A Stranger’s Demise
Phil and Nadine Ridgley stood in their kitchen, stunned. A dead man sat on their sofa in the family room. He was slumped over to one side, his left arm folded awkwardly against the brown and maroon pillows positioned against the armrest. Blood covered his left temple and cheek and also speckled the back of the beige sofa with a myriad of small reddish-brown dots. On the seat cushion, a matching reddish-brown puddle had formed from blood that dripped down his face.
Phil stared, motionless. The man was unfamiliar; a stranger. He was large, but muscular. He appeared to be in his late twenties, was clean-shaven with conservatively short hair, and nicely dressed in khaki pants, a light blue button-down Oxford shirt, and brown lace-up boat shoes—what Phil thought of as the “yachtster” look. His expression was peaceful, as if he had merely fallen asleep rather than succumbed to foul play.
Except for the bloodied body seated on the sofa, everything else in the house looked perfectly in place—no overturned tables or chairs, open doors, or broken windows. Even the throw pillows on the right side of the sofa were precisely arranged.
“Does he look familiar to you?” Phil asked Nadine.
“I don’t recognize him.” Her voice caught in her throat as she replied.
It was Sunday and the end of the first weekend in May, about three weeks before the summer season unofficially opened on Memorial Day. The couple had just returned from a three-day trip to Ocean City, Maryland to freshen up their rental property on Sunset Island. Before they left, Nadine had mentioned the trip to their son Alex and daughter Rose, noting they would leave on Friday morning and come home on Sunday evening.
“We don’t have that much to do,” Nadine explained to Rose the night before they left. “A thorough cleaning is all it needs.” There was no need for Rose to check on their home on Magothy Cove, Nadine added. Other than Alex and Rose, nobody would know they were gone.
That morning, the couple lingered at their two-story beach house on Seaside Drive before heading home. They packed up their suitcases, cleared out the refrigerator, and emptied the trash. Before leaving, they unplugged the coffee maker, switched off all the lights, and locked the door behind them. At 1 p.m., they loaded up their Jeep Wrangler, then walked several blocks to The Seagull restaurant for lunch. An hour and a half later, after crab cakes and two draft beers each, they settled into the Jeep for the trip home.
It took longer to drive back to Severna Park than Phil and Nadine expected. Traffic was heavy on Route 50 from Easton to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Around 4:30 p.m., they stopped at the Safeway on Ritchie Highway in Arnold for bread, canned tuna, and apples, then headed to Chopped Louie’s on Jones Station Road for carryout egg rolls, shrimp with snow peas, and fried rice. It was 6:30 p.m. when they arrived at their waterfront home at the end of Magothy Cove Road.
Phil parked the Jeep in the two-car garage. Nadine went inside with the groceries and takeout while Phil unloaded the suitcases. He was walking toward the door in the garage that led to the kitchen when he heard her scream.
“Nadine?” he called, but she didn’t answer.
He dropped the suitcases and ran inside. He found Nadine in the kitchen, shaking. Her face was pale. The takeout and grocery bags sat where she had dropped them on the countertop.
“Nadine, what’s wrong?” Phil asked. He wrapped his arms around her. She pointed to the adjacent family room. He pivoted and saw the body. “Oh, shit!”
They both hovered near the kitchen island, each reluctant to venture closer to the sofa. For several minutes, Nadine fingered the bags on the counter. Then she opened the refrigerator and loaded the apples in the crisper drawer and shoved the bag of Chinese takeout on the top shelf. She stowed the bread and canned tuna in the upper cabinet next to the kitchen sink. Without thinking, she pulled open the cabinet door under the sink, took out the disinfecting wipes, and started wiping the kitchen surfaces.
“What are you doing?” Phil asked, his voice shrill.
“I don’t know,” Nadine replied, close to tears. “I clean when I’m nervous.”
“Well, stop. We need to figure out what to do.”
“I’ll call Rose.”
Nadine had already picked up the cordless phone sitting on the kitchen counter and punched ten numbers into the handset. A few seconds later, she told Rose they had found a dead man in their house.
There was a long moment of silence. Phil wondered if Rose was still there. Then his daughter’s voice leapt through the phone receiver.
“Oh my God! Who is he?”
Before Nadine could answer, Phil called from his spot at the kitchen counter. “We don’t know.”
“Have you called the police?” Rose’s voice boomed at her father.
“I need to think first,” Phil shouted back.
