It was a hot Friday afternoon. The “dog days” of summer were here, and it wasn’t even August yet. That’s how it often is in eastern North Carolina and Pamlico County. Robert McLean, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and wearing flip-flops, walked slowly along River Road that paralleled the lower Neuse River, his camera ready to record a good shot.
Robert was in no hurry. He had waited until late afternoon to walk, as the heat index earlier in the afternoon was 105 degrees, and the relative humidity about 98%; just too oppressive to do much outside. Not that there was much to do, anyway. He had cut the grass the day before, and taken care of the garbage pickup. He had picked up a few items at the grocery store, and topped off the gas tank on his Jeep. All was good.
Now Robert concentrated on the scenery around him, looking for a good shot to post on the “Natural Pamlico” Facebook page. He wasn’t a professional photographer, and did not even have a traditional camera, just his LG cell phone. It took pretty good pictures and was easy to handle, so he was satisfied. It didn’t cost much, and since he was retired and living on a fixed income, he was content to use inexpensive equipment, rather than to buy the most popular–and expensive–gadgets.
He stopped where the road curved and looked at the river on his right. Then he turned and walked down the concrete ramp to a wide beach, thinking that he might find a good photo subject there. After treading through the sand to a pier farther down the river and not seeing anything particularly interesting, he walked back toward the ramp, gazing at some cork crab pot markers bobbing in the river.
Suddenly, he noticed a small skiff floating just beyond the crab pots, about a quarter-mile out. Curiously, there seemed to be no one in it. He thought that unusual, so he stopped to judge whether the waves were washing the boat toward the beach. They were, so he waded in the water up to his knees and tried to get a better look at the boat.
As the boat washed closer, Robert could see something below the gunwhale, a large white lump. Now he was curious, so he waded out toward the boat to get hold of it and pull it to the beach.
“What you doin’, Robert?” questioned the voice behind him. Robert, a bit startled, turned and saw his friend Joseph Johnson, who lived around the curve of River Road in the small community of Pierson Point.
“Hey, Joseph,” Robert replied, “give me a hand. I’m trying to pull this skiff to the beach.” Joseph pulled off his shoes and jogged to the river’s edge and walked in the water, catching up to Robert.
“What happened,” Joseph asked, “did someone lose his boat?”
By now, they were within 20 feet of the boat, and they could see that the lump in the bottom of the skiff was a woman. “What the hell!” Robert exclaimed. Joseph had grabbed a cleet on the port side, so Robert moved around and grabbed the one on the starboard side, and they quickly pulled the skiff up on the beach.
Then Robert called to the woman, who was lying face down, but received no answer. When he turned her over, he saw that the front of her white blouse was covered with a large red stain from the center of which was protruding the handle of a hunting knife. They couldn’t see the blade because it was buried in her chest. She obviously was dead!
Robert pulled his cell phone from his pocket and realized that it had been immersed in river water when they pulled the skiff in. He angrily shouted an expletive, then asked Joseph if he had his phone. Joseph, seeing that Robert’s phone would not operate, retrieved his phone from his shirt pocket, and handed it to Robert. Robert described the situation to the 911 operator, and was told to wait for the arrival of police and rescue.
While they waited, Robert was carefully examining the body. As a retired Air Force criminal investigator, he was used to crime-scene investigation, and was noting to memory what he saw. His first observations were that it was the body of a blond woman, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with an attractive slim figure and a nice face; there was no ID on the body; and that the deceased was dressed in a skirt, high heels, and a rather dressy blouse, definitely not something one normally would wear out on a boat. Robert asked Joseph to help in the examination, but Joseph looked as if he was in shock, and couldn’t help.
A deputy sheriff was the first to arrive on the scene. He began by taping off the area, and as he finished, the rescue truck arrived. By now, people along River Road, their curiosity piqued, were moving toward the scene. The deputy stepped in the middle of the road and asked people to move back. As they hesitated, another deputy arrived, followed by a state trooper and a crime scene investigation van.
The deputies began to question Robert and Joseph, asking each to give his individual account of what had transpired. Robert included in his detailed account his observations from his examination of the body. A light rain had begun and it was dark by the time their statements were complete, and Robert saw that the state Medical Examiner had arrived. The deputies greeted the ME and introduced her to Robert and Joseph as Dr. Katherine Smith. She asked them to repeat their accounts and observations, and while listening, interrupted briefly to direct her assistant and to ask questions of the crime scene investigators.
When the crime scene investigation was complete, and the ME had finished examining the body, the deputies politely asked Robert and Joseph to accompany them to the sheriff’s office in Bayboro. Deputy Allen explained that they were not suspects, but that detectives would want to question them. Both agreed to go with the deputies, but Robert asked if he might stop by his house to feed his dog and fetch his jacket.
