Something for Nothing
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THERE WAS NO MASTER PLAN. One bad decision just led to the next. They were like gamblers, doubling each successive bet as they continued to lose, believing just one good hand would turn their luck around. The final hand dealt to Rich and Ellen Price was their ruin, and it came from a dealer they never anticipated.
BOB AND FRAN MERTZ LIVED IN Bradford, Kansas, home to 22,000 citizens twenty miles southeast of Kansas City. By all accounts, Bradford was a town trying to become a city. Voters recently approved a referendum to build a new city hall. They elected councilmen and women who promised a fast-growing community, and they hired a city planner to help achieve those goals.
Bob Mertz wasn’t a fan of growth. He felt his hometown’s charm and friendliness was disappearing as the pace of life in Bradford accelerated. “No one knows their neighbors anymore,” he used to say.
Bob worked 42 years for Continental Railroad in Kansas City. The stout, cigar smoker held nearly every job that existed in the railroad’s dispatch center: tower operator, traffic manager, dispatcher, plus a couple more. Bob never made much money, but with his wife’s income as the high school’s librarian, the couple led comfortable, carefree lives in Bradford.
Childless and with nothing tying them to Bradford, the Mertzes looked forward to traveling during their retirement. They’d been able to put away a little money, and as a longtime railroad employee, Bob had a generous pension. Endless white sand beaches and spectacular ocean sunsets were on their horizon.
Their travel dreams came to an abrupt end shortly before their 41st wedding anniversary and less than a year following Bob’s retirement. It was Bob’s second heart attack, and he didn’t survive this one.
Fran was lost without her life’s partner. She immersed herself in her garden, but with no one to share the beauty of her efforts, it was never the same. She and Bob used to sit on their screened-in porch in the early evening, enjoying a glass of wine, and looking out at the landscape that had taken three decades to perfect. Fran hadn’t been able to sit on that porch since Bob’s death.
Fran’s sister and both her parents had died years earlier. Her only relative was a niece, Ellen Price. Ellen and her husband Rich lived in Bradford, but they’d spent very little time with Fran and Bob over the years. Their visiting habits didn’t change following Bob’s fatal heart attack.
WITHOUT A REASON TO LIVE, Fran’s health failed in the years following Bob’s death. At 68 years old, she looked decades older. Her doctor encouraged her to adopt better eating habits, but Fran continued to live on coffee for breakfast, canned soup for lunch, and an occasional frozen dinner in the evening. Before long, Fran’s weight had dropped to a frail 85 pounds, and she showed no signs of caring.
Fran’s health went from bad to worse when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes a year later. She no longer had the energy to work in her garden. She barely had the energy to get out of bed each morning.
Fran no longer ventured outside her home. Her church delivered Meals-on-Wheels three days a week, and she hired a home healthcare aide to help with her medications each morning. She talked her niece into buying groceries for her on the weekends, but Fran insisted on prepared foods that required little more than microwaving, ignoring her diabetic dietary requirements.
One Saturday afternoon while delivering groceries to her aunt’s home, Ellen noticed a stack of unopened mail on her desk. The pile of envelopes had continued to grow over the past several weeks and now covered half of the desktop. Ellen had already said goodbye to her aunt, who was resting in the bedroom, and was on her way out the side door when she decided to take a closer look.
She hastily sorted through the stack, tossing the credit card applications, retail flyers, and catalogues to the side. An envelope that looked like it contained a check caught Ellen’s eye. She held it up to the light, but couldn’t tell what was inside. The return address was Continental Railroad, Kansas City, Kansas.
Ellen found a letter opener in the desk drawer. She slid the narrow knife under the flap of the envelope and carefully peeled it open so she could re-seal it after inspecting the contents.
What she discovered was a pension check payable to Fran Mertz in the amount of $4,520.00. Ellen quickly sorted through the remaining pile and found two additional envelopes with Continental Railroad’s return address.
“Holy shit, she’s sitting on more than thirteen grand,” Ellen said under her breath.
Ellen hastily moistened the flap of the open envelope with her tongue and pressed it shut. After stacking the mail on the desk as she’d found it, she hurried out the door and rushed toward her car.
