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Revolting Development

Revolting Development by Lora Roberts Smith
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The condo developer wasn’t known for her community spirit, but that was no reason to push her out of a third-story window, or to dispose of her in a dumpster. Housewife/writer Bridget Montrose, who discovers the body, reluctantly pursues clues through Palo Alto from behind a stroller. She uncovers suburban goings-on that really belong in the dumpster, as the mystery spreads to involve friends, neighbors, and some surprisingly simpatico cops. By the time she finally tracks down the truth, the murderer’s right behind her.

Bridget Montrose mystery by Lora Roberts

Belgrave House; August 1988
136 pages; ISBN 9780960267668
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Revolting Development
Author: Lora Roberts Smith; Lora Roberts
 
Excerpt

Margery Lomax dropped her spoon into her soup plate. A small fleck of gold chipped off the rim, and she stared at it for a moment before fixing her gaze on her husband, separated from her by eight feet of shining mahogany. The chipped plate was just one more thing to be laid at his door.

Fred pretended to ignore her displeasure, but she knew he knew. When his Adam’s apple bobbed like that he was nervous. And with good cause.

“I simply do not understand it,” Margery said, tapping well-polished talons on the table. Usually the sight of her hands brought a glow of good humor. She considered them quite elegant and young-looking, for a woman of her years. Not that she was growing old—no, she was timeless. Every­one agreed. She wished she could say the same of Fred. He was looking all of his fifty-eight years lately. It was no wonder.

“You have acted very foolishly, Fred,” she told him. “Gambling is not your forte—you must have recognized that by now. How did you think you were going to pay these debts?”

Fred looked down at the dregs of his tomato soup. “I hoped—I didn’t like to ask you,” he mumbled.

“Well, you should have. Now it will cost me three times as much to get you out of it as it would have if you’d come to me in the first place.” She reached for her water glass and noticed that her hand was trembling. It was bad for her to get so angry. The doctor had said she must learn to remain calm. “But what provocation,” she thought, taking a ladylike sip of water and striving to regain control.

“Margy—” Fred’s Adam’s apple was really hopping, she noticed. “I’m cured of gambling. I’ll never gamble again.”

“You may be sure of that,” Mrs. Lomax said, staring down the table at him. Really, he positively repelled her, with his watery eyes and thinning hair. Why had she ever married a man so weak? “If I decide to bail you out of this mess, and I do mean if, I shall arrange to have the casinos closed to you in the future.” She pushed the soup plate away. “There won’t be any difficulty about that, I imagine, when I let it be known that I won’t be responsible for your debts.”

“You—you must pay it for me.” Fred’s eyes bulged with alarm. “They—they threatened—”

Mrs. Lomax got up and went to the sideboard, where the housekeeper had left the casserole in a chafing dish. “Be a man, Fred,” she said impatiently over her shoulder. “They can’t do more than break your arms and legs, and you certainly deserve it for such stupid, sneaky behavior.” She scooped up a spoonful of the casserole and added plenty of broccoli. Broccoli was supposed to be good for you. “Be sure you take some broccoli, Fred. And stop sniveling. I suppose I’ll pay your debt—this time.”

They finished their meal in silence. Mrs. Lomax didn’t like to feel that there was a quality of resentment in her husband’s behavior. After all, she was rescuing him from unpleasant­ness at the hands of the casino enforcers. The magnitude of his deception rather astonished her. Daring to gamble at Lake Tahoe, when she’d sent him to check on the possibility of building some condominiums at Fallen Leaf Lake! It wasn’t like Fred to be so independent.

A thought occurred to her over the gelatin parfait. “And how did your secretary enjoy the lake? Miss—Miss Arrow, is it?”

“Miss Dart,” Fred said sullenly, his eyes shifting away from hers. “She—she was working on the contracts.”

“Of course she was,” Mrs. Lomax cooed. “It probably took all her time. Poor thing, she’s not too efficient, besides being so odd-looking. I think I will find you someone else, Freddy.”

“Allison—Miss Dart is a fine legal secretary.” Fred clenched his fists. Mrs. Lomax watched him narrowly. “You must allow me to hire my own office help, Margy.”