At the sheriff’s office, the deputies introduced Robert and Joseph to Detective Nancy Jarvis, a strikingly attractive dark-haired woman who showed them into an interview room, invited them to sit at a table and asked if she could get them coffee, water or a soft drink. Joseph declined, but Robert said he would be grateful for a cup of coffee. Detective Jarvis left to get coffee, and Joseph asked Robert why he thought they were there. Robert replied that the detective, who had copies of their statements, wanted to question them to see if their current accounts were consistent with their earlier statements, and to see if she could elicit details they may not have thought of earlier. Joseph seemed somewhat relieved, but nervous. That’s what interview rooms and sheriff’s offices did to people, Robert remembered from his days on the other side of the table. He resolved to mentally critique Detective Jarvis’ technique, while admiring her physique.
Detective Jarvis returned with two cups of coffee, one black for Robert, and one with cream for herself. She smiled, apologized for asking them to travel to Bayboro, then switched on the sound recorder, and with a more serious look on her face, asked Robert why he was on the beach when he saw the skiff. Robert explained that he was taking a walk with the intention of shooting some pictures. She asked Joseph what he was doing when he saw Robert on the beach. Joseph haltingly and nervously responded that he, too, was taking a walk after pulling weeds in his garden.
After seeming to process something in her mind, Detective Jarvis asked, “Did either of you know the deceased?”
Robert answered “No, I had never seen her before.” Joseph looked down and answered, “No, uh uh. Didn’t know her.”
Nancy Jarvis then looked at Robert and said, “The wind velocity this afternoon was about 15 miles per hour. Which way was the wind blowing, and from what direction were the waves hitting the beach?”
Robert thought a second, then replied that the wind was from the southeast, and the waves were hitting the beach on the north bank of the Neuse at a 45-degree angle from the southeast.
“So the wind would have been blowing the boat up the river,” said the detective. “Mr. Johnson, do you agree with Mr. McLean?”
“I don’t think I noticed, ma’am,” Joseph replied. “I’m pretty bad about noticing things like that.”
Detective Jarvis looked thoughtfully, first at Robert, then at Joseph. “I think we’re done for tonight, gentlemen. But I may have more questions later, if y’all don’t mind. I’ll be in touch. A deputy will drive you home in a minute. Good night.”
As they walked out of the building, Joseph, feeling relieved, said to Robert, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. She didn’t have many questions, huh?” Robert smiled, but he was thinking that Detective Jarvis seemed to suspect something.
The deputy dropped Robert off at his house, then proceeded down River Road to Pierson Point where Joseph lived. He had an extra mobile phone in his nightstand drawer, so he pulled it out and activated it. Robert was tired from the events of the evening. He thought about watching the news on TV to see if the local station had coverage of his discovery of the dead woman, but instead, drank a bottle of water and went to bed.
When Robert awoke in the morning he popped a piece of bread with sliced cheese on it into the toaster oven, made a pot of coffee and turned on the TV to watch the news at seven o’clock. He sat down in front of the TV and watched as a local newswoman reported the story fairly accurately. Robert listened to her report, knowing what she was going to say up to the point when the body was transported away from the beach. Robert sipped his coffee slowly as the reporter said, “The Pamlico County Sheriff’s Office this morning said the body was identified as Myra Gates, a resident of New Bern. Mrs. Gates’ husband, Benjamin Gates, is missing, and allegedly is a person of interest in the homicide investigation. The Craven County Sheriff’s Office is assisting the Pamlico County Sheriff in locating Mr. Gates. Dr. Katherine Smith, the state Medical Examiner, said a postmortem confirmed the cause of death as a knife wound to the chest.”
Robert ate a bowl of oatmeal, drank a second cup of coffee, then showered and dressed. His intellectual curiosity was driving him now. He decided to drive over to Bayboro and talk to Detective Jarvis.
Robert walked up to the reception desk in the sheriff’s office and asked to speak to Detective Jarvis. The reception deputy told him to have a seat and she would be with him momentarily.
Ten minutes later, Detective Jarvis appeared and motioned for Robert to follow her. She led him to the same interview room in which she had interviewed Joseph and him the previous night. She asked Robert if he would like some coffee. He replied in the affirmative.
When Detective Jarvis returned with coffee, Robert thanked her, then said, “Last night I thought you were developing a theory. And I think you suspect Joseph. Why?”
Nancy Jarvis looked at Robert with a slight smile. “Since you were a military criminal investigator, I thought you might get that perception. Mr. Johnson clearly was uneasy, and the boat came from the direction of his house. We checked the boat’s registration; it belongs to his next-door neighbor, who resides in Cary, and hasn’t been to Pamlico County in the last month. I think Mr. Johnson was lying when he said he didn’t know the victim. We are checking his background, and if he did know the victim, we’ll find out. Assuming she was at Johnson’s house, or somewhere in the Pierson Point neighborhood, it would have been easy for him to kill the victim, put her into the skiff, pull it out into the river, wade back in, shower, put on dry clothes, then walk down to River Road as if nothing had happened, and help you pull the skiff in, aiding his effort to feign innocence.
