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Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Song of the Past: Eleven

(Previous installment.)

Wednesday, 11:30 AM
Back at her desk, Deirdre hunted down Harrison Tyler's direct line at Brown Brothers Harriman’s New York office. She dialed it and reached Tyler’s administrative assistant, whose duties apparently included making it difficult for unknown callers to annoy her boss. Three times the woman asked Deirdre, “Are you sure there isn’t something I can help you with?”

“No, ma’am, I’d really just like to leave a message on his voice mail.”

“But you must understand that Mr. Tyler is a very busy person. If you can tell me what your call concerns, then I can bring that matter to his attention at the appropriate moment, which is likely to be the most expeditious way for you to proceed.”

During the conversation Deirdre formed a distinct mental image of the woman, until she was certain that the obstacle she faced was about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, a capable but not exceptional product of a respectable but not exalted WASP family, who had passed through a series of prestigious schools without difficulty but also without distinction. She parried Deirdre's thrusts from a secure position behind a desk placed strategically in front of the path into Tyler's office. She was armored in a well-tailored, conservative business dress, a dress that nevertheless suggested how well-proportioned and firmly toned was the figure it covered, and her naturally blonde hair was styled so as to subtly suggest that her hairdresser certainly did not operate out of a shopping mall. Her make-up was carefully selected and applied so as to avoid any hint of ostentation, and her soft hands terminated in perfectly manicured nails painted a quiet shade of burgundy.


Just when Deirdre was on the verge of admitting defeat, she conceived of a tactic that might overcome her foe. With a unmistakable quaver of feminine distress in her voice, she said, “Please, please put me through—I really, really need to talk to him about my situation… he'll know what I mean. I have to get through today, because it's my last chance to end this, if he's changed his mind, and I have to be sure he's really serious when he says he’s willing to share the responsibility with me.”

This sudden intrusion of all-too-personal information into what had been a routine rebuffing of a nuisance caller produced just the effect that Deirdre hoped it would, confronting her adversary with a situation for which she had no rehearsed response. After an awkward silence, during which, Deirdre imagined, the woman on the other end of the line struggled to find her bearings, Tyler’s assistant finally muttered, “Oh, I see. Well, then, I do suppose I can put you through.” And with that, the assistant scooted Deirdre off to Tyler's voice mail as if her “situation” might be contagious.
Deirdre told Tyler's mechanized alter ego that she was from the NHPD and was very anxious to speak with him about his wife's murder. She had no reasonable guess as to how long it would be before Tyler picked up her message, but she decided that if she didn’t hear back from him by that evening she would call him at home. But her phone rang about fifteen minutes after she had left the voice mail, and her caller announced, “Tyler here. How can I help you, Detective O'Reilly?”

“Mr. Tyler, I appreciate your returning my call so promptly. I’m conducting an investigation that I hope you might be able to help me with. But I'd really prefer to talk to you in person, and I’m wondering if it would be possible for us to meet soon.”

“I’m happy to help the police in any way I can. But you’ve piqued my curiosity: Can you tell me how your investigation relates to Evelyn's death?”

“I’d rather discuss that with you face-to-face. And I don't plan to take up too much of your time.”

“Well, if you’re free in about a half hour, we can meet today. I’ll be having lunch, and you’d be welcome to join me—from the sound of your voice, I imagine you to be a lovely woman, and I can almost always find time to meet a lovely women.”

Deirdre was thankful that the color rising in her face probably couldn’t be detected over a phone line. But she was also confused, and she asked, “Come up where?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought my assistant might have told you—I’m working from home today, so I'm in New Haven.”

“And what’s your address?”

“I live at the very end of Chapel Street, where it meets Forest Road—it’s the large house on the left corner if you’re coming from downtown.”

“I really appreciate your making time for me, and I’ll be there in a half-hour.” In a perfect world, Deirdre would have preferred to spend a little more time reviewing the case files for Evelyn Tyler’s murder before interviewing Tyler, but, considering that his time was undoubtedly a scarce commodity, she thought it would be imprudent to turn down his offer, and so she signed out a car. To her own embarrassment, she felt compelled, while passing through the station to the garage, to stop in a bathroom, where she applied a little make-up and fussed with her hair.

