Read an Excerpt
The Palace Guard
A Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
The burst of well-bred applause dwindled to a spattering of claps from the young cellist's more dedicated relatives, then was drowned altogether in the scraping of chairs. The tourists moved toward the exit at the rear of the concert hall. The cognoscenti pressed forward into the Tintoretto Room, to partake of white wine and cheese, say nice things to the musicians, and dodge candle drippings from Madam Eugenia Wilkins's famous cinquecento chandeliers.
Mr. Max Bittersohn, distinguished young art expert, seized the elbow of his remarkably attractive young landlady, Mrs. Sarah Kelling of the Beacon Hill Kellings. "Let's get the hell out of this," he hissed. "That kid who's been slaughtering Boccherini has more sisters and cousins and aunts than a chorus line from Pinafore."
Sarah, who had been brought up in a sterner school, demurred. "We mustn't leave without at least speaking to your friend Mr. Fieringer. You know he's always heartbroken if you don't say something about his latest genius."
"What's to say? Okay, then, come out on the balcony till the crowd thins a little."
"I did think the pianist managed beautifully, all things considered."
"Yes, old Bernie's a damn fine musician still, on the rare occasions when he can find his way to the piano. I wonder how Nick managed to keep him sober for the occasion."
"Heavens, what an impresario must go through," Sarah rested her dainty forearms on the carved marble balustrade and looked down at the enclosed courtyard, now massed with spring flowers for Eastertide or, as in Mr. Bittersohn's case, Passover. "Look, isn't this fantastic?"
On January 1, 1903, Eugenia Callista Wilkins, widow of a railroad baron, had attended the opening of Fenway Court, better known to Boston as Mrs. Jack Gardner's Palace. Seething with what she told herself was scorn, she vowed to show Mrs. Jack how it should have been done. She had then followed the other woman's example by sailing for Europe with her own tame art expert in tow, loaded a Cunarder's hold with an even bigger and more ill-assorted collection of art treasures true and false, come home and built an even more pretentious palazzo on the picturesque banks of the romantic Muddy River, and there arranged her purchases in even wilder confusion.
Mrs. Wilkins had explained to the dumbfounded architect that her indoor garden must have a waterfall full three stories high to plash down over a series of marble basins into a lily pool stocked with exotic fishes. She would have even more flower beds than Mrs. Jack, to be kept ever blooming with stock from even more greenhouses. She would have mosaic walks alleged to have been spirited away during the restoration of Herculaneum and she would have real, live white peacocks fanning their spectacular tails hither and yon as the spirit moved them.
In practice, the peacocks were more apt to be molting, committing nuisances on the mosaics, pecking fretfully at the ankles of visitors, or coming down with various avian ailments and having to be rushed to the Angell Memorial Hospital for treatment. Despite their perverse behavior, though, Mrs. Wilkins's palazzo was generally conceded to be quite a place, even for Boston.
The Kellings, being among Old Boston's richest, most prolific, and sometimes most respected families, had attended the 1911 opening in droves. It was upon that historic occasion that a then Mrs. Alexander Kelling had observed with that tact and courtesy for which the Kellings were noted that the place looked less like an Italian palazzo than a Babylonian bordello. Some other wit had immediately started calling Mrs. Wilkins the Madam, and the name stuck. Making the best of a bad business, Eugenia Callista had thenceforth ordered her visiting cards engraved "Madam Wilkins" but she had never left one on a Kelling.
Even after she died and bequeathed her estate to the city as a museum, therefore, the Kellings had stayed away from the Madam's. It was with an agreeable feeling of tasting forbidden fruit that Sarah gazed down at a molting peacock. For some reason the courtyard was quite empty at the moment except for the birds, the fish in the lily pond, and a bored-looking guard leaning against a pillar. The babble from the Tintoretto Room sounded pleasantly far away. The early April sun slanted down through the vast skylights. Sarah blinked and yawned.
Bittersohn smiled down at her. "Sleepy, Mrs. Kelling?"
They were still on last-name terms as befitted a lady five months widowed and a gentleman who had been lodging with her only since January, but somehow Mr. Bittersohn had developed a way of saying "Mrs. Kelling" that made Sarah feel her unmarried status. And he did seem to get a great many free passes to concerts and plays that he thought perhaps she'd like to attend with him if she had nothing better to do and somehow she never did have. It was rather fun to go places after the austere life she'd lived with a husband more than twice her age, and Alexander himself would have been the last person in the world to think she should let a free pass go to waste. So even though this hadn't been a good concert, she smiled back.
"It's that warm sun, and the smell of the flowers. This really is a delightful place. I do wonder, though, why the Madam thought it would be more cultured to put such hard chairs in the music—look!"
Something large and dark hurtled past them, to crash among the pink and purple hyacinths two stories below. A peacock and a guard screamed together. Bittersohn was down the marble staircase before the echoes died.
