When sisters Bernie and Libby Simmons agree to cater an extravagant Halloween party in their little town of Longely, New York, they figured a ghost or two and a bloodcurdling scream might be part of the menu, but they never expected to be haunted by the specter of murder.
Darius Witherspoon isn’t giving up on his plan for a catered costume party—despite the recent disappearance of his wife, Penelope. He may be heartbroken, but perhaps throwing a big shindig in her honor will boost his spirits. He hires Bernie and Libby to provide the treats. They’d prefer to avoid the festivities altogether, but as always, there are bills to be paid. And in the midst of the celebration, Darius is discovered hanging from a noose outside one of the ballroom’s French doors—with a note left behind that suggests this was not suicide. It’s up to Bernie and Libby to find out whodunit…
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“Recurring characters, especially the sisters’ widowed father, retired police chief Sean, add depth and humor.”—Publishers Weekly
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Third time's the charm, Darius Witherspoon told himself. He'd tried killing his wife twice before — once in Taos and once in Stowe — and all he'd gotten for his efforts was having to take his wife back and forth to her physical therapist when the cast on her ankle came off. But this time would be different. This time he was taking a more direct route.
He studied his hands. The long fingers. The carefully shaped nails. The signet ring. The activity he was about to embark on was not what his hands were meant for, but there came a time when you had to step things up a notch and do what you had to do. Heaven only knows, he'd tried everything else. He shook his head ruefully. He had never thought — not in his wildest dreams — that he'd be doing something like this. Funny the places life takes you.
After all, he had a BA from Penn and an MFA from Yale, he co-owned an art gallery on Madison Avenue and a one bedroom co-op on Park Avenue, yet here he was, getting ready to bash his wife's brains in. On top of everything else, the action was so ... so primal. So déclassé. So lacking in subtlety. In truth, he thought he'd be horrified by what he was about to do, by the up-close-and-personal nature of the operation. But he wasn't, not even a little bit. Okay, maybe he felt a tinge of remorse, the same tinge he'd felt that time in the jungle, but that was all it was — a tinge. Did that make him a bad person?
He knew he should feel something — anger, regret, horror — at what he was about to do, but he didn't, and that disturbed him more than the deed he was about to commit. Was he really a psychopath? He'd never thought of himself that way. After all, he gave money to the ASPCA and the Red Cross, he was kind to children and dogs, and he was understanding of rush hour subway delays.
No. This was Penelope's fault, Darius decided, trying to convince himself of that fact. If she'd kept her nose out of his business, if she'd left things alone, if she'd let him handle things the way he'd asked her to, if she hadn't talked to his partner behind his back, this wouldn't be happening.
He remembered how happy she'd been when he told her he'd bought a condo at the Berkshire Arms. Then that pain-in-the-ass friend of hers, Dorothy Evans, had gone and told her about what had happened at the Berkshire Arms before they did a full-scale renovation, and she'd flipped out. Said she wouldn't stay there, not even for a night. Said it was a bad luck place.
Darius smiled as he remembered how he'd convinced her that she was being ridiculous. That Dorothy was ridiculous. After all, this was a woman who wouldn't make an appointment before she'd consulted her astrologer. The place had been completely remodeled. It was a wonderful space, with a new kitchen and French windows that led onto a balcony that overlooked the Hudson.
Darius had reminded her that she'd been saying she wanted to get of out the city for years now. Well, this was her chance to have a second home, to explore Westchester. If they liked it, maybe he'd establish another gallery here in Longely or in Rhinecliff, or in one of the other communities that dotted the area, and they'd buy a house. Then he'd told her he'd let her furnish the condo the way she wanted — even with modern furniture — and that had sealed the deal.
If only Penelope hadn't been so damned nosy, Darius thought regretfully. If only she'd minded her own business. If only she hadn't kept reminding him how much he owed her. If only she hadn't threatened him, but she had. So here they were, in a situation he would rather have avoided — if possible.
Heaven only knows, he had given her plenty of hints, had even told her directly that he was working on a special project, and when the time came, he would tell her what it was. But she wouldn't take the hints, wouldn't go away. She always had to be right on top of him, always asking him whom he was talking to, where he was going, what he was doing.
It made him wonder if she wanted to know for a different reason, instead of out of sheer bloody- mindedness, as his father used to say. A couple of times he'd even caught her hanging up when he walked into the room. She'd had that guilty look she got on her face, which had made him start to wonder, and then he had started thinking about his partner. What a scum that man was. It wouldn't surprise him if he and his wife were scheming together to take the credit from him.
Darius was thinking about that when his thoughts were interrupted by his wife's oohing and aahing over the fall colors on the banks of the Hudson. God. That was the other thing about Penelope: why did she always have to be so damned effusive? Why couldn't she ever just say something was nice and get on with it?
