By Stephen Tillman
Major Brett Stempin needed his cane as he painfully ascended the steps to his front porch. He’d been wounded near the end of his twelve-month deployment and spent several weeks in a hospital. The army doctors wanted him to stay longer for rehab, but he’d refused. He was anxious to see his wife and children. With some trepidation, he extended his key toward the door. Although he’d had Zoom sessions with his family, he doubted three-year-old Missy would remember him. He hoped five-year-old Mikey would.
Before Stempin could insert the key into the lock, the door opened. He was not pleased to see Karl Handler, his wife Audrey’s boss.
“Come in, Brett,” Handler said as he made a sweeping motion with his arm.
“Thanks for inviting me into my own home, Karl,” Stempin said sarcastically. “Why are you here?”
“To give Audrey moral support,” Handler said cryptically as he turned and headed into the house.
Feeling annoyed, Stempin followed him. His annoyance turned to shock and then rage. Audrey was standing in the living room with the kids clinging to her. Stempin could only stare at her swollen abdomen. She was at least six months pregnant. He hadn’t been home in over a year.
“Go give Daddy a kiss,” Audrey said as she nudged the children toward their father.
Mikey hesitated before walking slowly forward. Missy started to cry, turned, and wrapped her arms tightly around her mother’s leg. With difficulty Stempin contained the impulse to lash out. Instead he dropped to one knee and hugged his son. He decided not to upset Missy any more than she already was.
“I’ll take the kids to the kitchen and give them a snack,” Sam Ferguson offered.
Ferguson, Audrey’s brother, had been sitting in a chair off to the side. Stempin hadn’t noticed him until he spoke. Stempin considered Ferguson a low-life and only tolerated him for Audrey’s sake.
“Why don’t we all take seats?” Audrey suggested as Ferguson departed with the children.
A rational conversation was not on Stempin’s agenda, but the pain in his injured leg argued against standing. He sank into his favorite easy-chair. Audrey and Handler took seats together on the couch, their thighs touching. Stempin’s jaw clenched as Handler took Audrey’s left hand in his right.
“I assume this tender scene of domestic tranquility means Handler is the one who knocked you up,” Stempin said in a matter-of-fact tone, far different from what he was actually feeling. “How long have the two of you been doing the deed? Are either Mikey or Missy actually my kids?”
“Karl in the father of this one,” Audrey replied, patting her belly. “Mikey is definitely yours.” She hesitated and added, “Missy probably is.”
“Probably?” Stempin repeated angrily. “What the f… What does that mean?”
Audrey flushed before replying. “About nine months before Missy was born Karl and I went to a conference. I got a little tipsy at the closing banquet and, well, Karl brought me and a few other people back to his suite. We started fooling around. Someone suggested we play strip poker. One thing led to another. It was a one-time event. You and I were doing it regularly back then. Missy has your coloring and she’s the spitting image of your sister at the same age. I’m sure you’re her father.”
“You and Handler have been screwing for at least four years, and he could be my daughter’s biological father!” Stempin said in outrage as he attempted to get up from his chair.
“Maybe,” Handler said, grinning. “Or it could have been one of the other guys.”
“Other guys!” Stempin exploded. “You were having an orgy? Is this some kind of a sex club? Do you have weekly meetings?”
“I told you it was an isolated episode!” Audrey exclaimed loudly. “I was drunk! Three guys and two girls. We were all doing it.”
“And what about this little bastard?” Stempin asked as he finally managed to stand, stepped forward, and poked Audrey hard enough to make her wince.
“I was… upset that you went off to Afghanistan and left me alone with the kids. Karl was here and you weren’t. We’re in love! Accept that and move on to what you care about most. The army and your military career.”
“She says I’m better than you in the sack,” Handler taunted. “I make her come. With you she faked it most of the time.”
Stempin’s fury boiled over. He raised his cane and moved toward Handler, who easily danced out of the way. Audrey quickly got between the two men. Stempin’s right arm twitched, but then he lowered the cane.
“I’m going to see my lawyer,” Stempin hissed through gritted teeth. He turned and stomped toward the door as fast as he could on his gimpy leg. As he reached the door, he shouted back over his shoulder, “I want custody of the kids. I’m going to get the house, too. I’ll get both it and them. You’re a whore, and I’m a decorated combat veteran!”
