After Meg Barrett found her fiancé still had designs on his ex-wife, she decided it was time to refurbish her life. Leaving her glamorous job at a top home and garden magazine, she fled Manhattan for Montauk, only to find decorating can sometimes lead to detecting…
In between scouring estate sales for her new interior design business, Cottages by the Sea, Meg visits the swanky East Hampton home of her old college roommate, Jillian Spenser. But instead of seeing how the other half lives—she learns how the other half dies. Jillian’s mother, known as the Queen Mother of the Hamptons, has been murdered. Someone has staged a coup.
When she helps a friend inventory the Spensers’ estate for the insurance company, Meg finds herself right in the thick of things. Cataloging valuable antiques and art loses its charm when Meg discovers that the Spenser family has been hiding dangerous secrets, which may have furnished a murderer with a motive. As Meg gets closer to the truth, the killer will do anything to paint her out of the picture…
FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
About the Author
Vanessa Daniels has worked as a professional actress in theater, film, TV, commercials, and voice-over for almost two decades. She holds a BFA in drama from New York University and is a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors' Equity Association.
Read an Excerpt
It seems I’m always at the wrong end of the stick. The pointy end. The one you can’t see until you trip over it and it pokes your eye out, or worse yet, your heart. I got the flat tire at the intersection of Old Montauk Highway and Route 27. Earlier, my spirits had scaled the upper limits of antique-picker heaven. Now I’d be late, and Caroline Spenser would never tolerate lateness.
My rescuer came in the form of a PSEG power grid worker in a cable truck. When I offered him my last ten-dollar bill for a job well done, he refused and said, “But I’ll take that woody golf club in the back of your Jeep.”
I’d scavenged the club the day before from the front of the demolished Tiki Motel, along with a set of what I prayed were ivory mah-jongg tiles hidden in a moldy suitcase.
“Well, if you’re ever on the lookout for any more clubs, give me a call.” I handed him my business card.
“‘Meg Barrett, Cottages by the Sea,’” he said, reading the card. “What are you, some kind of home builder?”
“No, more like a nest builder. Sorry, I have to run. I’m sooo late.” I glanced at his ring finger. Darn. It would be nice to meet someone with the same collecting bug I had, instead of the cheating jerk I’d been engaged to who hated all things old. The only thing Michael and I had in common was Jeopardy! and an obsession with home décor magazines—he loved minimalist modern and I was more of a vintage upcyled-trash gal.
At the sight of the East Hampton windmill, my pulse quickened. Only a few rain-drenched souls trudged along Main Street. It was March, but come June, the beautiful people would descend and the east end of Long Island would morph into the American Riviera, double-cheeked air kisses on every corner and celebrities in every café. National Geographic voted East Hampton “America’s Most Beautiful Village,” and it was easy to see why, with its clean, tree-shaded streets and quaint storefronts.
When I veered left onto a narrow blacktop lane, I got occasional peeks at mammoth estates hidden behind tall privet hedges. My palms itched, forecasting good things around the corner—or disaster. I hoped the flat tire wasn’t an omen for my upcoming appointment. After all, it was just a casual meeting with one of the most important antique and art collectors in the Hamptons, scratch that, Long Island, scratch that, the entire East Coast. Now I was really nervous.
The road dead-ended at Seacliff, the Spensers’ estate. I passed through open iron gates and followed a long, curving driveway. Poplars, even without their foliage, guided me toward a jaw-dropping Greek Revival manor house set on a bluff overlooking a tremulous Atlantic. Once upon a time, Seacliff had been the nineteenth-century summer “cottage” of industrialist and robber baron Thaddeus Spenser. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, Seacliff was rumored to be the prototype for the Vanderbilts’ castle, Marble House, in Newport. Even against the dark-shrouded sky, its largeness and whiteness took my breath away.
Caroline Spenser was Seacliff’s twenty-first-century occupant, a former London socialite and fine art connoisseur with bloodlines to the Queen of England, hence her nickname, “Queen Mother of the Hamptons.” Caroline, now widowed, had married Charles Spenser, our very own American royalty. She lived alone with her daughter, Jillian, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Jillian and I ran into each other on Thursday, at the library in East Hampton. We’d only been roomies at NYU for a semester. My schedule left us little time to bond. I was a teaching assistant for the head of the journalism school during the day, and a waitress at a dive bar in Greenwich Village at night. When I had hung out with Jillian, she’d seemed introverted, always seeking others’ approval. Never had an opinion of her own. An odd duck. I chalked it up to her privileged upbringing. But it was thanks to her that I was allowed a short viewing this morning with her mother, the Queen, to discuss a business proposition that might give my fledgling interior design firm a much-needed shot in the arm.
