Jermaine Johnson hung up the phone and told Brady Cain that the gas company would be out in twenty minutes to check the gas leak he said they smelled from Stephen Jones’ unit. Brady nodded, “Will that give Ford enough time?”
“I hope so,” Jermaine replied with some tension in his voice. He walked back to the group, his champagne flute raised in his hand.
The Pembroke Pines homeowner’s meeting had just begun. Jermaine, the treasurer of the 8-unit condo association, had brought four bottles of Alan Coruthers’ favorite champagne for the group. Jermaine had announced to them that it was to celebrate Alan’s three-year anniversary at Pembroke Pines. Besides Stephen Jones, the extremely troublesome young man in unit 4B, Alan was the newest member of their “family.” Stephen and Ford Carter, the association president, were the only two homeowners who were not present.
“To burying the hatchet,” Jermaine toasted.
“Whatever the hell that means,” Alan said with mock humor. Jermaine kept his smile painted on in full regalia. The meeting had just started and Alan was being difficult already. Alan continued, “I still say I should be Treasurer. Heck, I am the only certified public accountant in this building. Who better for the job?” No one said anything. They all sipped their champagne, staring into the bottom of their flutes like there might be buried treasure down there.
Alan had been one-third through his second glass after fifteen minutes of boring condo discussion, when Ford bolted through the door of Rachel Bartholomew’s unit where the meeting was being held. He snatched Alan’s glass and the bottle that Alan had poured his second glass from, and left again saying only, “I’ll be right back,” as he went out the door.
“Where’d Ford go with my glass?” Alan whined.
The others shrugged in unison.
Alan stood up. “Don’t any of you think it’s strange? Isn’t he supposed to be here? Ford is a homeowner and the president, whatever the hell that means,” Alan said. “Hey, was Ford wearing gloves?” He opened the door and looked in both directions down the warmly lit hallway. It was vacant.
“No, I didn’t see gloves,” Brady, a stocky construction worker, said as Alan shut the door.
“I thought I saw gloves on his hands,” Alan repeated.
“I didn’t see gloves either,” Amanda Chandler intoned.
Rachel came from the kitchen with another bottle and glass. “Here’s your champagne, Alan,” Rachel said. As she walked away, she sprinkled a little bit of white powder on Alan’s shoulder from a tiny envelope as he examined his champagne flute. She then walked back to the kitchen and immediately washed her hands thoroughly after pouring the contents of the envelope down the drain.
“This is another glass,” Alan said.
“Everything’s fine, Alan,” Amanda, who owned the unit beside Alan’s, said quietly. Amanda was a shorthaired real estate agent who acted as association secretary. He glared at her and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
“I wonder why you guys would celebrate my three-year anniversary? At last year’s meeting, Brady accused me of poisoning his mangy mutt. No offense, Brady, but why the hell would I waste the money? I still want to modify the bylaws to say no pets can live here.”
Brady turned red, but smiled and took a swig of champagne. “Yeah,” was all he said in a neutral voice.
“Where is Stephen? He never misses a meeting. I want that bastard out of here too. I was looking forward to chatting with him today. What are we doing about him and his wild ride?” Alan looked at Jermaine for an answer.
“It’s being taken care of as we speak,” Jermaine said, glancing at Rachel’s cat clock for the third time in the last thirty seconds.
“Is that lawyer finally moving his ass?” Alan pulled some sheets of paper out of his pocket and smacked them with the back of his hand. “If I have to make one more phone call to that guy about our Mr. Stephen Jones, I’m gonna start charging the rest of you for my phone bill too. Look at this!” He shoved the bills into Amanda’s face.
“That’s okay, Alan, I believe you’ve called him a lot,” Amanda said, waving her hands in front of her face defensively.
“We’re employing some self-help at this point. Soon the lawyer will have a different job,” Brady said.
Alan grunted. “Sounds like the first right thing this association has done in three years. What a waste of money that lawyer has been! All this time and we can’t kick him out even with the yapping dog and the screaming women. What the hell is that about? I’ll tell you, incompetence. Just like Ford right now not being here. Incompetence. We should have employed self-help a long time ago. That’s what I would have done.” He banged his fist and drank more champagne.