“We checked you out, too, Mr. McLean. We can find no evidence that you knew the victim, and there is nothing to suggest that you have a motive for the crime. Your background suggests that you would not commit such a crime. So you are not a person of interest in the case.”
“I appreciate that I am not a suspect,” said Robert, “but are you not getting ahead of yourself somewhat? What about the husband of the victim as a suspect, considering he is missing? And I know that in crimes like this, the spouse usually is the prime suspect.”
“You are right about all that,” Detective Jarvis responded, “and Ben Gates is a person of interest. We are doing everything we can to locate him. But for now, Joseph Johnson is our prime suspect. I’m sure you will appreciate our reasoning.
“Considering your background, and that you are not a person of interest, Mr. McLean, would you be willing to help the department in the investigation?”
Robert answered, “What do you think I can do to help, Detective?”
“You know Mr. Johnson,” she replied, “and you could perhaps talk to him as a neighbor and nose around his property and his neighbor’s property without raising his guard.”
“Yeah, I could do that,” Robert said, “but I’m not sure I want to. He is a friend, and I think Gates is a more likely target.”
“I understand,” Detective Jarvis stated, “but I would like us to stay in touch, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“If you will let me know what your investigation uncovers, I will help any way I can,” he said. “For now, I may look around in the neighborhood, and apprise you of my observations.”
Detective Jarvis thanked him, and said, “I will be in touch, and you do the same. Have a good day, Mr. McLean.”
“The same to you, Detective Jarvis,” Robert replied, as he left the interview room and headed out of the building to his car.
On his way back to Arapahoe, Robert stopped by BoJangles in Grantsboro to get another cup of coffee. It helped him to think. After getting his coffee, he drove out to NC 306 and got to the NC 55 intersection just as the light turned red. As he waited to cross 55 and head south on 306 to Arapahoe, he saw a familiar vehicle in the left-turn lane on 306 across the intersection from him. He recognized it as Joseph Johnson’s old Chevy S-10.
When the light changed, he hesitated and let Joseph turn left, not knowing whether Joseph had recognized his Jeep. Looking in the rear-view mirror, Robert saw that he was clear, and swung onto NC 55 west toward New Bern. He drove slowly, letting Joseph get several hundred yards ahead, and followed him.
Robert wasn’t sure why he was following Joseph; maybe it was curiosity. At any rate, he kept Joseph’s truck in sight, and 20 minutes later, as Joseph crossed the Neuse River Bridge and merged onto US 70 west, he took the first exit to Country Club Road and turned left, heading to Trent Woods. When he got to the New Bern Country Club, he turned right on Country Club Drive into a residential area. Robert followed him as he wound through the neighborhood, and when Joseph parked in front of a house, Robert parked on the street about a block back.
He did not want to risk being seen by Joseph, so he sat in the Jeep and waited. Joseph walked up to the front door of the house at which he had stopped. He stood there for a few minutes, turned, walked back to his truck, got in, and drove off.
Robert followed, noting the address of the house as he passed it. Joseph traveled back out to Country Club Drive and backtracked to Country Club Road and out to US 70, where he headed back east to the Neuse River Bridge. When Robert was satisfied that Joseph was returning to Pamlico County, he turned and went back to New Bern and stopped at the Craven County Courthouse, where he found the tax administrator’s office and looked up the owner of the house in Trent Woods. The owners of record were Benjamin Gates and Myra Gates!
That surprised Robert. Why would Joseph go to the Gates house, he wondered? Was Detective Jarvis right? Was Joseph involved in this homicide?
As he drove back to Arapahoe, Robert’s brain was working overtime as he reviewed everything he knew about the Myra Gates murder. The boat definitely came from the east, headed upriver. Was Myra Gates at Pierson Point, and did Joseph kill her, put her body in the boat and pull it into the river, knowing which way the skiff would wash? If so, why? And how did Benjamin Gates fit into this mess, and where is he?
Robert got back to his house at noon, went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, pulled out some lettuce, tomato, mustard and Black Forest ham, got a couple of slices of bread and began making a sandwich.
Shortly, his lunch preparation was interrupted by his phone. He quickly rinsed his hands and dried them with a paper towel, then answered the phone, hoping he hadn’t taken too long and lost the call.
“Robert McLean,” he answered.
“Hello Mr. McLean, this is Nancy Jarvis.”
“We located Benjamin Gates. Two fishermen near Camp Seafarer found his body on the beach a couple of hours ago. It appears that he was killed by a blow to the head, or that after the blow rendered him unconscious, he drowned. I’ll let you know the results of the postmortem.”
“Wow!” Robert said, surprised at the news. “Do you have a theory about what’s going on, Detective?”
“Not yet,” she replied, “but I’ll let you know after we’ve processed the evidence at the scene and gotten the postmortem report. Mr. Gates was an attorney in New Bern, and we’re questioning the people at his law office.”