I parked next to a boxwood maze and went up the wide marble steps. Under the sweeping portico, I pressed the button for the intercom. No response. Had I gotten it wrong? Was my appointment for next Saturday? Maybe I was too small a fish to fry, a minnow, a tadpole—oops, that’s an amphibian. Time to get a grip. This wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo. Actually, I’d never been to a rodeo, but I’d dealt with the snobby upper crust before. They weren’t any better than me. Then I thought about yesterday’s cocktail party. And the underwear.
I rang the buzzer again. With one last effort, I raised the brass knocker and let it thud against the door. To my surprise, the door groaned slowly inward.
“Hellooo, anyone home?” I stepped inside. The cathedral-ceilinged foyer had pale marble floors, dark early American furniture, and artwork even a first grader would recognize. I was admiring an enameled vase the size of my Jeep Wrangler when a sound came from behind the staircase.
I tiptoed toward it. Prickles of sweat formed on my upper lip.
Then I found them.
Jillian Spenser sat on the floor, rocking her mother’s limp body. Caroline’s mouth gaped open, oozing a pinkish froth. Her nightgown was a study in crimson—a macabre Jackson Pollock painting.
I skated across the blood-slicked marble and got down on my knees, gagging on the stench. “Jillian! What happened?” My father liked to recount tales of grisly homicides from his days in the Detroit PD, but he’d never warned me blood had such a sweet, sick odor.
Jillian pulled away when I tried to embrace her, cradling her mother closer. I felt Caroline’s wrist for a pulse but couldn’t find one. I crawled to the next room so Jillian wouldn’t hear my call, dialed 911 on my cell phone, then vomited into a Ming Dynasty vase.
When I returned to the hallway, I said, “Let’s go outside and wait.” I was worried Caroline’s killer might still be inside. “Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.” Who am I kidding?
Jillian wasn’t about to let go of her mother’s body. She mumbled, “Col . . .”
I draped my jacket on her quaking shoulders and noticed a lump on the back of her head. Jillian stuttered, “Col . . .” one last time then transferred her glassy stare to a nearby closet door.
Taking my best Charlie’s Angels stance, I twisted the knob to the closet and pulled. My feet gave way and my tailbone hit marble just as the front door opened and a sea of law enforcement rushed in.
Two hours later, I was seated in an East Hampton patrol car. A young policeman, his face shielded by a hat, sat next to me entering data into his tablet. The estate around us buzzed. There were no sirens or flashing lights. Even in the off-season, the police were careful of making a spectacle of themselves in the prestigious Hamptons community.
“You okay?” the officer asked.
No, I’m not okay and never will be again. All that came out was a hiccup that sounded more like a beer belch.
Caroline Spenser’s body remained inside. The paramedics carried Jillian out the front door, her thin body wrapped papoose-style in a navy blanket. Before she disappeared inside the ambulance, Jillian’s pleading eyes found mine. I’d let her down.
After the ambulance pulled away, the officer extended a well-muscled arm. His smile revealed chalk-white teeth—a welcome contrast to the gruff Detective Shoner I’d met inside. “I’m Officer Bach.”
“Where to, Ms. Barrett?”
I pointed to a bumper sticker on the back of my Jeep that read, MONTAUK—THE END, referring to the town’s location on Long Island.
Up until this morning, I’d always thought of Montauk as the beginning.
“Can’t I take my car?”
“Evidence. Needs to be processed.”
Officer Bach put his tablet in the backseat and we pulled away from the estate. After a few wasted attempts at chitchat, we continued in silence. In Amagansett, undulating sand dunes played peekaboo with the ocean. The Seafood Shanty, a shell of its former self, was covered in plywood and hidden behind scraggly beach grass. In a few months, cars would line both sides of the highway for a chance to sample the Shanty’s pricey lobster roll. Delicious, but three bites later you were done. I’d discovered better places to score fresh seafood without breaking the bank.
When we reached Montauk, I exhaled. Even though the small town was only a short distance from East Hampton, it felt like I was miles from civilization. Montauk was the un-Hampton. Unpretentious and untamed.
