Another earth-shattering boom shook the house, a flash of lightning cut up the night sky and then it was quiet. The party guests huddled closer together, watching the downpour streaking against the dining room’s huge picture window.In the master bedroom, Sheriff Nathan Milford stared past the four-poster bed at the lifeless body sprawled in front of the large brick fireplace. An antique dagger protruded from the dead man’s chest and blood trickling from the stab wound had seeped into the carpeting, marking the rich wheat-colored fabric with an abstract pattern of pink designs.It’s almost pretty, Milford thought, just as the smell of drying blood mixed with a scent of lime made him gag. He backed away, wondering why a man of the victim’s importance didn’t wear a wristwatch.As he moved around the policeman guarding the body until the forensic team arrived, Milford noticed something round and fuzzy on the mat next to the bed. It was a small yellow pom-pom with a long red hair clinging to it.In his two decades as a small-town cop, he had mostly dealt with burglaries, shoplifting, teenagers taking joyrides in “borrowed” cars, and plenty of driving violations. Nothing really major ever seemed to happen in this town. Benham’s only claim to fame was the median age of its population. With few people over the age of 60 – Nathan Milford himself was getting close - this quiet bedroom community of about 20,000 was a little noticed, and even lesser known appendix to the nearby metropolitan city. Only once, way back, during his first year on the job, Milford had been assigned to investigate a rape. To this day, he recalled the panic and despair in the eyes of a 17-year-old girl who had gone out on a date with someone who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. The case never went to trial because the victim refused to name her attacker and before long, the girl and her entire family left town to start over somewhere else. Remembering that there had also been a thunderstorm on the night of that rape, Nathan Milford mused about Benham’s fateful connection with the weather god. He turned back toward the body on the floor.Benjamin Benson, a member of the wealthy family who owned Benson Design Inc., the firm that had built most of Benham, had been murdered in his own home, in the midst of an April Fool’s Day costume party. His young wife had found his body on the floor of their second-story bedroom. The sheriff headed downstairs to question the party guests. Shocked and frightened by the sudden violent death of their host, the people were quite willing to talk. Aware of Ben Benson’s zest for lavish entertaining – the bigger, the better - Milford was surprised to find that this get-together consisted merely of relatives and close friends - dressed up as a variety of animals and other imaginary creations. A lady penguin bumped into him, spilling her Bloody Mary all over his uniform jacket.“Sorry,” she slurred, her oversized paper beak quivering. “It has all been a bit much. Ben lures us over here to this crazy little April Fool’s celebration with the promise of a big surprise announcement – and then this happens… Nice surprise that is…”After talking to all the zebras, monkies, kangaroos and penguins - as well as some creatures of unidentifiable origin - the sheriff still had little to go on. Everyone had readily admitted to mingling with Ben and his wife at one time or another during the gathering, but nobody conceded to having been elsewhere in the house or even to seeing anyone leaving the party area. However, since Ben had been killed upstairs and his wife had been the one discovering the homicide, Milford was wondering whether the guests had so busy with having fun that they just didn’t pay any attention to their surroundings --- or someone was just plain lying to him.The only thing the sheriff was able to confirm was the murder victim’s inflated ego. Not only had Ben Benson managed to rename Benham after himself, he also had a reputation as an incurable womanizer.Milford decided to concentrate on the ladies in Ben’s life and quickly narrowed his suspects down to three: Ben’s current wife Patricia, a blue-eyed brunette, who seemed very much in love with her husband’s status and money; his stout ex-wife Judy, a deeply religious woman, who even now was known for her fierce determination to help Ben mend his godless ways; and then there was Ben’s rumored lover, Sally, a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who taught school by day and apparently shared Ben’s interest in having a good time at night.The next day, Milford set out to track the women down one by one.---Ben’s Harem, he thought, as he returned to the Benson home to have a talk with the young widow. “Now what would you like to know from me?” Patricia Benson asked.Looking a bit coy and somewhat defensive, she was leaning against the large carved credenza in the sunroom of the house she had shared with Ben for the past year. It was no secret that she had moved into the home long before Ben’s divorce from his first wife became final - and now Milford found himself wondering whether it ever bothered Patricia that Ben had shared the same premises with his first wife and their two boys. As if reading his mind, the young woman made a sweeping gesture. “Ben insisted that a little redecorating would make it all as good as new - and it really did.” “Did he promise to leave this house to you?” Milford asked, immediately realizing that his question was out of line. It didn’t seem to face Patricia. “Yes.” She giggled, her blue eyes lighting up. “It’s in his will.”