Robert was a bit shocked, and more than a bit puzzled, but he managed to thank Detective Jarvis for the information.
Camp Seafarer is the Raleigh YMCA summer camp for girls, and is upriver from where Myra Gates’ body was found, past the Minnesott Beach/Cherry Branch state ferry dock at Minnesott.
This just got more than a little complicated, he thought.
Robert was confused and dismayed. He was becoming afraid that his friend Joseph had something to do with these homicides. He wouldn’t know specifics about them until he received more information from Detective Jarvis, but he could speculate that Benjamin Gates may have been killed at the same time as his wife. If so, he thought, it could mean that the perpetrator intended to kill them both. But what was the motive? And again he wondered if Joseph was involved. If he was the perpetrator, what could his motive be? Why stab Myra Gates then bludgeon Ben Gates? Or could it be the other way round; did he kill Ben first, then Myra?
McLean concluded that he had to begin acting like an investigator, and to do that meant that he had to ignore his friendship with Joseph, and get a great deal more information.
First thing I have to do, Robert thought, is check out Joseph’s neighbor’s house. He knew the owner, Fred Richards, the owner of a real estate agency in the triangle who lived off Holly Springs Road in Cary. Richards, a widower, had only four years ago built the two-story house at Pierson Point to replace the small cottage that had been his parents’ weekend home since the 1960’s. Shortly after the house was built, his wife, Gloria, died of an embolism. Richards hadn’t visited Pierson Point for three years after Gloria died, but in the past year had begun to come down to the house at Pierson Point again.
Maybe the skiff is the key, Robert thought. After he finished his lunch, washed the dishes and put them away, he donned a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, slipped on his flip-flops, and headed for the front door, when he noticed that the sky had darkened, and a light rain had started. He grabbed his favorite hat off the rack in the kitchen and went out into the rain.
When he got to Pierson Point, the clouds still were dark, but the rain had slowed to a light sprinkle. He noticed that only a few Pierson Point weekenders were there: George Freeman, Henry Mills, and Tom Owens. Joseph’s truck was not parked in its usual space in the carport, and Fred Richards’ house was locked and vacant. Good, he thought—I really don’t want Joseph to see me looking around Fred’s house.
Robert walked between Fred’s and Joseph’s houses to the back, looking at the area above the beach where Fred’s boat usually was secured. It was not there, of course. It was in Bayboro at the Sheriff’s Office, now evidence in the homicide investigation.
Walking at a discreet distance from where the boat normally would be, Robert could see no footprints. Because the wind had been blowing fairly strong for the past 24 hours, footprints in the sand would have been obscured quickly. So Robert walked back up to the rear of Richards’ house looking for anything that might help him understand how the skiff came to contain a body. But there was nothing.
As he walked back home, he considered what to do next. He rounded the curve on River Road, and looked out to where he had seen the skiff the day before, then turned and looked on the other side of the road where he saw his neighbor, Buddy Brinson, picking up pine cones from his yard and putting them into his cart. He called to Buddy and walked over.
“Hey, Robert,” Buddy greeted him. “What about all the excitement yesterday? Didn’t you find the body?”
“Yeah, I spotted the skiff out there in the river in front of your house, and Joseph helped me pull it in to the beach. It was quite a shock finding a dead woman in it. Had to go to Bayboro to be questioned. Long day.”
“What does the sheriff think happened?” Buddy asked.
Robert explained to him the events of yesterday afternoon, and told Buddy that he was doing a little investigating on his own. “Been down to Fred Richards’ house. The skiff was his, you know. Didn’t really see anything, though.”
“Is Fred here this weekend,” Buddy questioned?
“No, his house is locked up. I haven’t seen him for several weeks, now.”
“Well, Karen and I saw him in New Bern last weekend,” Buddy said. “Karen wanted to go out to eat, so we went over to Possums. She hadn’t been there before, and several folks she works with told her that it’s a good place to eat.”
“Is it? I had heard, too, that it’s good.”
“The food was good, but it’s expensive. While we were eating, we saw Fred come in with a woman. Guess it’s about time he started seeing women. Think his wife died almost four years ago.”
“Who was the woman,” I asked.
“We didn’t know her, but she was pretty hot! We saw some other folks we know, too. Carl Smith and his wife were there, so on our way out, we stopped by their table to say hello. Karen used to work with Georgia, you know. It’s funny, though, about Fred. He was there in New Bern, but I didn’t see him at Pierson Point last weekend. You’d think that if he was going to drive all the way from Cary to New Bern, that he’d stay down here for the weekend.”
“Yeah, you’d think,” Robert agreed.
“Well, before it starts raining again, I’d better get the rest of these pine cones,” Buddy said.
“Kay. See you later, Buddy,” Robert said, and continued down River Road.
