BONES OF A FEATHER (Chapter 1)
Graf Milieu, my fiancé, stands in the sunlight filtering through the sheers of the bedroom window. His dark hair hangs over one eye as he drinks a cup of coffee and watches over me.
“I love you, Sarah Booth Delaney,” he says, and he means every word.
“Come here.” I reach for him, light winking on the diamond of my engagement ring. My hands know the contours of his body, the curve of bicep and length of thigh. Male perfection. The bed is empty without him.
“Sleep, Sarah Booth.”
“No, wait,” I tell him. “Don’t go. Come back to bed.”
“Sleep,” he orders. He smiles and fades as the dream recedes and I open my eyes to a sunny morning. Graf is gone, and I’m home in the middle of the Mississippi Delta at the height of summer. Even so early in the morning, the day is already hot.
I roll out of bed and pad barefoot down the stairs toward the kitchen and coffee. The dream has left me empty and dissatisfied.
Wandering the rooms of Dahlia House, I have an inkling of what it must be like to be Jitty. This old house, my family dwelling, the repository of my roots and history, is empty without the warm energy of my significant other, Graf Milieu. That handsome hunk of man drove away at the crack of dawn this morning, headed to the Memphis airport and a flight to Hollywood. He’s taken the lead in a new thriller set in Louisiana. The good news is, once the location work starts, he’ll be one state away. Close enough for some “us” time.
For now, though, I’m alone in Zinnia, Mississippi, land of my birth and place where my ancestors rest. Some easy, some not. A long list of repairs on my rambling home awaits my attention. For too long, Dahlia House has been neglected.
“Follow the yellow brick road!”
The voice comes from all around me. Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House, has arrived to badger me. I don’t have to be psychic to know she’s going to tell me I should have gone to Hollywood with Graf. I should have “stood by my man,” even though I would only distract him from his work. Jitty, who dates back to pre–War Between the States times, has been singing this particular song since I returned home two years ago—unwed and unbred, as she loves to point out.
“Follow the yellow brick road,” she says again.
“If you show up as a Munchkin, I’m going to kick you back to Oz,” I warn Jitty.
I’ve miscalculated her most recent incarnation. Instead of striped socks and holding a lollipop, she appears in a puff of vile orange smoke. A black taffeta dress swirls around her slender body. When she stops spinning, I realize her lovely mocha skin is now a shade of pea green and a wart mars her nose.
“Click your heels together three times, pick up that fancy cell phone, and charge yourself a plane ticket to your man,” Jitty orders.
“I’m already home.” While I love Graf, I don’t want to abandon Dahlia House or Mississippi. The last few weeks—spending time in my childhood home with Graf, riding horses, making love, making breakfast, laughing with my business partner, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, and our friends and helpers in crime solving, Cece and Millie—have shown me that the pull of acting isn’t stronger than these things. I want to act. I want to be with Graf in Hollywood. But I also want to be here, in Zinnia, with my horses, my hound, my friends, and my private investigating.
“Dorothy didn’t necessarily want to go to The Emerald City,” Jitty says darkly. “It was her destiny.”
“It was a dream,” I remind her.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Jitty can aggravate the hairs off a mole.
I surveyed her with a moue of distaste. “Why the Wicked Witch of the West? I figured you’re more of a bubble kind of witch. Pink frothy gown, crystal wand—a better outfit to show off that twenty-four-inch waist.”
“Elphaba suits my message.”
“Message? You have a communication for me?” Jitty’s job was to devil me and highlight the error of my ways, but for one brief second I thought perhaps my departed mother had something to tell me. “From whom?”
“Benjamin Disraeli, actually.” Jitty was smug.
“You have got to be kidding. A nineteenth-century prime minister of England has a message for me?” Things were obviously getting out of hand in the Great Beyond.
“‘Sweet is the voice of a sister in the season of sorrow,’” Jitty’s tone resonated, but her image began to fade before she finished.
“Hey, you can’t leave like that.” I hated it when she tossed out a pearl and made me feel like a trampling swine because I didn’t understand it. “Jitty! Jitty!” But she was gone.