“I THOUGHT YOU SAID your aunt was broke,” Rich exclaimed.
“That’s what she told me,” Ellen replied. “She said her house is willed to her church and that she had enough money saved for her final expenses, but I shouldn’t expect any inheritance.”
“Well, it sure doesn’t look like she’s spending those pension checks.”
“I don’t know what she’d spend them on,” Ellen said. “She doesn’t have a mortgage, and her utilities, insurance, and food can’t be more than a grand a month. Her social security check is twice that amount. And her insurance covers her home healthcare.”
Rich paced the kitchen as he thought.
“You’re her only relative. Obviously, any money she doesn’t spend rightfully belongs to you.”
Rich was a down-on-his-luck, thick-in-the-waist carpenter who worked part-time for a local homebuilder, and Ellen was an on-again, off-again accountant who waited tables at the Holiday Inn on the edge of town. Their combined monthly income was barely half her aunt’s pension checks.
“I don’t know, Rich. I agree that anything that isn’t accounted for in her will should end up with me as her only heir, but we can’t simply help ourselves to any uncashed checks on her desk.”
“Be logical, Ellen. We’d just be cutting out the lawyers and middlemen. If your aunt doesn’t have plans to cash the checks, the money would eventually be yours anyway.”
Ellen wanted to believe Rich’s convoluted logic. She was the money manager in their family and thought it’d be nice to actually have money to manage. Their credit cards were maxed out, and by the time she paid their monthly expenses, she barely had enough left to buy groceries. It didn’t seem fair for her aunt to let $13,000 gather dust while she and her husband struggled to make ends meet.
“I can’t just steal my aunt’s checks and forge her signature!”
“Hell, if she doesn’t open her mail, she probably doesn’t check her bank balance either. I doubt if she even cares at this point.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying you just need to be a little friendlier to your aunt. Start by offering to help around the house. Then prepare a few meals, and then handle her mail and monthly bills.”
“Don’t you think she’ll be suspicious?” Ellen asked nervously.
“Just gradually build her trust. She already asked for your help buying groceries. She’ll welcome more assistance. Hell, in a couple weeks you’ll be the only help she needs. Everyone else will be out of the picture, and we can start sharing that pension check each month.”
TO ELLEN’S AMAZEMENT, THE PLAN WORKED exactly as Rich had predicted. In less than a month, Ellen had become Fran’s primary support system. Fran no longer needed Meals-on-Wheels since Ellen prepared her lunch every day. Ellen even assumed the duties of the home healthcare aide. The aide taught Ellen how to administer Fran’s shots and provided a six-month prescription for Fran’s meds.
Months passed, pension checks were cashed, and Fran seemed oblivious to her niece’s theft. Neighbors and church members checked on Fran from time to time, but everyone thought it natural that Ellen had finally come to her aunt’s aid. Rich even began caring for Fran’s yard, mowing and trimming once a week.
As Fran’s diabetes worsened, Ellen’s nursing duties became more complex. Fran was no longer mobile and was now confined to a wheelchair.
Rich dreaded the return of the visiting nurse, but Ellen didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to lift her aunt in and out of bed, help her dress, and assist her on and off the toilet.
“Do you want to come and help me with this?” Ellen asked sarcastically.
“Think of it as a job. What else can you do to make four and a half grand a month?” Rich shot back.
“I have no medical training. My aunt needs a nurse.”
“You can do it a while longer. If she gets worse, we’ll ask the nurse to come again in the mornings.”
ELLEN PERSISTED, helping her aunt for another month, allowing the couple to cash another check.
Rich and Ellen’s scheme worked for nearly two years. Bob and Fran had saved for more than 40 years to enjoy a comfortable retirement. A sick twist of fate allowed their niece and her husband to benefit from their lifetime of hard work.
Oddly, Ellen had grown closer to her aunt over the past two years. While she knew what she and Rich were doing was wrong, she justified their crime because her aunt needed her, and she was providing the care Fran required.
IT WAS A FROSTY NOVEMBER morning when Ellen pulled into her aunt’s driveway. A neighbor waved as she picked up her morning paper from the sidewalk. Ellen returned a non-committal wave before retrieving a small bag of groceries from the backseat and carrying them inside.
