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With husband Max away in Argentina, Sarah Kelling plans to do a killer job of relaxing at her shorefront home. Then a real killer foils her plans when the administrator of Boston's Wilkins Museum is murdered with a lovely antique hat pin. Named executor of the will, Sarah must find the murderer--before her own life is added to the murderer's collection.
"I never meant to be a prop for a clinging vine."
Sarah Kelling Bittersohn was far too well-bred to say so out loud, but there it was. How could she have anticipated two months ago that Cousin Anne, as Cousin Percy Kelling's horticulturally minded wife was now calling herself every chance she got, would twine about her like a morning glory (family Convolvulaceae) at every opportunity?
So far, Sarah hadn't figured out whether Anne's sudden devotion sprang from Cousin Sarah's having helped her to recover a treasured painting of a small ancestress serving as a perch for a parrot two-thirds her size or from Sarah's having refrained from telling Percy the awful truth about Anne's brief encounter with a total stranger (genus: Homo, presumably sapiens) who'd been clad at the time only in a rhubarb leaf.
Sarah supposed she oughtn't to blame Anne for the fact that a self-styled gentleman farmer from whose thoroughbred cattle Anne obtained the high-grade fertilizer for her prize-winning roses had just been appointed head of trustees at the Wilkins Museum. She did blame herself for having let Anne and Percy suck her into joining them at a Sunday luncheon with the farmer and his wife.
Lala Turbot was more or less what Sarah had expected. She'd seen too many of these overdressed, over-jeweled, over- coiffed and underbred birds in gilded cages, married for better, more often for worse, to older men who liked to play with dolls. Lala had run through her lady-of-the-manor act and offered them a preprandial drink, making sure they noticed the handsome big art books piled ever so casually on the coffee table. Sarah also noticed the transparent shrink-wrap in which most of them were still covered. Poor woman, one couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for her.
Elwyn Fleesom Turbot was another cup of cappuccino. Sarah pegged him as a product of family money and one of the less-ivied eastern colleges, where he'd have majored in football and date rape before joining the family business in some relatively lofty position. At this stage in his career, he could hardly have escaped being chairman of some board or other. Sarah had realized that the moment she'd stepped out of Cousin Percy's elderly but well-maintained Volvo and been given a shrewd once-over before Turbot had committed himself to a brief but emphatic handshake. But why the Wilkins? How was this hybrid country squire, captain of industry, and presumed champion of the arts going to fit in with a group of superannuated aesthetes?
For many years, those high-minded old codgers had had little to do except meet once a month and congratulate themselves that, true to the terms of Eugenia Callista Wilkins's last will and testament, they had kept the palazzo she'd caused to be reared in Boston's Fenway exactly as it had been on the day it was first opened to the public. It was a great pity that none of the trustees had been a little younger, a little sharper, a little less easily overborne before the awful truth about the Wilkins Collection had blown up in their faces. By the time the dust had settled, two people associated with the Wilkins were dead, one in jail, and nobody eager to chair the board. Finally the meekest of the codgers had been bullied into taking the chair, had meekly carried his burden of office, and meekly passed to his reward several months ago. Those unhappy few left on the board had each declined the honor of replacing him. Sarah had known the Wilkins was desperate for a new head of trustees; she hadn't yet learned how they'd hit upon Elwyn Fleesom Turbot, but she would.
It had been at the grand opening in 1911 that a then Mrs. Alexander Kelling—there had always been Alexanders among the Kellings—had observed with the tact and courtesy for which Kellings were ever noted that Eugenia's latest plaything looked less like an Italian palazzo than a Babylonian bordello. Some wit among the crowd had picked up the quip and by the time the reception was ended, half the guests were calling Mrs. Wilkins "the Madam."
Making the best of a bad business, Eugenia Callista Wilkins had ordered new calling cards to be engraved with the name Madam Wilkins, but had never left one on a Kelling. Thenceforth, the Kellings in turn had boycotted the museum until one fateful Sunday afternoon when Mrs. Sarah Kelling, at that time a young widow running a boardinghouse, was invited there to a concert by one of her boarders.
This was a man whom she'd met not long before her first husband's sudden, shocking demise. His name was Max Bittersohn. He was a private detective specializing in the recovery of precious objects, notably fine art and antique jewelry. He had recovered a Corot for old Thaddeus Kelling, he'd been of inestimable help to Sarah after Alexander died. He was less than ten years her senior, he was attractive in a non-Kellingish way, and he was fun to be with.
Sarah had still been only in her mid-twenties then; there hadn't been much fun in her life so far, she'd accepted Mr. Bittersohn's invitation as a chance to taste forbidden fruit. The two of them had been leaning over one of the palazzo's balconies, watching a white peacock spread its tail among the massed flowers in the enclosed courtyard below, when the oldest security guard hurtled past them and crashed to his death on the antique mosaic pavement.