Before I could try to track her down, the phone rang.
“Delaney Detective Agency,” I answered, despite the fact it was up in the air if we were still in business after Tinkie’s latest brush with death. Both her husband, Oscar, and Graf wanted us to shut down the agency. The men felt we put ourselves in the line of danger too often, a point that statistically couldn’t be argued.
“Ms. Sarah Booth Delaney?” a cultured woman asked. “This is Monica Levert, of Briarcliff in Natchez. I’d like to hire you.”
Instinctively I glanced around to make sure Graf wasn’t listening in. He’d have a hissy fit if he thought I was taking a case not three hours after he had driven away. Such is life.
“What type of case?” I asked.
“My sister, Eleanor, and I inherited a necklace. A very valuable necklace. For the past several weeks someone has tried to break into our home. Three nights ago, they succeeded. The necklace was stolen. Now the insurance company is stalling about paying the value of our policy.”
An insurance claim! No dead bodies. No murders. No guns. A simple insurance claim. “What’s the value of the necklace?”
“It’s been passed down in the Levert family for five generations. The jewels themselves are valuable, but it’s the reputation of the jeweler that makes it even more so. We’re afraid a thief won’t realize that and will destroy the necklace to sell the rubies individually.”
“The value is…?”
“Four million dollars.”
I’d grown up in a society where valuable jewels were commonplace. The belles of the Delta, women of exceptional beauty and charm, felt good jewelry was a birthright. But a necklace with this appraisal was extraordinary. No wonder the insurance company was balking.
“The police have verified the theft?”
“They have, but Langley Insurance is still stonewalling. My sister and I thought bringing in reputable private investigators to reevaluate the evidence might speed things up.”
“I doubt that.” I had to be honest.
“Would you at least speak with Mr. Nesbitt at the insurance company? He’s aware of your reputation for honesty.”
Nice to hear, but in the instance of a $4 million claim, I doubted the reputation of Delaney Detective Agency would matter a whit. But what did I have to lose? “Sure, if my partner agrees.”
“Eleanor and I will await your phone call,” Monica said.
It took less than a minute to clear the case with Tinkie, who not only agreed to take the Leverts’ job offer but jumped in her Cadillac to head for Dahlia House. She loved Oscar, but their constant togetherness in the last weeks was driving her a little nuts.
We’d both gotten used to calling our own shots, a simpler situation for me. Tinkie had been reared in the fine tradition of a Daddy’s Girl, a woman who accomplishes much through charm and the guise of acquiescence. Tinkie was about as pliable as a titanium rod, but she knew how to appear malleable. It just required a lot of effort to do so.
She roared down my drive like a bat out of hell and bounded out of her car on the heels of Chablis, her dustmop Yorkie terrier with the heart of a lion. Sweetie Pie, my noble red tic hound, greeted them with a tenor serenade. Ah, Placido, should you ever need a hound onstage, Sweetie’s voice could make an audience weep!
“Have you called the Levert sisters back?” Tinkie asked, rushing up the steps.
I held out a hand to steady her. She wore three-inch stilettos and I feared she’d topple backward and break her neck. Her sundress put me in mind of the 1960s, complete with the cutest straw sun hat. Tinkie had excellent taste and the budget to indulge it.
“I thought I’d let you do the honors.” I led her toward our office on the first floor of Dahlia House in what was formerly a parlor. Our décor was taupe filing cabinets and cheap furniture. Tinkie had insisted on, and paid for, the frosted-glass door that said Delaney Detective Agency. Classic noir. The only classy thing about our digs.
I gave her Monica’s number and she put the phone on speaker and dialed.
Monica answered on the second ring.
“We’re interested in the case,” Tinkie said. “Our fee is two grand up front and a grand a day, plus any unexpected expenses.”
“Can you start today?” Monica asked.
“You realize we’ll investigate and write the report of whatever we find.” Tinkie wanted to be clear no one was buying results.
“We wouldn’t dream of anything else,” Monica said. “Eleanor and I are distraught over the theft. Yes, the necklace has a monetary value, but it’s part of our history. I’m sure you ladies can understand what that means.”