We passed the IGA, the only full-service grocery store in town, which stocked my basics: milk, bread, and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. After what I’d just seen at the Spenser estate, the thought of food, even Super Fudge Chunk, made me queasy. I closed my eyes and thought back to my first trip to Montauk. I knew I was home when I saw a sun-faded sign in a restaurant window—HELP WANTED—PIANO PLAYER WHO CAN SHUCK CLAMS.
Officer Bach left me at my door. I walked in and dropped my keys and cell phone into a yellowware bowl—a thank-you from decorating guru Molly McPherson after I worked with her in my former life on an American Home and Garden magazine spread. Like Molly, Caroline Spenser had a grand passion for collecting. Did that passion have anything to do with her murder?
At the French doors I looked out at the beautiful seascape and thought back to Thursday, when I saw Jillian Spenser at the East Hampton Library. It had been so long since we’d shared a dorm room, that to be perfectly honest, the only time I thought of her was when I read an article in Dave’s Hamptons about her mother, Caroline, and her legendary collections.
After I’d filled Jillian in with the reason I moved to Montauk, she asked, “Are you sure your fiancé was cheating?”
“Sure enough to leave Manhattan with a packed U-Haul of ‘vintage crap,’ as Michael called it, and move to the easternmost tip of Long Island.”
“Oh, Meg, you’re so hot, you’ll have no problem finding a guy. Mother’s having one of her cocktail parties tomorrow. I’d love for you to come. She’s invited her usual stable of men. Hopefully they’ll swarm around you and leave me alone.”
I accepted, thinking of all the advantages of rubbing elbows with Jillian’s mother and her elite group of friends. It would be the perfect opportunity to pass out my Cottages by the Sea business cards. Only I, woman of big cojones and little capital, would try to erect an interior design business in the glitzy Hamptons.
Initially, the cocktail party had been a disappointment until Jillian’s mother had stopped at the bottom of a flight of steps leading to a fourth-floor attic and mentioned in her perfect snooty English accent that it was filled with artifacts from her deceased husband’s family, a family that had been one of East Hampton’s first. Attics were my number one fantasy, right behind a date with my latest movie-star crush or a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket. Not necessarily in that order. On my way out, I handed Caroline Spenser my business card. She gave me a disgusted look and said in front of the entire line of guests waiting to say their good-byes, “What’s that sticking out from the back hem of your skirt?” I turned and saw something ecru. Not toilet paper. No. Something much worse. I tugged and out came a huge pair of underwear. Granny panties. Not mine. The static from my Lycra skirt must’ve picked up someone’s stray from the commercial dryer at the Wash n Dri. Any chance I had of her calling flew out the door with me.
So I was floored when Jillian phoned later that night to tell me her mother wanted to hire me—not to decorate the thirty-four-room, fifteen-thousand-square-foot mansion, but to separate the worthy from the undesirable in the attic.
* * *
Now I shuddered, thinking of how it had all gone so terribly wrong. The carnage I’d just witnessed seemed surreal. I held back my gag reflex for the hundredth time and instinctively picked up the phone and called Elle. Elle Warner was also an American Home and Garden magazine alumnus. She recently quit as antiques and collectibles editor, much to the managing editor’s, aka my former fiancé Michael’s, dismay. Go, Elle! She now owned a packed-to-the-rafters antique shop in nearby Sag Harbor, which she inherited from her great-aunt.
“Mabel and Elle’s Curiosities, your junk’s our treasure,” Elle answered.
“Thank God you’re there.”
“Whatzzz up, cheeky monkey?”
“Just went to the Spenser Estate . . .”
“And you found an unsigned Monet and they told you to keep it because they have gazillions of dollars?”
“Not exactly. There’s, um . . . There’s been a murder.”
“Bloody hell. Bugger! A murder! Whose?”
“What’s with the UK slang?”
“I was practicing for my first meeting with Her Highness.”
“Well, I don’t think that will be happening too soon. Caroline Spenser is the one who was murdered.”
“The Queen Mother of the Hamptons? Oh my God! Are you okay?”
Elle knew about my appointment at the Spenser estate and had even planned to help me go through the contents of the attic.
I described my interrogation with Detective Shoner, from the East Hampton Town Police Department, followed by an hour of questioning by the chief of homicide from Suffolk County, not to mention four escorted trips to the bathroom. I told her I would call later with the details once I’d digested the morning’s horrors.