“Well,” Milford hesitated for a moment. “I heard that Ben may have recently contacted his lawyer for a revision.”Patricia’s next wave of cheerful cackling came to an abrupt halt. “Oh, come on now,” she hissed. “People around here do gossip a lot. I’m sure you’ve also heard things about Ben and that school teacher, Sally Riffler. It’s all rubbish. Sally merely recruited Ben as a guest speaker for the business communications course she is teaching at the community college… and right away people made the worst of it. Ben reassured me that his relationship with this lady was all about work - even her attendance at yesterday’s party.”Although he found Patricia’s childlike gullibility somewhat touching, Milford kept a serious face to ask her whether she remembered Sally Riffler’s arrival time at the event.The young woman shrugged. “No idea, I was talking to Judy most of the time.”“Oh, yes, Judy, Ben’s ex. You are on friendly terms with her?”“She is quite nice, even though she keeps bugging Ben with wanting things for their children, and for herself sometimes as well – as if he still owed her.” She giggled again. “I think that she still loves him and…”“You found him, didn’t you?” the sheriff interrupted her. “So, when did you follow him upstairs and how long were you alone with him in that bedroom?”Patricia’s sunny expression gave way to an irritated frown. “What in the world are you trying to say? I didn’t kill him. I had no reason. Even if I must share his estate with others, I would still get plenty.”“One more thing,” Milford said. “Where was Sally just before you discovered your husband’s body?”“Ask her yourself,” Patricia snapped. “I won’t say another word without a lawyer.”---Arriving at Sally Riffler’s house, the sheriff found her in a rocker on her front porch, reading a book. His questions didn’t seem to bother her.“I was sitting in this very chair, when Ben called to invite me to the party,” she said. “Look, I knew he was chronically unfaithful, but I really liked him. He was a bit daring, and he came across as being totally sure of himself - although he really wasn’t.”“Why would you say that?”“Oh, after a while I realized that his often pompous behavior and the fact that he seemed always on the lookout for more romantic entanglements showed a lot of insecurity on his part.” To hide his amusement about Sally’s analytical statement, Milford cleared his throat. “And why would Ben invite you to his house - given the nature of your relationship?”Ignoring his insinuation, Sally smiled. “I think he was trying to get everyone’s blessing for yet another lady in his life…”“Did he flaunt his infidelities that openly?”“No, but he seemed to have some weird need to sneak his romantic conquests into his social circle. Shortly after I had gotten involved with him, he couldn’t wait to introduce me to his family and friends as his liaison between the school system and the local business community.”“Why did you think there was someone new?” “Ben hadn’t called me for over a week,” Sally said. “So, before going to this costumed gathering, I wanted to find out why he had been avoiding me. On the day of the party, I left home early to catch him before he headed home from work. I drove to his office building, parked near the front entrance and waited. When he finally came out, I watched this petite clown run towards him, spin around in a circle and holler, ‘Is this good enough as a disguise?’ – Ben nodded and yelled back, ‘It is perfect. This getup really fits the theme and it’ll keep you hidden just fine until it’s time for me to show you off. Now you go ahead, sweetheart, and check into the Rickham. I have already made a reservation’.” Sally sighed. “Then Ben went back inside and the girl hopped into a red MG parked at the curb – right in front of me.” “How’d you know it was a girl?”“Before opening the car door, she pulled off her wig and released a cascade of the most beautiful red curls I have ever seen.”The sheriff noticed the blazing anger in Sally’s hazel eyes. “Jealous?” he asked. The woman shook her head. “No, not at all. I was just disgusted and curious, all at the same time. That girl was about the age of Benson’s sons and I wondered how his pious ex would react to that. However, as far as I know, there never was a clown at the party.”---Eager for some breakthrough in his investigation and to find some explanation for the mysterious clown, Milford headed across town to interview Ben’s first wife.Judy Benson was busy digging up the flower beds in the front yard of her stylish, but small ranch-style house at the outskirts of town.When she saw the sheriff approach her, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead with a muddy hand, leaving a long smear across her right cheek.“Am I a suspect?” she asked, before Milford could even say a word. Ignoring her question, he told her he only wanted to establish why she had been at the party, when she had arrived, and how long she had remained there - and she seemed to relax. “I called Ben about a large medical bill,” she said, “and he shouted at the top of his lungs that he no longer had any financial obligations whatsoever to me personally. He would only make additional funds available for our children – if that became necessary.” Judy reached down to smooth out the dirt around her knees, before she continued: “Well, an hour later, he called back to invite me to this dress-up April Fool’s party for a very unique announcement. I actually was worried that he may be planning a special get-together just to declare me as the ultimate April’s fool…”The self-pity in her voice suddenly changed to triumph. “It’s kind of ironic that he became that fool himself…” Nathan Milford bent forward to face her. “You hated him for having other women?”“Yes, always – at least until they eventually became a thing of the past – which they usually did.”“But Patricia didn’t.”“No, she didn’t.” Judy’s soft brown eyes glazed over. Sighing, she rubbed across her thick dark eyebrows, before adding in a barely audible, slightly quivering voice, “Keeping her meant for him to continuously live sin, to be forever unfaithful – to me.”Amazed at the depth of Judy’s religious fervor, the sheriff bid her farewell and headed over to the law offices that handled most of Benson Inc.’s affairs.