She was stroking my weak spot. “Heritage,” “tradition”—two words I understood down to the bone.
“Where would you like to meet?” Tinkie asked.
“The Excelsior Tea Room. At noon?”
“We’ll be there,” Tinkie agreed before she punched the disconnect button.
She sat on the edge of the desk. “A new case, Sarah Booth! Isn’t it exciting?”
Oh, exciting wouldn’t cover it when she told Oscar and I told Graf. Unless, of course, we could make the two-hour drive to Natchez, examine the evidence, come home, and write the report without anyone being the wiser. As my aunt Loulane would say, were she alive to say it, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
If we kept our mouths shut about the case, we’d spare Oscar and Graf needless worry. It could even be interpreted as an act of love.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur of black and heard the soft rustle of taffeta. A breeze kicked up outside and I could have sworn I heard, “Beware, my pretty.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked Tinkie.
She shook her head. “Let’s hit the road. Maybe we can get back before dark.”
Great minds think alike. I called in the dogs, grabbed my purse, and settled into the passenger seat of her new Caddy.
* * *
On the drive to Natchez, I’d used Tinkie’s cute new laptop computer, complete with wireless Internet, to do some research on the Levert family. Monica and Eleanor were heiresses of an estate valued at close to $10 million, not counting the necklace and other jewels. While the assets were impressive, Briarcliff, their home, was expensive to maintain. And the Levert sisters were used to globe-trotting and the luxuries of life.
They lived in Natchez part of the year and also spent time in Monaco, Vienna, Tuscany, and Rio during the carnival season. It was just the two of them, with nothing to tie them down.
Tinkie crested a steep hill and pulled into a parking space on a brick-lined street. The Excelsior Tea Room was on the second floor of a downtown Natchez building that gave a view of the Mississippi River. Tinkie and I entered and scanned the room.
“Is that them?” Tinkie whispered, pinching the fat on my upper arm.
“Stop it!” I snatched my arm away, but my gaze never left the two women seated in a corner of the tearoom. Both had shoulder-length black hair layered in a casually elegant style called a gypsy shag in the 1970s. The cut didn’t look dated in the least. Nor did the women, who had to be close to fifty but looked younger. One wore red, the other black. Mirror images. Identical twins.
They rose, waving us to their table. Introductions were made as we settled into our chairs. Monica was the dominant. She did most of the talking.
“It just makes me crazy that we tried to get the police to help us, but they wouldn’t do a thing,” Monica said. Her chocolate eyes were hot with indignation. “We reported the intruder the first two nights. Officers drove out, looked around, then said we should get a dog or one of those expensive alarm systems. I couldn’t make them understand that a historic house has certain restrictions. I mean, we’ve ordered new windows, but it will take weeks. They have to be handmade to fit. It isn’t just like calling out Sears for an installation.”
“Start at the beginning,” Tinkie requested.
“Do you know anything about our family history?” Monica asked.
“No.” We’d agreed to let them tell it. It’s always interesting to learn what a client reveals or hides.
“The family dynasty started with Barthelme Levert,” Monica said.
Eleanor leaned forward and spoke quietly. “He was a blackguard and a scoundrel. Natchez society has never forgiven us for Barthelme’s brutal ways.”
“Posh.” Monica waved her sister to silence. “They’ve never forgiven us for hanging on to our fortune during the Civil War, the Depression, and this latest economic downturn. Jealousy is a cruel prod, Sister. And it’s only jealousy that makes the peahens so catty.”
“Tell us about the necklace,” Tinkie said.
“I can do better than that.” Monica reached into her designer handbag and brought out a photograph. The rubies sparkled blood red against a gold satin background. Even I gasped, and Tinkie’s finger traced the delicate craftsmanship of the exquisite necklace. The design made the rubies appear to capture the light and shoot it back in a million blades of red. I couldn’t help but notice the ruby ring on Monica’s hand as she extended the photo—another piece of exceptional craftsmanship.