I lit a fire in the flagstone fireplace and grabbed a bottle of water from my vintage turquoise “icebox,” as my rental agent and friend, Barb, called it. My cottage was Montauk’s last four-room 1930s holdout, located directly on the ocean. It was slated to be torn down when my two-year lease ran out. Apparently, the owner’s architect wasn’t available until then. Wish I could say my Cottages by the Sea business was booked that far ahead.
I loved the cottage’s simplicity. The main floor contained a vintage kitchen and great room with wide wood-plank floors, a fireplace, and three-sided ocean views. Upstairs were a bedroom and a bathroom. The bedroom had an attic ceiling and tiny Juliet balcony. An old claw-foot tub was the star of the small bathroom and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten it up the narrow staircase.
Up until now, I’d always felt safe and secure in my tiny haven. I had a goose bump premonition that all was going to change. I took ten steps from the kitchen to the sofa and dissolved into the down cushions.
A shrill cry and thump, thump, thump startled me awake. The first thing I thought of was Caroline Spenser’s corpse.
Outside noises didn’t usually bother me, but I’d breached the first rule in hearing aid etiquette when I’d dozed off wearing my hearing aids. Luckily I’d fallen asleep on my back. If I’d turned on my side, the feedback would have been earsplitting.
I grabbed my coat and stepped onto the wood landing that overlooked the beach. Arctic wind sandpapered my face. Next to me, a mottled seagull shrieked in frustration as he smacked a crab carcass against the railing.
“Keep it down, buddy!”
The gull glanced over with a get a life look, then took off.
He could be right.
On the east side of my cottage was a nature preserve, and on the west, a large, modern cottage. My neighbor was a summer occupant. Usually I loved having the beach to myself in the off-season. Not tonight. The large wet snowflakes that hit my cheeks didn’t add comfort to my newfound feeling of isolation. I turned to go back inside, but a flicker of light on the beach stopped me. The lantern he held highlighted his tall dark form. I watched as he headed east toward the lighthouse then crept down to the water’s edge.
The wind whistled in and out of my hearing aids, adding a spooky soundtrack to the barren beach, and my macabre thoughts recalled Caroline Spenser’s bludgeoned form. But that didn’t stop me from trekking to the other side of the nature preserve.
I looked at the dark cottage on top of the cliff. It belonged to Patrick Seaton, a bestselling author of corporate thrillers. He’d moved to Montauk after the death of his wife and young child. Montauk’s celebrity recluse. We’d never been introduced, but his solitary figure could be seen most every night, walking the shore.
Occasionally, Patrick Seaton left a few lines of classical poetry etched on the beach in front of his cottage.
I swept my flashlight like a metal detector across the sand.
But didn’t find any gold.
For obvious reasons, I’d had a hard time falling asleep Saturday night. I’d spent most of Sunday morning waiting in line at an estate sale, which had netted me a big fat zero because I’d slept too late and arrived at nine instead of six thirty. My fellow compatriots had beaten me to the spoils and I didn’t care, because all I could think about was Caroline Spenser. Her murder was plastered all over the newspapers, and when I came back to my cottage Sunday afternoon, every TV news channel had footage of the Queen of the Hamptons’ death. I was happy to see a clip of Jillian arriving home from Southampton Hospital, proving she hadn’t suffered any physical damage. I could only imagine the psychological.
Monday was my designated morning to meet Doc for breakfast. A way for his buddy, aka my ex-cop father, to keep tabs on me.
“Hey, you started without me!”
Doc Heckler’s tall egret frame was perched on a red vinyl–and-chrome stool at the counter of Paddy’s Pancake House. The pancake house was packed with year-rounders. I was pretty sure the décor hadn’t changed in forty years, evidenced by the black-and-white photos that lined the walls and the speckled gray Formica counter that ran the length of the room.
“Didn’t think you’d show up. You’re ten minutes late.” A strand of Swiss cheese yo-yoed from Doc’s trim white beard.
I took the stool next to him. “Everything’s in slo-mo since Saturday.”
Doc Heckler went to the same police academy as my father, but they parted ways when Doc went on to med school to become a Wayne County medical examiner. He’d recently purchased a small cabin on Lake Montauk with the goal of honing skill at sportfishing.
