31-year-old society matron Lola Woodby has survived her loveless marriage with an unholy mixture of highballs, detective novels, and chocolate layer cake, until her husband dies suddenly, leaving her his fortune...or so Lola thought. As it turns out, all she inherits from Alfie is a big pile of debt. Pretty soon, Lola and her stalwart Swedish cook, Berta, are reduced to hiding out in the secret love nest Alfie kept in New York City. But when rent comes due, Lola and Berta have no choice but to accept an offer made by one of Alfie's girls-on-the-side: in exchange for a handsome sum of money, the girl wants Lola to retrieve a mysterious reel of film for her.
It sounds like an easy enough way to earn the rent money. But Lola and Berta realize they're in way over their heads when, before they can retrieve it, the man currently in possession of the film reel is murdered, and the reel disappears. On a quest to retrieve the reel and solve the murder before the killer comes after them next, Lola and Berta find themselves navigating one wacky situation after another in high style and low company.
Charming, witty, often laugh-out-loud funny, Maia Chance's Come Hell or Highball is the first in the Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries and introduces a sparkling new voice in crime fiction.
About the Author
MAIA CHANCE was a finalist for the 2004 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. She is writing her dissertation on nineteenth-century American literature. She is also the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal mystery series (Cinderella Six Feet Under, Snow White Red-Handed, and Beauty, Beast and Belladonna).
Read an Excerpt
Come Hell or Highball
By Maia Chance
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Maia Chance
All rights reserved.
May 30, 1923
In all fairness, my husband was the one who should've been murdered.
Each of the mourners, huddled beneath dripping umbrellas around his open grave, must've itched to kill him at one point or another. That was the sort of fellow he'd been. Ginky. Insufferable. Yet it was only a heart attack that sent Alfred Woodby slinking over the Great Divide in his hand-stitched wing tips. It was someone else entirely who would get blipped off.
"Bastard," I mumbled, and pitched a clod of damp earth down onto Alfie's casket.
My cook, Berta Lundgren, stout and stern beside me in her black rubberized raincoat, clutched the locket at her throat. "Not yet, Mrs. Woodby," she whispered in her homey Swedish accent.
"Sorry," I mouthed.
All eyes were upon me, glaring out in silence from beneath trickling hat brims.
The ham-shaped priest on the far side of the grave made an ahem and resumed the burial rites. "Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth —"
Chisholm Woodby, Alfie's younger brother, tossed the second chunk of soil onto the casket. Thunk. Chisholm's smooth-shaven jaw was clenched. He had the same dark, suave good looks Alfie had had. But whereas Alfie's eyes had glittered with misdemeanors real and imagined, Chisholm's face had the moral pinch of a world-class prig.
Still, Chisholm surely must've dreamt from time to time of popping off Alfie, heir to the Woodby millions.
"— ashes to ashes —"
Then there were Alfie's pals — those, anyway, who'd managed to peel themselves out of bed early enough to attend a ten o'clock funeral. These were for the most part dissipated playboys, inheritors of vast family fortunes and mosquito-like intellects. Fizzy Van Hoogenband, as a choice example, still wore last night's glad rags. His bow tie was unraveled, lipstick sullied his collar, and he had droops like a basset hound's under his eyes. Fizzy showered a handful of earth onto the casket. The cigarette that dangled from his lips fell into the grave, too.
Mightn't one of Alfie's gin-and-jazz-club cronies longed to whack him over cards, girls, or dinner reservations at Philippe's?
"— dust to dust."
Which brought me to the girls. Alfie had had many weaknesses. His heart, evidently. Cashmere socks. Anything gold and engraved. And chorus girls. A gaggle was in attendance at the burial. I studied them surreptitiously. Vampy, bob-haired damsels shivering in cheap dresses, legs bare. Lots of vermilion lipstick. Most of them were peroxide blondes, but one of them — short and compact like a tightrope walker, wearing black satin and a fox fur — had bordello-red waves under her cloche hat. For a second, her eyes met mine. Then her gaze darted back to the casket below.
Broadway was probably swarming with chorus girls who had yenned to throttle Alfie.
"Mrs. Woodby," Berta whispered in my ear, "stop twitching, for goodness' sake. Anyone would think you needed to visit the powder room." She straightened her hat, patted her gray bun, and trained her eyes back onto the droning priest.