“Oh, you can have this dump,” Handler yelled. “As soon as you’re gone I’m going to pack up Audrey and the kids and bring them to my Park Avenue penthouse. Once they learn what real luxury is, they’ll never want to come back here.”
Stempin awoke to a blinding headache and a roiling stomach. He was lying face down on a thick carpet. It was dark, but enough ambient light came through the exterior glass walls for him to recognize his surroundings. He was in Handler’s business office. He’d been there with Audrey for Christmas parties. I remember going a bar, he thought. How did I wind up here?
There was a pool of vomit inches from his head. He moved his hand to his face and wiped away more vomitus. He levered himself to his hands and knees, lifted his head, and froze. Just beyond the puke was a gun. His gun. A little farther away Handler lay on the floor, his face turned toward Stempin. The bullet hole in his forehead left little doubt he was dead.
Seeing a dead body did not come as a shock to Stempin. In Afghanistan he’d seen plenty of them, both the enemy and, unfortunately, his own men. Nevertheless, he once again barfed. He stayed down until he was reduced to dry heaves. Finally he was able to get to his feet. His cane was leaning against a chair. He hobbled over and picked it up. Then he called 9-1-1.
“Having your gun with you is an indication of premeditation,” Bill Saunders, Stempin’s attorney, told him. “In view of your military record and the unpleasant surprise of finding Audrey carrying another man’s child, the ADA said he’d let you plead to voluntary manslaughter, five to ten. You could be out in three. I’m trying to negotiate down to involuntary manslaughter, eighteen months to three years, but so far they’re not going for it. They will, however, allow you to post bond, and won’t ask for an exorbitant amount. Your house can be used for collateral.”
“I didn’t kill the bastard, Bill,” Stempin declared. “I would’ve liked to, but I didn’t.”
“You said you don’t remember what happened between the time you were in the bar and when you woke up in his office.”
“That’s right, but I wouldn’t have brought a gun. How would I even know he’d be there? It was after business hours. I might’ve gone there to beat the shit out of him, but not shoot him.”
“If you go to trial and lose, you could be convicted of second-degree murder. Twenty-five to life. If I can get them down to involuntary, you could be out in less than a year.”
“Any kind of prison sentence ends my military career!” Stempin said loudly as he banged his fist on the table. He sighed. “Not only that, I’d never get custody of the kids if I’m a convicted felon.”
“So you’re determined to fight this?”
“You’re going to need another lawyer.”
“You’re bailing on me, Bill?” Stempin asked in consternation.
“I’m with you all the way, Brett,” Saunders said, putting his hand on Stempin’s arm. “I’m realistic, however. I’m not a criminal lawyer. You need the best, and I’m not it. I have just the man for you.”
Stempin’s eyes opened wide, his mouth fell open, and he rocked back in his chair. “Shit, Bill, I could never afford Feinstein. He defends celebrities for millions.”
“You could if he took it pro-bono.”
“Why would he do that? This isn’t a high profile case.”
“Izzy served in the military,” Saunders explained. “He saw action in Iraq. He has a soft spot for soldiers who have problems. Besides, I went to law school with him. We’re friends. I’ll ask him as a personal favor.”
“This is my chief investigator, Jodi Cinto,” Feinstein said, introducing the attractive, dark-haired, thirty-something woman with him. Feinstein was a slender, dapper man in his fifties. They were meeting in Feinstein’s office. “I’ve talked to Bill Saunders, but just to be sure, you absolutely want to fight this? Your gun was the murder weapon, your fingerprints were on it, and gunshot residue was on your hands and clothes. You had an altercation with Handler in your home.”
“I didn’t do it!” Stempin declared.
“One possible defense is diminished capacity. You were intoxicated, you had quite a shock, and you don’t remember what happened. I think I could win with that strategy.”
“No good. That would still end my military career and probably my chances for custody.”
“What about the gun?” Cinto asked. “Don’t you keep it in a gun-safe?”
“Usually,” Stempin replied. “But I was just back in the States. It was in the car I rented at the airport.”
