol couldn’t tell if grief or illness had transformed his face into this disconcerting pale, gaunt mask. As though reading her thoughts, Rule said, “I’m much changed, as you can see.” His voice had lost its former resonance and was a brittle sound in the quiet room. “This sickness is a temporary thing, Inspector, and I’d request you not mention how I look to anyone.”
“I won’t, of course.”
“I have your word on that, I trust. Although I’m well on the road to recovery, my enemies in the business world would love to spread lies about how old Rule is dying.” He coughed, a harsh hacking sound, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then continued, “The treatments are worse than the complaint. That’s why I look like hell at the moment.”
Leaning back, apparently exhausted, Rule closed his eyes. “Tell me about the accident.”
“You’ve seen our reports.”
“Yes, yes…” He waved a weary hand. “What I want is your account, Inspector.” He opened his heavy-lidded eyes. “You’re supposed to be among the best the Police Service has to offer.” A softly contemptuous laugh followed. “Not that this is necessarily a high recommendation. I’m sure you know Martina had her run-ins with you people. I’ve always found cops don’t hesitate to lie when it suits them.”
Disregarding this comment, Carol briefly went through the details of his daughter’s death and the steps taken to investigate the incident. She noted both Sid Hawkins, the driver of the truck, and Liam Doherty, the witness, had been closely checked and seemed above-board. Hawkins made a reasonable living running his own business as a handyman doing home repairs. Doherty was a clerk in an electrical wholesalers. There was no indication the two men knew each other, or that either of them had ever met the victim.
To cover every possible angle, Carol had even checked the whereabouts of Henry Courtauld, the man Martina Rule had sent to hospital in the nightclub brawl which had led to her arrest. He’d recovered completely from the concussion and was at present in Britain completing a course at the London School of Economics.
Rule, who’d had his eyes closed during her account, opened them to say, “So you’ve no doubt the coroner at the inquest will find it was an accident?”
“I believe that’s what the ruling will be.”
He gave a non-committal grunt, then said, “I’ve had Fred Verrell look into it. Did you know that?”
Fred Verrell was a high-profile private investigator who specialized in the problems of the rich and famous. A flamboyant figure who was usually seen with his poodle, Nero, under one arm, Verrell was frequently featured in the media, arguably enjoying more public recognition than some of the celebrities he served.
“Mr. Verrell did contact me about your daughter’s death.”
Carol didn’t add that Verrells bluster had infuriated her. She had run up against the private detective in other cases, and thoroughly detested his style of operation. Although unfailingly obsequious when dealing with anyone more powerful or famous than himself, Verrell changed to an intimidating bully with those he deemed less significant. In his previous interactions with Carol, Verrell had alternated between sly innuendo—blondes with green eyes turned him on, he’d advised her more than once—and loudmouthed demands for information.
Obviously Rule picked up something in Carol’s tone, because he gave a short bark of laughter. “Bit of a bastard, eh? But he’s effective. Sure he skates close to illegality at times, but Verrell gets the job done, and that’s all that interests me.”
“Has he reported to you on this matter?”
Rule nodded. “Verrell agrees with you. Confirms it was a stupid accident. Martina always was careless. Armored by my money, she thought she was immortal.”
“Again, Mr. Rule, please accept my condolences.” Impatient to end the interview, Carol slid forward in her chair, signaling her intention to stand. “I don’t believe there’s anything else I can tell you.”
He shook his head wearily. “You’re right. There’s nothing to add to the hard fact my daughter is dead.” Pressing a button on an intercom, he said, “Hector? Inspector Ashton is leaving.”
As Carol stood, he fixed her with a probing look. “I don’t imagine you disappointed your parents, did you?”
“I hope not.”
He grunted. “I’ve no illusions about my daughter, Inspector. My wife died when Martina was ten. I spent as much time with Martina as business would allow, but have to admit I was a neglectful father. She grew up to be grasping and ungrateful. Money, money, money—that’s all she wanted from me. And I gave her whatever she wanted.”
As if in his own defense, he added after a moment, “Since my son disappeared all those years ago, Martina was the only family I had left.”
Carol vaguely remembered the story: Eric Rule had mysteriously vanished in a remote part of Western Australia. His father had offered a huge reward and financed extensive searches, but no trace of his son had ever been found.
Rule cleared his throat. “It’s a hard thing to have your children die before you. A hard thing.”
With a pang, Carol thought of her own son, David. He was a teenager now, filled with the typical confidence of his peers that they were immune from harm. “You have my deepest sympathy, Mr. Rule,” she said, hoping her sincerity would shine through the commonplace words.
He smiled, and she saw a flash of the former robust Thurmond Rule. “Thank you, Inspector. I appreciate you saying that.”
The last sight Carol had of Thurmond Rule was a frail figure, dominated by the sturdy outlines of the chair in which he was slumped. Two weeks later Rule died in his sleep of advanced pancreatic cancer. His obituaries were glowing, his erstwhile enemies having nothing but the most laudatory things to say about the powerful businessman they’d envied and feared.
