I was woken up by a loud conversation the next morning. The voices were those of my family members and of two other people. One voice was familiar, the other one, not so much.
Throwing on some clothes, I headed out to see what all the noise was about.
In the living room were two men- one was my mother’s old friend, Sebastian Vanderburg, who has worked with the Hidden Springs police department for as long as I could remember. The other man was younger and unfamiliar. Despite his younger age, he had a much stricter appearance and I got the feeling he wasn’t here just to chit-chat.
“Irene, there you are!” my mother called to me. “Captain Vanderburg and deputy Westen wanted to speak with you and David.”
I noticed how she used Sebastian’s title and not his name. The other man’s presence must have been the reason for that- she didn’t want him to think Sebastian had any kind of impartiality to our family. For someone who wasn’t really in the know of recent events, my mother had good gut instincts.
“Good morning, mom, dad, Gerald. Good morning Captain Vanderburg and Deputy Westen. How may I help you?” I greeted the two men. Considering the recent events, there were few good reasons for them to be here, but it still wouldn’t hurt to be polite.
“Ms. Meadows, I assume you are aware of the recent passing of your CEO. And of the leak of some very sensitive information regarding the company you are currently on the payroll of,” the deputy didn’t waste time.
“I am aware, it was pretty much all over the news yesterday,” I admitted. “We were all pretty shocked—no one expected Mr. Collier to die so young. But I assume you wanted to talk with David about this? He’s still asleep.” I bit my lip. How would David fare talking to the police right now? He still wasn’t dealing with yesterday’s events too well. “Should I wake him up…?”
“That won’t be necessary yet, Ms. Meadows,” the deputy shook his head. “We would very much like to talk with you first.”
This isn’t going too well, I began to think. There was something about the way that deputy looked at me that didn’t sit well with me. It was almost like he was trying to trip me up.
“Alright, then. I’m here.” I sat down with the people in my living room. Throughout the exchange, Sebastian Vanderburg remained quiet, but I had the weirdest feeling he was here on our side. But why would he need to be on our side, unless…
“Ms. Meadows, where were you this Tuesday night, from 5 to 12 pm?” he asked without breaking eye contact.
Oh well, we always knew this was a possibility, I thought. They were on to us.
“I worked late at the office that day. I didn’t leave the building until late that night,” I told him. It wasn’t a lie, really. I was at the office, after all.
“I’m sorry, but shouldn’t she have a lawyer for questioning?” my father chimed in. He was a farmer, yes, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know quite a bit about the legal system.
“Agreed,” my brother chimed in. “You are violating the law by questioning her without a lawyer.”
The deputy gave a sad smile and turned to Sebastian, who in turn calmed us down “This is not an interrogation per se. And if anything, I’m here to make sure Deputy Westen doesn’t do anything outside his jurisdiction.”
Well, that was just weird.
“Ms. Meadows, I understand how my presence here, so early in the morning after the events of yesterday, can seem very accusatory. I assure you, this is not why I’m here. However, I would like to know whether Mr. Collier Jr. was with you on the evening in question.”
“Me?” David asked, coming into the room. “What do you mean?”
“Hello, Mr. Collier. I’m glad to see you are doing so well, despite your loss. My sincerest condolences to you regarding your father’s passing,” the deputy nodded at him. “I have to ask, were you alone on this Tuesday evening? Or were you, perhaps, in someone’s company?”
“I was alone, until I met with Irene back at the office. We came here after work.” David just entered the room, but he also quickly caught on that something was weird here. “But why does it matter? Am I under suspicion of anything? Or is she?” He pointed at me.
“No,” the deputy gave a weary sigh. “Neither of you is under official suspicion of anything. However, I’m sorry to inform you, Mr. Collier, but your mother is our main suspect in the death of your father, Lionel Colier. Autopsy was able to find traces of succinylcholine in his system—his death was not natural and due to certain information, we have good reason to suspect Selma Collier is responsible. I’m here on official visit from Twinbrook to check her statement. When we questioned her, she has told us that she spent the times in question with her son, David. However, upon questioning, both her neighbors and yours informed me that the house lights were off for the entire night, as if no one was home. So, of course, I thought her story wasn’t quite sound. It turns out, I was right.”
“Wait, why would you think my mother committed murder just because she lied about being with me that night? Maybe she had good reason to say that?” David defended and I didn’t blame him. This thing the deputy did? It was a trick- he knew perfectly well that Selma Collier wasn’t with David that night. But how?
“He’s right,” I added. “Sometimes women lie about these things, you know. Sorry David, but maybe she was meeting a ‘male friend’ and wasn’t comfortable admitting that to the police?”
