LOOKING BACK AT this setup, you could always argue that it was overdone and theatrical, the whole thing just done for effect, a maximum effect to flush out the killer of Phoebe Eastman.
Whatever I had tried to achieve worked well. Benito had come along to San Diego, not suspecting anything, expecting the ultimate pay-off to his little history science scheme, called ‘The Max.’ And within a few minutes the con had been blown, a convenient cover-up had taken place and now the mad jewel-woman struck again! Benito’s face had regained a little of his composure and color but when I jumped at him, his whole facade crumbled immediately.
I shouted at him again, not caring if we could be heard in the hall.
“How did you kill her, Benito? I swear, I will kill you, if you don’t tell me.”
He stumbled backwards a few steps and Ron and Juanita grabbed him.
He squeaked. “I didn’t mean to… ” Victory! “It wasn’t like you may think.”
Ron pushed Benito toward the big conference table and into one of the chairs. Juanita quickly produced a small recorder from her purse.
Benito gave a sob and rubbed his eyes with his arm.
Ron leaned down. “What is this? You didn’t mean to? You mean you didn’t plan it beforehand, is that what you are saying? You killed her but you didn’t plan to, it was an accident?” Ron played along well, his face close to Benito’s face, breathing down on him, not giving him an inch to regain composure.
The words started to fall from Benito’s mouth. “Yes, no, I didn’t plan it. It simply happened. I was looking for the Maximilian necklace she had been wearing earlier. Calendar had told me about the extraordinary piece around Phoebe’s neck. And I called Phoebe. She claimed that she had given it back to Altward, that it had been a mix-up. I didn’t believe her because I phoned Altward immediately after that and he feigned surprise, informed me that the Maximilian Jewels had been stolen during the heist.”
“You didn’t know that before?”
“No. I had heard of the break in and the killing, it made the news even up to L.A. But never in my mind would I have thought that the Maximilian Jewels could have been involved. It was a crazy week for Altward and we weren’t in frequent contact.”
“So you believed or didn’t believe Altward? It didn’t occur to you that he may have arranged a little swindle of his own?”
“In retrospect, I am not sure,” Benito looked genuinely confused. “I added one and one and came up with the stolen ‘Max’ in Phoebe’s possession. So it could have been her, with a little help from her dad.” He looked at us, pleadingly. “Could have been.”
“Go on, what happened.”
“I called up Phoebe, drove down to meet her, and confronted her. We started a shouting match, I pushed her, she started to cry for help, we struggled and it appears… ” He stopped.
“Appears what, Mr. Salanca?” Juanita asked softly, from very far away.
“That I killed her,” Benito swallowed. “Got her throat, pressed, pressed and pressed and shook and shook her. Until… I don’t know. Then I searched the apartment, didn’t find anything. Simply left her there on the floor.”
Of course, I couldn’t correct him, since I had found Phoebe wrapped up and ‘stored’ in the bathtub in Altward’s Newport residence.
“And then what, brought her to the beach later, dumped her body with a dinghy in the bay?” Ron asked.
“No, I simply left her there,” Benito lied unconvincingly; he was trying to make it sound more like an accident. Just like Altward did with her father.
“You killed her,” Ron stated.
“No,” I said, tired. “It was me who killed Phoebe, somehow.”
“Explain please.” Ron commanded.
“When I talked with Benito the first time, I mentioned my observation of the necklace. That made him start adding things up and decide to meet with Phoebe.” I looked at him and he nodded weakly.
“That son of a bitch Altward. We guarded the Maximilian Jewels very carefully, not to leak details to the community. It was supposed to be a ‘whisper,’ something the big collectors spoke in hushed tones at gallery openings and auctions. And there Phoebe was, exhibiting the stones like a simple fashion piece, according to your description. She was endangering the mission.”
The mission, killing for the mission, he sounded like something out of a bad Tom Cruise movie.
“You thought that Phoebe had stolen the stones?”
“It crossed my mind, yes. Altward had told me that they had been taken during the heist. Phoebe was trying to talk it off but she didn’t deny that she had worn them. How was I to know that Altward himself had taken the jewels in order to do his own little business? Phoebe wouldn’t tell me a thing. She thought my whole visit was ridiculous and unnecessary. Which it probably was. But we had put so much effort into the plan and I was mad about the fact that it was unraveling, the break-in at the gallery, the dead night watchman, and the jewels missing. And I was sure that somehow Phoebe was the link to the jewels.” He looked at us, pleadingly. “But you must understand, please, it was an accident.”
“Doesn’t sound like that to me, you enraged and all,” Ron remarked dryly to flush Benito out more.
“I argued with her, she feigned innocence, even laughed at me and my suspicion. And slapped me when I got physical. We fought and she died.”
“And did you find the Maximilian pieces in her apartment?”
“Of course not. There wasn’t a trace. She was dead and I found out that she must have spoken the truth, she had given the necklace back to Altward after all.”
“How did you find her in Newport?”
“After Calendar left me and I had done my math, I called Phoebe. I had her number because Altward had called her cell phone several times from my line. I reached her in Newport and this is where we arranged to meet the same day in the afternoon.”
“Was she part of the plan, did she play a part in ‘the mission?'”
Benito shook his head. “No, she was Altward’s girl, that’s all.”
“Who took part in your little sting?” Ron asked.
