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A Trash 'n' Treasures Mystery
By Barbara Allan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins
All rights reserved.
All the World's a Stage
Have you ever had a moment when everything was so perfect that you wanted to stop time?
Well, that moment was now. And now was me curled up with my boyfriend, Tony, on his couch in front of a lazy fire, the fragrantly nutty smell of hickory logs permeating the rustic cabin. The only sound was an occasional snap, crackle, and pop of the wood — with no resemblance to Rice Krispies, and with a counterpoint of light snoring from Sushi, my shih tzu, nestled on the floor next to Tony's dog, Rocky, a mixed breed mutt with a stylish black circle around one eye.
I was (and for that matter am) Brandy Borne, thirty-two, of Danish stock, a bottle-blonde with shoulder-length hair; at that moment, I was casually attired in a plaid tan and red shirt from J. Crew, my fave DKNY jeans, plus sparkly gold flats by Toms (because a girl always needs some bling).
My BF's idea of dressing casual was a pale yellow polo shirt, tan slacks, and brown slip-on shoes sans socks. In his late forties, with graying temples, a square jaw, thick neck, and barrel chest, Tony Cassato had taken a rare day off from his job as Serenity's chief of police, and we had spent a pleasant afternoon together in his hideaway home in the country, making a midday meal, grilling steaks and fall vegetables from his garden, which we then ate on the porch in the warm autumn sunshine.
My contribution to the afternoon was to bring the dessert and, as promised, I'd made a cheesecake and conveyed it to my car. But en route I noticed the delight that I'd placed in its pan on the passenger's seat had liquefied like Vincent Price at the end of an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
In horror and disgust, I picked up the pan and pitched it and its contents out my window, flying in the face of a possible arrest by my boyfriend. (If apprehended, I would plead justifiable littering.)
What a waste of time and money! And to think, I had a perfectly good family cheesecake recipe, but no, instead I had to take one from a "healthy food" Internet site that called for low-fat cream cheese. So cheesecake lovers everywhere, be forewarned. Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.
Here's what I should have made:
Perfectly Good Cheesecake
(No Health Benefits Promised)
1 graham cracker piecrust
4 pkgs. (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Beat cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla with mixer until blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed after each just until blended. Pour into crust. Bake one hour at 325 degrees, or until center is almost set. Cool, then refrigerate four hours.
My solution, at that moment, was to turn around, drive back into town, and buy a cheesecake at the Hy-Vee bakery, who had a pretty fair recipe themselves. I had left the evidence of the packaging in the car and, not lying really, allowed Tony to assume I'd made the excellent result.
I asked him, "So ... what did you think of the cheesecake?"
Tony, his arm around me, said, "I loved it. All men love cheesecake."
"I don't think I'll pursue that one."
The fire snapped and crackled and popped. Maybe next time I'd bring Krispie Treats. How can you screw that up? (Actually, you can.)
He asked offhandedly, "How's Vivian doing?"
I twisted my neck to give him a squinty look, like a pirate captain about to clobber his too-talkative first mate. "You're breaking our rule...."
While at the cabin, two subjects were strictly off limits: Tony's job and my mother.
His eyebrows shrugged above the steel gray eyes. "I know, but it's been awfully quiet out there. You know, like in the old cowboy movies? Too quiet?"
By this he meant that Mother hadn't gotten herself (and me) tangled up in another murder of late. In other words, police business — Tony's business. In Mother's slight defense, sometimes she got us tangled up in the county sheriff's business instead....
I said, "We'll start shooting the reality show in another month, and that should keep her out of mischief. Or anyway, occupied. For a change, she doesn't have murder on the mind." I lay my head back on his shoulder. "I have to admit I am enjoying this lull."
Which was why I wanted to stop time.
"Ditto," Tony said.
Such a way with words, my guy.
We fell into a comfortable, cozy silence.
Have you ever been at a restaurant and noticed a couple at another table hardly speaking to each other throughout their entire meal? And you thought, well, there's a marriage (relationship) in trouble. Au contraire! Perhaps they prefer silence. Take Tony and me — I was constantly being subjected to Mother's jabbering, and he had a stressful, high-pressure job, people yakking at him all day.
So we took it easy on each other.
As if contradicting that, Tony looked right at me and said, "Don't you think it's about time we talk about ... you know — us?"
Okay, fine — that subject wasn't Mother and it wasn't the police department, either. But the topic wasn't necessarily one I was anxious to explore. Our blossoming relationship had recently become complicated when Tony discovered he wasn't divorced.
I realize that sounds about as likely as remembering you forgot to put your clothes on before leaving the house, but let me explain.
Several years ago, when Tony Cassato was a police detective in Trenton, New Jersey, he testified against a New Jersey crime family, and his own family — that is, his wife and daughter — was forced into the Witness Protection Program. Mrs. Cassato, whom I'd never met, had been livid that Tony put them in danger, and soon served him with divorce papers, which he'd dutifully signed and returned to her lawyer.