“Must I?” She laughed. “Come, Freddy. Don’t look so glum. If I’m going to buy you out of your little fix, the least you can do is hire a new secretary to please me. Someone mature,” she added, clasping her hands girlishly. “And very competent. I’ll see to it for you, shall I?”

Fred’s shoulders slumped. “Certainly,” he said, his voice hollow.

“Then that’s settled. Now I’ve got a planning commission meeting to attend, and afterward I want to go around and check those units on Wadsworth. Mr. Neary is not making the kind of progress I expect on my construction sites.”

Fred stood up when she did, abandoning the rest of his dinner. “You’re a little old to go climbing around a half-finished building in the middle of the night, Margy. Leave it till tomorrow.”

She stiffened at his mention of age and led the way out of the dining room. “I won’t go alone, Freddy, since you’re so concerned. I plan to have some company.” Her lips tight­ened. Fred wasn’t the only recalcitrant person she had to deal with tonight. But she was confident that all these annoying people could be brought under control. All it took was the right bit of knowledge..."That Kaplan woman," she muttered to herself.

“What? Claudia Kaplan? You’re taking her on a tour of your condos?”

“Don’t be more of a moron than you can help, Fred.” She got her coat out of the closet under the stairs, stroking the soft mink with affection. It was cold in Palo Alto at this time of year. Briefly she toyed with the idea of Palm Springs. But the development restrictions were even tighter there. “Mrs. Kaplan will no doubt show up at the meeting. I’m afraid her so-called literary reputation gives her weight with the plan­ning commission. I need a good handle against her, and so far I haven’t found one.”

Fred was unable to conceal a faint smile of satisfaction. “So you can’t make her dance to your tune. Or that other fellow—what’s his name? Hippie type.”

“You mean Martin Hertschorn, I suppose.” Mrs. Lomax felt a scowl forming and forced her facial muscles into slackness. No reason to court wrinkles, after all. “He has no real influence, but these gadflies can be very annoying. However, I shall prevail.”

“Of course.” Fred looked apprehensive. “You won’t—say anything that would leave you open to an action for slander, will you? I barely got the last one bought off.”

For a moment she let her anger with Fred relax into approval. After all, he had his uses. It seemed unfair that it should be slanderous simply to point out venal flaws in others. And it was true that something occasionally came over her, and she would find herself saying things, hurling words that normally weren’t part of her vocabulary. The last time she’d aired a difference of opinion with Mrs. Kaplan, she’d had a hard time stopping herself from abandoning decorum and shrieking “dyke-lover, dyke-lover.” The memory of that hot engulfing darkness made her reach for a package of tissues.

“Maybe I should come with you,” Fred offered. There was reluctance in the words. He had one eye on his watch, she noticed. Some television program he wanted to watch.

“Unnecessary, Fred,” Mrs. Lomax said briskly. “If anyone commits slander tonight, it’ll be Claudia Kaplan. She was very threatening after the last meeting, but not in front of witnesses, unfortunately.” Mrs. Lomax sniffed. “I, of course, will maintain complete control.” She pressed down those unquiet memories and shot Fred a withering glance to show that her anger was not forgotten. “Over my family, it seems I have no control. You are a disappointment to me, Fred, a bitter disappointment. And my nephew is not much better.”

Fred brightened. “Young MacIntyre got himself into trouble?”

“It seems I am only useful to both of you as a walking pocket book. It must come to an end.” Mrs. Lomax picked up her briefcase and headed for the door. “If Benji thinks I will subsidize his foolish passion for bicycle racing, he has a surprise coming.” She turned for a last glare at Fred. "And that’s not all I refuse to subsidize. Good night, my dear. I shall be late. Don’t wait up.”


Chapter 1

“Now, exactly where were you when you saw the feet?” Bridget Montrose shivered and wrapped herself in her sweatshirted arms. The early morning air was as cold and damp as a child’s unwrung washcloth. “Please, Sig. I’d rather not have to go through it all again.”