Thus, either by chance or by kismet, Sarah Kelling Kelling and Max Bittersohn had become so closely involved with the bizarre situation at the Wilkins that they'd wound up inseparably entwined with each other. Of course objections were raised on both sides. Max's mother had been urging him to marry, but she hadn't bargained for a daughter-in-law from the Codfish Aristocracy. Cousin Mabel Kelling had screamed even louder and longer than the peacock when she'd learned that Sarah was perversely intent upon changing her name to Bittersohn. Sarah herself was only too glad to make the switch, she'd been a Kelling quite long enough.
Marrying Max had meant marrying his odd profession, Sarah had taken to it as avidly as the Public Gardens' ducks took to popcorn. The ongoing involvement that developed between the Bittersohns and the Wilkins was by no means their most lucrative account, but so far it had paid for their honeymoon, the furniture for their new house at Ireson's Landing, and the obstetricians' fees for their son Davy, now going on three years old and the image of his father. Thanks to Max's diligence and expertise, and Sarah's sound common sense, a goodly part of the loot from the longest-running art robbery Boston had ever known was back where the late Madam Wilkins had decreed that it must hang until her stuccoed walls should crumble to ruin and molder away in dust.
Naturally Max hadn't had the Wilkins project all to himself. Other art detectives had taken up the challenge, but sooner or later they'd dropped out of the hunt. The Wilkins Collection was too chancy a proposition, considering how long ago some of the best pieces must have been stolen and how relatively small the museum's commissions would be if anybody did succeed in getting anything back.
Max Bittersohn, a Boy Scout in his youth, had been prepared. Starting from scratch with a brand-new doctorate in fine arts, a keen mind, a hopeful disposition, and a reputation for clean dealing, he had built up not only a loyal clientele but also a widely distributed network of part-time secret agents. Most of these worked primarily for the thrill of the game. So, if the truth were told, did Max Bittersohn.
Until Sarah came into his life, Max had run his far-flung enterprise pretty much single-handed. Together, they had added to the network an inner cadre, beginning with a distant cousin of Sarah's. Brooks Kelling was an ornithologist, a photographer, a sometime entertainer at children's parties, and, at the time of his recruitment, an odd-job man at the Wilkins Museum.
Even as the Wilkins scandal was breaking all around them, Brooks had carried on a brief but tempestuous wooing, mostly by bird calls, with Sarah's most glamorous boarder, a gifted tea-leaf reader named Theonia Sorpende. Part gypsy, wholly the grande dame, Theonia Sorpende Kelling was especially effective at extracting stolen property from middle-aged gentlemen of elastic conscience and susceptible tendencies, of whom there was seldom any dearth. Theonia's methods were entirely respectable and comme il faut, a fact that usually dawned on her willing targets just a moment too late.
Another holdover from the boardinghouse days was Charles C. Charles, an actor generally disguised as a butler but ready to assume any other role his employers might happen to need him for at any given moment. The real mover and shaker of the household on historic Beacon Hill, though, was Mariposa, who'd been Sarah's dear friend ever since Sarah had declared her independence by firing her late mother-in-law's lazy, cantankerous, untrustworthy personal maid.
Lately the ménage had also acquired an apprentice. Sarah's cousin Lionel's eldest son Jesse, already skilled in acts of vandalism, pillage, and assorted rogueries at the age of seventeen and a bit, was being coached to steer his talents into legitimate channels and doing quite well, all things considered.
In theory, this unlikely assemblage of free spirits ought to have been a disaster; in practice it worked astonishingly well. Like other Beacon Hill houses of the early nineteenth century, the one that Sarah Kelling had inherited was not large, but it was tall. Counting the finished basement where Mariposa and Charles had their private quarters and Brooks his darkroom, there were five levels. Brooks and Theonia, as permanent caretakers, used the master suite. Sarah and Max reserved the third floor for such times as they wanted a pied-à-terre in the city, and Jesse had the attic all to himself.
The street floor had been designed for a drawing room, a smallish library, and a gracious dining room. In the days of coal fires and five-dollar-a-month housemaids, the kitchen had been in the basement. With the advent of gas stoves and electric lights, part of the dining room had been sliced off and turned into a small but adequate kitchen.
An office could have been squeezed in somewhere, but none was either needed or wanted. In its fledgling days, the one-man Bittersohn Detective Agency had rented a small office in a big building on Boston's Windy Corner at the junction of Boylston and Tremont streets. Some previous tenant had left a battered oak desk and an old-fashioned swivel chair; Max had never got around to changing them. He was seldom in the office anyway; nowadays it was more apt to be Brooks who occupied the swivel chair.