“In Twinbrook?” the deputy shook his head. “Look, the thing is, even if you and Mr. Collier Jr. held up her alibi, it wouldn’t have worked. You see, several people have spotted her in Twinbrook, including the workers of the motel she has checked into while in the city under a fake name. Now tell me, don’t you think it’s suspicious that the wife of a CEO of a huge pharmaceutical company arrives into a city under a fake name only a day before the man himself dies of a ‘heart attack’? And there is information pointing to her having purchased the poison?”
“Yes, it is very suspicious,” I admitted. “But it still doesn’t mean she actually did it. The Colliers have a lot of enemies. It wouldn’t be out of character for someone to try and frame her in the midst of all this.” I didn’t know why I was defending Selma Collier, but something about the whole situation just didn’t sit well with me.
“Someone like, say, a young woman whose family was robbed by the company and who has been working at said company since high school?” the deputy looked at me.
Ah, so now he was bringing out the big guns. Even Captain Vanderburg looked shocked at this. “Listen, Deputy Westen, I realize that now, after all the information about Collier Enterprises’ illegal activities came to light, it really makes sense for me to want to hurt the people involved, but tell me, if I was really responsible for Lionel Collier’s passing would I really murder him and try to frame his wife for it, only to make up defenses for her afterwards? Would that make any sense to you? Besides, anyone can tell you that I was in Hidden Springs for this whole last week.”
“I know you were here,” the man smiled. “And I don’t think you did it. However, if she is really innocent of murder, why is she lying about her true whereabouts and intentions for being in Twinbrook? Wouldn’t that only make her situation worse?”
He had a good point. Why would she lie about this?
Gerald chimed in again “Look, if you got the ‘proof’ of her purchasing the poison from a huge server leak, doesn’t it mean someone is out for their family for real? How do you know that information is legit? I mean, did you find any more of the poison in Selma’s possession?”
“Well, no,” the deputy admitted.
“In fact, from what he tells me, the woman looked completely baffled when presented with the information that she was a suspect for poisoning,” Captain Vanderburg added.
“I have never seen my mother baffled by anything in her life,” David admitted. “If she was, then she really didn’t do it. Now I really think someone is trying to frame her.”
“And they’re doing a pretty good job of it,” my mother chimed in. “You guys need to think big. Who would have wanted to have both Colliers out of the way, one in jail, the other dead? Find that person and you have your killer.”
The deputy listened to all of us carefully, taking in as much information as he could. Finally, he nodded and got up.
“Thank you for your time, all of you. You definitely cleared some information up for the Twinbrook police department. I think we can go now, Captain Vanderburg.”
“Alright, then, I’ll go start up the car. Simon, Celeste, it’s been good seeing you two. And Deputy Westen, let me tell you, no one in this family would commit anything illegal. That I can vouch for.” He headed out for his car.
“Wait,” David yelled out. “So, is my mother still under suspicion?”
“Well,” Deputy Westen shrugged, “Considering how we came by the information that accused her, her own silence and lies on the matter are her worst enemies right now. As soon as she explains her side of things, her lawyer will be able to help her.”
“So, she’s still in trouble…” David frowned.
“I’m surprised you are so worried, Mr. Collier. I thought you were dead set on exposing your family’s activities?”
My jaw dropped to the floor. How could he know about this? Was someone tailing us the whole time?!
The man noticed my expression and smiled “You see, in this age of nonstop surveillance, many go out of their way to disguise bugs and hidden cameras in the strangest objects, like, say, a statue, a necklace, or even a painting. And sometimes painted dragons really are watching over you. At least you had the common sense to wear gloves while breaking and entering, Ms. Meadows.”
“You know about this?! How are you not arresting us?” I blew up.
“For what? Technically, Mr. Collier here wasn’t violating any laws—he was in his father’s office. And you were with him. And since you weren’t even the ones who leaked the information… it was done from somewhere in Twinbrook… Anyways, take care, you two. Next time, you might not get so lucky.”
And with that, he left, leaving both of us and my family just standing there dumbstruck.
“So,” my dad found his speech first. “You two want to fill me in on what was happening lately?”
Well, considering how it was his discovery that started off this whole mess, he had a right to know.
“Yeah, dad. You guys might want to get comfortable. It’s quite a story.”
Naturally, neither of my parents was happy to hear that their kids were leading an illegal investigation and that their daughter broke into her boss’s office while he was gone. However, they understood why we felt like we needed to do those things.
“So now, someone else leaked the information you guys have been trying for years to access,” my father pondered. “From what you’re saying, I’m guessing there was a second server key that David’s father always had on him. Whoever leaked that information must have gotten pretty close to Lionel to access it.”
