Department of First Stories

The Phone Message

by Robert Cummins



Monday evening

Carole stops the car and checks to see that Cathy is still sound asleep in the backseat. Her phone tells her it’s 9:50 p.m. She needs to wait another three or four minutes. She doesn’t want to leave Cathy any longer than necessary, and she doesn’t need to be inside the house until 9:55. The whole thing should take only five or six minutes. Maybe less. She uses the mirror on the sun visor to check the dark curly wig covering her auburn hair and pushes up the dark-framed glasses on her nose. She snaps the visor up, then takes blue latex gloves from the seat beside her and puts them on. The phone says 9:53. She waits.

At 9:54, she checks Cathy again, then gets out of the car, closing the door silently by holding up the handle and pressing it closed with her hip, then gently releasing the handle. She takes the five steps to the side door, uses her key to let herself in, and calls out, “Evan, I’m home.”

She hears him call back, “I’m in the study.”

Carole takes the key that is hanging from the free-standing oak coatrack by the door and uses it to unlock the drawer in the small rosewood table by the umbrella stand. She takes out the gun and closes the drawer, leaving the key in the lock. She chambers a round, then pockets the gun and heads for the kitchen. She pulls a frozen pizza out of the freezer and puts it in the oven, setting the temperature at 400 and the timer for twenty minutes.

In the study, Evan is sitting in his recliner watching Monday Night Football on TV. Carole knew he would be. Evan never misses Monday Night Football. She walks quietly up behind him and shoots her husband in the back of the head, through the thick brown hair, aiming down slightly because his head only shows a few inches over the back of the recliner. She drops the gun in his lap. It is—was—his gun, after all. Although, she reflects, it’s probably mine, now. She waits by the table next to Evan’s chair, the table where the phone sits, waits for the phone to ring. She checks her watch. Almost ten. Another two minutes, give or take. She stands completely still, tense. She reminds herself to breathe. She isn’t worried about someone hearing the shot. It’s a big house on four acres, a huge stone castle of a place with a stable that has been converted to a detached four-car garage. There are a bunch of these places on the Lake Michigan shore in Lake Bluff, built, she’s been told, by Chicagoland bootleggers back in the day. The nearest house is several hundred yards down the shore. No one could have heard the shot. Probably not even someone standing in the yard. The walls must be a foot thick in stone, then there’s the insulation and the paneling on the inside. The place is practically soundproof.

The phone rings, and she lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “It’s going to work, Evan,” she says to the dead man.

After four rings, the answering machine picks up and she hears her own voice saying, “You have reached the residence of Carole and Evan Donaldson. Please leave a message after the tone.” The tone sounds, and Carole hears her own voice again, leaving a message. “Hi, Evan. Listen, it’s late, and Cathy’s asleep. We’ll stay at the cabin tonight and drive down tomorrow. Bye.”

She takes a last look at Evan, resisting the urge to spit. “See?” she says to the body in the chair. “It really is going to work.”

Carole exits the house by the side door where she came in, the one leading to the garage. She locks up, then pulls off the surgical gloves and puts them in the pocket of her windbreaker. Cathy is still sleeping peacefully when she drives off.

*   *   *



Tuesday afternoon

Before talking to Mrs. Donaldson, Wes gets a report from the CSI guy who has been here for a couple of hours. Winslow, maybe? Yeah, Winslow. Fifty-something, latex gloves, khakis, shirt and tie, white lab coat, five-ten in his shoes, which are covered with the paper crime-scene bootees. Wes hasn’t worked with him before, but knows him as a guy everyone respects.

“Vic is Evan Donaldson,” Winslow says. “Wealthy grain-futures trader, well known as a big donor in local elections. Shot in the back of the head, gun in his lap, one shot fired, brass on the rug behind the chair. No prints on the gun. Message on the answering machine from Mrs. Donaldson, ten p.m. last evening, calling to say she would be staying over with Cathy. That’d be the four-year-old daughter. Pizza in the oven, timer set to turn the oven off at ten fifteen.” He pauses, and looks up at Wes from his notebook.

“Staying over?” asks Wes.

“‘At the cabin’ is what she says. Listen. I recorded it.” Winslow pulls out his phone and pushes some buttons.

