D. A. Ratliff: The Dowager’s Pearls


Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by kropekk-pl from Pixabay.

The Dowager’s Pearls

 D. A. Ratliff

A Detective Elijah Boone Mystery

She preferred everyone to call her Dowager Estelle Montmorency, a title befitting her status, at least in her mind, as New Orleans nobility. As of this morning, however, she would be known as the late Dowager Montmorency. A blow to the back of her skull changed her status rather quickly.

Her body lay before me, sprawled across the marble steps leading to the enormous marble tub. She was clad in a pale-yellow silk robe now stained with ever-darkening blood. ME Julia Marrow was in her usual stance, hunkered down next to the body, as she unceremoniously made a small incision in the body’s abdomen, then stuck the probe of a digital thermometer into the liver.

Removing the probe, she stared into space for a few seconds and then stood. “Eli, best estimate on time of death, based on liver temp and rigor, around nine to ten last night. The tub is full, so I suspect she was about to take a bath when she was struck from behind.”

I sucked in a quick breath. “Not accidental?”

Julia wrinkled her nose. “Nope, no traces of blood on any surfaces in the room, and the wound is concave. I would say a heavy round object.”

“So, murder?”

She laughed. “Not getting out of this one, definitely murder.”

My partner, Hank Guidry, walked in. “Man, Eli, I’ve passed this place forever and never realized how big it was. I’d heard it was a mansion, but there’s room for parking fifteen cars within the walls, in the middle of the French Quarter.” He leaned around me to view the body. “Natural causes?”

I shook my head and grunted a no. Hank uttered an expletive under his breath. “We aren’t getting out of Major Crimes for a while, are we?”

“I don’t think so. Who found her?”

“Montmorency’s assistant, Della Chapman. She called 9-1-1, then called Montmorency’s youngest son, Guy. You better come with me. It looks like this was a robbery gone bad.”

We walked through a large dressing room with glass-doored closets and mahogany dressers into an expansive bedroom. Hank directed me to an alcove, which appeared to be a private office. Behind an antique French desk, a painting on hinges was swung out of the way, revealing an open wall safe.

“Any idea what was in here?”

“No. I got here just before Julia did. Uniforms had Chapman and the son waiting in a lounge downstairs. Talked to them, then came here.”

“Lounge?”

Hank chuckled. “Yeah, Guy… and he corrected me on that too… pronounced Gee, not like guy as in dude. He also informed me when I told them to remain in the living room that we were in the lounge, not the living room. That room was much grander.”

“I bet. Other offspring?”

Hank looked at his phone. “Daughter named Monica Germaine, and a son, Louis, and that is Lou-us, not Lou-ee.”

 I chuckled. “Fun times. Let’s talk to them.”

I followed Hank as he navigated the hallways of the enormous house and thought about what I knew about the place. It wasn’t much. I had read that the house was built in the 1800s and was nearly fifteen thousand square feet with a courtyard, pool, and multi-car garage. Space like that was a premium anywhere in New Orleans, but in the Quarter, a miracle. From the outside, the place looked nondescript, but from the inside, opulent.

Guy Montmorency and his mother’s assistant were waiting for us in the lounge. To say there was tension in the air was an understatement. Hank did the introductions, and I sat in a chair across from the son.

“My partner told me you described finding the body to him, Ms. Chapman, but could you tell me again?”

She huffed. “I arrived at eight a.m. as normal. The Dowager was always downstairs by then, having made tea and waiting for me to fix her breakfast. She won’t let the cook come in until eleven, doesn’t—didn’t—like to be bothered. It was odd that the security system was off, as she usually has to let me in when I get here. The electronic gates won’t open when the system is armed, so she never turns them on until bedtime and only off when I arrive. Doesn’t want to be bothered with having to go to the laptop and let anyone in after I arrive.”

“How did you realize the gates were unlocked?”

“I always text her in the morning. When she didn’t answer, I tried, and the gate opened. I assumed she turned the alarm off early.”

 “What happened when you entered the house?”

“When I didn’t find her downstairs, I checked upstairs and found her on….” Chapman’s voice quivered, and she dropped her head for a second. “I found her in the bathroom. I knew she was dead from how ashen she was and all the blood. I called 9-1-1 and then Guy. Then the police arrived, and then you arrived.”

I turned my attention to Guy, who sat ramrod straight on the settee. “What did you do when you arrived?”

“I went upstairs to make certain my mother was dead.”

“Alone?”