“Aunt Fran, I’m here,” she called from the kitchen to the back bedroom, but there was no response. Fran was an early riser and was usually reading by the time Ellen arrived.
Ellen put away the groceries and poured a glass of orange juice for her aunt.
The thick bedroom drapes were drawn and the morning light struggled around the curtains’ edges and into the dark room. Fran was lying peacefully on her back, eyes closed. Ellen stepped nearer and quietly set the glass of juice on the nightstand.
“Good morning, Fran. Here’s your juice.”
Fran didn’t answer. She didn’t move.
Ellen took a closer look at Fran and noticed her face was a pasty grey and her mouth was slack. Ellen’s heart raced as she placed her ear next to her aunt’s nose and mouth. Ellen couldn’t hear or feel anything.
She’s not breathing!
Nervously, Ellen extended her arm and placed the back of her hand to Fran’s forehead. She was cold and dry. The warmth–and the life–had left her body.
Ellen covered her face with her hands and stepped back. Guilt began to rise like an active volcano inside her.
She should’ve been under a nurse’s care, Ellen thought, wondering if she’d given her aunt the correct medications last night.
“Oh my God! We’re in so much trouble!” she thought as she ran from the bedroom.
Rich had just returned to bed with his first cup of coffee when the cell phone rang on the nightstand.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Aunt Fran is dead! Rich, she’s dead!”
“What? Are you sure?” he asked as he bolted upright and flung his legs over the side of the bed.
“I know dead when I see it. She’s dead!”
“I’ll be right there. Don’t do anything yet.”
“I need to call the police or the coroner,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Not yet. Make some coffee and sit tight. I’m coming.”
Rich had thought this might happen, but never anticipated it would be so soon. As he drove to Fran’s house, he thought about how best to discuss phase two of his plan. He didn’t have much time to convince Ellen.
“Oh my God! What do we do, Rich?” Ellen cried, wrapping her arms around her husband at the front door.
“Calm down. Everything will be fine,” Rich said as he led Ellen toward the kitchen. “Pour us some coffee and take a seat while I check on your aunt.”
Rich walked toward the back bedroom and slowly entered. Fran’s lifeless body was where Ellen had left it.
Rich thought it strange that the first time he touched Fran would be to check her pulse. He pressed two fingers to the side of her neck, repositioning them several times as he searched for a heartbeat.
Rich returned to the kitchen and plopped down in front of the cup of coffee his wife had placed on the table.
“She’s dead alright,” he said before taking a sip from his cup.
“I told you!” Ellen shouted.
They stared out the French doors as they thought about what to do.
“Do you think anyone will find out we’ve taken the money?” Ellen finally asked.
“No, I don’t think so. She signed the checks.”
“But she thought I was depositing them in her account. It was over a hundred thousand dollars! Don’t you think someone will want to know where it went?”
“We’ll just say she gave the money to us for taking care of her. End of discussion.”
“We should call the coroner. Won’t she start to stiffen if we don’t do something soon?”
“I have a solution for that,” Rich replied calmly, looking into his wife’s eyes.
“A solution for what?”
“For delaying any decision we need to make.”
Afraid of what Rich was about to propose, Ellen rose from the table and stepped away, her arms crossed.
“Ellen, your aunt is gone. She’s already moved on to wherever sweet, God-fearing, elderly aunts go. She’d want us to continue benefitting from the nest egg she and Bob accumulated.”
Rich paused as Ellen stared back.
“There are ways to preserve bodies. You know, like ancient Egyptians did, only we have better technology now.”
“Are you insane? Listen to yourself!”
“Ellen, hear me out. No one needs to know your aunt is dead. She can be preserved for an extended period of time, and whenever we decide, we can return to this point and bring the doctor or coroner to confirm her death. We’re just putting everything on hold for a while.”
“We’re gonna end up in prison! This is wrong.”
“Ellen, we didn’t murder your aunt. She died of old age. And like I said, why should she and your Uncle Bob have worked so hard for all those years for nothing? It’s their money. They can’t take it with them, and they’d want us to enjoy it.”
