Shhh...in the newest hardcover in the national bestselling Dead-End Job Mystery series, Helen Hawthorne quietly goes undercover at a local library to search for a missing masterpiece.
Wealthy socialite Elizabeth Cateman Kingsley has hired Helen to find a missing John Singer Sargent painting, owned by her late father. After his death, many of Davis Cateman’s books were donated to the Flora Park library, and his daughter suspects the small watercolor—worth millions—was tucked away inside one of those dusty tomes.
To search the stacks, Helen applies for a position as a library volunteer and discovers the library director has a catalog of complaints—from a mischievous calico cat named Paris to the mysterious disappearance of various items that some of the more imaginative staff are attributing to a ghost haunting the building.
While her husband Phil sticks his neck out to find a missing necklace, Helen is on her own with no one to lend her a hand. When a dead body turns up in a parking lot, it appears someone is willing to go to any lengths to keep the treasure in the library quiet. Now Helen is bound and determined to find the killer as well as the painting—before she’s taken out of circulation herself.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Also by Elaine Viets
For the librarians who gave me so much entertainment between the covers
“I need your help,” Elizabeth Cateman Kingsley said. “My late father misplaced a million dollars in a library book. I want it back.”
Helen Hawthorne caught herself before she said, “You’re joking.” Private eyes were supposed to be cool. Helen and her husband, Phil Sagemont, were partners in Coronado Investigations, a Fort Lauderdale firm.
Elizabeth seemed unnaturally calm for someone with a misplaced million. Her sensational statement had grabbed the attention of Helen and Phil, but now Elizabeth sat quietly in the yellow client chair, her narrow feet in sensible black heels crossed at the ankles, her slender, well-shaped hands folded in her lap.
Helen studied the woman from her chrome-and-black partner’s chair. Somewhere in her fifties, Elizabeth Kingsley kept her gunmetal hair defiantly undyed and pulled into a knot. A thin, knife-blade nose gave her makeup-free face distinction. Helen thought she looked practical, confident and intelligent.
Elizabeth’s well-cut gray suit was slightly worn. Her turquoise-and-pink silk scarf gave it a bold splash of color. Elizabeth had had money once, Helen decided, but she was on hard times now. But how the heck did you leave a million bucks in a library book?
Phil asked the question Helen had been thinking a little more tactfully: “How do you misplace a million in a library book?”
“I didn’t,” Elizabeth said. “My father, Davis Kingsley, did.”
“Is it a check? A bankbook?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s a watercolor.”
Elizabeth sat with her hands folded demurely in her lap, a sly smile on her face. She seemed to enjoy setting off bombshells and watching their effect.
“Perhaps I should explain,” she said. “My family, the Kingsleys, were Florida pioneers. My grandparents moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 1920s and built a home in Flora Park.”
The Kingsleys might have been early local residents, Helen thought, but this pioneer family hadn’t roughed it in a log cabin. The Kingsleys had built a mansion in a wealthy enclave on the edge of Fort Lauderdale during the Florida land boom.
“Grandpapa Woodrow Kingsley made his money in oil and railroads,” Elizabeth said.
“The old-fashioned way,” Phil said.
My silver-haired husband is so charming, only I know he’s calling Woodrow a robber baron, Helen thought.
“For a financier, Grandpapa was a bit of a swashbuckler,” Elizabeth said, and smiled.
Helen decided maybe Elizabeth wasn’t as proper as she seemed.
“He enjoyed financing silent films. He often went to Hollywood. Grandmama was a lady and stayed home.”
The old gal was dull and disapproving, Helen translated. Grandpapa had had to travel three thousand miles to California to go on a toot.
“Grandmama would have nothing to do with movie people. She dedicated herself to helping the deserving poor.”
Heaven help them, Helen thought. Their lives were miserable enough.
“Grandpapa put up the money for a number of classic films, including Forbidden Paradise—that starred Pola Negri—and Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow.”
Films with scandalous women, Helen thought. Did Grandpapa unbuckle his swash for some smokin’-hot starlets?
“Impressive,” Phil said. “Von Stroheim was famous for going over budget. He ordered Paris gowns and monogrammed silk underwear for his actors in Foolish Wives so they could feel more like aristocrats.”
A tiny frown creased Elizabeth’s forehead. She did not like being one-upped.
“When he was in Hollywood, Grandpapa would drink scotch, smoke cigars and play poker,” she said. “He played poker on the set with the cast and crew, including Clark Gable.”
“Wow!” Helen said.
“Oh, Gable wasn’t a star then,” Elizabeth said. “Far from it. He was an extra and Grandpapa thought Gable wouldn’t get anywhere because his ears were too big. Many men made that mistake. Until Gable became the biggest star in Hollywood.”
There it was again, Helen thought, that glimpse of carefully suppressed glee.
“Gable was on a losing streak that night,” Elizabeth said. “He was out of money. He’d lost his watch and his ring. He bet a watercolor called Muddy Alligators.”