Tyler’s house was only about a dozen blocks from Deirdre's, but their neighborhoods were quite different: Tyler lived in an area that was one of the last surviving relics of New Haven’s glory days, a vestige of the decades when the city had been a leading center of American industry. She had reached the end of Chapel, but a high and carefully manicured privet hedge running the entire hundred feet where Tyler's lot bordered the street, except for a gap at the entrance to the driveway, blocked her view of the rest of the property. So it was a sudden revelation, as she drove through the portal in the hedge, to discover that, in describing his residence as a “big house,” Tyler had been guilty of understatement: he lived in what might more truthfully be called a mansion. Even though it was situated in New Haven, where one of the city’s many craftsman-built and charming Victorians might fetch only half the price of a quite comparable residence in nearby Woodbridge or Bethany, Deirdre guessed that Tyler’s demesne still was worth several million dollars. After parking on the Belgian block driveway and exiting her car, she spent a moment peering through an iron gate set in an impressive stonewall that provided a glimpse of the rear gardens, which were artistically broken up into several distinct "rooms." Not wanting to be caught gaping, should Tyler have heard her arrival and grown curious about why his guest was lurking about the grounds instead of properly announcing her arrival, she pulled herself away from the captivating view and walked past the garage. Glancing nonchalantly through one of its windows, she saw that it contained a silver Mercedes, a red Porsche, and a blue Nissan Maxima. She supposed that the Nissan must be the station car. She continued towards the front of the house over a slate walk, came to the double, oak and wrought iron front doors, and rang the doorbell.

A middle-aged Filipina, most likely Tyler’s maid, answered the door and beckoned Deirdre into a large foyer, while mentioning that Mr. Tyler would be with her in just a moment. Then the woman disappeared through a doorway in the right wall of the entryway, so that Deirdre found herself alone, she took advantage of the opportunity to suss out her surroundings. The floor of the entryway was made of slates identical to those used on the path, but the transition from grounds to house was emphasized by a handful of oriental rugs, faded and worn thin by decades of use, arranged in a seemingly casual pattern, partially domesticating the otherwise unrefined character of the cold, stone expanse with their scattered islands of luxury and comfort. A grand staircase, which was flanked by two elaborately carved handrails made of the same rich, dark wood as the steps, swept up from the entrance to a landing on the second floor, where, after making a right-angle turn, it appeared to continue to a third floor. Her eyes proceeded further on their upward course, and Deirdre saw that from the ceiling two stories above, hung a gold chain that descended until, only a ten or so feet over her head, it supported a glittering chandelier. The walls to her left and right each bore a dozen or so portraits done in oil paint, presumably of Tyler's ancestors.

As she took in the paintings to her left, from behind her came a soft, hesitant cough. When she turned to find the source, she at first entertained the fancy that one of the portraits was looking back at her. But she swiftly decided that it was no hallucination but a flesh-and-blood man who merely had an unnerving resemblance to the figures depicted on the canvases. He stood an inch or two over six feet and appeared very fit for his age, which she guessed to be about fifty. His hair was a distinguished shade of silver streaked with black, worn parted on the side, impeccably styled. Many women undoubtedly found him extremely attractive, and, from the way that his almost-luminescent blue eyes fixed without wavering on her own, she suspected that he was well aware of that fact.

“Detective O’Reilly, I presume?” he said archly, while extending his hand.

She met his hand with her own, noting his firm grip, and replied, “I am indeed. And you are Mr. Tyler?”

He hadn't yet released her hand, but just as Deirdre began to wonder how to break the disconcertingly familiar contact without being awkwardly obvious in the process, he let go on his own and pointed over her shoulder.

"I'm Harrison Tyler, and that dour crew you were contemplating are my departed relations. If you found them depressing, perhaps you will be relieved to hear that I have remained relatively undamaged despite being subjected to their brooding presence during the majority of the days since my birth." He looked pleased with his jest, and Deirdre returned his smile.

"Well, no need to test our mettle by hanging around them longer than necessary. Let's go to my study, where, by plying you with good food, I hope to discover how in the world you came to think I might help you solve that crime."

Tyler lead Deirdre through the same door, along the right side of the foyer, that his servant had used earlier. They passed down a short hallway and turned right into a large room, the far wall of which was lined with bay windows offering a view of the front garden. The remaining three walls were almost entirely occupied by shelves stuffed with books, many of the tomes apparently antique, and disorderly stacks of papers. An imposing, mahogany desk dominated the center of the room, its upper surface hidden under a computer, the largest and most complicated telephone his guest had ever seen, and many more piles of paper. An odd-looking computer was tucked into a little alcove carved out of the shelves running along the wall behind the desk and placed so that, in order to use it, the occupant of the workspace only had to spin around the high-backed chair in which he sat. A fax machine and a laser printer sat on a table alongside the desk, and in the right-upper corner of the room a metal frame had been built for suspending a television set, a set that was presently showing images from CNN with the sound turned off.

“What’s that computer you have there?” Deirdre asked, pointing at the mysterious device in the alcove.

“It’s a Bloomberg terminal—stock quotes, business news, and so forth. I couldn't work here if I didn't have immediate access to breaking news stories from anywhere in the world.”

“How often do you work from home?”