“There’s nothing to think about, Dad!” Rose yelled. “You need to call them. I’m coming over.”
At 7 p.m., Rose joined Phil and Nadine, who still loitered in the kitchen, pondering the dead man on the sofa.
“You need to do something,” Rose said. “It’s starting to smell in here.”
“Stop it, Nadine,” Phil snapped.
“Dad, calm down.” Rose put her arm around her mother. Her gaze didn’t waver from the sofa.
“You’re sure you don’t know him?” Rose asked.
“I told you we didn’t,” Phil roared. His voice resonated through the kitchen.
“I don’t understand,” Rose pressed. “Why’d he come here? How’d he get in?”
Her father responded with a snarl. “Dammit Rose, how the hell should we know?”
“Then I’m calling the police.” As Rose reached for the phone, Phil grabbed the handset and held it away from her.
“No, you’re not.”
Astonished, Rose stared at her father. Nadine whimpered.
“Why not, Dad? What’s going on?” Rose demanded.
“We can’t call the police,” Nadine started, “because… because of my father.”
“Grandpa Shipley? But why?”
“There’s something about him I’ve kept from you and Alex.”
“Mom, I know the story. You told us several years ago when we were in college. He was heartbroken after Grandma died, so he gave you and Dad this house and ran off to Mexico to live at their favorite beach. Cabo San Lucas or something.”
Nadine glanced at Phil. He nodded, and she took a deep breath. “That’s not exactly what happened, Rose,” she said. “Your grandfather… he… he…”
“He died,” Phil blurted out. “Here in the house.”
“Phil, please,” Nadine started, but Phil interrupted her.
“For God’s sake, Nadine. Let me just tell her.” Phil opened the refrigerator, pulled out a bottle of beer, and twisted the cap. “Anyone else want one?” Both Rose and Nadine shook their head.
He took a swallow from the bottle and set it down. “He had just turned seventy when your grandmother passed away. He was a smoker, and a drinker, and had a bad heart. The shock of her death was too much for him. He had a heart attack here about two weeks later.”
“So why didn’t you tell us that?” Rose asked.
Phil swallowed another swig from the bottle. “This property has been in the Shipley family for generations. Grandpa intended it to be passed down to your mother. But Grandpa Shipley didn’t have a will. Since Grandma Shipley was your mother’s stepmom, there was a chance your mother would have to sell this property and split the proceeds with her stepbrother, Chase. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted the property to stay in the Shipley family.”
Rose studied her father. “Okay, so why didn’t you just purchase Uncle Chase’s half?”
“Waterfront property on Magothy Cove is very valuable and extremely expensive,” Phil continued. “We didn’t have the money to buy out Chase. So, we didn’t tell him that Grandpa Shipley died. We told him, and everyone else, that Grandpa went to Mexico.”
“So, what’s the problem now? Uncle Chase passed away two years ago.”
“Um… Grandpa Shipley is here,” Nadine said.
Rose swiveled and faced her mother, her eyes wide and mouth open. “What?”
“He’s here. We couldn’t call a funeral home because we wanted everyone to think he was in Mexico,” Nadine continued. “Instead, we sunk his body under the pier.”
Silence hung in the room as Rose processed Nadine’s confession. Phil took another swallow of beer, and Nadine hugged her chest with her arms. After a minute had passed, Rose walked to the refrigerator and helped herself to a beer.
“I need a drink.”
At 7:30 p.m., Rose, Phil, and Nadine were still rooted in the kitchen. Four empty beer bottles lined the countertop.
Rose broke the silence. “We have to do something. We should call the police. I mean, why would they look for Grandpa here?”
“Because of the dead man,” Nadine answered. “He may be Chase’s son, Grant. I haven’t seen Grant for twenty years, so I wouldn’t recognize him. He may have come here to ask us about Grandpa Shipley. He could’ve been looking for him.”
“So,” Phil pointed out, “He may have told someone he was coming here and why, which could lead to an investigation into Grandpa Shipley’s whereabouts.”
Rose glared at her father. “Uh… won’t Grant’s disappearance lead to an investigation?”
“Of course,” Phil snapped. “That’s why we need to come up with a plan. No one can ever know he was here. We need to move him… and make it look like he died somewhere else.”
“And there’s something else we need to consider.” Nadine’s soft voice saturated the kitchen. “There is a murderer out there. We don’t know who killed Grant or why they did it. Maybe he wasn’t the intended target. It’s our house, after all. The killer may have been after us.”
To be continued.