A brutally murdered family man without an enemy in the world. A box full of charming letters home, written a century ago by an unknown female worker at the famed Tiffany studios. Historic Green-Wood cemetery, where a decrepit mausoleum with stunning stained glass windows is now off limits. Suddenly, all of this is part of Erica Donato's life.
Erica is a youngish single mother of a teen, an oldish history grad student, and the lowest person on the totem pole of the history museum where she works.
Soon secrets begin to emerge in the most unexpected places. An admirable life was not what it seemed, confiding letters conceal their most important story. All set against the background of the splendid old cemetery and the life of modern Brooklyn, the stories of old families and old loves with hidden ties merges with new crimes and the true value of art.
About the Author
Triss Stein is a small-town girl who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York City. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident which she uses to write mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. Brooklyn Wars is the fourth Erica Donato mystery, following Brooklyn Secrets.
Read an Excerpt
An Erica Donato Mystery
By Triss Stein
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Triss Stein
All rights reserved.
The day my friend Dima was killed, I was thinking about Tiffany. Of course that was before I heard the dreadful news.
Say Tiffany to most New Yorkers and they immediately see a box covered with glazed paper in a shade of blue that has been saying Tiffany since 1845. Maybe it holds a diamond engagement ring or the emerald earrings that will begin an affair or end a marriage, or perhaps the silver key chain that says, with that touch of Tiffany & Company class, thank you for another year of hard work.
Myself, I saw a cemetery. Not just any cemetery, mind you, but a famously beautiful one, the eternal resting place of the deceased rich and famous, a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood Cemetery. Yes, a few of the founding Mr. Tiffanies, including the great Louis Comfort himself, were buried there under surprisingly simple stones, but I was not going to visit his grave. I was going to visit his work.
That was not my plan when I started this day. I work part-time at the Brooklyn Historical Museum, and I was worryingly behind on an assignment. The job was only one of the many balls I kept up in the air, so sometimes one of them knocked another to the floor. My plan for that day was to power-through and get entirely caught up.
Those balls began dropping all over the room the moment I walked into the cubicle I share with other part-time assistants and interns. I arrived late due to the rain snarling up the traffic. Eliot, my boss, was already there leaving a note on my desk.
"Erica. Glad you are here. Did you by any chance drive today?"
Driving is the least sane way to get from my neighborhood, Park Slope, where street parking is only difficult, to my work neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, where it is impossible. Sometimes I do it anyway because I have later errands. Or because I have temporarily lost my mind. He knew that.
"We have a distinguished visitor today, one of the great experts on Tiffany, and he needs some chauffeuring around and some note-taking assistance at Green-Wood Cemetery. It involves Tiffany windows. You know how to get there, right? It's near where you live? Sarah is the logical choice, in fact, but she is out with the flu."
Denying I had my car was a tempting option, but Eliot has been a great boss and mentor. I owed him.
"I did drive," I answer, "but my car is not exactly a luxury ride." My car, in fact, is a twelve-year-old Civic with pothole-damaged shocks and a backseat covered with work papers, school papers, daughter papers. A lot like my house.
"You are a lifesaver. Come be introduced in the conference room at ten, and join the meeting. It's not exactly your field, but I promise it will be interesting." He left without telling me anything more.
One more ball hit the floor, but my job is only a small step above intern. The tiny salary is useful; the flexible work hours are necessary; the experience will make me a little more employable when I finally finish my PhD. Maybe. Maybe I could take home my sure-to-be-unfinished work and fit it in with dinner, my schoolwork, my teenage daughter's schoolwork. Oh, yes, and maybe sleep.
I hurried up the institutional-steel back-stairway, through a fire door and out into the oak-paneled magnificence of the original building.
Eliot was in the conference room along with a chunky woman in a checked flannel shirt, her pepper-and-salt hair in a long braid. Also sitting at the table was a tall, thin silver-haired man in an elegant navy suit, a tie even I knew was silk, and cuff links even I could guess were gold. The distinguished expert? The rest of the crowd was the head curator, some department heads, and the museum's managing director—all heavy hitters. I wished I had spent a little more time tidying myself up, and took a seat as invisibly as I could. My boss smiled at me and passed me a note. "Her name is Bright Skye (!!!). She has a story."
Three large liquor cartons stood on the conference table beside the woman who was explaining in a soft, tentative voice: "... so you see, just by accident in a doctor's office, I read that you have a Tiffany collection here. I have been away from New York for a long, long time. I live in the desert near Sedona now. I wasn't even sure I could find you, but I had already found this." She gestured to the boxes. "I didn't know what it was at first, and I'm still not exactly sure, but when I read about your collection, I realized someone might want these things, and they might be valuable, and I came to see you to find out it they are worth anything."