He glared at me. “No, Della went with me. I truly didn’t want to be alone with my dead mother. I could barely stand to be alone with her when she was alive. At least, this way, she couldn’t talk back.”

“You didn’t get along?”

He cackled. “My mother liked no one, and I can assure you no one liked her.”

“Did you call your brother or sister to let them know?”

“I don’t talk to them often. I don’t care how they find out.”

“Do either of you know what she kept in the safe in the office off her bedroom?”

Guy turned pale. “Why are you asking? Was the safe broken into?” He looked toward Chapman. “Della, was it in the safe?”

Della nodded. “As far as I know, yes.”  Guy sank back against the cushions, turning even paler.

“What was in the safe?”

“The most expensive pearl necklace in the world, the Duchesse Montmorency pearls. Several strands of hand-tied perfect pearls in graduated sizes and held together by a diamond and platinum clasp. My father found the owner and purchased it for my mother years ago.”

“A valuable piece?”

Guy sneered. “If you call eleven million dollars a lot of money, yes. I am assuming the safe was empty?”

Hank uttered a low whistle, and I swallowed hard. This was a clear motive. “Yes, it was. Who knew that she kept the necklace in the safe?”

“Me, my charming brother and sister, Della, and I would say Mother’s attorney.”

“Why did she keep such a valuable piece here and not in a bank vault?”

“Because she was paranoid that we would steal it from her if she didn’t keep It with her.” Guy scoffed. “Well, that certainly worked out.”

~~~

I dropped my car off at the police station and rode with Hank to do the notifications to the other Montmorency children. Monica Germaine lived in a home in the Garden District. Recently divorced, Louis had purchased a penthouse near Lafayette Square but wasn’t home and wasn’t answering his phone. We drove on to Germaine’s house located on Coliseum.

Hank parked and whistled. “This is a double lot. Don’t see this much yard in the District.”

“No. Let’s get this over with.”

A housekeeper opened the door, surprised when she saw our badges, and hurried to the back of the house. In a few moments, a woman I assumed was Monica Germaine appeared, followed by a man. She introduced her brother, Louis, who explained he was staying with Monica while workers renovated his condo. We followed them to the front parlor.

“What can we do for you, Detective?”

“I am afraid we have some bad news.” I proceeded to tell them of their mother’s death. Their response was somewhat surprising, but I had suspected no less after speaking with Guy.

Louis Montmorency shook his head. “I suppose it’s too early for a celebratory drink.”

“You didn’t get along with your mother?”

He smirked. “An understatement, Detective Boone. I dare say even Lucifer was afraid of her.”

Monica Germaine had gasped when I told them. “I am surprised. I didn’t think she’d ever die.”

“Do you know of anyone who would want to hurt your mother?”

They laughed simultaneously. Monica smirked. “That list is far too long, and honestly, Louis, Guy, and I probably are at the top of any list you compile. Our mother was a caustic, mean bitch who controlled us using money. Only Guy really needed her money, and he kowtowed enough to her to keep her purse strings tied to his belt, but he hated her too. She could easily drive someone to want to kill her, but I didn’t.”

Louis chimed in. “Nor did I, and Guy? He’s too soft. He couldn’t do it.”

“We found the safe in her bedroom open and empty. We suspect whoever killed her stole the valuable pearls kept there. Any thoughts on who might have done that?”

I threw the question out without a lead-up to gauge their reactions. The shocked looks on both were visceral.

Monica blurted out. “The pearls—the pearls are gone?”

“Yes. Do you know who had access to the safe?”

Louis replied. “Monica, Guy, me, Della, and Mother’s attorney.”

“Detective, let’s be upfront about this.” Monica scowled. “The house and everything she had will likely go to Guy. He was the only one of us who tolerated her corrosive behavior. My father’s will directed the pearls sold upon Mother’s death, and all proceeds divided among his children. Those pearls are our only inheritance. Find them.”

“You damn well better find them.” Louis rose, our cue to leave, I presumed. He continued. “My foolish mother stopped paying the premiums on the insurance policy years ago. Said the pearls were perfectly safe, and it was foolish to spend that money. Not so foolish now.”

~~~

My head hurt, and an entire pot of coffee hadn’t helped. I skipped breakfast, so despite it being ten-thirty a.m., I was scarfing down leftover cold Spaghetti Pomodoro from Mamma Leone’s that I stashed in the refrigerator two nights ago. The best perk about working for Major Crimes is that their refrigerator worked.

