Brad Frame sat outside Courtroom F preparing to testify for the state in the fraud case against Jeffrey Devlin. The private detective had been waiting since ten a.m. Since he no longer wore a watch, and thanks to an instruction not to bring his cellphone, Brad didn't know the precise time. At least an hour had elapsed since the court's lunch break, which would make it midafternoon. He also couldn't text Beth that he'd be running late for their planned trip to Harrisburg.
He sighed and stared out the second floor window of the Montgomery County Courthouse, marveling at a few dried leaves that insisted on clinging to barren treetops in early December. The longer he watched the more patterns formed in twigs and branches, much as centuries ago when shepherds connected stars in the night sky to discover constellations.
A few years earlier, Brad had spent two weeks in Norristown serving on a jury in a gruesome murder case of a man accused of killing his wife and depositing her body in a freezer to disguise the time of death and give himself an alibi. Since then, two prominent trials had brought media focus to the same courthouse: One involved the perjury and obstruction of justice conviction of the State's Attorney General, leading to her resignation. The other was Bill Cosby's three-week trial and guilty verdict on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Devlin’s case resonated with Brad since the young man’s fraud had been directed toward an octogenarian in the early stages of dementia. Brad had watched the mental vitality drain from his own father in the years before his death. No one should be taken advantage of in those circumstances.
Brad stood and paced the hallway. The DA’s office had promised he’d be done within an hour. No explanation was offered for the delay. If he didn’t begin his testimony soon, he’d be late for a holiday dinner with Beth’s uncle and aunt.
A side door to the courtroom opened, and a bailiff beckoned Brad inside. All eyes were on him as he approached the witness stand.
This room was much smaller than the cavernous, ceremonial Courtroom A where David Nesbit had stood trial for murder, but no less impressive with its wood-paneled bench and wainscoting. Brad recognized Jeff Devlin sitting at the defense table next to his attorney, most likely a public defender. A high-school dropout, the defendant had turned twenty recently. His lawyer wore a suit, although he didn’t look much older than his client.
Across the aisle from them, Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Prescott sat at a table closer to the witness stand. Brad had spoken to her by phone regarding his testimony.
Only two spectators—a middle-aged couple—occupied the gallery. Based on their location directly behind the defense table, Brad guessed they were Jeff’s parents.
A clerk asked Brad to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth. After doing so, Brad took his seat. The clock above the door at the rear of the room revealed it was 2:49 p.m. If he got out of there by four, he might not disappoint Beth.
Brad pivoted in his chair and smiled at the jury. They were the ones who mattered.
Judge Kent Alberty, one of the newest Court of Common Pleas judges, gestured toward the prosecutor. “You may question the witness.”
Prescott stood at her table, a yellow legal pad in front of her, and guided Brad through a series of questions establishing his credentials as a private investigator. This included his education, training, and how long he’d been engaged in that line of work, before she finally arrived at the crux of his reason for testifying. “Mr. Frame, do you know Alma Wright-Hutchinson?”
“How did you come to meet her?”
“Alma’s daughter, Christine Stone, is my next-door neighbor. In July of this year, Christine—Ms. Stone—contacted me, upset about her mother.”
“What, exactly, were her concerns?”
“She worried that her mother was being scammed by a young man who mowed her lawn and did other odd jobs around her home.”
“Did she elaborate as to what prompted her suspicions?”
“Ms. Stone told me that within the previous year her mother had exhibited symptoms of memory loss. As a result, she had papers drawn up to serve as her mother’s power of attorney. In addition, Ms. Stone’s name was added to her mother’s checking account. Earlier this summer Christine observed unusual cash withdrawals on the bank statements.”
“Had her mother offered an explanation for those withdrawals?”
The defense attorney leaped to his feet. “Objection. Calls for hearsay.”
The prosecutor consulted a pad of notes before moving closer to the witness box. “Did Ms. Stone say whether she had asked her mother for an explanation of the withdrawals?”
“She did, and I suggested meeting with her mother.”
“Did such a meeting take place, and if so, when?”
“I met with Ms. Stone and her mother on August 12th.”
“Where did you meet?”
“At Alma Wright-Hutchinson’s home in Haverford.”