Ellen didn’t reply. Once again, she found herself falling for another one of her husband’s elaborate, illegal schemes. It sounded like Rich had done his homework, and after all, she agreed with not wanting to let her aunt and uncle’s hard-earned pension going to waste.
Ellen dreaded the idea of planning a funeral, and she didn’t want to worry about settling her aunt’s estate and having the missing pension money discovered.
Maybe Rich is right, she thought. Maybe we can delay all of this for a later time.
THE INTERNET IS A DANGEROUS tool in the hands of the greedy and half-witted. Rich had learned that bodies could be preserved indefinitely if liberally coated in petroleum jelly, wrapped in cellophane, and stored at zero degrees Fahrenheit. It all sounded simple enough.
In less than two hours, Rich rented a van, purchased a five-foot chest freezer, and returned to Fran’s home. He backed the van as close to the garage door as he could get, hiding the contents in the truck from any nosy neighbors.
With Ellen’s help, he slid the 300-pound freezer down the ramp and into the garage. After plugging it in, they headed to the bedroom to prepare Fran for her sub-zero resting place.
Her body was beginning to stiffen, but Rich was able to stuff her frail, cellophane-wrapped corpse into the large chest with little effort. To accelerate the preservation process and conceal the freezer’s contents, Rich drove to a nearby convenience store and returned with ten bags of ice that he liberally poured over the body.
“What are we going to tell neighbors and her church friends when they come to visit?” Ellen asked.
“Just say she’s not feeling up to seeing visitors.”
Realizing the morbid truth in his statement, he turned away and pressed his lips tight to suppress a smile.
ELLEN FELT GUILTY, but she had to admit cashing the monthly pension check was easier now that she didn’t have to cook and care for her invalid aunt. She continued stopping by the house a couple times a day as she’d done for the past two years.
Rich spent hours trying to replicate Fran’s signature, and finally settled on one that the bankers readily accepted. He and Ellen also continued cashing her aunt’s social security checks, and why not? It was all going so smoothly.
NEARLY A YEAR HAD GONE BY since Mrs. Mertz was put on ice when Ellen discovered a letter from the Continental Railroad. It wasn’t a pension check, but rather a notice that a pension fund representative would be calling on Fran Mertz to ensure her satisfaction with their services. The visit was actually a veiled attempt by the railroad to confirm the recipient was still eligible for benefits. Apparently, pension fraud wasn’t as uncommon as Rich and Ellen had hoped.
“What are we going to do now? They want to meet with Aunt Fran!”
Ellen’s hand trembled as she thrust the letter toward Rich. He grabbed it and read all three paragraphs.
“Let’s not panic. I’m sure we can delay this until we come up with something.”
He slumped into his worn recliner and tossed the letter onto the coffee table.
“What do you mean come up with something? There’s nothing to come up with! Aunt Fran certainly isn’t available to meet with anyone.”
Rich’s devious, dim-witted mind churned as he thought about what a representative from a pension fund might know and might plan to ask.
“What if we find an elderly woman to meet with the rep from the railroad? She wouldn’t need to say much. I’m sure these pension examiners come across a lot of widows unable or unwilling to answer their questions.”
Ellen had survived nearly twenty years married to Rich. It was times like this she wondered why.
“And where do you suggest we find an eighty-year-old woman who looks like my five-foot, ninety-pound aunt who’d be willing to help us commit pension fraud?”
“What about Joy’s mom, Mrs. Wright? She’s a perfect fit! I’m not sure even I could tell the difference.”
“Rich, Joy’s mother is very ill. She can barely talk. That stroke nearly killed her.”
“You always say Joy needs a break from caring for her mom. You could offer to relieve her for an afternoon. We roll her mom over to your aunt’s house, she says hi to the examiner, and we’re done for another few years.”
It all was becoming a bad movie to Ellen. Each new scene Rich directed was more dramatic than the previous. She shuddered to think what he had planned for the ending.
JOY GRATEFULLY ACCEPTED ELLEN’S offer to watch her mom for an afternoon. She even offered to reciprocate and keep Fran sometime, but Ellen replied, “That won’t be necessary, Joy. My aunt is no trouble to care for.”