The media took the opportunity to recycle the mystery of Eric Rule’s baffling disappearance. The son had shown very little interest in his father’s business empire, instead intending to become a naturalist specializing in conservation. Martina Rule had been three when her half-brother, twenty-two, and sole offspring of Thurmond Rule’s first marriage, had set off into the wastes of Western Australia’s forbidding Gibson Desert as part of a scientific expedition mapping the distribution of a rare reptile, the Great Desert Skink. Eric had been dropped off alone at an isolated point to set up cameras and humane traps, one of many such spots being established by the expedition members. A sudden sandstorm had blown up, delaying his pick-up by several hours. When the desert terrain vehicle returned to the spot, Eric Rule was nowhere to be found. A search was immediately instituted, but the wind had destroyed any tracks made by Eric’s boots or any other vehicle that might have been in the area.
Thurmond Rule had spent a not-so-small fortune looking for his son, but to no avail. Twenty years ago, Eric Rule had vanished into the silent wastes of Gibson Desert’s undulating sand plains, never, apparently, to be seen again. In the succeeding years, every now and then an article or television program would resurrect the story. Then there’d be a new crop of people claiming to have seen Eric Rule anywhere from Sweden to Chile. Spurious claims would be made for the still-extant reward. Theories would be floated that Eric had been abducted by aliens, or he was married with six children and living under a false name in Blackpool, England, or buried in a lonely desert grave, victim of a remote-area serial killer.
Eric had been declared officially dead more than a decade ago, which left Martina as Thurmond Rule’s only close blood relative. Rule’s last will and testament was a simple one, naming his daughter as sole heir to his entire estate. As Martina Rule had predeceased her father, and Rule had failed to alter his bequest, at his death no valid will existed.
Rule’s only sister had succumbed to leukemia when only twelve. Both his former wives were deceased. With no close relatives available to inherit, the probate court appointed Rule’s solicitors to handle the estate’s affairs and to seek out more distant kin who might have a claim to the Rule billions. Naturally this generated intense media interest, so the search was widely publicized.
Although Carol didn’t follow the story closely, over the next few months she noted with wry amusement the astonishing number of so-called relatives who surfaced in the media, each and every one claiming kinship to the late billionaire. Most were almost immediately discredited by Slessor, Slessor, Dunkling & Gold, Thurmond Rule’s solicitors. An old, well-established firm, their probity was beyond reproach. Advertisements seeking possible heirs appeared in all major newspapers throughout Australia, and similar efforts were made in the United States and Britain, as Rule’s mother had been Scottish, his father American.
Carol found this far-ranging search for Rule heirs only mildly diverting, and had hardly devoted more than a passing thought to the situation until she received a phone call from the States.
She’d come early to the office, having only made a slight dent in the work she’d taken home to wade through. I should have accepted Ren’s offer, she thought as she unpacked her bulging briefcase. The chance to become a full partner in a highly successful private investigation firm had been very tempting, but in the end she’d decided to stay with the Police Service. As a police officer she had authority and power an ordinary citizen did not enjoy. When it came down to it, Carol found herself unwilling to relinquish the clout her position gave her. Still, at times like this she wondered if she’d made the right choice.
Carol was counting on at least an hour without interruptions, and was about to start a determined effort to at least temporarily win the paper wars when her phone rang. With a resigned sigh, she picked up the receiver.
Before she could speak, a forceful male voice asked, “Is that Inspector Ashton? Carol Ashton?” The accent had a twang, the tone was impatient.
“This is Carol Ashton.”
“Chuck Inman here, calling from Houston, Texas. Australia’s to hell and gone, isn’t it? What are you—twelve, thirteen hours behind us?”
Carol took a measure of satisfaction in saying, “Actually, Mr. Inman, Australia is ahead of Houston, Texas. It’s already the next day, here.”
“That so? Whatever, I’ve got some information you’ll want to know.”
“And this is in reference to…?”
“Thurmond Rule. The Aussie magnate. You wouldn’t want to know how much trouble I had finding out your name. You were in charge of the investigation of his daughter’s death, weren’t you?”
“I did investigate Martina Rule’s fatal accident. Is that what you’re calling about?”
“Indirectly. You see, with Martina out of the way, it means I’m one of Thurmond Rule’s heirs.” Inman gave a short laugh. “Before you say, Oh, yeah? let me tell you that unlike most of the would-bes, I’m the genuine article.”
Carol looked sourly at the pile of papers in front of her. She had to review several things before a budget meeting that morning. “I believe you should be talking to Mr. Rule’s solicitors. They’re handling the estate. I’d be pleased to give you contact details.”
“Been there, done that,” Inman declared brusquely. “This is about something else.”
“A police matter?”
“Well, yeah, if you call murder a police matter.”