“Well, there isn’t much we can figure out sitting here, in Hidden Springs,” mom brought up. “And I don’t know how much this police deputy is willing to do to get to the truth. I mean, the Colliers are a pretty hated family. Sorry, David. But it’s kind of true. So, I don’t know how much chance your mother will have now, even if she’s innocent.”
“It’s ok, Mrs. Meadows. I know how things stand at the moment. I just don’t understand why she’s lying to them,” David threw his hands up. “The deputy is right- she’s making things worse for herself.”
“I think I need to call Roman,” Gerald shook his head. “If he’s finished catching up with his wife, I think he’ll be able to learn more through his channels. And honestly, I’m just curious about who it was that leaked the information before us.”
As if on cue, his phone rang—Roman called him first.
“Gerald, are you able to talk right now? I have some information that may interest you on this?
“Hold on, can I put you on speaker? My whole family and David are here and they’re interested in this too,” Gerald explained.
The hacker clearly agreed, and Gerald set the phone on the table for us all to hear his news.
“You guys! So, do you know Selma Collier has already been arrested?”
“Yes,” Gerald told him. “We’ve just been visited by a detective from Twinbrook who was here to verify whether her alibi of being with David that night was holding up.”
“And it totally didn’t, right? I mean, she must have been in Twinbrook already. Here’s the deal—it seems that someone may have lured her out there with information that Lionel was cheating on her there. Which would totally be why she headed there incognito—imagine how much money she could get out of a divorce after catching Lionel in the act?”
“It must have been a trap,” David lit up. “They must have been trying to get her to the location so that she would be conveniently present when the crime happened.”
“Yes, that is very possible!” Roman sounded really excited. “You guys! This is getting more interesting by the day—I don’t think Selma Collier is our culprit at all! I’ve been going through her online information all day, and not only are there no traces of any pre-murder research at all, but there seems to be a very interesting kind of spyware on her machine. It was really hard to detect and it’s totally that could, upon prompting from the person running it, create fake internet searches or even purchase information.”
“Who could make something like this? I know I can’t,” Gerald admitted.
“I don’t know if I could have made it either. I remember there was this one person working in our department during that life plant research project, who would have had the skill to create something like that… She probably would’ve been able to point us in the direction of this thing’s creator if she was here still.”
“Maybe we can find her?” I perked up. This whole fake crime situation was getting out of hand: it was one thing to get the Colliers in jail for something they actually did. But to frame the wife for the husband’s murder was a little too much.
“I don’t know. She wasn’t that young when she worked for us. She’s probably way retired by now and really hard to find, but I can take a look at what happened to her after the project,” Roman agreed.
“How do we know she isn’t the person who engineered the spyware herself?” David asked. “I mean, if she worked on your project, which got canned because of my father’s intervention, she must have also been affected? You and Gerald utilizing the internet to hack into my father—who’s to say she isn’t still alive and doing the same?”
“Well, he has a point there,” my father chimed in. “After all, revenge seems to be the fad of the day.”
“What was the woman’s name?” my mother asked. “Maybe we can help look for her as well.”
“Let me remember,” Roman paused. “Alma? No, wait it wasn’t Alma. It was an “A” name though, for sure. Wait, I had some official records from the days of that research. Let me see if Tia kept them. Wait a bit.”
He left the phone for a while and we could hear him asking Tia for his old research papers.
“This is insane, you know,” my mother shook her head. “To go to so much trouble just to frame someone for a crime she didn’t commit, when there is probably enough in the server leak to connect her to things she must have been involved in…”
“You think Selma was involved in Lionel’s illegal activities?” I was curious.
“Well, the server leak didn’t really have her name involved in anything, did it? But, it is safe to assume she knew some things about her husband schemes,” Gerald supposed.
“No. I don’t think she would’ve known as much as you think, actually,” David shook his head, slumping back in his seat. “I mean, my mother likes living a rich lifestyle, that’s a fact. And I’m sure she has done her best to ignore as many of my father’s legal violations as she could if it means she gets to continue living this kind of a lifestyle. But I don’t think Dad would have willingly involved her in anything that required as much trust as hiding a crime, to be honest. They didn’t have the best opinion of one another, really. So, she was likely not officially involved in any of his violations.”
“Well, that definitely gives whoever engineered this whole situation more incentive to frame her, then,” my father mused.
“I’m back!” Roman came back on the line. “Hey, guys, here’s the name of that woman who worked with us: Aileen Johnson. It wasn’t really common knowledge that she was really good with computers, since you know, people assume that the elderly are tech-illiterate, but she definitely had a way with programs. Not that she knew I knew it about her. I kind of stumbled upon her coding like crazy one day- it was a work of art.”
“Why would she hide that kind of skill? Isn’t such computer literacy really useful for scientific research?” David was incredulous.