“A painting?” Helen said. “What was Gable doing with that?”
“I have no idea, but he was quite attached to it,” Elizabeth said. “He thought gators sunning themselves on a mud bank were manly. Grandpapa won the painting with a royal flush, but he didn’t trust Hollywood types. He made Gable sign it over to him. Gable wrote on the back: I lost this fair and square to Woodrow Kingsley—W. C. Gable, 1924. Gable’s first name was William. He changed his stage name to Clark Gable about then.
“Grandpapa admired the watercolor, and was surprised that a roughneck like Gable owned a genuine John Singer Sargent.”
“Sargent painted muddy reptiles? I thought he did portraits of royalty and beautiful society women,” Phil said.
“He did, until his mid-forties,” Elizabeth said. “Then he had some kind of midlife career crisis and painted landscapes in Europe and America. Sargent painted at least two alligator watercolors when he stayed at the Florida home of John D. Rockefeller.”
“Sargent switched from society dragons to alligators,” Helen said, then wished she could recall her words. Elizabeth’s grandmother was definitely a dragon.
“Dragons in training, usually,” Elizabeth said, and again Helen caught a flash of well-bred amusement. “Most of his society belles were young women.
“Grandmama refused to display the painting in her house. Grandpapa couldn’t even hang it in his office. She said it was ugly. I suspect it also may have been an ugly reminder of his Hollywood high jinks. She banished the alligator watercolor to a storage room.
“Sargent died the next year and Grandpapa had a fatal heart attack seven years later, leaving Grandmama a widow with one son. The watercolor was forgotten for decades.
“Until about five years ago,” Elizabeth said. “My father, Davis Kingsley, inherited the family home in the fifties. Papa was eighty when he found the watercolor in the storage room. Sargent’s work was fashionable again. He had it authenticated and appraised. The watercolor wasn’t worth all that much, maybe three hundred thousand.”
Helen raised an eyebrow and Phil gave her a tiny nod. Three hundred K might not be much to Elizabeth, but the PI pair thought it was a substantial chunk of change.
“But it was worth much more, thanks to what the art world calls ‘association.’ A painting owned—and signed—by a film star brought the price up to more than a million dollars. The story behind it helped, too.
“Papa told everyone he’d discovered a lost family treasure. My brother, Cateman, and I begged him to have it properly stored and insured, but Papa said it wasn’t necessary. ‘It’s in a safe place,’ he’d say. ‘Safer than any vault.’ But we were concerned. Papa suffered from mild dementia by then.
“He died in his sleep six months ago, leaving his estate to Cateman and me. Papa gave me the Sargent watercolor and my brother inherited the family home. When the will was made five years ago, I was happy with that arrangement. I was a single woman with a comfortable income.”
Comfortable. That was how rich people said they were rolling in dough, Helen thought.
“Since then, I’ve had some financial reversals. That watercolor has become important. I need that painting to save my home, and we can’t find it.”
“It was stolen?” Helen said.
“Worse,” she said. “I believe it was accidentally given away. We’ve looked everywhere in the house, checked Papa’s safe-deposit boxes and the safe, but we’ve found no sign of the missing watercolor. My brother even hired people to search the house. We can only conclude that my father hid it in one of his books that were donated to the Flora Park Library.”
“Who gave it away?” Helen asked.
“Scarlett, my brother’s new wife. Cateman recently married his third wife. It’s a May-December marriage. He’s sixty and she’s twenty-three.”
Did Elizabeth disapprove of her new sister-in-law? Helen thought Elizabeth had made a face, like she’d bitten into something sour, but it was hard to tell.
“Cateman and Scarlett moved into the family home immediately after Papa’s funeral, and Scarlett began redecorating.
“Papa had let things slide in recent years. Scarlett doesn’t love books the way he did. I doubt she reads anything but the magazines one finds in supermarket checkout lines.”
Yep, Helen thought. Elizabeth definitely doesn’t like her brother’s new wife.
“Her first act was to get rid of what she called the ‘dusty old books’ in my father’s library, which dates back to Grandpapa’s time. Scarlett donated more than a thousand books to the Flora Park Library. Most of the books were of little value. Papa was a great reader of hardcover popular fiction, and the Friends of the Library began selling those while they had the more valuable books appraised.
“The Friends put ten mysteries on sale for a dollar each, and the hardcovers were bought within a few days. But a patron found the birth certificate for Imogen Cateman, my grandmama, in her thriller. She returned it to the library. Then a man discovered the deed to property in Tallahassee in a spy novel.”
“The Flora Park Library has honest patrons,” Phil said.
“People of quality live there,” Elizabeth said. “I would expect them to return family papers.”
Elizabeth sat a little straighter. She considered herself one of the quality.
“We concluded that my late father hid valuables in his books, and the missing watercolor was in a donated volume.”
“Why don’t you look for it?” Phil asked. “Don’t you know the people at the library?”