“Mr. Frame, during that meeting did you learn the details regarding those withdrawals?” Ms. Prescott cast a smile toward the defense attorney, as if to say no-hearsay-now.
“Yes. Alma, Ms. Wright-Hutchinson, explained that she’d given the money to the young man who mowed her lawn.” The prosecutor didn’t ask for specific amounts. Brad suspected Christine had testified to those earlier in the day.
“Did you learn the name of that man?”
“Yes. Jeffery Devlin.”
“Did Alma tell you her reasons for giving him the money?”
“She said that his grandmother needed help to afford her medicine.”
Brad noticed that the woman seated behind the defendant winced at his answer. Perhaps there was no grandmother. Had the jury observed her reaction too?
“How would you assess Ms. Wright-Hutchinson’s mental state?”
The defense attorney stood. “Objection. Mr. Frame is not qualified to offer a medical opinion.”
Judge Alberty cast a you-know-better scowl at the prosecutor.
Cynthia Prescott clasped her hands together. “I withdraw the question, Your Honor. Mr. Frame, how did you find Alma Wright-Hutchinson’s communications?”
Brad directed his answer toward the jury. “She was lucid, spoke clearly, and occasionally struggled to find the right word.” He could have elaborated, but they would soon see for themselves.
“During your conversation with Alma and her daughter, did you learn of another financial request made by the defendant?”
“Yes. He wanted to sell her a diamond and ruby brooch that Alma described as a family heirloom. She had already agreed to buy it.”
“Did you offer a suggestion to Alma and her daughter?” The prosecutor had skipped over Christine Stone’s horrified reaction upon learning of the jewelry purchase request. Perhaps she’d covered it in earlier testimony with Ms. Stone. Regardless, they moved toward the primary reason for Brad being there.
“I recommended setting up video surveillance to capture the sale of the brooch.”
“Did they agree to the idea?”
“Yes. I installed a system in Ms. Wright-Hutchinson’s home the following day.”
“Your Honor, we would like to show the jury a relevant portion of the video made by that surveillance system.”
The judge glanced toward the defense table. “Without objection, you may proceed.”
The defense attorney nodded. The jury would not learn of his pre-trial motion to suppress this evidence.
Cynthia Prescott rolled a cart containing a large, flat-screen TV from the side of the courtroom to where it would be visible to the jury and other participants. This appeared to jog jurors awake from a post-lunch letdown as they wriggled forward in their seats, gazing at the screen as the video came to life.
Brad had placed the camera on top of kitchen cupboards, tucked amongst artificial ivy leaves. While Alma had been present when those plans were discussed, he purposely installed the device when she was out of the room. She would not then be tempted to glance in its direction, possibly raising Jeff Devlin’s suspicions. Brad aimed the lens toward seating at a granite-topped island where, according to Alma, her meetings with the handyman took place. This also offered a view through a glass door to the backyard, where Jeff Devlin could be seen mowing grass.
At the top of the screen, white letters displayed the date and actual time when the video was recorded, thus documenting continuous action without any breaks or edits. Brad had monitored the filming from his office and, via remote signal, could adjust the direction of the camera by as much as thirty degrees to the left or right.
Alma appeared in the foreground with her silver hair immaculately coiffed and wearing a casual house dress. She walked toward the door, slid it open to expose the roar of the power mower, and waved at Jeff. He seemed absorbed in his work, and it took a bit before he dislodged his earbuds and waved back.
Alma shouted. “Come and have lemonade.”
This had been a part of their ritual during each of his prior visits. Her kindness only made her a more tempting target for Jeff’s rip-off scheme.
Brad glanced at the jury. The video consumed their attention.
Jeff arrived in the kitchen, sat next to the island, and gulped his lemonade. Alma sat beside him.
He reached into his pocket and retrieved a tissue-wrapped item. “This is what I told you about.”
Alma carefully removed the tissue to reveal a ruby and diamond encrusted brooch in the shape of a butterfly. It sparkled in the light from the recessed halogen kitchen fixtures.
“My grandfather gave it to my grandmother for their twentieth wedding anniversary. It cost ten thousand back then.” Jeff glanced at Alma to gauge her reaction, adding, “Of course, I wouldn’t ask you to pay that much. But if I could get seven for it that would really help grandma with her medicine.”