She stopped abruptly, as if she had run out of words.
"Thank you," Eliot said politely. "You showed us a promising folder of samples when you first contacted us, so perhaps now you could show that to everyone? And tell us where they came from?"
"I'm cleaning out my mother's big old house, over in the Midwood neighborhood. It's been in her family since it was built, maybe about a hundred years ago, I guess. Maybe more. And there's about a hundred years of junk, too. I found this in the attic behind all the other junk. There's a whole box of letters and other things. There are some sketchbooks, I guess, and a pouch of jewelry with pins and bracelets and little pieces of colored glass. I don't even know what they are called. I don't know anything about all this kind of stuff, but I saw the name Tiffany in the letters a lot of times. And these pictures seem very nice."
She shook out the contents of a large envelope. The drab table was suddenly covered in a rainbow— pages of watercolors, brilliantly glowing. They were familiar Tiffany designs: lacy red dragonflies, exuberantly blooming wisteria in vivid lavender blue, rosy cherry blossoms, daffodils that radiated sunshine, pale opalescent magnolias and shimmering blue-green peacock feathers.
The entire room seemed to take on the glow. I couldn't stop staring. "Very nice" didn't even come close.
The well-dressed expert, who seemed to have appointed himself in charge, was the first to reach for some of the papers, whipping out a pair of white archivist's gloves to protect the paper from any damage.
"Hmm," he said. "Certainly the style and colors are right. Some of these are very well-known—the wisteria would scream Tiffany even in China! But some, I don't know." He was talking quietly and quickly, murmuring as if to himself, his face flushed with excitement. "I've never seen them before. Perhaps never produced? And the signature is simply unknown, at least to me. Maude Cooper? But if even I have never seen it—and I've seen everything—it's extraordinary, if true. Extraordinary."
He snapped out of his reverie and looked directly at the owner of the papers. "This Maude Cooper. Who was she? Come on, woman, you must have some idea."
Bright Skye whispered, "No, I have no idea at all. I think my grandmother had some Cooper relatives, but I've never heard about a Maude that I remember. My mother's family name was Updike before she was married a few times."
"And, umm, Skye was one of those married names?"
She flushed and whispered, "No, that is my own true name that I found."
Goodness, I thought, what a wimp. A New Age wimp at that.
He sighed deeply and turned to the museum director. "You spoke the truth. This is indeed very interesting and may even be of real importance, possibly even exceptional importance. Or not. Of course I want to be involved. Of course. I'd never forgive you if I were not included."
"Just what we were hoping to hear you say." He was all smiles. "Our staff has some thoughts, but we felt we needed more true expertise. Ladies and gentlemen, for any latecomers, let me introduce Dr. Thomas Flint, who is probably the leading expert on the artwork of the Tiffany studio. We are lucky he has consented to join us for this project."
"I don't know about that 'probably.'" He smiled stiffly. Was that meant to be a joke? "Yes, yes, but unfortunately I need to leave today for a conference in Rome, and I have an appointment at Green-Wood Cemetery first. I must verify a few details for my presentation. Really, I had to squeeze you in.
"Let's do this. Your driver gets me there and back here efficiently. Give me a room for an hour and let me see what I can make of this. While I'm abroad you take care of basic preliminary cataloguing and physical preservation. I already see terrible damage. Dear lord, they have been in an attic for a century! I'll send my assistant over to help tomorrow. When I return next week, we will be ready to begin a full analysis. A good plan, don't you think?"
An excellent plan, they all thought, and he was given the conference room on the spot.
A small voice rose from the end of the table.
"Do you think that these papers would be valuable? And the jewelry? I mean, for money?" It was Ms. Skye. She had been completely forgotten in the excitement.
Flint turned to her and said, "Did you understand that I am an expert on everything about Tiffany? His works and his life? This may indeed be very valuable, or perhaps it is not what it seems. It will take us some time to work that out."
"But I was hoping ..." She said it softly, and then she looked away, her voice fading. "I could use the money."
"Miss ... Skye, is it?" He raised one eyebrow as he said her name. "May we—that is, the museum—borrow the contents of these cartons for a few weeks? They will take excellent care of it, you can be sure of that, better care than it has had for decades in your attic, and then we will have an answer for you."
"I guess so. I mean, I have no use for it." She fiddled with the end of her braid, and then said, "I don't like old things, personally."
"You will be given a receipt for the items, and they will be kept locked up here. Yes?" He looked over at the director, who said, "Absolutely."