“Of course I do,” Elizabeth said. “But my job as a facilitator for my college alumni association takes up all my time.”
Helen had no idea what a facilitator did, but Elizabeth said it so gravely, Helen felt she should have known.
“I could have taken the books back and searched them myself, but that would cause talk.
“I can only give you a small down payment,” Elizabeth said. “But if you find the watercolor, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars when it’s sold at auction. The library director is a friend and she’s agreed that you can work as a library volunteer, Helen, while you discreetly look for the watercolor.”
“Me?” Helen said. A library, she thought. I’d like that. I’d get to read the new books when they came in, too.
“If Helen takes this job,” Phil said, “how do you know Scarlett didn’t keep the watercolor?”
Helen thought her husband would make a fine portrait—eighteenth-century British, she decided. He had a long, slightly crooked nose, a thin, pale face and thick silver hair. She dragged herself back to the conversation.
“I showed her a picture of one of the alligator watercolors and she said it was ‘gross.’ She prefers to collect what she calls ‘pretty things,’ such as Swarovski crystal.”
“What about your brother?” Helen asked. “Does he have the watercolor?”
“Cateman is an honorable man,” Elizabeth said. “Besides, he has more than enough money.”
Rich people never have enough money, Helen thought.
“He actually hired people to search his house. Why would he do that if he was trying to keep the painting for himself?” Elizabeth asked.
“The search was done after the books were donated to the library?” Phil said.
“Of course,” Elizabeth said. The frown notched deeper into her forehead. She was annoyed. “My brother is most anxious to help me find that artwork. He has sufficient means for himself and Scarlett, but he doesn’t feel he can afford to support me. His two divorces have cost him dearly.”
Now, that’s convincing, Helen thought.
The Flora Park Library was as beautiful as its name, Helen thought. The color of dawn light, the two-story building had a sun-warmed barrel-tile roof and graceful arched windows. A curving wrought-iron fence wrapped around the Mediterranean building like an elegant vine.
She parked her car in the library lot, next to Elizabeth’s. It was a little after ten in the morning and Helen had agreed to go straight to the library with Elizabeth and get started.
Flora Park was an islandlike enclave on the New River, at the edge of Fort Lauderdale. Helen decided the library looked like an estate in the south of France.
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Elizabeth said. “Stately.”
“Stately seems so formal,” Helen said. “This library is inviting.”
“Flora Portland would certainly welcome us,” Elizabeth said, as they passed through the open gates surrounding the library gardens. Rustling palm trees shaded the thick, velvety grass. “This was Flora’s house for almost twenty years. It was built to her specifications.”
“She must have been quite a woman,” Helen said.
“Flora was no fragile flower,” Elizabeth said, her heels clicking on the walkway pavers. “She was as strong-willed as she was beautiful. In the early 1890s, she defied her parents to marry the man she loved. Turned down two proposals.”
“Young women didn’t do that back then,” Helen said.
“Especially not rich, well-brought-up ones,” Elizabeth said. “Grandmama told me the story. She admired Flora greatly. The Portland family was in railroads, and she had many suitors. Flora refused to marry a titled Englishman. It wasn’t a love match. He needed pots of money to restore the family home. But Flora learned he’d impregnated a teenage maid and refused him, even though his family did the right thing and married the maid to the second gardener. Flora’s refusal ruined her mother’s attempt to get into London society. She took her troublesome daughter home to New York, where Flora turned down the banker her father favored.
“Instead, Flora eloped to Paris with her college tutor, Lucian Humboldt. Her parents disinherited her, but Flora had a handsome trust from her maternal grandmother. She and Lucian lived in style abroad until the mid-twenties, when she built this mansion.”
Elizabeth opened the library’s etched glass door and she and Helen stepped into a light-filled lobby. Sunlight danced in a crystal chandelier and burnished the sweep of the grand staircase.
But Helen was drawn to the full-length portrait of a brown-haired beauty in a slim lavender gown. She wore her big-brimmed mauve hat at a rakish angle and looked straight at the world.
“Hello, Flora,” Helen said. She studied Flora’s surprisingly modern face with its high cheekbones. A strong woman, she decided. And a smart one.
“This picture was painted right before she eloped, wasn’t it? I can see the triumph in her face.”
“Perceptive,” Elizabeth said. “Flora crowned herself queen of Flora Park when she and her husband moved here in 1925. This was a happy house. The couple hosted literary discussions and musical evenings. When the widowed Flora died in 1941, she left this mansion, their books and a generous trust to Flora Park for a community library—with one stipulation. That picture would stay in the lobby.”
Elizabeth nodded toward a series of arches behind the staircase. “Much of the popular library is back there. The director’s office is down this hall. Alexa Stuart Andrews agreed to meet us at ten thirty this morning.”
“Before we meet Ms. Andrews, please explain these library titles and organizations,” Helen asked. “I’m going to be a volunteer. Does that make me a Friend of the Library?”