Alma fingered the jewelry then held it up to her blouse.
“It looks really nice on you.” When Alma didn’t react, Jeff reached into his pocket and produced a photograph. From the video, it looked like it might have been clipped from a magazine. “Queen Elizabeth wears one just like it.”
Brad recalled scoffing at that line when he heard it in real time. Jeff’s claim underscored the likelihood of the brooch being a knockoff.
Alma’s face brightened. Despite having heard her daughter’s skepticism regarding the payments she’d made to this huckster, Alma was about to be snookered again.
“May I write you a check?” she asked in a soft voice.
“Of course.” Jeff beamed.
Alma stood, walked out of the range of the camera, and returned moments later with her checkbook in hand. Jurors watched, quite a few of them with open mouths, as Alma wrote out the payment and handed it to Jeff Devlin.
When the video ended, Cynthia Prescott returned the television to the side of the courtroom and approached Brad where he still sat in the witness box. “Did you subsequently take that piece of jewelry—the one we all saw on the screen—to have it appraised?”
“Yes. I did.”
Prescott produced a sheet of paper from a file folder. “Your Honor, the Commonwealth would like to submit this certificate valuing the ruby and diamond brooch as exhibit A.”
Judge Alberty glanced toward the defense table. “Without objection, the court will receive it into evidence.”
Prescott continued. “Your Honor, we’re prepared to call the appraiser as a witness, but I’d like to ask Mr. Frame a couple of questions regarding this document.”
The judge nodded. “You may proceed.”
She handed the paper to Brad. “Was this the independent appraisal you received regarding the brooch sold by the defendant to Alma Wright-Hutchinson?”
“Please read for the jury the estimated valuation of the butterfly jewelry.”
Brad had forgotten to bring a pair of reading glasses and held the paper at arm’s length in order to clearly see the words. “This brooch is made of base metal, specifically brass, which has been silver plated. It features simulated cubic zirconia diamonds, while the red stones are colored glass. It has a value of $150 to $200.”
Brad heard gasps from the jury box.
Prescott smiled at him. “Thank you. No further questions.”
The defense attorney rose from his seat. “Your Honor, I’d like to confer with my client before beginning cross-examination of this witness.”
Brad stared at the clock, as did the judge. The minute hand had begun its climb toward four o’clock.
Beth is gonna be pissed.
Judge Alberty cleared his throat. “Very well, we’ll take a ten-minute recess.”
Everyone stood as the judge left the bench.
Brad found a restroom then paced the hall in front of the open doorway. The only people remaining inside were the couple seated behind the defense table. No clerk. No bailiff. No court reporter. It felt a lot longer than ten minutes, so he ducked into the courtroom to check the clock; twenty minutes had passed.
Cynthia Prescott, wearing a broad grin, approached Brad. “You can go. I’ve just come from a meeting in judge’s chambers. The defendant has agreed to plead guilty. The Commonwealth is asking for restitution along with a minimum sentence of six months.”
“That’s great news for Alma. I’ll let her daughter know.”
Brad walked to the exit. Once outside the courthouse he broke into a run heading for the parking garage. No time to spare.
Using a hands-free Bluetooth connection, Brad called Beth from the Mercedes to explain what happened and that he was running late. Contrary to his expectation, she seemed unflappable, offering to have his outfit laid out and ready to change into when he arrived home. He broke a few speed laws during a twenty-minute return trip to his Bryn Mawr estate. Cloud cover grew and temperatures turned chilly.
Although he’d worn a suit for his court appearance, their holiday dinner invitation specified black tie. Brad owned a tuxedo, which saw service a couple of times a year at museum or orchestra galas. For this occasion, Beth bought him a red bowtie. They would make a festive couple with her in a Lara Andrea-designed beaded emerald gown, set off with the diamond earrings and matching necklace he’d bought her as a wedding present.
Engaged for quite a few years, they’d enjoyed a long-distance relationship when Beth worked in the New York City and Washington offices of Oring-Whitman, an engineering firm. After she changed jobs the previous April, and went to work as a project manager for Centco Systems in nearby Valley Forge, Beth moved in with Brad, and they married in a private ceremony on June 21st.