Hi, Evan. Listen, it’s late, and Cathy’s asleep. We’ll stay at the cabin tonight and I’ll drive down tomorrow. Bye.

“You checked the call?” asks Wes.

“From a place up in Wisconsin,” Winslow says. “Phone service in Donaldson’s name. Mr. Donaldson, I mean.”

“Whaddaya think?” says Wes.

Winslow shrugs. “Looks like the guy was watching the game, put a pie in the oven at nine fifty-five, set the oven to run for twenty minutes like it says on the package. But someone shoots him before ten, ’cause he didn’t answer the phone.”

“Maybe he didn’t want to answer,” says Wes.

“Yeah, maybe,” Winslow says. “But it’s right there beside him on the table.” He points at the phone. There’s an empty snifter and a half-empty bottle of single malt beside it. Laphroaig. Wes can smell it, that peat smell. Not something he could afford on a regular basis, but a case would be pocket change to Evan Donaldson.

“Couldn’t be her,” says Wes, “not if she made that call.”

“Nope.” The CSI guy looks around. “This place,” he says, waving an arm. “It’s like Downton Abbey!” Wes just nods. “Oh, and one other thing: She was packing to go somewhere. When we got here, I mean. Her and the kid.”

“She called it in?” asks Wes.

“Yeah.” Winslow glances at his notebook again. “12:12 p.m.”

“Talked to her?”

The guy does the shrug again. Part of his regular vocabulary, Wes realizes. “Not my job, thank God,” says Winslow. “She’s through there, in the living room. Told her you’d be along.” Telling the woman who has recently discovered her husband’s body that someone will be along to talk to her doesn’t count as talking to her.

Wes finds Carole Donaldson in a living room the size of his house in Northbrook. She’s standing looking out a huge bay window. There’s a formal garden out there, and a regular forest beyond. He puts her in her thirties, around five foot seven, auburn hair, long, but pulled back and tied somehow. Black slacks, white—What? Shirt? Blouse? Does anyone call them blouses anymore? Top?—black scarf looped loosely around her neck. Casual, but probably expensive. What does he know? Been on this beat on the North Shore for two years, and he still can’t tell Target from the North Michigan Avenue boutiques. Attractive. Not movie star attractive, but not average either. Wes catches himself straightening the lapels of his Men’s Warehouse jacket.

“Mrs. Donaldson?” he asks. She nods. Of course she is: Who else would she be? He shows the woman his badge and checks his watch. It’s around three. He introduces himself as Detective Wesley Lovett. There is the usual awkward moment while they get seated. He skips the condolences, which he somehow senses will be unwelcome, and jumps right in with the thing that, to him anyway, is the obvious first question. “Where’s your daughter?” He doesn’t want to discuss the guy’s murder with a young child listening in from around one of the few hundred corners in this old palace.

“Day care,” Carole responds. “Until five. Thanks for asking.” Steady voice, clear expression on her face. Some stress in the body, but no sign whatever of grief.

“Well, you know, little kids . . .” says Wes, and Carole nods. He sees something in her eyes. Gratitude? She had thanked him for asking. “So, you got home when?”

“Around ten. I’d dropped Cathy off at the day-care place, thank God.”

“But you didn’t call nine-one-one until close to noon,” says Wes.

“Well, Tuesday morning. I assumed Evan was at work. I had no reason to go into the study.”

“The TV was on when you found him?” asks Wes.

“Evan often leaves it on. When I got around to it, I went in to turn it off. That’s when I called nine-one-one.”

“I know this must be hard,” Wes says, thinking that it’s pretty clear that it isn’t, “but I have to ask these things.”

“It’s okay,” says Carole. “Evan and I, well . . .”

“We’ll get to that,” says Wes. “Did you touch anything?”

“Only the phone, when I called,” she says. “Nothing else. It was obvious he was dead. I thought he’d shot himself, at first, when I saw the gun in his lap. But, well, anyone can see he was shot from behind. I’m pretty sure that it’s his gun, by the way. Ever since Illinois passed the concealed-carry law, he’s been carrying it around, showing it to everyone. I made him keep it locked up here at home. In a table by the side door,” she adds in response to a questioning look from Wes.

There’s an unmistakable look of disapproval and, yes, contempt on her face. And it’s in her body language, now. Oh, yes, Wes thinks, we’re going to have to get to that. To you and Evan. What he says, though, is: “I understand you were up in Wisconsin somewhere last night?”