“Stephano Toledo and myself. I had the idea in the early stages of my thesis research. We contacted the artist to produce the jewels. He received a good fee for his silence.”
“And got killed for it?”
Benito shook his head. “We will probably never know. All I do know is that I was definitely not involved. And Stephano himself is dead.”
How convenient for both of you crooks.
“What about Altward and Faulkner? Were they in on the fake?” Ron got back on track.
“No, that was the beauty of it. From their perspective, they were dealing with the real Maximilian Jewels, arranging the deal with some collectors. It was shady, they knew it and their provision was accordingly. Stephano knew Faulkner from earlier. He brought them in. That’s it.”
“What about the artist, Ignacio Hermosa? He knew about it?”
“Don’t know his degree of involvement, we will probably never know.”
“You didn’t know that Ignacio Hermosa was killed shortly after delivering the jewelry?”
“No, I wasn’t involved in the details of the Max production at all. Just saw the results. Stephano later sent me the link to the news-stories on the net.”
“Anyone else involved? Any other names we should know?” Ron looked up from his notes.
Benito shook his head and I was relieved that Thomas’ name hadn’t come up.
“What did you do after you killed Phoebe and searched the apartment?”
“Nothing, I took a dish towel and wiped the places where I thought I had touched something. And then I left.”
“Then why dump her body into the ocean?” Ron asked.
A thought occurred to me. “What is Paul Faulkner’s role in this great jewelry swindle?”
Gotcha! Benito started moving on his seat even more. “He was involved, of course.”
“Did you call him after you had killed… ”
“I told you it was an accident!” Benito protested.
For the sake of argument, Ron continued, “After Phoebe had died in that accident? Did you call Faulkner?”
“Come on!” Ron led him a little bit. “The thing is, we are pretty weak on evidence of Mr. Faulkner’s involvement in this case. Your statement could help us to build a better case. And the judge would look favorably on that.” Ron dripped honey by the pound, favorable judges, my ass!
After a few more moments of silence, Benito sighed. “Yes, you are right, I called Faulkner afterwards. He told me to leave everything as it was, get out of Newport, and back to L.A. in order to get a good alibi.”
“And you followed that advice?” Ron asked.
“I did. And that was that. The next thing I heard of Phoebe was when her body washed ashore.”
The interview had gone too far already without proper procedures. Ron formally arrested Benito, read him his rights and handcuffed him. Benito clammed up right away. We sat around until the press conference was over and we were able to break up our little group without attracting too much attention. At police headquarters, they continued to question Benito and a lawyer was soon involved. Ron and Juanita were fidgety because the case we had against Benito was pretty weak. But it appeared that his bad conscience had won out and he stuck with his accident-story from before.
Ron personally took my statement while Juanita was preparing the paperwork for Benito’s arraignment. Rather formal on both sides, I told what I had deducted, and what I had seen today. Ron took it down, poked here and there for details, no smiles and no personal words between us. A certain kind of spark was missing. It was early evening when we finally finished, already dark outside. Ron took me to a sports bar a few doors down near the Gaslight Quarter. The crowd was strictly after-work people and some tourists thrown in but no tables or booths were left. We sat down at the bar, mounted our stools silently, studied the menu, and then ordered brew and food.
To make at least a little small talk and help over the awkward atmosphere, I began. “How are things from your perspective, Ron?”
“Not too bad. Benito sticks with his accident version, which we both know is the way he wants us to see his deed. But we just got started with the case. The crime scene unit will fine-comb Altward’s Newport apartment. Blood patterns, the fight choreography, residue. And the findings will collaborate with Benito’s story or they will prove murder. And the more lies we find, the less the jury will like our little criminal historian. Maybe we can play Altward against Benito against Faulkner and see who dishes up more dirt. We just started. The cases get stronger from here on as we now know what to look for and what questions to ask.”
“You think Faulkner dumped Phoebe’s body into the ocean?”
Ron eyed the television where we could watch the press conference and the handing over with subtitles. “Either Faulkner. Or Billy Bounce.”
“Why him?” I asked, slightly confused.
“He could be Faulkner’s executioner. Billy was the one going after Altward. And who else could have given him the orders?”
I mulled that over. I always had Billy Bounce as working for Thomas Cornelius and somehow it seemed that my old revenge-love-hate relationship with Thomas had clouded my judgment. Ron was right, Faulkner as Billy Bounce’s boss made sense. So did other players. “Billy could work for one of the potential buyers, too,” I pointed out. “Like for our friend, ‘The Japanese.'”
Ron gave a quick smile at me. “Wait just a little longer and we may find out. The case is cracked and is cracking further open by the minute.”
“My patience with mysteries has run out on this case,” I said, tired. I felt sick to the bones. All this killing.
Our food arrived and we busied ourselves with it for a while. I thought about home. It suddenly appealed to me tremendously, Redondo, the beach, my neglected business and Mrs. Otis. And Mundy taking me to dinner, still hoping for a foot in the door.
“Do you think it could still work out for us?” Ron asked, shaking me out of my dream state.
I looked at him and his still very handsome and sexy face. Mom’s words rang in my ears, “A good man to let your guard down with.” But then, what had she known about all the background noise.
Ron waited patiently for an answer but I didn’t give him the satisfaction. I put away my fork and my napkin, straightened my hair and stood up. Went out of the restaurant. Out of his life.