In a Strange City (Tess Monaghan Series #6)by Laura Lippman
It is a treasured Charm City tradition. Every year on Edgar Allan Poe's birthday a figure wrapped in a dark cloak visits the renowned author's Baltimore gravesite and leaves behind three roses and half a bottle of cognac. No Baltimorean worth his or her salt would ever dream of trying to determine the true identity of the "Poe Toaster," thereby possibly destroying… See more details below
It is a treasured Charm City tradition. Every year on Edgar Allan Poe's birthday a figure wrapped in a dark cloak visits the renowned author's Baltimore gravesite and leaves behind three roses and half a bottle of cognac. No Baltimorean worth his or her salt would ever dream of trying to determine the true identity of the "Poe Toaster," thereby possibly destroying a cherished ritual. That's why Tess Monaghan refuses to help the odd, piglike man who wants to hire her to unmask the Visitor, who the Porcine One claims has deceived and cheated him.
If nothing else, the rejected client's story has whetted Tess's curiosity—and so the following evening she and her enthusiastic boyfriend, Crow, are braving the winter chill and the graveyard dark to observe the strange, beloved rite from a respectful distance. But on this particular January 19, two caped figures approach Poe's resting place. One leaves the tribute and escapes into the night. The other dies there, felled by an assassin's bullet.
Tess sees nothing that the other witnesses didn't see. She isn't working for anyone at the moment—and the homicide detective who caught this particular "red ball" is an old and dangerous nemesis—so it might be worth her while to avoid this case like the plague. But someone else wants Tess involved in the worst way. A stranger is surreptitiously leaving her roses and cognac and bizarre, cryptic clues—someone who knows Tess's habits, someone who knows who she knows and where she lives. And suddenly home is a safe haven no longer.
Like it or not, Tess Monaghan is now a prime player in the murderous drama. And as the body count rises even higher, she uncovers links in a chain of greed, lies, false histories, and deadly acquisitiveness, a dangerously twisted mystery worthy of Poe himself.
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His card said he specialized in porcelain, but Tess Monaghan couldn't help thinking of her prospective client as the Porcine One. He had a round belly and that all-over pink look, heightened by a rashlike red on his cheeks, a souvenir of the cold day. His legs were so short that Tess felt ungracious for not owning a footstool, which would have kept them from swinging, childlike, above the floor. The legs ended in tiny feet encased in what must be the world's smallest -- and shiniest -- black wing tips. These had clicked across her wooden floor like little hooves. And now, after thirty minutes in this man's company, Tess was beginning to feel as crotchety and inhospitable as the troll beneath the bridge.
But that had been a story about a goat, she reminded herself. She was mixing her fairy-tale metaphors. He seemed to be a nice man, if a garrulous one. Let him huff and puff.
"I don't have a shop, not really," he was saying. "I did once, but I find I can do as much business through my old contacts. And the Internet, of course. A good scout doesn't need a shop."
He had been chatting about Fiestaware and Depression glass since he arrived. It wasn't clear if he even knew he was in a private detective's office, That was okay. She had nothing else to occupy her time on a January afternoon.
"Those auction sites are really for-amateurs-only, if you know what I mean. That's where I go when I want to unload something that doesn't have any real value but which people might get emotional about. For example, let's say I wasgoing to try to sell a Fiestaware gravy boat in teal, which is a very rare color. I'd have to set the reserve so high that people would get all outraged and think I was trying to cheat them. But put a Lost in Space lunch box out there, and they just go crazy, even if it's dented and the original thermos is missing."
Tess glanced at her notes, where so far she had written the man's name, J.P Kennedy/antique scout, and not much else. She added gravy boat/teal and Lost in Space -- no thermos.
"Now, you have some nice things," the Porcine One said suddenly. "This Planter's Peanut jar and the Berger cookie jar. I could get you good money for these. And the clock. Especially the clock."
He stared almost hungrily at the Time for a Haircut clock that had once hung in a Woodlawn barbershop. Tess wondered if he would be similarly impressed by the neon sign in her dining room at home, which said "Human Hair." That had come from a beauty supply shop, one where the demand for human hair was no longer so great as to require solicitation.
"Look, Mr." -- she glanced covertly at her desk calendar, having blanked on his name -- "Kennedy --"
"Call me John. No relation." He giggled; there was no other word for it. A cheerleader or a sorority girl would have been embarrassed to emit such a coy little squeal. "I'm JPK, I guess you could say. That's why I sometimes use the full name, John Pendleton Kennedy, to avoid confusion, but it only seems to add confusion. You may call me John."
"Mr. Kennedy," she repeated. Being on a first-name basis was highly overrated, in Tess's opinion. "I was under the impression you were interested in hiring me, not scouting my possessions for a quick buck."
"Oh, I am, I am. Interested in hiring you." But he was looking at her Planter's jar now, where she stored her business-related receipts until she had time to file them. He even held out a pudgy pink hand, as if to stroke the jar's peanut curves. On the sofa across the room, Tess's greyhound, Esskay, raised her head, ears pointed straight up. The Porcine One's hand was dangerously close to the Berger cookie jar, which held Esskay's favorite treats.
"People rush so, these days," Mr. Kennedy said. Yet he spoke as quickly as anyone Tess had ever known, his words tumbling nervously over each other. "No pleasantries, no chitchat. I suppose we'll stop saying 'How are you?' before long. I can't remember the last time someone said 'Bless you' or even 'Gesundheit' after a sneeze. Again, I blame the Internet. It creates an illusion of speed. And E-mail. Don't get me started on E-mail."
Get him started? All Tess wanted to figure out was how to get him to stop.
"It's a hard time to be an honest man," he said, then looked surprised, as if caught off guard by his own non sequitur. A good sign, Tess thought. He had inadvertently veered closer to the subject of why he was here.
"Dealers such as myself, we are expected to go to great lengths to make sure the items we buy and sell are legitimate. Yet there is little protection afforded us by the law when we are duped. When I buy something, I do everything I can to ensure I'm dealing with someone reputable. Then it turns up on some hot sheet and I'm expected to give it back, with no recompense for my time and money."
Tess had no idea what he was talking about. "You bought something that was stolen and you had to give it back?"
"Something like that." He folded his little hands across his round belly, settling into his chair as if Tess were a dentist, the truth an infected molar she was preparing to extract. No, he was more like a patient in therapy, one who enjoyed the endlessly narcissistic process of paying someone to figure out why he did what he did.
But she...In a Strange City. Copyright © by Laura Lippman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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