“Have anything to do with the murder in East Hampton?” The brightness of his eyes dropped a notch. Doc wasn’t anything like TV coroners, with their wisecracking quips, sandwich in one hand, bone saw in the other; he literally heaved before and after each autopsy, not because of the gore, but because he cared about his patients. If he had to do it over again, Doc said he’d be an obstetrician—“Bring ’em in whole, instead of tearing them apart.”
After filling Doc’s cup, Rose, Paddy’s wife, left a carafe in front of us with a sticker that read, “Leaded.” I pointed to “eggs benedict” on the menu. Wordlessly, she jotted my order on her pad and walked away.
I filled my cup and added milk. “How did you first hear about the murder?”
“I heard on the police scanner they’re calling in everyone they can to catch this monster. I was going to head out and see if I can be of any help.”
“You have a scanner? Thought you were retired.”
“Old habits.” He wiped his chin. “Murders in the Hamptons are pretty rare. Figure they might benefit from someone who lived in a city that averages over three hundred a year.”
“Then you’ll be surprised to hear I’m the one who found Caroline Spenser and her daughter.”
“Thought only the mother was murdered.”
“Oops. Slip of the tongue. I found Caroline Spenser dead and her daughter wounded but alive.” I know I sounded glib, but I didn’t want to let on how gut-wrenching the whole murder scene had been. Especially to worrywart Doc.
“What!” All eyes turned toward us. Doc lowered his voice. “Did you tell your father?”
“On his honeymoon, remember?”
He dropped his fork.
It was hard to hear Doc over the background din of the restaurant, so I focused on his mouth. Reading lips was something I’d done since I was a little girl. Neither I, nor my parents, knew I had a hearing loss until I was tested in middle school. An ear infection in my preschool years was the most likely cause. Up until that time, I thought everyone heard things the way I did: a combination of figuring out most words and reading lips for the sounds I missed.
“What exactly were you doing at the Spenser estate?” he asked.
“I had a meeting scheduled with Jillian and Caroline Spenser. Jillian and I were roommates at NYU. If you’re going out there, mind if I hitch a ride? You can even drop me off on the way back so I can pick up my Jeep.” I raised Doc’s mug in the air. “Rose, two coffees and my benedict to go, please.”
Doc took a swig of coffee and arched an eyebrow. “To go?”
I’d won. If he refused, he knew I’d find a way to Seacliff on my own. I was just like Dear ole Dad, as he reminded me on more than one occasion.
In East Hampton, Doc took the fork to the left of Town Pond. Town Pond was encircled by lush mossy grass and centuries-old weeping willows. It was also the yearlong home of two white swans.
“Bet those swans aren’t real,” I said. “No doubt the mechanical brainchild of some movie producer trying to create the perfect location for his summer vacation.”
“You’re starting to sound like a local.”
I held my breath as we passed South End Cemetery, a superstitious act I’d never own up to. The tilted slab headstones dated back to the seventeenth century, monuments to East Hampton’s founding fathers and mothers, and, more than likely, a few Spensers.
This time, the approach to Seacliff didn’t seem as awe-inspiring as my last. The trees seemed bare and lonely, like stick figures trying to protect a house of cards. Uniformed personnel walked the perimeter, their patrol cars parked on the side road in deference to the billionaire neighbors. Officer Bach, my chauffeur from the morning of the murder, allowed Doc to pass through the gates. Today, unlike Saturday morning, there were three vehicles parked in the front circle: a black BMW sedan, a tan Mercedes SUV, and a Harley motorcycle.
Doc stopped the car in front of the steps to the main house. “Here, take this.” He shoved a mini–tape recorder into my palm.
I tossed the recorder in my bag. “You’re not coming in?”
“No. I’m going to help search the neighborhood. Officially, I’m not supposed to be here. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
I rang the intercom and the door was opened by a red-faced woman with an ample bosom. Then again, everything about Mrs. Arnold was ample—except her countenance. Put a white bonnet on her and she’d be the perfect scullery maid in a Victorian miniseries. I wondered where the housekeeper and her caretaker husband had been the morning of the murder.
“Ms. Barrett? Was Miss Jillian expecting you?” She looked like she’d just spent the better part of an hour sucking lemons.
“I’ve come to pay my respects and see how Jillian’s holding up.”
Mrs. Arnold hesitated as a baritone voice called out from the shadows. “Who is it, Frieda?”
“Someone come to see Miss Jillian.”