Since Signe Harrison was her dearest friend, Bridget knew she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Squinting against the weak morning light, Signe was tall, pale of face with pale brown hair, thin, her expression eager and quivering, culti­vated for its pathos. Using it, she never failed to get at least one more nugget of information out of her victim.

Most of the time Bridget found this amusing. But this morning she was the victim. Sig’s recent ambition was to jump from the local weekly paper to one of the bigger peninsula dailies. Consequently her nose for news had grown, Pinocchio-like, to immense proportions.

“Listen, this is a big break for me.” Sig turned the pathos way up. Why else do you think I barreled right over here when I heard your name on the police band?”

“Everyone else in Palo Alto listens to Morning Edition while they eat their granola.” Bridget made an effort to sound normal, though she felt as if she would never stop shivering. The wet February wind pierced right through her sweaty clothes. She was dressed to move, not to stand around trying to avoid watching a corpse get loaded into an ambulance. “The Lois Lane of our time,” she said, turning her back on the ambulance and clenching her teeth so they wouldn’t chatter. “This is not going to look good on the Community Activities page."

“What Community Activities? This could be my ticket out of the Crier.” Sig pointed her razor-point pen right at Bridget's heart. “My best friend finds a body in a dumpster! You have to tell me about it, Biddy.” She played her trump card. "After all, you told that wimp from the Peninsula Times. I saw you talking to him earlier.”

Bridget capitulated, as she had known she would. They were standing in front of the Dark Tower, her private name for the condominiums-to-be that had replaced her favorite Victorian mansion near downtown Palo Alto. The usual muddy desolation of a construction site that she jogged past every day was overrun on this morning with police cars and people both official and unofficial, slogging through the mud, peering at everything. Occasionally Bridget caught furtive glances and mutterings in her direction. She felt branded by lurid speculation.

"I was running along the sidewalk,” she began mournfully, reciting it all for the umpteenth time. "Coming from my house. It was early, still pretty dark out, but the streetlight happened to reflect off the soles of the shoes just right.”

The words caught in her throat and she knew she would never be able to forget the whole bizarre scene. “They were sticking straight up out of the dumpster—really nice Italian shoes, you know the kind, impossibly high heels with light-colored waxed leather soles. Must have been pretty new because they were still shiny. I don’t run that fast, you know—” she glared at Sig’s unrepressed snort of laughter “—so while I was going past I had time to realize that they actually were shoes and not just weird shadows or something.”

She took a deep breath and so did Sig. "Not too clear,” Sig said, writing furiously in a small notebook, “but I get your drift.”

“Well, I started to go on, figuring it was just a joke, or some street art or something.” Bridget fingered the zipper tab on her sweatshirt. “I really don’t know what made me go through all that mud to check it out.”

The mud had been unpleasantly clingy after a couple of wet days, and her thoughts had been diverted from the strange appearance of the dumpster to the fear that the mud would ruin her expensive new running shoes. She almost turned back at that point, but another glance at the dumpster that stood in the shadow of the new building changed her mind.

She had stopped short, nearly sinking to her hocks in the mud. From her closer vantage, it was clear that the shoes were being worn. Thin stocking-clad legs were visible up to mid-calf level, apparently being disgorged by the dumpster. Presumably the legs themselves were attached to knees, and so on. The refrain of an old song had begun running through her shocked mind, and she could still feel it at the edge of her consciousness, ready to come spilling out if she didn’t exercise enough control. “Knee bone connected to the— thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the—hip bone   Had she said it out loud? She looked anxiously at Sig, and decided she had not, so far.

“Anyway, that’s it. I banged on the door of the next house and called nine one one and the next thing I knew—” she gestured around at the crowd of police, ambulance workers, and unnamed extras.

“She was dead when they pulled her out?” Sig nodded, answering her own question, and scribbled some more. “Margery Lomax, she muttered. “Hoist in her own development.”

Both of them looked up at the Dark Tower, where a sign in one staring, glassless window proclaimed:


face=Arial>EIGHT LUXURY CONDOMINIUM UNITS AVAILABLE SOON. MARGERY LOMAX, DEVELOPER.