I flattened my lips, simulating grief. Who would buy it? The thing was, I'd been nineteen, only a girl, when my parents thrust me into a union with Alfie. My marriage had been a stroke of fortune for Father's Wall Street endeavors and a windfall for Mother's social calendar. But Alfie had been a horror of a husband. I'd survived my marriage with an unholy combination of highballs, detective novels, and chocolate layer cake.
Really, anyone would think that I should've killed Alfie.
Now I was a thirty-one-year-old Society Matron with life unspooling like blank ticker tape before me, an apartment on Park Avenue, a rambling oceanfront mansion, and oodles of bucks I hadn't the foggiest how to start spending.
"Lord have mercy upon us," the priest finished. He drew a hankie from somewhere inside his vestments and swabbed his rain-spattered forehead.
* * *
St. Percival's Cemetery in Hare's Hollow, New York, is a charming spot to push up the daisies. Acres of rolling green grass, antique headstones, and graceful old trees overlook the little town, with a vista of Long Island Sound beyond. That morning, however, a low gray sky churned. As soon as the burial ended, everyone hoofed it toward the long row of parked motorcars.
"Darling!" someone shrilled just as Berta and I set out for my own motorcar.
I turned. Olive Arbuckle, Society Queen Bee, sidled toward me. She wore an eel-black dropped-waist dress and a black taffeta raincoat. Years of tennis, sailboating, golf, and dressage had whittled Olive's figure down to that of a dried herring. Her girthy husband, Horace, trundled behind, holding an umbrella over her.
"Lola, you poor darling." Olive smooched the air on either side of my hat. "Such a shock, a dreadful shock for us all."
"So awfully sorry for your loss, Lola," Horace said. His mountainous bulk was clothed in fine Italian wool, and a fedora hid his balding head.
Horace Arbuckle was a food industrialist. As a young man, he'd inherited his father's two-bit canned goods business and nurtured it into a whopping success. Everyone, of course, is familiar with his bestselling item, Auntie Arbuckle's Pork and Beans.
"How are you feeling?" Olive asked me. "Keeping up your strength?" Her eyes flicked to my ankles.
Okay, I admit it. I wasn't blessed by Nature with a flapper's physique. Without high heels, it is at times difficult to distinguish exactly where my legs end and my feet begin. And these new cylindrical fashions are a bit of a challenge, since I carry somewhat more freight on my luggage rack (so to speak) than is fashionable, and my bustline would have been better appreciated in Anna Karenina's day.
Nonetheless, I do adore beautiful things. I thought I cut quite the figure of a chic widow that morning: drapey black raincoat that buttoned over one hip, black hat with a neat little brim, black T-strap heels. My Dutch-bobbed hair was glossy brown, and I wore just enough face paint to flatter my dark blue eyes.
Nobody needed to know that egg yolk hair treatments, gallons of Pond's cream, and an industrial-grade girdle made it all possible.
"I'm fine," I said to Olive. "Truly."
"And I see you have your — your housemaid in attendance?"
"Cook, actually," I said.
Berta drew up all five feet one inch of herself in magisterial silence.
"My family could not arrive in time for the funeral," I said.
"What a pity."
Not really. "Yes," I said. "They set off from Rome just as soon as they heard the news. I believe they'll arrive home sometime tomorrow." Mother, Father, and my sister, Lillian, were at present hurtling across the Atlantic aboard a Cunard ocean liner, returning from a three-month-long European shopping excursion. "And my brother, Andrew, is in the thick of studying for his final exams at Yale, so I told him to stay absolutely chained to his desk, or Father would be cross." I actually suspected that little Andy — the rotten apple of Mother's eye — was carousing with his fraternity buddies.
"Ah, well, at least the hired help are there for you," Olive said.
"Berta is my rock."
In fact, Berta had demanded that I drive her to the funeral. Somehow, Berta always managed to get her way with me. Probably something to do with her cinnamon rolls. My butler, Hibbers, had offered to deliver Berta to the cemetery in the estate's Ford depot hack but Berta had refused, saying the depot hack smelled of underarm.
No other member of my staff had come to the cemetery, blaming headaches and sniffles and the need to prepare the funeral luncheon. Alfie had not been adored.