When Robert got back to the house, the rain seemed to have stopped, and there was a glimmer of sunshine in the west, and turning hotter. Robert needed to think, so he fetched a cold beer from the refrigerator, took it out to the front porch, sat down facing the river, opened the beer and took a swallow.
Suddenly, something dawned on him! He slipped on his flip flops and took off down the road. When he arrived at Buddy’s house, Buddy still was picking up pine cones.
“Buddy!” Robert yelled.
“Long time, no see, Robert,” Buddy replied, sarcastically. “What’s up?”
“Who did you say was the other couple you saw at Possums?”
“Carl and Georgia Smith. Why?”
“Where do they live?”
“They live in Reelsboro, by the Reelsboro Christian Church on 306.”
“Thanks, Buddy” said Robert, turning and setting off back to his house.
Robert went inside, got a yellow pad and a pen, and went back out to the porch and sat down. He wrote, “1. See Carl and Georgia Smith in Reelsboro, 2. Talk to Joseph, and 3. Talk to Nancy Jarvis.”
He picked up the can of beer he had left on the front porch table, took it and the yellow pad inside, tore the sheet of paper he had written on off the pad, went in the kitchen and poured the beer into the kitchen sink—it had gotten pretty hot sitting on the porch while he went back to see Buddy.
He folded the paper and put it on the table by the front door. Then he turned on Public Radio East to listen to the news. The local news account of the homicide was just a rehash of what he had heard on Channel 8 this morning. Guess the other murder will be on the late news, Robert thought.
It was now about 8 PM, but still light, as the sun would set tonight in about a half hour. Realizing that he had not eaten since noon, Robert went to the kitchen, put some salad in a bowl, cut a slice of onion, fried a hamburger, put it, along with the onion and a slice of tomato, on a bun smeared with mustard and ketchup, shook some cheese crackers out of a box and onto his plate, opened another beer, went to the den, turned on some music, sat down and enjoyed his supper.
Robert began thinking about Joseph. When Robert had moved to River Road eighteen years ago, Joseph, a Pamlico County native, had been one of the first to stop by and greet him. Joseph worked at a marine sales and repair company near Oriental, about twelve miles east. Like Robert, Joseph liked to fish, so he and Robert had spent many days over the past years fishing together.
Joseph had been single when Robert moved to River Road with his wife and two children. Ten years ago, Joseph married a woman from Little Washington, but the marriage had only lasted three years. “We just didn’t have anything in common,” Joseph had told him. Robert didn’t ask why Joseph had married her in the first place. He wasn’t one to cast stones; his wife had left him five years ago. Now his children were living away from Pamlico County, too.
Joseph just didn’t seem like the type to commit murder. He hardly ever even got angry, Robert thought. But why did he go to Myra Gates’s house this morning? He must have known her, so maybe he did have a motive to kill her. Joseph resolved to talk to Joseph tomorrow after church. After he watched an episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey,” one of his favorite TV programs, on his DVD player, Joseph was too sleepy to watch the news, so he went to bed, still thinking about Joseph.
As he expected, Robert was questioned about the homicide by the folks in his Sunday School class. He had eaten a bowl of oatmeal and drunk a cup of coffee before he went down to the crossroads in Arapahoe, where he was part of the congregation at Bethany Christian Church. Not wanting to interrupt the Sunday School lesson, he had given the class a brief account.
Following the lesson, he answered more questions posed by other members of the congregation out in the narthex, before going into the sanctuary for the worship service. In the “prayer concerns” part of the service, the minister mentioned the double homicide, and asked everyone to pray for the families.
After the service, Robert headed back to River Road, changed clothes and walked down to Joseph’s house. Joseph’s truck was there, so Robert knocked on the door. Joseph answered the door and asked Robert to come in. Joseph poured tea into two glasses that he filled with ice and offered Robert one.
They sat at the kitchen table by the sliding glass door that opened to a porch overlooking the beach and the river.
“I don’t know if you’re as upset about this mess as I am,” Joseph said, “but it’s got me to the point that I don’t even want to eat.”
“Joseph, I know it has upset you, but I know that yesterday you went to Myra Gates’s house. Did you know her? Why did you go?”
“How did you know I went there?”
“I saw you at the intersection of 306 and 55 yesterday when I was coming back from Bojangles, and I followed you. Joseph, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I know that the sheriff’s office suspects you of killing Mrs. Gates, and I was concerned. Did you know her?”
“No, I don’t know her, and that’s the truth!” Joseph stated, slapping his hand on the table.
“But why did you go to her house?
“I went to see if I could find her husband, Ben. I know he was missing, and I thought maybe if someone was at the house, I could talk to them and get a lead on where Ben is. I know him—he was my lawyer and handled my divorce for me. And when he needed work done on his boat, he would bring it to the marina and ask that I work on it.”
“That explains that,” Robert said, relieved. “But you know that if Detective Jarvis finds out you went there, she’ll suspect you of both murders.”