When word of their marriage spread to family members, it resulted in Beth’s first-time invitation to the couples-only annual holiday dinner hosted by her mother’s brother, Uncle Rupert Holden, and his wife Matilda. Her parents used to attend, but after her mother’s death, her father never received an invitation for the rest of his life.
Beth described her uncle as mid-seventies and eccentric. She had fond childhood memories of summertime and holiday gatherings with her cousins, but had seen her uncle and aunt much less frequently as an adult. Rupert made his money in the stock market and, in Beth’s words, liked to flaunt it.
The Holdens lived in a mansion located on a hillside north of Harrisburg, the state capital. Their home would accommodate dozens of dinner invitees. However, due to limited parking, her uncle had arranged for guests to leave their vehicles in a nearby Methodist church lot and be shuttled by van to the event.
Brad input the address for the church into his car’s navigation map, and he sighed with relief when it predicted an arrival time of six-twenty-four—six minutes early.
He finally relaxed and tuned to Sirius XM for channel 9—a selection of R&B, Rock, and Dance music from the 1990s that Beth liked.
* * *
They shared a van ride with Hakim and Bonita Kazemi. Beth, far more outgoing than Brad, quickly established that the couple operated several local dry cleaning establishments and had known her uncle for twenty years. They had three adult children who lived in Minneapolis, Tucson, and Knoxville. If the trip had lasted longer than five minutes, Beth might have been able to pen the Kazemi’s biography.
The driver pulled in front of a brick and stone home nestled in the woods, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style. Trees glistened with white twinkle lights, and they entered via a footbridge that crossed a small creek in which luminarias floated.
An attendant whisked away the ladies’ coats, while butlers served hors d’oeuvres and champagne flutes.
Brad stuck close to Beth as they moved among the guests in the cavernous living space with twelve-foot ceilings. A ten-foot Christmas tree decorated with red, green, and silver ornaments, thousands of multi-colored lights, and dusted with artificial snow stood near the entry. He gawked, reminded of the spectacular holiday decorations at Wanamaker’s during his childhood. Furniture normally occupying the room had been replaced with eight round tables, each with seating for six. Even with the tables, there was plenty of space to mingle. A stone fireplace dominated the far end of the room; its timber mantle festooned with fragrant pine ropes, while a spotlight shone on red velvet draped over what appeared to be a portrait frame.
They eventually made their way to Rupert Holden and his wife, Matilda. Beth introduced Brad who received the once-over and was peppered with questions. Beth clutched his arm and gazed up at him with her it’ll-soon-be-over smile. She asked her uncle and aunt to pose with her for a quick selfie.
Their host stood out wearing a plaid vest and matching tie. His thinning hair, combed straight back, bore telltale orange at the temples from a bad dye job. On the other hand, Matilda looked resplendent in French-braided ash blonde hair, wearing a floor-length pink gown with a matching pearl-studded jacket.
Precisely at 7 p.m. a butler rang a bell, a signal to find seats for dinner. Elegantly engraved place cards sat above each plate. Beth found hers first at a table near the fireplace. She would be sitting next to Hakim Kazemi. Unfortunately, Brad was not even at the same table. He shot a perturbed glance at her.
Eventually, he found his chair near the Christmas tree. Their hosts arranged for guests to sit boy/girl/boy/girl and, in his case, at a table of mostly strangers, the exception being Matilda Holden whom he’d met moments earlier. Brad introduced himself to the woman to his right, and discovered that Genevieve Burke served as a judge in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. She raised eyebrows when Brad identified himself as a private detective, but after mentioning his testimony in Montgomery County earlier in the day, it turned out that she’d gone to law school with Judge Alberty. That marked the first of several small-world moments during the course of dinner.
To Brad’s left sat Patricia Tensing, Executive Director for the Art Association of Harrisburg, who bragged that Matilda served on the Association’s Board of Directors. They operated a gallery a few blocks from the capitol and offered classes to aspiring artists. When Brad mentioned he lived in Bryn Mawr, Patricia said that she’d grown up in neighboring Rosemont and, until recently, worked for the Woodmere Art Museum. That was in Nick Argostino’s neighborhood—his business partner—an area Brad knew quite well.