Ms. Skye drifted off, escorted by the director's assistant, who was explaining what needed to be signed.
Eliot motioned me over to meet the intimidating Dr. Flint.
"This is Erica Donato. Erica, Dr. Thomas Flint. Erica here will drive you, in her own car, and provide all the assistance you need."
He frowned. "What happened to Sarah? She was a student of mine and she is reasonably capable."
"Down with the flu."
"Then you'll have to do, I suppose. And you are also a decorative arts specialist, I hope?'
"No, I am an urban historian. Historian-in-training, really. But I'll be happy to assist today." It seemed like the right thing to say.
His cool blue eyes got much cooler. I added quickly, "I'll try not to ask foolish questions."
"See that you don't."
And that is how I ended up sucking down coffee in my car, peering though the streaming window, hoping the puddles were not deep enough to damage my old engine and hoping I had mastered taking pictures with the museum's camera.
It was raining too hard to look over the spectacularly Gothic stone gate. We splashed our way into the visitors center and were greeted by a woman Flint's age, somewhere in late middle age on the verge of old. My quick glance took in that she was small, gray-haired, no makeup, wrapped in a faded beige raincoat, with faded khakis and stout orthopedic shoes showing below. She reminded me of the older women of my youth, before they all discovered gyms and plastic surgery. Mrs. Mercer, she told us.
"I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry." She kept repeating it. "There has been a problem. The cemetery is closed to all visitors this morning. I cannot take you ..."
"All the arrangements were made for me personally by Dr. Reade," said Dr. Flint. "Just call her and get this straightened out. I don't have any more time to waste. Give me a phone and I'll call her myself."
I stopped in my tracks. No one even noticed me.
"Dr. Reade is very busy today. I would not dream of disturbing her."
"Well, I would! Her office is still in the administrative building over there?" He gestured with his right arm.
She nodded. "But ... but ..."
"Come along! If I can find Nancy Reade, perhaps I can rescue this monumentally wasted morning."
We stepped outside to find the rain had stopped and bright rays of sunlight were streaming out from under the massive dark clouds. I always think that particular phenomenon looks like a Renaissance painting of a deity at work. The massive gate with its pointed arches and soaring towers provided a suitable backdrop, too, but Dr. Flint did not pause to look at it, and I had to hustle to keep up with his long, furious stride. The drab woman from the office trailed behind, but we did not get very far.
A man in work clothes stopped us where the road curves up the hill into the cemetery itself.
"Sorry, sir. No one is allowed to enter right now."
"I had an appointment. I am a personal friend of Dr. Reade and several of the trustees as well, and I have important work to do here today."
"Sorry, sir. No one is allowed in."
Behind us I heard the lady from the office take a deep breath, but ahead of us I could see a group coming in our direction. Dr. Flint quickly walked over to a tall woman with a Burberry umbrella. She looked elegant and stressed.
"Nancy, what is the meaning of this? I had an appointment and as you know very well, I don't have time to waste, here or anywhere."
She stopped her group with a lifted hand, and drew Dr. Flint away from them.
"Oh, Thomas, we are dealing with an unexpected problem today. We had to close for a while. It is a ... a safety issue. Of course I will personally reschedule your visit as soon as we ... um ... get this ... um ... resolved."
"That is not helpful. I leave for Rome tonight. I came to confirm some old notes on Tiffany's work here. I have a presentation coming up."
I could swear she turned pale.
"Surely you can make an exception for someone like me, whose work you know so well? Under the circumstances?" The tone was not as polite as the words.
She looked back nervously and said, "Tom, you know I would, if it was just up to me—of course we know you—but there are other issues."
She returned to her group and finally motioned Flint over. I followed behind him, and the lady from the office trotted along, too.
"We will allow you in, but only under escort from our security staff. One of the locations you wanted to see is ... is where the problem is. There has been a collapse, a dangerous situation, so you cannot go there at all, and you cannot leave the paths anywhere. Will that be of any use to you?"
The red spots on his cheeks got redder, but he said, "Better than nothing. I suppose I'll just have to write around whatever is missing."
"Mrs. Mercer can take you to the other site, as planned. The Konick Mausoleum is the one off-limits."
Mrs. Mercer nodded and led the way, but Dr. Flint took Dr. Reade by the arm, gently leading her from the others, and whispered urgently. She whispered back, looked apologetic, shook her head. He looked furious. He stalked off into the cemetery itself. I hustled to keep up with his long legs, and Mrs. Mercer, the guide who should have been leading us, trailed behind, along with the cemetery's rent-a-cop security guard. Our parade would have been funny if tensions had not been so high.