“You could be a Friend,” Elizabeth said. “The Friends are a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the library. Our dues are ten dollars a year. We have our own board, and decide how our fund-raising will benefit the library. Of course, the library staff has some input.”
Helen didn’t want to think about the genteel power struggles those words implied.
“Last year, the Friends gave this library eighty thousand dollars to create a children’s section,” Elizabeth said.
“You have that many children in Flora Park?” Helen asked.
“We have very few young families,” Elizabeth said, “but lots of grandchildren. The Friends bought children’s books and DVDs and child-sized furniture.
“You could pay the dues and become a Friend, but for your investigation you’ll be a volunteer. You’ll work for the library staff and be subject to the library’s policies for volunteers.”
“And Alexa, the director, is the boss?” Helen said.
“You make her sound like she wears a hard hat,” Elizabeth said, but softened her remark with a faint smile. “Alexa is definitely in charge. Most definitely.”
Helen followed Elizabeth down a rather dark hall with lustrous wood floors, carved Spanish tables and curlicued cabinets. “The furniture is from Flora’s time,” Elizabeth said. She stopped at a glass door to a book-lined room with a thick pink-and-gray Oriental rug. “Alexa’s office is the former morning room,” she said. “It overlooks the ground floor and has a view of the back gardens.”
Alexa Andrews was frowning at her black desktop computer. Helen guessed the library director was about her age—early forties. She looked like a successful CEO. Alexa’s shoulder-length dark hair had a dramatic white streak that framed her fine-boned face. Her pale blue suit was soft and stylish.
“Miss Hawthorne,” she said, and shook Helen’s hand. Helen and Elizabeth sat in the button-tufted barrel chairs opposite her desk, and Alexa got down to business.
“Elizabeth has explained her dilemma to me,” she said, “and I’ve agreed to let you work here as a volunteer, even though my decision will make some people very unhappy.”
“Why?” Helen asked.
“Volunteer positions at our library are highly coveted,” she said.
I should have known, Helen thought. The rich want to do their civic duty, but prefer not to get their hands dirty. Raising money for a worthy cause with a fashionable gala was acceptable. Mixing with actual unfortunates was not. Genteel library volunteer positions would be in demand.
“Seraphina Ormond, who belongs to a Flora Park first family, believes she is entitled to the next volunteer position.”
“What’s a first family?” Helen asked.
“Seraphina’s great-grandparents bought one of the first houses in Flora Park.”
“And that real estate deal gives their family the right to rule Flora Park forever?” Helen asked.
“Of course not,” Alexa said, but her smile wasn’t quite as bright. Helen decided to back off. She didn’t want to get into an entitlement debate.
“But they’ve been here so long, the first families have certain expectations,” Alexa said. “I believe these positions should be given on merit. Seraphina and her friends will be quite annoyed when you get the post.”
“Couldn’t you say I’m only here temporarily?” Helen asked.
“Oh, no,” Alexa said. “We must keep your true mission confidential.
“I’ve asked the Friends of the Library to hold off selling the other books from Mr. Kingsley’s library until they’ve been examined. I’ve said it was a legal issue.”
“Which it is,” Elizabeth said. She was wringing her hands and Helen thought she seemed defensive.
“Exactly,” Alexa said. “The last thing we want is someone creating a stir. It’s bad enough we have a ghost.”
“A what?” Helen said.
Alexa sighed, and tugged on her white streak. “I was going to call in a private eye anyway, and I’ve heard that you’re very discreet. Some people believe the ghost of Flora Portland is haunting this library. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in ghosts. Flora was a fine woman and I’m sure she’s resting in peace, not roaming this library. Besides, I’ve seen signs that a human is behind this alleged haunting.”
“What are the signs?” Helen asked.
“Food is missing from the staff break room, books reshelved in the wrong places and three emergency flashlights have disappeared.”
“The flashlights could have been stolen,” Helen said. “I worked at a bookstore and stock was mis-shelved all the time. As for the missing food, I’ve worked at offices where my colleagues swiped my lunch or ate my snacks.”
“All true, but our hurricane kit was taken, and that was a substantial loss.”
“What was in it?” Helen asked.
“The usual: jugs of water, juices, peanut butter, breakfast bars, canned fruit, raisins, chips, a can opener, paper plates and plastic utensils, trash bags, blankets and pillows, toiletries, wipes, a tarp.”
“Why a tarp?” Helen asked.
“In case there are holes in the building.”
“Right,” Helen said. Floridians were all too familiar with blue tarps after Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.
“The biggest losses were a battery-operated television and five hundred dollars in small bills to purchase additional supplies.”
“And you haven’t found any peanut butter jars, juice bottles or food wrappers in the library?” Helen asked.
“Nothing that wasn’t left behind by patrons. The TV has disappeared, along with the blankets and pillows.”
“It is October,” Helen said. “And hurricane season is still on for a month.”