Sarah rushed after him as fast as her high heels and clinging skirt would let her. She could see the crumpled thing in the garden now. It was one of the palazzo's guards, his green uniform looking strangely harmonious with the green foliage. The courtyard guard was sweating, frantic, putting up a valiant single-handed battle to keep back the crowd that had appeared where nobody had been a moment before.
"Stand back, please," he was shouting. "Sir, you can't—"
"I'm a doctor," said Bittersohn. Actually his doctorate was in fine arts, but it did the trick. Spectators fell back. The guard breathed a sigh of relief. Bittersohn bent over the body.
"Fractured skull and a broken neck," he pronounced. "Who is he, do you know?"
"Sure." The live guard wet his lips. "I'd know him just from the shabby uniform. That's Joe Witherspoon, oldest guy in the place. Been here since Curley was mayor."
"Then how come he didn't know enough to stay away from the railings?" cracked some bright soul in the crowd.
The guard shook his head. "Beats me. Joe shouldn't have been out on the balcony at all. His station's in the Titian Room, on the third floor. Long way for an old man to climb, but Joe wouldn't change. I'm surprised he'd leave his girl friend alone for a minute with so many visitors around today."
"What do you mean, leave his girl friend?" asked Bittersohn.
The guard emitted a snort of embarrassed laughter. "That's what we call the big Titian, the 'Rape of Lucrece.' We always kid Joe about being soft on Lucrece, see? Used to, I mean."
By now several other guards had arrived and the first one eased himself away from the body. "Between you and me, Doctor, I think Joe was kind of soft in more ways than one. Ask the guys here."
The guys didn't seem inclined to answer, so the spokesman went on. "See, we've got this locker room down in the basement, where we keep our stuff and maybe grab a smoke during our coffee breaks. So I go down yesterday afternoon and I see Joe sitting there with his head in his hands, not saying anything. I think maybe he's taking a little nap sitting up like people do, so I have my coffee and rest my feet awhile. Then my time's up, so I go to leave, but Joe's still sitting. So I say, 'What's the matter, Joe? How come you're not in a rush to get back to your girl friend?' So he says, 'That's not her any more. She ain't the same. She's gone.' Now, does that make any sense to you?"
To an art expert whose specialty was thefts and forgeries it made all the sense in the world. "Is the picture different in any way?" Bittersohn inquired mildly.
"Of course it isn't. I went up and took a look for myself."
"You feel you know the Titian well enough to spot any alteration?"
"Well, sure, I've covered for Joe enough times. Besides, it's the kind of picture a guy really looks at, if you get me."
"I get you. Why don't you go and find out whether the police have been called? Tell the guard at the door not to let anybody in or out till they get here. The police will want to ask a few questions, no doubt." Bittersohn surveyed the crowd, now swelled by the influx from the Tintoretto Room. "Good luck to them."
He stood up and looked around for Sarah, who managed to wriggle her way to his side. "Do you think there's something fishy about this?" she murmured.
"I don't know. It seems an odd sort of accident for a guard to have, unless he leaned over to get a look at something down here and lost his balance. He was old, he might have had dizzy spells."
"But there was nothing to see, particularly. Don't you recall how empty the garden was just then? He fell from right over our heads, so he wouldn't have seen anything we didn't."
"That's true. But he screamed or something, didn't he?"
"No, I think that was the peacock. And this other guard yelled at the same time. I don't believe Witherspoon made any sound at all."
The courtyard guard corroborated Sarah's observation. He hadn't actually seen Joe come over the balustrade, but he'd looked up when the peacock screamed and seen the body hit the ground. He probably had yelled something or other. He didn't remember hearing Joe make any sound. That didn't surprise him. Joe had never been much of a talker.
"Come on, Mrs. Kelling." Bittersohn appeared by now to have acquired quasi-official status. At any rate, while the guards were blocking anybody else from going upstairs, they didn't try to stop him and Sarah. There were still a few people straggling down from the Tintoretto Room, but by the time the two approached the third floor, they had the broad marble staircase to themselves. Even the second-floor guards had left their stations to help control the melee in the courtyard.
"What a time to pull a snatch," Bittersohn remarked. "Not one damn thing being watched. No, by George, I'm wrong. The boy's still on the burning deck."
"Who?" Glad of a chance to pause and catch her breath, Sarah looked around. "Oh, you mean that cute little guard over there under the fake Romney. Why, it's Cousin Brooks!"
She darted across the vast foyer that Madam Wilkins had dubbed the Grand Salon and filled with sedan chairs and suits of armor that couldn't possibly have ever fit anyone. "Cousin Brooks, whatever are you doing here?"
"Good afternoon, Sarah." The elderly man greeted her warmly without relaxing his vigil a jot. "How nice you look in that blue outfit. I always liked it on your mother. You're growing into a very pretty young lady."
"About time, don't you think? I'll be twenty-seven next month."
"Good heavens. And Jem tells me you've turned your place into a boardinghouse. I was sorry about poor Alex. Can't remember if I ever got around to telling you so."
"Yes, you wrote a lovely letter. From South Dakota, I believe it was. You were lecturing on your Indian relics."