“Usually a couple of days a week. It gives me a break from the stress of the long commute to Wall Street, and being able to enjoy this house helps to keep me motivated—it reminds me why I endure all of the annoying or tedious aspects of my profession. But I'm being rude!" Tyler motioned to chair at the small table that had been placed along one of the bay windows. "Please, have a seat and relax. I almost always have lunch here—the view of the garden seems to vanquish all work-related woes, or at least hold them at bay for a half-hour of blessed relaxation.” He held her chair for her and then sat down himself. He tipped his chair back, arching his back and stretching his arms over his head. When he returned to a normal sitting position he gave his arms, shoulders and neck a little shake, let out a deep breath, and then stared out the window. Seemingly having obtained a sufficient dose of greenery, he turned his attention once again to his visitor, off-handedly remarking, “The rhododendron right alongside the house here has become so large that it now occupies far too much of this view, hiding some really nice vistas into other parts of the garden. I'll have to tell my gardener to prune it way back."

Deirdre nodded pleasantly, hoping to conceal her increasing annoyance, chiefly self directed, over the fact that Tyler had taken almost complete control of their conversation. As she fumbled around for a way to get back in charge that wouldn't disturb the amicable air that so far had surrounded their meeting, the maid interrupted them, bringing with her two bowls of soup, napkins, and silverware, all of which she arranged on the table before retreating from the room.

Deirdre, still pre-occupied with the problem of steering the interview onto the desired course, did not tuck into the first offering immediately. Tyler, perhaps reading the delay as indicating some wariness about the dish itself, told her, “It's a cream of asparagus, one of my cook’s specialties.”

“Oh, it smells wonderful—I was only neglecting it because I was lost in thought." She hesitated briefly, but then decided that if she failed to direct their meeting towards its purpose, she could be squandering an opportunity that might never present itself again. "Mr. Tyler, I truly appreciate your hospitality, and I don’t mean to be rude, but I want to address the matter that brought me here before you have to get back to work and I wind up leaving without having advanced my investigation one iota."

“I'm sorry, I've been enjoying your company so much that I was forgetting this is a business call instead of my first date with an enchanting young woman." He paused to observe Deirdre's reaction to his brief foray into flirtation, and then adopted a more serious demeanor. "Of course, we should get to the point of your visit. So, what is this case, to which I might unknowingly hold the key?”

“A murder—a young black man, Ben Moore was killed, killed, in fact, at the far end of this very street, at roughly eleven o'clock this past Saturday night.”

Tyler was looking at her with what appeared to be genuine puzzlement. A tactic of the elite, designed to sow confusion? Christ, she was starting to think like those conspiracy nuts!

“Detective, I’m sorry, I can’t imagine why you would come to me about this crime.”

“Where were you at that time?”

“I had just returned from a business trip to Germany. I arrived here around ten PM and went straight to bed.”

“Is there anyone who can confirm that?”

“No. I’m sorry to report that I slept alone.”

Deirdre reached in the pocket of the light, dressy jacket she wore and pulled out a photograph.
“Do you recognize this object?”

Now Tyler did react. “What the hell?" He shook his head. "I certainly do—it’s a tie tack bearing the crest of a society of which I am a member.”

“Would that be Skull and Bones?”

“Yes. But how does it relate to the murder?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Tyler, but I have to ask the questions for now. Do you own one of these?”

“Well, two, in fact. At least I did. I suppose I still have them somewhere.”

“If I were a member of the most prestigious secret society in America, I’d try to keep track of my knickknacks.”

Tyler looked thoughtful. “You see, Detective, in retrospect, I regard the whole Skull and Bones thing as rather childish. While I have to admit that I gained many valuable connections by joining, today it all strikes me as being similar to a bunch of status-obsessed boys who build a tree fort and then won't allow the girls or the uncool boys up to play with them.”

“So what is the purpose of Skull and Bones? And why all of the fuss about secrecy?”

“I’m sorry, but I won’t answer those sorts of questions. Even though I have a more jaundiced view of the society than I did in my youth, I still don’t intend to break the pledge I made when I joined it.”
They had finished their soup, and now the maid returned carrying a dish the contents of which lay hidden under a silver cover. When she raised the cover she revealed steaming, bite-sized pieces of… well, Deirdre wasn't sure just what… swimming in a buttery sauce. Tyler gestured toward the dish with his hand. “Escargot in butter with garlic and herbs.”

“Snails?”

“Yes, snails. They're quite tasty, you know.”

Deirdre, not wanting to seem timid, helped herself to several of the creatures. She reluctantly placed one in her mouth but found, to her surprise, that she liked the flavor very much.

When she had swallowed the first of the invertebrates she resumed her interview. “So, while you don’t think much of the group, you still won’t talk about it?”

“I made a promise.”