The pension examiner planned to arrive early Wednesday afternoon. Ellen tried pinning him down on a specific time, but since he was meeting several pensioners in the area, he couldn’t be more precise.
Joy’s mother left her home only for medical appointments, so when Rich and Ellen wheeled her to their car and lifted her into the backseat, she assumed the next stop would be the doctor’s office.
When they pulled up at the Mertz home and wheeled her inside, Mrs. Wright began screaming.
“Get me outta here! Not here! This is the wrong place!” she shouted as loud as her half-filled lungs would permit.
“Please calm down. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Ellen leaned closer to Mrs. Wright and tried to ease the woman’s fears.
“We just want you to say hi to someone, and then we’ll drive you back home.”
The gaunt, grey-haired lady took a poke at Ellen’s face, catching her with her fingernail across her nose. The scratch immediately began to bleed.
“Great. Now I look like I’ve been in a fight,” Ellen complained, wiping the blood away.
Just then a knock was heard at the door to the garage.
“Oh shit!” Rich said, realizing he hadn’t closed the garage door after wheeling Mrs. Wright inside.
He ran to answer the door.
“Hi. I’m James Woods from the Continental pension fund. I’m here to meet with Mrs. Mertz.”
Rich looked over the visitor’s shoulder to the freezer just ten feet away.
“Please come in. I’m Rich Price. My wife and her aunt are in the kitchen.”
“Ladies, this is James Woods from the Continental pension fund,” Rich said, trying to appear calm.
“Mr. Woods, I’m afraid you’ve caught my aunt on a bad day,” Ellen said, patting the scratch on her nose with a tissue. “She’s not reacting well to her meds, and we have just a short time before she takes her nap.”
“Well, this won’t take long,” Mr. Woods replied as he pulled a manila folder from his briefcase.
“You’re looking well, Mrs. Mertz. How are you feeling?”
“Where’s my doctor?” she asked. “This is the wrong place.”
Puzzled by her response, the examiner looked at Ellen.
“She sometimes gets confused.”
“Mrs. Mertz, I represent the railroad that your husband worked for. I’m here to make sure your pension and insurance processing is satisfactory. Do you have any questions about your benefits?”
“My husband didn’t work for a railroad. He was a doctor,” she shot back.
Ellen rolled her eyes and patted the old woman’s shoulder.
“Actually, Mr. Woods, her father was a doctor. Like I said, she gets confused.”
“It appears she’s suffered a stroke at some point. I see nothing in her file about anything other than diabetes.”
“The medications give that appearance, but I assure you, she’s not herself right now.”
The examiner tilted his head and pursed his lips as if to question Ellen further.
“I can see it’ll be impossible to get these forms completed today. If you’ll make sure they’re filled out by your aunt and notarized, I’ll be on my way.”
“Sure, not a problem. We’ll get it done tomorrow.”
Mr. Woods shut his briefcase and walked quickly to the door he’d entered earlier.
“Let me take you out the front door,” Rich offered. “The garage is a little dusty.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather go back this way,” he said, opening the door into the garage. “I’ve been shopping for freezers, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one this big.”
Mr. Woods was next to the freezer with his fingers on the handle by the time Rich reached him. As he began lifting the lid, Rich slapped both hands on top, pressing it shut.
“I’ve been hunting and recently put half a deer in there. I’ve gotta warn you, it’s not a pretty sight,” Rich said with a nervous chuckle.
“Oh, I’ve seen venison before,” Mr. Woods said as he opened the lid. “I just want to check the capacity.”
They both stared down into the freezer. The pink body of Mrs. Mertz was camouflaged through the layers of ice.
“Whoa. This freezer’s huge,” Mr. Woods exclaimed. “You can barely see the deer at the bottom. Was it a buck or a doe?” he asked, pressing the lid shut.
“Well, thanks for letting me check it out. And don’t forget to send me those forms,” Mr. Woods said as he headed to his car.
With beads of sweat on his forehead and his shirt soaked with perspiration, Rich stared through the garage at Ellen standing in the doorway.
“Take me home! Now!” a squeaky voice screamed from behind Ellen.