"So I was. Now I'm doing programs of bird calls at children's parties. In case—er—" He looked questioningly at Bittersohn.
Sarah blushed. "Oh, I beg your pardon. This is one of my boarders, Mr. Max Bittersohn. Brooks is another Kelling, needless to say, and I can't remember how we're related and I haven't the faintest idea what he's doing here."
"We're fourth cousins twice removed and I'm obliging a lady friend. Did you say Bittersohn, sir?"
"I didn't but she did, and I am."
"Not the Max Bittersohn who tracked down old Thaddeus's Corots for him? I knew I'd met you somewhere. I was your prime suspect for a while, wasn't I? Delighted to see you again, sir." Brooks pumped Bittersohn's hand as enthusiastically as if they'd been old lodge buddies. "Dash it, sir, this is the pleasantest surprise I've had since I spotted a Hudsonian godwit flying over the Hatch Memorial Shell just two degrees northeast of Harry Ellis Dickson. May I make so bold as to ask whether you're on my trail again? Has there been hugger-mugger among the Murillos?"
"Damned if I know." Bittersohn was enjoying the reunion, too. "All I can tell you is that a guard named Joe Witherspoon took a header off the balcony about three minutes ago and landed in the hyacinths. Know anything about it?"
"So that's what all that commotion in the courtyard is about. I've been wondering."
"Haven't you gone to look?"
"Certainly not. How would I know the diversion was not deliberately staged to lure me from my appointed post? I knew Witherspoon, of course. He ought to have been in the Titian Room, over there." Kelling pointed across the Grand Salon. "What was he doing on the balcony?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
"Believe me, sir, I should be proud and happy to assist you were it in my power. I last saw Joe when I came on duty just before the museum opened, which is at one o'clock on Sundays as you perhaps know. I stuck my head in to explain that I was taking the place of Jimmy Agnew, who would normally be here today. Joe seemed his usual self then."
"You didn't see him come out of the Titian Room?"
"I did not. My view, as you can see for yourself, is obscured by the presence of all those ratty old broken-down sedan chairs Mrs. Wilkins saw fit to clutter the place up with."
"Did he look depressed when you spoke with him?"
"Joe always looked depressed."
"Did he happen to mention the big Titian? Did he tell you there was something wrong with it?"
"Sir," said Brooks Kelling warmly, "there's nothing wrong with 'Lucrece.' My one poignant and burning regret is that I've never met one built like her, else I should not be a lonely bachelor today. Had Joe made any such remark I should have refuted it with some heat, but he didn't. He didn't say much of anything to me. If he talked to anyone, it would have been more apt to be Brown, who's supposed to prowl about the corridors looking magisterial. Brown should have seen Joe fall if any of us did." He raised his voice. "Brown? Brown?"
"Perhaps he's gone downstairs," Sarah suggested. "Or, wait, someone's coming now."
"That's not Brown," said her cousin fretfully as another guard threaded his way among the sedan chairs. "That's Vieuxchamp and he ought to be back with the Uccellos. What are you doing away from your station, Vieuxchamp?"
"Relax, Kelling. Nobody's left on this floor and the police aren't letting anybody up. Who's this, and why are you yelling for Brownie?"
"This is Mr. Bittersohn and he wants to ask Brown who shoved Joe Witherspoon over the balustrade."
"Shoved? Christ, I never thought of that." Vieuxchamp wheeled and headed for one of the archways. "I'll search the corridors. You look in the chapel. Brownie? Hey, Brownie!"CHAPTER 2
It was Sarah who found the missing guard. He was flat out under a twelfth-century choir stall with his eyes closed, moaning softly. Cousin Brooks whipped out an ammonia ampul and crushed it under the man's nose. Brown choked, spluttered, and tried to sit up, but he was a fat man and too tightly wedged in. Brooks and Max Bittersohn had to move the massive carved oaken bench to get him out. Vieuxchamp, who claimed to have a double hernia, contributed to the effort only insofar as to demand, "How the hell did you manage to get stuck under there?"
"I don't know," Brown replied woozily. "I was making my rounds like always and somebody jumped me. Is anything missing?"
"Yeah, Joe Witherspoon. He went over the balcony and busted his skull open. Brains all over the courtyard," Vieuxchamp added with what Sarah thought was decidedly misplaced enthusiasm.
"You don't say! What'd Joe do, take a dizzy spell or—oh." Brown clambered to his feet. "I get it."
The chapel was lighted only by a rack of votive candles. It took the others a moment to spot the jumble of church silver lying beside the altar.
"Look at that, will you? They were trying to steal the silver. I came along and they slugged me and shoved me under the pew. Joe heard the noise and came to see what was happening, so they pitched him over the balustrade to shut him up. Then they realized what they'd done and decided they'd better scram without the loot."
"That doesn't sound awfully reasonable to me," Sarah said. "Why would anybody take all those bulky chalices and whatnot in broad daylight with the place full of visitors? They might have known they'd never get away with it."
"They melt it down."
Excerpted from The Palace Guard by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1981 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.