“We have a place, just a cabin, really, up near Kettle Moraine State Park. We go up there with friends sometimes, mostly in the winter for the cross-country skiing. We don’t use it that much anymore. Not all that much snow.” She looks at her hands. “I kind of lost interest when Cathy was born.”

“You were there for the weekend? And yesterday? With your daughter?” She nods. He wants to ask why, but doesn’t. They’ll get to it. He has a feeling she’s going to bring it up herself, eventually. “You called. Left a message around ten?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says. “I told him we were staying over, Cathy and I.”

The techies will have to check the voice to make sure it is hers, but Wes has no doubt that it is.

“I’m going to need an address or directions to that cabin,” Wes tells her. “And the keys.”

She’s been expecting this, because she has the keys ready and a three-by-five file card with an address.

“I’m told you’ve been packing for a trip,” says Wes.

“I wanted to be gone when Evan came home. I was planning to divorce my husband,” she says. “I couldn’t stay here.”

“But now you can,” says Wes.

“Yes. For now,” she admits.

“You need to stay available,” says Wes, and he starts to get up, but she waves him back into his seat.

“There is something you need to know, something you’re going to find out, and it’s better you hear it from me.”

“About the divorce,” Wes says.

“Yes,” she says, “About the divorce. My husband abused my four-year-old daughter.” Wes just waits. He was expecting something like this. “So that’s motive,” she says. “And there is all this,” she waves her hand in a way that takes in the house, “and a lot of money. And that’s motive. So, here’s the thing: You know I couldn’t have done it, but you’re going to think I might have gotten someone else to do it. Hired someone.” She stops.

“It’s bound to come up,” Wes admits, but he’s thinking that there is no way this woman would put herself in another person’s power like that.

“Well, I didn’t,” she says. “I wouldn’t know how. I didn’t do it, but I won’t pretend I’m not relieved. I am. The bastard got what was coming to him. Someone did me a huge favor. But the thing to keep in mind is that Evan had a lot of enemies. He made a fortune trading a few years back, but he made a lot more since then by screwing people over in various ways. Politics and money. This is Chicago. I don’t have to draw you a picture.”

“Who knows about your daughter?” Wes asks.

“They know at the Northwestern Memorial branch in Lake Forest,” she says, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if the hush was on. My husband was a very influential man. He was on the board.”

Wes gets up, signaling an end to the interview. He stops at the stone arch leading out of the room. “I am so sorry about your daughter,” he says. “I can’t begin to imagine . . .” He stops. Then he says, “There will be records at the hospital.” It’s way harder to make stuff like that disappear than people think. We’ll find them, I promise.”

“Don’t bother,” the woman says. “It doesn’t matter now, and it’ll stick to Cathy if there’s a fuss. Leave it alone, for her sake.”

Wes considers this for a moment, then he nods. “No fuss,” he says. “But, now you’ve told me, I have to check. I’ll be discreet. For Cathy’s sake, like you said.”

*   *   *

Back in his office at Major Crimes, Wes does some checking on Carole Donaldson. What he finds gets him thinking, and the thinking eventually gets him visiting Brian, one of the young techies attached to the force.

Brian is in a cubical with a couple of big-screen iMacs. “I’ve got this crazy idea,” he tells Brian. “Could you make something to dial a number on a touch-tone phone, wait for the answering machine on the other end to beep for a message, then play a recorded message? Then hang up?”

“Like a homemade robot thing?” Brian says.

“I don’t know,” says Wes. “I was thinking something that just picks up the phone and punches the keys.”

“You don’t have to pick up the phone,” says Brian. “Not if you press ‘speaker,’ you don’t. You just press speaker, then the numbers in order, then wait for the tone, play the recorded message, then disconnect.”

Wes raises his eyebrows at Brian. “Don’t they have contests for kids building stuff like that?”

Brian nods. “Sure. It’s mostly like, you know, a seventy-step chain reaction for breaking an egg, or something. But, yeah, sure.” He pauses. “Is this for the Donaldson case, wife with the alibi ’cause she called from somewhere in Wisconsin when the guy was shot?” When Wes doesn’t say anything, Brian continues, “CSI’s got me comparing the voices is how I know,” says Brian.