The guard, an older man and not in the best of shape, did eventually outpace us all and stopped Dr. Flint with his bulk planted across the path.
"The other way, sir."
He led us around a lake with flocks of birds, including brilliantly blue teals, some stately Canada geese, and a pair of swans as perfect as Dresden china ornaments. With the sun now shining, it was lovely.
Dr. Flint went on ahead, but Mrs. Mercer stopped me and pointed. "There. In the reeds."
It was a long-legged white bird with a curved neck and a trailing headpiece of feathers, an egret or heron. It was standing as still as one of the cemetery stones, looking like a Japanese print, right here, unbelievably, in the heart of Brooklyn, just a few minutes' walk from the truck traffic on a six-lane avenue. I was transfixed.
With a light touch on my arm she moved me back onto the path. The trees were in October gold, and with the unexpected sunlight glinting off the wet leaves and the polished stone chapels, there really was something magical about the place. It was a far cry from the bleak cities of gravestones where my mother and my husband were buried.
That was no accident, as I knew very well. Green-Wood had been designed from the beginning to be a kind of park, a rambling, pastoral, social environment meant as much for recreation by the living as for as interment of the dead. The living used to come in their carriages for scenic drives and picnics. It was a weird thought, but I know Victorians thought about death differently. On a day like this I thought the designers would have to be proud. Were their ghosts hanging around, satisfied to see that their work was in good hands, still valued and cared for?
Actually, I had no idea if they were even buried here, and I gave myself a little mental slap. The rare birds, the fanciful architecture, and the golden forest might have looked like an illustration from a fairy tale, but I was here to work, not to fantasize.
Excerpted from Brooklyn Graves by Triss Stein. Copyright © 2014 Triss Stein. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel is the second Erica Donato mystery, and, like the first, “Brooklyn Bones,” it’s not all about a contemporaneous crime, but involves the past. In a way, this is fitting, since the protagonist is working on a PhD in history. As in the first in the series, it takes place in Brooklyn, NY, home of the Green-Wood cemetery, where many Tiffany windows adorn mausoleums, and Brighton Beach, home to numerous Russian immigrants and nicknamed Little Odessa. The plot involves the murder of a Russian immigrant, Erica’s friend and the father of her daughter’s friend, whose second job was as a night watchman at the Green-Wood cemetery, and the theft of a Tiffany window from one of its mausoleums. This gives the author the opportunity to delve into history, as she reviews century-old letters of an artist who worked for the famed glassmaker. The story moves a bit slowly, weighed down by Erica’s personal life, complicated by her widowhood, the pressures of her studies, her own insecurities, and the raising of her 15-year-old daughter. But in the end, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Yet Triss Stein is carving out that territory as her own. Recommended.
Triss Stein’s BROOKLYN GRAVES has everything I look for in a mystery: an intelligent plot, a vivid setting, and a protagonist I like hanging out with. I enjoyed BROOKLYN BONES, the first book in the series, and this second book doesn’t disappoint. Erica Donato, the single mother of a moody fifteen-year old (aren’t they all), works part-time at a Brooklyn museum while trying to finish her Ph.D. in history. When her boss assigns her to escort the world’s foremost Tiffany authority to the historic Green-Wood cemetery, she has no choice but to say yes despite her very full plate. Stein skillfully explores past and present links between the Tiffany studio, the cemetery and a brutal murder that forces Erica to relive the loss of her husband years earlier. This is a moving and compelling read.
You might think that a tale revolving around old letters and stained glass windows (in a cemetery, no less) would be peaceful and leisurely. Well, not in Brooklyn. There's beauty, yes, and some dust, but little peace for Erica Donato, who's got a dissertation to finish, a part-time job that's just been complicated by a pompous academic, a teenage daughter (need I say more?), and unpleasant dramas ripping through her neighborhood and personal life. There's a lot to enjoy here about the evolution of Brooklyn up to the current day, and how this enormous, diverse borough keeps being shaped and remade by the people who decide to make it their home. I loved the way the issue of grieving was addressed. Sometimes, in soft-boiled mysteries, the deaths of characters seem not to be anything more than plot points, excuses for the story to begin. Erica's own grief over the loss of her daughter's father years ago is triggered by the loss of a family friend, another father and husband. The way she negotiates her own memories with her daughter, and tries to reach out to a family whose grief she understands too well is handled very sensitively and realistically, I think, which added depth to the story and a parallel line of contemporary family drama to the ones suspected in the past. Come for the mystery, stay for the history!