Rounding out his table companions were Nipsey Washington, a local realtor, and Cody Brennan, director of the state’s film bureau. Rupert and Matilda had an eclectic mix of friends.
Uniformed butlers served chilled avocado soup with crab amid the oohs and aahs of the guests. Vintage holiday favorites sung by the likes of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and Brenda Lee were piped through overhead speakers throughout dinner.
Brad glanced toward Beth’s table a few times early on, but quickly enjoyed the company of his fellow diners. Gauging by the buzz in the room, the same was true at the other tables.
Matilda boasted about her children and newest grandchild—details Brad would later share with Beth.
Brad turned to the judge. “How often do you see defendants plead guilty during the course of a trial?”
“Not usually after testimony gets underway. Although, I’ve seen pleas just before a jury is empaneled. Perhaps because the accused has witnessed the serious faces of the jurors.” She grinned.
Patricia regaled everyone with her plans to spend the holidays with her husband in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“You’ll have a white Christmas,” Matilda observed.
“Oh yes,” she gushed.
Following a main course of seared duck breast with cranberry compote, parsnip purée, and gingered sweet potato puffs, Rupert rose from his chair and tinkled the same bell that had brought everyone to the table. He invited his wife to join him.
Matilda glowed as she stood and moved next to her husband in front of the fireplace, accompanied by a smattering of applause. When she reached his side, several guests clinked wine glasses urging the couple to kiss. Rupert obliged to the cheers of the crowd.
He raised both hands to quiet them, then reached for a nearby microphone. “Thank you all for coming and brightening our holidays once again this year. We’ve been hosting this dinner on the second Friday of December for the last twenty-five years. Our tradition began as a way to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. If I’ve done the math right, this year marks our fiftieth.” The room erupted in applause, while Rupert wrapped his arm around his wife. She gazed up at him adoringly. “I’d like you all to witness a special present that I bought for Matilda to mark the occasion.” Rupert tugged the red velvet away from a painting. Done in an impressionistic style, in beige and brown hues, it depicted a man pushing a sled filled with firewood on a snowy forest trail.
Matilda stared in awe at the painting, set off in an elaborate gilded frame. She brushed away a tear.
A man called out. “Who’s the artist?”
Rupert pointed at him. “I’m glad you asked.” He laughed as if the question had been a setup. “It’s a gen-u-ine masterpiece, an original oil by the Dutch painter, Anton Mauve, done in the 1880s. Mauve was married to a cousin of Vincent Van Gogh. A few years ago, one of his works sold at auction for nearly $150,000.”
Matilda’s mouth gaped.
“Don’t worry my dear, I didn’t pay nearly that much.” The crowd laughed.
Next to Brad, Patricia covered her mouth with her hand and furrowed her brow. Working for the art association, perhaps she’d helped him acquire it and knew what it cost.
Rupert pointed toward the windows on either side of the living room. “Right on cue, just the way we planned it, the snow has begun. Thank you again for coming. Please enjoy our spectacular holiday dessert.”
The magical scene outside reminded Brad of a motion lamp his mother brought out of storage each Christmas and placed on an end table in the living room. It depicted a chapel in the woods along with a horse-drawn sleigh. Inside the body of the lamp, heat from a lightbulb caused a patterned, revolving cylinder to spin, giving the illusion of snow falling.
Whatever happened to that lamp?
Guests burst into cheers of hip, hip, and hooray for Rupert and Matilda. She returned to her seat blushing, met by another round of applause from Brad and her tablemates.
Butlers appeared with slices of baked Alaska, featuring eggnog ice cream on a base of spice cake. The browned peaks of meringue still gave off warmth, prompting more murmurs as everyone in the room admired the scrumptious creation.
Patricia grew quiet and appeared dyspeptic. When Matilda gazed at her with a look of concern, Patricia forced a smile. She picked at her dessert, and Brad wondered if she’d had an allergic reaction to the meal.
He turned to her. “Is everything okay?”
Patricia leaned toward him and whispered, “The painting is a fake.”