But it turned out the papers were never officially filed. Perhaps his wife had second thoughts about ending the marriage, or wanted to maintain some kind of hold over her husband.
Whatever the reason, Tony had been unable to locate her since she and the daughter were still in WITSEC, and even after he'd left the program, Tony honored Mrs. Cassato's desire — conveyed to him by federal officers — not to be contacted by him.
"Can we talk about us later?" I demurred, explaining, "Today has been just too perfect."
Well, except for the cheesecake. The first one, I mean.
"All right, honey," he said. "But soon, okay?"
"Can't put it off forever."
As always, first-line-of-defense Rocky heard a noise outside before we did, raising his large head off the floor to emit a long low growl, his alert eyes going to Tony.
Then I heard the snap of dry twigs and pinecones beneath car wheels, and I gave Tony a sharp look of concern, feeling his body ever so slightly stiffen.
Sushi, rousing from her slumber, emitted a high yap, better late than never from our second line of defense. Maybe third. Make that fourth....
We had a right to be nervous. Last summer, Tony and I were seated on this very couch when a hired killer sent by the New Jersey mob fired bullets through the cabin windows (Antiques KnockOff). We managed to escape, and the contract on Tony's life has since been withdrawn (thanks to Mother) (but that's another story) (Antiques Con).
Still, the memory of that night was all too fresh, and it had meant a long, lonely separation between us when Tony was hustled back into WITSEC.
I followed Tony to the window, where a powder blue four-door sedan was pulling up to the cabin's front porch.
The car stopped, and the front passenger door opened, and Mother got out.
As I breathed a sigh of relief, Tony commented wryly, "For once I'm glad it's her."
My sigh of relief was in part because Mother hadn't driven herself. She was notoriously unlicensed, her driving privilege getting lifted more times than Joan Rivers's face (RIP).
"Thanks for the ride, Frannie!" Mother called to the driver, one of her gal pals. "Toodles!"
As the vehicle pulled away, Mother headed toward the porch with the swinging arms and determined purpose of an invading army.
Sushi and Rocky, having recognized Mother's voice, scrambled over each other to get to the front door as Mother sailed in without knocking.
Mother was statuesque and still quite attractive at her undisclosed age — porcelain complexion, straight nose, wide mouth, wavy silver hair pulled back in a loose chignon. The only downside to her appearance were the large, terribly out of style glasses that magnified her blue eyes to owl-like size.
She was decked out in a fall outfit from her favorite clothing line, Breckenridge, an orange top featuring a pumpkin patch and green slacks (no pumpkin patch, thankfully). Mother was enamored of the collection because every season was color coordinated, making getting dressed a no-brainer. (She'd had me in Garaminals until I was twelve.)
After affording each dog a quick pat on the head, Vivian Borne said in a cheerful rush of words, "Hello, dear! And hello to you, too, Chiefie! Sorry to disturb your tête-à-tête, and I realize I risked catching you in flagrante, but I have simply wonderful news."
Tony and I had returned to the couch, with the resignation of defeated warriors, and Mother plopped down between us, squeezing in to make space.
She announced, with just a little more pomp than somebody about to break a champagne bottle over the prow of a ship, "I am sure you will be as thrilled as I was to hear that I have been asked ... are you ready for this?"
She raised a hand in a grand, skywardly pointing finger gesture. "I have been asked to perform this coming weekend ... drum roll, please! ... at Old York! At the New Vic itself!"
When not involved in amateur sleuthery, or co-running our antiques shop, Mother was active in community theater. In case you haven't guessed. And saying she was "active" in community theater might be an understatement. How about rabidly active?
Since my idea of wonderful news was an unexpected windfall of cash from a dead distant relative, my response was perhaps less than Mother had expected. Specifically, a tepid, "That's nice."
Tony's was a tad better: "You don't say." At least he'd gotten to where he didn't automatically give her a dirty look.
Still, these two responses took the wind out of Mother's sails, though her boat on the ocean of life never stayed still for long, and she responded with plenty of spare wind.
"Apparently," she huffed grandly, "you don't understand the importance of the offer, the opportunity, that has come my way. Let me enlighten you. Old York usually imports professional talent from the Guthrie, or New York. But on this occasion, they have chosen to book me for their fall fete instead."
Old York was a little town about sixty miles away that fancied itself a displaced English hamlet, hence the fall fete.
"What do you mean, fate?" Tony asked, probably thinking he wouldn't mind booking her himself. "Like cast your fate to the wind?"
"It's a kind of fair," she said, "with an English accent."
That had a nice double meaning, though it probably was just an accident, and I decided not to point out to her that fete was French. Mother was already miffed with us and her wit was likely on hold.
I frowned. "Isn't it a little late for the fete organizers to be asking you? I mean ... this coming weekend?"
Mother shrugged. "As fate would have it — that's F-A-T-E fate, Chief Cassato — influenza struck the New York troupe who'd been hired. But this late booking provides the perfect opportunity for me to perform my version of" — she cupped her hand over her mouth and whispered — "the Scottish play."