“All true, Ms. Hawthorne. But I still don’t believe in ghosts. Nor do I believe our patrons would steal from us. And our staff is completely trustworthy.”
I’ve heard variations on the “everyone here is honest” theme before, Helen thought. The client is usually surprised when a trusted person turns out to be a crook.
“Has Flora always haunted the library?” she asked.
“Certainly not!” Alexa said. “The haunting started about a month ago, after a heated library board meeting. This is a well-built historic home, Ms. Hawthorne, and Flora Portland’s trust is enough to maintain it. But historic homes do not have reinforced floors, and books are heavy. An average hardback weighs close to a pound, and we have several hundred thousand pounds of books in this building.
“At first, we kept the bookshelves along the walls, but as the collection grew, we put a bookcase in the middle of the floor, then another, and, well, they kept multiplying. Now the floors upstairs are sagging and we have problems with the first floor, too.
“We hired an engineer to evaluate the problem. At the board meeting, he told us the cost of reinforcing the floors in this historic building would exhaust the rest of Flora Portland’s trust. The library would have to be closed for at least a year. We were shocked.
“Then the engineer said it would be less expensive to have a new purpose-built library with floors that could bear the load, and new plumbing and heating systems away from the collections. You can imagine the response that got. Our board president said that Flora would turn over in her grave.”
“Would this building be torn down?” Helen asked.
“Oh, no,” Alexa said. “It’s historic. It would be turned into a community center. I’d hate to move, but a new building would have reinforced floors, accessibility ramps, a delivery dock. I love this building, but we might be able to serve our patrons better with a new library. Right now, the board is split—three members want to renovate and three want to build a new library. But our heritage is important. If the library could come up with the money, the vote would be unanimous to renovate.”
“Where do you stand on the matter?” Helen asked.
“I’m completely neutral,” Alexa said. “The matter is still being discussed, but shortly after the meeting, some of our patrons and staff said that Flora Portland was haunting her library. A week later, a patron—a rather excitable older woman—reported seeing a slender young woman with brown hair running through the stacks. Then Lisa, the president of the library board, said she saw the same thing and the so-called ghost was wearing a long lavender dress. Lisa is an influential person here.
“That story made our community paper, the Flora Park Gazette, and since then, the sightings and rumors have been running wild.
“I want these rumors stopped, Ms. Hawthorne,” the director said, and glared at Helen as if she’d started them. “I want you to find that so-called ghost. The library will pay your regular rate. Bring the contract back by five this afternoon and I’ll sign it.”
“Certainly,” Helen said. This is a dream job, she thought. I get to work at this gorgeous library and hunt for a ghost.
“You can smile, Ms. Hawthorne,” Alexa said, “but your work will not be easy or pleasant. I believe this ghost started as a prank, possibly by someone who doesn’t want the library to change. But now it’s a nuisance. It upsets the staff and patrons and disrupts the library. People are jumpy and edgy. Someone has already been hurt.
“Lisa, the library board president, actually hit a patron with a heavy brass bookend because she thought Flora’s ghost had ‘jumped out at her.’ The poor woman was simply reaching for a reference book in the upstairs study room. She was young, had brown hair and wore a purple sundress. She needed six stitches in her scalp. Fortunately, she did not have a concussion.
“It’s a delicate situation. The board runs this library, and I serve at their pleasure. I have to tread carefully. I can’t offend Lisa, but I can’t have our patrons attacked, either.
“Someone is playing a dangerous game, Ms. Hawthorne. I want it stopped before an innocent person dies.”
“Did you get the job?” Phil asked.
Helen’s husband and PI partner had been pounding the computer keys in the Coronado Investigations office when she walked in after the library visit. She paused to admire her new husband. She liked his long, silver white hair, tied back in a ponytail, his thin aristocratic nose and his blue eyes. She kissed the little worry wrinkle on his forehead.
“Job? I have two jobs,” Helen said. “Three, if you count my highly coveted volunteer job at the Flora Park Library. But only two are paid: I’m searching for the missing million-dollar alligator art, and now the library wants me to be a ghost buster.”
“The library’s haunted?” Phil asked. “Who’s the walking dead?”
“Flora Portland,” Helen said, rooting through a gray metal filing cabinet. “Do you know where we keep our standard contract form? It’s either under C for contract, or S for standard.”
“I thought we put it under F for form,” Phil said. “Is Flora Park named for Flora the ghost?”
“No, but she donated the library to the city. It was her home, and the library opened in the forties, after she died. Ah, there it is,” Helen said, pulling out the contract form. “I have to take this back to the library before five o’clock.”
“Flora’s been haunting the library for nearly sixty years,” Phil said, “and they’re finally doing something about it?”
“No, she hasn’t. Flora’s been dead quiet,” Helen said.
“The haunting started a month ago, according to Alexa, the director, after the library got bad news. The floors in the old building can’t take the heavy load of books anymore. The repairs are so expensive, they’ll eat the trust fund Flora left behind and the library will have to close for a year during construction. The other choice is to build a new library. The library board president said Flora would turn over in her grave at that prospect.”
