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The Undertaker's Widow - 1998

-- Chicago Tribune
"Another strong outing by Margolin."

Book Description

A cold-blooded murder. A beautiful suspect. An honest judge forced to do the unthinkable.

New York Times bestselling author Phillip Margolin is a master of legal suspense. In this explosive novel, a simple case of self-defense becomes a nightmare in which justice itself is held hostage.

Judge Richard Quinn is young, idealistic, and honest to a fault. That's why he's handed the most sensational homicide case in Oregon history. Locked in a race for the U.S. Senate, Ellen Crease gunned down the intruder who murdered her wealthy husband. In a single, brutal instant she became a widow, a victim, and a hero.

Yet disturbing questions remain. What secrets did the man who started his fortune running mortuaries keep that might have cost him his life? What about the son frozen out of his will? Or his wife's political enemies? And what about Ellen Crease herself?

Soon it becomes clear that a deadly plot of murder, blackmail, passion, and double cross is unfolding around Judge Richard Quinn. And unless he breaks the rules, justice will not only be blind, it will be the final victim.

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Excerpt from The Undertaker's Widow:

Chapter One

Leroy Dennis began making dire predictions about the driving conditions as soon as the police dispatcher said that the scene of the shooting was a mansion on Crest-view Drive. A week of torrential rains had devastated Oregon. Rivers were flooding, towns were being evacuated, power failures were the norm and mud slides were closing roads and highways around the state. The worst slides in Portland were in the hills that loomed above city center. Crestview Drive was at the top of Portland's highest hill.

Lou Anthony took the most direct route to the crime scene. A mountain of oozing earth almost stopped the homicide detectives halfway up Southwest Chandler Road. A series of flares had been spread along the pavement to warn off motorists. The unearthly rain, the devouring darkness on the edges of the headlights and the curling smoke from the flares made Anthony wonder if he had detoured into a corner of Hades.

"What have we got, Leroy?" Anthony asked as he maneuvered around the slide.

"A James Allen called in the 911," the slender black detective answered. "He works for the owner, Lamar Hoyt. Allen says that there are two dead. A man broke in and shot Hoyt. Then the wife shot the perp."

"Hoyt! That's Ellen Crease's husband."

"Isn't Crease the state senator who used to he a cop?"

Anthony nodded. "She was good, too, and a crack shot."

Dennis shook his head. "This guy sure picked the wrong house to burgle."

There were few streetlights on Crestview Drive and the road was pitch-black in spots, but Anthony and Dennis had no trouble finding the crime scene. This part of the West Hills had been carved into large estates and there were only a few homes on the narrow country lane. A high brick wall marked the boundary of the Hoyt estate. Just above the wall, the branches of a massive oak tree flailed helplessly against the elements like the tiring arms of a fading boxer. Anthony stopped in front of a wrought-iron gate. A yellow and black metal sign affixed to the seven-foot, spear-tipped bars warned that the estate was protected by an electronic security system. A black metal box with a slit for a plastic card stood even with the driver's window. Beside it was a speakerphone. Anthony was about to try it when Dennis noticed that the gate was slightly ajar. He dashed into the storm and pushed it open.

When Dennis was back in the car, Anthony drove slowly up a winding drive toward the three-story Tudor mansion that loomed over the landscape. Most of the house was dark, but there were lights on in a downstairs room. The driveway ended at a turnaround. As soon as Anthony brought the car to a stop the ornately carved front door swung open and a frightened man in a robe and pajamas dashed into the rain. He was just under six feet tall and slender. The rain matted his uncombed, graying hair and spotted the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses.

"They're upstairs in the master bedroom," he said, pointing toward the second floor. "She won't leave him. I've called for an ambulance."

The man led the detectives into a cavernous entry hall, where an immense Persian carpet covered a good portion of the hardwood floor. Before them was a wide staircase with a polished oak banister.