"The what play?" Tony asked.
"Macbeth," I said.
"Dear!" Mother blurted.
I went on: "It's an old actor's superstition, not saying 'Macbeth' in a theater. Mother takes it a step further by never saying it at all."
Her eyes went wide and her nostrils flared. "It is not just the superstition of old actors! Even the young ones respect it, and I would thank you, Brandy, to honor it, as well."
"Sure," I said with a shrug.
Tony asked politely, "What's your version of the, uh, Scotch play, Vivian?"
"Scottish play, Chief. In my rendition, I play all the parts in a sixty-minute condensation of my own creation," Mother said proudly. "Shakespeare was a good writer, but he runs to the longwinded and needs occasional editing."
Her eyes behind the lenses were huge. "You've heard the old expression of someone with more than one job wearing multiple hats? Well, I take that to heart, literally. I wear a different hat for each character I'm bringing to life."
To Tony's credit, he didn't flinch. Or smirk. He just said, "Interesting."
She twisted on the couch toward him. "Perhaps you would like me to reserve a seat for you in the audience? As the star, I'm sure I'll have comps for special guests."
Behind her back, I mouthed a silent but emphatic, "No!"
Tony's eyes went from me to Mother. "I'll try to make it, Viv. Sounds ... unique."
And I shut my eyes. Perhaps when I opened them, I would find I'd been dreaming.
"Wonderful!" Mother chirped. "Now, I'm afraid I must spirit Brandy away from this cozy nest. She and I have a lot to do before we leave for Old York! Miles to go before we sleep. That's Robert Frost, not Shakespeare, by the way."
I gave Tony a shrug and he just smiled and nodded a little.
There was never any doubt that I would be a part of Mother's "gig." First off, due to those previously mentioned vehicular infractions, Mother couldn't drive herself anywhere. And second of all, I was in charge of the hats.
Mother stood, half bowed, and made a ridiculously grand hand gesture; it was going to be a long weekend. "I'll give you two lovebirds a moment together. Or do you need longer? I can arrange a brief nature hike for myself. Just give me a window!"
What, for her to peek in?
"No," I said, "that's all right. Just a few minutes is fine."
And she made her exit.
I scooted closer to Tony. "Thanks for not suggesting she take the path that ends in a drop-off to the river."
He paused and squinted, as if that hadn't occurred to him, and he wished it had. But he said, "You're welcome."
"You're not ... serious about going to Mother's one-woman Macbeth show, are you?"
He slipped an arm around me. "Your mother's plays are always, uh, unusual experiences ... and the fete sounds like fun."
I nodded. "Could be at that — especially if you stayed overnight."
I gave him a kiss to seal our fate. (Okay, I promise not to do much of that.) (Straining to use the word fate, I mean — I'll kiss Tony as much as I please.)
Five minutes later, I was sliding behind the wheel of our Ford CMax, with Mother riding shotgun and Sushi settled on her lap. Then I drove down the cabin's narrow pine-tree-lined lane, the setting sun winking through the bows, finally turning onto River Road to head south toward Serenity.
A captive audience of one — Sushi having curled into a ball and gone to sleep — I listened as Mother gave me a history lesson of Old York that I didn't recall requesting.
"In the mid-eighteen hundreds," she was saying, "the village was founded by several English families who drew up a charter decreeing that their British ancestry must never be 'forsaken or forgotten.'"
"Still holding a grudge about that little American uprising, huh?"
She ignored that. "Which is why to this day, visiting Old York is like taking a trip across the pond to a small English hamlet."
"Only not so expensive."
"Was that my pan?"
"Back there! By the side of the road. It looked just like my favorite cheesecake pan!"
I said, "One cheesecake pan looks pretty much like another."
"I would swear ..."
"Haven't I been saying it's time for your optical checkup?"
Since Mother had been minding our store all day, and I had cleaned up the kitchen at home, she couldn't know the pan was hers. Not for sure.
"Yes, you have, dear," Mother sighed. "But they always try to sell me new, smaller frames, and these vintage specs are exactly to my specs."
She meant those oversize glasses of hers that dated back decades; at least she'd stopped having the lower half tinted a pale pink, like blush.
"This trip to Old York? If you want me to come along and be your hat mistress, you have to promise me one thing."
"You'll leave your fake British accent at home."
A moment passed before she answered. "Bob's your uncle, dear."
I took my eyes off the road long enough to give her a look.
She gave me one in return — of innocence. "What? You didn't say a word about not using British expressions."
A Trash 'n' Treasures Tip
Use caution when buying a foreign antique that you know nothing about, because that lack of even rudimentary knowledge makes it harder to spot a reproduction or fake. But don't bother trying to convince Mother that her Ming dynasty vase is anything but priceless.
Excerpted from Antiques Fate by Barbara Allan. Copyright © 2016 Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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