“Wow,” Tinkie said. “That’s some necklace.”
“Barthelme was a scoundrel, but he knew jewels and good work. The necklace was created by Rodney Implace, one of—”
“The finest jewelers in the mid to late eighteen hundreds,” Tinkie finished. “His creations were sought after by the monarchs of Europe as well as the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and others. That ring is his, too.”
“Exactly.” Monica’s smile revealed perfect teeth. I checked Eleanor’s dental work. Also perfection. In fact, I couldn’t see a flaw in complexion, figure, or hair, which was one of the top requirements for a Daddy’s Girl—bad hair might be a dominant gene and wealthy men didn’t favor offspring with frizz or limpness.
“So what happened the night the necklace was stolen?” I asked.
Monica picked up the story. “As I told you, for the previous two nights, Sister and I had seen someone on the grounds of Briarcliff.”
“Can you describe the person?” I asked.
“Only generically. He was tall, broad-shouldered, wore dark clothing, and moved with extreme grace.” The sisters shared a look. “We have a live-in gardener, Jerome Lolly. Though he was watching out for the intruder, he never saw a thing. The thief was like a phantom. I could only catch a glimpse here, a flit of movement there.”
“Footprints?” I asked.
“The lawn is thick around the house. There was no trace to support our complaint. That’s one reason the police never took us seriously.”
“And Jerome Lolly saw nothing,” Tinkie said.
“Not a thing.” Eleanor’s tone softened. “But he believed us. He’s worked at Briarcliff for more than three decades and has run off a lot of curiosity seekers and treasure hunters. Briarcliff is a … part of the local lore.”
“We don’t live there year round,” Monica said. “When we’re absent, the mice come out to play.”
They were very feline women—elegant, graceful, and nobody’s fools. “Has anything ever been stolen before?” I asked.
“Statuary from the gardens, furnishings in the gazebo or porches, tack from the old stables. Nothing of real value. I think the young people have scavenger hunts that require a tiny bit of Briarcliff.”
Tinkie put us back on track. “So you saw an intruder two nights before the necklace was stolen.”
“Exactly.” Monica squared her shoulders. “The third evening, Sister and I took something to help us relax. We were exhausted from the past two sleepless nights. I guess we finally accepted the police’s opinion, that the intruder was either a prankster or a figment of our overactive imaginations.”
“You both saw him?” I wasn’t clear on this point.
“Only me,” Monica said. “By the time I roused Sister, he was gone.”
“And the night the necklace was stolen,” Tinkie said, “did you see or hear anything?”
“No. I’d taken the sleeping pill. I didn’t wake up. And neither did Eleanor.”
“How did the thief enter your home?” I asked.
“The front-parlor window. The latch was old.” Monica bit her lip. “Briarcliff needs a complete overhaul. New windows are being built, as I mentioned. The police don’t understand that these things take time.”
I understood. Dahlia House needed work, too, but I wasn’t loaded like the Levert gals. Old homes are a money pit, and some updates, unless carefully orchestrated, can destroy the historic integrity.
“The latch was already broken?” Tinkie pressed.
“Not exactly broken, but antique,” Monica said. “It didn’t take much to pressure it off.”
“How would a thief know to go to that particular window?” I asked.
“These are the same questions Mr. Nesbitt at Langley Insurance asked,” Monica said. “I suppose it might be one of the first windows an intruder would try. It’s on the front of the house, and our bedrooms are in the back wing. And it’s a walk-through window. The house was designed to capture the breezes off the river.”
Most antebellum homes were built with a thought for cooling. Prior to air-conditioning houses made the most of wind and shade, to combat Mississippi’s oppressive summer heat.
“Were any of the other windows even tried?” Tinkie asked.
Monica’s brow furrowed, but it was Eleanor who answered. “How would we be able to tell? Chief Randall dusted, but there were no prints other than ours or Kissie’s, our housekeeper. The police deduced the thief wore gloves.”
“And the necklace was kept in a safe?” I asked.