Ford returned looking tired and unhappy. “It’s done,” he said, pulling skin-colored latex gloves off his hands.
“See, he has gloves,” Alan declared triumphantly.
Rachel sighed and gave a weary smile, “Really?” She looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks.
“Really,” Ford said. “Excuse me while I dispose of these.”
“Good, ‘cause they’re on their way. They should be here in less than five minutes. You did leave the gas on, right?” Jermaine said as Ford walked to the kitchen.
“Actually, I see a gas truck outside already,” Rachel said.
“Should we tell him?” Amanda asked.
“According to the resident attorney,” Brady nodded at Rachel, “No, but I can’t resist. Why don’t we take a vote?”
“What are we voting on?” Alan asked.
“Whether to tell you that we’ve just framed you for the death of Stephen Jones,” Jennifer Shakespeare said, speaking for the first time.
Silence, thick as blood, seeped through the room. The whir of the blender coming from the kitchen broke the quiet.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Alan muttered. “The glass…” He looked at the champagne flute then yelled to Ford as the blender stopped. “You are a moron, Ford. You can’t get away with this. I have an alibi.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Rachel asked.
“Well, assuming you just killed him, I was here,” Alan smiled.
“I was here in Rachel’s apartment, when I heard a thump from downstairs and smelled gas,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t see you here, and I was first to arrive.”
“See Alan, we are tied in by mutual guilt and disgust for both you and Stephen. We needed to return our community to peace and prosperity. We needed a way to get rid of the bed bugs in our blankets, so to speak. It’s the beauty of having a singles community of loyal family who will do whatever it takes to keep the peace. After you killed Brady’s dog, he came to me with a proposition. I disseminated it to the rest of our family. They agreed and a plan hatched that day. After nearly six months of careful planning and of letting you build convincing motive with your crazy phone calls to our lawyer and threatening Stephen at every homeowner’s meeting for the last two years, which our brilliant secretary recorded word for word, we carried out that plan today. You made yourself the perfect patsy,” Jermaine said.
“Yup, watching those cop shows sure gives you a good idea of what the police look for in a killer,” Brady said. “Opportunity and motive, both of which you supply in spades my dog-killing friend.”
Ford returned, wearing fresh clothes after a brief shower.
“They won’t buy it. Why would I do it during a meeting?” Alan said.
“You’re right, there were some catches,” Ford said without missing a beat. “We had to solve the problem of your potential alibi and the fact that all of us have motive to kill Stephen as well. Then, we realized, how about a little unscheduled homeowner’s meeting at one of our units? All of us were here, but we had no idea where Stephen and Alan had got to. Innocently, we could all say that perhaps no one told you and since it was unscheduled, it was not in the newsletter either. You must have just forgotten, then remembered after the fact and tried to come in to produce an alibi.”
Just then, they heard the sirens of a police car. Rachel looked out her window.
“Is that for us?” Jennifer asked.
“Yes,” Rachel said.
“How are you all going to explain that I’m here right now?” Alan said smugly.
“Whether you leave or not, makes no big difference to us. We’ve all been here for two full hours and you just arrived less than ten minutes ago. Who told you about the meeting?” Ford said.
“You did,” Alan said, fear rising in his throat. He could smell the sulfurous residue of his dying innocence.
“No, I didn’t,” Ford said.
“At least tell me how I did it,” Alan pleaded.
“A rare white powdered poison that I cannot pronounce. You must have put it in his glass when you drank champagne with him,” Rachel said. “I’m sure the police will know what it is.”
Alan looked around wildly and realized that all traces of their earlier champagne toast had been removed.
“Why are you doing this?” Alan asked.
“Because we don’t like you,” Brady answered. “Because I prayed to God that someone would do something about the way you treat people, but then I realized, and made the rest of us realize, that god is in each of us. It’s up to us to weed the evil out of the world. If you kill little, harmless dogs, who knows what else you are capable of.”
No one else spoke. Alan felt like he was sitting in a courtroom with a jury of six and Brady was the foreman who had swayed them all to vote his way. They heard footsteps in the hallway outside.