Brooks would not be in the office for the next week or so, however; nor would Theonia be trailing her lace-and-satin elegance down the curving staircase of the Tulip Street brownstone. The pair had taken Jesse with them on a training exercise that would include chasing down an elephant folio of Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, allegedly in near-mint condition, and a next-to-priceless flock of duck, goose, and snipe decoys hand-carved by the great-grandfather of a friend of Tweeters Arbuthnot's. The big treat would be a flight in Tweeters's seaplane to visit some auks of his acquaintance.
Tweeters had hoped that Sarah's Aunt Emma would join the auking party. He'd been performing tentative courtship rituals for the past year or so, but Emma was not getting the message. Instead, she'd kept telephoning Sarah, demanding to know why Tweeters couldn't take his mating instincts to some far-off haunt of coot and hern.
Sarah hadn't been able to offer much in the way of cheer or counsel, she'd had enough on her hands helping Max to set up a gest of his own.
One of Max's scouts in South America had sent word of a rancho grande in Argentina where there was a highly touted though quite possibly chimerical opportunity to recover two charming Watteau fêtes galantes that were still missing from the Wilkins Collection. Finally released from a long and tedious convalescence, too much a professional to ignore even the ghost of an inkling, Max had packed his bag, kissed his wife and child, and soared off into the blue.
Sarah had rejoiced to see her husband back on the job, though she wished he hadn't had to go so far away so soon. She also wished he'd been more specific about some of the things she'd be having to cope with during his absence, including this latest brainstorm of Percy's, whatever it might be. Max had mentioned it when he'd last telephoned from Argentina Thursday night; he'd suggested that Sarah might give Percy a buzz and see if she could figure out what the hell he was talking about.
She hadn't heard from Max since then, to her regret, but she'd heard plenty from Anne, who'd been acting, no doubt, on Percy's instructions. The gist seemed to be that Anne had been unofficially delegated by Percy to wheedle Cousin Sarah into going with them on Sunday to a luncheon at the Turbots' as Max's proxy. Just why had it been so important for her to alter her plans and come all this way to eat a boring meal with boring people and stare at a pastureful of large, ruddy beasts, when she might be missing a phone call from Max? What new machination did Percy have in mind?
It stood to reason that Percy Kelling would never have let himself be dragged out of his own armchair on a peaceful post-Labor Day weekend without some more powerful incentive than a bunch of bovines. Sarah had thought at first that this visit must have something to do with the Wilkins, but that was a bit unsubtle for Percy. One thing she was sure of, Elwyn Fleesom Turbot had to be one of Percy's absolute top-ranking clients. Even his polled Herefords were purported to be so highly pedigreed that it seemed like lèsemajesté to be partaking of one.
At least Mr. Turbot claimed that the beef now on the table had come from one of his own steers. There was no way to tell, as the meat had been cut up for what Sarah assumed was meant to be boeuf bourguignon. The fancy menu was of a piece with the too obviously interior-decorated dining room; that and the drawing room in which they'd had their aperitifs were all she'd seen of the house. These were quite enough.
On the whole, Sarah would have preferred to go back outdoors and hobnob with those handsome animals she'd watched lolling in lush green pasturage with their red-brown legs tucked under their snow-white chests and their jaws moving back and forth in placid rumination. They reminded her a little of George III.
So, now that she thought of it, did Elwyn Turbot. The resemblance had been quite marked when he'd stood out beside the pasture gate, contemplating his herd. His wife, however, showed not the slightest hint of resemblance to that shy, plain, docile little Charlotte Sophia who had dutifully borne His Bucolic Majesty fifteen children, dutifully shared the dull, rural life that farmer George had preferred to the not much livelier pomp and circumstance at court, and had dutifully kept her own counsel about the then-unknown disease that had gradually and sporadically driven Britain's beloved ruler, who was also his rebellious American subjects' allegedly baneful tyrant, into madness and ultimate death.
Bereft of the cows' company, Sarah tried to amuse herself by guessing Mrs. Turbot's age. Either Lala, as the others were addressing her although that was hardly likely to be her proper name, was at least twenty years younger than her sixtyish husband, or else she knew an awfully clever plastic surgeon. Her hostessing costume was stunning. The tight-fitting silk pants, the low-cowled satin blouse, the flowing chiffon kimono coat, all in shades of old gold and smoky amber, struck precisely the right note with her swept-back auburn mane and her greenish eyes, and must have cost old Elwyn a mint. The shoulder-length golden earrings, the heavy gold neck chains in various lengths, the armloads of golden bangles, the up-to-the-knuckles gold rings on all eight fingers and both thumbs were perhaps a bit much for a quiet day in the country, Sarah thought, out perhaps they helped to take Lala's mind off the Herefords.
Excerpted from The Odd Job by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1995 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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