“Normally, that would be the case. Old Barthelme installed an indestructible vault in the basement. It survived the Yankees and god knows how many attempts by robbers. Barthelme knew the tactics of highwaymen and pirates, and he built a safe no one could crack.” Monica rolled her eyes. “He was thorough in keeping out his brethren.”
I’d found a few references to Barthelme’s illegal activities on the Internet. He was something of a bluebeard. His first five wives died after a few years of marriage, and none bore offspring. I was curious to hear what the Levert sisters would admit.
“Was Barthelme really a highwayman?”
“And worse,” Monica said. Eleanor’s disapproving look was ignored. “If he weren’t our family, you know it would be delicious,” she told Eleanor. “And it’s such past history. What’s the harm? A lot of people back then did what they had to do to survive and build a fortune. Do you think the railroad magnates were any less ruthless? Just ask the American Indians if you do.”
“So he robbed people on the Natchez Trace?” Tinkie asked.
“Robbed, tortured, and murdered. I suppose old Barthelme might be termed a serial killer today. He had a very clever scheme. He’d ferry folks up and down the Mississippi River on his boat, the Lillith. His crewmen searched their bags for anything of value, then Barthelme would stage a robbery either along the Natchez Trace or in New Orleans, depending on whether passengers were heading north or south.”
“He acquired a great deal of wealth,” Eleanor said.
“And he stole slaves upriver and took them down to work the cane plantations in Louisiana,” Monica threw in. “Made a very handsome profit, too. If he’d been caught, he’d surely have been lynched. He tricked the slaves into believing he was taking them to freedom. They’d run away and board the Lillith. Barthelme sold them in New Orleans. Pure profit.”
Tinkie’s face registered distaste, and I figured mine was about the same.
“He was awful.” Eleanor put a hand over her eyes. “It shames me to know Briarcliff was built on blood money. Monica finds it much more entertaining than I do.”
Monica didn’t try to hide her amusement. “Eleanor is so straitlaced and proper. She’d like to pretend the Levert money came from something benevolent, but the truth is, great fortunes are always built on the bones of someone. Great-great-great-grandpapa Levert killed other well-off people and sold runaway slaves. It could be worse. No child pornography or prostitutes or toxic chemical production or even weapons, for that matter. He simply executed the wealthy and took what they had.”
“Please, Monica.” Eleanor held up her hand. “Enough. It’s a fact, but I don’t enjoy having my nose rubbed in it.”
Monica’s laughter was musical and feminine, yet I heard a note of cruelty dancing beneath it. She enjoyed tormenting her sister.
“I haven’t even told them about the other ruby necklaces and the five dead wives.” Monica raised her eyebrows. “Some say Barthelme quickly tired of his young brides and poisoned them. Each dead wife is buried with an exact replica of the stolen necklace.”
“Get out!” Tinkie leaned back in her chair. “A necklace like that in a grave? How awful.”
“That’s twenty million dollars.” Even I could do the math. “Locked away in coffins.”
“What would you have me do, dig them up?” Monica was enjoying this way too much.
“When we were in Italy last winter, someone tried.” Eleanor paled at the memory. “It was awful. We came home unexpectedly late on a February evening. It was storming—”
Monica cut in, “And we arrived to find mounds of dirt in the family cemetery where someone had been digging. Jerome ran them off before they could remove the cement slabs, but it—”
“Was completely disgusting,” Eleanor finished.
“The jewels were safe?” I asked.
Eleanor shrugged. “As far as we know. Monica wanted to look, but I wouldn’t budge. The Leverts have been called everything else, but I refuse to give Natchez ammunition to call us grave robbers.” Eleanor’s spine was straight, and her lips a compressed line.
“Sis stood firm on that issue,” Monica said, acting bored. “We could have done a two-year world tour with the money.”
“We have the necklace we inherited from our mother. That’s all we’re entitled to, and all I want.” Eleanor was visibly upset.
Monica stifled a yawn. “So now you know the family dirty laundry. Are you ready to start your investigation? The sooner you finish, the quicker we’ll get our insurance check.”
BONES OF A FEATHER Copyright © 2011 by Carolyn Haines