---The premises he entered twenty minutes later were so messy and disorganized that the sheriff was astonished that a man as neat as Ben Benson would entrust his legal dealings to this firm. As it turned out, the heavy-set, middle-aged attorney was willing to talk, emphasizing that he had been given explicit instructions that as of April 1 he could officially disclose that Ben had recently included his daughter in his will.”Nathan Milford gasped. “I didn’t know he had a daughter.”The lawyer grinned, baring a huge gap between his front teeth. “Most folks didn’t.”“How long was Ben himself aware of her existence?”“He didn’t say. He just came in here one day, telling me to add her to his will and hinting that he was planning to reveal her existence in one fell swoop to all the people he wanted to accept her as an additional heiress to his estate.”So, that’s what that mysterious announcement was all about, Milford thought. He glanced back at the attorney. “In a way, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise – with all the carousing he’s been doing. How old is the girl, anyway?”“Eighteen,” the lawyer said.“What’s her name?” “Michelle - Michelle Boyer.”Milford jumped forward as if hit by a lightning bolt. “Did you say BOYER - B o y e r?”A startled look in his eyes, the lawyer instinctively ducked. Then, regaining his composure, he added, “Yes, that is what I said – is there a problem?”He didn’t get an answer. His question followed the sheriff out the door. A sinking feeling in his stomach, Milford rushed from the law office straight over to the only costume shop in Benham to find out if anyone had recently leased a clown suit.“Actually, we rented out two,” the store owner said. She scrolled through a summary of receipt entries on her computer. “They are both listed under the name of Boyer.”Nathan Milford’s head was spinning: Two? --- Why two?He exited the costume supply store and hurried over to the Rickham Hotel.He found Michelle in her room. Two clown suits were lying in plain sight on the floor in front of the queen size bed. He bent over and picked up one of the garments. “If you wore this the other day, then why did you need the other one?”“She didn’t. I did,” a voice came from behind.Milford spun around – and there it was again, the face that had followed him for over nineteen years. However, it was no longer horror-stricken.“Anne Boyer,” he murmured. “I was afraid you…”Michelle placed herself in front of her mother and faced the sheriff. “I grew up thinking my dad was dead or something.” She ran both hands through her mane of flaming hair that matched her mother’s. “Anyway, Mom never wanted to talk about it, but when I turned eighteen, she told me who my father was.”“Ben Benson.”“That’s right,” Anne said. “He paid me off way back then. He gave me a huge lump sum of money for keeping my mouth shut. However, about six months ago, I turned on the TV and there he was - just as I remembered him: good-looking, well-dressed, flamboyant, still flashing that trademark arrogant grin of his – going on and on about how much he had expanded his family business of the years – and bragging about how smart and successful he was.”“So, you decided to find another way into his wallet?” “Yes, absolutely,” Anne said, her voice as cold as ice. “I figured Michelle was entitled to an inheritance from the man who fathered her, just like his other kids. So, I called him up and asked him to acknowledge his daughter.”“And he agreed?”“Yes, but only after I threatened to make public who I was - and what he, this pillar of our community, had done to me…”Although he didn’t condone her tactics, Nathan Milford felt sorry for her. Acting on impulse, he gave her a supportive hug. That’s when he picked up a faint scent of lime.Suddenly saddened beyond belief, he whispered, “But why did you kill him?”Anne Boyer let her head sink. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She shook her head for emphasis. “He had arranged for my daughter to go to the screened-in porch behind the house, where one of his trusted employees would let her in and take her to the upper floor. There she was to wait until he felt the time was right for him to introduce her.”“Clown costume - and all?” Milford asked. The woman sighed. “Considering the date, I assume it was just his dramatic way to let his friends and family in on having been fooled. Trying to take advantage of this situation, I got the second costume to trade places with Michelle… just for a little while… just to confront Ben Benson once more about all that had happened between us - and to make sure that he would be fair to my daughter – his daughter.” “And then?” The sheriff urged her on.“I told Michelle to wait near the backdoor.” Anne Boyer paused for a moment to take a deep breath. “After being ushered into the house, I hurried upstairs, where Ben intercepted me and pulled me into the bedroom. When he turned to face me, it suddenly thundered - bringing back images I had fought years to forget… Then, recognizing me, he reached for me and that’s when I saw the Rolex on his right arm, the same watch he wore on that awful night – scraping me with it, hurting me - and I just went berserk.” Sobbing, Anne sank down to the edge of the bed. “I grabbed for the dagger at the mantle and… well, you know the rest. I only wish I could say that I’m sorry, but I’m not, I’m not…” She broke into loud sobs.Her daughter embraced her. “I love you, Mom, so much. It’s going to be all right. It will have to be all right, somehow…”Ever so gentle, Sheriff Milford peeled Michelle away from her mother. Then he read Anne Boyer her rights. As he bent forward to handcuff her, he saw the Rolex on her right arm.She wears it like a trophy, he thought, and somehow he just didn’t feel good at all about catching Ben Benson’s killer.
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