Everything was such a big deal, and everything was spelled out in capital letters, Darius thought as he stood there contemplating the best angle to connect the pipe with her head. It required some thought since it was not as though he'd done this kind of thing before. It would have been so much better if she'd broken her neck falling off the ski trail instead of her ankle. But it was what it was, Darius thought as he got back to solving his current dilemma.
So should he aim for the top of Penelope's head? No. That wouldn't work. She was too tall, which would limit the pipe's impact. The side? No. She'd see him coming out of the corner of her eye, and he didn't want that. That would be horrible. The back of her skull? Yes. That was it. There'd be no sorrowful looks then, because she wouldn't know what hit her — literally.
It would be over before she could ask him, "Why? Why are you doing this to me?" in that irritatingly pitiful little girl voice of hers. His wife had no idea of what was to come. None. For which he was profoundly grateful. He rubbed his hands together, realized what he was doing, and stopped. This was better. More humane. He didn't want Penelope to suffer. After all, he wasn't a monster.
Darius took a deep breath and let it out. Then he took two more breaths. Be calm, he told himself. If you show any anxiety, she'll want to know what the problem is, how she can help. Not a discussion he was going to have. Actually, there wasn't a problem. Or, he thought, correcting himself, there wouldn't be soon. Darius took a fourth deep breath and looked around. It was indeed a gorgeous fall day, he thought. Penelope was right about that.
Most years the leaves on the trees along the Hudson River were down by October, but it had been an unusually long, warm fall, so they were still there glowing red and gold in the sun. It was, he decided, a good day to die — if you had to. His wife thought they were going on a romantic getaway. A thought that thrilled her. As far as she was concerned, all their differences had been reconciled. In her favor, of course.
Romantic? Now, that was funny coming from her. He looked at this woman, this woman with whom he had shared his bed for over thirty years, and he couldn't imagine why he'd ever found her attractive. If he ever had. Even back in the day she was big. She had big hands, big feet, a big nose, a big mouth, and a loud voice that trumpeted the rightness of her opinions.
She was one of those WASP women who rode horses and played tennis. There was nothing dainty about Penelope, nothing feminine. Not then and not now. Maybe he had married her because she was there when he decided he should get married, or maybe it was because she had led the kind of life he thought he wanted to live. That was probably the reason, he decided as Penelope turned toward the water and studied the scene in front of her.
"We should get a boat and sail down the Hudson," she said, smiling.
"A thirty-six-footer. Maybe we'll do it this summer," Penelope continued as she clasped her hands in front of her breasts. "Just the two of us. It'll be like the honeymoon we never had."
"That would be lovely, dear," Darius said, thinking that he'd rather be chained to a rock and have the birds peck out his eyes than spend a week on a boat with her.
Penelope turned toward her husband. Her eyes were brimming with tears of happiness, which just showed you how clueless his wife was, Darius thought as he patted her shoulder.
She took his hand in hers. "I'm so glad we could put all this nastiness behind us," she told him.
"Me too," Darius replied.
"For a while I was afraid that ... you know ..."
"No reason to be," Darius said, loosening his hand from his wife's grip. "We'll be together till death do us part." Then he pointed to a dirt path a couple of feet away that wove in and out of a copse of trees, and suggested they walk down that way so they could get closer to the river.
Penelope was only too glad to oblige. A mild wind blew off the river, bringing the slight briny scent of the water to her. Even though it was warm and sunny, no one was out on the river. It was, she reflected, too late in the season. All the boats were safely stowed away in dry dock. She watched the waves sparkling in the sunlight and listened to the ducks quacking as they paddled around in circles, while the seagulls squabbled overhead.
"Wait," Darius told his wife when they were almost at the river's edge. "I have a surprise for you."
Penelope let out a squeal of delight. "Oh, you shouldn't have!" "I want to," Darius told her, his voice conveying nothing but sincerity. "Now, cover your eyes and don't peek."
"I won't," Penelope said, thinking about how sweet Darius was. How cute he was to insist they sneak out of their Park Avenue building by the side door so no one could see them early that morning. In case anyone was following them, he had said, and she had giggled. Not that there would be. It was just a game she and Darius had played when they began dating. She hugged herself, adjusted her bag, then put her hands over her eyes. This was so exciting!
Maybe her husband was giving her one of the coins he insisted he hadn't found. He'd probably had it made into a necklace for her. She let out a sigh of happy anticipation. This was what it had been like when she and Darius had first gone out together, when they'd spent every moment they could together, when all they'd needed was each other. Everything was going to be all right, after all. She'd had her doubts, but now she was glad that for once she'd listened to her heart instead of her head.