“We know about what happened in your house,” Feinstein said. “Tell us what happened when you left.”
“I went to Murphy’s Tavern and started to drink. The next thing I can recall is waking up in Handler’s office.”
“Did you drive to Murphy’s?” Cinto asked.
“No. It’s only a couple of blocks from my house. In spite of my bad leg I walked because I didn’t want to drive drunk.”
Cinto stood up and put on surgical gloves. “I need some of your hair follicles. This might hurt a little.”
“Do you recognize this man?” Cinto held up her phone to Zoe, the bartender at Murphy’s.
“Yeah, sure,” Zoe replied after squinting at the picture. “That’s Major Stempin. Used to be a regular. Hadn’t seen him for while until he came in a few days ago. Him and his wife used to come in, have a few, sometimes stay for dinner. Food’s pretty good here.”
“I’ll remember that. I live in Queens myself. You see anybody with him?”
“It was pretty busy but I did notice he’d moved from the bar to that booth over there. His wife and another guy were with him. Was gonna congratulate him on the new baby, but I didn’t get a chance.”
“Good thing you didn’t. The kid isn’t his. Can you describe the other man?”
“Holy shit!” Zoe exclaimed, taking a step back. “No wonder he looked so pissed. I didn’t get a close look at the guy, but maybe Wendy, the waitress, did.”
Audrey opened the door as far as the chain permitted. Her lips were compressed tightly. She said nothing.
“Let us in Audrey,” Stempin commanded. “This is still my house and I have stuff here.”
“You have some nerve coming here right after you kill my fiancée,” Audrey said, but she did allow Stempin and Cinto to enter.
“Actually he didn’t,” Cinto said as they entered the house.
“Who’s this bimbo?” Audrey asked.
Cinto showed her credentials and said, “My name is Jodi Cinto. I’m a private investigator working for Izzy Feinstein, Brett’s attorney. We have evidence which will exonerate him, but we need a little more. Can we sit somewhere?”
They moved to the living room and sat. Sam Ferguson was seated on the couch. Cinto handed Audrey an envelope.
“It’s a report from a lab,” Cinto replied. “It shows that Brett had Flunitrazepam in his system.”
“Had what?” a perplexed Audrey asked.
“It’s better known as rohypnol or roofies. The date-rape drug. Someone drugged him, probably at Murphy’s, and framed him for the murder. We could probably get him acquitted based on this alone, but it would be better if it never goes to trial. Finding the real killer would ensure that. I think it’s you.”
“Me!” Audrey shouted. “Why would I want to kill my lover?”
“Money,” Cinto said calmly. “You’re Handler’s beneficiary. You stand to inherit a bundle.”
“I didn’t know that!” Audrey declared. “Besides I’d have no idea how to get roofies anyway. You’re just trying…” She stopped. Her eyes opened wide, showing comprehension. She stood up abruptly, pointed toward her brother, and yelled, “You! You know how to get that stuff. It was your idea to go after Brett at Murphy’s. Then when he appeared to be falling down drunk you said you’d stay with him and drive him to a hotel. Why kill Karl?”
Ferguson jumped to his feet and pulled out a gun. “The son of a bitch was going to throw me out on my ass! He said when you guys got hitched, I’d never be allowed in his penthouse. Brett’s always been so high a mighty about how much better he is than me, but at least he let me stay here sometimes. I saw a way to get rid of both of them. You wouldn’t kick out your own brother. I hate to do this, Aud, but I can’t go to prison, so I can’t leave witnesses.”
“You’d shoot me? Your sister?”
“You don’t leave me any choice!” He raised the pistol and aimed at Audrey.
Stempin dove toward his wife and knocked her down just as Ferguson fired. There was a scream followed by two more quick shots. Ferguson fell over with two bullet holes in his chest. Cinto had shot him. Audrey began to cry.
“Anybody hurt?” Cinto asked.
“Sam’s shot winged Audrey’s arm,” Stempin replied, getting painfully to his feet. “She’ll be fine.”
Stephen Tillman is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Wilkes University. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Brown University. An avid reader of mysteries and science fiction, he has published several stories in both genres. He has had two fantasy/crime/spy novels published by Azure Spider Publications.