“Robert, I didn’t have anything to do with the murders. I know nothing about them.”
“Another curious thing that I hope the detective hasn’t picked up on, Joseph, is that Mrs. Gates’ body was in Fred Richards’ skiff. I know you recognized it, and Mrs. Jarvis may wonder why you didn’t say you knew whose boat it is.”
“I just didn’t want to get Fred in trouble, Robert. You know he’s been through a lot, with his wife dying. He’s just now getting to the point where he’ll come down here again.”
“Well, I believe you’re telling me the truth, Joseph. But if Ben Gates was your lawyer, you may want to find another one. I don’t know where Mrs. Jarvis’ investigation is going, but if she continues to suspect you, you may need representation. In the meantime, I’ll help any way I can.”
Robert thanked Joseph for the tea, and walked back toward his house. He hadn’t gotten a hundred yards down the road, when his phone rang.
“Robert McLean”, he answered.
“Mr. McLean, this is Nancy Jarvis. I just wanted you to know that we’re close to making an arrest in at least one homicide. Deputies are on the way to pick up Joseph Johnson. He must have recognized his neighbor’s skiff, and he didn’t say anything because he used it to dump the body. And we’re pretty sure that he knew Myra Gates and her husband. We don’t know the motive yet, but we should find out when we interview him as a formal suspect. Also, the post mortem confirmed that Ben Gates died as a result of a head blow. So we’re looking at Johnson as a possible suspect in that homicide as well.”
“Detective Jarvis, I think you’re jumping the gun. I just talked to Joseph, and his explanations seem reasonable and truthful to me. He didn’t say anything about the skiff because he didn’t want to get his neighbor in trouble.”
“And how did he explain his visit to the Gates house? We know Ben Gates was his attorney in a divorce case. We also know that you followed Mr. Johnson to Trent Woods.”
“He explained that he thought if he went to the house and someone was there, he might be able to gain useful information to help find Mr. Gates. He reiterated that he had never met Mrs. Gates.”
“Did he tell you that, at the time leading up to his divorce, Mrs. Gates was her husband’s receptionist at his office? Johnson had to have known her!”
Shortly after Detective Jarvis stunned Robert with the news that Joseph may, indeed, have known Myra Gates, Robert saw a sheriff’s patrol car with two deputies pass by his house on the way to Pierson Point to arrest Joseph Johnson.
Robert immediately looked up the phone number and address of Carl and Georgia Smith, got in his Jeep and headed to Reelsboro. On the way, he called the Smith residence. When Georgia Smith answered, he explained that he was a friend of Buddy Brinson and Karen, that he was on his way to Reelsboro, and asked if he could talk to her and her husband, Carl.
Georgia Smith told him that Carl had left earlier on a business trip, but that she would be glad to talk to him.
As Robert pulled up to the Smith address, Georgia Smith opened the front door and waved for him to come in. Georgia Smith was a tall woman with an attractive smile, and with brown hair in which were traces of gray. Robert introduced himself, and she invited him into the living room to sit. She asked if he would like something to drink, but Robert declined.
He explained as briefly as possible why he was there, and she asked how she could help.
Robert told her that Buddy and Karen had seen her and Carl at Possums, when Fred Richards was there, and asked if she and Carl knew Fred.
“Yes,” she answered, “We know Fred through some friends of ours in Raleigh. We were happy to see him that night. You know his wife died several years ago, and we hadn’t seen him after the funeral until we saw him in Possums.”
“Did you know the woman he was with at Possums?” Robert asked.
“We didn’t know her,” Georgia explained, “but he said she was a friend of his from New Bern who was a high-school classmate of his from Cary.”
Robert’s curiosity was peeked, but Georgia Smith could not tell him anything else of interest, so, after some idle chit-chat, he thanked her for talking to him, and said he looked forward to meeting Carl someday, and left.
As soon as he returned to Arapahoe, Robert rushed to his computer to do some research. In about ten minutes, he was satisfied and enlightened.
Shortly after she got in to her office, Detective Nancy Jarvis was pondering information that her staff had just uncovered, and wondering how that fit in the Gates case, when her phone rang.
“Detective Jarvis, this is Robert McLean.”
“Hello, Mr. McLean,” she answered. “I was just thinking about calling you.”
“Let me guess why,” Robert said.
“I was going to inform you that we just found that Myra Gates…”
“Was a high-school classmate of Fred Richards,” Robert interrupted.
“How did you know?” questioned Jarvis. “On second thought, I can answer my own question, because you’ve been working the case.”
Robert told her about his discussion with Buddy Brinson, and how he had learned from visiting Georgia Smith that Fred Richards was with a woman fitting Myra Gates’ description, who he described as a high-school classmate from Cary.
Jarvis told him that her detectives, in their investigation of the possible suspects, had discovered as well that Myra Gates, born Myra Montgomery, was from Cary, and a classmate of Fred Richards.