“And?” says Wes.

“You didn’t get my text?” asks Brian. Catching a look from Wes, he says, “Yeah, they’re the same.”

Wes nods. “Turns out the guy’s wife has a degree from Northwestern in electrical engineering. So I’m wondering if she could have rigged the phone up there to make the call somehow.”

Brian kind of lights up. “Wow! Okay, then,” He pulls over a pad of paper and a pencil and sketches a phone keypad. “What I’d do,” he says, “is suspend an array of solenoids over the keypad. Only over the keys you’re going to need.”

Wes interrupts. “What’s a solenoid?”

“Seriously?” asks Brian.

“Seriously,” says Wes.

“Okay. So think of a spool of thread. Only the thread is wire. In the hole through the spool, you have a piece of metal rod, like a nail, that just fits in the hole. You apply a current to the wire, you have an electromagnet that pushes the rod out of the hole. It’s what opens the street door of an apartment building when someone buzzes you in.” Brian does some more sketching. “Okay. So you have these things attached to a board that sits above the keypad. A simple circuit will punch the keys in the right order, listen for the tone, then activate a recorder with the message that gets recorded by the answering machine at the other end. Then it hits ‘speaker’ again. Since the phone is in the cradle, that ends the call.” Brian looks up from his sketch. “Whaddaya think?”

“Could you get what you need to make this thing at, like, Radio Shack?” Wes asks.

“Yeah, I think so,” says Brian.

“Could you check?” asks Wes.

“You mean, like, call and ask?” says Brian.

“Well,” says Wes, “I wouldn’t know what to ask for. . . .”

“Sure, that’s cool,” says Brian.

“You tell me where she might get the parts, and I start sending her picture to the stores in the area.”

“Could be a lot of stores,” says Brian.

“It’s a murder investigation,” says Wes.

“Coulda ordered the stuff online,” says Brian, “but I’m guessing you already got that covered?” He looks at Wes. “Or, okay, so that’s me too?”

“Now that you’ve thought of it, yeah, that’s you too.”

“How ’bout she just visits a lab at Northwestern where she knows some people?”

“I don’t think she’s that stupid,” says Wes, “but I’ll check that myself. How long, do you think?”

“For what?” asks Brian.

“How long before you know where the stuff can be had?” says Wes.

“Well,” muses Brian, “I probably have to, you know, build one myself to know everything that you’d need. And, of course, someone else might do it different.”

“‘Differently,’” says Wes. “‘Do it differently.’”

“Whatever,” says Brian.

“Don’t scoff at English majors,” says Wes. “I was one, and it’s me telling you what to do. Anyway, just a short list of the stuff you’re pretty sure anyone would have to have. That should be enough. We don’t get a hit, maybe we drop it. Or maybe not. I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it.”

“‘Cross that bridge,’” says Brian.

“‘Jump,’” says Wes. “That’s the downside of being in charge. Let’s just start with those spool things.”

“Solenoids,” says Brian.

“Solenoids,” repeats Wes.

“You got it,” says Brian.

Ten minutes later, Brian taps on Wes’s door, which is open.

“What’ve you got?” asks Wes.

“I’ve got a question,” says Brian.

“Yeah?” asks Wes.

“Well, see, if I understand it, there was just the one call. Mrs. Donaldson, she calls from the cabin and leaves a message, and that places her in the cabin at the time of the murder?” Brain makes it a question.

“Yeah, so?” Wes says again.

Brian nods. “Right. So, to make just the one call, you don’t need to press keys and all that. All you need to do is get a dial tone, then play a decent quality recording of the number being dialed.”

“It’s just the sounds that matter?” asks Wes.

“Yeah,” says Brian. “It’s called DTMF. Dual-tone multi-frequency. Each tone is actually a combination of two tones, two different frequencies. Two people whistling can do it. You know, make a call by whistling together?” Wes doesn’t say anything, so Brian ploughs ahead. “It takes practice,” he says. “Anyway, so what I’m thinking is, what you want, you could do with a laptop. You’ve got your mic, your speaker, and you can program it to do everything but lift the receiver.”

“Okay . . .” says Wes. “So how does that happen? I assume you have that figured out too, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“It doesn’t,” says Brian. “You just take the case off the phone and wire into the switch. The one the phone opens when you pick it up. You don’t even have to change anything. You just clip a wire to each pole of the switch, and connect those wires with your own switch.”