"Horace and I cannot, I'm afraid, go to luncheon at your place today," Olive said. "Some dreary business thing has come up, you know. But we wished to extend an invitation to you, for this weekend. It'll be a simply scrummy gathering. Quite small, intimate, really, but" — her eyes glittered — "Bruno Luciano will be there."
"Bruno Luciano?" I asked. "Do you mean the motion picture actor?"
"Yes!" Olive squealed.
I tried to picture Bruno Luciano — Byronic matinee idol, star of All About Town and Casanova — playing tennis doubles with Olive and Horace.
"I met the head of a great big new motion picture production company," Olive said. "Pantheon Pictures — have you heard of it? Their studio is in Flushing, Queens, quite in the middle of the industry. Well, Mr. Zucker, the company head, was at the Cliffords' country place last weekend. We simply hit it off."
"Latched on like a leech," Horace said.
Olive was undeterred. "Mr. Zucker's girlfriend, Sadie Street, is to be the next big star. She's got a contract to be Bruno Luciano's leading lady in three new pictures. Only, they've been having a bit of a tiff."
My eyes were glazing over. "Who's having a tiff?"
"Bruno Luciano," Olive said. "And the starlet. Sadie Street. So, I said to Mr. Zucker, why, my country place is a simply brilliant spot for them to have a sort of, I don't know, a sort of reconciliation."
"Goddam reporters already crawling around the place," Horace said.
Berta clutched her locket at Horace's goddam.
"But, darling," Olive said to him, "we haven't got any secrets. It's true." She turned back to me, eyes aglow. "Reporters absolutely everywhere, for the motion picture weeklies and the papers. They somehow got wind of the reconciliation at our place and are angling for photographs of Bruno."
"On a first name basis already," Horace muttered.
Beyond them, I saw someone dart behind a large tomb. I was pretty sure it was the red-haired chorus girl.
Was she eavesdropping?
"There will be other friends there, too, of course," Olive said. "The Wrights have telephoned to confirm, and so has Lem Fitzpatrick. I thought, Lola darling, that even though you're in mourning, you could do with a little company."
Company, my foot. Olive was inviting me so she could gloat about her motion picture guests. Society Matrons, if you're unfamiliar with the breed, groom and train to compete in matches more snappish and bitchy than those of the Westminster Kennel Club. I would know: I've attended dog shows and society luncheons.
"You're absolutely the elephant's elbow to invite me, Olive, but I'm afraid I simply couldn't." I watched the red-haired girl creep out from behind the tomb and totter toward the parked motorcars. I looked back to Olive. "I must spend some time reflecting." Reflecting, with a highball in one hand and a novel in the other. "And Hibbers said he'd help me sort through Alfie's things."
At the mention of Hibbers, Olive's expression went brittle.
Hibbers, my butler, made tiny, crustless chicken sandwiches worthy of a buffet table in Elysium. His opinions on drapery fabrics were infallible, and his cocktails were the bee's knees. To top all, he was British. Hibbers was the envy of every Society Matron from the Gold Coast to Grand Central Station. And he was all mine.
"You're certain you couldn't pop by?" Olive feigned sadness.
"Positively certain," I said. I bade Olive and Horace good-bye, and Berta and I made our escape.
* * *
"That Arbuckle woman is a demon," Berta huffed.
"Don't you think that's a bit extreme?"
"Well, her husband is well fed."
"That's in spite of Olive's efforts. Horace once confided to me, after two mint juleps and a sidecar, that she keeps everything in the kitchen but the carrots and celery under lock and key."
Berta tsked her tongue.
We trotted along toward my Duesenberg Model A, which I'd left under a dripping oak tree. The Duesy was cream colored, with cinnamon brown wheel wells and whitewall tires.
Sure, a Society Matron like me should, by rights, be chauffeured about in something longer, lower, and blacker. But I insist upon driving myself. Duesenbergs, you know, are wickedly fast. The motorcar salesman said that they can reach 106 miles per hour on the highway. I was sold.
Although I couldn't, back then, imagine why I'd ever need to drive like a bat out of hell.
Through the misting rain, I spied a small, orange, puffy form bouncing behind the steering wheel. Faint yipping sounds pierced the air.
"Poor little Cedric," I said, picking up the pace.
When I got behind the steering wheel, Cedric, my Pomeranian, leapt onto my lap and licked my face.
"Did you miss me, peanut?" I cooed.