A tall man stepped into the doorway. His dark hair fell in soft layers at his neck. He wore a black T-shirt and a pair of worn jeans that appeared painted on. When I looked into his eyes, everything else faded. They were blue—cerulean blue—and as cold as hell.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I, uh, came to see Jillian and pay my condolences.” I really, really, hated situations like this. Finding the right words to say. I’ve been known to cry at weddings. Laugh at funerals. I’m much better at writing down my feelings.
“And you would be?”
“Meg Barrett.” I extended my hand, but he didn’t take it. “I’m an old school chum of Jillian’s.” Chum? “I wanted to see how she’s holding up.” And I found the Queen Mother of the Hamptons’ body in the hallway behind you.
“Oh.” He turned and walked away. My hands instinctively pulled down my hat, shielding my hearing aids—some old habits never died.
As I gazed at the contradictory welcome mat under my feet, the housekeeper reappeared and grudgingly led me into the foyer. I’d only met Mrs. Arnold once before Friday’s cocktail party. In the middle of Jillian’s and my freshman year in college, Mrs. Arnold and her husband had been dispatched to Manhattan to help pack up Jillian’s belongings. Mrs. Arnold had ordered me around like a drill sergeant, while Jillian looked on from the bed. I’d let the housekeeper get away with it because I could tell Jillian was disappointed her mother hadn’t come, but it didn’t mean I’d forgotten the shabby treatment.
Mrs. Arnold stopped in front of the open door to the library. “Miss Jillian’s inside. You can only stay a minute. She needs her rest. Don’t you dare upset her.” Then she squeaked away on rubber-soled shoes.
I stepped inside. The library was slightly smaller than the New York Public. Jillian lay on a cushioned chaise, her body entombed in a fur blanket. An older man sat on a leather sofa, and the rude guy I’d met at the front door faced the fireplace.
Jillian motioned to me with a slight lift of her wrist and, just as I started toward her, Adam Prescott rushed into the room. Jillian had introduced me to Adam at the cocktail party; apparently, he’d been in charge of keeping tabs on Caroline Spenser’s numerous antique and art acquisitions.
“Can someone get that damned dog out of my room? He used my vintage Versace tie as a chew toy.” Then Adam turned to me. “Hello, Meg. What brings you here?” He had classic features, like a Norse god, or the lead actor in the Thor movies; almost too good-looking.
“I wanted to see how Jillian’s doing.”
The guy from the front door addressed Adam. “I’ll take care of the dog. No need to upset Jillian.”
Jillian broke in, “Meg, this is my brother, Cole.”
He turned to look at me and, once again, his ice-blue eyes left me breathless.
“And my physician, Dr. Greene. Meg’s the one who found Mother and me . . .” She broke into a sob and Dr. Greene bounded toward her with lightning speed.
Cole ignored Adam, walked over, and took my hand. “Sorry if I was rude earlier. We’re all under a lot of stress. Thanks for coming. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.” He dropped my hand and the warmth drained from my fingertips. After a small peck on Jillian’s forehead, he strode toward the door. Before exiting, Cole turned to me. “Nice meeting you, Meg. Thanks for looking after Jillian.”
Then he was gone.
Adam said, “Funny how we don’t see that guy for years, but he shows up for the reading of the will.”
Jillian whispered, “He’s grieving too . . .”
Adam went to Jillian and put a hand on her shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
Even though no one offered me a seat, I took Dr. Greene’s warm spot on the sofa. Jillian lay back and closed her eyes while Dr. Greene took her pulse. She was so pale I hoped he’d find one.
“Maybe we should let Jillian rest,” Dr. Greene said firmly.
A low rumble filled the room. Mrs. Arnold entered, pushing a cart topped with a sterling tea service. She nudged Adam out of the way and stopped beside Jillian.
“No problem, Doctor. Just let me know if she remembers anything.” Adam smiled and exited the library.
Confused by his comment, I looked from Jillian to Dr. Greene.
Dr. Greene glanced at Jillian.
She gave a consenting nod.
“Ms. Spenser has a condition we call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. She has no memory of the morning her mother was killed.”
That one knocked me for a loop.
Jillian turned her head toward the wall.
“Is it permanent?” I asked.
“Not usually. Those afflicted with PTSD can suffer mental flashbacks and re-experience painful circumstances in the form of intrusive dreams or disturbing memories.”
“Was it caused by being hit on the head?”