“Instead, she got up and started walking the halls?” Phil said. He wandered to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. His fourth, judging by the foam cups lined up next to his computer. “Coffee?” he asked Helen, holding up the pot.
“Water, please,” Helen said. Phil opened a bottle from the fridge and handed it to her.
“Some people believe Flora has suddenly risen from her grave,” she said, “but Alexa doesn’t. She’s paying me to find the so-called ghost.”
“What if you don’t find her?” Phil said.
“I will,” Helen said. “I bet I’ll track down Flora’s ghost in three weeks. She’d have felt at home in our office in the forties.”
The one-bedroom apartment had smooth art moderne curves, a speckled terrazzo floor and a slatted-glass jalousie door. The two private eyes used the former living room to meet with clients, and worked in the back room. Phil swore that Sam Spade would drink bourbon in an office like this, so he hung a brooding Bogart poster over his desk.
But the office was too cheerful for dated noir romanticism. Coronado Investigations was clearly a successful small business.
“I thought you’d be working on our other case today,” Helen said, sipping her water.
“I’m enjoying my last day of freedom before I go undercover,” he said. “We worked the Coakley case as much as we could together.”
“I thought that case would be easy,” Helen said. “A twenty-thousand-dollar necklace was stolen at Bree Coakley’s twenty-first birthday party, and a golf cart went missing. We’ve been interviewing the Coakley family and their daughters’ snotty friends for weeks, and not a single lead.”
“Most of the partygoers were too out of it to remember anything,” Phil said. “That’s why I have to go undercover as a gardener and get to know the Coakley staff. I’m not looking forward to yard work in the Florida heat.”
“Not even in ritzy Peerless Point?” Helen asked.
“Sun’s just as hot for the poor folks as the rich ones,” Phil said. “I’ve been updating my list of dicey pawnshops where the stolen ruby-and-diamond necklace could be sold and places that would sell that stolen golf cart.”
“You still think the cart has been stolen and the crimes are connected?” Helen asked. “I figured the cart was dumped in a canal after a drunken joy ride.”
“I think it was the getaway car, or cart,” he said. “Everyone gets around that neighborhood by golf cart. No one would notice. The driver could take it outside the gates and load it into a pickup.”
“Golf cart rustling,” Helen said. “What a ridiculous crime.”
“At least stealing a ruby necklace is ordinary enough,” he said.
“Why do you think the necklace was sold at a pawnshop instead of at a bar?” Helen asked.
“The family thinks the staff took it,” Phil said. “I’m not sure anyone working there has fencing contacts.”
“It’s too easy to blame the staff,” Helen said. “There were more than fifty people at Bree Coakley’s twenty-first birthday party, not counting crashers. The thief could have been a guest or a family member.”
“I’m not ruling out the family, either,” Phil said. “But I need to spend time with the staff to learn about the home owners.”
“Mansion owners,” Helen said. “The Coakley home has eight bedrooms, six baths, two pools and a living room with a walk-in fireplace.”
“You don’t like them,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” Helen said. “Amis, the husband, is condescending. Ashler, the wife, is a snob. When I called her Ashley, she said that name was common and Ashler was a family name. Bree, the so-called victim, is snippy. I guess she’s named after the family cheese.”
“It’s not funny,” Helen said. “Bree’s little sister is another piece of work. Chloe is so jealous of Bree she can hardly see straight. I’ve had enough of them and their friends. They have this inborn sense of entitlement.”
“Their parents gave them that,” Phil said. “And their private schools. Don’t let your prejudices blind you to the facts.”
Helen shrugged. “I still don’t like the whole bunch,” she said. “I’d rather chase ghosts at the library.”
“You can,” Phil said, “but I need you to talk to Chloe Coakley again.”
“Again? Do I have to?” Helen knew she was whining, but she didn’t care.
“Yes,” he said. “You caught that Chloe was jealous of Bree. I didn’t see that. I’m an only child. You’re better with the family dynamics. If Chloe is really that jealous, maybe she took the necklace. If she didn’t, she was still at the party. She could have seen something useful. Just one more interview and then you can go ghost hunting.”
“Might as well get it over with,” Helen said. “I’ll call and see if she’s home now.”
She made the call and reported, “Ashler says I can see Chloe now. I’ll stop by the Coakley house before I go to the library.”
Phil propped his feet up on his dented desk, and his chair squeaked. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked.
“I believe there are things I don’t understand that seem supernatural,” Helen said. “So far, this haunting can be explained in earthbound terms: Flashlights and a hurricane kit have been lost or stolen. Food is missing from the staff break room.”
“Ghosts don’t eat,” Phil said.
“No, they don’t,” Helen said. “And that gorgeous full-length portrait of Flora Portland in the lobby helps suggestible types see Flora flitting through the halls. They say the ghost has brown hair and wears a long lavender dress.”