“No idea. But everyone just mostly considered her this nice old lady, who got left penniless by her husband- I guess she wanted to maintain her image for some reason. Let’s see, maybe she went back to her hometown? Appaloosa Plains, was it?”
“Appaloosa Plains!?” my parents both jumped a little.
“And you say her name was Aileen?” my mother was on the edge of her seat.
“Umm, yes. Why, do you know her?” Roman was confused.
“Can you look up some information on her past?” my father added. “Like, past employment, marriages…”
“Yeah, shouldn’t be too hard.”
“What’s happening? How do you know this person?” David looked around confused.
“My maternal grandfather was married to and embezzled by a woman named Aileen, years ago. And they lived in Appaloosa Plains. I mean, as soon as they discovered her scheme, that Aileen fled town, so since this woman was from Appaloosa Plains too and trying so hard to maintain her ‘nice old lady’ image, maybe she was that same person,” I explained.
“Wow… your family seems to have this kind of luck with people, doesn’t it?” he was amazed.
“You could say that again,” my mother chimed in. “This witch preyed on my father when he was mourning my late mother and stole from him for years. Almost ruined my relationship with him, too.”
“It’s in the past now, dear,” Dad patted her. “She’s out of our lives.”
“Maybe not,” Roman’s voice sounded through the phone. “It looks like my Aileen was indeed your Aileen. What was your father’s name, Mrs. Meadows?”
“Brandon Lewis. He owned a ranch in Appaloosa Plains until his passing several years earlier,” Mom explained.
“Yep, we’ve got the same Aileen. This one’s records, which were strangely hard to break into, for someone her age, show that she is, indeed your former step-mother.”
Everyone paused, mulling over the information.
“Well…” Mom exhaled.
“That was unexpected,” agreed Dad.
“Looks like she could be our culprit, then,” Gerald scratched his head. “People like that, they don’t really change, do they?”
“So, she’s targeting my family? Where is she anyway?” David requested.
“There isn’t really much information about her after the project’s end, to be honest. I think she moved away from Hidden Springs, though. I can look into this further, but hunting down her current location will take a couple of days,” Roman explained.
“That would be most welcome. Thanks for all your research, Roman,” I thanked the hacker.
“You guys are most welcome! Take care. I’m going to go for now—Tia’s making her famous lasagna!” the guy was clearly happy to be back home and I kind of felt bad for our family distracting him from spending all the time with his family.
“Enjoy!” Gerald hung up the phone. “Well, what do we do now?”
“We wait for Roman’s information on Aileen’s whereabouts,” my mother offered.
“And see where that leads,” Dad added.
“This could take a while though,” I felt impatient. I wanted to know what was going on and I wanted to know now!
“Anyway… why don’t all of you get ready for breakfast? Or rather, lunch, by now,” mother got up and headed toward the kitchen.
“Yes, those detectives woke us all up rather early, didn’t they?” Dad headed off to get properly dressed.
Gerald just went back to his room, to read some article he’s already been reading before the detective’s arrival.
I watched David with anticipation and some worry. No doubt, he wasn’t taking all this information about his family too well.
For his part, however, he just started playing with Gerald’s cat. This in itself surprised me- Murka was a former stray and she usually clung to my brother, chasing away others. But here she was, happily purring in David’s hands, after approaching him herself. He looked relaxed, if anything.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I’m thinking that I want to prove my mother didn’t kill Dad,” he replied. “I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that she could have done it. But she didn’t. And for whatever reason, she is afraid to talk to the cops truthfully…”
“Yeah, it doesn’t sound right.”
I looked out the window, which looked out on the Hidden Springs lake. Hmm, we couldn’t do much from here, could we?
“You know, the detectives didn’t require us to stay here, in this city…”
David looked at me with interest “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
“Well, it would be easier to figure out what’s going on if we could talk to Selma, wouldn’t it?”
“I do want to talk to her. I can’t imagine what she is feeling now, if she is in jail. I mean… not like her normal lifestyle, is it?” David frowned. “And I don’t like the idea of someone being so good at framing her. Even if she hasn’t ever been the best mother.”
“I understand. We should go to Twinbrook. As soon as possible. I doubt our absence would do much at the company now, everything is in chaos already.”
“Yeah. It probably would have been similar if our original plan worked,” he admitted.
“But our plan didn’t involve any murders and framing. And anyway, I think we need to figure out who has targeted your family all the way from Twinbrook and why.”
What I didn’t say was, if Selma wasn’t involved in Lionel’s criminal activity, someone was just going after the Colliers as a family. Which meant that, eventually, they’ll come after David too. And I wanted to make sure the police caught them before they got the chance to do it.
“Tomorrow? I can pack really fast,” David agreed. “We can leave as soon we have the tickets.”
“It’s decided then. We’re going.”