“Her contusion may have contributed to the condition. In some life-threatening situations, the only way an individual can cope is by going into survival mode. The body goes into shock and the patient tries to forget the traumatic event. The result can be emotional numbness and event-related amnesia.”
No one prompted me to go into the gory details of the other morning, so I kept my mouth shut. I was just about to get up and leave when a skeletally thin woman with Restylane-injected lips and neon-orange spiky hair burst into the room.
“Darling, where are you? Mummy’s here.”
She wore a pink threadbare Chanel suit. Completing her ensemble were patent leather shoes adorned with tarnished interlocking Cs. She had to be in her sixties but appeared to be trying hard for an earlier decade. She scanned the library, turned, and, without a word, clip-clopped across the marble foyer.
I was dying to know whose “mummy” she was. I was thrilled when Jillian nodded toward the doorway and explained, “Frances Prescott Hughes, Adam’s mother. Her fifth husband left a few years back for parts unknown after stealing funds from an Internet start-up. And she hated Mother.”
From what I knew from the press, Caroline Spenser could be a real uppity society maven and cutthroat collector. Was that reason enough to kill her? Why had Adam’s mother hated Caroline? It didn’t seem the right time to ask.
As Mrs. Arnold went around the room collecting teacups, I grabbed my chance. I went to Jillian and gave her hand a light squeeze. “Please call if you need anything.”
Jillian clasped my wrist and there was an awkward silence. “Do you have to leave? Can you come back soon? I need you.”
Mrs. Arnold cleared her throat and pushed me aside. “All Jillian needs is her rest. You’re upsetting her.”
Jillian gave me a mournful look.
“Sure, Jillian. I’ll be back soon.”
I waited for Doc on a concrete bench near a huge pond that emptied into the Atlantic. I considered texting him but knew he wasn’t tech-savvy when it came to cell phones and other newfangled gadgets. Damn. Doc would be pissed I never turned on the tape recorder.
Lilies of the valley and crocuses were trying to break through the frozen soil. Spring, a time of new beginnings.
For Jillian’s sake, I sure as hell hoped so.
* * *
On the ride back to Montauk, I said, “Isn’t amnesia pretty rare? The only time I’ve seen it is in soap operas or Lifetime movies.”
“From what you’ve told me, Dr. Greene seems to know what he’s talking about. Many veterans from the Iraq War suffer from PTSD. It’s a real condition, but fortunately, or unfortunately, the memory loss is usually temporary.”
Doc drove his early model Buick Park Avenue twenty miles below the speed limit on the two-lane highway. In the side-view mirror a mile-long trail of cars snaked behind us.
“Why would someone murder Caroline Spenser and leave Jillian with just a bump on the head? Maybe the killer heard my car and didn’t have time to finish her off?”
“I got some info from my fishing buddy, who just happens to be on the case. The murder weapon seems to be something unusual. Long, double-edged, and rusty. Caroline Spenser also had a hematoma on the back of her head.”
“Did Jillian have any other injuries?”
Cars were passing us, ignoring the double yellow line. A few flipped Doc the bird. Doc didn’t notice. “No, and there wasn’t any sign of forced entry. I guess you know that, seeing the door was open. The alarm system, including the surveillance cameras, was turned off, and the keypad is on the inside. You need a remote to access it from the outside.”
I turned to look at him. “Any kitchen knives missing?”
“No. All accounted for. Plus, like I said, the blade was double-edged and rusty.”
“Right.” I shivered at the thought of such a gruesome murder weapon.
* * *
My ’98 Jeep Wrangler was parked behind the East Hampton Town police station, keys in the ignition. I guess they figured no one in their right mind would want to steal it. Forensics had left black fingerprint dust on every surface.
I arrived home and slapped together a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I added a few leaves of chocolate mint from my windowsill. I may not be a gourmet cook, like my father, but I know how to elevate the ordinary with herbs. I brought the sandwich to my desk and reviewed the decorating plans for my current project. The George III writing desk had a drop-leaf front and numerous cubbyholes. The desk’s delicate cabriole legs were fitted with brass casters that made it easy to wheel around to face whatever ocean view I desired. Today it faced east.