“We are investigating Mr. Richards now as a person of interest,” she said.
Robert asked her if she was going to release Joseph.
“Not just yet,” she replied. “There are still too many blanks to fill in.”
“If Richards was having an affair with Myra Gates, and her husband Ben found out about it, then that would have sparked a confrontation,” Robert mused. “I have a conjecture,” he said, “if you want to hear it.”
“I think we both have reached the same conclusion,” Nancy Jarvis replied, “but tell me what you think.”
“Somehow, Ben Gates found out about the affair, followed his wife to Fred Richards’s house at Pierson Point, and confronted them. In a rage, Ben Gates stabbed his wife and killed her. Fred Richards picked up an oar from the boat, hit Gates in the head, killing him. He put both bodies in the skiff by his house, rowed it out in the river, and dumped Ben Gates’ body into the Neuse. But he couldn’t dump his lover’s body, so, in his grief, he just got out of the boat and went back to his house, cleaned traces of what happened, took the back way out of Pierson Point so as not to be seen, and returned to Cary.”
“My thoughts, exactly,” Jarvis agreed. “We will be talking to Mr. Richards shortly, and I will let you know how it goes,” she said.
“Thanks, Detective Jarvis,” said Robert. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
Robert McLean was satisfied that he and Detective Jarvis knew what happened and how, and that her detectives would wrap up the case shortly, so he settled back, had a couple of beers and ate some peanuts. Then, after finding nothing interesting on television, he read for a while, brushed his teeth, crawled into bed, and slept well until 6:30 AM.
Robert woke up in time to walk down the road to photograph the sunrise. After shooting several pictures, he began walking back down the road to his house, but, on a whim, decided to turn around and head to Pierson Point to Richards’ house for a closer look at what he was sure was the crime scene, hoping to find evidence that he may have overlooked previously.
As he got to Richards’ house, he stopped to survey the 25-foot area between Richards’ and Joseph Johnson’s houses.
He began walking between the houses from the road, slowly inspecting the area along Richards’ house, down to the river. He found nothing that he didn’t see previously, so he turned back toward the road. As he looked to his left toward Joseph’s house, something caught his eye. He looked closer and saw a stain at the base of a small pine on Joseph’s lot. It appeared to be a blood stain. He carefully looked at a 10-foot square area of the yard, and spotted several drops of blood on the grass. As the area was well into Joseph’s backyard, it didn’t make sense. Why would Richards, Myra Gates and Ben Gates have been in Joseph’s yard? The blood drops on the grass did lead to the area between the houses, a fact that was inconsistent with his theory about the crime, since the trail was from the wrong direction.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called Detective Jarvis.
As soon as she answered, she told Robert that her detectives had questioned Richards in Cary all night, admitted that he had taken her to dinner at Possums, but just to catch up as classmates, that he wouldn’t think of hurting her, that Ben Gates was a friend of his, and that he had an alibi that appeared to check out. “We, of course, are investigating to confirm his alibi, but if it holds up, I don’t know where we are on this case. How could we have been wrong about what happened,” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Robert said, “but I just discovered some evidence that’s inconsistent with our theory. You should send your crime scene people out here right now. Meanwhile, can we talk, maybe over lunch at Mayo’s?”
“I’ll meet you there in half an hour,” Jarvis replied.
After they ordered lunch, Robert told Jarvis about his discovery on Joseph’s property. They both thought about the case without speaking until their food arrived.
They ate without speaking, too. Robert broke the silence finally when he asked Detective Jarvis if he could talk to Joseph.
“I think we should interrogate him first,” she answered.
“What will you ask him? Do you have a theory on which to formulate questions?”
“Well, no, not at present.”
“Let’s talk about it. How can Joseph be a part of this? Does he know Myra Gates? Did they have a relationship? I know that Joseph’s marriage of a few years ago did not last, and Ben Gates represented him in the divorce. I’ll allow that he may have known Myra Gates, although he says not.”
“Mr. Johnson must have known Mrs. Gates since she was her husband’s receptionist during Johnson’s divorce proceedings. My detectives will focus the investigation on whether there was a relationship of any kind between Johnson and Mrs. Gates.”
“As his friend, I think I may be able to talk to Joseph and get farther than an interrogation would. And you could prompt me electronically if I fail to ask a relevant question. What do you say, Nancy?”
“Well, Robert, I think I’ll take a chance and allow you to talk to him, then. But I’ll be monitoring the conversation, and, as you suggest, I will prompt you if I think it necessary. By the way, we seem to be on a first-name basis now, but don’t make any unwarranted conclusions from that.”
“Understood, Nancy. Thank you. When can I talk to Joseph?”
“It’s 1 PM now. I’ll brief my staff and set it up for 4 PM, if that’s all right with you,” she replied.
“That will be fine, Nancy. I’ll be at your office at 3:45 PM.”
Robert paid for lunch while Detective Jarvis headed to her office to set up the talk.