“Very admirable of you, I'm sure.” She tried to detect how her hint of sarcasm went over, by she could not read Tyler’s opaque expression, so she went on. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but your wife was killed last year.”

He nodded, and asked, “Were you involved in the investigation of her murder?”

“No, I wasn’t—I just moved into homicide recently. Anyway, the detectives who were on the case strongly suspected that the killing was the outcome of a carjacking that for some reason escalated into murder, which was probably not what the perp had in mind when he grabbed the car. It’s more typical for a car-jacker just to shove the victim out in some deserted spot.”

Tyler was plainly curious about where this was going. Deirdre let his interest build for a moment, and then declared, “The boy whose murder I’m investigating, he had a prior for car jacking.” She studied his face.

After a little thought, Tyler burst out laughing. “Do you imagine that I might somehow have discovered his identity and then killed him in revenge?”

“I’m obligated to examine any plausible scenario. But you seem to regard the notion as ridiculous—can you tell me why?”

“Detective, Evelyn and I had a purely utilitarian marriage. You see, her family had struck it rich in Oklahoma, in oil. But they were a clan of almost entirely uncultured Okies. She wanted to acquire my family name for the social status it entailed. On the other hand, maintaining the various properties that are my patrimony strains even my salary, so, frankly, I welcomed the cash she brought to the partnership. Since we each benefited from the merger, we each were able to tolerate the other, but we were never in love, and, while I felt badly that she came to such an unpleasant end, I have not been tormented or grief-stricken as a result. In fact, I rather enjoy being free from having to consider her concerns in making my daily plans and decisions.”

“Then it sounds like you had a motive for wanting her out of the way.”

“Detective, the flexibility I’ve gained as a consequence of her absence is pleasant, but do you really imagine I would risk life in prison to avoid some minor inconveniences?” The way he put the question suggested to Deirdre that, while he regarded murder as a silly idea in this particular instance, he would be perfectly willing to consider it if the potential payoff was significantly greater. “As I said, we got along fine in our own, peculiar fashion, and each of us allowed the other to pursue his or her private passions.”

“Do you mean extramarital affairs?”

“I mean whatever passions we had, which certainly might include taking a lover. We respected each other enough that we never flaunted our affairs or used them as clubs to wield during our occasional feuds. The difference between those days and my current circumstances is that now I can invite a woman to spend a week with me on Grand Cayman, whereas when Evelyn was alive more than a weekend would have been tacky.”

Deirdre wondered if such a utilitarian arrangement could have produced any fruit. “Did the two of you have children?”

“Just one, my daughter, who is presently at Stanford University, working towards a pre-med degree.”

The maid re-appeared with a rack of lamb, grilled vegetables, and mashed potatoes. Deirdre was able to discern the presence of rosemary, garlic, and thyme amidst the heady blend of other flavors whose subtlety defeated her attempts to identify them, and she fantasized about eating such food as a matter of course. Her sensual reverie was dispelled by the impression that Tyler’s attention was fixed on her, and when she looked up at him he seemed to be groping for the right words to capture some elusive thought. She raised her eyebrows to encourage his effort, and he responded by permitting her a brief glimpse past the polished veneer that he habitually presented in social encounters.

“You should realize that inside I'm an empty man, a man who has seen right through the insubstantial fabric from which my childish dreams were woven. What remains real for me are only the things that I can see and taste and touch—this rack of lamb, that antique Persian rug on the floor behind you, the beautiful woman sitting in front of me." He gestured around the room as he spoke, his final gesture pointing to Deirdre. “For a man to take another person’s life he would have to be driven by some passion that leads him to believe that there is something to be won from this indifferent world that is worth all of the fuss involved, wouldn’t he? But I’ve embraced the indifference, and whatever fire there was has long burned out. The idea of killing anyone, let alone my own wife, is to me simply stupid.”

“Was that a weird attempt to offer a character defense?”

“No, just the raw truth.”

Deirdre pondered Tyler’s soul-baring briefly, and then asked, “But doesn’t that philosophy leave you a bit gloomy?”

“You could spend some time with me and judge for yourself, perhaps, say, a week on Grand Cayman.”

“Mr. Tyler, are you propositioning me even as I’m interrogating you in connection with a homicide?”

“You’re a very attractive woman. You’re charms could open many doors for you.”

“Well, thanks very much for the tip. Do you think you can have a look for those tie tacks for me?”

“I suppose I can have the maid go through some old boxes where I’ve stored memorabilia. I don’t have any idea if they will turn up.”

“See what you can do.”

They finished their lunch amid small talk. Deirdre thanked Tyler for his time, and the maid showed her out. She stood in the driveway for several minutes before she left, pondering how this great house and its occupant fit into this puzzle she was assembling.

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