Anthony brushed the rain from his thinning red hair. He was a large man with a square jaw, a broken nose and pale blue eyes. The detective's shoulders were too wide and his clothes never fit properly. Under his raincoat he wore a brown tweed sports jacket that was frayed at the elbows and wrinkled tan slacks. Anthony had started buttoning the jacket to conceal an emerging beer gut. The blue knit tie his son had bought him for his fortieth birthday was at half-mast.

"Just who are you, sir?" Anthony asked.

"James Allen, Mr. Hoyt's houseman."

"Okay. What happened here, Mr. Allen?"

"I live over the garage. It's across from the master bedroom. There was a shot. At first, I thought it was thunder. Then there were more shots. I ran next door and saw a man on the floor near the bed. There was a lot of blood. And Ms. Crease . . . she was sitting on the bed holding Mr. Hoyt. I . . . I think he's dead, but I can't say for sure. She wouldn't let me near him. She's got a gun."

"Take us upstairs, will you, Mr. Allen?" Anthony said.

The detectives followed the houseman up the winding stairs with barely a glance at the oil paintings and tapestries that hung over the staircase. Dennis had his gun out but felt a little foolish. It sounded as if the danger was over. Allen led them to a room at the end of a dimly lit, carpeted hall. The door to the room was open.

"Please tell Senator Crease that we're with the police," Anthony instructed Allen. The detective knew Crease well enough to call her Ellen, but he had no idea what frame of mind she was in. He wasn't taking any chances if she had a gun.

"Ms. Crease, this is James. James Allen. I have two police officers with me. They want to come into the bedroom."

Allen started in, but Anthony put a restraining hand on his arm.

"I think it will be better if you wait downstairs for the ambulance and the other officers."

Allen hesitated, then said, "Very well," and backed down the corridor.

"I'm Lou Anthony, Senator. You know me. I'm a detective with the Portland Police. My partner and I are coming into the room."

Anthony took a deep breath and stepped through the doorway. The bedroom lights were off, but the light from the hall bathed the large room in a pale yellow glow. A man sprawled on the floor roughly halfway between the door and the west wall. The dead man's legs were bent at the knee as if he had crumpled to the floor. His feet were almost touching a French Provincial armoire that stood against the south wall across from a king-size bed. The doors of the armoire were partly open and Anthony could see a television. The man's head was near the foot of the bed, surrounded by a halo of blood. Near one of his hands lay a .45-caliber handgun.

Anthony pulled his attention away from the dead man and stared at the tableau directly in front of him. Seated on the side of the bed farthest from the door, as if posing for one of Caravaggio's dark oils, was Ellen Crease. She was facing away from Anthony and the back of her plain white nightgown was spattered with blood. Lamar Hoyt's naked body lay sideways across the bed. Crease's back shielded part of his upper body from Anthony, but he could make out two entry wounds and rivulets of blood running through the thick gray hair that covered Hoyt's bearlike torso. Hoyt's large head rested in his wife's lap and Crease was rocking slightly, making little mewing sounds. Anthony noticed that her right hand was resting on her husband's massive chest and that her left hand held a .38 Special.

"Senator," Anthony said gently, "I'm going to walk around the bed."

Crease continued to rock and sob. The detective edged past the armoire, then stepped over the dead man's faded jeans and took in his navy-blue windbreaker. The dead man's hair was wet from the rain and saturated with blood. His clothing was waterlogged.

Anthony looked away and focused on Crease. She was holding the gun, but lightly, and she was staring at her husband. What was left of Hoyt's face was covered with blood that was soaking through the white nightgown. As Anthony arrived at her side, Crease looked up. Her face was tearstained and torn by grief.

Forty-five minutes later, police cars, an ambulance and the van from the Medical Examiner's Office choked the driveway in front of the Hoyt mansion. While forensic experts worked the crime scene, Lou Anthony waited patiently for Ellen Crease in one of the deep, red leather armchairs in the library. The room was unusually clean and he sensed that neither Hoyt nor Crease entered it much. Anthony had examined some of the hand-tooled, leather-bound volumes stacked tightly in the floor-to-ceiling, cherrywood bookshelves. His brief inspection had uncovered no book with a spine that had been cracked. The detective was holding a volume of Hemingway short stories when Ellen Crease entered the library wearing jeans, an Oxford-blue shirt, and a baggy, dark green, Irish wool sweater.