Bridget shivered again. “Every morning when I run past this monstrosity I have bad thoughts about her. Now she’s dead.”

At least Sig didn’t write that down. She put her notebook away and threw a long, comforting arm around Bridget’s quivering shoulders. “Why are you hanging around here? Emery must be frantic.”

“I called him,” Bridget mumbled. “The police said I should stick around for a while.”

“Well, they can find you again if they want you. You need something warm to drink. Bet you’re still in shock.”

Bridget let Sig lead her away. The heavy grey sky lightened fractionally, signaling that the sun was on the job somewhere up there. Despite the cold, gloomy wetness of the atmosphere, buds on the Japanese plum trees lining the street were beginning to swell. A breeze off the Bay carried the faint, pleasant tang of salt water. It would be spring again soon, with the breathtaking suddenness that vindicated the nasty chill of the winter rains. But Margery Lomax would see no more springs.

They had nearly reached Sig’s car when a voice hailed them. “Ladies!” Bridget turned to see a man coming toward them from the Dark Tower, picking a way with surprising swiftness through the clingy mud. As he came closer she noted that he was medium height, a few inches taller than she was, stocky but compact, with fair, wildly curling hair receding from a broad forehead. He wore the kind of wire-rims that had been popular in the Sixties, and a rumpled sportcoat above faded Levis.

His eyes moved back and forth between Bridget and Sig, stopping at Bridget’s face. “So you’re the one who got us all out of bed early this morning. Mrs. Montrose?”

Bridget nodded.

“I’m Detective Drake of the Palo Alto police department.” He glanced down at a sheaf of papers that spilled untidily from his hands. “I probably have your statement here somewhere, but I’d like to talk to you if you don’t mind.”

Bridget’s legs started trembling, as if she’d run twice as far as usual instead of half as far. “Can it wait? My family—”

“In an investigation of this kind we like to get moving as fast as we can.”

“Which kind is it?” Sig’s voice was eager. “Is it—murder?”

“Don’t be silly, Sig.” Bridget leaned against the car. “She probably had a heart attack..." That was stupid. Heart attack victims rarely tidied themselves away. “Why was she in the dumpster?”

Drake watched her, the lenses of his wire-rims catching the weak light and flinging it back. “That’s what we need to find out, Mrs. Montrose. Do you have a few minutes?”

Bridget’s teeth chattered like castanets. “Are you saying she was murdered?” Speaking the word brought an atavistic fear boiling to the surface of her mind. She barely felt Sig give her a comforting hug. “There’s a murderer running around here.” She turned to Sig. “I want to go home now. Emery—the children—I want to go home.”

“Now, now, Mrs. Montrose.” Lt. Drake flicked his eyes over her, and she imagined him calculating how long it would be before she collapsed. “I wouldn’t worry, ma am. With your cooperation, we’ll have this all cleaned up in no time.”

Bridget decided it was all a dream, one of those particu­larly vivid dreams where you noticed things like the heavy clang of ambulance doors shutting, and the color of the sky, as grey as tapioca cooked in an aluminum pot. The sky began to waver. Sig’s indignant voice came from far away.

“She’s going to faint! Why don’t you let her go home and pull herself together? It isn’t every day a person finds a body, you know.”

Bridget took three deep breaths. “I’m not going to faint,” she said. Her voice came out squeaky. She realized her eyes were closed, and opened them. Detective Drake was watch­ing her. She didn’t like the intensity in his gaze. He turned his attention to the papers he held, shuffling through them and pulling one out.

“I’ve got your address here,” he said, waving the scrap and cramming it into his pocket. “My partner or I will stop by later today.” He nodded to Sig and loped back toward the Dark Tower.

Sig looked after him, speculative. “Abrupt sort of guy. Wonder if he’s married.”

Bridget began to laugh and then, uncontrollably, to cry. “I want to go home,” she managed to gasp. “Please, Sig—”

“Of course, honey.” Sig bustled her into the car, but her eyes returned to the distant figure of Lt. Drake. “Good looking guy, anyway. Maybe I should interview him for the paper."

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