When Robert arrived at the Sheriff’s Office, Nancy Jarvis met him at the door and showed him to the interview room. She told him that Joseph Johnson was already in the room, and had been told that his friend Robert wanted to talk to him.
“Okay, I’m ready,” said Robert.
He went into the room and greeted Joseph.
“What’s going on,” Joseph asked. “Are they going to let me go?”
“Not yet,” said Robert, and told him about his and Detective Jarvis’ initial theory.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joseph said. “I really like Fred, and didn’t think he could be responsible for anything like this.”
“Well, Joseph, turns out he wasn’t. Detective Jarvis’ folks have confirmed his alibi. He was not involved in any of this.”
Joseph suddenly looked uncomfortable and nervous. “But who else could have done it,” he asked?
“Joseph, you did know Mrs. Gates, didn’t you? She was Ben’s receptionist during your divorce proceedings.”
“Robert, I knew the receptionist, but I didn’t know she was Ben’s wife.”
“I believe you, Joseph, but something does trouble me. Blood was found in your backyard today, and Jarvis’ people are analyzing it now. Can you explain that?”
Joseph stammered out a reply, saying, “It must have been when I cut my arm with a saw!”
Robert calmly looked at Joseph and said, “When you were going through the divorce, you were upset, I know, because we talked about it several times. When you were in Ben Gates’ waiting room, did Myra Gates comfort you about your troubles?”
“Yes, she understood what I was going through, and told me that she was having problems in her marriage, too.”
“Did you talk about it a lot?” Robert asked. “Did she make you feel better?”
Joseph looked like he had been punched in the face. He broke down and began to sob. “She suggested that we meet somewhere and talk. She said her husband didn’t love her anymore, and that he might divorce her. We felt so good together, that we started being together at my house. I really didn’t know that Ben was her husband. I just thought she was his receptionist. But after the divorce was settled, I went back to see her at Ben’s office, and she panicked when I went in—I didn’t understand—then Ben came out as I was trying to talk to her, and he seemed angry and told me to leave. But I waited until he left, and went in. She told me Ben was her husband and suspected her of having an affair. I tried to calm her, and asked her to come to my house to talk about everything when she could get away from Ben. She seemed reluctant, but said she would, and I left. That was a Thursday. She came to my house the next morning.” Joseph couldn’t continue.
Robert put his hand on Joseph’s shoulder and said, “I understand, Joseph. Tell me what happened that morning.”
Joseph couldn’t speak for several minutes, but presently he stopped sobbing and looked beaten. “She told me that she loved me, and wanted to be with me. We made love, and I thought that now we could work things out so that we could be together, and everything would be all right. We put some coffee on to brew and walked out in the backyard. We were happy. But Ben had followed her to my house, and he jumped out from behind a tree, cursing her, and stuck a knife into her, then came toward me, but I backed up to Fred’s skiff and managed to pick up an oar, and I swung it at him as hard as I could, and hit him in the head.”
“I ran over to Myra and I could tell that she was dead! My God! I couldn’t believe what had happened! I went back to Ben—I wanted to hit him again and again, but he was dead, too. All I could think to do was to put them into the skiff and get out on the river. When I got out about a hundred yards, I pushed him out. Then I cried and cried for Myra, but I knew I had to compose myself, so I jumped out and waded back up to the house, picked up the skiff’s oars and threw them in the Brinson Farm’s brush pile across the road. Then I put sand where Myra’s blood was on the ground, and ran into the house and took a shower. By then I had calmed down some, and I knew which way the skiff was drifting, so I walked to River Road hoping I could do something with the skiff, but I couldn’t think what. I saw you wading toward it, so I acted as if I didn’t know anything. That was really hard to do when I saw Myra, but I knew I had to.”
“It’s okay, Joseph. Why did you go to her house Saturday?”
“I just didn’t want to believe she was gone. It was just my grief that caused me to go. But it made me feel worse. I know I’m in a mess, Robert, but I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. It just did.”
“Joseph, I’m going out for a minute, but I’ll be back.” Robert got up and went into the hall. Nancy Jarvis came out of the adjoining room.
“Robert, I think we’re done with this now. You did a good job on the investigation, and you got to the truth by being a good friend to Mr. Johnson.” She smiled.
“Thanks, Nancy. What now?”
“I think Johnson was truthful with you, and I’ll communicate that to the DA. If Johnson’s account is true, then he acted in self-defense when he killed Ben Gates, and Ben killed Myra. I will have to hold Johnson on a homicide charge, but the likely outcome will be justifiable homicide based on self-defense, and Johnson will be released.”
“I hope so,” Robert said.
“Thank you for your help, Robert. You are a good friend to Johnson, while not compromising your objectivity as an investigator. Do not take this in the wrong way, Robert, but based on what I’ve seen, I would like to have you as a friend.”
“Understood, Nancy. Lunch tomorrow?”