"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Murder, Over A Dollhouse

"Murder, over a dollhouse? You've got to be kidding me." That was Det. John Cowe, who had at least ten years seniority on me. I smiled.

"Yup, husband says it's the only thing missing. Desimore believes him." Desimore ran the crime scene team. If he said the dollhouse was the only thing missing, I believed him. The husband, I wasn't so sure of.

"So why's a woman get killed over a stinkin' dollhouse, Phil? Ten bucks says the husband did it, and the toy's got nothing to do with it," said Cowe.

"No bet on that yet, John," I told him. "I've got some leads to run down."

He was headed upstairs for a meeting with the coffeepot. I was headed out to my department car. I had a witness to re-interview about this dollhouse caper, if you could call it that. I hoped he'd have something new for me.

I caught the case yesterday afternoon, and arrived just after the medics departed. She was a pretty lady living in a big house in a nice neighborhood, except when I got there she was dead. Four uniformed boys were already there, trying to look busy. I nodded at them and looked past the one blocking the door, a patrolman named Heape.

"What's her name, Scrap?" I asked him. His real name was Alexander, but none of us called him that. Some nicknames you just can't avoid.

"Rachel. Rachel Hanlyn," Heape replied.

"You touch anything?" I asked. "Nope," he answered.

"Crime lab been notified?" I said. "Yessir," Heape said.

My job was to ascertain the circumstances of the incident. That's cop-talk, which gets old after a while. I told Heape to run the book on this one.

"You get the paramedic's info?" We needed the names of everybody who'd been inside the house, for the book. I wondered if any of the other officers had been inside.

"When we got here the medics were waiting on the porch," he told me. "Big yellow Lab sittin' right next to 'em, waggin' his tail. He seemed pretty calm. Kester and Hurley checked all around outside. Nothin'."

"Who called it in?" I asked him.

"Neighbor did. Said he heard a scream, and a shot, and a loud motor. He's sitting in Kester's car, waiting."

I'd talk to the neighbor later. Three sounds were three clues. The witness's recollection of the timing could be important. First I had to get a closer look. I put on gloves and booties and stepped inside.

Mrs. Hanlyn was definitely dead. She lay in that classic pose you see on detective novel covers. She had been a slim brunette, thirties maybe, and casually dressed. There was a little blood around her, but nothing gory. She had a piece of paper in her right hand, a receipt of some sort. Lab guys would check that. There was a big, fancy table right next to her in the foyer. Just a trace of dust on it, but you could see a rectangle where something fairly large had been.

That was about all the quiet time I had with the deceased. A couple more detectives showed up and started canvassing the area. Two lab techs arrived and went to work. Heape logged everybody in, and sent his partner, Barton, to go shoo away the press. The husband showed up next, driving a black Lexus. He was frantic and weepy, wiping tears all over his thousand-dollar suit. Later, I'd ask him for his alibi. He didn't seem like a killer, but you never know.

He did explain the blank spot on the foyer table, though. That's where the dollhouse had been. It was an antique, from the wife's grandmother, made in Bavaria - her prize possession. Now it looked like she had died for it.

Three hours later we all agreed that nothing else was missing. Most of the rooms in the big, elegant house looked like pictures from a magazine. The only one that felt out of place was a room downstairs with a tavern-style bar and a well-used poker table. I'm not sure why that bothered me, but it did.

Before I headed back to my desk, I talked to the lab guys and sealed the house. The only real clue I had so far was the receipt Mrs. Hanlyn had been holding. It was for delivery of a color TV, but the weight listed was only five pounds. Didn't make sense, yet. That was yesterday afternoon.

I had pondered that a bit, gone home, slept, and returned today for follow-ups.

I wheeled my car to the curb and headed up the neighbor's walk. Time to go over his story again. He was expecting me, and met me at the door wearing some kind of leafy Hawaiian shirt. I tried not to let that distract me.

"Mr. Wood, thanks for seeing me again," I said.

"Detective Gallagher," Wood said, and invited me inside. "Just call me Kerry, please. Mr. Wood is my father and he lives out in California." We moved to the kitchen.

I wasn't there for chitchat. I pulled out my notebook and started right in. We went over the chain of events. Scream, shot, motor noises. I asked about the timing. Wood's account was consistent with last night's statement. The time from scream to vehicle leaving was at least a minute.

Now I needed more. "Can you remember anything else? Did you see anyone in the area, before or after?"

He thought for a moment, then his eyes widened. "UPS truck," he said, suddenly. "There was a brown van there, before." First time he'd mentioned that.

We talked a while longer, but I'd gotten what I needed - a break. The delivery truck, UPS or otherwise, had to have a driver. That driver was either a witness or a suspect. I've seen cases broken on a lot less than that.

Two hours and several phone calls later, I wasn't so happy. No record of any delivery by UPS, or any other company I could find. I hadn't been able to confirm or deny the husband's alibi, either. He had said he was at work. He was an investment adviser, with a private office and his own entrance, and no secretary.

While I worked at my desk, Det. Cowe stopped by.

"So, did you solve the case of the missing dollhouse, Phil?" he smirked.

"Not yet, John," I answered. "But you may be right about the husband. I'm keeping that ten bucks handy, just in case." He winked and wandered off.

Yesterday's canvas had been a bust. Big houses, thick walls, hardly anybody home. I was still waiting for phone records and financials, standard stuff. I thought about the receipt, and the brown van, and the yellow dog. Who the heck would kill for a dollhouse, even an antique one? Was the husband hiding something? I headed out to my car.

I had to go back to the other neighbors and try to find out more about the Hanlyns.

I got my next break an hour later, when I found one Rachelle de Bretagne two houses away. I could tell she came from old money. She had that air. She told me something about Mr. Hanlyn that clicked right away. He was a poker player, and not just a social one. He played host at least once a month, she said.

"Two Cadillacs, one Jaguar, a Lincoln, and a Mercedes-Benz ," she explained. She and I talked for an hour, over tea in the conservatory. I could barely write fast enough to take down everything she had seen.

The rest was legwork, and it took almost a week to straighten the whole thing out. Hanlyn's financials told us most of the rest of the story. Mrs. Hanlyn had her own money, from her mother's side. Mr. Hanlyn had over $100,000 in credit card debt, and owed another $40,000 on the Lexus. We'll never know how much he owed to his poker pals. Their expensive attorneys told us almost nothing.

We found the dollhouse, too, still in the color TV box. It was in a self-storage unit owned by a holding company, which we think was owned by the guy with the Jaguar. The brown van turned up in a weedy parking lot owned by another holding company. I knew we'd never locate the gun. We did, however, find the $30,000 insurance policy the husband had secured for the dollhouse. That was enough.

Hanlyn's lawyer didn't like it one bit, but remorse won out in the end. The husband was the "UPS" driver. He wore a disguise, and the gun was only supposed to be for show. He concocted the whole bizarre scheme to "steal" the dollhouse and collect the insurance. He was desperate, he insisted, and nobody was supposed to get hurt. Rachel had simply gotten in the way. Hanlyn cried so hard telling us the story, I was afraid he'd have a heart attack.

I gave detective Cowe his ten bucks. He was half right, after all. Murder, over a dollhouse. Go figure.

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