I propped a large corkboard against the wall and tacked diagrams of my client’s seven rooms, along with a few fabric choices for the Kittinger family’s former summer cottage, soon-to-be year-round home. Decorating was a conundrum. I fanned the contents of the file in front of me. The order in which they lay seemed haphazard, but everything had a rhythm. I grabbed whatever broke the flow and threw it to the floor. Once, when working on the cottage of my only cranky client, Jason Freid, I realized everything on the floor was better than what was on the corkboard. His personality was on the floor: bold colors and sharp corners. Who was I to question the fates? He ended up loving what I did and even mentioned me in Dave’s Hamptons, the local “who’s who” newspaper. Caroline Spenser had plenty of sharp corners too, but what could she have possibly done for someone to murder her so brutally?
I worked till well past dinnertime. My great room looked like the scene of a printing press explosion. Open files scattered the floor, overflowing with torn pages from home and garden magazines. By the time I finished tidying, I decided to reward myself with a stroll on the beach, hoping my neighbor, Patrick Seaton had left his mark.
I stopped in front of his cottage. The moon was a caricature of itself, belonging on the cover of a ’50s nursery rhyme book—chubby-cheeked with a winsome smile. The waves threatened to wash away the words from Emerson he had left:
Sorrow makes us all children again,
Destroys all differences of intellect.
Tuesday I followed Highway 114 into Sag Harbor, an old whaling port seven miles due north of East Hampton. White clapboard storefronts lined Main Street, housing artsy shops. The weather had taken a turn for the better and I could almost believe the winter doldrums were behind me. I turned right onto Sage Street until I came to a captain’s house with gingerbread trim and a widow’s walk that offered a full view of the harbor. At the side of the house was a wooden sign that read, MABEL AND ELLE’S CURIOSITIES.
Elle’s antique shop was on the first floor of the house. She lived on the second floor and her bedroom was the garret room that opened to the widow’s walk. When I pulled up, Elle’s part-time employee, Maurice, was placing cushions on the furniture under the covered porch. Even though Maurice had lived in Sag Harbor for almost twenty years, the same amount of time he’d worked at Mabel and Elle’s, he still kept his posh Londoner accent. He was in his midforties, tall and elegant with graying temples. He reminded me of Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins in the movie My Fair Lady.
Maurice and his partner owned a small Victorian cottage in town, decorated with the perfect mix of vintage and modern. He had a flair for everything he did and was also my go-to fashionista. He’d taken me under his wing on those rare occasions I was invited to an important Hamptons event. He was instrumental in coordinating my outfit for Caroline and Jillian Spenser’s cocktail party. I’d never tell him about the clinging-underwear faux pas.
I tooted the horn at Maurice and pulled into the driveway. Elle waved to me from window of the carriage house. She held a phone to her ear and looked excited about something.
I walked in and kissed a cheek smothered in freckles.
“One sec,” Elle mouthed.
I hung my jacket on one of Bullwinkle’s antlers and patted his head, seeing as that’s all that was left of him.
Elle and I used the carriage house as a work space for our refurbishing projects. On one side of the massive room there was a kitchen with a cast-iron sink and a working O’Keefe & Merritt stove. A high-backed kitchen stool was stationed at each end of the workbench. The center of the room housed our works in progress—assorted chairs, tables, weathered oil paintings, frames, light fixtures, and sections of ornate iron gates. In one corner, Elle had installed a 1930s steel bank vault she used to store rare antiquities sent to her for evaluation. Before she worked at American Home and Garden, she was an antique appraiser at Sotheby’s and still did freelance work for insurance companies and wealthy collectors in the Hamptons area.
Today I planned to complete three items that would eventually go into my current Cottages by the Sea project. The first was a collection of English ironstone I’d feature in a built-in corner cupboard. The six plates, large serving platter, four milk pitchers, and soup tureen had come from a church thrift shop in Orient Point. I’d paid only twenty dollars. Naturally, at that price, there was a catch. All the pieces were stained like a rusty toilet bowl. I was following one of American Home and Garden’s do-it-yourself recipes. The ironstone had been soaking in thirty-percent liquid peroxide for two weeks. Wearing rubber gloves and feeling like a mad scientist, I removed the submerged pieces and placed them on aluminum foil in a warmed oven, which I’d turned off. Twenty minutes later, I opened the oven. Each piece was covered in a thick orange crust. After a few dunks in warm, sudsy water, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The pieces were now pearly white and the hairline cracks had all but disappeared. I knew the whole lot would sell for at least six hundred dollars at an antique show and twelve hundred or higher in a shop in Bridgehampton—a better return on my money than a winning stock portfolio.
Excerpted from "Better Homes and Corpses"
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Bridge.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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