Some people find solace in philosophy or religion. Others find solace in mashed potatoes or a bottle of gin. I find solace in my dog's fluff. (All right — maybe I find a pinch of solace in tipply, trashy novels, and chocolate, too.)
Berta hoisted herself up onto the passenger seat and slammed the door. As usual, she and Cedric ignored each other.
I was just jamming my toe on the starter box when a figure moved into my peripheral vision.CHAPTER 2
"Mrs. Woodby?" the figure called. She was several paces from my motorcar, but I recognized her: the red-haired girl who'd been creeping around behind the tomb.
I rolled the window down.
"You're Mrs. Woodby, ain't you?" The girl stopped a pace away from my motorcar. Her fashionable yet cheaply made black cloche hat came down so far over her eyes, she had to tilt her chin to look at me. Large, luminous brown eyes lined in thick black. Shiny Cupid's bow lips. Imitation-alligator handbag with a missing glass eye.
"Yes, I'm Lola Woodby."
"Awful sorry about your hubby, Mrs. Woodby."
"I beg your pardon," I said. "What is your name?"
"Miss Simpkin — Ruby Simpkin."
"What is it, Miss Simpkin? Conscience flaring up? Thought you'd say a kind word to the missus to clear up your guilt? Believe me, there's no need for that. Alfie went through girls like —"
"No," Ruby said, her voice flat. "Nothing like that. Alfie — I mean, Mr. Woodby, was ... Well, I guess I did know him. Like you say. But I saw you didn't shed a single tear at the funeral." She looked me straight in the eye. "You're glad he's pooped, ain't you?"
My jaw fell open. I heard Berta gasp.
"Well, I never!" I said.
Ruby leaned in. "I ain't saying you chilled him off, but I bet you wanted to. He carried on with near every bird at the Frivolities. Tossed me over after only two months. Two! I know I ain't as young as some of the other girls, but I still got —"
"Miss Simpkin," I said. "I was fully aware of my husband's various ... gentlemanly pastimes. So if that is all you wished to tell me, then —" I reached around Cedric to the steering wheel.
"No, it ain't. I wanted to ask you a — a sorta favor." She pressed her lips together. "I heard you, back there, talking with the Arbuckles."
"You were eavesdropping, then."
"I heard them inviting you to their country house and all that."
"I declined the invitation."
"Well, supposing you changed your mind."
I lifted my eyebrows.
Ruby crept closer. I caught a whiff of discount perfume. "This is real sticky and hush-hush, see, but I need something." She looked past me, at Berta. "Who's she?"
"Funny, a grande dame like you motoring your cook around."
Grande dame? "You may say anything you like in front of Berta. She has been with me for seven years." Seven years and twenty pounds. "Go ahead, Miss Simpkin."
"Well, it's like this, see. I need something. From the Arbuckles' country house." She fiddled with her handbag's clasp.
"You want me to — what? Steal from my friends? For one of my husband's chorus girl mistresses?" I laughed aloud from the sheer outrageousness of it. "That's what the Frivolities are, right? A sequins-and-feathers revue?"
"Yeah." Ruby's shoulders slumped.
"What was it you thought I'd nick for you?" I asked. "Jewelry? A priceless oil painting?"
"It ain't nothing like that. It's something that — it's mine. And I want it back." She jutted her chin. "I woulda paid you, you know."
"I am not presently in need of funds."
"Fine. Looks like I'll have to get it myself." She spun around and crunched away down the gravel drive.
"Floozy," Berta said.
We watched until Ruby reached the one remaining motorcar in the cemetery besides mine, a junky Model T with a sagging rear fender. She bent in front of the bonnet and cranked the engine to a chug before settling into the driver's seat.
Was I crazy to pity her?
The Model T rattled away through the cemetery gates.
"Dear old Alfie did know how to pick them," I said, and stomped on the Duesy's starter box.
* * *
I lurched into gear, rolled out of the cemetery, and took the coastal highway toward home. It was only a few miles from the cemetery, through lush woodland and waterlogged meadows, which now and then afforded glimpses of the misty gray sound. Along the way, we passed many grand gatehouses, stone walls, and ornate iron gates that marked entrances to the palatial estates along this, the sumptuous Gold Coast.
Excerpted from Come Hell or Highball by Maia Chance. Copyright © 2015 Maia Chance. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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