“Just like Flora in the picture,” Phil said.
“Right. Even though Flora didn’t move into that house until the 1920s, she’s ghosting in 1890s clothes,” Helen said.
“Did Flora die in the library?” Phil asked. “I mean, when it was her house.”
“Yes, but peacefully, when she was nearly ninety,” Helen said. “If anyplace should be haunted, it’s this office. A woman was murdered here. Have you ever felt her presence?”
“Never,” Phil said. “Margery let us rent this unit for our office for a dollar a year because our landlady didn’t want to say what happened to the last tenant.”
“Once people start saying a place is haunted,” Helen said, “even normal things look spooky.
“I think there’s a logical explanation for Flora’s haunting. My big problem will be finding the ghost before someone gets killed. Lisa, the jittery library board president, already hit a woman with a brass bookend.”
“A reader?” Phil asked.
“Yep. Knocked the poor patron silly. Lisa said she jumped out at her when the woman simply reached for a book. The woman got six stitches. Now the library director’s worried someone will get killed.”
“I don’t envy you working with jumpy, nervous people,” Phil said.
“Don’t forget resentful,” Helen said. “Alexa says that Seraphina Ormond is upset with me because I’m the new library volunteer. Seraphina feels she was entitled to that job.”
“You stole a free job?” Phil said. “Now it’s definitely dangerous.”
Helen flew straight down the Coronado stairs and slammed into a young man.
She caught flashes of curly black hair and a well-stretched black T-shirt before they tumbled onto the sidewalk.
She heard Phil clattering down the steps after her. “Helen!” he called. “Are you hurt?”
Helen sat stunned on the sidewalk, the breath knocked out of her, unable to answer.
The man she’d run into was definitely breathtaking. Helen guessed he was Latino and in his late twenties. He had smoldering romance-cover good looks, until he smiled at her. That was no sultry-surly pout. He seemed too good-humored.
“Are you okay?” Helen asked him. “I’m so sorry. I have to deliver a contract and I was rushing to my car.”
“Not your fault,” he said, standing up. “I should have been watching where I was going.” Helen caught a trace of an accent. Cuban?
Phil was at her side, but the unknown hunk held out his hand and helped Helen up before her husband could. “You’re hurt,” the man said.
Helen brushed off her skirt. “Just a skinned knee,” she said. “That should make me look younger. About eight years old.”
He smiled at her. “I’m Markos Martinez,” he said. He shook her hand and held it until Phil cleared his throat. Helen had forgotten her husband was standing next to her.
With a vivid swish of purple fabric and a swirl of cigarette smoke, Margery Flax, the Coronado’s landlady, materialized next to Markos. Margery was seventy-six, with a swingy, gray bob and a face full of wrinkles. They seemed more like marks of achievement than signs of age.
“I see you ran into our new resident, Helen,” she said. “Markos is moving into the downstairs apartment that Cal the Canadian used to rent.
“Markos, this is my prize pair of private eyes, Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont. They live here on the first floor and their office, Coronado Investigations, is upstairs in 2C.”
Phil shook the newcomer’s hand. “Martinez,” Phil said. “Any relation to Marcos Martinez, the Spanish race car driver?”
“Only that we both drive too fast,” Markos said, and grinned. “I have a common Cuban name. My family’s been here since the Mariel boat lift in 1980. I was born in Fort Lauderdale.”
“Can we help you move in?” Phil asked.
“Thanks, but I’m already moved in,” Markos said. “The apartment was furnished, and all my belongings fit in the trunk of my car. It was easy. All I had to do was carry in some clothes, books and my laptop.”
“I’ve been giving Markos the grand tour,” Margery said.
She waved her Marlboro like a wand at her kingdom, the Coronado Tropic Apartments. The harsh Florida sun brought out the best in the art moderne building: the swooping iceberg white curves, fresh turquoise trim and the sapphire swimming pool. The two-story L-shaped apartments were set around the pool, and shaded by palms and broad green-leaved elephant ears. Ruffled purple bougainvillea spilled around the pool. The walkways were a triumphant imperial purple march of impatiens and spiky salvia.
“I can’t believe apartments built in 1949 are so beautifully preserved,” Markos said. “I’m lucky to live here.”
“We just finished an extensive renovation,” Margery said.
Our landlady didn’t mention that the Coronado had almost been torn down because the repairs were so expensive, Helen thought. Maybe some night when we’re drinking wine around the pool we can tell Markos the full story.
“Are you interested in architecture, Markos?” Phil asked.
“A little,” he said. “I like to know my city. But I’m really interested in food service. I’m working on my bachelor’s degree in restaurant food and beverage management at Reynolds-White College.”
“Impressive,” Phil said.
“The one in Fort Lauderdale?” Helen asked.
“You’ve heard of it?” Markos asked. “Are you a foodie?”