“And you control that switch by . . . ?”

“Timer,” says Brian. “Like the things you get to turn your lights on and off when you’re on vacation. This assumes that you know when you want to make the call. Otherwise, you gotta do some kinda remote control.”

Wes thinks a moment. “Timer would work, I think. She could shoot the guy a bit before she knows the call will come in.”

“You think Mrs. Donaldson shot her husband?”

“I don’t know,” Wes says. “I’m just, you know, kicking it around. Trying to see if it’s even possible.”

“Sure, it’s possible,” says Brian. “The call, anyway.”

“So I’ll need you to check out that phone and her laptop,” says Wes.

“There’s gonna be nothing to find, unless she left the whole thing set up in that cabin.”

Wes nods. “If she came down to Lake Bluff to shoot her husband, she went back to the cabin afterward to clean up.”

“So she walks?” asks Brian.

“We don’t know she did it,” says Wes. “We’re just telling stories.”

“It’s a pretty cool story,” says Brian.

Before leaving for the day, Wes taps on Captain Jackson’s door, which is open, as usual. She looks up from a pile of paperwork. “What’s up, Wes?” she asks.

“Run something by you?” asks Wes

“More fun than this,” she says, gesturing at the pile of forms waiting for her signature.

Wes gives her the shotgun version. “She rigs a laptop at the cabin to make a call at ten. Then she drives down to Lake Bluff, puts a pizza in the oven, shoots him, probably waits for the call just to be sure, then she drives back to the cabin. Gets rid of the phone setup, then makes sure some locals see her before she drives back down to Lake Bluff the next morning. She takes her daughter to day care, starts packing so it looks like she doesn’t know he’s dead, then calls nine-one-one around noon.”

“Where’s the daughter while she’s doing this? Driving down and shooting the guy, I mean,” she asks.

“Gotta be in the car, probably asleep,” says Wes. “She wouldn’t leave her alone. And she couldn’t risk leaving her with someone else.”

“Because that someone would know she wasn’t at the cabin all night,” Jackson agrees. She frowns. “Pretty much had to have taken the Tri-State Tollway, right? Or it would take all night.”

“You’re thinking CCTV at the toll plaza in Waukegan?” Wes asks.

“Can’t hurt to look,” she says. “We catch her in a lie about being up at that cabin all night, catch her paying a toll, get a time stamp, maybe prove she couldn’t have made the call.”

“The thing is,” says Wes, “the house is full of valuables and nothing is missing. That’s one thing. Then there’s the fact that the guy is shot in the back of the head, watching TV. Okay if the wife has just come in, but not okay if there is a visitor or an intruder. Then there’s the gun. His gun. Some guy comes to shoot Donaldson, he brings his own gun, right? I mean, how would he know where to find Donaldson’s gun? And Mrs. Donaldson says he kept it locked up at home.”

“But?” she says. “I think I hear a ‘but.’”

After a pause, Wes says, “I don’t know.”

The captain gives him a funny look. “Your case,” she says.

“I have her permission to check out the cabin, talk to the neighbors. She gave me the keys.”

“Your case,” she says again. “But put a blanket on the backseat of the car you get from the pool this time, okay? And give my regards to Rush. You know I love that dog, but I’ve heard remarks about fur on the backseat.”

On his way out, Wes leaves a note for Brian to check the CCTV from the toll plaza, then he heads home to his house in Northbrook, stopping on the way for some Chinese takeout from Tong’s on Dundee Road. Turning in his drive, he presses the remote on the visor to open the garage door. Rush, his Aussie something or other mix, hears him coming, of course, and is all over him when he enters the house. He must have just come in through the dog door from the fenced backyard, because his paws are a little muddy. Wes doesn’t care. There’s nothing like coming home to a dog. Rush lives up to his name, tearing around with joy. Wes sheds his jacket and they share the takeout.

“There won’t be anything helpful on the CCTV footage,” he confides to Rush, “but I think we need to take a trip up to that cabin. Whaddaya think?” Rush makes no objection to this, so Wes gives him a fortune cookie, which he eats in one bite, fortune and all. They settle down on the sofa together to see what’s on TV.

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Copyright © 2021. The Phone Message by Robert Cummins

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