State Senator Ellen Crease was thirty-five, but she had the compact, athletic body of a woman ten years younger. Crease's personality was as rugged as her physique. Her complexion was dark and her sleek black hair framed a face with features that were always on guard. There was nothing coy about Ellen Crease. She was an iron fist that never fit inside a velvet glove.

"Hello, Lou,' Crease said, holding out her hand the way she might at a political rally. Anthony hastily replaced the book and shook it.

"I'm sorry about Lamar. How are you holding up?" Crease shrugged. Anthony marveled at her composure. He had seen Crease's grief, but there was no trace of tears now. The detective assumed Crease was repressing any feelings she had about the death of her husband. She would also be repressing her feelings about killing the intruder, but Anthony knew the guilt would soon surface to haunt Crease as it had haunted him when he had killed a man in the line of duty. A board of inquiry had cleared Anthony. He had even been decorated. Still, it had taken several years before he could put the shooting behind him. For most people, taking a human life, even in self-defense, was very difficult to live with.

"Do you feel up to answering questions?" Anthony asked.

"I want to get this over, Lou, so let's do it."

Crease took a chair opposite Anthony and selected a slender Mouton Davidoff Cadet from a humidor on an oak end table. Anthony watched Crease light up the cigar. Her hand was remarkably steady.

"I have to give you your Miranda warnings, because there's been a shooting," Anthony said apologetically.

"Consider them given."

Anthony hesitated, uncertain whether to still read the rights. Then he thought better of it. He wanted to spare Crease as much discomfort as possible and speeding up his interview was one way to accomplish his purpose.

"Why don't you just tell me what happened?"

Crease drew in smoke from her cigar. It seemed to calm her. She closed her eyes for a moment. Anthony thought that she looked totally spent. When she spoke, Crease sounded listless.

"Lamar wanted to go to bed early, but I had to work. You know that I'm right in the middle of a primary campaign against Ben Gage for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate?"

Anthony nodded.

"There's a speech I'm supposed to give tomorrow night and a bill on the light rail I needed to study. Lamar wanted to make love before he went to sleep, so we did. Then I got up to change into a nightgown so I could go down to my study. I was going to go to the bathroom when there was a particularly bright flash of lightning. I walked over to the window. As I watched the storm there was another lightning flash. It illuminated the area around the pool. I thought I saw someone standing under one of the trees near the wall, but the light faded before I could focus on the spot. I wrote it off as a figment of my imagination."

"We found a set of footprints under one of the trees. The intruder must have been watching from there."

"Do you know who he is yet?"

"No. He wasn't carrying any ID, but it's only a matter of time before we identify him. Why don't you go on?"

For a second, Crease's self-control deserted her. She closed her eyes. Anthony waited patiently for the senator to continue.

"When I got out of the bathroom, Lamar wanted to cuddle, SO I turned oft the bathroom light, put on my nightgown and got in bed with him. We talked for a little while. Not long. Then I told Lamar I had to start working. I sat up on my side of the bed

"That's the side nearest the window and away from the bedroom door and the bathroom?" Anthony asked.

"Right."

"Okay, what happened?"

"The door crashed open and this man came in. I could see he had a gun, because there was a light on in the hall."

Crease's fa├žade cracked again, but she caught herself and was back in control quickly.

"I keep a Smith & Wesson .38 snubnose under my side of the bed. It's always loaded with hollow points. I ducked over the side to get it. I heard three shots and I came up firing. I saw the man go down. When I was certain he was dead, I turned toward Lamar."

Crease's voice grew husky and her eyes grew moist. She shook her head and took an angry pull on her smoke.