If I had any doubt the Duchesse Montmorency pearls were infamous, I knew now from information Della Chapman provided. I left the crime scene with a provenance statement, a hefty insurance policy that lapsed eleven years ago, and several photos of the pearls. I was intrigued by one image of the pearls tucked into a small wooden casket with a painted domed lid. The image spoke to the age and historical sense of the pearls.

About an hour later, Hank returned from the scene. “Think we know what the murder weapon was. After forensics finished in the bathroom, I took the maid in to see if anything was missing. She ID’ed an alabaster candle holder that sat on the countertop. It was there the day before. Started a search for it.”

“Good. I sent Clemente to get the CCV from around the area. He called and is on his way back with views from about six cameras surrounding the property. Meanwhile, complied info on the siblings.”

Hank sneered. “They sure didn’t like their mother.”

“No, they did not.” I tossed him a folder. “Had Jamison run financials on them. Guy runs an art gallery and interior design studio in the Quarter. Finances are shaky, and his house on Esplanade is on the market. Listing agent is Sherilynn Montmorency the ex-wife of Louis. Bank records show consistent deposits from his mother, so it looks like she kept the business afloat.”

Hank whistled. “Monica Germaine isn’t doing too badly for herself. Married to Steven Germain. Isn’t he the city councilman who is running for mayor?”

“Yep. He’s the grandson of Herbert Germain. His family made their money in cotton and sugar cane.”

“Doesn’t look like a motive here. She doesn’t need the money, but hate is a good motive too.”

“That it is. As for Louis, besides a huge divorce settlement, he’s pretty solid. Architect in partnership at Orleans Design. No criminal records, no tax issues, for all purposes look like an average family.”

“Average family?” Hank scoffed. “I’d like to be that average.”

“I’d just rather not be dead.”

Hank nodded. “Did you check out their alibis?”

“Yeah, and unfortunately, they all seem to be where they claimed to be.”

Hank flopped onto a chair. “Rats.”

~~~

Jeff Monroe, media forensics tech, texted me around four that he had the CCV vids racked and ready for us to view. I grabbed Hank and we headed to the media lab.

The first footage was from a camera inside the property. Jeff fast-forwarded to the first activity, a woman exiting the house and walking toward a car. “This is timestamped four minutes past six.”

Hank pointed to the screen. “That’s Della Chapman, leaving when she said during our first interview.”

At six-forty-two, the gates opened, and a black BMW drove in. “That’s Guy, Eli. He said he came by for dinner around six-thirty and left about eight.” 

I told Jeff to fast-forward to when Guy said he left, just after eight. “Any other activity, Jeff?”

“No, we ran through all the cameras on the house exterior, and that was the only movement on the property until the next morning when the first woman arrived, followed by the BMW again and then the police units.”

Jeff ran through all the surveillance footage from the four cameras they had accessed. We saw pastry shop patrons, a couple walking past the boutique hotel on the corner of the Montmorency property, and a few people walking along the streets. No one had entered the house that night. We had nothing.

~~~

Dowager Montmorency’s death was front-page news, but the media was far more interested in the theft of the pearls. When I arrived at NOPD HQ at seven a. m., reporters were waiting, clamoring for information. As I pushed through them to reach the elevator, I reminded myself I was a homicide detective. I was supposed to solve murders, not commit them.

Captain Lourdes, the head of Major Crimes, was waiting for me when I arrived to make my day even better. He pointed to the coffee pot. “Grab a cup, and let’s talk.”

I did as told, and we sat in his office a few minutes later.

“Captain, I have three words—Acting Mayor Ingles.”

“Can’t get anything past you, Detective.”

“I just know my politicians, sir.”

“Look, Ingles is running for former Mayor Cormier’s seat..  vacant thanks to you.”

I chuckled. “Cormier was a bad man, sir.”

Lourdes rested his head against the chairback. “Ingles wants this solved. He doesn’t want incompetence to give Germaine any fuel to use against him. Incompetence was his word, by the way.”

“If I had anything to tell you, I would. Surveillance cameras show nothing. We corroborated the alibis of our best suspects, family, and staff. We have officers going to all the pawnshops and jewelry stores searching for the pearls, and forensics IT has placed an algorithm on the internet looking for activity.”