“Uh, I like to eat,” Helen said. “But I’m not much of a cook.”
“Reynolds-White has a four-year program,” he said. “But I want to know the restaurant business inside and out. I’m also a waiter at Fresh and Cool. They specialize in low-calorie healthy food.”
“I love that place,” Helen said.
She saw Phil’s face was a frozen mask of politeness. My man loves those evil-looking orange chips and other unnatural foods, she thought. He thinks ketchup is a vegetable.
“You can tell us all about it at tonight’s sunset salute around the pool,” Margery said, “when you can meet the rest of the menagerie.”
“Good,” Markos said. “I’ll make my special mojitos and bring the appetizers. I’ll make kale chips and gluten-free taco wraps stuffed with lentils.”
“Can’t wait till sunset,” Helen said, “but I have to deliver that contract now.”
“Kale chips?” Phil said, as if trying out the words for the first time.
Helen figured he’d probably never said that phrase before.
Helen didn’t like the Coakleys, but she admired their home. It was in Peerless Point, a small, rich community that bordered Fort Lauderdale.
Between Peerless Point and Flora Park, I’m definitely working the area’s extravagant side, she thought. No mean streets for this PI.
The Coakleys’ winding pink-paved drive, lined with red hibiscus hedges, ended at a three-tiered fountain in a cool green garden.
Helen parked the Igloo in front of the white coral rock mansion. Creatures from long-vanished seas were etched in its surface. Millions of years ago, they were laboring for the Coakleys’ pleasure.
The pale front door was sheltered under a pillared portico. Ashler Coakley met Helen at the door. A thin, generic blonde in her forties, she was expertly exercised and exquisitely nipped and tucked. Helen had seen dozens of women like her in the society pages, clinging to their wealthy husbands’ arms, smiling tentatively. Ashler had brought up the Coakley daughters and run the vast household, but now that the daughters were nearly grown, she had no job security. Amis could replace her with a younger, thinner blonde, and she knew it.
“Helen,” she said. “Good of you to stop by. Have you found the necklace?”
“We’re hot on the trail,” Helen said. “I’m glad Chloe’s home and can see me.”
“She’s on the terrace. I’ll take you there.” Ashler gave Helen a Stepford wife smile, and her heels pattered across the vast, white marble floors. Helen followed her through a living room and dining room so white she was nearly snow-blind by the time they reached the terrace. It opened out onto a hundred-foot deepwater dock and a spectacular view of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Chloe was blond like her mother, but she looked bored instead of eager to please. She was stretched out on a blue-striped chaise, wearing a bikini. Helen sat in the matching striped chair across from her.
“Would you like something to drink?” Ashler said, running her hands through her hair. “Ana can bring iced tea, coffee. . . .” Her voice trailed off and she turned to her daughter. “Honey, anything for you?”
“More iced tea,” Chloe said, as if addressing a servant.
“Ice water, thank you,” Helen said.
Chloe and Helen talked about the weather until the housekeeper, a generously built Latina in her fifties, bustled in with the drinks and a plate of cookies. Chloe ignored Ana. Helen thanked her and received a dazzling smile.
When they were alone, Chloe said, “Sorry about that. Mom fusses.”
“That’s what mothers do,” Helen said.
Chloe shrugged, and the bikini bra quaked. “Are you really a private eye?” she asked and sipped her iced tea.
“Class C license,” Helen said. “My partner, Phil—you talked with him last time—is also a detective.”
“He’s hot,” Chloe said.
“He’s my husband,” Helen said, marking her territory. “We work together.”
“That’s so cool. You and your husband are, like, equals. My mom doesn’t work,” Chloe said.
Helen decided to forgo the lecture about women working in the home.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Dead-End Job Mysteries by Elaine Viets, Winner of the Anthony Award and the Agatha Award:
“A stubborn and intelligent heroine...a wonderful South Florida setting.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of the Sookie Stackhouse Novels
“Clever . . . The real draw, though, is Viets’ snappy critique of South Florida.”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“Wickedly funny.” —The Miami Herald
“Lively plots and broad humor...highly entertaining.” —South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For as much as I liked CATNAPPED, book 13 in the Dead-End Jobs Mysteries, I liked CHECKED OUT twice as much! Husband and wife PI team Phil and Helen, are working on separate cases in this installment. Phil is searching for a missing necklace while Helen goes undercover as a librarian to find a missing water color, donated by mistake in a book to the library. Author Elaine Viets has a wonderful writing style that flows so smoothly. She really knows how to draw the reader into her stories. Her mysteries are first rate and the humor she adds to her characters and situations only adds to the enjoyment of the books. With suspects not being in short supply, I kept changing my mind over who the villain was. I’m proud to say I can sometimes guess who the “baddy” is, but I wasn’t even close with CHECKED OUT. If you haven’t read any of the Dead-End Jobs Mysteries, I would suggest you check out CHECKED OUT. It will have you adding the rest of this series to your TBR shelves!