"The bastard had killed Lamar, just like that. I didn't even get to say anything to him."

Crease stopped, unable to go on.

"Are you okay?"

"Shit, no, Lou."

Anthony felt awful. He gave her a moment to collect herself.

"Look, I'm gonna cut this short. If there's anything else I need to ask, I can get it later. Just two more things, okay?"

Crease nodded.

"When I got here I found the front gate open. With all the security your husband had, why wasn't it locked?"

"It was locked, earlier. There was a power outage. We never relocked it when the power came back."

"Is that why the house alarm was off?"

"No. I set the alarm when I'm ready for bed. I was going to work for an hour or so, like I said."

"This has been hard for me, Ellen. I want you to know that. You're a real star with everyone at the Police Bureau. No one blames you for this. You did the right thing."

"I know, Lou," Crease said, cold as ice now, "I'm just sorry I didn't kill the fucker sooner, so Lamar would be..."

A crash and shouts brought Anthony to his feet. When he opened the library door, he saw two men from the Medical Examiner's Office frozen in place halfway down the stairs to the second floor. Supported between them on a stretcher was a body bag containing the corpse of Lamar Hoyt, which they were maneuvering toward a gurney that sat at the foot of the stairs. Sprawled across the gurney was a tall, muscular man dressed in jeans, a plaid, flannel shirt and a raincoat. Three police officers were trying to pin him to the gurney, which slid back and forth across the hardwood floor during the struggle. One of the officers wrenched the man's arm behind him and a second tried to apply a chokehold. The man writhed and twisted until he was facing Anthony. There was no way of missing the resemblance to Lamar Hoyt.

The officer who had the chokehold applied pressure and the man stopped struggling. One of the officers cuffed his hands behind his back. Then the three officers dragged him off the gurney and wrenched him to his feet. Before Anthony could say anything, Ellen Crease brushed past him and strode across the entryway. As soon as the intruder saw Crease his face contorted with rage and he lunged at her, screaming, "You did this, you bitch."

Crease paused in front of the man, stared at him with contempt, then slapped him across the face so hard that his head snapped sideways. Anthony grabbed Crease's arm before she could strike again.

"Who is this?" the detective asked Crease.

"This sniveling piece of shit is Lamar Hoyt, Jr."

Anthony stepped between Crease and her stepson, facing the furious man.

"Calm down," Anthony said firmly.

"That bitch killed him. She killed my father," Junior screamed.

The officers immobilized Junior, and Anthony grabbed the flannel shirt at the collar and jerked him upright. Anthony could smell liquor on his breath.

"Do you want to spend an evening in the drunk tank?"

"It wouldn't be the first time," Crease snapped. Junior lunged for her again but could not break Anthony's iron grip.

"Please wait for me in the library, Senator," Anthony commanded angrily. Crease hesitated, then strode away from the melee.

Anthony pointed toward the staircase. "That's your father's body, for Christ's sake. Let these men take care of him."

Junior stared at the body bag as if seeing it for the first time.

"Take him in there," Anthony told the officers, indicating a small sitting room just off the foyer. When the officers did as they were told, Anthony motioned them away. Junior dropped to a small sofa. Anthony sat beside him. Hoyt's son was a little over six feet tall and husky. His large head was topped by curly black hair, his eyes were brown and his nose was thick and stubby, like his father's.

"Do I have to keep these cuffs on?"

"I'm okay," Junior mumbled.

"I have these taken off and you act up, it's a night in jail."

Anthony motioned and the officer with the key unlocked the cuffs. Junior rubbed his wrists. He looked properly chagrined.

"What was that all about? That screaming?" Junior's features hardened. "Why isn't she in custody?"

"Senator Crease?"

"I know she killed him."

"Mr. Hoyt, your father was murdered by a burglar. He broke into the bedroom and shot your father. Senator Crease shot him. Ellen Crease didn't kill your father, she tried to save him."

"I'll never believe that. I know that bitch is behind this. She wanted him dead and she got her wish."

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