And that was the last thought that Penelope had, because a moment later Darius Witherspoon picked up the length of lead pipe he had leaned up against the trunk of an oak tree and brought it down with as much force as he could manage on the back of his wife's head. There was a wet sound, a kind of a thunk. Penelope wobbled but remained upright. Darius brought the lead pipe down again. This time Penelope crumbled and fell to the ground.
Darius put the lead pipe down and stood over his wife. Then he leaned closer and studied her back. She didn't seem to be breathing. He walked around to the front and squatted down.
Her eyes stared back at him, conveying what? Surprise? Dismay? Darius wasn't sure.
He put his hand close to her mouth. He didn't feel her breath. He stayed like that for a minute just to make sure. Then he got up and brushed the leaves off of the knees of his corduroy pants.
The leaves crunched under his feet as he walked back to the tree he'd leaned the lead pipe up against to grab the dive weights he'd stashed there earlier in the day. He heard something. He froze as his heart began to knock inside his chest. Then he realized it was just a squirrel running through the fallen dried leaves on the ground.
He laughed at himself, picked up the square, flat pieces of iron, and walked back to his wife's body. He carefully placed the weights in the pocket of the skirt she was wearing. For a moment, he stood there questioning whether he should do that or not and then dismissed his doubt. The material the skirt was made out of would rot, and the dive weights would fall to the bottom of the river, and even if they didn't, it didn't matter. Given the situation, no one would question their presence, anyway.
They were just one more indication of Penelope's determination to kill herself à la Virginia Woolf. Hadn't she referred to Virginia Woolf's death at the dinner party they'd hosted last week in the city? Hadn't Penelope said she admired Virginia Woolf for weighting herself down with stones? That she admired the finality of her act?
Yes, indeed she had, Darius thought as he grabbed both of Penelope's arms and began dragging her toward the water. She was heavy, she weighed as much as he did, and it took him a while to get her down to the water's edge. Well, it seemed that way to Darius, but in reality it was less than two minutes. When he got to the edge of the riverbank, he rolled Penelope into the Hudson. The ducks squawked indignantly and flew away.
"Good-bye," Darius said to Penelope as he watched her floating in the water, her body bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the waves. He waved. "Adieu. Adios. It hasn't been fun."
For a moment, Darius was afraid that the current would tangle Penelope up in the tree branch that was arching out into the water, but then she began to sink. Little by little, she became less visible.
From what Darius had learned in his research, it would be springtime before the river threw her back up from the bottom. At the minimum. Plenty of time to be eaten by the fish. Or, even better, she might stay down there forever. As he walked back up the riverbank, he rehearsed his call to the New York City police about his missing, suicidal wife. No, he'd just gotten back from Longely and found his wife gone. No, he was absolutely sure she hadn't gone out shopping. No, she wasn't with any of her friends. Yes, he was very concerned, because she had been very depressed lately. Very depressed. Could he please file a report?
And then he thought about the masked costume party he was throwing in the common room of the Berkshire Arms on Halloween Eve, the one that was being catered by Libby and Bernie Simmons. Given the circumstances, they'd probably offer to refund his money, but he would look away, with tears in his eyes, and say, "No, but thank you, anyway. This was my wife's favorite holiday...." Sniff. "And I want to carry on with it in her honor."
Then Halloween Eve would arrive. He'd smile and be charming — with just the right tinge of sadness, of course — and everyone at the party would pat him on the shoulder and murmur to their partners about how brave Darius was being, given his wife's disappearance. How well he was holding up under the stress. How unfortunate the situation was.
Darius grinned. Everything was going perfectly. He believed in advanced planning, he believed in thinking before acting, and in this case, it had definitely paid off. Now that he'd solved his most pressing problem, he really did have something to celebrate.
At least, that was what he told himself as he locked away the small screaming voice inside his head, the voice telling him to leave. Because he couldn't leave. Not now. Not when he'd made the discovery of a lifetime, a discovery that was going to make him rich and famous. Everyone had laughed at him. Told him he was crazy. Well, they wouldn't be laughing soon.
Three weeks later ...
Darius Witherspoon walked through the door of A Little Taste of Heaven for the last time six hours before the start of his Halloween Eve party. He didn't have too much longer to live, but of course, he didn't know that then. If he had, perhaps he would have conducted himself differently.
It was a little after four in the afternoon, the sun was setting, and the crows were flying home to roost. A cold wind had sprung up out of the north. The dried leaves on the sidewalk skittered and crunched under his feet like small bones, but Darius didn't notice. Nor did he notice the plastic bats lurking in the dwarf evergreens in the planters outside the shop, or the zombie mannequins in the shop window, or the moms and kids in front of the counter, clamoring for ghost-shaped sugar cookies and devil's food cupcakes, as he elbowed his way through the crowd.
Excerpted from "A Catered Costume Party"
Copyright © 2017 Isis Crawford.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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