Captain Lourdes pinched his lips together. “Go back. Look at everything. I don’t like Ingles, but I have to follow his orders. “

~~~

I have seen dead ends before, but this was ridiculous. I read the crime reports, autopsy, witness reports, everything, and we had nothing. I decided to spend the rest of my day watching the video surveillance. Maybe we missed something.

Two hours later, my head hurt, and my stomach growled. I was about to get lunch when Hank called. They found the murder weapon about a block from the house. He said he grabbed lunch.

Hank walked in with buffalo wings and fries, and I dived in. Wasn’t going to live long eating like this. Hank sat across from me, gnawing on a greasy wing.

“Uniform found the candle holder behind some bins on Chartres, wrapped in a towel and with blood on the stone. Forensics is checking it in.”

“Hopefully, there’ll be fingerprints, and we’ll have our killer.”

“Aren’t we optimistic?”

I threw a chicken bone at him. I wasn’t optimistic at all.

I continued watching the security videos while Hank wrote the murder weapon report. My eyes crossed, but it was near the estimated time of death. Nothing. The area was residential, with the only business, a patisserie shop that closed in early afternoon across from Montmorency’s compound. There was little foot traffic, and I was bored.

An uneasy feeling crept over me at the ten-thirty mark as I watched a couple hurry down Ursulines toward Chartres. Something about the couple seemed familiar. I quickly scrubbed back to the couple walking past the hotel. The same people, I was sure of it.

“Hank, you done?”

“Yep, just getting ready to file my report. What’s up?”

“Let’s take a ride.”

My curiosity was piqued. The couple in the video on the block alongside the Montmorency house at nine-thirty had to be the same couple rushing toward the street where we found the murder weapon. I don’t believe in coincidences.

I parked behind a work truck across from the small hotel and was surprised to see it was closed for renovation. “I have a hunch, Frank. Let’s talk to these guys.”

Hank spotted the realtor sign. “Look, the building is for sale, and look who the agent is.”

“Sherilynn Montmorency. This is getting interesting.”

We found the foreman, identified ourselves, and asked for a look around. He babbled on about the murder, asking questions, and then said something surprising.

“Detectives, let me show you something wild.” He led us to the back of the building. “This building was built at the same time as the building the Montmorency’s use as a garage. We were tearing out this wall and found this staircase that leads to the garage attic.”

“Did you inform Mrs. Montmorency?”

“Didn’t have to. Her ex-daughter-in-law, the real estate lady, was here. Said she would tell her ex.”

As we got in the car, I called Clemente. “Get me everything you can on Sherilynn Montmorency.” I glanced at Hank. “Now we are getting somewhere.”

~~~

At seven p.m., with a search warrant in hand, Hank and I, along with backup, arrived at Sherilynn Montmorency’s home. As soon as she opened the door, I knew she was guilty. I’ve seen that look in a guilty person’s eyes too often. We had her, and she knew it. Standing behind her was a man, who I was sure was the man with her in the video. We identified ourselves, and the man jerked the warrant from my hand.

“I am David Kramer. I’m Ms. Montmorency’s attorney. How dare you come into her home. On what grounds did you obtain this warrant?”

I turned my phone to show him a still image from the CCV footage. Not the clearest photo, but enough that Kramer’s pupils widened. Good, I had him too.

Twenty minutes later, Hank found the pearls in an old suitcase in a closet.

I motioned for a uniform officer to cuff the pair. “Sherilyn Montmorency, David Kramer, I am arresting you for the murder of Estelle Montmorency. You have the right to remain….”

~~~

It was nine-fifteen p.m., and I had just filed my report when Captain Lourdes set a cup of coffee in front of me.

“I’ll buy you a drink later.” He sat down. “Good work, the acting mayor is pleased.”

“Good for him.”

“Quite the quick case close too.”

“We had nothing until I noticed the couples on the CCV about an hour apart were the same. When we found out they had access to the property through the hotel, we knew. Checked with Louis, and Sherilyn never told him about the access from the old building.”

“Motive? Other than the obvious?”

“Sherilynn claimed her divorce settlement was a joke. When she discovered a way onto the property, she remembered where Louis had hidden the safe’s combination. She hated the Dowager and wanted revenge to keep Louis from getting his inheritance. She was having an affair with Kramer—what led to the divorce, so he was more than a willing partner—but we think she killed Montmorency.”

He rose. “By the way, word came down. You and Guidry are now assigned permanently to Major Crimes.”

As the captain left, I called Mamma Leone and told her to keep the kitchen open. Her food would soften the blow when I told Hank we were on Major Crimes for good.

I closed the Montmorency file. We recovered the Dowager’s pearls and caught her murderer. Not a bad start in Major Crimes.

Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.