HAVING DODGED THE PENSION EXAMINER’S bullet, it only seemed fitting to collect the funds a while longer, but two years later, Rich and Ellen were both tiring of the dangerous charade. On more than one occasion, a nosy neighbor had insisted on seeing Mrs. Mertz. It was only a matter of time before someone would discover their illegal scheme.
Meanwhile, Rich had landed a full-time job with a commercial builder in Kansas City. The 50-mile round trip was becoming a drag, and Rich wanted to move closer to work. It was time to thaw out Mrs. Mertz and announce her death.
The Internet research Rich conducted was less clear on the thawing process than it was on the freezing process. One article advised gradually bringing the body back to room temperature, but didn’t define what “gradually” meant.
Rich started by raising the freezer thermostat from zero to 32 degrees. A day later, he turned the freezer off completely and left his aunt’s body inside for 24 hours.
On the third day, he carried Mrs. Mertz to her bedroom and waited for the cellophane to loosen from her body. It took him an hour to free her from the wrapping. The petroleum jelly seemed to be working as designed. With the wrapping removed, Fran’s skin appeared as it had the day Rich prepared her for the freezer.
The darkness appeared on her arms first, and then on her legs. Over the next two hours, her extremities turned a dark purple, and her skin fell slack as if she were melting.
There was no way Rich could call a doctor to announce Fran’s death. How could he possibly explain her condition?
Rich began to panic. He couldn’t put her melted, purple body back in the freezer. What would be the point? Thawing her out was no longer a solution, and besides, he and Ellen were tired of watching over an empty house.
Suddenly, an idea hit him.
That’s it! he thought. I’ll get rid of the house.
He considered ways to burn the house down with the body inside. He couldn’t use gasoline or other flammables because he knew they could be easily detected. Fran wasn’t a smoker, so laying a smoldering cigarette on the sheets wasn’t an option. He thought of all the ways house fires are accidently started, and one by one, he ruled them out.
About to give up, he looked across the room and spotted a row of candles on top of the dresser.
Fran loved burning candles. All he had to do was position one near a drape, or let one melt down near a tissue box. It was a logical solution, one that wouldn’t be questioned.
Before leaving that afternoon, Rich arranged several candles around her bedroom, some in customary places, and others precariously close to flammable items.
ELLEN AND RICH LIVED THREE miles from Fran, but the sirens of the fire engines were easily heard from their back porch that evening.
The next morning, a police officer came to Ellen and Rich’s front door. Ellen, unaware of Rich’s arson, answered the door.
“Mrs. Price?” the officer asked.
“Yes, I’m Ellen Price.”
“Are you related to Fran Mertz?”
“Why, yes. She’s my aunt. Is everything okay?”
“I’m afraid I have bad news. Your aunt died in a house fire yesterday. It looks like burning candles may have started the fire.”
The news shocked Ellen, but she had to dig deep to display grief.
“I can’t believe it,” she cried, covering her face with her hands. “My aunt is so careful.”
“Again, I’m sorry. The house is a total loss. If we learn anything further, I’ll let you know.”
Ellen retreated inside, where Rich explained what he’d done.
TWO WEEKS LATER, ELLEN AND RICH were called to the office of Fran Mertz’s attorney, Art Vance, for the reading of her will.
“Mr. and Mrs. Price, I’ve never had this happen in my thirty years of practicing law, but I received a sealed envelope from your aunt about three years ago. She noted on the outside that it was to be opened when her will was read. Well, today is the day.”
Stunned, Ellen and Rich stared at each other as Mr. Vance slid the letter opener under the flap, tore open the envelope, and began to read the letter aloud.
“Mr. Vance, it is with a sound mind that I inform you my time on earth is about to end. I’ve enjoyed a wonderful life with my husband that others only dream of living. I know my health will not improve, and it makes little sense to continue. Tonight I will take an overdose of sleeping pills, and my niece, Ellen Price, will find my body in the morning.
“It saddens me to tell you my niece and her husband, Rich Price, have been stealing my pension. If the theft ceases after my death, I will consider the stolen funds my gift to them for assisting me the past two years. If they continue stealing from the pension fund, as I fear they will, please have warrants issued for the arrest of Rich and Ellen Price.
“My niece and her husband must learn that you never get something for nothing.”